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Harry Potter and the Heirs of Slytherin by fawkes_07

Format: Novel
Chapters: 50
Word Count: 337,069

Rating: 12+
Warnings: Sensitive Topic/Issue/Theme

Genres: Drama, Action/Adventure, Young Adult
Characters: Harry, Ron, Hermione, Hagrid, Lupin, Snape, Voldemort, Gryffindor, OC, OtherCanon
Pairings: Harry/OC

First Published: 07/01/2006
Last Chapter: 05/19/2008
Last Updated: 06/30/2008


This is a full-length Book Seven canon fic, written by a mom for her son, because neither of us can wait until July to find out how it all ends. PS. Reviews welcome, please!!

Chapter 1: Chapter 1: The Calm
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For the first time in his life, Harry Potter felt a measure of contentment at his aunt and uncle's house at number four, Privet Drive.

To say he was content would have been far overstating the matter; this house was never meant to be his home and could never feel like one, not with all the bitter memories it held. But for the first time, he didn't feel imprisoned by the spotlessly clean walls, or suffocated by the weight of contempt from his relatives.

He'd been most reluctant to return to the Dursley's house, to be sure. After the funeral services for Dumbledore, he wanted only to return to number twelve, Grimmauld Place, and spend a few days grieving in private, to be interrupted only when he chose to seek out his friends, or other wizards in the Order. They would be mourning as well, and would understand Harry's need for both the peace of solitude and the distraction of conversation. So when Mad-Eye Moody asked him whether he planned to take the Hogwarts Express back to London, or be escorted straight to Little Whinging by a cadre of wizards on broomsticks, Harry's eyes had bugged out almost as far as Moody's.

"You can't possibly think I'm going back there?!" Harry sputtered, when he found his tongue again.

"Oh, I know you're going back there, Potter, it's the safest place and it's what's got to be done."

Harry couldn't reply; he felt as though a steel blade had slid into his chest. He looked quickly to the other wizards and witches within hearing distance. Professor McGonagall, her eyes still red from the funeral, gave him a look of deep sympathy, but nonetheless inclined her head toward Moody and nodded in support. Arthur Weasley stared at his shoes; he appeared to have already had this discussion with Moody and had been forced to concede defeat. Hermione bit her lip and frowned, glancing back and forth between Moody and Harry. Only Ron had the decency to look utterly flabbergasted by the notion that Harry should be cast out of the wizarding community at such an hour of pain and need, back to the Dursleys and their own brand of misery.

In the end, though, Hermione had convinced him that this was necessary. "Yes, that house is yours. Everyone knows you are going to be living in it eventually; that's why the Order are working so hard to fortify it for defense--not to mention cleaning out the mess. We're all behind that, Harry. But you know very well that until you turn seventeen, the safest place in the world for you is with your relatives. Now more than ever, Harry, you need to play it safe every chance you get."

"Rubbish, Hermione!" said Harry. "I'm done with safety! I'm done with Hogwarts! I've only got one thing to do in this world, and that's to put an end to Voldemort."

Hermione flinched at the name, but, to Harry's satisfaction, it was merely out of habit; she no longer cringed or cowered like most of the wizarding community. "Oh, really?" she said sarcastically. "Without any rest, any plan, any idea where to even start, you're just going to go zipping off into the wilderness, hunt down You-Know-Who, and wipe him out singlehandedly? Are you planning to get a bloodhound to sniff him out? Going to raise up your hand and say 'Accio Horcruces'?"

It took Harry a moment to figure out what she meant, but he finally decided that "horcruces" must be the plural for "horcrux." By the time he'd gotten back in synch with the conversation, it was too late for a snappy comeback. His silence had given Hermione all the time she needed to assemble her thoughts for the next round, and as much as he hated to admit it, there really wasn't anything intelligent he could say in response.

"You know darn well you're in no position to storm off solo after Voldemort," she said, softer this time. "Harry, we all need to think this through and get it done right, not run around like a bunch of frightened mice in a maze."

"Fine!" Harry snapped in frustration. "Fine. I'll wait, I'll think, I'll plan. But I'm staying with you guys, with you this time. I'm not going to be stuck in a house full of Muggles while everyone else does all the planning."

Hermione threw up her hands. "Harry, I'll give you my word that you won't be left out. We'll send you owls and messengers and I'll even get a cell phone. I've already looked into them and I think all the wizards should start carrying them; I'm sure You-Know-Who hasn't the faintest idea how to use one," she said firmly, even as Harry shook his head defiantly. "We'll keep you up to date, I promise! Everyone just wants you to stay safe as long as you can."

"I'm safe at Sirius's house, I'll be surrounded by Order wizards day and night--" Harry began.

"Who will have to stay there and baby-sit for you the whole time!" said Hermione exasperatedly.

Harry stared at her with fists clenched, too angry to speak. Hermione realized that this had been a low blow, and her expression softened somewhat. "Harry...I'm sorry, that was a rotten thing to say. But you know what I mean! Once you move into Headquarters, you know that the Order is going to want to guard you day and night. Even if you don't want it or need it," she added hastily. "They're going to do it out of their own need to protect you, not because you want to be protected. And every wizard who is standing guard at your side is one less wizard that could be out there tracking down You-Know-Who. Think about it, Harry! Why take all those people out of commission just yet, when there's a place you can go where no one has to guard you?"

"No one has to guard me anywhere--" Harry began, but Hermione waved her hands dismissively again and cut him off.

"Fine, no one has to guard you, but they will anyway. Why can't you go to the one place where you are 100% safe, just for a few weeks, Harry, so that everyone can stay focused?"

"Because it stinks!" shouted Harry. "I don't want to go back there ever again! I hate it!"

Hermione sighed. "I know, Harry. I know this isn't asking you to go have a hot-fudge sundae. No one wants you to be with those awful people; we'd all rather have you close by. Moody and Ron's dad had a royal row over it; I thought they were going to get their wands out toward the end. Mr. Weasley wants to take you to the Burrow. Lupin was totally excited about you staying with him at Headquarters. Hagrid even wanted you to move into his place so you could stay on the Hogwarts grounds." Harry's brows raised upon hearing the last bit; although Aunt Petunia fed him the barest of scraps, even her grudging meals would certainly be better than the overcooked (but plentiful) fare in Hagrid's cabin.

Hermione continued, "But it all comes back to the same thing, Harry: you're in the greatest danger ever, now, and as long as you have a place of safety, it's just insane not to use it. That was your mother's gift to you, Harry, her legacy. Once you come of age, there may not be a single place on Earth that will be safe for you. You may never be able to rest again until...until...a long time."

Hermione's eyes were becoming misty. Harry's stomach lurched as he realized he had no desire to see Hermione cry over the prospects of his future. And what she had said made sense; once the hunt began, he might not rest again until it was over, however long that would take. Maybe he should take some time to prepare for the task.

Harry eventually conceeded, very bitterly, to return to Privet Drive until he came of age and the protections set on that house were lifted. He wished he could make Number Four the new Headquarters, voicing his frustrations that the Order wasn't taking advantage of the "protections" bequeathed upon the Durselys' home, but no one would think of it. "That house belongs to your uncle, Harry," said Remus Lupin, as they sat in the Gryffindor common room on the last night of the term. "Even if they welcomed us," he went on as Harry snorted derisively, "we could hardly have people Apparating, and owls zipping around all the time, in a Muggle neighborhood like that."

"You do it at Number Twelve," said Harry.

"Come on, Harry, you know there's a difference. Most of that street is empty and the rest of them are too busy hiding behind their own curtains to notice. But those people--" Lupin raised his hands up in a very good mimicry of a Muggle peering through binoculars, "--they can't seem to get enough of snooping at their neighbors. Besides, that's not the point. We're not wanted there, Harry, and that's that."

"I'm not wanted there either, but you send me there anyway!" said Harry sourly.

"Ah, but you're family," smiled Lupin with a twinkle in his eye. "They have to take you whether they want you or not!"

Harry sighed. "So I go have a spa vacation at my uncle's house while everyone else risks their lives. How heroic. I wonder how many people Voldemort will kill while I'm sitting around being nice and safe on Privet Drive?"

Lupin furrowed his brow a little, then smiled wanly again. "Harry. You're preparing yourself for a challenge that none of us could take on. We're all glad you have a safe sanctuary for the next few weeks. No one thinks you're running off to lounge about, watching that picture box thing while we all toil away in danger. Because we all know you're going to step up when the time comes--and believe me, we're all going to be working round the clock to make sure that time comes as quickly as possible."

Lupin leaned back in his chair and looked at Harry with the same comprehending sadness that Hermione had shown earlier, although without tears in his eyes. Harry frowned a moment, looked down at the tabletop, then up again. "But I don't want to be safe if my friends are in danger."

Lupin sighed. "I think, Harry," he said slowly, "that if I had a place to go, where I knew I was beyond Voldemort's reach, I would be torn too--it does seem selfish to protect yourself and leave your friends to fend for themselves. But maybe you can think of it this way: A coward would do that right off the cuff, without giving it a second thought, because that selfishness and fear is exactly what makes him a coward. The fact that you don't want to do it, that your instincts are to reject safety and stand by your friends, that's proof that you're no coward."

"So, hiding from danger isn't cowardly, as long as do it for the right reasons?" Harry snarled sarcastically. To his surprise, Lupin sat up and slammed his fist to the table, causing every head in the common room to turn toward them.

"Yes, Harry. Choosing a safe place to get ready for the hardest task of your life is not cowardice," Lupin said, not loudly, but since the common room had gone deadly silent, it rang out forcefully. Lupin noticed the silence and glanced around the room at all the staring faces. He lowered his voice. "You can be resentful and make yourself miserable, convince yourself that everyone thinks you're a coward. Or you can accept the circumstances and use them to your fullest advantage. You have that choice, Harry," he said softly. "Maybe you're only doing this because we're all making you, but now that you're doing it, you can choose how to feel about it. I think you'd be a lot happier if you tell yourself this is an opportunity, instead of telling yourself you're running away."

And so Harry set off on the Hogwarts Express the next morning with the remaining students, knowing that a brigade of Aurors was watching the train from both land and air, with a newfound determination to make something out of the next few weeks. He parted from Ron and Hermione at King's Cross Station with many assurances that the summer would be over in a flash. Hermione met her parents on the Muggle platform, returned to slip Harry a small gift, and parted with a quick hug and a promise to talk to him very soon. Fred Weasley came alone to fetch Ron from the station; he tried to invite Harry to their joke shop on Diagon Alley for the afternoon, but Harry declined.

Harry was only mildly surprised that his uncle was not at the station to meet him. Tonks had been assigned inside King's Cross to guard Harry's arrival; the two of them spent an enjoyable hour sitting on a bench and hiding behind a Muggle newspaper, peeking around it at passers-by. Tonks would attempt to copy their faces, with comical results. It finally became obvious that the Dursleys were simply not coming to pick up Harry. Tonks and Harry slipped behind an unused ticket counter, where she took Harry's hand and Apparated them both straight into the Dursleys' kitchen, right in the middle of supper. This, of course, nearly sent Uncle Vernon into an apoplectic fit.

Harry neither heard, nor cared to hear, the ensuing discussion between Tonks and his relatives. Their petty gripes and idiotic priorities were intolerable to his ears anymore. He hauled his trunk and Hedwig's cage to the stairwell, lugged them up to his room one by one (noting with dull resignation that his bedroom had been converted into a storage/giftwrapping room over the past year), and simply shut the door and collapsed on the bed. Although the sounds of argument in the kitchen went on and on, he only made out a few words when he opened the door in response to a sharp tapping. A plate, piled high with food, was hovering in the hallway, while a fork and knife were busily drumming their handles on the door. He could hear angry, incoherent grunts from Uncle Vernon coming from the living room; he sounded as though he'd been gagged (Tonks had, in fact, given up and sealed his mouth shut within the first few minutes of their discussion). From the kitchen, he could hear Tonks saying "...this is your own sister's son, your kin, your blood..." He shut the door as soon as his dinner had scuttled into the room, the flatware performing a bright little riff on the desk before settling down.

The next morning, he slept in quite late and sauntered downstairs to find the house empty. He was surprised to find that a bowl of cereal and some bread and jam had been left on the table at his usual chair. He considered the possibility that it might be poisoned, then chuckled at the thought that Mad-Eye Moody would be proud of him for suspecting it. Harry knew real murderers; Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia were, in a nutshell, too cowardly to try to harm him.

And so the tone was set for Harry's stay on Privet Drive. Harry essentially ignored his relatives, remaining in his room most of the time. Meals were shoved regularly through the cat flap in his bedroom door, and were consistently of ample quantity. Harry couldn't remember ever feeling so well-fed here. He wondered sometimes exactly how Tonks had succeeded in getting that message through his aunt's thick head, when so many other wizards had tried and failed. Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia merely turned their backs when Harry did come downstairs, without any glares, harrumphs, or other signs of recognition. Harry didn't even mind the fact that Dudley met his gaze on occasion, because the flash of pure terror in Dudley's eyes gave him a perverse sort of thrill.

With peace and quiet, a full belly, and the knowledge that he was secure, Harry soon had to admit that his friends had been correct. He was amazed by the amount of time he simply slept, dreamless; it was as though his body had taken over his will and forced him to rest and renew himself.

On the third day, Harry was awakened by an odd ringing sound. At first he thought it must be some new game of Dudley's; it had that electronic, chirping quality of a Muggle device. He ignored it, but after rolling over in his bed, he realized that the noise was definitely coming from within his room. Harry sat up and leaned around, triangulating on the sound, then picked up his Hogwarts robes from their heap at the foot of the bed. More puzzled than alarmed, he shook the robe and realized that the source of the sound was in a pocket. Suddenly recalling Hermione's parting gift on the platform at King's Cross, Harry fished out the little package, which warbled cheerfully at him as he unrolled the tissue paper wrapping.

Harry stared at the little device for a moment, utterly baffled. He'd never seen anything like it. By its incessant ringing, he deduced that it was a telephone, but it looked nothing like the Durselys' rotary-dial model downstairs. He turned it over and around in his hand, a smooth, metal bar, anodized in Gryffindor red, but having no obvious telephonic features. After fiddling with it, he managed to undo some sort of unseen clasp, and the thing opened like a clamshell, but this only made matters worse! The inside was covered with buttons, some numbered, some bearing incomprehensible little arrows and symbols; he wondered if Hermione had made this herself for extra credit in Ancient Runes. For a brief, panicked moment, he supposed he might have to ask Dudley how to operate the dratted thing, but then he noticed that one of the buttons was labeled, "Talk." That has to be a good sign, he thought, and pressed it. The ringing stopped, but now, of course, he had no idea where to find the microphone to speak into.

"Harry?" came a tinny version of Hermione's voice from a tiny slit at the top of the device. "Are you there?"

Harry guessed that if that end was the listening portion, the bottom must be the talking side, and put the phone closer to his head (instinctively keeping it far enough away that, if it decided to chomp itself shut again, it wouldn't be able to bite him. Hagrid's Care of Magical Creatures class had given him an extraordinary sense of caution around anything that resembled jaws). "Hermione? I'm here. What on Earth IS this thing?"

Hermione laughed. "I told you, Harry, it's a cell phone, they're just the latest thing among the Muggles. You can carry it anywhere, it's not like the old telephones that had to be plugged into a wall. Isn't it cute? I hope red is OK, they come in all colors. I must tell you first off, Harry, that these have batteries in them that need to be charged--every night, you have to flip open the bottom end and plug the whole thing into a wall outlet. When it needs more electricity, it suddenly stops working, so if that happens, don't worry that something's happened to me, just plug it in the wall for a while."

Harry rolled his eyes. "Yeah, Hermione, I'm actually kind of familiar with how batteries work." He could picture her pursing her lips and sniffing at his jab.

"Right, then. How are you, Harry?"

"Fine, actually. I'm really fine! The Dursleys are leaving me alone, and they're almost treating me like a human being, it's weird."

"Oh, that's good, Harry! I'm still with my parents, they just can't believe all that's happened. I'm going to stay here until the wedding, I think they're rather worried about me. And it's sort of hard to convince them I'll be all right, poor dears, they've been reading the Prophet too and are very frightened about the state of the Wizarding community. They've been mentioning some horrible bloke named Hitler, he sounds like the Muggle version of You-Know-Who."

"Wonderful. So nice to know that monsters aren't limited to Wizards," muttered Harry. " you know what else is going on?" He was unwilling to ask about the Order directly, as he did not share Hermione's faith that these cell phones were safe from spying ears. Apparently she had decided not to risk it either, judging by her vague response.

"I know that people are working very hard to places, for the...ongoing work. The general feeling is that it's easier to forge outward if there's a...sort of fortress where people can regroup or fall back. And since it's pretty much certain that the, um, other side, has already been digging in somewhere, we felt we should too."

Harry nodded. "That sounds like a good plan. But is anyone--"

Hermione cut him off. "It's not really a good idea to discuss details, don't you think?"

Harry felt his hackles raise; once again, he was being cut off from the goings-on of the Order, despite promises to the contrary. "Yeah. I understand," he growled. "Why keep me up to date, after all?"

Hermione's voice dropped about twenty degrees. "Should I remind you that you're supposed to be RESTING?"

Harry nearly clicked the phone shut, but he didn't really want to stop talking to Hermione. He also didn't know if that would actually turn the thing off or not. Closing his eyes and forcing a deep breath, he finally spoke again. "All right, all right. At least tell me if everyone's OK."

"Yes, Harry, definitely. We were all worried that there might be a second strike after..." her voice shook, "you know. But everything's been quiet. We figure that You-Know-Who is trying to gather information, just like we are--figure out just how much damage that...last act actually caused, where the weakest points are now. You'll see it all in a few weeks, Harry. Just rest now, though, OK? Rest and get ready for...what comes next."

"Yes, ma'am," said Harry with a sigh. "I am, it's actually kind of nice. But it's a lot easier now that I know that...things aren't heating up out there."

"I understand, Harry," Hermione said warmly. "I really will tell you if things heat up. And you can call me, too--I've programmed this number into the speed dial, just hit the Memory button and then select it. Listen, I need to go now, my mum took the day off work to spend with me. Try not to let it ring so long next time. We'll talk again soon, OK?"

"Sure, OK," muttered Harry. "And Hermione?" He paused.


"Thanks for doing this."

"You're welcome, Harry. I'm happy to do it. Take care."

The connection closed, and Harry took a good long look at the phone. He found a button labeled "Mem," which popped up a single phone number on the screen when pressed; that must be hers. There was no button labled "Select," however, and he gingerly pressed several buttons before determining that the "Talk" button caused the phone to dial the number. Not wanting to bother Hermione, he punched "End" as soon as he realized it was placing the call. He next found the battery charger and plugged the unit into the wall. He shook his head, grinning at how an everyday Muggle object like this had become so foreign to him, then looked up at Hedwig. She was glaring through the bars of her cage with such an offended expression that he burst out laughing.

On his fifth day back, Harry awoke before noon--so early, in fact, that Aunt Petunia hadn't even delivered breakfast yet. Feeling alert and refreshed, he dressed in Muggle clothes and went downstairs to the kitchen, where his aunt was bustling about the stove in her bathrobe. He didn't want to startle Aunt Petunia, who did not turn around when he entered the room, but he felt a little ridiculous just saying "Good morning" under the circumstances. He settled for pulling out a chair with a loud scrape, which at least gave his aunt some warning that there was another living being in the kitchen, so when she did finally look up, she only suffered the shock of discovering that it was Harry. She jumped, nearly upsetting the pot of porridge she'd been cooking.

"You! Don't sneak up on people like that!"

"I wasn't sneaking," said Harry. "I just walked into the room. I'm allowed to walk around, aren't I?"

Aunt Petunia wrinkled her nose and turned back to her porridge. After an uncomfortable pause, she finally asked, "Wouldn't you rather have breakfast in your room?"

"No, I feel like a little change of scenery today. I hope you don't mind if I eat at the table, you know, like a regular sort of person."

She gave Harry a glare that almost made him change his mind, but he wasn't about to back down now, nor sit through another bowl of lukewarm porridge upstairs. He watched her ladle two bowls full, noticing that she didn't skimp on his serving as she'd always done. She brought the bowls to the table, placed one in front of Harry, and sat down across from him. Watching her scoop up the food quickly with her spoon, trying to finish and get away from him as soon as possible, he felt an unexpected pity for her. Without even thinking, he said, "Aunt Petunia, are you happy here?"

She stared at him, frozen, her spoon midway between bowl and mouth. He immediately regretted saying it, expecting her to bellow about his cheek at asking such a thing. Much to his suprise, she simply set down her spoon and looked at him. Another silent pause, this one equally uncomfortable but in an entirely different way, and then she spoke in a quiet, unconvincing voice. "I have everything I'm supposed to have--a lovely home, a husband, a strong son...of course I'm happy."

Just as Harry could hear the language hidden in the hisses of snakes, he heard the real truth in Aunt Petunia's reply, which was quite different from the meaning of the words she said. Without trying in any way, he found himself receiving a flood of thought and emotion from his aunt, rolling through his consciousness so rapidly that only the briefest impressions were recognizable. His mother, through Petunia's eyes--a kindhearted girl, Petunia's best friend, the only one who didn't tease her for being so shy. Suddenly Lily was gone, on a tremendous adventure in a huge castle like a princess, while Petunia stayed behind. His uncle, young and thin, standing in a doorway with a bouquet; the flowers, the seasons, the time of day all changing, but his was the only face that ever appeared at her door. Petunia's wedding day, filled not with love and passion, but a sense of relief and security. The birth of her child, the disappointment of wanting a sweet little girl, the deep resentment that Vernon only wanted sons and got one. The constant, exhausting effort of shoving thoughts like these far into the back of her psyche.

Harry's jaw fell open as he processed this rush of information; a lifetime had come to him in the time it took to say a single sentence. His aunt didn't even seem aware of the exchange, and stared at him, puzzled, finally turning around to see if something odd was happening behind her. At last she frowned and asked, "What's the matter with you, boy?"

Harry shuddered and mumbled, "Legilimency," before forcing himself to focus on his breakfast again.

Chapter 2: Chapter 2: The Storm
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"Wow, Harry, that's...amazing!" burst Hermione. "And you didn't even have your wand or anything?"

Harry had wriggled into an unlikely position on his bed, hanging his head over the side with both legs propped up against the wall. He'd called Hermione right after breakfast, too excited by this latest development to wait for her to ring him.

"Well, if I'd used magic," said Harry, "I'd have an owl from the Ministry by now, wouldn't I?"

Hermione laughed. "I'm not so sure, things are a little different around there now...but I suppose you're right, they wouldn't just overlook underage magic use. Although I don't think they'll be threatening to snap your wand over it anytime soon."

Harry laughed as well, though with a bitter edge. "Right. They'll wait until after I do them the Big Favor, and then they'll snap it."

They both gasped at Harry's words. Neither of them had ever considered how the Wizarding community would react, should Harry defeat Voldemort; Harry's cynical comment made them both snap to the realization that many would consider him the most powerful wizard alive, and would fear him for it. Hermione broke the silence with a quavering voice, "Harry..."

"Yeah, I know. I guess we've been so busy trying to get to that point, we've never actually thought about what would happen afterward."

Harry heaved a sigh and closed his eyes. The last thing he wanted to worry about right now was the schemes and spins of the Wizard media. But for years Harry had been sick and tired of whispers and stares, of conversations abruptly halting upon his appearance. He would defeat Voldemort or die in the attempt; if he lived, he'd much rather be lauded as a hero than be despised as the next He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. But it wasn't like it was even up to him--if those hypocrites at the Prophet decided to run another smear campaign, what could he do about it? He'd already seen the kind of power they weilded, to twist, distort, lie--to turn people against him. The whole concept was making his stomach turn over.

Hermione must have sensed it, because she finally recovered her usual businesslike tone of voice. "Well, I think we should add that to the agenda too, now that it's come up. I think I would go right crazy if you somehow got turned into the bad guy for this, but we've certainly seen that the Ministry and the Prophet can't be trusted to keep their own bias out of the matter. My goodness, Harry, I'm really glad you said that. We definitely need to start considering this now, while the political climate is in your favor."

"Right," he said. "Whatever. Look, can we talk about something else?"

"Of course. Let's get back to that Legilimency, that's a very important breakthrough. Tell me just how it happened."

Harry recounted how he had simply been talking to his aunt when the wave of her innermost thoughts crashed over him.

"Well, now I wish I were back at Hogwarts, I've never studied this sort of thing. You know what, though, Harry, it reminds me of Trelawney. Didn't you say that the one time she actually made a REAL prediction, she wasn't even trying?"

Harry nodded. "Yeah, that's right. It was kind of like that, except when Trelawney did her thing, it was like she went into a trance or something. She didn't even remember saying it afterward." He paused thoughtfully. "I suppose I could have gone into a trance. I mean, I wouldn't exactly know if I had, eh? But I'm pretty sure I didn't. I remember hearing my aunt's words, at the same time I just sort of knew what her real meaning was."

"I bet it's very similar to real Divination, Harry--that you have to be open or relaxed to be receptive to it, something like that. Trying to force it just confounds the whole process. Which explains why Trelawney is such a fraud 99% of the time," she noted huffily. "You've been taking it easy for a bit, maybe that opened up your mind to Legilimency."

"But I've done it before, back in...HIS office," said Harry through clenched teeth. He finally understood why people couldn't bear to say Voldemort's name; he would never utter the word "Snape" again, though not out of fear.

"Right. But Sn--...HE was teaching you how--" she raised her voice over Harry's sputters of protest--"ok, he was provoking you into doing it, fine. The point is that he was doing something to make it happen, and you were finding your feet. Well, maybe now you're seeing the results, that you can really do it yourself without having someone...pushing you into it."

"Hmph." Harry didn't want to consider any suggestion that Snape had ever helped him in any way.

"Fine," Hermione said exasperatedly. "Regardless of how you got there: it's very interesting that you can do it, but it bothers me that it just happened. You're going to need to learn to control it, Harry. Most people wouldn't appreciate knowing you have access to their inner thoughts--not to mention that you don't need people's thoughts spilling all over you at random. That's kind of creepy."

Harry nodded. "Yeah, that crossed my mind. I hate to think of Dudley suddenly dumping his little secrets on me, it'd be like being buried alive in maggots or something."

Harry and Hermione chatted a bit longer before hanging up. Despite waking up in an energetic mood, Harry dozed off and ended up napping away the rest of the morning. He awoke to a sharp rapping; he supposed, in his sleepy haze, that Tonks had sent another plate up to his door. The sound, however, was coming from the wrong end of the room. An owl was perched on the window ledge, holding a black roll of parchment in his beak. Harry frowned; the only colorful mail he'd ever seen were red Howlers, and he wasn't sure he wanted to find out what black signified. But unlike the typical owl bearing a Howler, this one didn't seem particularly anxious to get rid of the letter; on the contrary, Harry noticed that it had puffed up its chest feathers and stretched its neck, giving it an exceptionally poised and dignified air.

Harry opened the window and took the scroll from the owl, which hopped back a step, bobbed its head in a charming little bow, and took flight. Harry broke the bead of red sealing wax and unrolled it. The inside of the parchment was perfectly white, and the sunlight shone through it as if it were tissue. Harry turned it over to see if the other side was still black (it was), held it up to the window again to admire the effect, then finally took a look at what it said:

Bill Weasley
Fleur Delacour

invite their dear friend, Harry Potter

to seal their marriage

taking place on August the Fifth at One o'Clock

in the Wizard village square

in Dijon, France.

repondez s'il vous plait

Harry smiled. Things were starting to fall into place. His birthday was in a few weeks, after which he would be free forever from number four, Privet Drive. After moving out, he would attend his first Wizard wedding, on his first trip out of the UK. Once the wedding was over, nothing would stop him from finding Voldemort (and Snape) and putting an end to them both.

Harry rolled the parchment back up. He had never been to a wedding, Muggle or Wizard, but he knew that people generally dressed up for such occasions. For lack of anything more important to do, he rummaged through his trunk for his dress robes. They had already become absurdly short on him. Fred and George know something about buying dress robes, he thought; Ron had never complained about the robes they'd given him, though Harry had never seen Ron wear them either.

Harry's heart sank with another realization: people were expected to bring gifts to weddings. Aunt Petunia always made a huge deal out of wedding gifts, making sure that whatever she purchased was priced not a penny more or less than the cumulative worth of all the gifts she, Uncle Vernon, and Dudley had received from the bride and/or groom and/or their parents. She had always brought Harry along on these shopping trips, since Vernon would do nothing but complain about the expenditure and Dudley could not be relied upon to carry the bags carefully. Harry spent many an hour slouching against glass display cases while his aunt compared items, re-figured the allowed price in her head (adjusting for gifts she'd forgotten the first time through, unforgiven oversights, the number of the betrotheds' siblings also likely to get married, etc.), and eventually selected whatever kitchen appliance had been marked down the most on that particular day (later spending hours peeling every scrap of the "Final Clearance" labels off the package). In short, Harry knew exactly how NOT to buy a wedding present, but that was hardly helpful. Harry decided he would get some help with this, and put the matter out of his mind.

The next few weeks drifted by comfortably; long lazy naps, punctuated by calls from Hermione (and an occasional owl from Ron), late nights spread out prone on his bed, discovering fascinating details in his Practical Defensive Magic texts (a Christmas gift from Sirius and Lupin). Harry purposely avoided the Dursleys, lest he find himself the unwanting recipient of too much information; this of course was just fine with them. He sent Hedwig off with what he hoped was a gracious acceptance of the wedding invitation, then wrote to Fred and George at their shop, asking what sort of thing wizards were expected to wear to a wedding, and where he could buy them. Hedwig returned the next day bearing their promise to make him the sharpest-dressed fellow at the party (except for themselves, of course). Mrs. Figg even dropped by once on the pretense of having a neighborly tea with his aunt, slipping Harry a very nice bag of sugar quills and chocolate frogs. She had no news for him; she was a member of the Order, but being a Squib, she was by necessity stuck in the "less you know, the better" crowd.

Harry's anxiety began to build as his birthday approached. Safety notwithstanding, he still looked forward to leaving Privet Drive. In the third week of July, he received an owl from Lupin, saying that "the inheritance" was "shaping up neatly" and "friends would be arriving soon." He had so many questions for Lupin, but he sent the owl back with only a scrap of a note saying he'd be ready.

The next morning, Harry awoke to the sounds of suitcases being lugged downstairs and packed onto the car. For a moment he thought that the Dursleys had taken it upon themselves to help him move out, but that was silly--his posessions wouldn't require more than one trip down the stairs. He found his uncle in the kitchen, scratching away at a note meant for him. Uncle Vernon merely glared when he saw Harry and resumed writing. Harry was quite curious now, enough to step outside the house for the first time in weeks and ask Aunt Petunia what was going on.

"It's none of your business, but we're taking a holiday at Marge's estate."

"And you're actually leaving me here alone?"

Aunt Petunia screwed up her face in distaste. "Your uncle and I see no reason to deny ourselves the pleasure of a vacation away from home just because you're here. And you'll be leaving in a few days anyway, isn't that so?"

Harry nodded. "I'm just surprised you didn't wait until I was gone. Not afraid I'll steal everything that's not nailed down and fence it all at St. Brutus's Home for Incurable Delinquents?"

Uncle Vernon had emerged from the house and stomped over to Harry. He was already turning purple around the edges. "Don't think we haven't taken measures, boy. For all your faults, though, we agreed that you've never shown any tendency to steal--other than the room and board you've sponged from us all these years, of course. These next two weeks were the only ones Marge won't be running off to dog shows, so we're taking advantage of the opportunity."

Harry very nearly commented that, if that were really the case, these two weeks were the worst possible time to visit. Such a jab was so easy, though, that there was no satisfaction to it--and besides, it would only prolong the Dursleys' departure if Uncle Vernon were goaded into a tantrum. Harry merely raised his head high and stared past his uncle at the hydrangeas, while Vernon went into a threatening monologue about what Harry could expect if anything went missing, or if reports came back about freaks and weirdos coming to visit him during their absence.

When Uncle Vernon appeared to be finished, Harry nodded coldly and turned to Aunt Petunia. She was vigorously fanning hot air out of the car before climbing in. There was a sudden tightness in his throat as they regarded one another for what he knew would be the last time. The golden morning sunlight, which normally imparted a warm, healthy glow to whatever it touched, did nothing to soften Petunia's scrawny, pale features. Yet this was his mother's sister. She knew Harry's mother longer and better than anyone alive; the tiny fraction of her memory that he had glimpsed had told him more of real value about his mother than everything he'd previously discovered. Harry knew she could tell him much more; it was all there, locked tightly behind that bland facade. He could sense the white-hot light of truth burning there in her mind, knew that he could open it again...

Then Aunt Petunia turned to Dudley, who was complaining about the delay. The connection broke and Harry understood with absolute clarity that this bitter shell of a woman would burn into madness if he were to release that fire within.

Harry spent his last few days at Privet Drive in an eerie state of disbelief. He'd never had full run of the house before and it was actually rather disconcerting. As a child, he would have loved an opportunity to check out Dudley's room, with its myriad gadgets, games, and entertainments, but now the very idea that anything his cousin owned could possibly interest him was ludicrous. He did look over Uncle Vernon's stationary bicycle--never used--and found to his dismay that he could only ride a short time before becoming winded. Harry had never relied much on his physical strength or stamina; magic was a matter of the mind and heart, and even Quidditch required more technique than strength (at least for the Seeker). But he had no wish to become "soft," and spent quite a bit of his last week pedaling the bike while watching all-news networks on the television.

Aunt Petunia had left the pantry stocked with precisely enough food to fix himself three meals a day up through July 30. Not being much of a cook, he settled mainly for sandwiches, although after riding the bike for two days, he toyed with the notion of summoning Kreacher to cook something more substantial. But this would not only require him to endure Kreacher's presence, it would surely bring on lectures from Hermione. Harry managed to prepare a big batch of spaghetti all by himself.

On July 30th, Harry packed up his trunk, brought it and Hedwig's cage downstairs, and spent most of the day pedaling faster than ever on the bicycle. It helped ease the knot in his stomach. This was his last day as an underage wizard. As of midnight, he could legally perform magic any time (within the laws regarding Muggle secrecy, of course). He could Apparate if he wished. He could hop on his broom any time he felt like flying! The minutes turned to hours as he pedaled hard, going nowhere.

Mrs. Figg knocked on the screen door that evening, carrying a small white cake, with a Gryffindor lion that resembled something by Picasso drawn in icing on the top. "Happy Birthday, Harry!" she squealed as she entered.

Harry smiled wryly. "That's tomorrow, Mrs. Figg."

"Oh, I know, me luv, believe me, but something tells me I won't see you to say it tomorrow," she said with a wink. "Seventeen! Just imagine! I reckon you'll be off on your broom at the stroke of midnight, they all seem to do that."

Harry's smile widened. "Why, what a great idea you've given me, Mrs. Figg!" She responded with a mock glare and waggled a finger at him.

She bustled down the hall to the kitchen and set the cake in the middle of the kitchen table, chattering all the way about nothing in particular. Once settled at the table with tea, she regarded Harry fondly. "Just look at you. To think you were once knee-high to a cricket. Oh, Harry. Now you're a fine young man." Her eyes sparkled warmly as Harry held her gaze and fumbled for something to say.

Without warning, it happened again. One minute, he was simply sitting with Mrs Figg; the next, he was buried under an avalanche of Mrs. Figg. Fortunately she was busy reminiscing about Baby Harry, so the thoughts flooding him were not nearly as personal as those from Aunt Petunia. He watched himself suffering abuses at Dudley's hands through her eyes, some of which he had completely forgotten, others that he could still recall from his own perspective. The latter kept combining themselves in a rather uncomfortable way, giving him a sensation of vertigo. He felt her outrage at the way the Dursleys treated him. He wrote letters with her hand to Albus Dumbledore, begging him to find a better home for that poor child; he read the responses, always asking her to trust him, even though it was painful.

When the tide ebbed and Harry's eyes would focus again, he saw that Mrs. Figg was staring at him with a horrified expression.

"What did you to me?" she said weakly.

"Mrs. Figg, I'm so sorry! It's just started happening lately, I don't even know what it is! No, that's not true, it's Legilimency, but I don't know why it's happening, I'm not trying to do it, I swear!" Harry's voice was panicky, pleading; he was stunned that she had been aware of what happened. He felt deeply ashamed for violating her privacy, even though he hadn't done it on purpose.

She choked back a sob but gestured to Harry to stay in his seat. After a moment, she composed herself and said, shakily, "I've heard of Legilimency, Harry, but I've never seen it before...Merlin's ghost, child, that's just been 'happening' and no one's had anything to say about it?"

Harry slumped in his chair. "It just happened once, with Aunt Petunia," he groaned. "She didn't seem to know anything was going on."

"Your aunt...I see," said Mrs. Figg. "Well, maybe Muggles can't feel it, or something like that."

"That's what I figured. But I guess it's different for Squibs."

"Must be, dear," she said, her voice nearly back to normal. "I know wizards are aware of it; maybe I've got a little bit of magic in me yet."

Harry recalled the helplessness and rage he felt in Snape's office, as that hated man had explored freely in his mind while Harry had no idea how to stop him. "It's been done to me. I know how it feels and I didn't like it. Please, please believe me, that I didn't do it on purpose."

She managed a wan smile. "I do believe you, Harry. I've seen you wallop that brat Dudley every now and then over the years, and I know you didn't mean to use magic--you didn't even know you had it in you!"

Harry remembered setting that snake free at the zoo, before he'd ever heard of Hogwarts; he hadn't known how he'd done it. He regarded Mrs. Figg carefully. She looked a bit shaken, but not angry; she really had forgiven him.

"I walloped Dudley? Really??" he asked as playfully as he could manage. Mrs. Figg laughed and reached across the table to pat his hand. "Oh, you certainly did, child, why there was one time..."

The two of them chatted at the table until well into evening. As the dinner hour neared, Mrs. Figg offered to make supper, and Harry gladly accepted. She produced an unexpectedly tasty chicken in sauce from the few remaining ingredients in his aunt's fridge (though she had to raid the freezer too). As they cleared the table, she asked Harry whether the clocks had the correct time.

"They should. Why?"

"Well, goodness. I wasn't supposed to tell you, but now I'm getting worried. There were...plans tonight, Harry...a little birthday gathering. They said they'd bring dinner. I was only supposed to make the cake. I rather thought they'd be here by now...long before now, to be honest."

Harry felt his throat tighten. Lupin had said that people would be coming for him, too. "I'm going to check something," he said, and began rummaging through his trunk for his cell phone.

Hermione answered his call right away. "All's quiet as far as I know," she said. "I heard there was supposed to be a small group coming to escort you. Hang on, I'll check on things right now."

Harry heard a clunk as she set the phone down. Hermione spoke in the distance, barely audible, followed by a woman's voice, then quick footfalls on a wooden floor. Some crunching sounds, a moment of quiet, then Hermione abruptly picked up the phone and spoke.

"Okay, Harry, I had my parents' fireplace hooked into the Floo Network. Technically speaking, I'm not supposed to use it for outgoing calls, but I think this constitutes an emergency!" she said. Harry heard a whooshing noise; she must have added the Floo Powder to the flames. "Number 12, Grimmauld Place," she whispered. Harry could hear the crackle of kindling; she must have brought the phone right into the fireplace with her. They waited a moment, and presently Harry heard Tonks answering.

"Herms! What're you doing in the fire? This isn't the best time."

"Harry just told me no one's arrived there yet."

Tonks' voice was dubious. "He did? Well, yes, that's right, we're having a bit of trouble. Three people tried to Apparate into his backyard and they all Splinched. We flagged down the Knight Bus, but it wouldn't go within a mile of his house, it just stopped running. Moody was on it. He said there's wild magic in the air (no one's sure exactly what the heck he meant by that), but he didn't think there was a problem. Said it was something to do with the protective spell coming to an end; it was a pretty big piece of work and it's collapsing all on its own, so it's wreaking some havoc. He reckons we can Apparate once it's gone at midnight. A couple of people are just now suiting up in Muggle clothes--we'll get as close as we can by magic, and just walk the rest of the way. Including me, which is why I have to go. So don't worry, Herm, we're on the job, OK?"

"Ok, thanks, see ya soon," said Hermione, and the sounds of the fire stopped abruptly. "Did you hear that, Harry?"

"Yeah," he said. "Weird. I'll be glad when this is over."

"We all will, but it--" A burst of static cut off Hermione's voice. Harry strained to make out a few fragments of words, then the phone quit entirely. He felt a brief surge of panic, but reassured himself that "wild magic" would probably interfere with cell phones as well as the Knight Bus. Just to test this theory, he turned on the TV and was relieved to see that it had no reception whatsoever.

Within a half hour, Tonks arrived with Kingsley Shacklebolt, and Harry was a little relieved that they'd been delayed till after dark. Tonks, bouncing up the walk with her magenta hair, and an enormous black man wearing a pirate earring, pretty much spanned the Dursleys' definition of "freaks and weirdos." They had just settled into the living room, when all the lights in the house went out.

Harry heard two sets of feet hit the floor and immediately felt both Aurors at his sides. Shacklebolt's hand was on his shoulder, pushing him down low in his chair. All three jumped at a clicking sound from across the room. A flame illuminated Mrs. Figg's face; she was calmly holding a Zippo lighter and peering out the window.

