Icy hands tightened around his throat. Sirius had no choice but to transform back so that he’d be able to use his own hands and try to get the wretched thing off. He couldn’t. It was too strong and that foul brew of Voldemort’s was hardly a Pepper-Up Potion. His vision was already flickering. It was only a matter of time before he was unconscious.
His eyes flicked to his godson; Harry had latched onto the Inferius’ ankle and was trying to pull it off. It wasn’t working terribly well, but it was a nice sentiment. Have to...get him out, he thought, glancing at Harry again as he tried to pry the Inferius off.
“Kreacher,” he managed to gasp. There was a pause and then the archway flared silver. Kreacher stumbled through, clutching his arm, and his bulbous eyes locked with Sirius’. “Help,” Sirius wheezed. Kreacher lifted his hands and the world caught fire. The Inferius holding Sirius screeched and loosened its hold. “Get Harry, Kreacher! Get Harry home! Get him-” It was then that Kreacher’s fire, which had been burning steadily, exploded.
Sirius was immediately thankful that he’d put Fire-Freezing Charms on Harry and himself; if he hadn’t, they’d both certainly be dead by now. Sirius saw Harry flung away and then he too was soaring. He landed in the lake and lay stunned for a moment but he didn’t stick around; the Inferi were stumbling blindly, shrieking in pain as they tried to get back to the water and he knew from Auror training to take every advantage he was given, even if moving was the last thing he felt like. He saw Harry and Kreacher vanish but everything else was so loud he hardly heard it.
He snatched his wand off of the ground ran for the archway. He stumbled a few times and was sorely tempted to just stay there and let death claim him. Then, he’d shook his head and forced himself up again. He wiped his cheek on the stone - he had a nasty cut there - and bolted through the second it cleared.
He tried to Disapparate, couldn’t, and so he walked reluctantly into the pool, took a deep breath and dove under. The water was freezing and Harry’s rucksack, light as it was with only chocolate and empty containers, was doing its best to weigh him down. He was cold, sore, out of breath and had swallowed a hell of a lot of sea water when he clambered out onto a rocky outcrop.
He couldn’t move, couldn’t stand. He was violently sick and that - if it was possible - made him feel even worse. The last thing he felt like doing was Apparating, but he knew Harry would be worrying and would probably do something stupid, like go back to the cave if Sirius didn’t get home. Sirius pushed himself up onto his hands and knees and did an awkward little twist, unable to even stand before he Disapparated.
He ended up in a hallway that vaguely resembled his own and sighed, relieved, tucking his wand back into his pocket. He heard footsteps running toward him and managed a smile; Harry was safe. Then, he passed out.
* * *
“Your name is Harry James Potter, is that correct?”
“Yes,” Harry said, though he did wonder what would have happened if he said no.
“You’re nine years old?”
“As of three weeks ago.”
“You grew up with your muggle relatives in Little Whinging?”
“Yes,” Harry said again.
“And you were kidnapped earlier this year by Sirius Black?”
“No,” Harry said.
“Liar,” Umbridge said, her eyes bulging. “You have been living with Black!”
“I never said I hadn’t,” Harry answered coolly. “I just said I wasn’t kidnapped.”
“How would you explain what happened to you, Mr Potter?” Bones asked after silencing her colleague with a glare.
“He offered me a different home and I agreed,” Harry said, all too aware of Dumbledore’s piercing eyes resting on his face.
“Why did you agree?” Bones pressed, her quill scribbling furiously.
“Because he’s my godfather and I wanted to.”
“He didn’t threaten you or your family in any way?”
“You mean the Dursleys? They were really the ones threatening him.”
“And how do you explain your condition, Mr Potter?”
“When Mr Lupin brought you here a week ago, you were in rather poor health,” Bones said, picking at her robes. “Are you aware you had strangle marks on your neck, and extensive bruising on your back?”
Harry almost laughed. Almost. “Yeah, I am,” he said. “Why?”
“Did your godfather give you those?”
“Of course not!” Harry growled.
“How about the hand prints on your arms?”
“So you don’t know how you got them?” Umbridge asked disbelievingly.
“Er... No, I do.”
“Do share,” Bones said.
“If you’re being abused,” Umbridge began, “then-”
“I’m not,” Harry said, cutting her off. “What’s the next question?” There was a pause and Harry wondered if they’d let him off without an explanation.