"Oh, dear, the whole block is out..." she said, turning back from the window, but she fell silent with a shocked expression at the sight of three very serious faces and three wands aimed at her. "Good heavens, don't point those at me!"

"Douse that flame!" ordered Tonks, and Mrs. Figg obliged right away. They all scanned the room, the house, the yard, straining to hear any sound of intruders. Nothing. Candles began to appear in the windows of other houses, and after a few minutes, Harry began to feel a bit silly.

"Um, I think it's just a power failure."

"Shhh!" hissed one of the Aurors; Harry could not tell which. A few more minutes dragged by in silence. The lights flickered on once, but dimmed and went out again.

It dawned on Harry that the words "power failure" had no meaning in the Wizarding world, so he tried again. "Look, Muggles use this stuff called electricity to make light. Sometimes it stops working. Other Muggle things stopped working earlier. I really think this is just more wild magic."

Now that their eyes had adjusted to the darkness, he could see the Aurors glance at one another, and at him. Shacklebolt relaxed somewhat and released Harry's shoulder, but Tonks suddenly stepped away from him and pointed her wand in his face.

"Who said anything about wild magic, Harry?"

Harry gaped in shock, but put the pieces together quickly. "Calm down! It's me! Hermione and I were on the phone when she talked to you. Just before you came here."

"The foam..." Tonks said.

"Phone," piped up Mrs. Figg. "It's sort of like Floo powder for Muggles."

Tonks stood her ground for a few more seconds, then dropped her wand. " have got to knock it off with the surprises. Everyone's on edge; it's wands first, ask questions later." She paused a moment. "Sorry I almost broke you in two."

Harry gulped. "No problem." He wasn't sure if she was joking or not, but he had no doubt she could do it.

The four of them sat on the floor of the darkened house (Shacklebolt wanted them out of line of sight from the window) and munched on the cake Mrs. Figg had made. Harry wanted to talk, to ask questions, but as the Aurors were distracted by every little sound, he soon gave up. Besides, it was almost midnight, and he was getting a bit anxious himself at what might happen.

"I'm going to take your belongings outside, Harry," said Shacklebolt. "I'm getting a feeling...we may need to get out in a hurry." Harry started to stand, but Shacklebolt waved him down. "You stay put, I'll get them." As he hauled the trunk and Hedwig's cage through the door, Tonks made a face at his back and smirked at Harry. "Fancies he's a Seer now, eh?"

Harry grinned, but he was getting downright nervous himself. He was noticing an awful lot of little sounds himself, surely more than the usual number. He glanced at his watch, discovering for the millionth time that he no longer wore it because it had broken years ago. It occurred to him that with the power out, he had no way to know when midnight arrived.

"Tonks, this is silly. What difference is five minutes going to make? Let's just go."

"Five minutes is the difference between underage sorcery and adult. You still have enemies in the Ministry, Harry. Petty-minded people like Umbridge who can hold grudges like you wouldn't believe. They'd never confront you now, especially if it happened when we were under attack, but they'd file it away for later. Why hand them free ammunition? Though I do wish we'd just smuggled you out hours ago, the waiting is enough to--"

They both jolted as a very low, creaking groan filled the air, seemingly coming from every part of the house at once. Nothing moved, nothing looked different, but there was no mistaking the sound of stress deep within the wood and nails. Tonks and Harry glanced at each other and each knew exactly what the other was thinking. They bolted to the front door, yanking Mrs. Figg along in mid-stride.

Shacklebolt was already leaping onto the porch; he had to veer awkwardly against the wall to keep from plowing into them. It was bright outside, as if the streetlamps were still working, but Harry immediately saw that the light was confined only to his yard. In fact, it was getting brighter as he sprinted down the sidewalk. He realized that the edge of the light was coming toward him like a glowing wall. He didn't know if it was dangerous or not, but it was too late to worry about it; the four of them flew into it at top speed. Harry felt his hair blow back as though he'd walked in front of a fan, but nothing worse.

As soon as he hit the pavement, Harry whirled around to see what was happening. The wall of light was actually a dome, arching over the house. Swirls and streaks of red and orange roiled and churned in a single layer, resembling some sort of laser show. It was shrinking; Harry could see the edge creeping across the lawn, the blades of grass rippling inward as it passed. Harry heard Shacklebolt mutter an incantation behind him, followed by a small pop; clear of the "wild magic," he'd been able to cast a spell to transport Harry's trunk.

The dome slipped smoothly through the walls of the house, blazing out through the windows. The light grew brighter as the surface became more concentrated. The lower edge of the dome began to curve inward; by the time it had crossed the living room, it had become an extremely bright sphere. The sphere collapsed faster and faster into its center, which lay inside Harry's little cupboard under the stairs. It slipped out of view behind the cupboard door, though a few rays of light beamed from around the door frame and the joints of the steps.

Then it was gone. For an instant, there was not a sound to be heard, not even a cricket.

It started in the cupboard. Light began to shine from within again, not the warm red of the sphere, but a poisonous green. The entire staircase burst into flames. A second green light streamed from Harry's bedroom window, followed quickly by flames. Harry would have kept watching from the curb, but suddenly found himself being hurtled across the street. Shacklebolt had scooped Harry and Mrs. Figg into his massive arms and was charging away from Number Four at top speed, Tonks right on his heels. They dove behind a neighbor's car. As soon as Shacklebolt loosened his grip, Harry popped his head up to watch through the windows.

The house was now ablaze with green lights. The window of his bedroom exploded inward, followed quickly by the rest of the exterior wall. The debris mainly flew onto his bed; jagged boards and shards of glass jabbed into the mattress. Glowing snakes slithered through the lawn, setting the grass afire in their wake, and disappeared into the foundations. What looked like a flock of luminous swifts dived down the chimney and blasted it apart, the bricks flying into the house at terrible speeds and smashing through walls, floors, and ceilings. The stairs collapsed and Harry could see that more green and yellow-green lights were bursting open where his cupboard used to be. Some were accelerating the flames that were already roaring, while others seemed to sputter out, as though the spell were so old or feebly cast that it had become a dud.

Harry felt Hedwig land on his shoulder very delicately, but the spectacle was too fascinating to tear his eyes away. The neighbors began to pour into the street to watch the show. Apparently none had the presence of mind to call the fire department, not that it would have mattered. Harry's stomach clenched as he realized that if it weren't for Aunt Marge's estate, there would be nothing left of the Dursleys either. Hoo, boy, he thought. They're going to hit the roof...if they still had one.

He watched, mesmerized, until nothing remained of Number Four but a pile of rubble, and the last of the green lights flickered and died, finding nothing left to ignite. But when Harry finally turned away, he met an even more startling scene: his three companions were staring at him, with incredulous expressions that seemed more apropos of the destruction across the street than himself. His brows flew up, then furrowed. "What?" he said, throwing his hands wide.

None of them spoke, but Shacklebolt slowly pointed at the bird on Harry's shoulder. Hedwig must be nibbling on something particularly vile to provoke this sort of reaction! Harry stretched his neck away from his shoulder even as he turned to look.

The bird resting on his shoulder was not Hedwig. It was not, technically speaking, even a bird.

Harry was looking into the flaming eyes of a phoenix.

Chapter 3: Chapter 3: Flights of Fancy
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In the space of a heartbeat, Harry adopted the same stunned expression as the others.

"F-Fawkes? How are you, fella?" Harry hoped it was Fawkes, at any rate. He couldn't come up with a better explanation for the sudden appearance of a huge, red bird on his shoulder. He raised a tentative hand to ruffle Fawkes' feathers, and instantly wished he hadn't. This was no mere pet, but a fully realized magical entity--he might as well have greeted Tonks or Shacklebolt by skritching them behind the ears. But Fawkes didn't seem to mind; he even stretched his long neck to bonk his head against Harry's forehead, briskly rubbing it with the side of his bill.

Tonks found her voice at last. "Wow. It's, ah, nice to have you back, Fawkes. We've all wondered where you've been." Fawkes straightened himself upright again and tipped his head at the two Aurors with a quiet chirp. Then he turned his attention back to Harry, peering at him with glowing eyes and trilling a beautiful glissando that ended on a high note, like a human being might end a question.

Harry knew Fawkes was trying to communicate, and he wished his newfound Legilimency would kick in again, but all he could do was stare and wonder. Sirens were beginning to wail in the distance, growing closer, and Harry knew that once the police arrived, there would be a lot of uncomfortable questions that he would be expected to answer. Already the neighbors were interrupting their gawking to express their opinions on what had happened, and Harry could hear his name being muttered all around him.

"Yeah," Harry said awkwardly, "it's great to see you...but we really need to get going. Um, I'm going to need to Apparate now...if you don't mind." Fawkes, however, showed no intention of surrendering his current perch, and although Harry didn't think it would be very polite to just disappear out from under the phoenix, he didn't know if it was even possible to simply bring Fawkes along for the ride--like a house elf, he had his own form of Apparating that might not work at all with human sorcery. Harry raised his wand and pointed to it hopefully, but Fawkes continued gazing at him, serene and unperturbable. Harry turned to the others with a pleading look.

"Um..." said Tonks, "I, uh, you have any ideas?" She glanced at Shacklebolt, who folded his arms with a look of deep concentration.

"I don't know," he said finally, "but I think we can assume Fawkes knows exactly what's going on. Perhaps he doesn't want Harry to Apparate?" Fawkes bobbed his head, gripped Harry's shoulder tightly for a brief instant, then leaned forward to spread his beautiful wings and launch into a graceful glide. He landed a few feet away, hopped around to face them again, and quickly flapped his wings three times, just enough to gain a bit of height as he lifted something off the ground.

"My Firebolt!" said Harry. "You want me to fly?" Fawkes trilled softly. Harry looked quizzically at the Aurors. "Should I?"

Shacklebolt frowned. "We don't have brooms here, we couldn't follow you." Fawkes chirped and bobbed his head enthusiastically. "You don't want us to follow him?" Another chirp. "I would say Fawkes has something in mind, Harry. Well, we are the Order of the Phoenix, after all. I say go with him." Tonks nodded in agreement.

"Right, then," said Harry, with unconcealed glee, "we'll meet you at Headquarters." He took two steps toward his broom, then Fawkes beat his wings mightily and flipped it straight into Harry's hands. Harry leapt up to mount the broom as he caught it, taking flight in the same movement as though never to set foot on the soil of Privet Drive again.

The sirens, the gossip, and the crackling of the last few timbers of Number Four fell away as Harry climbed steeply into the sky at top speed, the cool night air whistling in his ears and blowing his hair out of his eyes for a perfect view of the sliver of moon over the dark landscape. The power was still out below him, though as Harry gained altitude, he could see the far-off edge of the blackout, a wide circle centered on his former home. It was far too dark for any Muggle to see him launch, and soon he would be much too high to spot, even where the lights were working. After weeks of captivity, he was free, lawless, untouchable.

But not alone. He heard the barest whispering rustle at his side, and, without looking, knew that Fawkes was with him, powerful red wings scooping the air, forcing it to aid him in defiance of gravity. They climbed higher and higher, until the heavy summer air became cool and thin, and all of London sprawled below them. Harry eased his weight toward his shoulders, tipping the nose of the broom downward so he leveled out in a graceful arc. Fawkes settled into a glide alongside Harry, his wings open to their full span. They regarded one another silently, each exhilirated with the joy of flight, each delighted to have a like-minded companion.

Fawkes suddenly tipped himself to the left, the yaw bringing him into a gradual turn, and Harry followed. Fawkes continued to tip, his wings losing lift as they became more vertical, and he dropped away sharply into a tight spiraling descent. Harry followed, "threading the needle" by plummeting through the center of the spiral, though not quite in a free fall; by slowing ever so slightly, he kept level with Fawkes, creating the illusion that the phoenix was simply circling him, wings motionless.

Fawkes leveled off to take advantage of a thermal updraft, and Harry quickly pulled out of the dive to watch him climb again, his wings open and still, letting the air push him effortlessly upward. Harry could feel the thermal, but his broom was powered by magic, not physics, and did not respond to aerodynamic forces the way Fawkes did. Harry wrapped his knees and ankles tightly around his broom and allowed himself to roll beneath it as he climbed, settling into an arc just above Fawkes; dangling under the broom, Harry's back gently brushed Fawkes's. Harry could feel the muscles responding to variations in the air current, different pinion feathers stretching and shrinking back to achieve the most lift. Harry let his head rest on the base of Fawkes' neck and closed his eyes, allowing the phoenix to guide their flight. He felt their climb grow sluggish, as the thermal spent itself, and when Fawkes finally beat his wings, Harry's eyes flew open in awe at their strength and control. He righted himself in order to keep up, but he wished he could spend the rest of the night flying back-to-back with Fawkes, studying his mastery of the air.

The two of them careened through the night for hours, absorbed in their mutual love of flight. But finally Harry chanced to look down and realized that not only had persons and cars shrunken to specks and disappeared, but trees and even whole buildings were indiscernable. To his surprise, he also noticed that he was breathing very hard. Harry halted with the realization that he was dangerously high, the air too thin to supply the oxygen he required. Yet he paused there a moment to take in the view of the land below, the bright interior of the city, the thin black river snaking through it. Fawkes had kept climbing, but presently he fluttered back down and landed on Harry's broomstick as though admiring the view as well.

"I think...I descend...a bit," panted Harry, feeling a bit sheepish that he had to spoil the fun over something as mundane as breathing. He peered at Fawkes over his glasses, wondering if Fawkes was disappointed and, if so, would it show in any way that Harry could understand, when it happened for the second time that day. Fawkes met Harry's gaze, and that indescribable connection formed.

Harry could barely grasp what was pouring into his mind. Fawkes was a being without language, and so ancient that his memories didn't just tumble out, they steamrolled. It was like drinking from a fire hose, centuries of knowledge pouring into his mind so fast and so alien that Harry couldn't even begin to decipher it. He soon stopped trying, and just let them flow through him. It was similar to listening to a symphony--he could feel the passion being conveyed, even though he couldn't recognize a single specific "note."

When the link began to disintegrate, Harry realized he was falling. His broomstick was gone, and he and Fawkes were plummeting through the air together; the phoenix had wrapped his wings around Harry's head and drawn him in tight to his feathery chest. Many thoughts flashed through Harry's mind at once; that the ground was much closer than it had been the last time he'd seen it, and was coming closer at a remarkable speed; that he really ought to be frightened (or at least disconcerted) by the fact that he could not hope to survive this fall; that he had absolute confidence that none of it mattered, that he was safer now than he had ever been, even when he was encased in the unseen magic that had broken the Avada curse.

Fawkes twisted his neck down between his folded wings to warble at Harry one more time, then burst into flames.

It would not be fully correct to say that Harry awoke in the courtyard of number twelve, Grimmauld Place, because he had not been asleep or unconscious. But as he blinked and took in the familiar structure, the dewy grass, he felt as though his whole life had been a bit like a daydream up till now, and he had just now snapped up, fully alert. The flames had scorched his clothes to dust as he fell, yet had not singed so much as a single hair. He had landed at a speed that should have crushed him to jelly, yet he was not only alive, he felt no pain. Harry was utterly unconcerned about Fawkes; he knew that the phoenix was nearby, unharmed, and that he would soon understand all of what just happened. For a moment, Harry did nothing but breathe, deeply at peace with himself and the world, a veritable Buddha among wizards.

Then an unknown voice spoke very softly from a corner of the courtyard. "Hello, falling star. Do you still own your heart?" Strange words, in a strange accent that he couldn't place. Harry sat up, discovering the dark outline of a witch in the wan light of the crescent moon. The Zen moment abruptly dissipated as Harry registered the fact that he was stretched out stark naked in the middle of Order Headquarters, and a stranger, a woman, was eyeing him from the shadows with intense curiosity.

The woman laughed. "I guess so. Hee hee! Perhaps you'd like a fig leaf?"

Harry was fervently glad to see his Firebolt wafting down to him like a feather, and he pulled it into his lap as soon as it was within reach, glaring angrily at the witch, still too nonplussed to speak. He briefly wondered if it was Luna Lovegood; this was exactly the kind of off-the-wall greeting he'd expect from her, but the voice and accent were completely wrong. Luna always sounded like she might float off in a strong wind, but this one was quite edgy, a no-nonsense, no-quarter kind of voice.

The witch muttered an unintelligible spell, and a brief light flickered from her wand. Harry was very surprised to see that she was not looking at him at all; her back was turned, it had been the whole time. He heard the rustle of fabric falling into a heap as the wandlight went out; she had conjured a robe or blanket, he couldn't tell which. "We'll meet again, in the light," she said very quietly, and slipped into the house before he could answer.

Harry stared after her until the door clicked shut, then slunk self-consciously over to what turned out to be a blanket. He wrapped himself in it, biting his lip gently with regret that had assumed the worst of this stranger, who had been in the process of doing him a rather kind favor. Still, she spoke so strangely, how could he have guessed what she was up to? He muttered under his breath, "Okay, that was one spooky witch."

Harry reckoned that people were probably waiting up for him in the kitchen, but he wished he could find his trunk and put some clothes on before making his entrance. He had no idea where Shacklebolt had sent his luggage, and he decided that the only thing worse than walking into a kitchen full of people while wearing nothing but a blanket, would be waking up some unsuspecting soul by barging into their bedroom in the middle of the night while wearing nothing but a blanket.

Tonks, Shacklebolt, Lupin, and several other witches and wizards had been sitting around the long table in the basement kitchen, looking anything but relaxed as they sipped from various bottles and cups. At least one of them was glancing at the clock at any given moment. Harry didn't even have time to set foot on the stairs before the nearest people saw him, and relieved cries of "Harry!" "He's here!" "You made it!" rippled around the table. Tonks bolted up the stairs and yanked him into a hug so tight that she crushed the air right out of his chest. "Cor, Harry, I've been worried sick, it'd be my neck on the block if you didn't turn up." She let him go and gave him a peck on the cheek, but he was too busy catching his breath even to notice.

"It's okay, everything's fine, no worries," Harry mumbled to the panoply of relieved faces filling the stairwell. Tonks, the closest, no longer looked anxious, however, but surprised.

"Harry...are you not wearing any clothes?" she asked, in a tone that suggested he was in major trouble if he had stopped to take a leisurely bath before letting them know he'd arrived.

He shrugged, feeling ridiculous for about the millionth time that night. "It's a long story, but no." Her eyes bugged out at him for an instant, then her smile returned and she pulled him down the stairs.

Harry awoke the next morning feeling a bit foggy; he'd stayed up almost until dawn recounting the night's events to everyone in the kitchen. He was in the same bedroom he'd shared with Ron on other occasions, but he was alone this time, except for Hedwig, who was glaring at him. "What?" he snapped, pulling some clothes out of his trunk. He was glad he didn't have any letters to send; she looked as though she would bite his finger off at the next opportunity. "Come on, now!" he said. "You've got water, food...don't tell me you're jealous because I flew here and you didn't?" She squawked loudly and turned her back; Harry rolled his eyes and got dressed.

He found Lupin and an unknown wizard in the kitchen. "Good morning, Harry--again!" smiled Lupin over his toast. "Join us! This is Lachlan Arukangi, he's from New Zealand!"

"Call me Lachlan," said the wizard, offering his hand. "A pleasure to meet you, Potter!"

"It's Harry." He was starving, so he gave Lachlan a drive-by handshake on his way to the stove, where he ladled himself some porridge.

Lupin patted the next chair, and Harry gladly sat beside him. "Everyone's so excited by what happened last night. Hagrid only had time to say how wonderful it is that Fawkes chose you before he was off this morning."

"Off?" blurted Harry around a big spoonful.

"To America. He wanted to see you before he left, but they were really in a hurry; he's trying to make it back before the wedding."

Harry was torn between asking who Lachlan was, what "Fawkes chose you" meant, why Hagrid was going to America, and who "they" were. At the moment, though, his stomach won the battle; he was ravenous after flying around all night.

Three bowls later, Harry felt as though he had a lead weight in his belly. He waited for the other two wizards to come to a break in their conversation, gazing at Lupin expectantly. His former professor sighed with a weary smile. "I suppose you're ready for a debriefing, Harry?"

Harry gave a single nod and said, "The drawing room?" Lupin nodded in return, patted Lachlan on the shoulder, refilled his coffee mug, and headed up the stairs without a word.

The drawing room was bright and airy, except for the corner in which the Black family tapestry hung; that part of the room still maintained a dreary, tomblike darkness. They both settled into the ancient armchairs, which had recently been restuffed and reupholstered in Gryffindor red. Harry had so many questions, he didn't know where to begin.

"I hope you don't mind that we've taken some liberties with your new home, Harry," said Lupin, indicating the chairs and the room as a whole.

Harry took a deep breath as he processed that comment; he still hadn't wrapped his head around the concept that this house belonged to him. "No, no, I'm glad you have. Thank you."

They regarded one another for a moment, until Lupin finally broke into a crooked grin. "It's hard to know where to start, isn't it?"

Harry blinked, grinning as well. "Start with what you've been doing besides housework."

"That narrows it down," Lupin smirked. "All right. You left after the funeral. We sent people out to look for Snape and Malfoy. Nothing. We expected no less. Snape's house in London had been emptied; the Malfoy manor was abandoned, apparently in a hurry. Narcissa left a lot of expensive things behind. We assume they're hiding out at some other Death Eater's home, though they could be with You-Know-Who himself."

"And do we know where he is?"

Lupin averted his eyes. "No. We've scoured his old haunting grounds, so to speak. We can't find him in Albania, France, Morocco, or Brazil. The Muggle governments are helping with the search; they've got a camera in a 'saddle of light' or something like that, it gallops high above the world and can take a picture of anything, anywhere--but only if it knows where to look. We'll be able to read the parchment on his nightstand--after we find him," he grumbled ruefully. "Unfortunately, it's finding him that's the trick."

Harry nodded. "We'll find him. What about the Horcruces?"

"I see you've been talking to Miss Granger," said Lupin, grinning. "Well, as you know, Dumbledore suspected there would be six. He destroyed the Gaunt heirloom ring. You had already found the diary. Slytherin's pendant is still a mystery, it may or may not be destroyed. A team of Aurors is pinpointing Helga Hufflepuff's gold cup, and we have people poring meticulously through 700 years' worth of wills, receipts, and such, trying to locate relics from Gryffindor or Ravenclaw. The only one of Gryffindor's that we know of right now is the sword in the Headmaster's office, and it's no Horcrux."

Lupin sighed. "This is the great mystery of our time. Everyone's uncomfortable with the idea that he's used two items from Slytherin, but only one from the rest of the Houses. Of course he'd have more than one from within his family, but then why the diary? Why not a third Slytherin relic? It would be more balanced to have three of Slytherin's and three others; that's just the kind of detail he would attend to. We must be missing something.

"And of course, not everyone believes he's sticking with House relics at all. Some people suspect there's one in that snake of his, but most agree it would be...uncharacteristic of him to use an animal, even a fairly long-lived one like a snake. Particularly since he sends her out on missions into our territory--he'd be foolish to risk a fragment of his soul by sending it into the Ministry of Magic to attack Arthur Weasley, for example. Others think he's used some piece of junk, you know, something so worthless that no one would ever think to pick it up--like a Portkey. Hiding in plain sight. The diary certainly fit that kind of mold. But I think he's far too arrogant to house his soul in a bit of rubbish."

"No, he can't," said Harry. "It has to be something that his followers can find right away if he needs it. He can't take the chance that his last bit of soul ends up at the bottom of a Muggle landfill."

"Exactly. He has followers out there keeping them for him. The Order and the Ministry are interrogating people around the world, but it's just as bad as that Muggle camera--millions of people to talk to, but only a handful know the answer. We're hoping to tip the odds in our favor: Horace Slughorn has been preparing Felix Felicis, but the stuff's a nightmare to brew and then it has to age for seven weeks. The first batch is just about ready to open."

Harry nodded; Slughorn had given him a vial of that potion less than a year earlier. "It'll help them ask all the right questions, for sure, but the luck will be finding the right person to interrogate. You should start with a map, maybe have ten people throw darts at it for a while, see where most of them land, look there first."

Lupin gaped at him. "Harry...I don't know what darts are, but I think you're onto something. Maybe we should stop searching for Voldemort's fortress, and use the Felix luck to discover it!" He patted down his robe for a quill and a scrap of parchment and scribbled himself a note furiously, then looked up in embarassment. "Sorry, Harry, I have a lot on my mind lately."

"It all fell to you when Dumbledore died."

Lupin's head dropped forward. "And I'm no Albus Dumbledore," he said mournfully.

Harry gazed at him sadly. "Neither am I. But we'll manage somehow." He wished he could think of something more comforting; Lupin looked as though the weight of the world was upon him, and in some ways, it was.

Lupin cleared his throat. "Quite right, Harry, no looking back. Where were we?"

"Finding the Horcruces."

"Yes, yes. There are two main schools of thought over the whole issue. Some believe we should eliminate as many of them as we can, prior to launching any full-scale attack on Voldemort. No such attack has ever worked, after all--his prior defeat was not achieved by conventional sorcery, as you well know. It seems reasonable to assume that he has protected his new...incarnation as well or better than before. The Ministry has studied your description of the way he was regenerated, and, as usual, he picked an excellent spell; they say we should consider his power fully restored. Some idiot in the Department of Mysteries actually suggested we use the same spell to revive Dumbledore; fortunately, the entire Auror division squashed that idea--the last thing we need is some Dark caricature of Dumbledore on the loose.

"It makes sense on several fronts to weaken him in every way possible before attacking, but the trouble is, no one's certain that destroying the Horcruces will actually affect him. If his soul has been truly cleaved, then destroying a fragment may not be any more effective than, say, grinding up a single shard of a broken dish. The remaining pieces would be neither more nor less strong. Which is the other argument--that we should focus our efforts on Voldemort's physical being, and once that's gone, we make a concerted effort to wipe out the Horcruces. We're sure to suffer some losses, no matter which front we take on first--that is, no matter what we do to weaken the enemy, we will also become weaker. It's impossible to say whether our gains would outweigh our losses. So from that perspective, we ought to strike as hard and fast as we can at the most difficult target, take care of the easier stuff afterward."

"And which side are you on?" asked Harry.

Lupin ran a hand through his unkempt hair. "They both have good points. I think...that is, I'm inclined to focus on the Horcruces. They kept him linked to this world the last time he was defeated, and they'll do it again. And he surely has no intention of wandering the wilderness for years without a body a second time. That was probably his first step after he incarnated, to make sure he'd have a new body right away if this one was killed. He hasn't come this far by repeating his mistakes."

Harry gazed toward the Black family tapestry for a moment, idly twirling a loose string on his robe. "Yeah, he's arrogant, but not to the point of carelessness. He analyzes it when things go wrong and makes changes. We need to do the exact same thing. The Horcruces allowed him to restore himself last time. We can't repeat that mistake."

Lupin let his head fall back into the chair, breathing deeply. He even stretched his hands along the armrests, looking for a moment like an ordinary man discussing social matters over cognac at an exclusive club. When he regarded Harry again, his look of relief was almost painful to see.

"So let me guess," Harry said drily, "because you're all for the Horcrux approach, the Ministry is dead set on the direct attack on Voldemort." It wasn't even a question; Harry knew how the game was played by now.

"Well, it's not quite that blatant," said Lupin diplomatically, "but yes, that seems to be the prevailing mood at the Ministry." They both rolled their eyes and smiled grimly.

"Then our path is perfectly clear. Good!" Harry shifted his chair slightly. "Tell me about our allies. Have we heard more from the giants?"

"Hagrid has been working on that. Now that Grawp has really started to communicate, he's confirming what Dumbledore guessed--that many giants are unhappy about their living conditions, the strict caste system, and so on, and have been looking for an opportunity to break their families out of the cycle. Voldemort's promised them the world, of course, but only the most grandiose are foolish enough to believe him. The rest can smell a rat; they expect to be wiped out like the other 'impure races', once Voldemort is through with them. Of course, their clan will wipe them out right now if they don't obey the Gurg, so they're in rather a tight spot.

"Persuading them to fight Voldemort is the least of our worries. The immediate issue is that they first need help to escape their clans, which means they also need a new place to live. And before that, we have to gain their trust. You know the general prejudice against giants in the Wizard community; we'd have to start with our own people, convince them that they should be nice to giants." Lupin shook his head, eyes downcast. "If we had a hundred years, maybe..."

Harry sighed. "Well, at least we know what they need, and want. We just have to figure out how to give it to them."

"I understand that's why Hagrid's off to America. To be honest, I've left that matter up to he and Ondossi; I don't know all the details."


Lupin grinned. "That's the good news, Harry, I'm getting to that! Every wizard community in the world was shaken up by the news of Dumbledore's murder. Even the ones who are too young or far away to really remember Voldemort's first reign, they had their illusions of safety shattered that day. Wizard soldiers have been coming from every corner of the world to join the Order; it's truly Dumbledore's Army now! Lachlan, you met at breakfast, is the headmaster of the New Zealand Academy of Magic. He has a network of Maori wizards searching the entire South Pacific for Voldemort. Hayao Yamada from Japan, he's a master of Defense Against the Dark Arts, probably the finest in the world after Dumbledore. There's a bloke from Namibia, he's a Bushman from the Kalahari Desert; wait till you hear him talk, I still can't say his name, they have whole new sounds in their language!"

Lupin became so animated while describing these new allies that Harry felt guilty for interrupting, but he wanted to know just whom had been entrusted with Hagrid's company. Hagrid wasn't supposed to use magic (though he obviously had a wand hidden inside that absurd pink brollie), and Harry did not like the idea of his friend gallivanting across the ocean with some stranger. "That's all great, but who's Ondossi?"

"Of course, sorry, Harry. Tura Ondossi is...well, she's from Northport, which is the largest Wizard city in America. She actually came here at Dumbledore's request--he had left instructions regarding the management of Hogwarts if...anything happened to him. He appointed her to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts."

Harry frowned. "Why not the Japanese guy?"

"I don't know Dumbledore's reasons, but I would much prefer to have him fighting than teaching at this point. He's not just good at spells, he's a tactician and a natural leader. Tura, on the other hand, is..." Lupin paused, looking up, as though hoping the right adjective would float into view. He opened his mouth twice, but rejected whatever he had in mind; he finally settled on "...spooky."

"Yeah? I think I met her. Last night, in the courtyard when I landed, there was a witch out there, she...talked funny."

Lupin smirked. "Like you didn't have to actually say anything to be part of the conversation?" Harry nodded. "That was her. A bit hard to describe, isn't it?"

" 'Spooky' works," said Harry. "Is she an actual Seer, then?"

"No, no, spookier than that," winked Lupin. "She's a Legilimagus. And, if recent rumors are correct, so are you, Harry."

Chapter 4: Chapter 4: Many Meetings
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Before Harry could ask what that meant, the door to the drawing room burst open so violently that it smashed into the wall, the doorknob leaving a dent in the plaster. It very nearly rebounded shut again on Tonks, who stood framed in the doorway with an enormous grin; today her hair was candy-apple red, and she wore lipstick to match.

"Happy Birthday, Harry!" she shouted, crossing nearly the whole length of the room in one leap to plant a sticky kiss on his cheek, which Harry was certain had left a red imprint that would last all day. Lupin's eyes lit up as she launched to his side and left her mark on him as well. "Come on, you two, you can spare a bit of time for fun! Let's celebrate!"

Lupin tried to pull her into his lap, though it might have been easier to harness a moth; she had no intention of settling quietly into a chair. "No! Bad dog!" she scolded, leering, as she wriggled away. "Harry's got a birthday and a wedding: we're going shopping!"

Lupin closed his eyes and shook his head. "Adora..." He glanced helplessly at Harry, who sat back and soaked up the whole scene with a glowing smile.

"No use looking to 'im, he's coming too. Now get up, both of you!" She pulled Lupin out of his chair and gave Harry a no-nonsense look. Resisting will only prolong the agony, he thought, and obediently got to his feet.

As soon as he Disapparated, Harry was more glad than ever that he'd given his Triwizard Cup winnings to Fred and George. Their shop was by far the liveliest on Diagon Alley, and its colorful cheer did much to offset the gloom of boarded-up storefronts like Ollivander's, or Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour. A few other shops were closed as well, but at least there were some people strolling the brick street. Harry wondered if the whole alley might have been abandoned, if not for the defiant mischief of "Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes."

They made quite a parade, Harry, Tonks, and Lupin, with their entourage of members of the Order. At least a dozen foreign sorcerers had joined them for the opportunity to see Diagon Alley, while "regulars" like Mad-Eye Moody and Kingsley Shacklebolt were carefully keeping Harry in their sight. Bystanders watched with wide eyes as they passed, and frequently tagged along after them. Noses began to press against the windows of shops; the show of strength in the street began to set people at ease. Before they had made their way to Gringott's, there were crowds in the Alley again, for the first time in many months.

With a bag full of Galleons (which he hoped would be enough), Harry followed Tonks' advice and stopped first at the joke shop. Having noted a glint in her eye, he suspected he was in for some suprise, and was delighted to find he was correct: Ron stood behind the counter, beaming at Harry as he entered the shop. "About time, mate! Couldn't they get you out of bed today, what?" said Ron, as he abandoned the counter and threw his arms joyfully around his friend.

"Eh, you're still on the clock! Get back to work!" boomed Fred, or George, loudly from the back of the room.

"Think because you're family, you can slack?" asked the other. But even as they teased Ron, they, too, rushed forward to clap Harry convivially on the shoulders.

"You really work for these idiots, Ron?" Harry asked with a wink.

"Can you believe it? We'll hire anything," said one of the twins, as the other casually twisted Ron into a headlock, rubbing his hair with something that instantly caused every strand to stand on end. Ron wrenched himself free, grumbling about his brothers' uncertain parentage, as he unsuccessfully attempted to mash his hair back down.

"Come upstairs, Harry, we've got you something special," said George quietly. He pointed at Ron and said "You! Mind the till!" Ron dropped his jaw to protest, but Fred made some sort of hand motion that Harry missed, and Ron sulkily acceeded. The twins half-ushered, half-carried him to the back of the shop before he could protest.

"Dress robes, Harry! We ordered them from China," said Fred, as they clambered noisily up the stairs.

"Pure silk," said George. "Stunning."

"Amazing what nice stuff can come from a worm's behind," commented Fred.

"Guys! Hey! You weren't supposed to buy them for me! I can order things, too, you know--" said Harry, but he was cut off when Fred's hand clamped over his mouth.

"Silence, lad!" George said, as he held open the door at the top of the landing. "We never forget a favor, do we, Fred?"

"Can't let a good deed go unpunished, brother!" With that they flung Harry firmly onto a surprisingly soft couch, where he landed beside a parcel wrapped in red rice paper. Though he could clobber them for spending what was obviously a lot of money on him, he had to admit he could never have found such elegant things on his own. The black robes were incredibly soft, and when he held them up, the light playing across the surface revealed hints of dark green and purple within the fibers. Harry gaped wordlessly at Fred and George.

"Let's see them on you, Harry," said Fred, but Harry was still too busy admiring both the gift (and the goodwill behind it) to pay attention.

"You heard him! Strip!" said George. The two of them raised their eyebrows at each other, and Harry realized his robes and trousers were around his ankles. He'd barely seen either of the twins move.

"All right, all right, geez! I'm glad I put on clean underwear today," he grumbled as he pushed his arms into the new sleeves.

"Us too, mate," said Fred, tugging the back of the robe over his head.

There was a rare moment of silence as both twins regarded him. "Well?" said Harry, though he could tell by their identical smug grins that the robes were a go.

"Sharp, Harry," said Fred.

"We've truly outdone ourselves this time," said George proudly.

They threatened to disintegrate his other robes if he tried to put them back on before showing off their excellent taste to the crew downstairs. Harry hardly had any robes to spare, since Fawkes had just done the same thing to another set. When Tonks and Ron both whistled at him, though, his face grew very warm and he retreated up the stairs.

Harry slumped at the long table in the basement kitchen. He felt like staring at a blank gray wall for the rest of the evening. How Tonks could possibly have kept on shopping was more than he could fathom. It wasn't enough that she'd made him try on dozens of linen shirts and a herd of leather boots. Then she had dragged them all up and down Diagon Alley three times to "help" Harry find a wedding gift: the first time they apparently had to look at every single thing that could possibly be purchased, the second to reexamine a few dozen things she liked best, then finally to dart back and forth indecisively between the last three options. She finally recommended a cauldron made of malachite, which Harry had liked as soon as he'd seen it, hours earlier.

Lupin looked no better, although there was an improved flavor to the exhaustion of the bedraggled boyfriend, compared to the careworn leader of the Order. Though barely more than arm's length from the ice chest, Lupin used his wand to summon two butterbeers to the table, and even made them open themselves. "Cheers, mate," he said as he slid one across to Harry, and they each downed half a bottle in one draught.

"Good birthday, was it?" asked Lupin.

"Bit long."

They stared at grain of the wood table in complete silence, broken only by the gentle thuds as their bottles returned to its surface.

"See the new Firebolts?" asked Harry listlessly.

"Nice," mumbled Lupin.

When Harry's bottle was empty, he gazed up at Lupin without lifting his head. Lupin peered at him through half-lidded eyes and flicked his wand wordlessly to bring out two more.

A pair of Russian witches, loaded down with shopping bags, eventually came down the stairs. They regarded the scene at the table, then each other, finally bursting into giggles. From there, however, the ladies completely ignored them, chattering to each other in their own language as they bustled about the kitchen, clanging pots and cauldrons and unloading groceries. The empty bottles were whisked away and, to Harry's surpise, replaced with plates heaped with steaming food. Sitting down beside them, the witches handed each of them a bottle bearing an unreadable label. "Kvass," said one, raising her own bottle and pointing at it. Marveling that most of his day had been spent obeying the will of incomprehensible women, Harry clinked his bottle to theirs. "Thank you," he said, hoping they understood.

The one beside Lupin smiled across the table. "Pazhayulsta," she said.

The rich food only made Harry's tired daze more intense, but he felt guilty when the witches shoved him roughly back down in his chair when he tried to help them clean up. "Accept it graciously, Harry," said Lupin. "They won't do it every night, don't worry. But you'll be amazed at the generosity that flows through this house. I just wish Sirius could have felt some of it." They regarded one another sadly.

It happened again. The kitchen disappeared, and Harry was in Lupin's mind. It was different this time, though. After the immense complexity of Fawkes, Harry felt as though Lupin's mind was laid out before him in an orderly tableau, where he was free to wander at will. Presently at the forefront was Sirius. His best friend, abandoned in Azkaban, then imprisoned in his own house, lonely, powerless...then finally stolen for good. Silent tears as he carefully wrapped Sirius's possessions, moved them to the attic, jinxed them against Kreacher's malicious tampering. Tonks. She brought color into his gray life, yet he was terrified that one full moon, she would disappear in a flood of dark red. Deeper than that, the awareness of his thinning hair, his fraying clothes. How long could it last, before someone young, someone with a future, caught her eye and brought her to her senses? Colorless remnants of a dream; Tonks was starving to death, wasting away, crawling through an empty graveyard, calling for Harry Potter...

With the same vertiginous sensation as he'd felt with Mrs. Figg, Harry saw himself through Lupin's eyes. His terrible grief for James had dulled over the years--until he met James' son. All the best parts of James, wrapped up and repackaged with the best of Lily Evans. He hoped desperately that the son would not share the parents' fate, cut down just as they'd begun to bloom. Harry combed through this part of his mind delicately, deliberately, certain he would find jealousy or resentment, but there was none. The dream had been an aberrance, meaningless remains of the day. Lupin held no envy of Harry's youth or wealth. In fact, Harry felt a flicker of envy of the peace at Lupin's core, for his sad but complete acceptance of the twisted path of his fate.

It occurred to Harry that he could withdraw from Lupin's mind of his own accord, and he did so, easing himself back into the kitchen. Lupin was shaking, his eyes wide, his fingers white from their grip on the table. Feeling strangely numb, Harry wondered why he had never felt the fear that was so obviously present in these minds when he touched them. "Why is it so frightening?" he asked evenly.

Lupin drew a stuttering breath and dropped his hands in his lap. It took him a moment to compose an answer. "I guess it shouldn't's not painful." He paused again. "I've done Legilimency, had it done to me...but Harry, there was no wand, no warning! It's...rather a whole new meaning of vulnerability, to find someone else just right there, inside your mind. You can't get much more naked than that."

"I'm sorry, Remus," said Harry, and did a mental double-take; Lupin had never asked him to stop calling him 'Professor Lupin,' but Harry knew he'd been planning to. "This was the first time I've been able to end it on my own, but I still can't control the onset."

Biting his thumbnail absently, Lupin said, "It's okay. I think Ondossi can help you, when she gets back. She's looked me in the eye for a month now and she's never..."

"Violated you?" said Harry, still dispassionate.

Lupin averted his eyes with a mirthless laugh, and took a long pull at his drink before looking at Harry with a disconcerted expression. "That's, uh, that's one way to put it, I suppose. Heavens above, Harry, you're sounding...pretty spooky."

"I feel spooky, Remus. I felt it last night, with Fawkes. We were falling so fast, I knew I would die, but I felt...nothing. Not afraid, not angry, just...blank. I don't know what it means."