“Can you explain the dreams you have?” Harry stifled a groan; that was an even worse question. “Your Healer tells us you’re a fitful sleeper and that you... say things.” Harry’s stomach had taken up residence in his feet. What had he said? He swallowed his fear, however, and merely shrugged.
“Do I?” he asked.
“Yes,” Umbridge said. “And set things on fire.”
“That’s odd,” Harry said flatly. No one pressed the issue. He wiped his sweaty palms on the bedsheets.
“Where have you been living?” the Minster asked, excited. There was a collective intake of breath from all of the adults as they waited for his answer.
“I can’t tell you.”
Fudge swelled but was silenced by one of Umbridge’s hands on his arm. “You can trust us,” she said, with a smile that Harry saw as predatory. “We want to help you, Mr Potter, but we can’t do that unless you trust us.”
Harry met her eyes, unafraid and was pleased to see her recoil slightly. “Come now, Harry,” Fudge said with a false laugh. “We’re on your side, the good side. All we want is for you to be safe and sound and to have Black back where he belongs.”
“Where’s that?” Harry asked.
“Azkaban, of course,” Fudge said, looking a little flustered.
“Then I’m afraid our definitions of where P-Sirius belongs differ, Minster.”
“He’s a criminal!” Umbridge snapped. “A danger to the wizarding world and to you! Where is he hiding?!”
Oh, yes, awfully dangerous. The man only tackled an Inferius for me. “I can’t tell you,” Harry said, unable to decide if he was having fun, or if he was terrified.
“Are you aware that by not telling us, you’re breaching Wizarding Law?” Bones said sternly.
“Yes,” Harry replied, crossing his arms defiantly.
Everyone was quiet and then Dumbledore spoke, changing tact. “Are you aware that your godfather has done terrible things, Harry?”
“I know you think he has.” Harry knew he was pushing it but he wasn’t about to tell them everything and he certainly wasn’t going to lie down and let them bully him into telling them.
Dumbledore opened his mouth and then closed it. “Madam Bones, Madam Umbridge, Headmaster,” Fudge said, standing. “I would like to speak with you outside.”
Harry watched as the four of them left the room, and as Fudge dismissed the Aurors on guard. I don’t like this at all, he thought, as the door clicked shut. He stayed in his bed, trying not to worry until he heard shouting from outside. Quickly, he peeled back his covers and crept to the door, pressing his ear against the crack at the bottom.
Fudge was talking. “But that’s just it, Dumbledore! He’s a child! He won’t be able to defend against it!”
“He’s a child!” Dumbledore thundered. “Cornelius, as Minister, you have a moral duty to-”
“Dolores?” Dumbledore asked politely.
“It’s not illegal,” Umbridge’s voice said primly. Harry had to strain his ears to hear her.
“No one needs to know,” Fudge said earnestly. “He won’t be hurt, he won’t know what’s happening and we’ll have Black. Surely that’s worth it, Dumbledore?”
“The boy will think he’s betrayed his godfather,” Dumbledore said quietly.
“Let him,” Umbridge said. “It’s for the best.”
“He seems to genuinely care for Black,” Bones said softly. “He’d be crushed!”
“It’s for the best,” Fudge insisted. “The boy is clearly misinformed about Black’s past, or he would have been itching to tell us everything.”
“There are no long term effects,” Umbridge said.
“No physical ones, perhaps,” Dumbledore said. “But mentally? The mind of a child is a fragile thing. There are reasons there are laws against teaching children Occlumency and administering anything more than a brush of Legillimency-”
“It’s Veritaserum, not Legillimency!” Harry didn’t know what either of those things were but neither sounded as if they’d be good for him. “And we’ll feed it to him, not simply go charging into his head!”
“It takes away Harry’s free will!” Bones said.
“His free will is uncooperative! What choice do we have?! We can’t afford to have Black on the loose, Dumbledore. He’s a danger. This is the closest we’ve come to a lead on Black since the Lupin fiasco in May! You can’t just expect me to leave it! I’d be sacked!”
“You could be sacked for using Veritaserum on a minor,” Dumbledore said quietly.