"Me either." They sat quietly for a moment, and Lupin finished off his bottle.



"This house is yours."


"You heard me. I'll keep my room, but the house belongs to you now."

Lupin's brows drew together with concern. "What are you--"

Harry interrupted. "I saw the wolf in your mind, Remus. I couldn't go near it. I can't pull it out of you. But I'm tired of watching it drive you. I want you to make this place a home for you and Tonks."

"Harry, I can't accept--"

"You can. Graciously. Goodnight, Remus." Harry pushed back from the table and went upstairs without another word. The Russian witches watched him go, then wondered aloud, in their native tongue, what the boy had said to the man at the table to make him cry so hard.

Harry awoke in his cavelike bedroom feeling like his normal self, but he could perfectly recall the strange way he'd felt the night before with Lupin. At the time, he knew exactly what he was saying and had an excellent reason for saying it. Now, however, the reasons weren't quite so clear anymore, and he felt a bit abashed.

He passed a small group of unknown sorcerers, standing before the screeching portrait of Lady Black. "...just cut out that whole section of wall..." "...paint over the canvas in a solid color..." "...savages, blood traitors..." He shook his head, grinning, as he passed; the portrait was irritating, sure, but at least you always knew exactly what to expect from her.

There was a larger crowd in the kitchen, some of whom he recognized from the trip to the Alley. He dished himself a serving bowl of sweetened rice from the stove, but the table was so loud and full, he decided to duck out into the courtyard to eat it. Lady Black spotted him this time and bellowed her displeasure that he dared to surrender her manor to a non-human, and then it was all fresh grass and sunlight.

Mad-Eye Moody was also dining in the courtyard, leaning against a wall in shadow. Harry gave him an inquisitive look, and Moody beckoned him over, a sunbeam winking off the metal flask in his outstretched hand. Harry had wanted to sit in the grass, but opted to hunker along the wall the same as Moody.

"Mornin', Potter."

Harry discovered that the rice was extremely sticky. The best he could manage was a muffled "Hey." He reflected that he had no idea what to call Moody now--he had a funny feeling he had yet to earn the privilege of 'Alastor.'

"Quite a trip, yesterday." said Moody. Harry nodded and wished he'd thought to bring some water. Moody poked at a scoop of melon on his plate and raised his brow at Harry, who gratefully took a nice juicy piece. As soon as it touched his tongue, however, Harry realized he'd made a huge mistake. He rolled his eyes back into his head and began twitching, more and more violently, then fell facedown into the grass.

He hoped Moody was smiling. When Moody's hat whapped into the back of his head, Harry knew it was safe to get up. "Smart alec," grumbled the professor. "At least you remembered, though it would've been too late to save yourself, of course."

"Come on, don't you feel safe even in here?" asked Harry, even as he realized he had no idea who had fixed the rice he was eating.

"Potter, as of a month ago, I am the oldest living Auror in 300 years. Why do you suppose that is?"

"Happy birthday," said Harry meekly.

Despite the silence and paranoia, Harry enjoyed eating outside with Moody; the old man would have made a classic grandfather, had he lived in a more placid time. Moody offered him more chunks of melon, always with the same gruff manner that belied the kindness behind the gesture.

"It's good to see so many new faces," said Moody distantly. "Lot of sharp heads mulling things over. Slows things a bit, too, though." He set down his plate and regarded Harry carefully. Harry wondered what it would be like to sink into the "mind" of that magical eye, when he felt himself sliding into Moody.

"Ah, ah, ah, boy, no yeh don't." Harry blinked, and needed a moment to realize what just happened, or, more importantly, what didn't happen. He was positive he had started to connect to Moody's mind--how could he still be sitting here? Then Harry realized that Moody was grinning so smugly, he bore a slight resemblance to Fred and George.

"You're an Occlumens," Harry said.

"'Course I am," scowled Moody. "Though I've never tried it with a Legilimagus, wasn't sure if I could do it without the wand and all. I was hoping you wouldn't mind giving it a go."

"Anytime," Harry replied, feeling an intense flood of relief that at least someone had some control over his new power. "You didn't ask the other one, Ondossi?"

Moody gazed pensively into the distance. "Never. I don't trust her. Albus did, rest his soul, but we've all learned even he could be fooled, ha'nt we?" Harry nodded, also lost in memory, grinding his teeth, then changed the subject.

"Are you going to the wedding?"

"Nah," shrugged Moody. "Can't stand 'em. Security nightmare, all those strangers, everyone facing away from the door, food left out unwatched all say naught of the mushy stuff! They may as well pass out the stilettos at the door, all those idiots hugging and dancing." Harry couldn't help but laugh, Moody was such a grumpy old bachelor.

But then he caught Moody's eye again, and fell into a well of loneliness so deep he couldn't see the bottom before Moody pushed him back out into the courtyard.

Moody immediately pulled his hat down, not to cover the magical eye as was his custom, but the human one. Harry felt the eerie calm begin descend in him, but he shook it off, undoubtedly because the encounter was so quick--but looking squarely at the bulging, vibrating bulb of the "mad eye" was also enough to unsettle anyone. In the absence of the numbing calm, Harry felt very self-conscious again. Unfortunately, he was unable to tell from the old man's distorted features whether he was angry, afraid, or indifferent.

"Quick little prat, you are," Moody finally grumbled, though without rancor.

"I'm sorry, Professor. I don't know how to stop myself. I'm glad that you could stop me."

Moody nodded, shifting his hat back above his brow again. "There's many kinds of powers that can't be controlled, Potter. Take werewolves. I find the ones that fear what they've become are rarely a problem. The ones that relish it...they're the ones I keep me eye on." He peered sternly over his ruined nose at Harry. "Remember that as you go getting your feet wet."

The house quieted down after breakfast, as members of the Order departed to their tasks. Harry had no idea how many people were actually living in the house, or whether it was just a central meeting point that emptied every night. He wandered through the halls a while, careful not to disturb Lady Black, then returned to his room and flopped on his bed to peer out the window. He'd had enough rest, enough play; it was time to get to work.

After sitting quietly for a few seconds, however, he realized that there was a sound coming from his trunk. Flipping it open, he shoved things around until he found the phone. "Hermione?"

"Hi, Harry! I'm so glad you finally answered! How are you?"

"Fine," he said on autopilot. "Well, not exactly fine, more like okay..." So much had happened since the last time he'd spoken to Hermione, it was hard to believe less than two days had passed. It took a long time to fill her in about Fawkes and the latest episodes of Legilimency, then when she found out he'd gone shopping on Diagon Alley, she insisted on hearing all about that as well. Then he remembered something else: "Say...did you know Ron's been working for Fred and George?"

"He has? Not as a product tester, I hope."

Harry chuckled. "I don't know, I just had a few minutes with him; he was behind the counter when I saw him."

"Well! I wonder why he never mentioned it."

Harry had a feeling Ron wasn't particularly proud that he needed to take a paying job when everyone else was on holiday. "Yeah, funny. And you'll never guess where Hagrid is," said Harry, changing the subject.

"Oops, no, not if it's business--just wait and tell me at the wedding. It's only a few more days."

"Yeah. He may even be back to tell us himself. Although I wonder now if I might not make it."

"What are you talking about?"

"I'm not going to sit around any longer. I thought I'd do a bit of research for the next couple days."


Harry palmed his forehead. It was bad enough he'd slipped in front of Moody with the melon business that morning; he could just feel the cogs winding up in Hermione's mind. So much for a quiet exit, he thought.

"I won't ask where you're going, only who else is going with you..." said Hermione pointedly.

Harry wished the cursed batteries on the phone would run out. "Erm, well, I hadn't decided just yet...still in the planning stages--"

"Do NOT tell me you were going to just head off on your own!!"

Harry cleared his throat. "Okay." Another mistake. Little jokes worked on Ron, but they only sent Hermione into overdrive. Holding the phone away from his head helped a little. "Hermione...Herm--...Herm--" It was simply too soon. Harry tossed the phone on the bed so he could rummage properly through his trunk for some traveling clothes.

When the thin droning had noticeably dropped in pitch, he picked it back up. "Okay, look, I see it wasn't a good idea, all right? I'll take someone with me."

"I should think so, too! Where should I meet you?" she demanded.

"Whoa, whoa, you're not--"

"I most certainly am, Harry James Potter! Do you know why? Because I already know you're planning on giving whoever goes with you the slip! I can be in the fireplace at Number Tw--"

Harry interrupted with a violent "Shh!" which meant "zip it" in Parseltongue.

"Sorry," continued Hermione. "I mean, I can be...where you are in half an hour."

"See you then," said Harry, and hung up with a sigh.

"You know," said a snide voice, making Harry jump, "if you don't learn to set your foot down with these women now, it'll only get worse."

Harry glared at the portrait of Phineas Nigellus near his bed. "Keep snooping and I may set it down right through your canvas."

"Mendicant!" spat Phineas, but he promptly disappeared beyond the left side of the frame.

Chapter 5: Chapter 5: Godric's Hollow
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Harry packed a backpack with a few essentials and convinced the discomfited Hedwig to let him open her cage without giving him an indignant nip. He scurried down to the kitchen with such noisy vigor that he earned his own private monologue from Lady Black. Finding that Hermione had not yet arrived, Harry briefly considered making a break for it, but fortunately a more primitive part of his psyche (one which avoided pain) won the battle. He'd told her where he was going; if he left without her, she'd hound him like back taxes.

Once the portrait grew bored and quiet again, Harry could barely make out a muffled voice echoing down through the chimney. Slinking up to the drawing room, he found Lupin face first in the fireplace, emerald flames licking ineffectively at his hair. "I know, Rufus, but this doesn't have to be a 'you're either with us or against us' situation. Look, I can't even tell you how tired I am of having this same argument. This conversation is over." Lupin pushed himself out of the fire, flicking his wand sharply to extinguish it and muttering, "Bloody stubborn son of a--"

Harry cleared his throat, causing Lupin to censor himself and whirl around. "Harry! Good morning!" His eyes narrowed as he took in the backpack. "Going somewhere?"

"Yes," said Harry firmly. "Godric's Hollow."

Lupin gave him a measured look, frowning. "Why there? Why now?"

Harry shrugged before he could stop himself. "I'm not sure, Remus, to be honest. I've just had a feeling I need to go there all summer. Longer, even."

Lupin nodded slowly. "I see. Why now?"

"Because if I'm going to make it back for the wedding, I better not tackle something big like a Horcrux just yet," he said with a winsome grin. Lupin smirked, shaking his head and grinning back.

"Can't sit still for four days, can you? That's fine, Harry. But you understand I won't let you go alone?"

"Hermione's already on her way--"

"Without someone from the Order, that is. No, Harry, I mean it, I know you've handled all sorts of scrapes, but you're not ready to face a band of Death Eaters without help. Look what happened back in the Department of Mysteries."

"You know very well that was an ambush, Remus," Harry argued. "Anyone would need help if they walked into a trap. I'm talking about going off somewhere that no one expects, just to have a look around, and a bit of a think."

Lupin folded his arms. "Do I need to point out that trouble always manages to find you?" It was Harry's turn to chuckle.

"Look, I just want keep a low profile. I don't want to go parading in with an honor guard like Diagon Alley; we should have just carried a neon sign saying 'Aim Curses Here.' Hermione and I blend in with Muggles better than anyone in the Order. They'll never even know we were there."

Harry realized that Lupin was looking past him, and turned. Mad-Eye Moody was standing in the door, listening intently. "Don't mind me," he said gruffly. "Always love to catch a bit of suicidal ranting whenever I get the chance."

Harry sighed. He never, ever should have answered that stupid phone. "Anyone else want to butt in?"

"I think I'm it," said Moody, "but we can wake Lady Black if you're set on a third opinion."

Lupin was staring off with a thoughtful expression. He turned back with a furrowed brow. "I wonder...Listen, Harry, I actually agree, it's easier to hide one or two than ten. Alastor, you're the surveillance expert, what can we do to keep an eye on him from here? So we can get to him quickly if there's trouble--particularly if he can't ask for help?"

Moody pondered that a moment. "Heh. Interesting question. A Foe-glass, you think? That would reflect what's around Harry, from far away...trouble is, that's focused magic, it'd be a compass needle pointing straight at 'im, to the right eyes. Need something more subtle."

"Sirius had something like that," mused Lupin as he stroked his chin. "He and James had these mirrors they'd enchanted. I found one of them when I was...putting away his things."

Harry once had the other one, but he had broken it in a fury.

"I never asked them how they did it," Lupin said thoughtfully. "They were the only ones who could use them; even for me, they were just mirrors. What do you think, Alastor?"

When Moody scowled hard enough with that battle-worn face, it resembled a lumpy bowl of porridge more than anything else. "S'gotta be a charm of some kind. A quick word with Flitwick." He stoked the emerald flames back to life, stepped into them, and disappeared.

Harry excused himself to check the kitchen fireplace. Hermione had just climbed out, and to Harry's surprise, Ron was right behind her. "You're coming too?!" he exclaimed with delight.

"If I don't get a break from Fred and George, I'm going to commit fratricide," said Ron, wrapping Harry in a bear hug.

"I'm sorry we were so long," said Hermione. "Mum insisted on packing sandwiches, and then we had to pick up some Muggle clothes for Ron."

"No worries!" said Harry. "I'm waiting on Moody anyway." As if on cue, Moody's characteristic step-thump, step-thump resounded on the stairs.

"Done and done!" boomed Moody, holding out a little round pendant on a chain. "Wear this, missy, an' don't let 'Arry out of your sight." Hermione took it from him, peering at it dubiously as she slipped the chain over her head. It was clear from her focus that she was looking into a mirror, but when she tipped it at Harry, he jumped. To him, the whole pendant consisted of Moody's magical eye.

"That's just nasty," said Harry, a bit too taken aback for niceties. Moody snorted in disdain; the sound came to Harry from both Moody and the locket.

Hermione looked at them uncertainly, as did Ron. "What?" she asked.

"Never mind," said Harry.

Hermione shook her head quizzically, raising the pendant high as she pulled the front of her blouse away from her throat. "DON'T put it in there," Harry gasped, when he realized her intent.

Moody snorted. "I'll have you know, Potter, I'm a gentleman," he said (in stereo).

When Harry explained the nature of the pendant, Hermione regarded it as though it had suddenly sprouted hundreds of hairy tentacles. She peeked up at Moody with an even more aghast expression; he simply folded his arms and winked at her. Ron had to cover his mouth with his hands to keep from laughing.

"Oh, that's right, if it's so funny, YOU wear it!" Hermione told Ron.

"But it doesn't go with my outfit," Ron protested with a chortle.

The three of them flew on broomsticks to Godric's Hollow under a Disillusionment Charm. This was carefully applied by Moody, and set to reverse itself when they landed. They were heading to the West Country, a lovely rural area with rolling hills and thatched cottages. Hermione took it upon herself to give them a rather academic introduction during their trip.

"All that's known about the Gryffindor family is that they were 'of wild Moor,' probably North Yorkshire. Obviously that's some distance from here, so it's really not certain at all why this would be named Godric's Hollow. If in fact it refers to Godric Gryffindor, though it's hard to imagine who else it could be. According to Hogwarts: A History, Godric's older brother found some powerfully magical object in the West Country, which contributed directly to the location they chose for Hogwarts. It may have been some sort of compass, or map. At any rate, this area undoubtedly became precious to their family after that, which is presumably why it's called Godric's Hollow."

"Yeah, well, there's also Dartmoor, where we're practically heading right now," said Ron. He ought to know, thought Harry, the Burrow was in the West Country as well. "Maybe it's called Godric's Hollow because he LIVED there."

"Of course!" Hermione snapped. "Maybe the Burrow was actually the Gryffindor family seat! Just because every knowledgeable sorcerer in Britain believes the Gryffindors are from Yorkshire..." Harry leaned into the wind until he couldn't hear the bickering anymore.

They had their pick of secluded spots in which to land. The village proper was only a few dozen houses; the rest of the Hollow comprised the wide open spaces of pastures and farms. They set down in a copse of elm trees and stowed their brooms in a long canvas bag made for Muggle skis. It would not be easy to explain why they would be hauling skis around the countryside in August, but better skis than brooms.

Since the sun was already on the horizon, they set out right away to find the Wizard tavern that Lupin had recommended. He had instructed them to walk to the north end of town along the main road, then perform a Revealing Charm on the back stairs of the Muggle schoolhouse on the left. They had landed just east of town, so this seemed straightforward enough. Unfortunately, when they reached the north end of town, they found a maze of chainlink fences and scaffolding. A bulldozer was parked on what was probably the former foundation of the school.

The three of them exchanged glances. "Three cheers for progress," groaned Harry.

"Do you suppose the entrance could still be there, under the rubble?" said Hermione.

Ron stared hard at the razed lot. "Hard to tell. It could be--all this is just Muggle construction. Though it'd be odd for the innkeeper to just sit tight and let them build Merlin-knows-what over his front door. I suppose it's worth a look, though." Ron dropped the bag of brooms and clambered easily over the flimsy fence.

"Ron! You're trespassing!" said Hermione reprovingly, but he trotted off in the twilight, wand in hand. Harry shrugged; they didn't have a lot of options, and now that it was getting dark, he'd much prefer to get indoors.

They watched as Ron navigated the dusty ground, stopping occasionally to mutter, "Aperio." He paced carefully around the big machines, even prodding the ground with his wand once or twice. He finally turned back to the others with a shrug, and called softly, "Nothing here!" To their surprise, the earth beneath Ron's feet promptly vanished, and he dropped completely out of view.

The two of them vaulted over the chainlink and had their heads over the edge of the hole in an instant. Ron was still on his feet, leaning against the side of a pit about eight feet deep. "That was rude!" he observed indignantly.

"What did you do?" demanded Hermione.

"I didn't do anything!" Ron sputtered. "The bloody ground just Vanished and dumped me in here. Oh," he said, noticing that he was standing before a battered looking doorway that led right into the earth. "I think I found the inn, though."

Ron flipped over a piece of cardboard hanging by a loop of string on the door. "Lumos," he said, pointing his wand at the sign. "The Green Dragon Inn is closed. Regretfully, The Management." He scowled up at Harry and Hermione. "Well, that's nice!"

Harry sat down at the edge of the pit. "Now what are we going to do?" he sighed.

Hermione knelt beside him. "Try the door anyway. Maybe the proprietor still lives there, we could at least ask where we might go next."

Ron nodded gamely, and knocked. The door swung inward about six inches. Ron immediately leapt in the other direction, to the far wall of the pit. When nothing else happened, however, he began to crane his neck in an attempt to peer beyond the door.

"Ron!" said Hermione urgently. "Climb out now!"

"Relax," he said. "There's a light somewhere in the back. Hello?" he called, and poked his head in the doorway.

"RON!" she hissed, but he merely waved behind his back at her in annoyance.

"Excuse me!" called Ron. "Is there anyone here?" He nudged the door wide open, letting his wand shine into the interior. There were a few dusty broken chairs in the room, and a countertop bar across the back wall. Ron stepped inside cautiously, but he saw nothing else; no bottles or mugs on the shelves, no wood in the bin by the fireplace. There was a light though, shining around the jamb of a door behind the bar. Ron pondered this a moment, then backed cautiously to the entryway. "I want to go knock on the back door," he called softly over his shoulder. "Harry, hop down here and watch my back, all right? Harry?"

Ron was suddenly saturated in adrenaline. He flung his back against the tavern wall, hissing "Nox!" to extinguish his wand. His throat constricted as he realized that Harry's feet were no longer dangling into the pit.

Everything was silent. Ron glanced quickly at the back door to assure himself it was still closed and the room still empty. He slipped quietly into the doorway and, from the darkness, scanned above the rim of the pit. Harry and Hermione were standing beside one another, and some sort of spotlight was trained on Harry's face.

Ron checked the back door again; it was still closed. He could Apparate out of the hole, perhaps ten, twenty feet on the side opposite his friends. That might put him behind whoever was holding the light. Then again, it might not, but the further away he went, the more difficult it would be to aim a hex. He might only have time for one shot. But if he could get the light off Harry and Hermione, they might be able to react. Twenty feet, then; he pictured the spot in his mind and Apparated.

Ron Disapparated with a loud crack, to find himself standing a few feet behind an old man, Muggle in appearance, beaming a powerful flashlight at Harry. Ron had his wand ready, but hesitated; something didn't feel right. The old man was shaking so hard that the batteries were rattling inside the flashlight. There was nothing in his other hand, no wand, no weapon. He hadn't even reacted to the sound from Ron's Disapparation.

Warily, Ron concealed his wand with his arm as best he could. "Do you need help, sir?" he asked, walking up to the old man as though he were some concerned passerby.

The man jumped and looked at Ron with wide, frightened eyes. "D-do you see that?" he asked in a high pitched voice, pointing at Harry.

Ron looked over at his friends in alarm. There was nothing behind them, nothing threatening them as far as he could tell. The combination of wands with Muggle clothes looked a bit odd, but didn't seem to justify the amount of fear in the old man. "Um, yes...there's two people there," he said cautiously.

"You see the man, then? Black hair?"


"Are you sure?" His voice was becoming more urgent.

"Yes, I'm sure!" Ron was beginning to get irritated. "What's the game, then?"

"Lad," whispered the old man, "right there, that's a ghost, sure as I live and breathe. I'd know him anywhere, he was murdered nigh twenty years ago. James Potter."

Ron couldn't help but giggle with relief. "That's Harry Potter, sir. James's son."


"Look at the eyes, sir. You'll see what I mean."

"Heavens above! Come here to me, lad!" The old man absently stuffed the flashlight into Ron's hands and approached Harry with his arms wide. He seemed so utterly delighted that Harry didn't have the heart to be dismissive. The old man put his hands on Harry's shoulders and looked at him in wonder. "Harry Potter. Who else could you be, you're just the image of the two of them. Hee hee!" Harry was suddenly being squeezed and clapped on the back, which felt incredibly awkward, but he patted the fellow gamely in return and hoped he'd let go soon.

"Look at me," the man said, stepping back, "cuddling you up like yer still a sprog. And you won't even remember me, do you, lad?"

Harry shook his head. "I'm sorry, I don't."

"Ah, you was just a tot. Oh, lad, what a joy, never even thought you were alive, thought you were lost that night. I've got to get you home to my Birdie, she won't believe it's you. Can you come, Harry?"

"I, uh, where, exactly?"

The old man smiled fondly. "Ah, lad, never mind an old fool like meself. Name's Everett Gamidge. My Birdie and I knew your mum and dad. You once pulled all the buds off my prize rosebush!"

Harry smiled. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Gamidge. Again."

A brick path wound through a garden full of flowers before it came to the front door of the Gamidge's cottage. In his excitement, Everett had stomped straight through the beds to throw open the door and call his "Birdie," but Harry, Ron, and Hermione agreed with a glance to take the path. All three were somewhat relieved to see that Birdie was not a winged creature, but a plump, jolly matron with long white hair. She looked hale and sturdy, with dirt under her nails that must have come from those very flower beds. When Harry stepped in the cottage, he caught a whiff of cooked cabbage and cut flowers that didn't spark a specific memory so much as a certainty that he'd been here before.

After a round of warm introductions, Birdie piled a tray full of sandwiches and fruit and sent everyone into the living room to empty it. When Harry managed to confess, around a mouthful of ham and swiss cheese, that they had no place to sleep that night, the Gamidges insisted they stay in the cottage. Hermione was assigned to the small guest bedroom, and Birdie built nests for Ron and Harry in the living room.

"Your mum and dad were as dear as our very own, Harry," she said, sorting an armfull of throw pillows into two piles. "We met them, what, nineteen years ago. James was out walking and he saw my Everett slip and fall--that sort of thing can mean the end, you know, for a brittle old fool. I was in town when it happened. James helped him into the house and fetched your mum. She brought over something she'd cooked up, set him right as rain, praises be."

Harry glanced at Hermione, who raised a suspicious brow. If the old man had broken his hip, Lily must have concocted some sort of mending potion, like the ones Madam Pomfrey had in the hospital wing. I wonder what the Ministry would say about a witch secretly giving Muggles a medicinal potion, thought Harry. I doubt they'd approve...and I don't think I really care, or that Mom did either.

Birdie continued. "They were such a lovely couple. I'd look out the window on a frosty morning and there'd be James, salting the bricks so it wouldn't be too slick for us to take our walk. Never asked him to do it, he just saw the need and took it on himself to do what needed doing. The sort that keeps the world going round, I always say."

"And then you come along, Harry!" said Everett. "Hohoo, such a little armful! Our own have gone off to live in the big cities, you know, we've two in London and one in Copenhagen, so the grandchildren only came around so often, but you were Birdie's little sprog! Sometimes your mum and dad had to go off for a day or two, on business, and Birdie would go roost at your house for the night. They were so protective of you, they wouldn't even hear of having you come sleep here."

"Oh, Grandad," said Birdy affectionately, "you know how many things a baby needs; we'd have to haul it in a wagon over and back. Much easier for me to go there, where it was all put away and orderly. You were one to go through clothes, Harry-lad, always wriggling out of your diaper, you were."

"Piddled on me prize rosebush your first birthday," Everett grumbled, "though you could barely even walk at the time." Ron bellowed with laughter, as Harry began to wonder if this alleged prize rosebush had survived him.

At breakfast the next morning, Harry took a more serious tack with the Gamidges. "I was wondering if you could help me find my parents' graves today."

"Of course, lad," said Birdie, as she poured him more tea. "Grandad will have to do that, I can't get up the hill like I used to. You've never been up to them before?" Harry shook his head. Birdie frowned. "Good heavens, your auntie never took you? What's the matter with her?"

Harry didn't have an answer.

Everett spoke up. "I saw her at the funeral. Looked all pinched, she did, like she couldn't spare a drop of kindness for no one. Opposite of Lily. She never once mentioned she had you, Harry, we were all sure you were lost under the rubble. An' not a dry eye in the town, the whole family gone at once like that." He barely concealed the resentment in his voice.

"Now, Ev, you don't know she just did it to be ornery," chirped Birdie. "Maybe she was afraid they'd come after the poor tyke. Thought it safer to just let him be dead to the world."

"Who's 'they'?" said Harry, trying not to convey his desire for revenge along with his curiosity.

"Why, the ones who murdered James and Lily!"

Harry sat bolt upright in his chair, jostling the tea tray. "Do you know about them?"

Birdie glanced anxiously at Everett, pressing her lips flat. The old man scratched his balding head, then leaned forward to speak directly to Harry.

"Harry-lad," he said carefully, "I can see your auntie has kept all this from you, and she may have been right to do it. But don't get yourself worked up, lad. There's not much to tell, 'twas never solved, never even found a suspect, to my knowledge."

"Anything you could tell me would be very important to me," said Harry simply and sincerely.

"Aye, lad, that I guessed all by meself," said Everett gently. He sighed, settling back in his chair and reaching for a pipe, which he lit and puffed several times with a faraway expression before he spoke again.

"It was Halloween, so Birdie and I had been up handing out sweets, o'course. It got late but I wasn't sleeping too well--" ("Too much candy upset his stomach," whispered Birdie confidentially) "--and suddenly I hears this kaboom, just a terrible deep sound, really. I knew something 'orrible had happened. Thought perhaps some kids had gone out to make mischief, and came across a piece of live ordnance from the Great War. You hear about that sort of thing happening now and again.

"I woke my Birdie, but she wouldn't hear a word of it, said I was being a tom fool. But I knew that weren't no innocent little firecracker! I felt the hum of it in me bones, it had power behind it. I headed off toward town, but I couldn't see a thing, no fire, nothing. I rounded the hill, though, that was between your folks' house and ours, and there it all was. The house was just gone, not burning, not crumbling; it was spread out as though the sky itself had smashed it flat and then went on its merry way. I just stood there with my mouth open, thinking I had to be dreaming. How could a house just collapse into rubble, without a trace of fire or machinery, not even a hailstone?"

Harry recalled number four, Privet Drive for a moment; even that had involved a lot of charred wood.

Everett continued. "It was dark, of course, but I could hear movement. I thought it might be one of them, you know, trying to get out. I tried to get in there, to help, but it was just heaps of glass, rubble everywhere, you know, no place to get your footing." His voice began to shake, and he took another puff on the pipe. "I finally had to get up the hill, just to get a decent look into it all, see where they were, how I could get to them.

"By the time I got high enough to look into the pile, I could see a man at the far edge of it all, pulling out a body. I didn't get a very good look, but I could tell it wasn't Lily or James. Too big to be either of them. The bloke pulling on it was just hauling it over all that shrapnel without a thought in the world for the way it was ripping to shreds. I thought at first he was trying to save someone, but no one would be so careless. That's when I caught on that he was pulling out a cadaver, and in a hurry too.

"I knew there weren't any good reason to do such a thing, so I goes back down the hill and around the pile to confront him. He must have had a car right there, running, because they were both gone in the two minutes it took me to get down there. Not a trace.

"Of course, then it hits me that good heavens, Lily and James are still in there, what was I doing chasing after these blokes! The sirens were coming from town, the police could see to those two. I headed back up the hill; I figured if they made it, they'd be trying to push their way out from under the roof. When I turned around to look down..."

"Yes?" said Harry.

"I've never told this to no one, Harry, because until las' night, I didn't believe it myself. I thought I must have swooned." He cast a somewhat guilty glance at Birdie, who was glaring at him reproachfully. "The most enormous bloke I've ever seen was wadin' through the rubble like it was no more than a snowdrift. Looked like he was half bear, he did. He picked up a section of the roof that must've weighed a hundred kilos and just lofted it up like the lid to the toilet. It was sitting on the top of your little crib, Harry-lad, and you were laying inside it like a pea in its pod in the midst of it all. I even heard your little cry. He picked you up just so tender and carried you out...and then he handed you to...another bloke." He looked up uncertainly, as Birdie shook her head with growing incredulity.

Harry leaned forward. "I believe you. The giant...fellow, we know him. His name's Hagrid, and he does look like he's half bear."

"The big half," said Ron quietly.

"And the other one, let me guess," said Harry carefully, "he was on a motorcycle."

Everett's eyes grew as wide as the teacups on the tray. For a moment, he was too astounded to speak. "That...that's right, lad! I knew I had to be seein' things, 'cause I knew neither of them was there before I went up the hill, and yet I didn't hear or see a thing approaching, least of all a big chopper like that one. Good heavens, you know him, too?"

"Yes," said Harry in a choked voice. "That was my godfather, Sirius Black."

Both Everett and Birdie jumped. "I know that name!" said Birdie. "Lily spoke of him! We never met him, but they said he was a dear friend."

"Harry, I can't believe it...all those years I thought I'd lost me mind! But how did they--"

"I don't know," said Harry, hoping desperately that Everett wouldn't press him for explanations. "They've never really told me much about that night either. Aunt Petunia never let me see much of them," he added plaintively, and it wasn't exactly a lie.

Everett trembled all over for a moment, then puffed a few more times on his pipe. "I'll be," he said musingly, then finally looked back up at Harry. "Well, the big one, Hagrid, you say?" Harry nodded. "Hagrid...he waded back in right away, and found poor Lily right by your little cot. He let out a cry such as I'd never heard when he pulled the rubble off and found her dead. The other one, Sirius, jumped up like he meant to dive in there too, but he was so busy holding you. By then, though, the coppers were arriving, and the fire engine, fat lot of good it did, but I reckon they heard the boom and figured there had to be a fire.

"Anyway, the two of them lit out of there faster than anything I ever seen. Sirius just spun his motorbike around and roared straight toward the woods. Another reason I thought I'd dreamed it all; he was gone so quickly, with no road and a babe in his arms--it made no sense, unless he was some kind of angel that flew off with you. But even on Halloween, you don't think of angels as riding on a chopper! I didn't see where the big one went. I watched the bike, you see, thinking it was going to crash, with you on it--but there was no sound of crashing or anything at all, and by the time I looked back, Hagrid was just flat gone.

"The police came and pulled your poor mum out of the wreckage. They didn't find your pa 'til the next morning, when they could get a crane out. And o'course, no sign of you, but when they did find your little crib, it was crushed to matchsticks." Birdie nodded. "I thought I must have seen an angel," said Everett softly.

"I told the detectives about the third body, and the fellow pulling it out. They said they'd look into it. All the rescuers had trampled everything hunting for James, just on the off-chance, you know, so any footprints or tire tracks were wiped out. I never thought they put much stock into my story. Yet another reason not to mention the rest, why give them even more reason to think I was off my nut, eh?

"I think they finally blamed it on a 'gas line explosion.' But I know it was foul play, lad; those two that rushed off, they had a mean look to them. They were wearing long black robes, as if they'd come from a Halloween party, or, more like, some kind of secret society or summat. The sort of thing you read about and figure it's all rubbish--but when you someone sneak off a cadaver from a ruined house, you wonder just what's going on in hidden places."

Everett sighed sadly and patted Harry's shoulder. "I'm sorry, lad. Not much for answers. Come on, I'll take you up to the cemetery. You can have a good think up there in the quiet."

Harry nodded, then said, "I'd like to bring some flowers."

Birdie patted his cheek tenderly. "There's clippers in the shed out back. Take all you want, love, but I think you'll find you won't need many."

She was right. As Harry, Ron, and Hermione climbed the hill behind Everett, they didn't have to guess which graves must belong to the Potters. They were covered with flowers, the oblong diamond shapes of coffins perfectly outlined before two granite headstones. Birdie must have had something to do with this, but Harry knew the manicured perfection was not merely the product of muggle efforts.

Harry didn't need to ask his friends to let him go up to the graves alone. They exchanged the briefest glance amongst themselves, then Ron squeezed his shoulder warmly as he and Hermione turned wordlessly to a shaded bench nearby. Harry found himself oddly numb as he plodded up the hill, not the even calm he felt after performing Legilimency, but a sort of strained emptiness. I should be crying, he thought, or angry, something, he thought, yet nothing was coming to the surface.

There was a rosebush growing between the headstones, and as Harry approached, he saw a small granite marker below it. Walking up the grassy aisle between the plots, he bent on one knee to read the inscription:

In memory of Harry James Potter
lost to us with his parents

the candle that burns brightest
burns also fastest

Harry stared at the little rough-cut stone. I'm standing on my own grave, he mused ruefully for a moment. With a sudden angry impulse, he reach for the marker, meaning to hurl it as far as he could. But he stayed his hand, instead falling back to sit crosslegged on the ground and stare at it thoughtfully. He had been lost that night, ripped from not only the Muggle world, but the Wizard world as well; removed, along with Voldemort, into a separate universe. He had burned very brightly, opposite the utter darkness. Whether he was bright enough, or fast enough, remained to be seen.

Harry sat a long time between the headstones, breathing in the scents of roses and honeysuckle, and countless other flowers. He put a tentative hand to the ground over what was once his mother's head, wondering if there was some way to reach her with Legilimency. There was nothing there, though, not even a hint of presence--just a peaceful hillside where flowers went about their business turning sunshine into life.

"Here he comes," said Hermione quietly to Ron. They had assured Everett that they would find their own way back, and his shiny pate had already disappeared behind the hill. Hermione was a bit nonplussed to see that Harry had not been crying. She opened her mouth, but rather than speak, she just stood up and gathered him in her arms. He stood there woodenly, neither pulling away nor returning her embrace, conceding only to rest his chin against the side of her head. Ron made a few arrested attempts to place a comforting hand on Harry's back, then resolutely put his arms around them both.

Harry finally extracted himself. Though his eyes were dry, his voice broke when he tried to speak, and he had to cough to clear his throat. "I'm done here. I'd like to go back to that tavern, check out that light you saw, Ron." Ron nodded pointedly; he, too, wanted to hear a Wizard's perspective of Everett's story if one could be found.

The construction site was full of workers, but most were taking a lunch break. Harry and Hermione got under the Invisibility Cloak--there was just no way they could all three fit anymore, and since Hermione had that pendant that linked them to Moody, they all agreed she should stay with Harry--and carefully made their way to the spot where the pit had formed the night before. Harry planned to just walk up and stand on it as Ron had, but Hermione put her hand on his arm.

"Aperio Green Dragon!" she said softly, waving her wand, and in a much more civilized fashion, stairs appeared beneath their feet. They descended cautiously, as the only stairs they could see were directly beneath the cloak; the dirt outside the perimeter looked unchanged, as though the steps were leading straight into solid ground. But as they went further, new steps appeared, and finally they had gone far enough to see the entire staircase stretching before them, beneath what looked like a nearly transparent, tan canopy covering the familiar pit from last night.

Harry approached the door and knocked loudly, ignoring the cardboard sign. He and Hermione exchanged a frown. The bulldozer had started up again; it would take a miracle for anyone inside to hear a knock. Hermione shrugged and made a face, then pushed the door open wide.

"Hello?" called Harry into the public room, which was apparently used the same window charms as the Ministry of Magic, for daylight seemed to be streaming in despite the fact that the tavern was entirely underground. He stepped inside gingerly, looking for the back door Ron had mentioned. "Anyone here? I'm looking for Wizards--"

"You found one," said a voice from behind the door.

Harry jumped and spun around, to find himself facing a very small witch with a very long wand. He quickly raised both hands and took a step back into the light from the doorway, hoping that Hermione would keep out of sight. At that point, he realized that she couldn't help but do just that: he had walked out from under the Cloak to enter the tavern, leaving her entirely covered with it. A small part of his mind filed that maneuver away for future use.

The rest of him, however, peered down somewhat anxiously at a girl who could only be seven years old at most, glaring up at him with suspicious and frightened eyes. The wand was vibrating in midair from her trembling hands.

"Hi. Is there a grownup here?" said Harry politely.

"None of your beeswax!" said the girl loudly. "What do you want?"

Harry couldn't suppress a smile. "I'm trying to find some other Wizards is all. I' in town, sort of, I just wanted to talk to people."

The girl eyeballed him warily. "My mummy said to Stun anyone that came through that door."

Harry nodded. "Well, you better do it, then. Do you know how?"

"Of course I know how!" she said with disdain.

Harry waited expectantly, resting his hands in a more comfortable position on top of his head. The girl wrinkled her whole face in concentration, then finally said, "Stupid fly." She looked absolutely dejected when nothing happened.

Harry furrowed his brow. "When I want to stun someone, I say 'stupefy,' you know. It's just one word."

"Stupafly," she said, flicking the wand.

"No 'L'," said Harry, then, slowly, "Stoop-eh-fie."

"Stupefy," she said, and the wand gave a bit of a hum. She began jumping up and down, a gap-toothed grin from ear to ear.

"You almost got it! That's great! Settle down and concentrate, though, and point your wand."

"Stupefy! Stupefy!" she shouted, and two red bolts of energy lobbed past Harry's left elbow, one carving a tidy hole in the edge of the door.

"Look at you!" Harry cheered. "But you never aim at the head--"

"I know, I know," she said sullenly. "I'll take someone's eye out."

"No, no, it's just easier to hit someone when you aim for their chest or middle. Those are bigger."

The young witch nodded with solemn comprehension, then beamed at Harry. "Can you play?" she asked amiably, apparently deciding to forego the actual stunning process.

At that same moment, however, two grown-up sorcerers came bursting through the back door of the tavern. Harry kept his hands firmly on his head and hoped they would ask questions first before resorting to wands. His new little friend looked quite dismayed; this was worse than getting caught with her hand in the cookie jar, thought Harry.

"Calliope," said the man in a frigid tone, "back away from him. Now." She obeyed, glancing guiltily between Harry and the man, presumably her father.

"What do you mean, barging in here?" asked the woman. "The sign says we're closed."

"I'm sorry," said Harry. "I was hoping to find some Wizards. I didn't know where else to look."

"You a Wizard, then?" said the man menacingly.

"Yes." Harry figured he'd better play it cool and simple for the moment.

"Turn where I can see you." Harry obeyed. "Do I know you?" But even as he said it, the woman gasped in recognition; this was one of the rare moments that Harry was glad he had his scar.

"Uther, that's Harry Potter!" she said in astonishment.

Explanations followed, and after a quick trip under the Invisibility cloak to fetch Ron, Uther and his wife Lachesis un-Vanished tables and chairs in the public room and set out a chicken pie for lunch. Calliope curled contentedly in Harry's lap, ignoring the food in favor of a toy dragon. Harry felt a bit ashamed that he waited for his hosts to eat several bites before trying some himself, but Moody's magical eye had glared at him from Hermione's pendant. Something told Harry that the Auror would be in the room in an instant if he just picked up his fork and dug in.

Harry finally asked his hosts if they had been in Godric's Hollow the night his parents were killed. They had. "We were asked to help modify the Muggles' memories that night," said Lachesis. "Uther used to be at the Ministry. We wanted to get out of the city before we raised a family. We'd barely had time to settle in before You-Know-Who struck right on our doorstep."

"Did they modify Everett Gamidge?" asked Harry pointedly. Uther and Lachesis eyed each other apprehensively.

"I was assigned to him, Harry," said Uther cautiously. "He told me what he saw, and I looked at the memory. I...understood it much better than he did." Harry leaned forward, gripping the edge of the table, but Uther stared at the scraps on his plate, rubbing his chin. He exhaled heavily and ordered Calliope out of the room, which naturally met significant resistance. Lachesis finally persuaded her to help bake a cake for Harry, and ushered her through the back door.

"Harry, you have to understand," said Uther, "only my wife knows about this. Everett and Birdie are from an old, old family, they're pillars in this community, and I respect them. But the old man saw more than he ever should that night--and I saw more than I should, when I checked his memory.

"He'd arrived just minutes after it had happened. He saw someone lugging You-Know-Who's body out of the rubble. I couldn't believe it the first time I went through it, or the second or third, for that matter. But there was no mistake, Everett got a very good look at his face. The other one, though..." Uther paused, grinding his teeth.

Harry waited, never dropping his gaze from Uther.

"Ev didn't see the other one. He had a big hat on, and he was leaning down to drag the body; his face was completely in shadow. But he was pulling the body into a car. A Ministry car, Harry! I hadn't been gone from the Ministry six months when this happened, I'd know them anywhere.

"If only there'd been a bit more light! All I could see was the shape, not a single other detail. Ev didn't even register the car, he was so fixated on the two men, but I could spot it in the background of his memory. The poor gaffer, he shuffled back down the hill as fast as he could, but they were long gone by the time he got there. Of course, if they'd seen him, they'd have killed him on the spot. He was lucky."

Uther paused uncomfortably. "I knew Sirius Black. He and Potter came in here a few times after we took over the management. And everyone who's been to Hogwarts since the Great Muggle War knows Hagrid. I never believed a word in the Prophet about Black after the way Hagrid handed that little baby to him. Especially not after seeing someone at the top of the Ministry hauling off You-Know-Who. You never read about that in the Prophet, did you?"

The acid from Harry's stomach was doing a slow, burning climb up his throat. "Someone from the Ministry pulled him out of the rubble." Uther nodded. "To hide the fact that he'd been killed?"

Uther cocked his head. "Could be. Who knows? Maybe they just wanted a private trophy. But there was no one else there yet, no one. That car didn't have time to just happen upon the scene, not to mention get right in and find You-Know-Who just like that. The car, and the driver, had been there all along, Harry, waiting outside when the house was destroyed."

"And they went in to pull out Voldemort, not Lily or James!" said Hermione in a shocked voice. Uther nearly knocked his chair over backwards when she said the name.

"Come on, now, it's nothing new," said Ron in disgust. "There's always been Death Eaters infiltrating the Ministry. Rookwood. Crouch--or at least his son. Malfoy--he may not be a Minister but you can bet he could borrow a car any time he wanted, right up 'til he got tossed into Azkaban."

Harry nodded. It was not hard to imagine someone like Malfoy borrowing a Ministry car for an evening. "It's true, it might not have been a Minister."

Uther shook his head. "Perhaps not, but I'll tell you one thing: that car wasn't from the general fleet. It was a private Ministry automobile, and those only belong to high-ranking officials. Someone up at the top of the Ministry of Magic had You-Know-Who's body in their car, and whether they did the driving or just lent it to a 'friend,' they never let that fact be known."

Uther shook his head. "I didn't know what to do except keep it quiet. They'd have no qualms about doing to me and mine what they did to the Potters! I sent Everett home and filed a false report about his memory and the mods I'd done. All I did was blank out the fact that he and I had spoken. I left the truth there, intact.

"By the time Ev got out of bed the next day, the Ministry was long gone and the Muggle detectives weren't interested in a dotty old man's story about a third body being hauled from the scene. I guess he figured out for himself that no one was going to buy the parts about giants and motorcycles driving through trees."

Uther spoke urgently. "Harry, you can't go back to the Gamidges. I'm going over there now to get your things and modify both their memories; I'll have to just cut out the last twenty-four hours. They can't walk around town, telling people that they saw Baby Harry all grown up."

Harry's jaw fell. "But they were so happy!" he protested in a squeaky voice.

"They were happy before they saw you, too. But if You-Know-Who or the Ministry gets wind of this, they'll be dead. And probably not quickly, unless they're lucky."

Everyone at the table sat in silence for a moment as that sank in.

"But," said Hermione miserably, "what would Vol-sorry, You-Know-Who even be doing here? That was sixteen years ago!"

Uther waved his hand at the interior of the tavern. "Why do you think we're closed down? Three weeks ago, a man came in here asking about the Potters. Did anyone still live here who had known them, where could those people be found, that sort of thing. He didn't have a Dark Mark, but he looked as though he were either under the Imperius or a mortal threat. He was a nervous wreck, stuttering and twitching; mixing up his words; winking and shaking his head after he'd ask something as though to say 'don't answer that.' Cleared the whole place out. I told him I'd just taken over the inn when the Potters were killed, that I'd had no time to get to know them at all, which was all true. I just left off everything about the Gamidges. The next morning, the bloke pays his bill and leaves, shaking all over. An hour later, the schoolhouse explodes right over our heads. Thank goodness it was summer holiday!"

All three of them sat back, dumbstruck. Uther nodded. "I've always had top-of-the-line protective spells on this place, for sixteen years. I knew that wasn't the last we'd see of trouble."

At that point, Calliope burst through the back door, proudly carrying a slightly lopsided cake. "'Zert time!" she announced. Uther slipped out the back door to visit the Gamidges while Calliope carefully sliced and served cake to Harry, Ron, and Hermione. She scraped a huge section of frosting onto her own plate.

"I heard Daddy telling you about that man," she said coyly. Harry simply nodded, not certain that his host would appreciate him interrogating his little girl. Fortunately, that was all the prompting she required. "I knew who he was."

The three of them nearly crashed their heads together as they leaned forward eagerly at this bit of news.

"Mummy and Daddy didn't recognize him, but I've seen him before. Back on Diagon Alley. He was the man from the ice cream store."

"Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour?" said Harry cautiously.

"Yep! We used to go there when I was little. He was nice, he always gave me all the sauce as I wanted on my sundaes."

Harry looked up at Ron and Hermione. Florean Fortescue had disappeared more than a year earlier. "Calliope, do you think you could get me a glass of milk for my cake, please?"

The door had barely swung closed on the hem of her robes when Hermione spoke up. "I've had a theory about this for a long time. You used to hang around at Fortescue's, Harry, that time you stayed at the Leaky Cauldron?"

"Yeah. He gave me ice cream all day. And helped me with an essay I was working on."

"It probably looked, at least to passersby, that you two had become friends, don't you think?"

Harry glanced at her, then Ron. "I suppose. He came out and talked whenever things were quiet."

Hermione turned a bit pale. "Now, Harry, I don't want you to get all defensive about this, but I think he might have been taken so Voldemort could learn more about you."

Harry bristled, but he could also begin to see the correlations forming. "Keep talking."

Hermione eyed him cautiously, but continued. "We know that Voldemort caught on that you were using Legilimency against him, just like he was using it against you. After, what, five years of having a connection to you, he had to cut you off. But that was right when the entire Wizard world started screaming about you and the Prophecy--the worst possible time for him to lose his link to you. He's afraid of you, Harry. He wants to learn all about you, so he can prepare himself, predict your attack, make himself feel safer."

Ron made an appalled face. "Since when do you know all about how Vol-Voldemort feels?" Harry beamed at him proudly; they were getting better about the name, no doubt about it.

Hermione peered down her nose. "He's just a man, Ron. The sooner you start thinking of him as having the same frailties as the rest of us, the better."

Ron grimaced skeptically. "Hermione, sometimes you really creep me out."

She sniffed and turned back to Harry. "Anyway, I was saying: he can't sneak up and study you anymore. He needs spies, or other people who know you. Where's he going to look for people like that? He can't get to anyone in the Order, at least not easily. He can't get to the staff at Hogwarts. How many other people know you, Harry? He could have come after me, or Ron, or Neville, I suppose, but we're just kids, right? He wouldn't trust us to understand you and your motives like an adult would."

"He could ask HIM," said Harry in a malevolent tone. Ron and Hermione knew exactly who he meant.

"Maybe, certainly he could now, but a year ago, who knows? But it's not as though you ever told Sn-HIM anything personal, you hated each other! Voldemort needed an adult that you liked, maybe even trusted, someone who could give him solid, objective facts about how you think, how you solve problems. Sn--HE knows a little about where you're weak or vulnerable, but he can only guess at how you're strong! But Fortescue, there's a fellow who sat around and shot the breeze with you while plying you with ice cream, every day for two weeks."

"But all we were talking about was History of Magic, Hermione!" Harry said it almost pleadingly. He didn't want Fortescue to be captured and tortured on his account. How empty did his world have to be, in order to keep people safe from Voldemort? Harry was incredibly glad that Uther had gone off to set the Gamidges straight.

"History is essentially the study of war and tactics, Harry--exactly the kind of thing Voldemort would want to know about you! Besides, he wouldn't know what you'd talked about until after he'd captured Fortescue!"

"Or Fortescue went to him," said Ron vehemently. "You're both assuming the bloke is an innocent victim here, and you don't know that. He could have handed over what he knew about Harry willingly! The fact that he's still alive might even have something to do with that, eh?"

Hermione looked a bit subdued. Harry nodded, not looking at either of them, then spoke. "You're right. We don't know how Fortescue got in this situation, only that right now, he's been out gathering information about my parents. Their friends, actually. Which means Voldemort expected me to come here, and wanted to know where I'd be going, who I'd be talking to. He probably tried to blow up the inn to make sure I'd have nowhere safe to stay when I came." He sighed. "I imagine Fortescue knew I was curious about my parents; it probably came up at some point in the conversation." Hermione and Ron exchanged a glance; neither had the heart to tell him that this was as plain as the scar on his forehead.

Calliope skipped into the pub at that point, gave them all an utterly flustered look, then dashed back through the rear door. "I think she forgot the milk," said Ron.

At Lachesis's urging, Harry, Ron, and Hermione spent the night in the Green Dragon. Harry no longer desired to put anyone else in the Hollow at risk by inquiring about his parents. Lachesis had recommended they visit the muggle library, however; they could at least look at newspaper articles from that time.

After a breakfast of cold bacon and bread, they set out for the library, which was essentially the basement of a large manor house that served as Town Hall, courthouse, jail, and community center. Although Harry was curious about newspaper clippings, he went cold at the thought of peering at reels of microfilm, not knowing when he might suddenly land on a photo of his former home. Hermione offered to go through the films first, and Harry gladly accepted.

Wandering through the library, he noticed a peculiar tingling in his palms and the soles of his feet as he passed the shelf in the furthest corner of the room. It happened more than once, and he motioned Ron over to his side. "You feel that?" he asked.

Ron looked puzzled. "Feel what?"

"Walk this way, behind this last row." Harry steered him around the to the far side of the shelf. Ron's shudder as he stepped past the bookcase told Harry all he needed to know. They exchanged a pointed look and began carefully scrutinizing the shelves and their contents; there was something magical there, though neither of them had ever encountered anything quite like it before.

When a meticulous search turned up nothing, Harry tossed his head casually toward the librarian, who, like Madam Pince, apparently considered the reading or handling of books an act of sacrilege. Ron immediately sauntered to a shelf on the other side of the room and began pulling books down, holding them open in mid-air with one hand and flipping pages with a rough snap. Out of the corner of his eye, Harry watched the librarian eyeing Ron in agony; she was unwilling to leave her desk, however, which had an optimized viewpoint of all the shelves. When Ron began to mutter "Oho!" and fingered the corners of the pages as if to dog-ear them, however, her resolve broke and she bustled across the room.

Harry quickly yanked his wand out of the back of his shirt (he'd tucked the handle into his belt and let it rest against his spine, since there was nowhere in these summery Muggle clothes to comfortably conceal an eleven-inch wand) and muttered every revealing spell he could think of as he waved it at the shelf. Nothing happened. He tried spells both to open doors and unlock them, with no results. Ron was going be thrown out of the library any second now, and Harry knew he would undoubtedly be deemed guilty by association by the librarian. For lack of a better idea, he whispered, halfheartedly, the incantation to open the Marauder's Map: "I solemnly swear that I am up to no good."

Those could not have possibly been the correct words, but perhaps all that mattered was the intent behind them, for at that moment a beautiful red book appeared on the shelf. Harry snatched it up, stuffing his wand down the leg of his jeans and giving the book the place of honor in the back of the waistband. He hoped the Muggle T-shirt was thick enough to obscure it. "I'm so sorry," he called to the matron, who was attempting to delicately but firmly remove a copy of Dante's Inferno from Ron's grasp. "Please excuse my brother! He has a rare form of epilepsy, he doesn't even know what he's doing when he's like this. Come on, Ronnie," he urged, handing Ron's book to the librarian and guiding him to the door, keeping his back toward the opposite wall as she watched them exit, seething.

When Hermione emerged half an hour later, she shoved a handful of copied microfilms into Harry's hand and proceeded to cloud up and rain all over them. "She almost threw me out too, you know! I had to lie and tell her I'd never seen you two before, but we'd ridden the same bus here and you'd been acting funny the whole way. What's the matter with you idiots?"

Harry and Ron were honestly trying to acknowledge, fairly, that they'd embarrassed her, but they were both so impressed by her off-the-cuff explanation that their faux humility fell apart. Ron actually scooped her into his arms and swung her around in an arc, laughing.

Harry beckoned her to sit beside him on a concrete bench in the square, where he could conceal the book in his lap as he showed it to her. He explained how he'd found it, but realized that she wasn't paying any attention; she was turning the pages reverently. She was so completely engrossed in the writing that she didn't even notice when Harry stopped speaking in mid-sentence. It dawned on Harry that magical books were not always benign, and he waved his hand a bit frantically in front of her eyes. She looked up at him with a rapturous expression.

" know I've taken Ancient Runes," she began.

"Yes..." said Harry, twirling his hand in the air to encourage her to continue.

"I've only seen writing like this in the advanced textbooks Professor Rumil let me borrow," she said in an awestruck voice. "These were the 'ancient runes' that people studied, back when what we call ancient runes were the common tongue! And these--" she gently turned back to a page written in a different script, which was indented like a poem, "--I think this might be the Primary Tongue of the Eldest. Harry! Ron!" She stared elatedly at each of them in turn. "This is the language of the first Wizards on Earth!"

Chapter 6: Chapter 6: The Phoenix Tale
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Adric Gryffindor turned his collar up against the wind as he trudged across the moor.

It was a particularly cold, wet day for a journey, especially for such an old man, but his excitement was too great to contain. He had to reach his brother's house. He could see the windows glowing across the vale. As a boy, he could run from the manor to the outbuildings in a matter of minutes, but now his shuffling gait would drag this trip out for more than an hour.

An hour was nothing compared to a lifetime of study, particularly a Wizard lifetime. Adric was a scholar of Ancient Runes, and he had spent the better part of a century translating a single text. Like water wearing down stone, he had labored years without noticeable progress; it took a year to sort out the alphabets, and that was after a year ascertaining there were four languages represented in the text. The main tongue, fortunately, had been the precursor to a well-studied ancient language, which had evolved into their current tongue. It was possible to draw general conclusions about the content and even the sound of the text after a mere decade of study. He'd spent twice as many years collecting more grammar: rubbing charcoal reliefs from carved stones, scouring catacombs for scraps of parchment, visiting royal and noble families to copy the runes etched on weapons so ancient they ought to have crumbled to dust--but the magic they posessed had kept them intact, which was of course precisely why they were invaluable.

The text had been written in three distinct hands, one spidery and fine, one firm and flowing, one blocky and coarse. It was a record of events of its day, and also of history. It contained maps, songs, and many, many names, some of which shimmered tauntingly with magic inside his mind, if only he could pronounce them. All of these, however, were in a tongue so old that not a trace of it remained in any language; it would never be spoken aloud again.

He had found the book in his youth, during a holiday far down in the southwest. He and his brother had spotted a pleasant-looking hill while riding brooms, and stopped to enjoy the view over lunch. He approached what he took for an ancient well made of brick, finding to his great surprise that his voice did not echo sharply from water within, but reverberated strangely. Guessing that there was some sort of chamber in the hill beneath them, the two brothers naturally (and promptly) opened the hillside with their wands. There was indeed a cavity, burrowing and branching deep into the hillside. Ancient tiles, though displaced by roots, still demarked a hallway, and some semblance of walls and archways were still discernable, though the entire hilltop had obviously sunk; the ceiling was too low for them to stand upright anywhere inside.

All within was long decayed, but Adric happened to spot a pane of glass reflecting the dim light of his wand. He fancied to let some sunlight through the tiny window one more time. Levitating the dirt on the other side of the glass, he stepped forward to admire the view that the previous occupants had doubtless enjoyed. The hem of his robes brushed the dirt from the surface of a book, revealing the red cover in the sunlight. It was perfectly intact, as though fresh from a book-binder, yet Adric knew at once that the writing was older than any runes he'd ever seen.

They should have taken it to Camelot for study, but Adric knew he was meant to have it. The world was not so capricious as to lead a budding Runemaster and his undauntable, curious little brother to this particular hill on a dry, sunny day, without a reason. Thus began a lifetime of meticulous study, which he felt had come to fruition this very afternoon.

Adric pounded on the door once, then barged in straightaway as usual. Helga Hufflepuff was visiting, which was just as well; this concerned her too.

"Godric, I found it!"

"Your blue cloak?" said Godric Gryffindor.

"No, you idiot, would I have walked all the way here on a day like this to tell you about my cloak?" he shouted. "And if I did, don't you suppose I would be wearing it?" His brother was a great man, but at times he could be dumber than a bag of rocks. "I've found the Hidden City!"

Helga dropped the lamp she was holding, which immediately started a rather impressive fire as the oil splashed over the old floorboards. It was no match for their wands, however, and they quickly settled down at the hewn table. Adric's hands trembled under the best of circumstances, but now he was so excited that he could barely unroll his parchment.

"Here!" he pointed triumphantly.

Helga and Godric exchanged a skeptical look; Adric was pointing to an ancient map, which bore absolutely no resemblance to any land that they knew of. He glanced back and forth between them, clearly expecting a more enthusiastic response, then squawked in frustration. Yanking a modern map out of his bundle, Adric tapped it lightly with his wand, saying "Hemilysis epistratum," and laid it on top of the first parchment. The spell had made the parchment semitransparent, so the lower map was dimly readable through the top. He adjusted it carefully to his satisfaction, then beckoned them closer.

"Look at this range of mountains, it's on both maps," he said. "They've been there since the dawn of time, they've worn down quite a bit but you can still see the ridge on our map."

Godric raised his brow skeptically. "Adric, there are ridges like that all over the world. Nothing else on that map looks anything like our country!"

You know very well that the earth was violently changed, twice, since the first map was drawn. But this ridge, it's on every map, the same shape--" he fumbled quickly through his scrolls and unrolled a third map, "--you see how it appears here, the shape is even more similar. This map was made after the first Great Change." He pointed to the east of the ridge, at an area labeled in somewhat familiar letters. "These runes read very nearly like our own tongue--say it for yourself! 'Angband.' It must be Angland, Godric. It must!"

"But the coasts...this isn't even an island, Adric!" Helga said.

"I know, but you aren't appreciating how much time elapses between these maps. The coasts and waterways change the most, erosion and what not. I believe, for example, that this whole basin--" he indicated a wide plain further east of the ridge--"widened and flooded, as this range of mountains drifted northeast to become the Nordic peninsula."

Helga's eyes lit up. "I remember from the story, there was a place at the edge of those mountains..." She scanned the map in Adric's hand closely. "Yes, this one, 'The Final Home...' If these mountains have indeed become Nordia, then 'Final Home' would be sitting right where Asgard is now!" She looked up meaningfully at Godric. The Odin Academy of Sorcery in Asgard was built on a site strong with ancient magic, and they dreamed of building their own school to rival it.

"Exactly!" said Adric gleefully. "Now, look again at the oldest map. Below the ridge was a kingdom of the Elders, the one where the entire forest was protected by magic. Imagine! Leagues and leagues in every direction, no one could enter without leave of the queen--what a witch she must have been!

"Godric, if I'm correct, then the hill where we found the book, it was within the former bounds of the old forest kingdom. You know the story; that land was nearly hidden from men, protected, even though wars raged around it--though no one had woven spells over the area for thousands of years! And the original magic was strong enough to preserve the book all this time, without being maintained or replenished.

"The Hidden City dates even before the forest kingdom; it belonged to the Eldest. That was the story I deciphered last month. It fell because of treachery and betrayal, but it was never found by men. It would have even more potent magic than the forest kingdom, protective wards and hiding spells, crafted by the world's first wizards, Godric! It's here," he pointed, "in this circle of mountains. Those must have crumbled during the First Great Change, but the spot...look there, it must be right there. Only 70 leagues or so from here, two days by broom, at the very most!"

Adric looked up from the map with such wide-eyed enthusiasm, he seemed ready to start off right then. Helga pursed her lips and gave Godric a nod.

Godric and Helga headed north the next morning. Adric's tremors made his broom twitch too violently to fly. They followed the map, noting from the air that the roads built by both Romans and native clansmen all seemed to gently curve away from the spot they were heading. When the two friends suddenly eyed each other, each trying to judge if the other had sensed the tingle of power in the air, they knew it was time to descend. They set down on top of a cliff overlooking a lake, and neither needed to speak. They had found the site where they would build their school.

"I'll Apparate and get the others," said Helga, as Godric gazed in every direction, plans already forming in his head. Something was not quite right, though he couldn't place it until he turned around and found the crown of Helga's head poking out of the stony ground.

"Bugger!" He rushed over, but realized he was not quite sure what to do; he had gone on many bold adventures in his life, but none of them had involved solid rock acting like quicksand. He tentatively tried to pick up the bit of scalp. Perhaps she had merely splinched off the top of her head...but no, it was clearly attached to more of her, below the surface. "Helga?" he asked the scalp, which made no sound, but the hairline seemed to wriggle a bit. Cocking his head, he reflected that even if he had a shovel, it would be of little use on the granite. He finally decided to try "Accio Helga!", which, to his great relief, resulted in her emerging from the ground in a sort of rapid ooze.

"Well, I never!" she said, spitting out a pebble.

He flashed her a warm but slightly condescending smile; she could be so absent-minded at times, but that was part of her charm. "Don't worry, lass, I'll do it," he said, and Apparated, only to find himself in utter darkness, unable to move any part of his body, the taste of cold stone on his tongue and a terrible urge to visit the garderobe. He could still hear, oddly enough, Helga's muffled laughter.

After uprooting him, Helga nipped off on her broom for a few leagues to try again, leaving Godric finally alone to wander. The cliff was a perfect foundation for the castle. They would mine out some dungeons (Salazar would insist on tight, windowless places), and use the same stone to build the towers, though they'd have to import more, perhaps bricks as well. They would need slate for the roof. Perhaps they could find some stones from the original Hidden City. He wandered along the cliff's edge, lost in his own imagination, until something tugged at him from behind.

Godric was never one to jump when startled, so he turned around evenly to a most unexpected finding: an enormous red bird was standing on the hem of his cloak. "Well, hello there, beastie!" he said. "Seen a bit of trouble?" The bird looked ragged, with uneven clumps of feathers; its tail was starkly asymmetric, as though something had pulled out the long pinions on one side. Godric loved birds, and he'd never seen one so stately and beautiful, despite being disheveled. "Poor chap, you can't fly with half your tail gone, can you?" He patted down his robe for a biscuit he had stuffed in his pocket that morning, but the bird only gave it a polite nudge with its beak and sat back expectantly.

"You're no ordinary beastie, are you, friend?" said Godric respectfully, recognizing the sentience behind its behavior. "It must have been some battle for your pinions, what? Well, you're safe with me, now." He tucked the bird snugly in the roomy hood of his cloak, whereupon it trilled softly, laid its scarlet head on his shoulder, and exploded into flames.

Rowena Ravenclaw had already arrived (her home was actually not very far away) and was approaching the cliff on foot when she suddenly saw Godric flare up. Scrambling through the scree up the hillside with her wand ready, she arrived to find him sitting in a pile of ashes, naked as the day he was born, reverently cradling something tiny in his palm. She had already begun to put pieces together; ignoring his state of undress, she ran to his side and peered into his cupped hand. Sure enough, there was a damp, new chick resting there.

She stared at the phoenix with awe, until she remembered the lore of the Bonding. "Godric! Can you speak?" she said, shaking his shoulders in alarm. "Are you still yourself, my friend?"

Godric took his wide eyes off the hatchling at last and gazed at her in pure joy. He'll be all right, she thought with relief, and began bundling the two of them in her own cloak. Pity he wasn't wearing that ugly hat when it happened.

Tom Riddle had long since lost his patience as he stood in Ollivander's; the proprietor must be deliberately baiting him, recognizing his threadbare Muggle clothes as the sign of a second-class customer. When the next wand sputtered weak yellow sparks, he threw it to the ground and grabbed the strange young man by the lapels, glaring at him fiercely. "Stop bringing out your shopworn garbage, you're not going to unload it on me!"

"Young sir, I assure you, all the wands in this shop are of highest quality." His unruffled complacence about being manhandled made Tom suppose that this infuriating trial-and-error approach was, in fact, something his customers endured regularly. He grudgingly released his hold.

"Don't you have any way of narrowing down the selection?" Tom finally said in exasperation.

Ollivander studied him carefully a moment. "Perhaps. There is something about you, Master Riddle, that makes me wonder...I have a special collection, one which I rarely show." He rolled his ladder to the back of the shop and climbed to the top, retrieving several very dusty boxes, so old and dry they looked ready to crumble. Tom could already feel something about these wands; they had gone unsold for so very long not because they were second-rate merchandise, but because there were very few customers who could handle them.

"These were constructed by my great-great-great-grandfather," said Ollivander. "We sell only a handful of his creations in a century. His, erm, technique was unlike any other wandmaker in my family, though of course his instruments are of the same precision and quality as any Ollivander wand." He arranged the boxes in a neat stack on the floor, and set about to gently loosen the ancient lids.

"As you may know," he continued, "each wand has a magical object concealed in its core. Such objects are generally found, harvested, bartered for, et cetera, in other words, obtained by what one might call 'fair' means. This collection, however, is unique in that their materials were acquired under, erm, less equitable circumstances."

"These three, for example," said Ollivander, "contain dragon heartstrings which were cut out while the heart was still beating." Tom listened raptly; the shopkeeper had his full attention now. "The wood of this one came from an olive tree in Tuscany, over 2000 years old. It was cut down by an arrogant patrician to be whittled into buttons for his shirts. He promptly choked to death on one of them." He handed it obligingly to Tom, who admired it, but though it felt more suitable by far than any other, it was still not quite right.

"What else?" said Tom, replacing the wand in its box respectfully, for a change.

"Ah, this one...this one," said Ollivander, peering reverently at the one he'd just opened. "I think this may suit you, young sir. The core is a tail feather of a phoenix--stolen from the creature at the height of its strength. A feat that has never been duplicated. All other phoenix wands are made from feathers given willingly, or discarded, or, rarely, quickly plucked just before the withered creature immolates itself. This one came into my ancestor's possession for a considerable price. We do not know who...obtained it from the phoenix, or how the feat was managed...only that it was obtained in the manner I described."

Tom took the wand reverently. It fit his palm with a cool balance, and as he ran a loving finger along the length of the wood, it felt like part of his arm.

Ollivander smiled at him obsequiously. Tom Riddle never felt any sense of gratitude or debt, particularly when he was forced to pay a fair price for something he wanted. But he knew he must reward the shopkeeper some day for this service.

As the unpleasant youth finally left his shop (his bag of gold considerably lighter), Ollivander shuddered and replaced the wands on their remote shelf. Since he was a child, he hated even to touch their boxes, but they were beautiful in their own dark way--and every one he sold meant that fewer remained to spread their gloom in the shop.

While climbing down from the ladder, however, he nearly lost his footing in surprise. A beautiful scarlet phoenix was perched on the back of the spindly chair. With a little trill, it stretched its neck and wrenched hard at a tail feather, which pulled out a plug of flesh when it finally came free. Ollivander approached it slowly and took the feather from its beak; the red and gold striations on the underside were identical to those inside the wand he'd just sold.

Ollivander nodded as the creature gave him a hard look; he had some holly in the basement, and would turn it on the lathe that night. The feather would be made into a wand within a fortnight.

The phoenix gave him a satisfied nod, and disappeared with a flash.

Chapter 7: Chapter 7: For Better
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Harry, Ron, and Hermione had seen enough of Godric's Hollow. Between the knowledge that Voldemort had sent spies in anticipation of Harry's visit, and the fact that they had just come into the possession of an incredibly valuable ancient relic, they all felt the need to move on. Fortunately, the Burrow was close enough to Apparate there safely. Together they clutched their brooms tightly and willed themselves through the sensation of being pulled through a Chinese finger-cuff. The only complication was that Harry ended up perched on the roof of the Weasley's garden shed; a butterfly had drifted past his nose just as he was beginning the spell, causing his concentration to waver ever so slightly.

Despite the fact that the house and garden were teeming with people, no one noticed this faux pas, or indeed, that the three of them had even arrived. All three of their jaws went slack as they beheld the frantic bustling in every direction. A table of girls around Ginny's age were wrapping up rose petals in circles of ivory tulle and tying them with ribbons. A delivery witch was unloading small, exquisite boxes of sweets from the saddlebags of a winged horse onto floating silver trays, stopping frequently to rearrange the boxes until more would fit while still looking uncluttered. Steps away, a filthy chimney sweep was watching the process hungrily, but the pegasus clearly had his number and was not about to permit any soot near the burden it had borne so carefully. People were trotting in and out of the house and garden with gifts, papers, clothes hanging in fancy bags, flowers, and foodstuffs of all sorts.

Ron and Harry stared in disbelief at the whole process, even as Hermione's face lit up with excitement. She squeezed both of them on the arms with a delighted squeal and tried to pull them into the fray, but they hung back stubbornly. "Come on, you lumps, they need all the help they can get!" she chided, and set off at once to find an assignment for herself.

"Harry?" said Ron, slackjawed, "I'm never getting married."

A joyous shriek from inside the Burrow indicated that Hermione had found Mrs. Weasley. Harry punched Ron's shoulder to break him from his bewildered trance, and the two of them resigned themselves to two days of indentured servitude.

Harry left the Burrow near midnight, stepping through emerald flames into the blissful peace and quiet of Grimmauld Place. The Burrow was too full for company; Charlie, Fred, and George had all been called home to help prepare for the wedding feast. After seeing the kind of detail and bother the Weasleys were sorting through, Harry shuddered to imagine Fleur's home, where the wedding itself would take place.

The house was dark and quiet, but Harry could see light coming from the drawing room as he headed up the stairs. Though tired, he knocked anyway out of curiosity. "Come!" said the voice of Mad-Eye Moody. He was hunched over the rolltop desk from which Mrs. Weasley had once, with considerable difficulty, banished a boggart.

"Evening, Harry," he said, without lifting his head from his papers; his magical eye had spotted Harry through the back of his head.

"Good evening," said Harry. "I won't interrupt, I was just on my way to bed."

Moody turned in his chair, tearing off a section of the parchment he was studying and crumpling up the remainder. "No bother. Sit a minute." Harry did as he was asked, wondering what the old man had in mind. Apparently Moody wasn't quite sure himself, as he shifted in his seat several times, fiddling with the parchment distractedly.

"That was good field work, Potter," he finally said.

Harry, who had grown more and more convinced that he was about to be chastised for something, sighed audibly with relief and said, "Thanks."

Moody leaned forward. "I mean it. All three of you. You've got good instincts, think fast on your feet. I'd like to see you all in MLE."

"Emily?" said Harry, puzzled.

"M-L-E. Magical Law Enforcement. Aurors, in other words." Patches of pink were appearing between the reticulated scars on Moody's face. Harry couldn't believe it; the old man was actually blushing.

"You know, Crouch told me the same thing in my fourth year--when he was disguised as you." Harry began to blush a bit himself.

Moody folded his arms. "He did, eh? Must'a got some of my good sense with the looks, then, the prat." Moody smirked and turned back to the desk. "Get on to bed, lad."

"Professor?" Harry said on a nervous impulse.

"Moody'll do," he said, though he didn't turn back around.

Harry's voice was a strained whisper. "Do you think I can beat him?"

Moody took a deep breath, resting his elbows on the desk and rubbing his neck. "He's a mean one, Potter. I think it'll take everything you have. Maybe even your life." He turned to face Harry again. "But he's also a bitter old man, scratchin' and clawin' to stay alive though he don't know a thing about living.

"You sussed out little Calliope just right, helping her do that spell. And that banshee in the library; I don't know what you were up to, but it was a fine diversion, even if I had to watch it through the lass's midriff. Half of every battle's won in the mind, Potter--by understanding your opponent. You've got a grasp of hatred and despair, but he's got no concept of courage nor love. He won't know what hit him when you play those cards."

Nodding, Harry just said, "Good night."

Harry's first thought as he was awakened the next morning was that a huge bumblebee was mistaking his face for a flower. Half asleep, he swatted at it irritably, which resulted in a series of indignant screeches; this un-beelike behavior woke him with a snap. It was Pigwidgeon, flapping around in his typical frenzy. Harry bemusedly pulled the tiny scroll from the owl's leg; it bore only the words, "GET BACK HERE!" in Ron's handwriting.

For the next six hours, Harry became an errand boy for the entire Weasley clan. He made two separate trips to the Ministry of Magic, one to retrieve the permit for a Portkey from Ottery St. Catchpole to Dijon, France (which Arthur had forgotten to pick up), and another to file some sort of registration for Fleur Delacour to become a citizen of the UK after the wedding (which had slipped out of a stack of parchments that Bill had taken in). This was truly a measure of his love for the Weasley family, as he would prefer to step into a pile of dragon dung than the Ministry building. The second time, a photographer from the Daily Prophet had nearly managed to run him down, but he escaped through the Floo Network before she had time to get a snapshot of him in front of the bank of fireplaces. He suspected she might have caught him in the flames just before he whirled away, but he deliberately made a gesture that would make the photo unfit to print.

Hermione had been up nearly all night kneading dough. "They say it's bad luck to cook with magic for a wedding feast," she told Harry, handing him a large sack of potatoes and a peeler. "Sounds like a load of patriarchal rubbish to me, but what can you do, it's tradition. Everything's got to be prepared by hand--and Harry, you're the only one who has any idea how to use one of these. They were just going to mash them up with the skins on, but I couldn't bear to have lumpy potatoes at a big party like this!" She ran off to help decorate the long picnic tables in the yard, leaving Harry to mutter about how lumps weren't so bad as he wistfully recalled the labor-saving devices in his Aunt Petunia's kitchen.

When he'd scraped the last spud, Harry picked up the sack and hauled it into the house. It was worse in there than outside, since there were roughly the same number of people but only a fraction of the space. As is always the case in sculleries, there was a stream of sounds, smells, and activity that could hardly be called "steady," due to the chaotic starts and spurts that characterize the cooking process. One pot might be bubbling over as another was set on the burner for the first time, each cook grousing at the other for being in the way during "the one time" they needed the stove. Racks of rolls resembled a beehive, in that some were clearly in the larval state, having just been set out in a pinched spiral, while others were in varied levels of raising, still others emerging from the cocoon of the oven in their mature, edible form. Harry pocketed one of the latter, earning a light slap from an unknown witch, but this was nothing compared to his punishment for taking out his wand to conjure up a cauldron in which to boil his potatoes. Shrieks of "NO MAGIC!" came from every part of the room; he feared someone would snap his wand in half.

"Here, Harry, sweetheart, just give those to me," said an angel, which turned out to be Mrs. Weasley. She scooped up the bag of denuded potatoes and bustled them to the sink; a hapless witch drying her hands suddenly found her next chore thrust upon her. Mrs. Weasley returned to give him a quick hug, dodging a hot pie and grabbing a paper bag of pecans on her way. Harry took them obediently and made a hasty departure. When he realized he would have to go back in for a nutcracker, he sneaked behind the garden shed and conjured one, tradition or no.

Harry stretched that task out as long as he could, producing a fine collection of unbroken pecan halves, but finally had to face the reality of returning to the kitchen. The feasting hour was approaching, however, so the ovens were full but the kitchen nearly empty. He was able to make his way inside without danger of being minced and cooked into something. Mrs. Weasley was actually sitting down at the table, dashing off some last-minute orders to her sous-chefs before changing into her party dress. She looked up to see what Harry could possibly be doing in her kitchen, noticed the pecans, and waved him over.

"Oh, lovely, let's get these roasted and out on the tables, thank you, Harry--"

The ocean roiled below the white cliffs as Molly stood beside Arthur Weasley. They had just eloped. She was sure her parents would be upset; they had always wanted a fancy wedding for their little girl. Oh, they liked Arthur all right, even though he was actually a distant relation. All the pureblood families had that problem, but you couldn't hold it against people--you just had to go back through the family tree and make sure there were enough branches in there to hold up your descendants. But they wouldn't be pleased about the quick, secret wedding, nor the fact that Molly was married at barely eighteen years of age.

Well, that was just too bad. She loved Arthur. Mother kept saying she should wait, a better one might come along, but he was the one she wanted. And if a "better one" came along, well, there would be room in both their lives for new and treasured friends.

Bill was the first one. She thought she knew what love was all about, but nothing had prepared her for the fire this tiny bundle would light in her heart, not just a feeling, but a biologic imperative. She could spend all day nuzzling his fuzzy head, watching him stretch out his busy fingers and toes, laughing at the unselfconscious way he yawned or sneezed with his toothless little mouth.

She would rip out Fenrir Greyback's throat with her teeth if she ever caught sight of him.

Tonight would be Bill's wedding feast. Molly finally understood what Mother had meant about waiting, but even if Bill had waited forever, there would never be a woman "good enough" for her beloved baby. Fleur, at least, had proven herself to be a decent sort, but this was her Bill! Fleur couldn't possibly understand that he was so perfect, so wonderful...until, perhaps, she bore Bill's children and discovered what love really meant herself.

Feeling almost as though he were fighting for breath, Harry pulled himself from the deluge of emotion and found his way back to his own eyes, his own mind. He knew he could not touch a flame like that in her heart and remain unchanged; it would burn in him forever.

Mrs. Weasley didn't look too happy, though. As that peculiar calm descended upon Harry, he wondered if she would strike him, but he wouldn't really mind if she whapped him with a frying pan. It would all heal, and it was a price worth paying for the privilege of finding her mind. "I'm sorry, Molly," he said. "I can't stop myself from doing that."

She nodded, avoiding his eyes. "Well," she said in a courageously and artificially lighthearted voice, "I think I'd better head upstairs, get changed..."

Harry caught her in his arms as she stood up. "Thank you," he said earnestly.

"For what, dear?" she asked.

"I went to Godric's Hollow to find out why my parents died. But you showed me instead."

Thus were the floodgates finally opened on a tearful (but joyous) weekend.

Harry spent the first few hours of the feast in Ron's room, waiting for his disinterested calm to lift. By the time he finally trusted himself not to blurt out something spooky, most of the potatoes he'd peeled so diligently were gone, but there was still plenty of everything else. Harry was in the process of dispatching a plate of roasted pork when he spotted Ginny over by the hedge, chatting with other girls and eating the pretty sweets the pegasus had brought.

He nearly fumbled his plate right into his lap. He'd enjoyed going two whole days without suddenly plunging into a strange head, and if the past was any indication, he was likely to have a cluster of them before they'd go away. Harry wasn't so sure he wanted to be privy to Ginny's heart of hearts at the moment. She sure looked pretty, though, he mused, hunching over his supper in hopes that she wouldn't see him.

Around that same time, Harry began to notice a certain unexpected quiet on the other side of the house. It crept into his awareness in a slow, nefarious way, such that when he finally realized what was bothering him, he leapt up in terror. There weren't many things that could quiet down a raucous party such as this, but dementors leapt to his mind as an obvious possibility. Harry nearly tipped the bench over in his haste to get to the front yard, wand in hand and ready to summon a whopper of a Patronus.

As he skidded around the house, though, Harry felt none of the cold dread that accompanied a dementor attack. He felt a little disoriented, because he couldn't see anything obviously amiss; there were no screams, no one was running. In fact, a number of people appeared to be making a point of focusing on their supper. For a brief moment, Harry wondered if he'd lost his hearing, but suddenly everything made sense: Percy Weasley was standing on the front walk.

Harry's sprint through the yard had led several others to follow in concern, which of course produced a multiplying effect. Within minutes, the entire wedding party had accreted into a wide semicircle around Percy. To his credit, although he had surely hoped for a less conspicuous entrance, Percy stood his ground, biting his lip nervously with his head inclined.

Arthur began to approach his son, but Bill put a hand on his father's shoulder. Bill crossed the gap between Percy and everyone else, stopping directly in front of him. Percy looked up, seeing for the first time how fearsomely his brother had been mauled by the werewolf Fenrir. "Morgana, Mordred, and Merlin!" he said faintly, raising a faltering hand to Bill's jaw.

"Still better looking than you, you know," said Bill.

Percy regarded him a moment longer, his eyes growing wider and wider until, without any transition, they overflowed with tears. Bill immediately scooped his brother up into a stalwart hug. If the Weasleys had ever hoped for a lawn sprinkler in their yard, the weeping engendered by this simple act was closest they'd ever get.

Harry felt like he'd just closed his eyes when the pounding started on his door. It was Tonks, as usual; no one took more joy from thrashing a door than she did, especially, it seemed, if someone was desperately trying to snooze behind it. When he saw how high the sun had already climbed, however, he was glad she'd come by; he'd nearly overslept.