“It’s a chance I’ll have to take,” Fudge said. There was silence and then, “Come now, Dumbledore. I don’t like the idea-” Could have fooled me, Harry thought darkly. “-but I don’t have a choice!”
“We always have choices, Cornelius.” But Fudge had won. Harry was sure of it.
Harry scrambled back into bed as the voices in the corridor died down. His eyes darted all over the room, but it was futile. There was no way to escape; there were no windows, no holes or vents in the ceiling or walls and the only door other than the one that Harry had been listening at was the one into his bathroom. Short of flushing himself down the toilet, he didn’t have anywhere to go.
Panic bubbled away inside him as he waited. He had a few stressful minutes to ponder what he was going to do before Dumbledore, Bones, Fudge and Umbridge returned. The last was holding a tea tray.
“Ah, good,” Fudge said. “You’re still here.”
“Where else would I be?” Harry asked, glaring mistrustfully at him. At least Dumbledore and Bones had tried to defend him.
Fudge looked stumped and Harry swore Dumbledore’s beard twitched. No one spoke, but Umbridge busied herself fussing with the tea – no doubt adding the Veritaserum, whatever that was- and Bones picked lint off her robes. Harry watched Umbridge, trying to stay calm, but inside, he was screaming.
His eyes kept flicking to the door but he doubted he could get there before one of the four stopped him. And it probably wouldn’t go down terribly well. A small, irrational part of his mind kept praying that Padfoot would come and save him, but that wasn’t likely. Padfoot might not even be hom- He’s there. He has to be.And I have to be there too.
“Tea’s ready,” Umbridge said perkily. I’ll bet it is, Harry thought, glaring at her. One of the teacups shattered. She screamed, and the other three jumped, startled. That was me, Harry realised. He tried to make another one break but couldn’t. Umbridge mopped herself up and plastered her smile back on. “I do hope you’re thirsty, Mr Potter.”
“Not really,” Harry said, trying to be nonchalant. Whatever was in there would make him betray Padfoot. He wasn’t even going to smell it.
There was a knock on the door outside. “Professor Dumbledore? Harry?” It was Remus. He was wearing different robes than before. “Is everything all right in there?” No! Harry shouted mentally. It bloody well isn’t! The door opened and Remus walked in, looking worried. If Harry wasn’t used to living with Padfoot, he probably would have missed the near silent sniffing noises Remus was making. He’s a wolf Animagus, Harry remembered. So he can smell how I’m feeling.
“Sorry,” he said, spotting Harry’s ‘guests’. “I didn’t mean to interrupt...” He gave Harry a questioning look and Harry, for only a second, let his fear show on his face, and let his eyes flick toward the tea tray. Remus frowned and looked back to Dumbledore. “I just...er...”
Dumbledore seemed to understand that he had smelled something too, though how, Harry didn’t know. Padfoot had said no one knew about their Animagus forms.
”It’s quite all right, Remus,” he said. “We were just about to have tea, if you’d care to join us. You know Amelia and Cornelius, I believe.” Remus nodded. “This is Madam Dolores Umbridge from the Department of Management and Control of Magical Children. Dolores, this is Remus Lupin.”
Umbridge stiffened and looked at Dumbledore as if he was mad. And then she looked at Remus, seeming revolted and afraid all at once.
“A pleasure,” Remus said curtly.
“Indeed. Tea, Mr Potter?” Umbridge said, holding a cup out toward him.
“No, thank you,” Harry said, noticing Remus was staring at the teacup; he must have smelled it as it went past him. He looked up at Harry, a little concerned.
“Perhaps something else, then? You must be thirsty.”
“Come now, Mr Potter. Pick something.”
Harry knew it was only a matter of time before they forced him to drink it. “Well... the tea’s already made, I suppose.”
“It is indeed,” Umbridge said brightly, passing him the cup. He managed to take it with steady hands, but only just. “Drink up.” Harry shifted in his bed, bringing his blanket covered knees up between him and the others. He pretended to take a sip and then set the cup down in his lap.
“Good, isn’t it?” Fudge asked. Harry nodded. “Drink it before it gets cold.” Harry took another pretend sip, but this time he couldn’t stop his hands from shaking and slopped some of the tea onto his sheets. The white material quickly turned a pale brown.
“Careful!” Umbridge squawked.