His new clothes had been pressed and hung up by the bed. He shook his head; it seemed sometimes that there must be another house-elf hidden in Grimmauld Place. The linen shirt was clean and crisp, and the silk robes felt even lighter and cooler than the first time he wore them. As he appraised himself in the mirror, he nodded at his reflection and murmured, "Sharp!" He didn't care what Phineas Nigellus might have to say about it.

He headed for the kitchen for a quick hop through the fireplace back to the Burrow; after going to the Ministry to get that bloody Portkey, he was darn well going to take it to France. Remus was coming upstairs, and gave Harry a winning smile with a thumbs-up, but with a jerk of his head toward Lady Black's portrait--apparently she was in a particularly foul mood--indicated that he'd better tiptoe the rest of the way.

Harry had just buttered a quick slice of bread for the road when the portrait went off, followed seconds later by the appearance of Tonks, who bellowed, "Oh, go get retouched!" back up the stairs. As she spotted Harry, her frown became a wide smile and she looked him over in such a thorough and deliberate manner, he started to blush. "You look good, baby," she said, her voice deep and sincere.

Harry was suddenly reminded of that dream of Lupin's, in which Tonks was calling for him in her despair. "Stop it," said Harry, much harsher and colder than he intended. She stopped short and leaned away from him, taken quite off guard by his reaction. She opened her mouth to speak but apparently couldn't come up with an adequate response. As she stood there staring and blinking at him, Harry felt like a complete git. She didn't know anything about the dream, after all...

...she felt like a mouse that had blundered into a trap; coming forward to admire a lovely piece of cheese, she found herself under attack, struck painfully and unexpectedly. She might as well be at work, where she had to keep her guard up all the time. Number twelve was the one place in the world that she could feel safe and free; she'd held Remus and wept for joy when he told her Harry had given it to them...

..."OUT!" she said, and they were both back in the kitchen.

Harry knew he'd barely touched her mind, and the strange calm barely flickered at his awareness. He sighed heavily; he was getting tired of mumbling the same tired apology over and over. He shook his head pleadingly at Tonks.

She threw him a penetrating glare, folding her arms, then sniffed reprovingly. "Moody warned me you were quick," she said with a hint of controlled anger. "What's your problem?"

He bowed his head. "Heck if I know," he said plaintively. "I'm...sorry. I've said that so many times this week, it's starting to feel like a lie." He looked up at her. "I am sorry I snapped at you, though, I mean that. It's just..."


Harry sighed again. "You know Remus. He's so're going to find some young stud that'll, you know, edge him right out of the picture."

To Harry's immense relief, her eyes widened and lit up mirthfully. "That's why you barked at me?" He nodded. Her grin returned, as impish as ever. "And are you afraid I'll be sneaking into your room one of these nights, bay-bee?" She emphasized the last word with a snide drawl.

Harry snorted, but averted his eyes sheepishly. "Terrified. No, seriously," he paused, "it just hit me the wrong way. I don't ever want him to feel like...I'm a threat."

The tension finally dissipated. "Harry," she said gently, "I can't stop him from fretting. Believe me, I've tried; he might even be more mule-headed than me on that score. But I'll tell you what," mischief creeping into her voice again, "I'm in love, not dead. I have to have a flirt with a tasty little dish now and then, it's one of those laws of nature." She winked.

Harry nodded with exaggerated solemnity. "Far be it from me to oppose the law."

Harry stepped out of the fireplace in the Burrow with a bit of a spring in his step, which was promptly quashed by Fred and George, who, despite their exquisitely tailored formal robes, pounced on him with the energy of a pair of rabid Irish setters. "Heavens above, mate, you've got everyone in a panic, where've you been?" roared one of them, but before Harry could even answer, he felt himself being pulled through a dark tunnel, to land somewhat painfully on Stoatshead Hill. The twins were in such a hurry they had Disapparated two feet above the ground. Harry didn't even have time to gain his footing before an old boot was thrust into his hands and the three of them were whisked off by a sharp tug in the stomach, arriving in what seemed to be a dark, empty hayloft.

"Welcome to France, Mr. Potter," said Fred. "Now move it!"

"Good morning, gentlemen," said Harry grumpily, though he scurried down the ladder out of the loft.

There were still a few people milling about in the barn, adjusting their ties or hats, dusting off bits of straw, or simply sneezing and dabbing their runny eyes and noses with a kerchief. Harry wondered briefly about the wisdom of assigning the Portkey to a dusty old barn on such an occasion, but he had no time to mull it over; Fred and George were already hauling him out the door.

"What's the rush? I'm just on time--" Harry began, but both twins hissed at him.

"Harry, you're the Sealer. You should've been here an hour ago!" said Fred.

"At least an hour! We've been stuck out here with two families' worth of uptight lunatics since sunrise," said George.

Fred looked as though he had another comment to make, but Harry had to cut him off. "Hold on, what do you mean? I'm the what?"

Fred actually stopped in mid stride. "The Sealer! Didn't you read your invitation?"

Harry just stared at him, dumbstruck. Fred might as well have been speaking Greek. The twins regarded one another, and both slapped their foreheads with a groan.

"Mother of Merlin, now what?" said George.

"We can't let Mum see him like this, it'll be pandemonium," said Fred.

"Will one of you please make SENSE!" demanded Harry, as they immediately steered him behind someone's garden wall.

"Listen, mate, I can't believe you didn't know this," began George. "You're part of the ceremony. Mum will spontaneously combust if she finds out you're not prepared, so..."

"Prepare to get prepared," finished Fred.

Harry groaned. "You've got to be kidding," he said weakly.

"It's not so bad," said George. "All you do is...what exactly does the Sealer do, Fred?"

"Oh for pity's sake, brother, you ought to pay attention now and again. Here's the thing: it's the custom for the most powerful wizard at the wedding to seal the bond. Guess what, chum? That's you." Harry screwed up his face in disbelief and protest, but Fred was unmoved. "No arguing, Chosen Boy, you're it. All you have to do is go to the front after the handfasting and make a little speech. Sort of giving your blessing to the couple. It's not so bad."

Disbelief gave way to outright scorn. "Not so bad?! After the what? What am I supposed to say?" Harry was beyond butterflies in his stomach; it felt more like a flock of hummingbirds on a rampage.

George piped up, thoughtfully, "Something along the lines of 'may your house be prosperous and your children quiet and obedient,' that sort of thing."

Harry scoffed impatiently. "Come on, you two, I've never been to a wedding, you've got to be more help than that!"

"No time!" said Fred, with a sincerely anxious look. "Harry, it's starting in ten minutes, we're already in trouble, we've got to get down there and hand out flowers or something."

"Usher," mused George.

"Just get in there and sit with Hermione, she'll come up with something in ten minutes. Whatever she says, cut it in about half and there's your speech." With that, both of them dashed off, leaving Harry muttering at the roses, which probably would have wilted had they spoken English.

He straightened his shirt and scampered after them. Fortunately, it was quite obvious where to go; the cobbled lane led to a paved street, upon which a crowd of well-dressed people were all heading in one direction. Harry dashed up the lane quickly, then slipped through the crowd as quickly as he could without shoving. They were heading toward a grassy open square with a fountain in the center. Chairs had been set out in three large groups separated by aisles; many of them still remained empty, and several red heads were bobbing amongst them, escorting guests to their seats. Harry spotted Ron in the left-hand section with a pair of stunning women, one on each arm; undoubtedly they were some of Fleur's half-veela aunts, as all the men's heads followed them like compass needles.

"Harry!" Arthur Weasley's hand was suddenly on his arm, steering him off to the side. "You're here! We were beginning to wonder if there was trouble." His voice was calm, but there was a hint of edginess; he looked as though he'd be glad to get this whole thing over with.

Harry smiled with all the warmth he could muster. "No trouble, I just got the time wrong, so sorry I worried you." Ugh. Well, he'd made up one speech, and it seemed to comfort Mr. Weasley; he only had one more to go.

Mr. Weasley steered him to a chair in the center section, in the front row. "You're sitting with the Guests of Both, Harry, since you're the Sealer. We'll talk to you after the ceremony." He rushed off before the blood drained from Harry's face; Hermione was sitting primly in the section to his right, already sniffling happily into her hanky. Harry sunk into his chair and wished the ground would just reach up and pull him under.

He did, at least, have a few minutes to think. Harry pondered over books he'd read, things he'd seen on the Dursleys' television, trying to come up with something either elegant or romantic (preferably both). Nothing was leaping out at him. He shook his head--all he could think of was that idiot George and his remark about "may you have obedient children." May your sons be nothing like their uncles Fred and George, he mused. Well, maybe the ceremony itself would give him some ideas; his speech might be a bit repetitive, but he could hardly go wrong by lifting phrases that someone else had already approved.

The square was getting full. Harry decided that the section to the left must be the Guests of the Bride; there were, among others, many stunning women with long, silver-blond hair, a number of ladies he recognized from the Beauxbatons contingent of the Triwizard Tournament (as well as Viktor Krum), and a few familiar faces from Hogwarts. To his right were several members of the Order, a number of men and women around Bill's age, and, to Harry's delight, in the far back corner sat Hagrid. Harry gave him an enthusiastic wave, which Hagrid returned, smiling broadly.

As the last arrivals were being seated, and Harry was trying to dry the nervous sweat from his palms without marring his new robes, there were some "oohs" and "ahhs" among the guests. Harry saw people looking up at the sky and pointing, so naturally he did as well. To his amazement, a small fireball was burning itself out just over the square, and Fawkes was soaring down from it. Without so much as a flutter of his wings, he glided to the chair beside Harry and landed on the seat. He turned around in the chair and poked his tail feathers beneath the backrest; Harry nearly laughed despite himself, the phoenix looked so prim and proper sitting up straight in his seat. The guests were buzzing with excitement, and Harry figured this had to be some traditional omen of good luck. He whispered playfully to Fawkes, "I didn't even know you were invited!"

As a string quartet of witches behind the fountain began to play a hauntingly beautiful tune, the wedding guests stood as one and turned to the rear right. Bill Weasley, dressed all in black with an enormous pointed hat, began to walk up the aisle. Harry began to wish he'd brought his own kerchief, and not just for his damp palms; there was something deeply moving about the joyous smile on Bill's disfigured face. Harry hastily wiped a tear with the back of his hand.

Fawkes uttered a soft trill and tugged at Harry's robe with his beak. Without giving it a thought, Harry held out his arm to let Fawkes scramble up on his shoulder, but a moment later, he glanced over at the phoenix uncertainly, wondering how he'd known that Fawkes wanted him to do precisely that.

Bill, however, apparently knew the traditional routine. Instead of proceeding to the fountain as Harry had expected, he came up to Harry, doffed his hat, and made a deep bow. Harry had no idea if he should return it or not, but Bill must have guessed as much--he peeked up at Harry with a tiny shake of his head. Bill slowly stood upright again, and to Harry's surprise, Fawkes pulled his wings in tight and leaped over to Bill's shoulder. Everyone in the crowd gasped, and handkerchiefs dabbed at ladies' eyes across the board, as though a rabble of butterflies had launched from their laps. Good omen, indeed!

Now the crowd turned to the left, where Fleur was waiting at the end of her aisle. She, too, was dressed in black, with a red veil draped from the gold tiara that was a family treasure of the Weasleys. Harry had expected a white gown--he knew that much about Muggle weddings--but judging by the warm expressions on the guests' faces as the lovely bride passed each row, he guessed this must be another point where the customs varied.

Fleur, too, stopped before Harry and curtseyed. Harry bowed in return and offered his hand to help raise her back up, then placed her hand in Bill's. Again, he had no earthly idea what had possessed him to do such a thing, but it seemed to be the proper response; Bill looked as though he was getting teary-eyed, and Fleur was positively aglow. Harry was glad she was wearing the veil; that smile could reduce him to a pulp.

The wedding party presently approached the fountain, Charlie Weasley and Gabrielle Delacour on the left aisle and (again, another tug at many heartstrings) Percy and Ginny Weasley on the right. The girls were scattering rose petals as they walked, which Harry thought were enchanted to enhance their smell (he found out much later that he was wrong, the beautiful scent that filled the square was produced solely by flowers, not magic). They came to a stop on either side of the bride and groom and offered them their hands. Bill and Fleur took hold, and their attendants lowered them slowly to their knees, facing each other. That was the cue for the Sealer to sit down and the audience to follow, but nothing tipped Harry off this time, until the white-bearded man beside him (undoubtedly one of Fleur's grandfathers, of the same vintage as Moody) cleared his throat and pointed discretely at the chairs. Harry sat, thankful that his back was to the audience; his cheeks turned as bright red as Fawkes.

A plump little witch that reminded Harry of Professor Sprout bustled merrily around the fountain and stood before Bill and Fleur. She smiled at each of them, then beamed cheerily at the guests, and began to speak.

In Latin.

Harry's heart plummeted. He knew Fred and George were sitting somewhere behind him, and though it wasn't necessarily their fault that he was in this predicament, he still wanted to wring their necks. He could think of nothing else but "may your children in no way resemble their uncles Fred and George" at this point. The quartet began to play again, and three young men came up from among the guests to sing, but Harry didn't bother getting his hopes up. They had come from the section on the left; sure enough, they sang something in French.

When they retreated to their seats (amidst frank weeping throughout the Bride's section--apparently whatever they'd sung had hit a tender spot), the stout witch faced Fleur and said, in English, "Do you come willingly, Fleur Delacour, to bind your life to this man?"

"I do." She held her right hand out before her, palm up.

The witch turned to Bill and asked, "Do you come willingly, Bill Weasley, to bind your life to this woman?"

"I do." Bill placed his right hand tenderly on her forearm, and both wrapped their fingers around the other's wrist.

"Come forth the Bonder to these supplicants, that they may make their vows," said the witch, and the old man beside Harry stood up and approached them solemnly. He, too, faced Fleur first, his ancient voice steady and dignified.

"Fleur Delacour, a child of mah blood, what vow do you ask of zees man?"

Fleur gazed lovingly at Bill and said, "Bill," she gulped with a tiny, charming giggle that melted every heart in the square, "will you share your life openly wiz me, and stand wiz me in all my challenges and successes, through all ze changes of our lives?"

Bill tightened his grip on her arm. "I will."

The Bonder raised his wand above their hands and wove it in a graceful figure of eight. A white rope appeared in the air, following the track of his wand. When he suddenly flicked up the tip, the rope fell partly onto their hands, partly through them, one loop remaining on Fleur's wrist, the other appearing under Bill's. A number of guests murmured in appreciation, and even Bill raised his brows in admiration; apparently, thought Harry, this was a top-notch marriage bond spell.

"Beel Weaslaiy, a man of great courage, what vow do you ask of zees woman?"

Bill pursed his lips for an instant and said, "Fleur, will you speak the truth to me with love always, and walk this world as my companion for all my days?"

"I will," she said, her voice quivering with tears.

Once again, the Bonder wove his wand in the air, circling in the opposite direction, and dropped this rope on and between their hands, this time landing on top of Bill's wrist and looping under Fleur's. He took a step backward and opened his arms toward both of them.

"Beel and Fleur, weel you vow to one anuzzair to live through zees life as 'usband an' wife, to be faiz-ful, to build an 'ome zat ees a place of love, joy, shareeng an' groweeng?"

"I will," they said in unison. He tapped the rope lightly with his wand, making it glow brilliantly. It appeared to constrict, but Harry soon realized that it wasn't tightening on their skin, it was sinking into their flesh, though without any sign of violence or pain. When the last of the rope disappeared, Bill and Fleur flung their hands in the air, releasing a white dove that spiralled up over them.

Bill leapt to his feet and scooped up his bride with a brilliant smile, spinning her around once before setting her back down. The Bonder spread his arms wide and embraced the two of them warmly, and Fleur kissed both his cheeks despite her veil. The guests clapped, cheered, and sniffled until the dove climbed out of sight in the bright sky.

Harry suddenly realized that his moment had come--that had to be the "handfasting" that Fred had mentioned. He was so caught up in watching it, he'd forgotten all about his speech. Sure enough, the matronly witch called out, "Come forth now the Sealer and set this Bond, that only death may rend it."

Harry couldn't even slouch, knowing that all eyes were upon him. He paced slowly across the ten feet of lawn that separated him from Bill and Fleur, eyeing the stout witch entreatingly, hoping against hope that she might have worked with previous Sealers that had stage fright or became tongue tied, and could bail him out of the worst of it. Her eye twinkled knowingly, and she ever-so-subtly guided him with a twirl of her finger to come around and stand next to her. She stepped back and smiled at him encouragingly. Harry turned miserably to face the entire congregation, deciding that even if he mucked it up horribly, at least the rest of the wedding was lovely; maybe they'd learn to laugh about it in a few years. Harry took a deep breath, opened his mouth, and caught Fawkes's eye...

...and words began to pour from his mouth in a language he'd never heard, yet, as with Parseltongue, he somehow knew exactly what they meant.

"And thus in anguish Beren paid
for that great doom upon him laid
the deathless love of Luthien,
to fair for love of mortal Men;
and in his doom was Luthien snared,
the deathless in his dying shared;
and Fate them forged a binding chain
of living love and mortal pain.

Too swift for thought his onset came,
too swift for any spell to tame;
and Beren desperate then aside
thrust Luthien and forth did stride
unarmed, defenceless to defend
Tinuviel until the end.
As gleam of swords in fire, there flashed
the fangs of Carcharoth that gashed.

That mattered not, for bonds there are
stronger than stone, or iron bar,
more strong that proudly spoken oath.
Have I not plighted thee my troth?
Hath love no pride or honour, then?
Or dost thou deem this Luthien
so frail of purpose, light of love?
By stars of Elbereth above!
Thou wilt not here my hand forsake
and leave me lonely paths to take."

Harry stepped back, reeling. The words had come from Fawkes, he was sure of it, though he knew there was not even an inkling of language in Fawkes's mind. As he'd spoken them, they'd evoked the concepts of a forbidden love, a futile quest, a murderous wolf, and an ultimate sacrifice, not as images or memories, but as pure, overwhelming, sorrowful beauty. Apparently, they had done the same to everyone who heard them; everyone was misty eyed, and Harry could hear Hagrid's sobbing from clear at the other end of the park.

Tears even trickled out of Fawkes's burning eyes, and he tossed his scarlet head. The droplets arced off his feathers, landing on Bill's face...

...and though the existing scars did not change, the unhealed gashes that remained were closed into perfect, unmarred skin.

Fawkes threw Harry an almost guilty look, as though he were embarrassed to show off in front of so many people. He sang a single operatic note and took flight, snatching the red veil neatly from Fleur's head with his claws so it trailed behind him in the air. Harry watched Fawkes climb until he disappeared like the dove, which took considerably longer since he was so much larger and more colorful. But Harry couldn't bear to look down at Fleur, who was weeping and laughing at the same time at the sight of her Bill whole again.

"Excellent work. We never had a doubt, did we, Fred?"

Harry glared over his glasses at the two of them, stretched out in rattan chairs on the lawn of Beauxbatons with tall flutes of champagne and smug faces. They had been among the first to arrive at the reception and had parked in a prime location to observe the rest of the guests arrive, scouting out prospective partners for the evening's dancing. Harry supposed they'd be picking and choosing in no time, but every matronly aunt and grandmother thus far had come over to tell him what a lovely Sealer he'd been.

"Your confidence is underwhelming," Harry said sarcastically. "See if you can find a pretty one for me, while you're at it; I've got to lay low. If another dear old bird pinches my cheeks today, I may do something unspeakable."

"There's a nice little redhead in the Bride's party that might suit you," said Fred with a calculating look.

Harry's smile faded. "Yeah. You've got to be careful what you wish for, eh?"

George snatched another flute from a tray floating past, and handed it to Harry. "Don't worry, mate. She's all right. But I think even if You-Know-Who was watching, he'd scarcely notice one little dance..." Harry raised both his brows and his glass, clinked the latter to George's, and beat a hasty retreat into the stone walls and elaborate tiled roofs of Beauxbatons.

Two hours later, Harry was sitting up on one of those roofs, hiding under his Invisibility cloak and watching the proceedings disinterestedly. More than half the people chatting on the lawn below spoke a different language, and even though a translation spell was being circulated freely among the crowds, Harry didn't feel like making friendly chit-chat. He might as well hand people a flashing target to wear on their heads afterward, if Florean Fortescue were any example.

From the rooftop, he could spy Hagrid (although that could be said from virtually any place on the campus) speaking animatedly to Madame Maxime, undoubtedly about his trip overseas. Harry spotted several red Weasley heads bobbing among the crowds. He looked for a matched set and finally discovered Fred and George, each bearing a stunning Veela on both arms. He hoped Ron didn't have to go back to work at Wheezes; his brothers were bound to be insufferably smug after this. He found Hermione and Viktor Krum under a shady archway, standing far closer together than Ron would appreciate.

Harry wondered what Ron was up to, so he scanned for those distinctive red heads and identified each one he found. Fred and George were flirting ostentatiously; Bill was proudly attending his lovely bride; Percy, Charlie, and Ginny sat flanking them at the head table and looking politely bored as yet another guest came up to offer best wishes; Arthur and Molly were chatting with Fleur's parents, Molly also appeared politely bored, while Arthur twiddled his hat nervously and avoided looking directly at Madame Delacour.

Harry sat bolt upright with a rush of adrenaline--where was Ron? Now searching in earnest, he leapt to his feet on the steep roof, skidding down along a tile or two. There was no sign of him anywhere. He'd been thinking it was too quiet lately for a long time, that Voldemort was surely biding his time for a particular strike. What better day than this to undermine both Harry and the entire Weasley family? Harry clambered unsteadily back to the dormer window he'd used to gain access to the rooftop, not caring if his cloak flapped away to expose his legs.

He bolted through the sweltering classroom and down the stairs, only remembering to yank off his Invisibility cloak as he reached the bottom. He immediately started searching for any familiar faces. Spotting some friends of Bill's that he had met at the feast the night before, he charged over to them. "Have you seen Ron?" he asked urgently.

The fellows exchanged a knowing glance, and one said, "Hello, Potter! Yes, he's around, he's, ah..." He looked so awkward that Harry's terror quickly switched into concern. "Why don't I just take you to him, then?" the man finally said, and led him around to the edge of the campus.

Ron was sitting on the bare ground behind a stone shed amidst a number of empty champagne flutes (and a few green glass bottles as well). Neville Longbottom sat beside him, looking utterly out of his element, but Harry was incredibly glad to find him there. Harry nodded with silent gratitude at the man who had led him; the fellow clapped him on the back with a knowing grin and left to rejoin his friends.

"Harry!" said Neville, jumping to his feet with a broad smile, then casting his eyes sadly back at Ron.

"Hey, Neville," said Harry grimly, following his gaze. "Not the happiest of circumstances, eh?"

"Oh, Harry, you and that Bonder were the best I've ever seen, my gran's still crying. This wedding is going to be the talk of two countries for years. But," his voice dropped somberly, "yeah, Ron here..."

"What's gotten into him?" Harry couldn't help but refer to him in the third person; Ron was staring off into space, oblivious to the conversation.

Neville shrugged with a pleading look. "Bugger if I know. He was in a foul mood by the time we got to the wedding. I sat with him, even though I should have been in the Groom's section with Gran; he just looked like he needed company. Never said anything though." Ron raised the green bottle in his lap to drink, and Harry reached over to take it away, but Neville patted his arm. "It's okay, it's just water," he whispered. "Otherwise he'll just Summon a new bottle."

"Brilliant! Thanks, Neville. I'll keep an eye on him for a bit, okay?"

Neville looked as though he'd prefer to lurk behind the shed than return to the crowds, but he nodded gamely. "Sure thing. I'll stop by again in a while."

When Neville disappeared around the shed, Harry knelt down, cleared a space next to Ron, and sat beside him. For a long time, neither said anything. Ron took a pull at the bottle and grimaced. "Typical!" he said in a drunken bluster. "They put out good stuff, then soon as everyone's had a nip or two, it's cheap swill from then on. Hey, Harry!" Ron appeared genuinely surprised to see him. "Where'd Neville go?"

"Hey, Ron. Looks like you started without me."

Run giggled. "Hey, why not, you got more important things to do."

Harry frowned. "What?"

"Whaddya mean, 'what?' You know what. Your stuff that you do."

"You are really way too drunk."

Ron found that comment utterly hilarious. When he finally stopped laughing and removed his arms from Harry's shoulders, where they hung like dead weights, (particularly the one with the bottle of water), he sat back and sighed. "Yeah, yeah, I s'pose so, Harry. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Still does!" He took another long pull of water and offered Harry the bottle. Harry declined it with a wave.

"Have you seen Hermy?" Ron said, but did not wait for an answer. "She's off with Viktor. Creep. Walks in and sweeps her up, who knows if he'll be around tomorrow but hey, seize the day, huh?" He punched Harry's arm.

"Ron, what do you expect her to do?" Ron frowned, uncomprehending, and Harry rolled his eyes. "You're her friend. You've never led her to believe anything otherwise. Anything. How's she supposed to know how you feel? You get so mad at her, but you're expecting her to read your mind!"

Ron appeared to start processing that comment, but got distracted. He looked up suddenly and said, "That reminds me. About the mind reading. I'm reminded..." He burst into giggles and had to get them out of his system before continuing. "You read minds now. Tha's so cool. I wanna see."

"Maybe sometime, Ron." Harry didn't think a formal explanation would really sink in under the circumstances.

"No, come on! Mum said you did her! She started boo-hooing all over the place, my dad was jealous. Do me, Harry! I wanna see the, you know, that thing."

"It doesn't work like that, Ron," began Harry irritably, but before he finished the sentence, he gave Ron a hard glare and "that thing" did itself once again.

Harry kept a strong sense of himself as blurred images rolled over him; this was different from the times he'd been inside others' thoughts completely, as though immersed in a Pensieve. Ron's drunken thoughts were dilute, thin; Harry could see through them to the stone wall and the rest of the world.

A glimpse of Hermione running up to greet Viktor Krum, which seared through his insides as though he'd been impaled. Fred and George with their beautiful girls, offering to find him one or two if he wished. Harry watched himself beaming at Fawkes after he'd healed Bill's wounds. All of these led back the anchor in Ron's mind: the conflict of joy and inadequacy. It infused everything, reaching out and entwining memories with delicate tendrils, or traversing gaps between unrelated subjects like a high-tension cable.

Not as smart as Bill or Charlie, not as outrageous as Fred or George, not as ambitious as Percy, not as popular as Ginny. Not a good Quidditch player, not a good student, not as confident, as daring, as brave. Such opinions were the core of his self-image for the first decade of his life, and then the whole cycle repeated when he left home to go to Hogwarts. The only difference was that, at home, he had six siblings to whom he compared himself, but at school, two people sufficed to make him feel just as mediocre.

Ron had worked all summer to earn his tuition to Hogwarts, and most of Ginny's, too. His parents wanted to throw a lavish feast for Bill's wedding; sparing them this expense was Ron's gift. Fat lot of good it was, chipping in so they could have pretty sweets at the feast, when Harry just came along with his overgrown budgie and gave Bill back his face...

Harry broke away effortlessly; he'd barely felt a real connection to Ron's addled psyche anyway. For once he was looking forward to that calm disinterest, but it didn't come. Ron wasn't cringing fearfully either; in fact, he was looking at Harry expectantly.

"Didja do it?" Ron asked.

Harry shook his head, swallowing his resentment. "Nah. You're too drunk, like I said."

Ron slouched against the stone wall, disappointed. "Bugger."

"Yeah," Harry said, sitting back against the wall to stare off in the distance. As much as he would have liked to sulk angrily at Ron, he couldn't. All he could think about was the unconditional love in Molly Weasley's heart, wondering how something so immense, so palpable could go all these years unobserved by her sixth son.

Neville returned as the shadows began to stretch on the lawn. "They're starting supper, everyone's wondering where you two are..." They both looked at Ron, who was sound asleep, still clutching the water bottle.

"I'd better get out there, I guess," said Harry. He was sure his disappearance had already led to all sorts of conversations, but more importantly, he was starving. "Do you mind?" he asked politely, waving at Ron.

Neville looked relieved. "No problem! If we don't make it to the cake, will you bring me a piece?"

The first guest Harry encountered after he wended his way back to the party was Hermione. "Harry! Where've you been?! People were starting to really worry!"

"Erm, well, after that bit with Fawkes, my brain needed a little rest." She nodded sagely, apparently accepting that explanation.

"Oh, that was just wonderful, Harry, did you plan that?"

"No! That was entirely Fawkes's idea, every bit of it. I was crossing my fingers the whole time in hopes that it was okay."

Hermione laughed merrily. "Oh, it was more than 'okay,' believe me. Phlegm...that is, Fleur has been bursting into tears every time she looks at Bill. Well, actually, everyone has. What an incredible gift--"

Harry spoke over her, bitterly recalling Ron's comment. "I said it was Fawkes's idea, not mine."

"I know," she said with affront. "I was going to say, what a gift for Fawkes to give." She frowned at him. "Why are you so snappish?"

"I, uh, I'm sorry. I'm just really hungry and a little tired; it's been a busy week, you know?"

She smiled warmly at him. "In that case, I know just the thing."

From there, the evening became a whirlwind of rich food, champagne, little old ladies gushing their approval of the Sealing, and young ones eyeing him in much the same way as Tonks had in the kitchen earlier that day. Unfortunately, Harry was afraid to look any of them in the eye, for fear of inadvertently trespassing into their thoughts. He made doubly certain to steer clear of Ginny.

After nightfall, a bonfire was lit and there was dancing, then the newlyweds were required to leap over
a gauntlet of brooms. Between Hermione and the twins, Harry was forced to dance whether he wanted to or not, but he could hardly complain about having dozens of pretty girls spun and swung into his arms all evening. Eventually he saw that Ron and Neville were among the revellers, though Ron appeared a bit wilted.

Just before midnight, Fred cornered him and pleaded that he make a Patronus, which Harry wanted no part of, but after a drunken lecture about the nature of manhood, Harry finally agreed to it, just to shut Fred up. He slipped into the shadows behind a group of people who were singing loudly, and cast the spell. The stag leapt over the singers and pranced in mid-air with head held high around the bonfire. It finally settled down to the ground before Bill and Fleur, splaying its front hooves to bring itself down into a deep bow before dissolving into silver wisps.

George howled with glee and pummelled Harry's shoulders, but when Fred finished cheering, he yanked Harry off his feet and kissed him right on the lips. Harry still had his wand in hand, however; within seconds, Fred was Transfigured into a sunflower. George was even more delighted by this turn of events, and Harry took advantage of the fact that both were indisposed to chasing him down by slipping off to find the cobbled lane and the hayloft at its end.

The cool mist on the hill at Ottery St. Catchpole was a welcome relief after the bonfire, almost as lovely as the silence after all the crowds. Harry pondered whether he should try to Apparate all the way to London, but it felt so pleasant, he decided to just walk back to the Burrow and use the fireplace.

Harry first heard the footsteps about halfway along the road. He kept his wand firmly in his hand, concealed in his robes, and forced himself to continue the relaxed stride. He was pretty sure there was only one pursuer. It was very hard to just keep walking; his back seemed to have an independent understanding that it could be hexed or cursed at any moment, and it was vigorously attempting to communicate that message to his front. As soon as Harry was beyond the hedgerow at the Burrow's entrance, he dove silently to his left, positioning himself low to the ground with his wand at the ready.

A minute later, Ginny Weasley bolted through the hedge, scanning the garden anxiously. Harry leapt to his feet in a fury. He had never used so many four-letter-words in succession before.

"What is the MATTER with you?!" he demanded. "Out by yourself in the middle of the night--"

"I'm not by myself, I was right behind you," she said defiantly.

"Yes, following me around like some kind of bloody Death Eater assassin or something! I nearly cursed you--"

Once again she cut him off in mid-sentence. "Oh, piffle. I'm not afraid to get Stunned."

Harry seized her arms angrily. "I wasn't planning on a Stun, Ginny, I was going straight to..." He stopped himself; he was making far too much eye contact. He let go of her, pushing himself backward rather than shoving her away.

"Straight to what?" she said, somewhat haltingly.

Harry couldn't tell her he'd had the Cruciatus Curse on the tip of his tongue before he saw her.

She eyed him apprehensively. "Fine. Whatever it was, you didn't do it. So that's all over and done. Now we can talk. That's why I came after you."

Harry's head was beginning to ache. "Ginny...does it have to be now? I'd really--"

"YES it has to be NOW!" she said emphatically. "Because whenever I get within five meters of you, you run off! You've been about for three days and haven't even said hello to me, you tosser!"

"Ginny, listen," he said with a deep sigh, but then wasn't sure what to say. How was he to explain that he was only trying not to barge into her thoughts? "I'm not avoiding you, I swear. I'm not trying to be cold. It's just right now. I have this...thing going on--"

"I know," she interrupted angrily, then her voice softened. "Everybody knows. That's why I came after you. Harry...I want you to. Look at me. Look in my mind."

He raised a hand to her cheek, gazing deliberately at her lips, recalling her soft, yielding kisses. "Ginny...after I do it...I say things that are, uh, too blunt. I can't help it, I just kinda go...flat, like I forget other people's feelings or something."

She pursed her lips, frowning. "What, like cruel things?"

"No, not mean, just...really, really true." He met her eye unintentionally, and hastily looked back down. "Not-to-be-said-out-loud kind of true," he sighed.

"Well, in that case, I insist! I gotta hear this," she said half playfully, half completely serious.

He closed his eyes; his head was swimming with conflict. She was so strong, so much fun, she made him so happy. He had to lock her in the darkest corner of her mind and never open it again, at least not while Voldemort lived. But right now, she was here, safe, inviting...

He was a little girl waiting on Platform 9 3/4, the instant he opened his eyes.

All her life, she'd heard about Harry Potter, the boy who lived. It was impossible that Ron was friends with him. Even though Mummy said it was true--said he'd been right there at the train station the last time--Ron had to be fibbing, had to be teasing her. It was impossible that someone so famous could be sitting on that train with Ron.

And then Harry Potter was standing right there, talking to Mummy like it was the most normal thing in the world; she could have reached out and touched him, he was so close. She couldn't even remember what she'd said when she saw him, but she was sure it was something totally stupid, she wished she could crawl into a hole, she wished this moment would never end.

She heard the twins talking about using that Muggle car to go get Harry. She daydreamed about stowing away on the adventure, but knew she'd never make it past the twins. Mum was screaming so loud at them when they returned, she didn't dare even peek out her window. Then the house was so quiet, she knew they'd blown it, they'd came home empty handed. She might as well go get some toast before they hogged all the good bread. There was Harry Potter at the kitchen table, meekly eating breakfast like he was scared Mum would rain all over him too...and she hadn't even brushed her hair or anything!

I'm so stupid and clumsy! She had spilled her drink for the millionth time that summer. But Harry didn't seem to notice she'd done it, which made her feel even worse; she was so ugly and dull, he deliberately looked at anything but her.

She found the book, she could finally talk about him, then things started to go horribly wrong. And even though Harry saved her in the end, it was not romantic at all; she didn't get to thank him with a prim kiss before he charged off to greater things, they just all ended up in Dumbledore's office, dripping with disgusting slime while Mum went ballistic.

That was the turning point, seeing him in his filthy robes with that beautiful bird sitting on his shoulder; he was just another big dork like Ron, and although his exploits were pretty cool, ultimately they boiled down to stupid 'guy things' that he was very lucky to pull off. As for herself: how often had she squirmed over some meaningless peccadillo, thinking that everybody would notice and hate her for it...she who had spent the last year serving Lord Voldemort! Wearing the 'wrong kind' of shoes or 'last year's hairband' were absurdly trivial in comparison, and from that day on, she had no use for anyone who cared about such tripe.

She hated Voldemort deeply, personally, for using her, for seducing her with carefully wrought words. Harry was amazed by the hatred; it was an arrow in her mind, sharp and straight, focused, targeted. He knew it wasn't enough. Many had hated Voldemort as much or more, and fallen.

Ginny looked a bit pale, but she wasn't cringing in terror. Harry tried to tell himself that was nice, but gave up the effort; at the moment, he simply didn't care either way. Even though the link was broken, there was still some tendrils spanning between them. He knew she didn't like the way he was looking at her with his head cocked. She thought he was regarding her like a specimen on a slide, as though all her mystery and allure had been used up and she was nothing but a scientific curiosity.

"So much judgment, Ginny."

Her head quivered, as though shaking off sleep. "Huh? Of you?"

"Of you. You despised yourself, until Riddle took you. He taught you the true meaning of despicable. He destroyed the illusions that superficial things mattered. You only carry a few fading shards of it now. Voldemort set you free, Ginny."

There was no connection left to her mind, but her body language was more than sufficient. She looked at him as though he had just sprouted another head. He reflected that in another time, he might have laughed at her expression.

"Your hatred for him is so pure. How ironic, that it was by his hand that you stopped hating yourself." He leaned forward and kissed her cheek softly. "Good night, sweet one."

She watched him cross the lawn and step onto the porch. When the front door closed behind him, she began to run, without a thought for her new dress and shoes, her heart pounding hard and fast all the way back to the hill with the Portkey, and beyond.

Chapter 8: Chapter 8: For Worse
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Two figures wended their way across the Central Siberian upland, one taller and dark, the other fair of hair and skin.

They were not hunters like the Tunga, who had inhabited the land between the two Katanga rivers for millenia. The Tunga were now known as the Evenki, and the two rivers had been given different names by the Soviets, then again by the Russians, but none of these changes had meant a thing to the land. It continued as it always had, permafrost and evergreens, inhospitable to mankind, be it wizard or Muggle.

It was a strange thing, for hikers to cross the taiga. To the curious eyes of unseen Evenki, fishing or herding reindeer, the two men seemed to have come from nowhere, and were heading toward nowhere in particular. Nothing but wilderness stretched around them for hundreds of miles. In a way, they had indeed come from nowhere; they had Apparated into this land, but were forced to stop miles short of their target. Now they moved purposefully, approaching a secret encampment, about which the Tunga knew not. It had been built recently and hidden very thoroughly, for its chief inhabitant was not quite ready to entertain unexpected visitors.

Severus Snape stopped to drink from his canteen, peering across the gentle, green slopes of the land. The sun was beginning to set, which, in this remote northern part of the world, meant it was after midnight. He called to his fellow sojourner to stop and make camp. Had any Tunga been watching, they would have been shocked to see a tent appear out of thin air, looking barely big enough to hold one of them, yet both climbed inside immediately and did not emerge until the next morning.

"Wake up."

Draco Malfoy blinked, recalled where he was, and wriggled longingly under the blankets for a final cozy moment. "I'm up. What time is it?"

"Does it matter? Come on, if we keep moving, we'll make it to the keep today."

Draco settled obstinately into his pillow, holding it tight to his chest. He wanted to say something along the lines of, "All the more reason to just stay in bed," but he dared not. He did not ordinarily fear Snape, but he had other terrifying concerns weighing on his mind, and at this point, he wouldn't risk anything that might cost him the professor's goodwill. Sighing, he set aside his pillow and sat up on the bed, thankful that his feet had landed on a rug today, instead of that harsh icy ground.

Snape had conjured some breakfast on the crude plank table in the tent before he went outside for water, but Draco just sat and stared at his plate. He had no appetite, despite the endless hours of walking the previous day. His stomach was too knotted with anxiety to have room for food. He pulled on his boots, thankful again that they were so well made; despite the mud and water, the leather remained soft, and the soles were still solid. Of course, he mused, if he'd had blisters from his shoes, that would give him an excuse to slow down, to postpone the meeting that would come soon. He picked up his wand for a moment; he knew a hex that would render his feet pathetically travel worn. He set the wand down just as quickly, knowing that the Dark Lord would not be fooled, only annoyed, by such a ploy.

Draco Malfoy burst into tears.

When Snape returned with the canteens, he found Draco sobbing uncontrollably. He understood. It was very difficult to walk with head held high into an unknown but certain doom. Snape sat beside him and put an arm around his shoulder until the worst of the hysteria had spent itself.

"Come now, boy. If you're going to survive this, you must pull yourself together! Don't tell me you are this frightened of pain? You've got to get past that, it's a fact of life in his service. You won't last a month if you fall apart in fear of punishment."

Draco sniffled and caught his breath. "I know! You don't have to tell me! It's just..."

Snape nodded. "You've never felt the Cruciatus curse, have you?" Draco shook his head, shuddering. "Well, if that's what he choses to do, you'll survive it. Take comfort in that! He'll know how much you can tolerate. Hang on to that thought, Draco. You can endure it if you remind yourself that he'll stop before it's too late."

Draco did not look at him, but nodded and tried to compose himself--but after two breaths his face contorted again and a new wave of tears burst out. "H-h-how do you know?"

Snape sighed, and got up to pace beside the table for a moment. "I know because I, too, have disappointed the Dark Lord and had to face his wrath afterward. But I survived, and not only that, Draco, I have even managed to learn a little about him in almost 20 years of service."

Malfoy looked up at him for the first time, his eyes pleading, hopeful. Snape sighed and settled onto his cot in resignation. A day's delay may or may not irritate Voldemort, but the boy would certainly die if he displayed this much terror in the presence of the Dark Lord.

"You didn't do the task that he assigned you. For that, he will punish you. But the task was done, and you did have a role in it, though not the one he wanted. And you didn't refuse him, or defy his order, you only...failed to complete it. So he would not lose face if he opted to show you some leniency.

"He sees it this way, Draco: you have proven yourself to be weaker than he estimated. This is a disappointment to him, but in a way, he...appreciates it. After all, if you were strong enough to do anything he asked of you, then you'd probably be strong enough to challenge him. He accepts that his followers have limitations, because he has none." Snape turned his head away, carefully, as he said that last sentence, then returned to meet Malfoy's gaze. "Anyone with no limitations would be his equal. This is why he doesn't simply destroy his followers when they fail him: every time one of th--us fails, it affirms his superiority. Do you understand that?"

Malfoy nodded with a hint of conviction, though fear still shone clearly in his eyes.

"Of course, he doesn't simply forgive failure either," continued Snape. "My hope is that he has used this exercise as a barometer of sorts, to measure where you fit into his heirarchy. He'll probably test you again, actually--he gave you an extremely difficult task to start with. In fact, he must have expected you to fail. You lacked sufficient training and practice to carry it out, which is a product of your youth--and obviously you have no control over that. I suspect he had...other motives."

Snape paused, but seeing that Draco was clinging to his every word, decided to continue. "Listen to me: this is pure speculation on my part." Malfoy nodded again. "Your father served our Master devoutly during his previous reign, but during the...quiet years, he renounced the Dark Lord and sought power on his own. He became deeply involved with the Ministry, as you know. Lucius claims, of course, that he was seeking only to advance himself through conventional means because he thought the Dark Lord was finished. This is a plausible claim. It might even be true." Snape watched the young man carefully, and was pleased to see that his mouth barely twitched into a sneer, despite his agitated state.

"The Dark Lord is by nature a very suspicious man. He did not gain tremendous power by simply accepting explanations such as that. Lucius could be a spy for the Ministry, or biding time while he plans to seize power, or any number of things. Unless the Master is certain of your father's intentions, he will keep some form of leverage handy, that he can use to manipulate Lucius if necessary.

"It is possible that you are that lever, Draco. It is not unusual for him to invite someone so young to become a Death Eater. But to assign them a task that even he would be hard pressed to complete--that is most odd. Now that you have failed him, he is free to do with you as he sees fit. He knows that Lucius does not want to see you humiliated, or placed in the front lines as 'cannon fodder,' so to speak."

Understanding was dawning in Malfoy's eyes. "Is that why Mother is with him, too, then?"

"Of course. He made sure she had nowhere to run but to him, after your attempt on Dumbledore's life. Understand, Draco, that this is the nature of service to the Dark Lord! He will reward you handsomely when you please him, but he will never trust you. He will always have assurances to make sure you dare not betray him. You cannot resent this fact, nor resist it--you have to accept it, or die."

"But as long as I'm loyal, the Master won't need to use his 'leverage,' right?"

Snape nodded. "And as long as your father is loyal, the Master will not need to use you. He undoubtedly appreciates having all three of you close at hand, any of you will suffice to coerce the others if necessary."

"Professor," said Malfoy in a thin voice, "...what do you think he'll do to me?"

Snape took a long time to answer. "I don't know. If part of his agenda was for you to fail, his punishment could be rather mild, really. He may have ultimately wanted to test me, for example, to see if I would betray Dumbledore when you failed. Had you actually killed Dumbledore, the Dark Lord might even be furious with you, for robbing him of his chance to test my loyalty." Draco nodded again; that concept had never occurred to him.

"On the other hand, if he devised all of this to make a strong point with Lucius, he may be extreme with you. Lucius did fail to retrieve the prophecy, and the fact that he was also captured did not improve his standing. I'm sorry, lad. It's impossible to predict what the Dark Lord plans for you."

Malfoy's eyes widened in terror again; seing this, Snape grabbed tightly him by both arms. "Listen to me, Draco, this may mean the difference between life and death. No matter what he does, you must not break down like you are now!

"The Dark Lord despises weakness. There is no surer way to enrage him than to display terror. This, again, is his nature; he exploits weakness automatically, instinctively, just as you are inclined to swat a fly the more it buzzes around you. When the Master sees someone cringe, it does not inspire mercy; it makes him want to inflict greater pain.

"He will make you kneel before him to explain your failure with Dumbledore. Never say that you are sorry, or make excuses like 'you tried your best.' By doing so, you admit that you are weak or regretful, and this will only fuel his anger. You will hold yourself still and speak in a firm voice--not defiant, but matter-of-fact. Leave out any shame, guilt, hesitation, anything that portrays doubt about your actions. Think of it this way: if the Dark Lord meant for you to fail, then you have not disappointed him. You don't know his ultimate purpose, so you should not assume the worst. However, if you indicate that you are disappointed in yourself, he will gladly pursue that concept further.

"Answer his questions honestly. Leave out your opinions. Don't guess or conjecture as to other people's motives, or what might have happened beyond your field of vision. Just describe the facts as accurately as you can recall. Don't try to hide any unfavorable or embarassing details, because he will know. He will reach into your mind with Legilimency, and if you have misled him, you will suffer greatly for it.

"Stay still the entire time he questions you. Do not allow yourself to tremble, or shift your weight. Once he is satisfied, your punishment will follow immediately. You probably won't be able to stop yourself from crying out when he hurts you, but always try. He expects you to accept your punishment and immediately show your continued loyalty. So, once it is over, get back to your knees as quickly as you can. He'll know whether he has damaged you, or if you are capable of getting up. If you lay there malingering or wallowing in self-pity, he will hurt you again. Get up as soon as you have the strength and the wits. You can wobble a bit, or even fall back down if you must--just don't fall onto him. If, however, you can keep from collapsing by leaning against him very briefly, do it. He rather likes the connotation, that you need him to steady yourself.

Malfoy stared, slackjawed, at his professor, until quietly squeaking, "My father never told me any of this."

Snape nodded slowly. "Your father is a proud man, Draco, as are all the Death Eaters. Many of them are ashamed that they submit to these rituals, like servants, or slaves. Shaming them is another way the Dark Lord exerts control over them."

"Why do you admit it, then?"

Snape stared evenly at the young man for some time. "Because, Draco," he said, slowly and deliberately, "I have also gleaned some things of value from my service at Hogwarts. Sometimes one must swallow their pride in order to be a friend."

Despite the late start, they arrived at a rough stone barracks that evening. It had a thrown-together look, as if constructed in a hurry; some rocks were crumbling at their surfaces, as veins of mineral crystals collapsed inside the substrate from the new distribution of weight. Nonetheless, it was tightly sealed with mortar; it would weather the Siberian winter for a few years at least.

They circled the structure to find a door made of black wood, which hung open but was nonetheless impassable. Five dementors stood guard, two on either side and one blocking the center. Snape approached as close as he could manage without succumbing to dread. He started to say, "We have business inside," but it struck him as absurd to announce something so obvious. He stared at the dementor hovering before the door for a moment, then said, with as much menace as he could muster, "Give way to the Mark."

Nothing happened. The dementors remained in formation around the door, silent and expressionless. Snape cursed inwardly; they were calling his bluff. He weighed the notion of summoning a Patronus. The Dark Lord could interpret that as an act of aggression. Yet these shades hardly had minds of their own; they could force him to stand out here all night, even as Voldemort sat inside, growing more annoyed by the minute at their tardiness. Without knowing whether they had been ordered to keep him waiting, or were simply too stupid to recognize his right to pass, he could not be sure of the proper course. And now that he had accosted them, he dared not back away.

"I see no Mark at the door," said a voice from the dark foyer. They both recognized it at once. The dementors glided apart as Lucius Malfoy stepped outside. He walked up until he was nose-to-nose with Snape, unsmiling, and stared at him coldly.

"There is nothing on your arm but the stain of betrayal, Severus. And my son has not yet taken the Oath." Neither man blinked for a long moment.

Finally Lucius Malfoy took a slow step backward and inclined his head with the slightest hint of deference. "Yet you are welcome to enter the keep. The Dark Lord has been awaiting your arrival." Snape made a fraction of a bow and strode briskly through the door.

Lucius turned to his son, who showed every sign of wanting to run to him, and raised his fingertips in warning. "Later, Draco," he whispered. "He's watching. You must answer to him first." He made a sweeping gesture with his hand to indicate the door, and Draco, eyeing his father nervously, followed Snape into the darkness.

His father steered him slowly to a large room, lit by only a handful of small torches flickering with eerie green flames. There was a circle in the center, a mosaic of glossy pink chrysopase in the otherwise dull, gray stone floor. Lucius tipped his head toward the circle and gave Draco a stern look. Draco gave him a tiny nod and moved into the center, though his knees shook harder with every step. He started to kneel, but when his father coughed, he looked back with a hopeful expression. His father made a tiny twirling motion with one finger, and Draco understood again; he slowly turned around until his father's hand flicked out to halt him, then he sank to his knees. Lucius gave one last signal to his son, pointing first to his own eyes, then Draco, then the wall directly ahead of him. Draco fixed his gaze straight ahead for a brief instant, then glanced one last time at his father. He was shuddering, his eyes closed, his lips pinched tightly as though holding in a groan of agony.

Though his knees had begun to protest as soon as they touched the cold, uneven floor, Draco would have gladly waited longer before he heard footsteps approaching. A white light, oddly devoid of warmth, suddenly filled the circle, making it impossible to see the spot on the wall beyond, but he had the point fixed well enough in his mind. He noted some movement out of the corner of his eye, and despite himself, his breath became fast and shallow.

"Severus has confirmed that he carried out the order I gave to you, Draco," said the unmistakable voice of Lord Voldemort. He wasn't sure how to respond...was that even a question? He very nearly leapt to his feet and ran; he didn't know what was expected of him, only that the pain would be severe if he failed to perform it. He recalled Snape's warning: You won't last a month if you fear punishment. Though he couldn't slow his breathing, he remained kneeling in the light, eyes front.

"I am not averse to my servants assisting one another, at times," Lord Voldemort continued, his voice now coming from a different part of the room. Voldemort was slowly pacing around him, just outside the beam of light; Draco caught a hazy glimpse of two glowing red eyes when the Master passed through his line of sight. "Particularly on important tasks. There was, however, a reason I chose you to kill Dumbledore, and I am disappointed that you let slip the opportunity."

Draco was becoming lightheaded from panting so hard, and began to wish the Dark Lord would just ask him a question and get it over with. Presently, though, Voldemort stepped into the light.

"What stayed your hand, Draco?" Voldemort said, continuing to circle him.

He had to speak. He couldn't. He didn't even know the answer; he'd been asking himself the same thing ever since that night. He was taking too long; Voldemort had stopped at his side.

" me."

"Did he? They always do, you know. What did he say?" Voldemort had not resumed pacing; if Draco had not been panting so hard, he could have heard the Dark Lord breathing.

"He said...he said..." Draco had to force himself to think; his mind had gone blank. "He told me not to say 'Mudblood' in front of him." That was the first thing that came to his mind, that Dumbledore had calmly chided him to mind his manners.

Voldemort sniffed. "That would be Dumbledore." Staring straight ahead, Draco could see him in the periphery, shaking his head. "What else?" His voice was sharper now.

"He asked I got...Death Eaters...into Hogwarts. He was so...calm, like we...were having tea." Long, cool fingers began to stroke Draco's hair. He clenched his teeth tightly.

"I see. You felt that your prey did not fear you in the slightest?"

"Yes. I had him...but somehow...he was so sure...he was safe."

Voldemort gripped his hair, though he did not pull it. "And what did you learn from this, child?"

Draco coughed; it had started as a yelp, but he had been inhaling at the instant his fear bested him, so the cry was constricted in his throat. "To strike quickly!" he gasped.

The fingers relaxed slightly. "Very astute," said Voldemort. His tone was even, matter-of-fact, as though he were a professor at Hogwarts explaining a difficult spell. "Most prey, when cornered, will stall for time by pleading, or reasoning--trying to talk their way out of death. It can be amusing, the desperate fantasies they weave for you. But when they don't fear's fascinating, isn't it, Draco? The ones who cower may as well be insects, for all the satisfaction their death brings, but those who look you in the eye, they are truly human, truly alive--the only ones you can truly murder."

Voldemort let his arm fall slack, so all its weight shifted to the hand gripping Draco's hair. Not daring to resist the subtle pull, Draco's head slowly tipped back, forcing his gaze straight into the light over the circle. It was immediately eclipsed by Voldemort's silhouette, stark black against the brightness except for the glowing red eyes. His voice was not so much a whisper as the hiss of a snake carved into words.

"Tempting as it may be to savor such moments, it is a terrible mistake, dear boy. Your father knows; he has made it himself. You will serve as a constant reminder to him never to repeat it." The eyes swung out of view as Voldemort glared outside the circle for a moment.

Voldemort straightened up, though he did not release Draco's head. "I accept your worthy service, Draco Malfoy. You are bound to me until your death." He turned back to Draco and slowly bent over him, eclipsing the light not just with his head, but his upper body; Draco could see his features, not just a blur of shadow surrounded by blinding light. The hand in his hair suddenly gripped his scalp painfully hard. Voldemort looked deep into his eyes and breathed, "Stay very still."

Voldemort leaned closer, too close. His eyes were blazing, though half closed, his thin, white lips slightly parted. Draco knew what was happening. Voldemort was going to kiss him, the same way Draco had kissed Pansy Parkinson in the dungeons under Hogwarts Castle. But unlike Pansy, he could not pull away, not ever, no matter what Voldemort did to him. And unlike the dungeons, his father and Professor Snape were standing outside the circle, watching. They would look on as he surrendered his body to this...thing, not human anymore, but definitely male. Shame is another way the Dark Lord controls them. It was too much. He was ready to withstand the Cruciatus curse, but he couldn't submit to this. "Please stop," he begged, only to find that his mouth was so dry from panting that nothing but a thick whimper came out.

At that moment, Voldemort opened his mouth wide, impossibly wide; Draco registered a glimpse of long fangs, then felt them pierce his throat. Venom blinded him with pain; he may have even blacked out. When he came to himself again, he heard something like a waterfall splashing on the floor, felt himself growing cold, saw the bright light grow dim. A strange thought bubbled to the surface of his mind, and he felt compelled to say it, though he could only manage a whisper: "I die without flaw, Master, though I would rather live to serve you imperfectly." He could no longer keep his eyes fixed, or even open. He felt himself slumping backward, but oddly, he found that he settled gently to the ground.

Voldemort waved his wand again, to seal the punctures in the boy's carotid arteries. He had intended to let him die, but that bold comment intrigued him. It was just as well, Voldemort thought. Alive, the boy could be used to torture Lucius even further.

Outside the blinding light, Snape lifted his hand carefully from Lucius Malfoy's mouth, and relaxed his hold on the arm he'd twisted and pinned behind Malfoy's back. Malfoy had bitten his fingers to the bone, but that would heal; all that mattered right now was that Draco would live, Lucius would live, they all would live.

Chapter 9: Chapter 9: Back to Business
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Harry was running as fast as he could, clutching a brilliant jewel. The air, though clear, was thick and heavy like rubber; every step was a Herculean effort that moved him no more than a hair's breadth. He knew the wolf was right behind him.

Harry Potter." A woman's voice, much louder and clearer than his own cries, or the fierce snarling at his heels. Harry turned, but could see no one. The wolf leapt at him, its jaws closing on his hand and the jewel within it, but there was no pain. "Come find me upstairs today." The wolf was only a soft toy; strange that it had seemed so real just a few seconds ago.

Harry shifted in his sleep but did not awaken.

"Good morning!" said Lupin, setting down his coffee. "Heard it was quite the wedding yesterday!"

Harry was still shaking the cobwebs of sleep from his mind as he dropped into the chair across the table from Lupin's. "Yeah, kinda hard to describe. Fawkes really pulled me through the whole Sealing bit. I had no idea, I thought I was just a wedding guest."

Lupin nodded. "I heard a rumor to that effect. Well, apparently none were the wiser; it even made the Society page in the Prophet." He shoved the paper across the table with a wry grin.

"I can't believe you spend money on this rag," Harry said, flipping the pages until he found the headline.
courtesy of Mots Magiques news service

DIJON, FRANCE: Hundreds of lucky guests enjoyed
several special treats at the wedding of Fleur
of Dijon, and Bill Weasley
of Britain. In addition to rubbing shoulders
with a number of high profile guests, they
witnessed the exceedingly rare spectacle of a
Phoenix blessing.

This was brought about by none other than Harry
of Britain (the same who struck down
You-Know-Who), who reportedly arrived alone but
was soon joined by his scarlet familiar. Potter
exhibited an unusual mastery of the magical beast,
somehow persuading it to rest on the groom's
shoulder for the entire ceremony, an honor which
was last observed in 1873. And as if that were
not enough, the phoenix shed a tear after the
Sealing (performed by Potter) which healed a number
of recent wounds to the groom's face.

The Bonder, Aristide Delacour of Dijon,
conjured ropes woven from unicorn tails for his
grandaughter's Handfasting...

Without finishing the article, Harry closed the newspaper and folded it several times. "Another well-researched bit of journalism," he sighed.

Lupin chortled warmly. "Oh, come now, you've certainly had worse press than that! Finish the article; they even mention the Order."

"No, thanks," Harry said with a dry smirk. "I've seen enough. 'Mastery of the beast.' That's just rich! They might have mentioned that my 'familiar' turned me into a human fireball a week ago."

As he spoke, Harry suddenly recognized the strange voice that had interrupted his dream--it was the woman he'd encountered in the courtyard that night. "Remus," he said, "Hagrid was at the wedding. Does that mean he and that Ondossi woman are back?"

Lupin nodded briskly. "They are, and they have great news. Apparently the giants in America are very sympathetic to our cause. Hagrid asked to convene the entire Order today, in fact; we're going to use the Great Hall at Hogwarts at 3:00. You should go."

"Wouldn't miss it!" said Harry enthusiastically. "But I think I have an appointment this morning." He told Lupin about the dream.

"You-Know-Who used Legilimency to speak to you in dreams," said Lupin with a frown. "I'm sure she can do it too. She's up in Buckbeak's old room, Harry." He waved toward a pile of pastries on the kitchen counter. "Better have some breakfast first, I have a feeling you'll be there a while."

"What do you want to bet she opens the door just before I knock?" said Harry with a rather cynical sneer.

Five flights of stairs later, Harry found to his disappointment that the door did not swing away from his hand dramatically; it didn't even produce an eerie squeak when he opened it. The room itself, however, was very dark, and its occupant sat at a desk on the far side of the room. She had her back to the door and did not turn around as he let himself in; it would have sent Moody into apoplexy.

"Close the door, please," she said, and Harry did so, though he would have much preferred to leave it open. He stepped just inside the room and waited, unsure of what to say and not eager to stray too far from the exit.

There was very little sunlight penetrating the ancient green velvet curtains, and it took some time for his eyes to adjust. He saw the silhouette of a small but sturdy-looking woman rise from the desk. She picked up a lamp and lit it. Harry was somewhat surprised to find that her skin was brown; he'd envisioned her as the pathologically pale sort. She certainly had the long black hair and dark eyes that he'd expect in a "spooky witch."

Harry began to feel awkward, waiting for her to say something; had she invited him here or not? He finally decided to introduce himself, but just as he opened his mouth, she spoke.

"I know who you are, Harry Potter. You'll forgive me for needing a moment to compose myself."

The lamp flame was flickering erratically, and Harry suddenly realized this was because her hands were shaking. "Is something wrong?" he asked with genuine concern.

She set down the lamp. "I'm afraid of you, Mr. Potter."

That was unexpected. Harry stared at her, slackjawed, for some time before finally mumbling, "You know, compared to many things in this house, I'm pretty harmless, really."

She managed a weak grin. "Cute. I know you even believe that. It couldn't be further from the truth, though."

Harry shook his head, stifling a laugh. This was absurd. "Can I ask you something?" he said, but did not wait for permission. "Do you ever just say 'hello,' or 'My name's Ondossi,' or anything, you know, normal?"

"Don't think you'll win me over with humor and charisma, hotshot," she said, though he could hear relieved amusement in her voice. "All right then, introductions take two. Hello! My name is Tura Ondossi. I'm from Northport, Alaska, which is in the USA, across the pond if you will, although technically the closest way to get there from here is over the Pole. I was asked by Albus Dumbledore to teach you about the Dark Arts, and not just their defense either. However, unbeknownst to you, I have explored your mind and I see you have a clear potential to replace the very one you are destined to destroy. Which scares the daylights out of me, because I'm the one that's going to give you the skills to do either, or both." She paused. "Was that better?"

"I think you could have stopped after the part about the North Pole," he said in a strained voice.

"Yeah, I get that a lot."

Harry found that he had too many questions, each one jumping up and down and demanding to be put at the head of the queue. He finally settled on an easy one: "Can we open the curtains, please?" The stuffy darkness was reminding him of Professor Trelawney's overly-perfumed tower.

"Come here and look at my eyes, Mr. Potter." He shrank away from her, taking a step backward; if she really was some kind of Legilimency expert, that was a loaded request. She either guessed or read his apprehension because she quickly said, "In a harmless way, of course. Come on."

Harry gnashed his teeth a moment, then strode across the room. Drawing closer, he could see that there was something very strange about her eyes, but it wasn't until he was right before her that he could put his finger on it.

They were pure black, blank and empty, like the eyes of a shark. Without even realizing that he was being a bit rude, he stared at her eyes for some time, even leaning around her to get a view of them from the side. She apparently was used to this sort of thing, and waited patiently as he marveled at them.

"It's called aniridia," she said. "The iris--the part that gives your eyes color--I don't have them. In the light, the iris closes and your pupils get small, to protect the inside of your eye from the brightness. Mine don't.

"I was reading when you first knocked," she said conversationally. "I couldn't read now, with this lamp going--too much glare on the paper. Sunlight is unbearable. That's one of the reasons I live in Northpole, there's no sunlight for months at a time in winter."

Her blank eyes were so morbidly fascinating, Harry found it hard to stop looking at them. "Northpole?" he echoed absently.

She smirked. "A little pet name for Northport. The city is above the Arctic Circle. We call ourselves 'Santa's Little Helpers.' You should see the decorations at Christmas, they're totally out of control. Anyway, do you see, Mr. Potter, why the drapes are shut?"

Harry brought his focus back from the eyes to the person. "Yes. And please, it's just Harry."

"Very good, Just Harry. I'm Just Tura, although you should probably get in the habit of calling me Professor Ondossi."

He nodded. "You'll be leaving for Hogwarts in a few weeks."

"Correction: We'll be leaving for Hogwarts today. Rubeus is going to describe the next major focus for the Order. And I'm staying there; that painting downstairs is having issues with me."

She probably assumed that, because he was so young, he would be going back to school. "First of all," said Harry firmly, "she hates everyone. Second of all, this is my home, I'm coming back as soon as Hagrid's meeting is over."

"Wrong on both counts," Ondossi replied, equally firmly. "First of all, Momma Black is scared of me. Second of all, you're staying at Hogwarts, because that's where I'll be. I told you, Albus asked me to come here for you. The Defense Against the Dark Arts bit--that's just the day job. I'm here to teach you how to kill Lord Voldemort."

Harry couldn't stop himself from laughing; she looked about as murderous as a duckling with those big baleful eyes. "No offense, Just Tura, but I think I have that under control."

"Think so, hotshot? Tell me, what do you suppose would happen if (and this is a big if) you were to gain the upper hand in battle, when suddenly..." fell into his mind? Her words ceased to be made of sound, but formed directly in his mind, like they had in the dream. They were loud enough to drown out every other thought, and evoked not just concepts but images and emotions, as though he were living the words.

I can tell you exactly what will happen. He would pull you in, Harry, and you couldn't withdraw, any more than you can stop me right now. He'd take you on a guided tour of his memories, a selection of his finest work, just to be sure you understood how horribly you'd failed by not destroying him. And you know what would be the last thing you'd see? He'd show you the view through his own eyes, right then. She demonstrated; Harry suddenly saw himself, staring vacantly as if mesmerized in the flickering glow of the oil lamp. He would reach down to your belly--the view dropped from his face to his torso, her hand flat, poised like a spade about to dig into his flesh--and plunge his hand right through these ripped abs of yours, reach up under your ribs, and pull your heart out. He'd hold your mind until the end, so you could watch yourself die.

"Not a pretty sight, hotshot." The return to his normal perspective was so swift, it gave him vertigo. She glared at him, her hand under his shirt, tapping his belly meaningfully.

Harry seized her wrist angrily. "Take your hands off--"

He couldn't move, couldn't speak, couldn't think; she was in his mind again, a rush of cold fury. He hadn't even been looking her in the eye this time. Don't you EVER manhandle me,cheechako. I won't stand for it. She shoved him and sent him tumbling backward, but he couldn't summon the will to break his fall. Thanks to the carpet, his ego suffered the worst of the blow, but his behind came in at a close second.

She stepped back out of his mind and, to his surprise, offered her hand to help him to his feet. Harry considered spitting in it for the briefest instant, but took it warily and pulled himself up.

"Look, let's establish right now that I'm the alpha in this relationship, okay?" she said coldly. "There's a reason for that, and not a capricious one: you are a loose cannon, Harry Potter. You stand on the brink of incredible power, one that I can teach you to use. But I don't trust you. Albus did, but we know he makes mistakes, don't we?

"You and I have more in common than you know. I, too, could become the successor to Lord Voldemort. I trust myself not to yeild to that temptation. I may come to trust you as well, Just Harry, and if that happens, I swear I'll stand at your side right up to the final confrontation. But until then I'm the orca and you're a seal pup, capice?"

Harry glowered. "I see you have this all planned out. But there's one problem: I don't trust you, either."

She smiled broadly. "That's good. You shouldn't. Do you know that I could reach into your mind right now and destroy your sanity? You'll notice, however, that I am not. Now, if and when I believe that you will show me the same courtesy, I'll teach you how to do it too. And more. Deal?" She held out her hand.

Harry's gaze alternated between her hand and her face. "I don't know. I don't usually strike deals under threats and coercion."

She shrugged. "Well, I can bend you to my will if you'd rather, but what fun is that?" she said sarcastically, then paused. "Look, Harry," she began, much more kindly, "'re right, this was not the best way to start off. I really am very afraid of you. It's hard to be polite, act rational, when you're quaking in your boots. I'm not usually this hard-nosed. In fact, I'm still amazed that I knocked you on your keester, that is SO not like me. But it intimidated you, didn't it?"

"You have to ask?" Harry said skeptically.

"Touche', hotshot." She sighed deeply, rubbing her forehead. "Fiddlesticks! Ten minutes with you and I'm already assuming you'll answer me honestly." She shook her head incredulously. "That might be a new record."

Harry wasn't quite sure what to say, or even what to think. "I'm flattered, I guess," he finally stammered, "but I think I've had about all I can stand for one day. Do you mind--"

"Of course. Go pack your things for Hogwarts. Invite your friends to come too, you'll need people to practice with. Come and find me when you're ready to begin."

"Begin what, exactly?"

She grinned wickedly. "Occlumency lessons, hotshot."

Harry's cell phone had enough power for one more call to Hermione. He threw his things once more into his trunk as they talked; he'd just had enough time to settle in before being uprooted again.

"I know, Hermione, but you have to, it's only a few weeks early. You could go home again before term starts. But you've got to help me, I can't handle her by myself. She's beyond spooky, she's downright mental!"

Hermione sighed. "Oh, all right. I have to go back this coming weekend, Mum and I made plans, but I'll come for the week. Maybe Ron can take over by then, I think he's had all he can stand of Fred and--" A burst of static drowned her voice. "--be there today anyway, for the meeting, we'll figure it out then."

"You're the greatest, Hermione. This phone's almost dead, I'll talk to you there. Hermione?" Silence, as the phone transformed from a link to his friend into a piece of inert metal and plastic. He tossed it on top of the pile of clothes in his luggage.

With the packing completed, it was time for the real challenge: Hedwig. She was perched on top of the armoire, giving him that special look that she normally reserved as the last sight a mouse would ever see. Belatedly, Harry realized he should have coaxed her into her cage with a snack prior to packing.

"Come on, Hedwig, I swear, this is it. No more moves after this. We're going to Hogwarts! You can go up to the Owlery and see all your friends and, and, sleep all day, or whatever it is you do up there. OW!" She had climbed disdainfully onto his hand, only to nip his thumb soundly just as he got her to the door of the cage. She quickly flapped back to the top of the armoire.

Harry finally rifled through the clutter on the bureau and found a scrap of parchment. He wrote a letter to himself: "Dear Harry, This is Harry from last week, hope this finds you happy and content. Yours, Harry." He rolled it up and firmly summoned Hedwig to the window, where he tied the note to her leg, never taking his eyes off her beak.

"I'll see you at Hogwarts, then." he growled. She responded by flapping over to the nearest tree branch and preening her feathers meticulously.

Rolling his eyes, Harry emptied her cage and prepared to take it downstairs, but paused. He wouldn't really need it at Hogwarts--he had only ever used it to carry Hedwig on and off the train. He could come back and get it in an instant if he had to. That thought cheered him immensely; he could get used to this "being of legal age" business. He hauled her cage up to the attic.

On the way back to his room, Harry began to wonder what to do about Fawkes. It seemed rather rude to just head off on a major trip without telling him, but he hardly had the option of calling Fawkes on the cell phone, batteries or no. As he opened his bedroom door, however, the curtains billowed inward, followed immediately by Fawkes, braking himself gustily with his wings. He landed on Harry's pillow with a twinkle in his eyes.

"Is there anyone left in this house who doesn't read my mind?" mumbled Harry in mock exasperation.

"I can't," came the grating voice of Phineas Nigellus, "but I never was much for tabloids."

In a rare show of solidarity, Hedwig screeched, Fawkes made an indelicate raspberry sound, and Harry snapped, "Oh, shut it," all at the same moment.

As Harry stepped out of the emerald flames into the Gryffindor common room, he felt the peculiar disconcerting sensation one has in a public place that is otherwise deserted: part disbelief that such a place could ever be so quiet, part eerie paranoia that there simply had to be someone hiding in there somewhere; both conceivably the product of lonliness of the place itself, the longing of the very walls for vibrant human company. Knowing that he could very well be the only living being in the entire tower gave Harry a bit of the heebie-jeebies. It didn't help that Fawkes popped into existence from a fireball seconds later.

When Harry opened the portrait hole, he was met with a shrill squeal from the Fat Lady. "Good gracious, Harry, you nearly startled the pigment out of me! I had no idea you were in there! I say, who let you in?" she asked with a severe look.

"Sorry I scared you. I took the fireplace."

She sat up at this news, pulling out a pair of ornate opera glasses from somewhere behind her, and peering down at him disdainfully. "The fireplace! Well! Fancy yourself a bit too grown up to use my doorway anymore, then?"

Harry put on his most winsome smile. "And miss your lovely countenance? Heaven forbid, milady," he said with a bow. "You must forgive my indiscretion, it was a matter of great expedience."

"Flatterer!" she said sharply, but she turned as pink as her dress and pretended to study a scratch in her frame. Harry grinned from ear to ear; Phineas Nigellus could go matte himself.

"Yoo-hoo!" she called after him down the corridor. "You need to choose a password, darling!"

That stopped him in his tracks. This was a rare opportunity. Weasley is our King? Probably too long, and it would hardly do if the portrait swung open for anyone singing an idle tune while walking by. Perhaps something to annoy Hermione? Eh, too easy. As often happens in such moments, Harry's mind went blank; he'd thought of dozens of amusing passwords over the years, and now that his chance had come, he couldn't recall a single one. He came back and whispered one idea to the Fat Lady's ear, but she turned even redder. "Oh, no, never; I don't care what Professor Snape did, we can't use that!"

Harry shrugged; it was worth a shot. "How about 'and the horse he rode in on,' then?"

"That will do," she said primly, though Harry had a feeling she'd be off giggling in her friend Violet's portrait as soon as he was around the corner.

The castle's oak front doors were wide open, revealing a long parade of witches and wizards filing up the walk, wearing robes of every color and style imaginable. For the first time, Harry understood Lupin's breathless enthusiasm about the state of the Order; Dumbledore's Army, indeed! The Great Hall was already nearly full; even though all the House tables had been Vanished, it was clear that not everyone would fit.

Hagrid and Grawp were at the front of the Hall with McGonagall and Lupin, all looking both thrilled and concerned at the size of the audience. Harry tried to edge his way closer, but it was simply impossible, the crowd was too thick. In an instant of panic, he realized that the entire Order could be wiped out with one strike, but forced himself to banish that notion. He noted that nearly everyone shuddered at some point as they filed in, undoubtedly having the same thought.

When the Hall was packed, Professor McGonagall stepped forward, and the susuration of the crowd died down expectantly.

"Welcome, one and all, to Hogwarts Castle. I am Minerva McGonagall, the headmistress of this school. I thank you all for coming on such short notice, though I regret our Great Hall no longer appears to be large enough." That produced a round of cheers. Though smiling, McGonagall waved her hands to restore order, and continued.

"This meeting was convened to address the issue of the Giants. Professor Rubeus Hagrid, along with his brother Grawp and Madame Maxime of Beauxbatons, have developed a plan that will require the participation of the entire Order, to entice the Giants to our side. I yeild the floor to Mr. Hagrid and Mr. Remus Lupin, to explain this plan."

Hagrid stepped forward, his enormous, shaggy beard dwarfed only by his robust smile; he looked so happy that Harry felt like cheering again. "All right then! Let's get righ' to it! As yeh know, You-Know-Who's been recruitin' whole clans o' giants whenever he can find 'em. Not all of 'em want ter go along with him, but they don' gotta lot o' choice in the matter. Only way teh stand agains' the Clan is to leave it--an' they can' just leave, 'cause they got nowhere else ter go. Well, that is, 'til now.

"See, me brother Grawp and me, we jus' got back from America. Big country, tha' one. Plenty o' wide open spaces wi' mountains an' forests, jus' the kinda place fer giants. We was able to meet wi' the local blokes an' strike a bargain er two.

"Turns out You-Know-Who came through there before, durin' his, yeh know, las' round, an' the giants over there didn' take to him. He didn't know them giants kinda like Muggles. They got this runnin' joke, see, where they go leavin' tracks in the snow an' such, an' the Muggles all think they come from some sorta monster." Hagrid began to giggle, casting a knowing eye at Grawp. "The Muggles, heh, they get all worked up, even comin' in helicopters an' whatnot, tryin' to spot 'Bigfoot.' It's a huge sport, they've got competitions in differen' categories, champions..." Lupin caught Hagrid's eye and tossed his head slightly, and Hagrid fortunately caught the message that it was time to move on.

"Righ'. So as I was sayin', You-Know-Who went in with all the usual bluster about eliminatin' the lesser bein's, and o' course, these boys saw their main entertainmen' bein' threatened. Not teh mention the Bigfoot thing was wha' brung 'em in as a society, like. Turns out yeh give a giant enough space teh stretch out, an' a good hobby teh keep his min' busy, an' he'll act civilized. So they wasn' interested in the slightest by You-Know-Who's rubbish. Smart ones even figured he'd be back ter make trouble, an' started diggin' in.

"They wanna see You-Know-Who cleaned up once and fer all. They'll take any giant who wants teh settle there, an' some are even willin' to come here and fight."

Gasps of surprise echoed around the Hall, but not all of them sounded pleased. Hagrid continued to beam, but Harry could see doubt beginning to cloud his eyes. What was the matter with these people, this was better than they could have ever hoped for!

Lupin had apparently been expecting this response; he came forward and patted Hagrid's arm, gently urging him off to one side. "Order, please, order!" he said loudly, and the murmuring slowly ceased.

"Thank you, Hagrid, for your diplomatic efforts. The rest of us are charged with bringing the plan to fruition. Finding, persuading, and moving the last giants will take a concerted effort, and I ask all of you now to consider what help you can offer." Lupin stood firm, with his head held high, as murmurs began anew around the Hall.

"I wonder, Mr. Lupin, if you've asked the right question," said a man loudly from the front of the hall. Harry needed no time to recognize the voice: Rufus Scrimgeour, the Minister of Magic.

Lupin leveled his gaze at Scrimgeour, and though he must have yearned to say, "And who invited you?" there wasn't even a mote of it in his voice. "Would you like to make a motion, sir?"

"I would suggest, sir, that the Order's resources might be better spent on matters other than refugee giants."

The Great Hall immediately went silent.

Lupin's expression remained stoically neutral. "Thank you, sir. However, unless there is a motion, I will ignore that comment." He raised himself to his full height, and scanned deliberately across the room for any sign of a dissenting voice. "There appears to be none. I will take a moment to reiterate that this Order exists for one purpose: to oppose Voldemort." Lupin paused for the usual grimacing and wincing. When he continued, his voice was deep and clear, filling the Hall. "If one of his goals is to eradicate the race of Giants, then our opposition is simple: we will not permit him to accomplish this."

The Hall filled with thunderous applause.

Chapter 10: Santa's Little Helper
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Harry decided to return to the common room while the crowd cleared, lest he run up and crush Lupin in a jubilant hug. Scrimgeour had made no further interjections during the meeting, but had stalked out with a cold expression as soon as it was adjourned. Harry knew there would be repercussions from the Ministry for Scrimgeour's humiliation; rubbing their noses in it with a conspicuous celebration would only make things worse.

He was heading up the second flight of stairs when he heard someone shouting his name from below. "Hermione!" he shouted back; she was already at the landing of the marble staircase and heading up, pulling Viktor Krum along behind her. Harry instinctively glanced around for Ron, but there were no redheads to be found in the entrance hall.

Hermione dashed up the stairs, her eyes shining with pride. "Harry! Can you believe it?" She hugged him, smiling breathlessly. "He was wonderful! I've never seen Lupin using parliamentary procedure, he just trounced Scrimgeour at his own game!"

"I know! It was fantastic!" He had never felt so proud of Lupin either.

"And I have even more good news," she said as she stepped back. "Viktor wants to join the Order!"

Krum looked somewhat abashed as he reached the landing. "Hello again, Harry. I vas sorry I didn't find you at the vedding."

"Yeah, me too. That was a wild time."

"Do you think the Order vill accept me, Harry?" He looked anxious, almost pleading; there were very few former Durmstrang students in the Order.

Harry shook Viktor's hand, then pulled him into a quick hug. "It's done, Viktor. Welcome aboard."

The three of them lurked on the landing as small groups of sorcerors slowly poured out of the Great Hall, discussing their assignments or simply catching up with old friends. Eventually a brigade of Weasleys ambled into the entrance hall. One of them must have spotted Harry and Hermione, for the cluster of unmistakable red heads suddenly stopped and bobbed together, then separated mitotically into two smaller sets. Ron, Fred, and George clattered noisily up the stairs.

"We're heading up to the common room for old time's sake," said George.

"That, and we're all so hung over we need a bit of quiet," said Ron with a weak grin.

Harry smiled, but his heart wasn't in it; he was following Ginny's red ponytail as it departed through the oak front doors. "Sounds good!" he finally said. "We can have some sunflower seeds."

Fred gave them all dirty looks before he, too, broke down in a good-natured laugh. "The sad part is I can't even remember what I did to deserve it."

"I do," said George matter-of-factly. "I reckon Harry will have nightmares for years."

They spent a lazy hour in the common room, discussing the events of the day before. Harry didn't bring up his encounter with Ron behind the shed, and judging by Ron's warm, easy demeanor, there was no danger of Ron recalling it either. Harry glanced back and forth between Ron and Viktor many times, but never detected any animosity between them. He could understand why Viktor would be an expert at concealing his emotions, but Ron...he might run from them, but he couldn't hide them very well at all.

When the castle corridors no longer echoed with the commotion of many voices, they returned to the Great Hall to find a worn but happy Lupin stretched out on the staff table. "What a day! Fred, George, can either of you...let me see..." He rolled his legs off the table and let their momentum swing him upright, then reached for a long scroll covered with scribbles. He studied it a moment, checking off a few elements here and there. "Can you do Side-Along Apparition?"

"Of course," said Fred, his tone suggesting that Lupin was foolish to even ask such a thing. Harry watched closely; sure enough, Fred glanced at George questioningly and George responded with the barest of unconcerned shrugs. Harry shook his head, grinning, knowing that they would certainly be able to do it soon, though poor Ron might get Splinched a hundred different ways in the meantime.

Late that night, Harry awoke during a horrible nightmare. When he finally fought his way to consciousness, he couldn't remember anything about the dream, only that he'd been struggling. To his great surprise, his scar didn't hurt at all. He settled back into his pillow wondering if he'd only dreamed that he'd been having a nightmare, but then Ron let out a bloodcurdling howl that sent Harry scrambling out of bed for his wand.

Ron clawed his way upright, gasping for breath, but seconds later he regarded Harry with an utterly perplexed expression. "What in the name of Merlin are you looking at?" Before Harry could answer, the two of them jumped; a muffled scream was coming from the girls' side of Gryffindor Tower.

Harry and Ron bolted down to the common room in an instant and automatically launched up the stairs to the girls' dormitories, only to find themselves on a steep and slippery slope. Both of them swore vehemently, but to no avail; the stairs apparently considered boys more threatening than emergencies. Hermione's voice immediately sounded from above, firm and deep but with a quiver of fear. "Who's there?"

"It's okay, Hermione, it's us," called Ron. "You screamed."