Harry took another sip, and this time, instead of spilling the tea, he dabbed a corner of the sheet in. Its absorbed more tea. Harry quickly folded it to hide the mess.
“Are you sure there’s not anything you can tell us about your godfather?” Bones asked gently.
“Positive,” Harry muttered, dipping another section of the sheet into the tea.
“Are you drinking?” Fudge asked, looking concerned. Harry showed him the almost empty teacup. “Good, good. Where have you been living?”
“It’s a secret,” Harry said. He took another pretend sip and then set the cup down on the table beside his bed.
“I’m the Minister for Magic, Harry,” Fudge said, brightly. “If you can’t trust me, who can you trust?” Harry didn’t miss the little frown on Dumbledore’s wizened face.
“I don’t know, sir,” he said.
The adults exchanged glances. “Well?” Fudge asked. He was twirling his bowler hat in his hands. “Where is Black hiding?”
Harry thought, very quickly and made a decision. “Do you know what a Fidelius Charm is, Minister?” he asked quietly.
Everyone seemed to slump. Harry felt a little thrill. They had, of course, assumed that Padfoot was the Secret Keeper. They’d be more determined than ever to find him now, but they wouldn’t find him unless Harry told them where to look. “Yes, I’m familiar with it,” Fudge sighed. “Amelia, would you-”
“Scrimgeour?” Fudge inclined his head. “Of course, Minister, I’ll inform him at once. It was a pleasure to meet you, Harry.” She nodded at the others and strode out.
“Who’s Scrimgeour?” Harry asked.
“Is he here in London, Harry?” Fudge pressed. “Can you tell us that?”
Harry opened his mouth and then closed it again; he didn’t want to tell them too much. “I can’t say,” he said after a moment.
“Do you go to Diagon Alley often?”
“Not really. I’ve been three times.”
“How long did it take you to get there?”
Harry shrugged. “It was different each time.” And it had been; the first was from the Dursleys, the second was from Grimmuald, but Padfoot had Apparated them and the third time had been through the Floo Network.
Fudge’s face fell, but not for long. “Can you describe the house?” Harry shook his head.
“Is it in a muggle neighbourhood?” Umbridge asked.
“Yeah,” Harry said cautiously.
Fudge looked ready to burst with excitement. “What’s nearby? Any distinctive buildings or landmarks?”
“There’s... er... a bus stop,” Harry lied. “And a... big tree.”
“What kind of tree?”
“I don’t know.”
“Does Black ever meet with anyone? Any of the Death Eaters?”
Harry rolled his eyes. “No.”
“Does he write many letters?”
“Do you know anything that might help us catch him?”
“Do you want Sirius caught, Harry?” Dumbledore asked softly.
“No,” Harry said.
“Well,” Umbridge said. “Admirable as your loyalty is, you might want to think about the fact that he doesn’t seem to mind that you’ve been caught, Mr Potter. Would he protect you just as well if the situations were reversed, do you think?”
“Yes,” Harry said without hesitation.
She looked irritated. “I think we’re done here. Minister?”
“Yes, I think so. Thank you, Harry. Dumbledore, you’ll stay with him?” Fudge asked.
“I’m afraid I’m needed at the school,” Dumbledore said, standing. “Term starts next week, after all. Remus, could you-?”
“Of course, sir,” Remus said. “I’ll stay with Harry, Minister.”
Umbridge didn’t look happy about that at all, but Harry didn’t much care what she thought. “Very well,” Fudge said. He put his bowler hat back on top of his head. “I’ll walk you out. Dolores, are you heading back to the Ministry?”
“No, Minister,” Umbridge said. “But I could use a walk.”
“We’ll be off then,” Dumbledore said cheerfully. “It was wonderful to meet you, Harry.”
“You too, sir,” Harry said, smiling at Dumbledore, whom he’d decided he liked.
“I’ll be in tomorrow, I think.”
Harry nodded. Fudge offered Harry his hand. Harry shook it cautiously. “Goodbye, Harry. Thank you for your cooperation today.” Harry nodded again but it was a rather jerky motion. Fudge didn’t seem to notice.
“I’ll be back soon, Mr Potter,” was all Umbridge said. Harry, who remembered she worked with magical children, didn’t like the sound of that at all.
“All right,” he said. “Bye.”
Dumbledore swept out with Fudge just behind. Umbridge gave Remus one nasty look and flounced out after them. The door clicked shut. Remus, who had been sitting rather stiffly, relaxed, but only slightly.
“Were you telling the truth about Sirius and Peter, earlier?” he asked, looking nervous.
Remus took a deep breath and a relieved smile spread across his face, followed almost immediately by a troubled, sympathetic look. “It wasn’t your fault, you know.”
“The tea. It made you say those things. You had no way of contr-”
“The tea didn’t make me say anything,” Harry said. “I only pretended to drink.”
“You knew,” he said sounding shocked. “I did wonder when I sme- saw how worried you were, but when you accepted it and started to drink I thought you mustn’t know after all. So you lied?”
“The potion - Veritaserum, it’s called - is a truth serum. You’ll tell anyone anything they ask.”
Harry stared at the cup and fervently thanked Merlin and the Hogwarts founders that he hadn’t consumed any. “You could smell it, couldn’t you?” he asked.
“Veritaserum doesn’t have a smell,” Remus said quietly. Harry frowned at him. He smiled a little ruefully. “It doesn’t. That’s what tipped me off. Even water has a smell but Veritaserum smells like... nothing.”
Another question presented itself to him. “Dumbledore knew you could smell it,” he said, frowning.
“He did, yes,” Remus said slowly.
“Why does Dumbledore know you’re an Animagus, but doesn’t know about my dad, Padfoot or Pettigrew?”
“What makes you think I’m an Animagus?” Remus asked, looking stunned.
“Padfoot told me,” Harry said.
“Did he now?” Remus muttered.
“Well?” Harry asked. “Why does Dumbledore know?”
“What makes you think he does?” Harry gave him a flat stare. Remus smiled. “You look an awful lot like James when you do that.” Harry grinned. “And even more like him when you do that,” Remus said, laughing. “I’ll bet you drive Padfoot up the walls.”
“You called him Padfoot,” Harry said, instantly sidetracked.
Remus looked stunned and then nodded. “I-I suppose I did.”
“So you believe me?”
He let out a noisy breath. “I hope you realise that by telling me what you told me earlier, you forced me to rethink the past eight years of my life.” Harry grimaced. “But yes, I do. I’ve always somewhat questioned Sirius’ ability to kill James and Lily but I’ve never been able to find another explanation, any other way it could have happened... they hadn’t even talked about swapping, though. Not to me, anyway.” His tone was slightly bitter.
“That’s Padfoot’s second biggest regret,” Harry said quietly. Remus raised an eyebrow. “The first is swapping Secret Keepers, obviously, but the second is not telling you straight away; Dad wanted to, but Mum wanted to do it in person. I think you were supposed to have lunch or dinner or something the next day, where they would have told you-” Harry realised he was babbling and clamped his mouth shut.
“Dinner,” Remus whispered. “It was dinner.” He cleared his throat. “I have a question.”
“Well, they found Peter’s finger...”
Harry wrinkled his nose. “Padfoot thinks he cut it off after he blew up the street.”
Remus closed his eyes and nodded. “And then he’d have escaped into the sewers, right?”
“And Sirius laughed. That’s what the reports say. That he laughed.” Remus opened his eyes. “I think I’d laugh too if I was outsmarted by Peter.” He sighed. “Why didn’t we see it before? He was a rat!”
“Padfoot said something similar.”
“I’ll bet he did.” Remus sighed. “Harry, I don’t believe he would have, but I have to ask... It wasn’t Sirius who injured you, was it?”
“No,” Harry said. Remus looked relieved, but not terribly surprised. “Why do people keep asking that?”
“Will you tell me what it was that did hurt you?”
“Er... I don’t think so, no,” Harry said.
Remus frowned suddenly. “Where is Sirius?” he asked and Harry knew he wasn’t asking where they’d been living, but rather why Sirius hadn’t been the one to give Harry medical help or take him to the Healers.
“Why?” Harry asked defensively, fighting to keep a calm expression.
“Because from the way you talk about him, and the way you defend him and the way you defended each other that day in London, I think it’s reasonable to deduce you care about each other.” Harry nodded. “And from what I knew - or know, I suppose - of Sirius, he wouldn’t leave you in the state you arrived at my cottage in unless he was incapable of doing something about it, or didn’t know about it, and I highly doubt it was the latter.”