"I had a bad dream," she called down. "I'm okay. I'm coming down." Ron and Harry knew what that meant; they rolled quickly off the landing lest Hermione plow into them like a Jamaican bobsled.

"I'm so sorry, I woke you both up?!" she said, appalled by the notion that she could have screamed so loudly.

Harry and Ron exchanged a glance. "Um, we were already up."

She frowned. "What were you--"

Another scream cut her off in mid-sentence, this one echoing through the open window of the common room.

The three of them ducked out the portrait hole. Sure enough, a cacophany of distant screams rolled through the halls from every direction. The Fat Lady, who would typically grumble at being pestered at such an hour, looked at them with wide eyes. "What could it be? Peeves?"

Harry shook his head, peering down the halls. "No idea." But for the terrified howls, the halls were completely peaceful, motionless. Harry had a rush of adrenaline going; he was all ready to charge off to the rescue, but there was absolutely no indication of the source of danger.

The screaming presently stopped, at least within their hearing, and all four of them gazed nervously at one another. "Maybe I should go ask the other portraits?" said the Fat Lady anxiously.

"Sure," said Harry. "I don't even know where to start looking."

Twenty minutes later, the Fat Lady called them back out of the common room. She was panting. "I've been to every portrait in the whole castle, even the Headmaster's office. No one's seen a thing! Not one thing; you're the only ones even out of bed. But there were screams from the dungeons to the North Tower."

"Group nightmare, you think?" said Ron. "Ever hear of such a thing, Hermione?" She shook her head.

Harry yawned. "Always something new, isn't it? I'm going back to bed."

The next morning, Harry, Ron, and Hermione trooped grumpily down the stairs, hoping that there would be breakfast even though school was not in session. The doors to the Great Hall were open and sure enough, there were a handful of people seated around an impressive buffet at the staff table. Professor McGonagall waved them in, and all three quickly noticed that everyone at the table appeared a bit haggard.

"Sleep well?" said Harry ruefully, helping himself to a piece of toast from a platter. He received a number of knowing looks.

"Did you three wake up, too?" said McGonagall. They all nodded, reaching for the coffee urn in unison. McGonagall turned to Lupin (who looked as if he'd simply been up all night) and scowled. "Well, then, it wasn't just the hold of the castle that was affected."

"What do you suppose...?" began Hermione, but she was interrupted by a jangling at the doors. Professor Trelawney flounced into the hall dramatically, the dark circles under her eyes magnified by her enormous glasses.

"I received a dire omen in the night," she said importantly as she approached the table.

McGonagall rolled her eyes. "Let me guess: a nightmare, around 3:00?"

"Woke you up, but you couldn't remember it?" said Hermione.

Trelawney's bangles and bracelets rang out again as she deflated from her haughty stance. "Well," she sniffed, "it appears that the omen was so important, it was manifest to us all."

"Indeed. What an honor for we non-Seers," said McGonagall drily, as she and Hermione glanced askance at one another.

Professor Sprout presently trooped into the Hall, a smudge of dirt on her cheek and even more under her nails, though her hands had a recently-washed look. "Morning, all," she said gruffly, seizing the entire plate of kippers. "Anyone mind? Only I'm starving, been up since three gardening."

"Nightmare woke you?" said Lupin dully; he knew the answer already.

It was the same as the rest of the castle's denizens trickled in for breakfast, with one exception. Ondossi blustered in as cheerful as a spaniel in a gamebird factory, then stopped abruptly at the row of grouchy faces. From behind her dark glasses, she scanned the group with knitted brows, her smile quickly disappearing. "Oh dear," she said.

"Do you have something to tell us?" said McGonagall, folding her arms.

"Oh, no," Ondossi said meekly. "It's just that I'm not fit for human company." She grinned feebly. "No worries." She turned on her heel and strode out of the Hall.

All eyes inexplicably turned to Harry, who shrugged. "How should I know?" he said defensively, though no one had said a word.

Hermione persuaded him to go to Ondossi's office right after breakfast. "You might as well start these 'lessons,' otherwise you're just wasting time sitting around here. And if you can find out what that was all about, then so much the better." Harry had glared at her, knowing that the latter was her real goal, but she was, as usual, correct on both counts. He promised to meet her in the library after he escaped the Spook.

Her door was propped open and she was tugging a battered wooden trunk. Without looking at Harry, she said, "Sure, some help would be nice."

"Wrong question," said Harry. "I was going to ask what you're doing."

"No you weren't," she said wryly. "The polite question was going to come first, that's your nature." She sat down heavily on the trunk. "Did you only come to pry, or are you ready for your first lesson?"

"Why don't YOU just tell me?" he asked crossly.

"Because I'm making a lame attempt to treat you with respect. If you'd prefer to be an open book, hotshot, that's fine too."

Harry leaned against the doorjamb and folded his arms. "You never answered my question, you know. About whether you ever say anything normal."

She sighed, her shoulders sagging. "I wouldn't know normal if it hit me in the face, Harry. So many things are clamoring for my attention at any given minute, I just speak to whatever seems most relevant. No time or patience to wade through the niceties. Close the door, will you?"

Harry came in, letting the door fall shut behind him as he took a chair. She picked up a thin white wand from her desk and pointed to a candle on the far side of the room, igniting it wordlessly, then took off her glasses.

"Those vignettes that come tumbling into you from people's minds, Harry--they're only the beginning. Within a few weeks, the people you've already opened will be easier and easier to reconnect with. Within a year, it'll happen every time you turn your head. There'll be times when the vision is so clear, you can't tell what's happened, what's happening, and what people wish would happen.

"That's why you have to learn Occlumency, Harry. They're not throwing themselves at you, you're barging into them, and in a heavy-handed way, too. It makes your soul feel guilty, to inflict people like that--that's why you feel so strange afterward. I like to think of it as a moment of atonement. Anyway, you have to learn to Occlude yourself, to keep your mind in your own head, not let it rip open every soft little underbelly that comes along like some kind of cognitive Grim Reaper.

"I became a recluse before I caught on to what was happening, which was probably just as well. Never exactly won any awards for playing well with others. I tried to be a hermit that first summer, but even out on the tundra, I could still hear the animals, the ever talk to field mice, Harry?" She didn't pause for a reply. "They're imbeciles. Wolves are better company, and they ate the mice too, bonus. But once winter came, I had to go back to Northpole--prey gets scarce in the winter and to a hungry wolf, if you're not Pack, you're Snack.

"Starting that winter, I lived in the steam tunnels below the university. Not a penny for food. I became the Spook, you know, the ghost in the tunnels, rather trite, actually. Slept all day when people were about, then read books in the library all night. Kind of a fairy-tale adventure, except for the rat-and-garbage diet, the filth, and of course, the matter of the hundred screaming voices in my head at any given time. Yeah."

Harry just stared. "Are you making this up?" he said at last.

She opened her arms. "If I'm lying, I'm flying."

"You were my age when this all happened? What about your parents?"

She scoffed. "You ever hear of a Spenard divorce?" Again, she obviously didn't expect an answer. "My father killed her early on--he'd wanted a boy. My...tribe, you'd call it, raised me."

Harry nodded. "You're an Eskimo!"

Her face screwed up with more disgust than when she'd mentioned the rat-and-garbage diet. "Yeah, that's me, my name's Nanook and I live in an igloo. GAH! I can't stand that word. I'm Inupiaq. My people were the first to touch the North American continent, crossing over the frozen ocean from Asia. Many that followed went south and became Outsiders to us, but my people stayed where we belonged, in the north with the tundra and taiga and glaciers. But that's a bigger story.

"So, yeah, I lived with my 'tribe,' went to school, started up with the magic, got removed from school and apprenticed to the afatkuq, the, uh, medicine man, I guess is the popular word. He really gave it his best shot, but I was tuunbaq...bad spirit magic. He finally gave up and sent me to Northpole--"

"Sent you!" Harry interrupted, surprised. "These are Muggles we're talking about? And they knew about the Wizard city?"

She tossed her head, amused. "Northpole was founded about 200 years ago. The Inupiat settled the land about 50,000 years ago. Yes, they knew about the city.

"You have to understand something, Harry. The distinction between Muggle and Wizard isn't as sharp in some places. There are other forms of magic and power in the world that wizards ignore. One of them is the Earth itself. It's outrageously subtle, hard to access, doesn't do anything flashy or immediate, in other words, boring. But it's there for anyone, Muggle or Wizard.

"The Land understands time in a different way from us. It takes 500 years for the Land to blink, and another 5000 to say, "Huh? Did somebody say something?" My people have been on the Land long enough for it to notice us, and we've never left so much as a scratch on it, which it appreciates. We've messed with the Sea a bit, taking its beloved creatures for food, but we've always thanked it profusely and it tolerates us. But the Land trusts my people and has become a friend, and shares its magic."

"With the medicine man--the shaman, then?" said Harry. "I've heard about these things, aboriginal cultures all over the world have them. It all sounds like superstition, but you're saying it's magic?"

"You're quick, hotshot! A different kind of magic, one that can take whole generations just to appear, but so much more...steadfast than this fly-by-night stuff that sorcerors use every day. But less showy. No big kabooms. Mostly."

"Anyway, I'm getting off topic again. Legilimency, yes. So there's me, around fourteen, with too much fast magic for the 'shaman' (I like that word better) to handle. He took me within sight of Northpole and told me to go in. I honestly tried, but it was horrible, nothing but noise and anger--my people couldn't tell I was in their thoughts, but the wizards could."

Harry nodded again; he'd seen the same thing on Privet Drive.

"So I turned tail and went out to the tundra, ate lots of berries, did the wolf thing...that was actually like a fairy tale, until winter. Then I had to go into town. After that, it was all cement and rat kabobs. But the cool thing about living inside walls and under basements is that you're inside the walls! You can go anywhere you can squeeze into. The Institute was built in the early 1900's. It even has electricity, just because it was such a novelty at the time. But wires and pipes are all hidden inside the walls, with some extra space for repairs--not like these solid stone castles."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that," countered Harry with a knowing grin. "We have a few hidden passages here and there, you know."

"Well, of course you do! But I'm talking about REAL hidden passages, not the kind that someone built on purpose for sneaking around. These are the kind that show up accidentally, left only for plumbers or electricians, that no one maps or knows or even cares about because they don't go anywhere in particular. But they do, they go everywhere! Just not directly. And often there's a hot, nasty pipe you have to go under that roasts your rumpus.

"Anyway, that was how I got my Wizard training, by spooking around the Institute and reading books in the Library attic. Never was much for Charms or wand work, since I didn't have one. But I liked Potions and Herbology--I knew a lot about them already from the Inupiat. Plants are part of the Land's magic.

"Well, when I was sixteen or so, some control freak at the Institute got worked up enough over this unauthorized spook to do something about it, and they sent in the WIFs to get rid of me."

"Whiffs?" said Harry.

"Wizard Investigation Force. Police. 'Aurors,' you guys call them. They were quiet; it was the first time in two years that I'd been able to get within ten feet of another human being and not know every little detail about them. That was my first brush with Occlumency.

"The WIFs didn't know quite what to do with me, but this one nice lady talked her neighbors into renting me their shed in exchange for landscaping their property. I can do plants, as I mentioned. The house was on the edge of town, so it was just a dull roar. I found I could manage.

"Well, word got around that there was a Legilimagus in town, and I made up some potions that incorporated a little Inupiat magic, and pretty soon everyone on the block wanted me doing their gardening, too, so I started to earn some money and buy food, and even some things. I bought this wand when I was eighteen, it's birch."

She rolled the wand between her hands for a moment, smiling to herself, then looked up at Harry with a brief shudder. "Holy Smoke. I think that's the most words I've ever said in one sitting in my whole life. I don't think I'm going to tell you much more, Harry. I'm going to make you extract it from my head instead. You need the practice."

"Wait, though, before you stop...why did Dumbledore bring you here to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts? If you don't mind my saying so, it sounds like you don't know anything about it."

"Think so?" she said with cheery defiance. She flipped her wand to the ready, pointed it at the office door and said, "Expecto patronum." The door burst open and a small herd of silvery caribou bounded silently down the corridor. She raised her brows and gave him a smug smile. "That's just my showing-off Patronus. I make a walrus when I really need it. Big fat fella with tusks like your leg. Let's just say I've had some practical education in Defense, and leave it at that.

"Albus called on me soon after I moved into the shed. Well, not exactly--I never met the man, actually. He sent his representative. An angel," she said wistfully. "Helped me figure it all out--that I could limit what I heard by, well, limiting how I listened. Which is exactly what I plan to teach you, hotshot. Albus had his suspicions about you, you being so susceptible to Lord Voldemort's communication. He wanted me to train you if you turned out to be like me."

"Was Dumbledore a Legilimagus too?"

She frowned. "Oh, no. You have to have a certain...ruthlessness, for lack of a better word. Be willing to oppose the natural order of things to the point that you can actually do it, overstep the boundaries of your mind. I gather he was quite the Legilimens, with wand in hand, of course. But he seemed contented with people's words."

"I can see that. He guessed at a lot of things--usually bang to rights, too. But when he was wrong..." Harry felt his throat tighten and the threat of tears welling in his eyes.

"I know Albus was a good man. I couldn't believe it when Fawkes told me he was dead."

"You can talk to Fawkes?" said Harry, relieved to change the subject.

She shrugged. "Can anybody talk to him? But he gets his message across nonetheless, eh?" Harry nodded sagely. "You should speak to Hagrid, he knows a lot about Fawkes. A real naturalist, Hagrid, and a very quiet mind; I have to concentrate to read him at all, and that almost never happens. Grawpy, too, he's a peach. Gotta be a family thing, though--the Sasquatch giants we met came through loud and clear."

She stood up and reached for her dark glasses, in a way that strongly suggested that the conversation was over. "Now then, do you mind picking up the other side of this trunk?"

Harry stayed in his chair. "Where are you going?"

Abandoning both trunk and glasses, she scrutinized him coolly. "That's for me to know and you to find out. Read me if you can, hotshot." She opened her arms wide and made the slightest bow, as though initiating a formal duel.

Harry smirked and looked into her eyes, once again finding it hard to peer deeply because he was fascinated by their colorless surface. He flattened his lips, concentrating; he could remember how it felt to connect to someone's mind, but he still had no idea how to do it. She nodded, and words formed inside his head: Need a little jump start?

Harry felt a bit embarrassed, but nodded in return. "Hold up one finger," she said aloud. He did as he was told. Tap my forehead. Eyes on mine. He had to stretch his arm to reach her; she leaned back away from him as though the contact was a threat. He barely brushed her brow with a fingertip.

Despite the irritating glare of the windows high above the Hall, he was in a cheery mood from the wonderful progress with the giants the day before. He loved Hagrid and Grawpy, he reflected, even though he barely knew them; they were so genuine. And what a treat, to get out of bed and have breakfast served, like he was some kind of spillionaire! He stopped and gulped. Everyone at the table was in a foul mood. He skimmed unobtrusively over the consciousness of the gardener, the linguist, the hotshot, shearing off just the vanguard of their thoughts. They'd woken up screaming. They'd all had the same nightmare. His nightmare. "Oh, dear."

It was the stones of the castle. They didn't know him the way the tundra did. They didn't have any inclination to absorb his dreams, any more than they would soak up the pollutants that the local Muggles poured over them. They were loaded with magic; the thoughts he might inadvertently set loose in the castle would reflect and rebound from the stones until they struck something soft enough to stick. The stern one, she suspected where the nightmare had come from, but there was no point in explaining it. He couldn't live here. There was a nice forest on the grounds, it would do.

"Breathe, Harry." He opened his eyes, though he felt faint, did as he was told, then groaned.

"I just...was you, looking own memory...of your dream." That was so fundamentally wrong it almost hurt to say it.

"I know. It'll get even more convoluted than that, the longer we know each other." She gave him another rascally grin. "But you did it, din'cha? You read that by your own will, even if you did get a little too caught up in it. Remember to stay in your body, hotshot."

Harry coughed. "I didn't do anything. It just happened. I touched your forehead and it just happened."

"Almost like magic!" she said, her voice drenched in sarcasm. "You're catching on, Harry. Other people need a wand, a spell...for you, it just happens. Simple as that. Making it not happen when you don't want it to, that's the trick. Grab the other side of the trunk, will ya?"

"Wait. Just wait a minute." Harry's stomach was twisting into knots. "I've been doing it all along, that's what you're saying?" She responded only by tapping her fingers impatiently on the trunk. "But it comes on whenever it wants, not when I want it to!"

She sniffed impatiently, then took hold of his wrist and brought his hand to her forehead again.

He was in the courtyard at number twelve, Grimmauld Place. He couldn't sleep; he was anxious about the upcoming meeting with the Sasquatch clans. Was someone shooting off fireworks? A red ball of flame, directly overhead, slowly growing larger. It was going to strike the house, the Dark Lord had found them, they were all going to die. He raised his wand, to explode or deflect It wasn't evil. A bird made of light, wings folded in a dive. Its feathers were of crimson flame, its chest burned brilliant gold. It was moving impossibly fast, like a falling star.

Every nook, every shadowy corner of the courtyard was aglow with red light. Too bright--he spun away. With his back to it, the red was tolerable again, but suddenly the gold erupted all of its own, so beautiful, but so painful. Then blindness; his eyes were dazzled, they needed to recover before they could process another image.

Someone else was there. This wasn't just the rebirth of a phoenix, it was a Bonding. He had read about this in the attic of the Institute library. One could identify a failed Bond easily, because the human's mind would be utterly empty, consumed by the magic of the creature. He cautiously opened his mind to the stranger's. It didn't quite work; the consciousness of the phoenix saturated the air, making it impossible to focus on the lesser being. He had to ask the old-fashioned way.

"Hello, falling star. Do you still own your heart?"

A man. The phoenix was overwhelming his mind, but he had a mind, an identity. He was young...he was unsettled by his nakedness! Harry couldn't help but laugh, it was charmingly naive, particularly since he couldn't see a thing after that golden light, and was facing the wrong way even if he could! "I guess so. Hee hee! Perhaps you'd like a fig leaf?" Oh, fiddlesticks, he thought, this was hardly the time for jokes. Give him something to cover himself; the young man should be celebrating, not bashfully hiding behind a broom. For that matter, this was no time to meet, there had been enough introductions for one night. "We'll meet again, in the light."

Harry was back in her office, feeling surprisingly abashed, rather like the time Moaning Myrtle had let herself into the tub while he was bathing. "I had no idea I was so charmingly naive," he said with as much chutzpah as he could muster, noting that at least he wasn't breathless or faint this time.

"You were!" she laughed. "It was so...innocent. Sweet."

That didn't help. Despite himself, Harry felt his face getting warm. "You know, I don't think anyone's ever described me as 'innocent' before. 'Guilty,' I get all the time, but innocent..."

She drummed her fingers on the trunk, then held out her other hand, palm up. Harry set his fingertips onto hers with some apprehension, but relaxed as the seconds passed and nothing pushed into his mind. They remained there, wordlessly, for some time, until she interlocked their fingers in a brief squeeze and pulled away.

"You getting it now, Harry?" she said. "There's no 'it.' 'It' is you, your magic, and you're always 'on.' The only reason you're not constantly flooded with people's thoughts is that this magic is barely starting to blossom. What we're doing will accelerate the process--in fact, if you touch someone else's forehead like that from this day on, you'll find yourself drowning in them. I've been Occluding you from all but a glimpse of my thoughts. I'll teach you how."

He nodded. "You know, this is a lot better than my last Occlumency lessons."

"Your last teacher had a long row to hoe, hotshot. Now pick up the trunk."

Hermione was alone in the library but for Madam Pince, who was sitting at her desk cataloguing some new acquisitions, glaring supiciously at Hermione every time she heard the rustle of a page being turned. Harry pictured Ron standing before this librarian and dog-earing a page as he had done in Godric's Hollow. It made his feet and hands tingle. Some things are better left unimagined.

"Harry!" Hermione said brightly. "It's lunchtime already! I was beginning to wonder if you'd be back."

"Yeah, I ended up helping her move."

"Move? Where?"

Harry explained about the nightmare. "She wanted to sleep in the Forest until I told her about the centaurs. Then she asked if Professor Sprout might let her live in one of the greenhouses!"

Hermione made a face. "She'd be plant food! Why doesn't she just go let a room in Hogsmeade?"

"She's impoverished, Hermione. She calls it 'dirt floor poor.' She lives in someone's garden shed back in America."

Hermione looked nonplussed, then shrugged. "So where did she finally move?"

Harry looked down at the floor, grinning. "I took her out to the Shrieking Shack."

Hermione laughed. "Perfect! The legend lives on."

"What've you been up to?" said Harry, inspecting the open book on the table in front of Hermione.

She flipped back a few pages. "This is the Indicus Magi, it's an encyclopedia describing the specialists, if you will, in different magical fields. I thought I'd look up Legilimagi, but I got a bit distracted, there's some fascinating stuff in here. Anyway, I haven't read the whole section, but here it is, maybe you should just read it for yourself."

Harry leaned closer to the yellowed parchment, took in two sentences that were so dry it was like eating sawdust, and gave Hermione a winsome grin. "Maybe you can just sum it up for me on the way to lunch?"

"Honestly, Harry..." she said with a scoff, but relented, slamming the book shut (to the consternation of Madam Pince) and getting up from her chair.

"Legilimagi are uncommon," she said as they headed downstairs. "There's rarely more than one or two alive at any given time, which has led to speculation whether their magic is some sort of external force--you know, that bounces from person to person--or whether they tend to, ahem, annihilate one another, although there's simply no proof of that."

"Neither can live while the other survives," quoted Harry thoughtfully.

She rolled her eyes. "Voldemort's not a Legilimagus, Harry. We'd all be dead if he were. It's an incredible power, virtually limitless..." Her voice tightened with concern as it trailed off.

"Hermione?" said Harry in a subdued tone. "Does that scare you?"

She stopped, looking down at the floor between them, and took a moment to think before replying. "A little bit, I guess, Harry, but I know you're You wouldn't use it to do anything horrible. I'm more scared by all the implications that come with it--that you're going to change, to become more powerful, people will be scared of you even though you don't want them to be and don't deserve it..." She sighed, still staring at the floor. "Like I am now. You're right, Harry, I AM afraid, knowing you could be inside my head if I look you in the eye. I'm not sure at all that I want you in there. Even though I know you're still the same old Harry."

"You wouldn't want me in your bathtub either."

She giggled and looked up at him despite herself. "What?"

"Something Remus said--that having me in his mind made him feel he couldn't get much more naked. It's funny, a year ago if someone had said, 'Hey, I can step into your mind and look at your deepest secrets,' I would've steered clear of them too. I hated letting S--HIM do it, that was like torture, but at least he had a wand, I could see it coming. But now that I'm doing it, all I can see is how amazing it is, what a privilege, to see right to the core of's beautiful." He stopped, suddenly feeling self-conscious, but Hermione was gazing at him so warmly that he grinned in relief.

"'s nice to hear you speak of it that way." Her eyes suddenly widened in alarm and the warmth disappeared as she dropped her gaze back to the floor. "But I remember what you once said about your cousin Dudley, that it would be like diving in maggots to read his thoughts. Not everyone is beautiful at the core, Harry."

Harry studied her, frowning thoughtfully. "Or they think they're not beautiful." She bit the inside of her lip, and Harry knew he'd struck a nerve. "That's what scares you, isn't it? That I won't like the secrets you never share?"

Her eyes were suddenly brimming with tears. Harry's jaw fell, and he instinctively pulled her into a tight hug. He wasn't sure what to say. He had no idea what she was afraid he'd find out, but he couldn't imagine anything that would diminish her in his eyes. He settled for stroking her bushy hair (which was challenging enough, to avoid snagging or pulling it) until she composed herself.

"Harry, can you promise me something?" she finally whispered, pressing her head against his chest.


"If you ever get inside my mind...accidentally, or invited...don't look at my dreams."

He peered through the brown, fuzzy thicket of her hair with a quizzical expression. "Your dreams." He had to ponder that a moment; was that possible? He remembered Lupin's mind, that was his clearest experience so far. He could see the separate bits that made up the whole, though at the time he hadn't tried to pick and choose among them. Could he have avoided Remus's dream? It had an unreal hue and tone, unlike the crisp, solid memories. He chose to skip certain topics; why couldn't he skip dreams? "Yes. I can do that, Hermione. I might stumble into one, I suppose, but I can step right out if that happens. I'll promise that."

They resumed their descent. Harry was even able to make her laugh, describing the two memories Ondossi had shown him. "She calls me 'hotshot.' And I still don't know what a 'spillionaire' is--" Harry stopped abruptly as they rounded the bend to the landing above the entrance hall. Both of them gasped.

Dozens of people, bleeding and bandaged, were scattered around the hall below them. Madam Pomfrey was scuttling between people with a basket of potions and a determined expression. Harry and Hermione turned to one another as if to confirm that the other was seeing the same sight, then dashed down the last staircase together.

"Harry! Hermione!" Lupin had spotted them, and met them at the foot of the marble stairs. "I'm glad you're here. Help Madam Pomfrey, she's spread very thin and needs runners. I've got to leave to summon more help. The Floo Network is down and people are having to Apparate into Hogsmeade. Hagrid's got one carriage bringing in wounded. Once Pomfrey has this group taken care of, see if you can help Hagrid get some more thestrals harnessed."

He turned to the oak front doors when Harry seized his wrist. "Remus, first...what happened?"

Lupin turned his head but not his body, and closed his eyes with an expression of overwhelmed exhaustion. "Simultaneous attacks, Harry. London, Paris, Zurich, Madrid, probably more, but we've only confirmed those. Voldemort himself came to London. They've pretty much destroyed the Ministry of Magic."

Chapter 11: Chapter 11: Aftermath
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Hermione threw her hands to her face in horror, but Harry felt a flood of relief. Voldemort's axe had finally fallen after far too many quiet months, and it was the Ministry, not the Order, that was under attack. He needed no time to collect himself, dashing off immediately to assist Madam Pomfrey.

"Potter, thank goodness. Take those blankets over there and give one to everyone. Even if they don't want one; tell them you know it's warm but they're in shock. Cover them up yourself if they can't. Then get water and give it to everyone with a pink ribbon, and only the pink! Any other color means they need attention before they get any food or water. If they don't have a ribbon, they go over by the front door for triage. Got it?" Harry gave a single sharp nod and the two of them parted ways without another word.

Handing out blankets proved to be a more challenging job than he expected. Some people wouldn't answer him, while others delayed him as they tearfully recounted their personal experiences in the attack. Harry eventually assembled the outline of what happened: every entrance to the Ministry had suddenly been mobbed by Inferi, who created chaos while a band of Death Eaters stormed through the building, casting deadly and destructive spells at any target they could find. There were injured people from every floor except Level 10, where the courtroom was situated; Harry guessed that either the Wizengamot had not been in session when the attack fell, or it had been completely wiped out.

Voldemort had outdone himself with cruelty, using the cadavers of former Ministry employees as his stock of Inferi. Their animated corpses had to be literally cut down to stop them. Everyone understood, intellectually, that these were just the empty remains of the people they had known, but to their hearts, it didn't matter.

St. Mungo's was overrun with wounded, so any who could Apparate were being sent to Hogsmeade. Unfortunately, being of sound enough mind to Apparate didn't necessarily mean that their injuries weren't severe, and Madam Pomfrey was the only healer. When Harry finished distributing blankets and water, he regarded her anxiously, wanting to help but without an inkling of what to do.

"What can I do next?" he said, sprinting beside her between patients.

"Run up to the hospital wing and bring down everything you can carry." She barked her request without looking at him, focusing on the next injury. Harry made four trips to the third floor, until every potion, pillow, bandage, and bedpan he could find were in the entrance hall. He noticed Hermione again for the first time, organizing the supplies onto different steps of the marble staircase. "That's everything," he told her, and he swept up the pile of blankets for delivery to the latest arrivals.

The influx of injured people had already peaked by that point, and was slowing to a trickle. Harry made another round with pitchers of water, then one more sweep of blankets, before he began to sense, for the first time, that things were becoming manageable. Madam Pomfrey had stopped running between patients and was now ministering to people that, as far as Harry could tell, had milder injuries. Harry glanced for the first time at the watch of the nearest patient and discovered to his surprise that he'd been tending the wounded for four hours. He leaned against the balustrade for a brief rest, when he suddenly recalled that Lupin had told him to help Hagrid. There could be a huge queue of injured people sitting in Hogsmeade right now, waiting for transport to the castle!

With a quick word of his intentions to Hermione, Harry charged out of the castle and was well down the road to Hogsmeade before he realized with a start that he had no idea where the wounded people had been Disapparating. Fortunately, Hagrid was leading a carriage toward him from around a bend. "Hagrid! Do you need help?" he called, waving down the coach.

"Harry!" Hagrid's worn face cheered up immediately. "Nah, we're good. Could'a used yeh about two hours ago, but nobody new in the las' twenty minutes. Think they've finally got everyone outta the Ministry. You okay, Harry?"

"What? Yeah, I'm fine."

"Look a bit pale. You had summat ter eat?"

Harry hadn't realized he was hungry until that moment, when four hours of missed lunch all reared their stomachs at once. "Not lately, no."

Hagrid scooped Harry onto the carriage with one enormous hand. "Not good, Harry. Firs' rule of rescuin': don' endanger yerself. Las' thing anyone needs is teh have ter rescue you. Here," he said, tossing Harry a sack from the floor of the carriage. Harry peeked warily in the sack, then reached into it with relief; it was full of pears.

"What do you know about the attack?" Harry asked before taking a huge bite.

"It was bad, Harry. Firs' place they went was Law Enforcement. Lotta Aurors in St. Mungo's."

Harry dropped the pear. "Tonks?" he said, horrified.

"No, no!" said Hagrid, quickly. "Thank goodness, no. Most'a the Order were out with the giants at the time. Lupin's in a righ' state, you know, if he hadn' put the plan together so quick, they'd all be in the office. Bit of a close call, left him feelin' like someone stepped over his grave, yeh know." Hagrid pulled the carriage through the front gate onto the Hogwarts grounds.

"Where is Remus?" Harry asked.

"He's still at the Ministry," said Hagrid.

"Stop the coach here," said Harry abruptly, leaping off before it came to a halt. "I'm going to London." He reached for another pear, but Hagrid handed him the whole sack.

"Take him some food, then, an' be careful, Harry."

Harry had to pause a moment with an incredulous look. "You're not going to tell me not to go?" he said with a wry grin.

"Yer a man, now, Harry; can't order yeh aroun'. Besides, yeh'd do it anyway. Go help Lupin, he needs yeh."

Harry felt a flush of pride warm his body and regarded his friend warmly for a moment. Hagrid cracked the reins and the coach pulled forward before Harry could spot the tears brimming in his eyes.

Once outside the Hogwarts gates, Harry quickly Apparated straight to the Atrium of the Ministry of Magic. Having only encountered Inferi once before, under Dumbledore's protection and in near-total darkness, Harry was unprepared for the gruesome scene left by their invasion of the Atrium. The room was strewn with limbs, torsos, heads, all a pale greenish gray. There was no blood, he noted thankfully, which made it seem less real, more like an explosion in a mannequin factory, save for the occasional twitch from the larger, more complete pieces.

Harry peered around hopefully for a ruddy complexion, but there was none to be found. He wasn't surprised; there wasn't much point in hanging around this disgusting spectacle, and there were more important things to clean up than icky bits like these. To his surprise, he found that the elevators were still working, so he took one up to to Level Six.

His hunch nearly paid off; he found a crowd of living, breathing people in the Floo Network Authority, though he learned that Lupin had not been there in some time. "I don't know where he went," snapped the witch he approached, who didn't look up from the maps she was laying out on a wide table. She had a long abrasion on the side of her head, probably where she'd been skimmed by some spell. "Look, I'm busy here, the Floo Network is a disaster. Try MLE."

Harry nodded. "Good luck," he said simply, holding out a pear. For an instant, her forehead relaxed and she looked up at him with a hint of a grateful smile. "You too," she said kindly, then returned to her maps with a crunch.

Harry nearly plowed into Arthur Weasley as he stepped off the lift on Level Two. "Ho, Harry!" he said without breaking his stride. "This way." Harry followed him down the short hall to Auror Headquarters, or what was left of it. There was no sign of the orderly rows of cubicles that had been present on his last visit; the room was a shambles of rubble, paper, and scorch marks. Kingsley Shacklebolt and Mad-Eye Moody were having an intense discussion, not even noticing when the two of them walked in.

"We may have a solution, gentlemen," said Arthur, and both Aurors looked up, greeting Harry warmly but regarding him somewhat dubiously.

"Caught a prisoner," said Moody. "Need to interrogate him, and not a drop of Veritaserum in the place. Think you can help?"

Harry took a short but deep breath. "I...I don't know. What do you want me to do?"

"Can you tell us if he's lying or not?" asked Kingsley.

Harry bit his lip and looked at the floor, wondering for the second time that day if he had enough mastery of Legilimency to use it in a specific way. He frowned; that was something Sn-HE had mentioned during lessons, that Voldemort could expose lies, but Harry wasn't sure how to do it. Yet. But there was one thing he could do. "Hold on. What if I just go in and look around? Eliminate the whole questions-and-answers part?"

Moody and Kingsley eyed one another uncertainly. "Thought you weren't quite doing that yet," said Moody.

"I've been getting lessons," Harry said cautiously. "I can give it a try."

"No," said Mr. Weasley firmly. "You two can use Legilimency on your own. The issue is whether we can believe what we learn. Harry, if you can't sort lies from truth, then you shouldn't get involved."

"But I want to help!"

"I know. But leaping into a hostile mind is dangerous, especially since you...go so far." Harry suddenly recalled Ron's drunken confidence that Mr. Weasley was jealous of him for reading Molly just before the feast. For a split second, he wondered with a flare of indignation whether this was some sort of payback--if Mr. Weasley was deliberately keeping Harry from showing his worth in retribution for having that moment with his wife. Just as quickly, Harry felt ashamed of himself for even considering such a thing; Arthur Weasley had far too much integrity to harbor a grudge, much less act on one.

"Tur--Ondossi did mention this can make people insane," he conceded. "Maybe I'd better not. She could do it, though--where is she?"

All three of them shrugged. "No one's seen her," said Kingsley, and Moody looked as though he didn't particularly mind. "Not that she'd know how to find the Ministry, I suppose, she's not exactly from around here."

"I'll see if I can find her for you. But right now I'm looking for Remus."

"I think he's on Level Nine," said Arthur.

Harry got onto a lift with a sense of foreboding. The Department of Mysteries was on Level Nine, and it was hard to imagine anything benign that Lupin could be doing down there. It didn't help that the overhead light was flickering blue and orange, or that the car seemed to be descending at half the normal speed. Harry pointed his wand at the lamp irritably and extinguished it, which naturally left him in total darkness. "Lumos," he said to light his wand, but unfortunately it was still pointing at the lamp; both of them came on, restoring the annoying flicker.

Harry was in absolutely no mood for this nonsense. "Devilspawn!" he cursed in annoyance. Instantly a third light appeared at his feet; a creature about five inches tall, vaguely resembling a winged red centaur, shook a tiny fist at him from a circle of flames.

"And exactly what kind of Summoning was that? Pathetic!" it squeaked, rearing angrily.

Harry glared down in disbelief. Wild magic again, he thought. "My mistake. Sorry."

The little demon settled back on all four hooves. "Sorry? You bring me here like this, not fit to slay a bloody hamster, and all you have to say is 'sorry'? Tosser!" It poked Harry's shoe insolently with its trident and disappeared in a puff of acrid smoke. Harry felt it best just to ignore the light for the moment.

He broke out in a cold sweat as he stepped off the elevator; he hadn't been back to his floor since the night Sirius was killed here. It was hard to believe only a little more than a year had passed. Looking down the long corridor that led to the Department, his heart ached with renewed grief.

The main entry door had been blasted off its hinges. Harry stepped over the debris into the round room, its candelabras burning with their usual blue flames. Most of the other doors were missing or splintered, and the room showed no sign of its usual behavior, which was to rotate the walls into a wild blur and disorient its occupants. Harry reckoned there wasn't much point to it; one closed door looks like another, but each broken one would remain unique, no matter how dizzy the observer.

Remembering the maze of interconnected rooms behind those curved walls, Harry stopped just inside and called, "Remus?" There was no response. Sighing, he turned to the left and poked his head into the nearest door. It was pitch black inside; not even the blue glow from the candles penetrated beyond the doorframe. There was a sound like thousands of little wings flapping about, and Harry felt little gusts of air brushing his face from all directions. He yanked his head out quickly, feeling rather lucky that it was still attached to his shoulders--this was, after all, the Department of Mysteries.

The next door opened onto a long, empty corridor; Harry called out again and decided it would be more efficient to try all the doors before a lengthy exploration of each one. He eventually came to the great square room lined with tiers of stone benches; this was where Sirius had fallen. Harry felt a wave of nausea and desperation as he stood before the mangled door, but he knew intuitively that Lupin was within.

Harry poked his head inside and beheld a gaunt man in ragged robes sitting on the dais in the center of the pit below. The stone archway with the tattered veil was intact on the dais, apparently too powerful for the Death Eaters to destroy, though it looked like it would crumble if a butterfly landed on it. Harry set his jaw anxiously; he recalled only too well the hypnotic attraction of the veiled arch, and the voices that seemed to murmur behind it. He strode resolutely down the stone steps to the dais.

"Remus." Lupin didn't even move, much less reply.

Harry climbed up on the dais, feeling the irresistible enticement of the archway playing over his heart, but he ignored it. "Remus!" he said sharply, and dropped to one knee beside his friend. Lupin didn't take his eyes from the arch, but he sighed and leaned slightly toward Harry.

"Will you come out of here with me?" Harry asked, giving Lupin's shoulders a gentle tug.

"It would be so easy," whispered Lupin. Harry knew he was not talking about leaving the room, at least not by the doors above. He sat crosslegged beside Lupin, keeping a hand firmly on his shoulder.

"Easy. Yeah, I guess. Not particularly brave, though." Harry wasn't sure what to say.

"Courage is getting in short supply lately, Harry," said Lupin, swaying slightly.

"I don't know, I saw quite a bit today."

"You weren't here." Lupin's tears made tiny splashes on Harry's fingers and the fabric of his robe, but he continued to stare vacantly into the veil.

Harry reminded himself again to ignore the murmurs from the archway and put an arm around Lupin's shoulder, obtaining a more solid grip on the older man.

"Scrimgeour is dead," said Lupin in an empty voice. "Voldemort did it himself. He was so stubborn, a real thorn in my side in a lot of ways, but a fighter. Strong." Lupin began to tremble slightly. Harry nodded, but could come up with no reply. They sat in silence for a long time.

"I'm next in line," Lupin whispered at last. "There's no more Ministry. The Order is the last coherent force opposing Voldemort. He'll come for me personally, like he did for Rufus. He'll come, and I'll fall."

"This would be easier, wouldn't it?" said Harry slowly, looking at the archway and relaxing his grip slightly. "Painless. Not like he has planned for us."

For the first time, Lupin's expression changed, his brow furrowing in confusion for a brief instant. "Us."

"He'll come for me too, Remus. I'm his ultimate prize." Harry rose to his feet. "Escaping through that arch would make him angrier than anything else I could do, I think."

Lupin stood too, unsteadily; he had been sitting on the cold stone for a long time.

"And we'll see Sirius again," breathed Harry.

Lupin took his eyes from the veil. "Harry."

"Take my hand, Remus," Harry said in a distant voice. "We'll do it together."

"Harry!" Lupin seized Harry's shoulders and whirled him away from the arch, pulling him, stumbling, to the edge of the dais. Before he could leap off and drag Harry with him, Harry suddenly gripped his forearms. Lupin's eyes, wide with shock, slowly resumed their normal size as he understood the fortitude in Harry's gaze.

Lupin blinked. "You weren't planning to go through at all, were you?"

"No," said Harry grimly. "But I knew you'd have to stop me."

"That was a dirty trick, Harry," Lupin said dully.

"Worked, though."

Lupin mustered a weak grin in response. "Oh, it worked for you, got you what you wanted, I guess. I'm not so sure it worked in my favor."

"That's enough!" spat Harry. "You can't give in to despair, Remus. I need you! You're the only family I have left. I can't do this alone." Though Harry had never said or even thought of those words before that moment, he meant them with every fiber of his being. Even though Harry despised Rufus Scrimgeour, the news of his death made him want to weep; the killing had to stop, it had to. "I can't bear it if he takes everyone from me."

Lupin suddenly pulled Harry into a tight embrace, and for an instant, each man felt secure enough to stop the gap through which his courage had drained.

"Do I smell pears?" Lupin finally asked.

Harry smiled. He picked one up and handed it to Lupin, then began refilling the sack, which he had dropped, unnoticed, on the dais at some point. One of them had broken on the floor into a slimy mush. Harry glanced askew at the veil as he picked up the solid part that remained, then threw the pear violently into the archway. It passed through the fabric without a sound or a ripple, as though it had struck a sheet of mercury.

He sighed; he'd thought perhaps he might get a glimpse beyond the veil when the fruit whipped through the fabric. No such luck. Harry gathered up the last of the pears and jumped off the dais to join Lupin for the climb to the exit.