Harry shrank into his pillows. “We were separated,” he said.
“I’d worked out that much. What happened?”
“I can’t- I don’t know if I’m allowed to say,” Harry said, fiddling with a lose thread on his pillowcase.
Remus let out a gusty breath. “Is there any way you can contact him?”
Kreacher, was Harry’s first idea. He’d considered calling the elf several times in the past week but they’d be able to trace him to the Black family and Grimmauld Place through the Department of Regulationand Control of Magical Creatures. “I- maybe,” Harry said. “Why?”
Remus glanced at the door and lowered his voice. “Because, before we stage any sort of escape, I’d like to be certain he’s where he should be.”
“He will be. He is,” Harry said firmly. “And did you say escape?”
Remus smiled half-heartedly. “It won’t be easy to get you home,” he said in a whisper, glancing at the door again. “You’re being watched like a Snitch as it is and the second we leave here, the Trace will reactivate.”
“You mean it’s off?”
“Places where a lot of magic is used - here, Hogwarts, Gringotts, the Ministry, Diagon Alley - tend to confuse the Trace. There are wards that do the same thing.” Harry nodded, thinking of Grimmauld. “The streets of muggle London, however...”
“Right,” Harry said. “If we left from here, though, would we be able to get away without the Trace?”
“As long as any magic you used was performed inside this building, yes.” Remus made a face. “But the warding-”
Harry smiled. “I think I know a way home,” he said.
“I’d need a wand,” Harry added.
Remus lifted an eyebrow. “To do what?”
“I can’t tell you,” Harry said. “Not yet, at least.”
“Usually those words ended with me in detention,” Remus muttered, shaking his head. “The number of times James said them...So you think you can get out?”
“If I have a wand.”
Remus exhaled noisily. “If I gave you mine...” he said, pulling a slender beech wand from his shabby robes. “How would you get it back to me?”
“Er... well...” Harry thought about that and had to admit he had no idea.
Remus shook his head suddenly. “That isn’t going to work.”
“I didn’t suggest anything!”
“It wouldn’t matter anyway. I can’t give you my wand because the Aurors-” Remus jerked his head at the door. “-check everyone’s wands on the way in and out. They’d know about it as soon as I tried to leave and I’d be dragged off to Azkaban, even if you somehow got free.”
“Let’s not do that, then,” Harry said, quickly. “Not unless you’ve got a spare that you can hide...”
“No,” Remus said a little apologetically.
They sat in silence and then Harry said, “Maybe... maybe you could go get my wand.”
“You have- Of course you do. Sirius never has cared much for tradition. You want me to get your wand?”
“Well, I can’t exactly fetch it, can I?” Harry asked with a grimace.
“No,” Remus said wryly. “I suppose not... Where is it?”
“Er...” Where would Kreacher have put it after he took it from Harry? “I’m not completely sure.”
“It was confiscated,” Harry said defensively.
“No. By- by our housekeeper.”
“I always did say Sirius needed taking care of, but a housekeeper...” He chuckled once and then his expression turned remarkably serious. “Would I be right in assuming, then, that if your housekeeper took your wand, then it’s somewhere in your house?”
“Probably, yeah,” Harry said, wincing.
That, Harry thought, summarised the situation quite nicely.
* * *
Sirius’ eyes flicked open and he became uncomfortably aware that he was not in his own bed, or in any of the beds in his house. His bed didn’t have flowery pillows or embroidered sheets. His room didn’t have cream and pink wallpaper. His room did, however, have moving photographs. So this is a magical home, at least. He reached for his wand but it wasn’t in his pocket. Damn.
He examined the photograph on the bedside table. It showed a boy - he looked about ten - and a woman - who Sirius guessed was his mother. Both had the same dark hair and eyes and the same cheeky smile. I know that smile, Sirius realised, but he couldn’t think how.
He climbed out of bed and stumbled over to the door, his muscles seizing painfully. He was out of breath by the time he got there and sank to his knees. The lethargy was like being in Azkaban again, and he hated it. He felt weak and he felt tired and this was after copious amounts of chocolate, hot chocolate and seven years of practice against Dementors. He supposed there was a reason they’d outlawed the use of Dementor’s Draught, and why, when it had been used, prisoners had only been given a tiny mouthful.
He called Voldemort every rude name he could think of and then pushed himself to his feet, using the doorknob for support. The moment his hand touched the knob, a high, ringing noise started.
He heard quick, quiet footsteps and then a woman’s voice said, “Get away from the door.” Sirius forced his legs to obey and backed off a few steps. “Not far enough,” she snapped. “Go and sit on the bed.”
Sirius did what he was told, but it was a struggle. He heard a muttered spell and then the door clicked and swung open. A tall woman - she was only a few inches shorter than he was - stepped into the room. She had the same dark hair and eyes as the pair in the photograph. She resembled the woman from the photograph - she was, perhaps, prettier and her face was thinner - but she certainly wasn’t smiling. Sirius eyed her wand, which was trained directly on his chest. Her hand didn’t shake, even slightly. In her other hand, was Harry’s rucksack.
“Hello,” he said - though it came out as more of a croak - and fixed a weak smile on his face, though he looked and felt like a mess; his robes were torn and rumpled, his hair was matted and he stank of salt and Inferi. He was also exceptionally thirsty.
“I think this is yours,” she said, tossing the rucksack at him. It was damp, inside and out and the chocolate was waterlogged but he shoved a row into his mouth anyway. It was salty.
“Fanks,” he said, stuffing another chunk in. She didn’t seem to know what to make of him. “Your nephew?” he asked, nodding at the photograph.
“No,” she said stiffly.
Sirius tried again. “Nice... nice house you’ve got here.” She gave him a flat look. Sirius winced as something inside him twinged. “Do...do you... kidnap people often?”
“You’re one to talk.” Sirius frowned. Does that mean she knows who I am...? he wondered. It must, and that’s why she’s so wary. The woman came a few more steps into the room. Or not so wary. She pushed her fringe out of her face and folded her arms, waiting for him to say something. “Where’s Harry?” she asked finally.
“Safe,” Sirius said hoarsely. Or at least I hope so.
Her brown eyes narrowed and slid over his bruised arm, the cut on his cheek, his general state of disarray and came to rest on his neck, which he knew was bruised from being strangled. “
I know better than to trust your definition of safe,” she said coolly.
“Clearly you know me so well,” Sirius said, attempting to sound sarcastic but it came out sounding rather pathetic.
“Better than most,” she said, her eyes narrowing again.
“Who... who are you?”
“You don’t recognise me?” she asked, actually smiling now, but it was bitter. “Sirius, I’m wounded.” So she wasn’t bluffing, Sirius thought grimly, squinting at her. She did seem vaguely familiar, but then, so had her house when he Apparated into it... he didn’t even know how long ago that had been.
“You wouldn’t happen to have... water... a glass of water, would you?” he asked hopefully. Her eyes narrowed again but she waved her wand and conjured a glass. She filled it and passed it to him. Sirius practically inhaled it and looked up, eyes begging for more. She paused and then waved her wand again. He went through another five glasses before he was remotely sated and set it down on the bedside table. “I’m afraid... I’ve still got... absolutely no idea... who you are.”
She shifted, looking a little smug and a little hurt. As she did, Sirius got a whiff of her. Her scent, too, was vaguely familiar, and he was more inclined to trust that than his eyes. He sniffed again, trying to be casual about it. His eyes widened.
“Mar...Marlene?!” Her eyes narrowed again and Sirius knew he was right. Then his mouth fell open. “FUCK!” His throat protested, but he was dead, so it didn’t matter. He flopped back down onto the bed and stared at the ceiling. “I never got out, did I?”
“I’m...I’m dead, aren’t I?” She stared at him. Oh, Harry, I hope you didn’t see it. I hope you’re safe. Godric damn it! I promised everything would be all right! “Aren’t I!”
“No,” she said slowly.
“Go get... James... James. And Lily,” Sirius told her. “Oh, and Reg.”
“Regulus. Brother... My brother,” Sirius said impatiently. Comprehension dawned on her face for a moment, and then it was replaced by confusion as he kept rambling. “No one else. Lily, James and Reg. Wait... I’ll... I’ll do it.” He pulled his mirror out of his pocket with trembling fingers and said, “James Potter.” James’ smiling face appeared and Marlene started. “Hey, I... er... I’m at Marl-” Sirius said, choking up a little; it was partially emotion and partially tiredness. James just smiled.
“Sirius!” Marlene snarled. “You’re not dead,” she said, sounding as if she wished otherwise.
James still didn’t seem able to talk to him, so he supposed it was possible. Sirius put his mirror down on the bedspread and turned to look at her.
“Then why are you... here?”
“Because I live here, you git,” she said, annoyed.
“But you died.”
“Almost,” she whispered, then her voice hardened. “If you hadn’t been so busy running around after Voldemort perhaps you’d know that.”
“So you’re alive?” She rolled her eyes. “And I’m alive?”
“You were half dead when you showed up in my hallway,” she said curtly. Sirius stuffed his mirror back into his pocket. “I sort of hoped you’d die on the first night but you didn’t.”
“You’ve slept like the dead for three days but I assure you, you’re very much alive.” She fixed him with a speculative look. “For now.”
Sirius didn’t doubt that she was capable of killing him. “But Malfoy...” he said. “I was there, one of the first ones at your house. It was ruined.” He’d never quite recovered from that day in August.
She gave him a bitter smile. “Malfoy was there,” she agreed. “He decided to gloat for a bit, as he always does and he- I...” She drew herself upright. “I was being tortured.” Without thinking, Sirius reached for her but she flinched and retreated back toward the door. “I lost my short term memory. I thought I was still at Hogwarts... in my sixth year, I think.
“I recall telling Malfoy I’d tell McGonagall and see to it that he got a detention. Then his house elf showed up and started prattling on about his son. He turned around to tell the thing to go away and I grabbed my wand, threw myself out of the window and Disapparated.”
“Muggles found me near my parents’ old house and took me to a muggle hospital, but muggle medicine was useless in letting me get my memory back. I probably blew the Statute of Secrecy about forty times, calling everyone muggles, saying I’d miss Quidditch, asking for my wand - they confiscated it when I arrived.”
“There was a television in my room, though, and when Lily and James were killed I saw it on the muggle news - not properly of course, but I filled in the blanks - and I snapped out of it. I started to remember little things, but I knew I still needed help so I stole my wand back and took myself to St Mungo’s.”
“Dumbledore was notified and came to fill me in on what had happened in the months I’d been in muggle hospital. I found out you were a traitor-” She spat the word. “-that you’d killed Peter and that Harry’d been sent to live with Lily’s awful sister. Remus came to visit me... he was distraught, not that you’d care...”
She sighed. “I was getting better. I was remembering things and I was going to help, going to testify against Death Eaters in all the trials and then- and then... I- Alice and Frank showed up in my ward. I couldn’t handle it. I checked out as soon as the Healers proclaimed me healthy and I moved in here.”
“And you’ve been alone, all this time?” Sirius asked quietly. That wasn’t the Marlene he knew at all; she’d always loved to be around people.
“I had a cat but it died last year,” she said shortly. Her face hadn’t changed the entire time; her jaw had been set, her eyes not-quite-there. It was a look Sirius was very familiar with, after having spent years in Azkaban.
“What... what did the world do to you, Marly?” he asked hoarsely.
Her blank expression twisted into an angry one at the old nickname and her wand spat out a stream of pink and gold magic. “The world?” she asked, coldly furious. “The world did nothing to me, Sirius, it was you and your Death Eater pals.” Sirius wasn’t sure what to say to that. He wasn’t a Death Eater, but knowing Marlene, he’d be Stunned or Silenced before he could even get the words out. Instead, he just waited. This seemed to annoy her. “Are you just going to sit there?” she asked.
“What else should I... be doing?” Sirius asked, rubbing absently at a particularly painful bruise at his throat. “I’ll talk... if you want me to-”
“I don’t want you to talk to me.”
“Liar,” was all he managed to say as his head throbbed painfully.
“You’re... excused, but you’re still lying. If you didn’t want to... talk, you’d have handed me straight to... them... the Dementors, or killed me yourself.”
“Are you complaining?” she asked.
“Not at all... Just wondering... Am I allowed to talk to you or not?” Talking was the last thing he felt like doing but if she was willing to listen, he didn’t see that he had much choice.
A wary expression crossed her face. “You have two minutes.”