There was a thump and Lupin lurched forward, and both of them spun about, reaching for their wands.

The broken pear had bounced from Lupin's back and landed on the ground with a moist splat. Though neither man would admit it, even to themselves, each had, on the very edges of their consciousness, heard a distant, familiar bark of laughter.

Chapter 12: Chapter 12: Summer's End
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Harry wanted to accompany Lupin back to Headquarters, but Remus wouldn't hear of it. "You have one assignment in the Order, Harry, and that's to hone every skill you have. I'm all right; Adora will be home soon. Get back to Hogwarts."

Harry Disapparated just outside the front gates intending to make a hasty march to the basement kitchens. He'd made it halfway to the entrance when Hagrid's voice boomed at him from across the grounds. "All right, Harry?" he called, charging up from his hut with great strides that made the earth tremble.

"Alive, at least," Harry called back. "Starving. You?"

"Just finished seein' ter the thestrals. I could do with a little summat."

The doors to the Great Hall stood open despite the late hour. They found Ondossi at the head table whipping ice and butter together in a big bowl. "That looks good!" said Hagrid enthusiastically.

"Akutaq," she said, scooping some sugar into the bowl. "I spent my afternoon in Northpole. I brought back these berries. It won't be quite right without seal oil, but you do what you can. Want some?"

"No, thanks," said Harry immediately, but Hagrid grabbed the nearest spoon in anticipation. Harry had a feeling that Hagrid's already dreadful cooking would soon be taking a turn for the worse.

As soon as they sat down, their plates filled with food. The rush of warm, savory steam soundly reminded Harry that he'd skipped lunch. Ondossi stirred her bowl and chattered as Harry and Hagrid plowed through their suppers.

"I thought I'd better see if they needed me at home," she said, tasting the frothy butter and reaching for the sugar again. "Northpole got hit worse than Area 51. The capitol," she added as an aside. "Northpole's the largest Wizard city, but it's too remote to be the center of government. 'We don't make the rules, we just break 'em,' is our motto." She giggled. "Northpole's sort of the last refuge for people who don't like it anywhere else. Which is probably why the Dark Lord takes an interest in it; probably figures we're all a bunch of malcontents ready to sign up with him." She winked at Hagrid.

Hagrid bellowed with laughter. "Harry, yeh'll never find a surlier bunch of lunatic wizards as in Northport. Every one of 'em a stubborn loner, but give them an excuse to crack open a bottle or two and they run wild in the streets. But none of 'em looked ready to sign up wi' You-Know-Who."

Ondossi nodded. "Worse than cats. But he apparently doesn't understand that--he mistakes wanting to be left alone for wanting to belong. But he had his revenge today; burned down half the Institute and the WIF headquarters. He sent ten Death Eaters, but they only caught three."

"Tura!" Harry said loudly, "That reminds me! They could use your help at the Ministry?"

She glared up from her bowl, suddenly going from conversational to scathing. "They could, could they?" was all she said.

"They have a prisoner they're trying to question, you could really speed up the process--" Harry didn't get a chance to finish the sentence, as she slammed the spoon into the bowl so hard that a buttery hail clattered over all three of them.

"Not gonna happen. End of conversation." She dumped the pile of berries into the remainder of the cold butter, clanging the rim of the plate against the bowl.

Harry gaped at her briefly, then found his voice. "What's the matter with you? These are our people I'm talking about, from the Order. They--"

Once again, he was cut off in mid stride, this time when she raised the spoon as if to crack him over the head. Harry pushed back in his chair and even Hagrid set down his fork. "Easy there, Tura," chided Hagrid gently. She retracted the spoon a few inches, but continued to give Harry a venomous glare.

"Let me tell you a little bit about your Ministry," she said with cold contempt. "Do you know what happened when I first came here? At Dumbledore's request, you know, to teach at Hogwarts. They informed me that I needed a work permit to earn money doing magic in this country. The Dark Lord running loose and I need a Green Card to teach your citizens how to defend themselves. Nice. Being inflexible and obstructive--that's how bureaucracy creates the illusion that it has actual power. I ended up having to accept this position as a volunteer, without pay. Although it's nice to have food and a place to sleep and all--it's just the principle of the thing!"

Harry felt as though he should argue, but he hadn't been much impressed by the Ministry for some time. She seemed to have reached the end of her rant; she sat back and began folding the berries into the butter. He settled for one more cautious attempt at persuasion.

"Tura, listen, these are people from the Order, not the Ministry. Moody, and Kingsley Shacklebolt."

She set her jaw, but took a deep breath and answered him in a level voice. "Look, I don't even help the WIFs with interrogations. Why do you suppose that is, Harry?"

"I can't even begin to guess."

She laughed. "All right, hotshot. You know what it's like after you charge into an unwilling mind? That blank feeling? Where you can't seem to say anything but the truth? Feh!" She made a bitter face, probably the same one he would make if he ate some of that frozen butter. "You're compromised. They can ask you anything and you'll just sing like a bird."

"So what's wrong with that?" asked Harry irritably. "Unless you have something to hide..." he added.

She sneered. "Yes, that's it, something to hide. Not like you, I'm sure you'd love to share everything in your mind. In fact, let's do it right now!" Harry saw her focus shift from his face to somewhere behind his eyes, and he quickly dropped his head.

"You've made your point," he said sullenly.

She dropped the spoon lightly in her bowl and resumed stirring as though nothing had happened.

Hagrid reached over and put an enormous hand on her shoulder. "Tura, yer doin' it again, luv."

She looked at Hagrid in chagrin, and Harry found himself peering back and forth between the two of them, uncertain which one had confounded him the most. "What are you two going on about?" Hagrid gazed at the ceiling as though he'd never noticed it before.

"Hagrid did such a good job with Grawpy, I asked if he could maybe turn me into a human, too," said Ondossi meekly.

Hagrid frowned and poked her arm. "Enough o'that, silly girl. You're just a bit rough aroun' the edges, tha's all." He turned to face Harry. "Grawp was scared an' lonesome too, an' look how good he turned out!"

"Now I'm embarrassed," said Ondossi. She plopped a big scoop of the akutaq into a teacup and set it next to Hagrid, then picked up her bowl and started out of the Hall. She paused about halfway to the door and turned around. "Goodnight, gentlemen," she said, glancing at Hagrid almost pleadingly. She turned away after Hagrid winked approvingly, but not before Harry spotted a tear spilling from the corner of her eye.

Once again, it's Care of Magical Creatures, thought Harry fondly. If anyone could tame her feral bitterness, it was Hagrid.

After Harry and Hagrid finished dinner, they went up to the Gryffindor common room. Fawkes met them as they came in, gliding down from the boys' dormitories where he had obviously found a place to perch, but neither Ron nor Hermione were anywhere to be found. Hagrid flopped into a couch that groaned ominously, but he chuckled and put his feet up on a heavy table.

"Like I never lef' the place, in some ways," he said cheerfully. "This ol' couch was always me favorite, only one tha' never gave way the whole three years."

Harry smiled too. "It's hard to imagine you anywhere but that cabin, Hagrid."

"World's always changin', Harry. You haven' even seen it since I fixed it back up after the fire. Though it hasn't changed much, I guess, just everythin's so bright and shiny." Fawkes settled onto Hagrid's shoulder and began meticulously preening the groundskeeper's beard, picking up tufts of hair with his beak and polishing them from end to end with his yellow tongue. "Awww, lookatha', Harry, he use ter do that teh Dumbledore." Hagrid lovingly rumpled the small round feathers on Fawkes' head.

"Tura told me I should ask you about Fawkes," said Harry.

"Blimey, Harry, so much has happened, never even got aroun' ter tellin' yeh. You go firs' though, what was it like teh Bond with him?"

Harry described how he and Fawkes had soared over London until the rush of memories had precipitated the fall. "I don't even know what happened, really, I can barely remember it, just that everything in the world seemed wonderful, even though I was on fire and falling to my death. And then I was in the courtyard at Headquarters, without so much as a scratch--or a stitch of clothing, for that matter."

Hagrid chortled. "Yeah, I heard abou' tha' part. But tha's the way it's done, innit? Fawkes chose yeh, Harry, but he hadda give yeh a trial by fire. Not everyone they choose makes it, neither," he continued in a slightly subdued voice. "They're righ' careful about who they pick, but prolly every third one ends up, well, not makin' it."

"What? They die?" Harry gaped at Fawkes in surprise, unable to imagine this gentle bird a killer.

"Not so much dyin', really, though that happens too. But generally they just get sorta wiped clean, yeh see. Kinda like that great flamin' nitwit, wossname, Lockhart. But worse'n him. Can't speak, eat, walk--helpless as a bran' new baby. Gotta start all over from the very beginnin'." Hagrid gazed admiringly at the phoenix. Typical, thought Harry, the more dangerous, the more he loves them.

"But you come through right as rain, din'cha?" continued Hagrid enthusiastically. "An' now he's yer Familiar! He's part o' yeh, now, Harry, an' yer part o' him. He knows who you know, loves who you love, fears who you fear. He'll do anythin' he can ter protect yeh and help yeh, fer the rest o' yer life." He paused to beam at Fawkes once more. "Mind, you have ter take care o' him too! When his time comes, yeh know, jus' after he burns up, he's righ' near helpless--you hafta see to him til he's strong enough ter fly."

Harry recalled how Dumbledore had tenderly carried a tiny, bald Fawkes in his pocket, after they had confronted Voldemort at the Ministry of Magic. Fawkes had intercepted the Kedavra curse that had been meant for Dumbledore. It must have killed him, but of course, he was reborn from his own ashes. What a power Fawkes had, to cheat death repeatedly; Voldemort must be insanely jealous of the phoenix.

Harry was suddenly seared with guilt. "Hagrid! When we Bonded...Fawkes burned up, but I didn't care for him! I just left him out there somewhere...he might have been killed!" At this, Hagrid looked both pleased and abashed, an expression Harry had seen on his rugged face before--and every time some large, usually deadly, and nearly always illegal creature had been involved. "Hagrid?" he asked suspiciously. "What did you do?"

Hagrid's abashed portion expanded to nearly all the space available. "Aw, Harry...yer not mad, are yeh? 'Cause it wasn' really my fault, Tura foun' him in the courtyard there, said his mind was like a ligh'house. You were all wore out, an' I din't have time to explain how to care for him proper--we was headin' off firs' thing for America--an' he din' seem to mind a bit, he knows me, o' course, from Dumbledore..." Hagrid looked as though he was about to panic.

Harry grinned and shook his head. "Don't give it another thought, Hagrid. If you ever passed up a chance to play with any magical beast, I'd know the world was ending."

Fawkes stretched his long neck and warbled joyously, then plunged headfirst into Hagrid's vast beard, disappearing to the wings as if he'd dunked into a barrel of ink. Hagrid squawked and wriggled until the phoenix emerged with a biscuit in his beak. Fawkes cracked it and tossed one piece high in the air, gulping down the first half before catching and crunching up the second.

"Fergot I had that in me pocket," said Hagrid with delight. He watched wistfully as Fawkes spread his wings and launched himself with a lazy beat over to Harry's lap.

Harry felt a renewed sense of awe and wonder as he gazed at Fawkes. "I'm not sure it's a two-way connection, to tell the truth," Harry admitted guiltily. "He seems to understand everything that goes on, but I don't have any idea what he's up to."

"Aw, tha's nothin' ter fret over, Harry. Fawkes's been aroun' fer thousands o' years, he knows the drill. Yeh'll tune inter him soon enough. You saw him an' Dumbledore, they were like two gears inneh same machine."

Harry nodded; he had indeed seen the two of them work together smoothly and intuitively on more than one occasion. He marveled suddenly that it was as though he'd grown an extra limb, like a prehensile tail, that would forever watch his back.

"But he let Snape kill him," Harry said softly, his gaze unfocused.

Hagrid bowed his head sorrowfully, but peered up at Harry. "I dunno, Harry. He must'a been down ter his las' feather when it happened. All in the timin', Harry." Hagrid wiped his eyes fiercely, using the slipcover from the armrest of the couch.

They sat in silence for a while, until the portrait hole swung open and Hermione entered, dragging her feet in exhaustion. "Hullo, all," she said hoarsely, and flopped into a chair.

"You look terrible!" said Harry. "Have you eaten?"

"I did," she reassured them. "I've been helping Madam Pomfrey; they sent up dinner for the whole ward. Everyone said how glad they were to be here instead of St. Mungo's--apparently their food isn't very good."

"How was it down there?" Harry asked.

"It's not bad," she said sincerely. "Once the initial rush was over and we had a few seconds to breathe between crises, we did all right. Two Healers came up from St. Mungo's and took the most serious cases back to London; we got the rest of them tucked in without too much trouble. One fellow from International Cooperation was hit with a timed-delay spell; things had just quieted down when he turned bright purple and began to stretch out like a rubber band, but Madam Pomfrey jumped on it right away. He's almost normal size already."

"Seen Ron?" Harry asked, trying not to sound as worried as he felt.

"Ron went into the shop today," she replied with a concerned frown. "I didn't hear anything about Diagon Alley being attacked, did you?" Harry and Hagrid both shook their heads, and all three of them sighed with relief. "I'd imagine he'll stay with his family tonight--his poor mum must be beside herself."

"Hark," said Harry, "I saw Mr. Weasley at the Ministry--I didn't even think to ask if the family was okay. Though he'd have spoken up if anyone was, you know, hurt or...anything." Harry bit his lower lip, hoping that he was correct--Mr. Weasley could be pretty stoic, especially when times were hard.

As Harry happened to catch Fawkes's eye, he suddenly had a vision of the Weasley family around their big dinner table. It was dim and fleeting, but everyone was there except Bill--and judging by the glow in Fleur's eyes, Bill was the one from whom this vision had come. Harry snapped to and peered expectantly at Fawkes, who quivered and raised all of his non-flight feathers on end, then sneezed. He was so elegant and sleek under normal circumstances, but when he puffed up like that, he looked like a very fuzzy toy that had been forced to endure a trip through the laundry.

As Harry described what he'd just seen, Hagrid nodded thoughtfully. "He must'a forged a little bond there with Bill when he healed him at the weddin'. Makes sense--they don' just give up them tears any ol' time, yeh know."

After a relieved pause, Hermione spoke up again. "I saw Professor Ondossi just before I left the hospital wing. Madam Pomfrey gave her something called Dreamless Sleep so she wouldn't wake everyone again tonight. It was odd, too--she fussed and complained, didn't want to take it, but as soon as she saw the bottle, she turned right round and asked if she could keep the whole thing. Did you know she's a Potionist? She offered to help refill the apothecary."

"Yeah, she mentioned it," said Harry, wondering if seal oil would soon become a regular ingredient at the Hospital wing. "But why did she need to stop dreaming, out in the Shrieking Shack?"

"Well, that's just it--she's back in her office." Even though there was no one else present, Hermione leaned forward and lowered her voice confidentially. "Professor McGonagall called her out for moving there; I overheard them on the stairs earlier. She was quite angry, said that she wouldn't have students sneaking off the grounds and saying, 'But I was just visiting the professor'." Hermione gave Harry a pointed look.

"That's not why I took her to the Shack!" said Harry defensively, although it dawned on him that it would have made a convenient excuse for trips to Hogsmeade.

"I know, Harry. But McGonagall didn't; apparently she didn't even know you were involved. Ondossi didn't say a thing, not about you or the nightmare, she just said "My mistake." Then she turned her back on McGonagall and just walked away!"

"I bet tha' went over well," said Hagrid.

Hermione screwed up her face in grim agreement. "I thought Professor McGonagall might explode on the spot! But she just gave her The Glare, you know..." Harry and Hagrid both nodded vigorously. If looks could kill, McGonagall would be in Azkaban by now.

A twinge of guilt began to gnaw at Harry. "Ugh. School's not even in session yet and I get her in trouble. Maybe I better go talk to Professor McGonagall."

"I'll take care o' that," said Hagrid firmly. "It's still not yer place to go meddlin' in teachers' affairs."

"But it was my fault. I don't think I even told her it was off the grounds. We went through the tunnel, and you know the windows are all boarded up! She had no idea where she was."

Hagrid's eyes sparkled. "Oh, don' worry about it, Harry. I'll see ter it that you get the blame." He winked.

The conversation turned next to the attack on the Ministry, and Harry described everything he'd seen in the Floo Network Authority and Magical Law Enforcement. He left out the carnage in the Atrium, however, and gave a cursory account of meeting Lupin on Level Nine, only because he wanted to talk about the strange incident with the pear and the archway. "Could it have bounced out, you think? I know it went through, I watched it."

"Yeh sure it was the same pear, Harry?" asked Hagrid.

"There weren't any others, I'd put them all back in the sack. Besides, no one else was there to throw it, even if I did leave one behind."

Hermione leapt onto the issue with both hemispheres of her brain. "Harry, where exactly are you going with this?" she asked with a suspicious glare.

"Going? Nowhere. It happened, I told you about it, that's it."

She narrowed her eyes cynically. "Don't even try to sidestep this one. You're thinking about Sirius!"

Harry wrinkled his nose. "I'm supposed to be the mind reader, you know."

She smiled despite herself, but it didn't last long. "Well, spit it out, then, what's your theory?"

Harry sighed. "I don't know. I mean, we still don't know exactly what that thing is. It seems like a gateway to death, or the afterlife, but I'm not so sure anymore. I wonder if it's more like the Mirror of Erised. Remember how it showed something different for each person? Because you didn't hear the whispering, did you, Hermione?" She shook her head, and Harry continued "Ginny and Neville weren't quite as drawn to it as me or Luna. Maybe it's a gateway into your own...grief or something, like the Mirror showed you what you wanted most."

Hermione nodded, though Hagrid glanced between them with a deepening frown. "Regardless of what it is," she said pensively, "what do we make of the pear?"

Harry nodded too, enthusiastically. "Well, obviously, it's not a one-way door! The pear went in, the pear came out. Maybe..." He still wasn't ready to describe the laugh he'd heard; he'd grieved so painfully for Sirius, he couldn't let himself hope that his godfather could somehow be alive beyond that archway.

"Harry..." said Hermione, knitting her fingers together anxiously.

Harry waved his hand dismissively and continued. "Maybe the whole point is that only thoughts or feelings or souls, whatever, are supposed to go through that arch, that the pear got thrown back because it's too solid. Which makes me wonder if...maybe we can somehow get Sirius's body back." His voice fell. "We could at least give him a decent burial."

Hermione looked relieved. "Maybe he was too heavy to be...pushed back out. Not like the pear. I do remember seeing the curtain move--maybe it was hurling dust or even air back out of itself."

"Or maybe he could even still be alive," whispered Harry, unable to deny his hope any longer.

Hermione's concerned look snapped back on. "Harry, don't think about it. It's been more than a food, no water...besides, if Sirius could throw a pear out at Lupin's head, don't you think he'd just step back through the archway?"

"How should I know!" snapped Harry. "Maybe he's trapped, but he had one arm free, for throwing. It could be a million different things! We don't know ONE single fact about that stupid arch, anything is possible!"

To Harry's surprise, Hermione raised her brows in a conciliatory way. "You're right," she finally admitted. "We don't know enough to rule out any possibility. That thing wouldn't be in the Department of Mysteries if it wasn't incredibly powerful. But Harry, you can't let yourself build up false hopes."

Harry bit the inside of his lip. "There's no such thing as 'false' hope, Hermione. Only hope. The false part is expecting everything to work out the way you hope it will."

"All right then," she said after a pause, "what shall we do?"

Hagrid sat up rapidly on the protesting couch. "Oh no yeh don'. I see where this is headin'. This is serious business, this--the Department o' Mysteries! You jus' said it wouldn' even be there if it weren' powerful, an' you two wanner go off an' play with it? Nothin' doin'!" He folded his arms in a conclusive fashion.

"Steady on, Hagrid, we're not going through the thing," said Hermione, giving Harry a pointed look to make sure he agreed to that stipulation. "We've already seen that a pear can go in and out of it safely. I doubt there's any harm in trying a few more objects, a rope, perhaps." She glanced upward, thinking. "Or some parchment and a quill. Or a wand..."

Harry's stomach suddenly felt like it was on an elevator that had snapped its cable. "Hermione...I know the perfect thing! The mirror!"

"The mirror," she repeated blankly.

"It was something Sirius gave me, he had a set of them. Sirius told me I could talk to him with it," said Harry in a gravelly voice. "I forgot I even had it, so I never got to try it before he..." He quickly brushed away a tear before it could spill onto his cheek. "I broke it a year ago, when I was upset."

"Do you still have the pieces?"

"I don't know but I think so, they're probably still in my trunk, I never really, erm, cleaned it out."

They were indeed there, at the bottom of the trunk in a layer of debris that was taking on an archaeologic quality. Hermione picked the shards up carefully and put them in Harry's palm, then shook all the loose dust and silt in the trunk on top of the pile. "I hope that's all of it," she said. "You do the repair, Harry--you broke it, so if you fix it, maybe that will help restore the charm. But it may not work, even if it can come back together."

Harry raised his wand. "Reparo," he said, with the proper flourish. The mirror reassembled in his hand, with only a few polygonal holes (with very sharp edges) here and there, and the silver a bit thin in spots.

Hermione smiled broadly. "Good work! Now where's the other one?"

Harry's shoulders sagged. "I haven't the foggiest idea."

"And it's a good thing, too!" said Hagrid, who had required more time to wriggle his way up the narrow stone staircase to the dormitory. "You two got no business performin' experiments with summat yeh know nothin' about!"

This was Hermione's territory, and Harry willingly let her run wild. "First of all," she said, her finger pointing firmly at Hagrid's face (calling to mind a mouse admonishing an elephant), "the ONLY way to learn about anything is through experimentation. Nothing gets discovered until it gets explored! Secondly, the Ministry kept that thing out in the middle of a big room, not encased in glass like the brains or the Time Loop. If it was inherently dangerous just to go near, it wouldn't be sitting out in the open without so much as a rail around it. Finally," she rallied up with indignation, "you can bet your pension that the Department of Mysteries has been experimenting with it, most likely to exploit it, or even develop it into a weapon! So if you think I'm going to let those ninnies give it the only go, well think again! And you," she said, turning to Harry, "you get to work on finding the other mirror!"

Hagrid looked for a moment as though he wished he had a large flyswatter, but he finally sighed with a noisy puff. Shaking his head, he rumbled, "An' ter think the both of yeh use' ter be so sweet..."

The next few weeks passed so quickly, Harry barely kept track of the time. Ron or Hermione, sometimes both, kept him company in the evenings; it was actually quite pleasant to spend the long summer twilight at Hogwarts. Lupin visited Harry nearly every night to check in on the lessons and bring news. "They've almost cleaned out the Ministry. What a mess," he'd sighed one week after the attacks. "It had to be done by hand, there were all sorts of little hexes hidden in the rubble that were set to go off under a Vanishing or Scourging. There was some talk about just sealing off the Atrium entirely, turn it into a tomb, but those poor blokes in the Floo Network needed the fireplaces.

"They've been going round the clock, they're still not sure exactly what happened to it. In some spots, it ended up being easier to just abandon the old spell infrastructure and build it up from scratch! That network's been accumulating for 800 years, since chimneys were first built in Britain--you can imagine what a tangled mess it's become!"

Lupin learned that the Ministries (or their local equivalents) in Berlin, Stockholm and Rome were damaged at least as badly as London's, but the Swiss Ministry in Zurich had been nearly unscathed. "We could do with a leaf or two from their book on self-defense. They were as unprepared for the surprise attack as anyone, but they already had a system in place to defend themselves. It was just a matter of setting it in motion. Sensible people, the Swiss. I hear their trains are never late, either."

When Harry asked if a new Minister of Magic had been appointed, Lupin said nothing at first, just raised his brows and shook his head. "Not for lack of trying, Harry, but suddenly no one wants it. Even the greediest ones that have been after it for years. I know how they feel. Who'd sign up just to be the next target, on top of having to put the entire ministry back together? I wish Dumbledore were here," he finally sighed miserably.

Harry patted his friend on the shoulder. "Me too. But we'll manage somehow."

Indeed, the Order was making progress with the giants at a quick pace. Voldemort's attacks on the Wizard governments had not involved giants, only other wizards, so it had proved the perfect time for the Order to send envoys to all the clans. Hagrid and Madame Maxime had numerous disadvantages when they had attempted diplomatic efforts in the past; they were outnumbered, outsized, and had little to offer but Dumbledore's name and a few small gifts. The Sasquatch giants, however, were making quite an impression on the bedraggled European giants.

"You should see Grawp in the field," Lupin said proudly in his chair before the fire. "Hagrid's done an incredible thing, teaching him English--he's the best translator we have. He said to tell you hello, 'Hermy,' by the way," he added with a wink. Hermione rolled her eyes, but she looked pleased nonetheless. "They've relocated over twenty giants already; it's always whole families at once, you know, they don't dare leave anyone behind."

"How do you move a giant across the sea?" asked Harry.

Lupin ducked his head with a guilty grin. "Well, we planned to use Apparition, but, well, with the Ministries down, it seemed a lot simpler to just make Portkeys. Besides, the American laws governing Portkeys aren't the same, and the Sasquatch giants are sort of like diplomats..."

Harry and Hermione both laughed. "I'm convinced," said Harry. "No need to explain it to me!"

Lupin explained that the newcomers were being taken to the most remote mountain ranges in the far north of the continent. "They can live alone just like they did at home, or if they choose, they can migrate back down to the warrens further south. I think the younger ones are already looking forward to this whole 'Bigfoot' business. Apparently the sport's as popular as Quidditch over there, even the wizards like to gamble on the championships."

"I hope we still have a Care of Magical Creatures professor when all this is over!" said Hermione.

Lupin laughed. "I just hope he leaves his spare Galleons at home when he goes on these trips."

Harry spent his days in Ondossi's office, in the slow process of learning Occlumency. Harry found himself grudgingly acknowledging that Snape just might have been genuinely trying to teach him, back in his fifth year. It was not a quick or easy process, despite working at it all day long.

"Your magic naturally wants to explore, acquire knowledge and power. Your intellect, however, can't process a hundred different minds at once. So you have to be disciplined, bring your magic under your control, choose when to use it and how far to go."

Harry rolled his eyes. "Right, yes, discipline, control...that's all most inspirational, but what does it mean? Which muscle do I flex?"

She snorted. "Why am I totally unsurprised that self-discipline is a mystery to you? Never mind," she chastised, with a dismissive wave. "Maybe we're going about this the wrong way. Let me think. I had to learn, because the alternative was to go stark raving nuts. Talk about motivation! Maybe that's what you lack, hotshot. A sense of how desperately you need to do this." She put her hand in her chin and stared at him thoughtfully.

Harry suddenly broke out in goosebumps from head to toe. "What exactly are you plotting over there?" he said uneasily.

She grinned malignantly and beckoned with her fingertips, and Harry felt his mind break open like an egg.

Images swam before and through him, orderless and disjointed. As with Fawkes, he could do nothing to control the process, he was forced into the role of passive observer. But Fawkes had drawn him into a flowing stream of knowledge as an introduction to his new Familar, while Tura was clearly determined to make him as miserable as possible.

The tunnels below the Northport Institute of Magical Studies. Cold cement and hot steel, both hard and unforgiving. A pile of rags to sleep on; Harry woke up on a hundred different "mornings" within a minute, hungry and aching each time. More images and thoughts began to add to Tura's. Harry realized that she was sending him through her own memories of the time before she'd learned Occlumency, when her mind was constantly bombarded by the thoughts of others. It was a mad cacophany of disorienting visions. People passing one another in the same hallway, transmitting their view from both directions. One person taking a chair as another stood up, the conflicting sensory data giving him nausea. Love, hate, anger, forgiveness, joy, sorrow, even the mundane boredom from the History of Magic class, all winding through him at once. It was enough to drive him mad.

"Yes," said Ondossi. Harry had fallen to the floor at some point, but she was leaning over in her chair to address him. "You understand, I'm not using either Legilimency or Occlumency? Well, a tiny bit, just enough to steer you into what I want you to see. But you're sending your magic into my mind Harry. And you know what? I'm not going to help you out anymore. Whether it takes a minute or an hour or even a day, you're going to have to withdraw from my mind on your own."

Harry only had time to raise his hand in protest before he fell off the cliff of reality again.

So that was what a rat tasted like. For heaven's sake, she didn't even skin them?! Harry registered the question but apparently it only served to show Tura that he wasn't fully immersed yet. He felt a hint of her approval, followed immediately by a slam of sensation that turned her memories into his with such realism that his identity was obliterated, forgotten.

It was bitterly cold, but Harry was clothed snugly in furs, and too excited to care. This was her first trip to the uiniq or "open lead," the end of the ice shelf that extended from the land. This was where icebergs were born, where seals and whales could surface for air--the northernmost point on Earth on which people could stand on "solid ground," though that ground was merely water, frozen for the moment. Warmth, wind, and currents could easily change that at any time, shearing off whole sections of ice that would leave the hunters stranded at sea.

In all but the most recent times, girls did not accompany the hunters to the uiniq, but neither did the ancient hunters use snowmachines to haul their gear across the ice. A team of dogs would have been much more authentic and silent, but they would also be slower, and though Harry hated to admit it, she preferred the smell of burning gasoline to unwashed dogs (particularly the end of the dogs nearest to the sled). Outsiders had brought both the snowmachines and the attitudes that had made it possible for her to be here, now, on a "mostly" traditional hunt. The fact that she had a dead-on aim with her harpoon had certainly helped.

The men often used guns, but Harry liked the harpoon. A gun could kill from far away, but a harpoon demanded skill, in order to get close enough to the animal to be in range. Many hunters would dress in white fur and attempt to sneak up on the seal under camoflage, but Harry preferred to approach openly by imitating another seal. It was another thing she did instinctively well; only years later would she realize that this was the earliest sign of her Legilimency, that she could read and soothe a seal into accepting her presence, despite the striker she was carrying.

It was a painful thing, though, to kill this seal, for even though the meat was a necessity, she had been in the animal's mind. It never knew what hit it, as they say, but it also had no wish to die; it was a beautiful, simple creature and the guilt Harry felt when its life suddenly broke drove her nearly to tears. Harry danced after the carcass had been hauled back to the camp on the stable ice, much longer than the normally prescribed time. Every footfall was an apology, every clap a word of thanks to the mother seal for the life of her baby. The dance lasted for hours, until Harry's limbs were shaking and rubbery, too painful for the grief of the seal to register.

I thought that would bore you enough to push out, came Ondossi's voice. No problem. I've got worse, boy.

Harry had been out tending someone's garden; she was much older now and it was mid-summer. She was uneasy; something bad had happened, and she'd spent most of the day keeping others' fear and dread out of her mind. It wasn't difficult, just tiring, and with the midnight sun shining, it was already hard to sleep--having to keep her dreams guarded from others' anxieties would make it even worse. Harry pushed open the door to her little shed, irritably noting that the tricky hinge had come loose again; she had to wrestle it shut, funny, she was sure it wasn't like that this morning--

Harry spun around in horror, having felt his presence before seeing the glowing red eyes in the shadows of the cabin.

"Do you know who I am?" Voldemort asked.

"I know." Hatred saturated her voice. He was sitting on her bed, her bed. It was bad enough that he would let himself into her home, but for him to settle right in as though he belonged was an insult beyond measure.

"You were only a baby the last time I saw you," said Voldemort quite casually. "You're the very image of your mother, you know." He stood up slowly; the cabin was so small there was no need to take even a single step in order for his long white fingers to reach her cheek, a gesture filled with menace, not tenderness. "But you have your father's eyes."

Harry was still holding the steel gardening trowel when she struck his icy hand away, but she didn't have enough leverage to break any bones. "How dare you?" Harry said, too angry to come up with something more original.

Voldemort pulled his hand in close to his chest briefly, and though his eyes flared with affront, his voice was calm when he spoke again. "You are the Legilimagus of this generation, 'Miss Ondossi.' I suspected as much the last time I came through this miserable part of the world. When you were far too young to remember."

"Oh, I remember," Harry said venomously. "I can unlock memories that you wouldn't expect. Perhaps I should demonstrate."

He laughed mirthlessly. "You threaten me, young lady? Perhaps I should kill you." Harry felt a pang of alarm; Voldemort did have his wand in hand. But she knew better; if he had meant her to die, this conversation would never have begun.

"You won't," Harry said dismissively. "I own something of great value. You're here to persuade, not murder."

Voldemort's inhuman face did not express many emotions, but he sighed in what was obviously annoyance. "Was that insight, my dear, or did you simply steal that knowledge from my mind?"

"Steal?" Harry said mockingly. "You're so transparent, I don't need to bother 'stealing.' Tell me what you want, old man, or I will 'steal it', just to get this over with."

"I don't think you will," said Voldemort shrewdly. "I think you'd do anything to avoid penetrating my unwilling mind. You understand that you can no more drive me mad than you could kill me." Voldemort began to smile, such as it was, a contemptuous facsimile of amusement.

Harry took a step backward, her heart beginning to race. "I understand, Riddle, that you will die seven painful deaths before you're finished, and for that I am absolutely delighted."

Voldemort struck Harry across the mouth with his fist. "You are trying my patience, Tura," he said, his eyes flaring like a coal before a bellows.

Stars flickered before Harry's eyes, but she held her ground. "You don't scare me, fool. Do you know every time you put your hand on me, you surrender more of your mind?" She turned her back on him and knelt beside her water bucket, rinsing the blood from her lip with a soft rag. When she regarded him again, he looked a little intimidated; apparently he didn't know that physical contact was as good as an invitation into his thoughts. "I know you don't dare kill me, or even torture me," Harry continued. "I'm too valuable to you alive. And I could make your little quest so easy, couldn't I? That's the doom of the Legilimagi, always being sought out by weak men who want a quick road to power. Pathetic!"

"We seem to have reached detente, then," said Voldemort in a low, silken voice. "Our weapons are too powerful to use against one another. Perhaps, dear girl, we can reach a compromise."

"Compromise?" sputtered Harry. "What the Sam Hill can you offer me for a compromise?"

Voldemort peered deeply at her. "How about the life of your 'angel'?"

Harry felt like her entire belly had just flipped inside out. "You're bluffing."

Voldemort chuckled indulgently. "In part, my love, only in part. I've learned that Dumbledore sent someone to you, Tura. I can learn more, if I put in the effort. I have historically concentrated on the UK, but I could easily turn my attention to Northport. There are only so many people I would have to question before someone recalls something." Voldemort's eyes glowed maliciously. "Or better yet, even you must drop your guard sometime."

Suddenly, Harry really needed to throw up. "What do you want, Tom?" she asked in a shaking whisper.

"I want many things, Tura. For now, I would settle for a truce."

"Truce? What are you talking about?" Harry turned back to the water bucket as a pretense to sit down; the cold rag helped ease her nausea and panic.

"One never knows what the future holds, Tura. You may yet decide to support me. That alone is worth preserving your life. But I won't have you working against me, throwing your lot in with Dumbledore. It's quite simple, really. I will leave you alone, you will leave me alone. You surrender nothing of value to Dumbledore, and I will continue in ignorant bliss of this man you love. We shall share a peaceful coexistence."

Harry put the rag on the back of her neck. "I see. As an alternative to mutual destruction. Very black-and-white, Tom."

"And you will stop using that name." Voldemort's voice turned into a hiss.

She stood again, unsteadily, but Harry knew she needed to look Voldemort in the eye. "All right, Lord Voldemort," Harry said with a sneer, "I could accept those terms. But tell me, why should I believe for one second that you intend to keep your end of the deal? You're not exactly known as a man of your word."

He smirked. "Shall we make an Unbreakable Vow?"

Harry scoffed. "Oh, that's nice. I can only make one Unbreakable Vow, while you would have to make what, seven? I think a pinkie-swear would bind you better than that."

Voldemort nodded. "The very nature of detente is one of guarded trust, is it not? Or perhaps guarded distrust would be a better description. With so much at stake, each of us would have to act in good faith, and expect the other not to be fool enough to break the standoff."

Harry folded her arms. She didn't trust Voldemort for an instant, but now that he had discovered her weak spot, she was desperate to protect it. Harry knew this was precisely the way Voldemort wanted it, too, but there didn't seem to be any way around it at the moment.

Harry steeled herself and lay down her terms in a cold, stern voice. "You will leave not so much as a token Death Eater in Northport. I know you have one in Hogwarts, but Albus isn't stupid enough to reveal my secrets to that one. You will make sure your little minions know nothing of me, or our connection; when they ask about the Legilimagus, you will tell them you're courting me personally and they are to give me a wide berth. I'll be checking them, listening for rumors. If I hear even a hint that you're investigating--"

"Do not complete that threat, Tura," Voldemort interrupted in a bored voice. "I will make it as you have asked. I care not what you or your paramour do, as long as you are no threat to me. You will keep your silence and you will not engage me or my people with your mind. You go on enjoying your poverty, your frostbite, your starvation; you've carved out a lovely little niche for yourself here. Perhaps someday you'll discover that this 'good man' of yours only tolerates your efforts to live as an animal in order to avail of your power. I'm sure he says whatever he must in order to convince you of his love." Only Voldemort could say that word with such spite.

He stepped directly in front of Harry. "And you, naive and lovestruck, undoubtedly fall for every ploy. When you understand how badly he's deceived you, you may welcome a chance to lend your power to an honest man." Voldemort put his icy hands on Harry's shoulders, his long white thumbs at the base of her throat. "I have no need to lie to you, Tura; to delude you with flattery and vacant promises. You know I want your power, and I know you must give it to me willingly. But I too have power, dear girl; I can give you everything you lack, just as you can complete me."

Harry realized in horror that Voldemort's voice had become soft and seductive, and he was leaning in close, much too close. There was nowhere to go; her back was against the wall already, and Voldemort was blocking the door.

"I will make you a queen, child, when you surrender yourself." And suddenly there was no distance between them, no air to breathe, and Harry felt Voldemort's thin, serpentine lips on her own--

--Harry leapt to his feet in Ondossi's dark office, spitting and clawing at invisible hands upon his throat.

"I thought that one might get you," Ondossi said in a strained tone.

Harry groaned miserably and covered his throbbing forehead; his scar felt as though it would split his skull in two.

Chapter 13: Chapter 13: Aye, of N.E.W.T
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September First has been a holiday in Hogsmeade for 700 years, with its own traditions that have evolved through the times. In this particular era, house elves from the castle knock politely on every door in town, then carry off a years' worth of frozen carcasses and leftover meat to the edge of the Forbidden Forest. Hagrid appears after lunchtime to harness thestrals onto dozens of coaches, which, to most observers, appears to be a long, expertly-performed pantomime. Children climb the hills in the late afternoon as high as they dare, hoping to catch sight of the Hogwarts Express in the distance before the sun sets.

Harry gazed through the window of the common room in Gryffindor Tower when he heard the familiar whistle. "I suppose we'd better go get dressed," he mumbled to Ron.

"It'll be a while yet," Ron said. "Feel like a round of Exploding Snap?"

Harry wasn't in the mood. Truth be told, he wasn't in the mood for the feast either, for any of it, but he'd promised McGonagall he'd show. He would have made Rufus Scrimgeour swallow his broom and take Stan Shunpike for a ride around London before Harry would be a poster boy for the Ministry, but Hogwarts was another matter.

After the attack on the Ministry, no one felt safe anywhere in the country. Nearly every Wizard family in the UK had begged to send children to Hogwarts that fall. Even teens with no formal education in Sorcery had applied. Professor McGonagall had taken them all, creating a logistical nightmare for the faculty. Sixteen-year-olds who had never brewed a single potion, fourteen-year-olds who had never been out from under direct parental supervision, all in addition to the regular crop of eleven-year-olds who had never spent more than a night or two away from Mummy and Daddy. McGonagall added four extra prefects to each House, but Harry had bowed out when she asked him. He knew that if his hour came, it would be the worst possible time for her to be short a prefect.

Academics were in chaos as well. Introductory courses for older students had to be developed in every subject, but fortunately, those would concern themselves mainly with topics on self-protection. Only Professor Binns steadfastly insisted on teaching his regular curriculum, which was probably just as well; a good nap is, after all, a good nap. Professor Ondossi had a task no one envied; she would be teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts from dawn to dusk every day but Saturday. Most of the former Dumbledore's Army had volunteered as tutors, and Harry had joined in this time. He felt that anything he could do to help people protect themselves was worth the effort.

"Do you suppose they're going to Sort them this year?" said Ron, putting away his cards.

Harry pursed his lips. "Beats me. Who'd want to be sorted into Slytherin, eh? Though I suppose all the Junior Death Eaters won't be back this fall."

Ron nodded with a wry grin. "They could turn it into a whole new House. A kinder, gentler sort of Slytherin."

"Oh, give it a rest," said Hermione. "They may be selfish, but they're not all killers. Pansy Parkinson is coming back; she sent me an owl this summer."

"You're kidding!" said Ron and Harry at the same time. Ron added, "PLEASE tell me you checked it for jinxes before you opened it."

"Of course I did. But it was a very touching letter. She was devastated by what Malfoy did; she thought he was just showing off with all the 'Dark Lord' business."

"Hermione," said Ron incredulously, "every Death Eater dishes out that tripe when they get caught--'I never knew,' 'I thought he was only kidding,' 'I was under the Imperius Curse,' la de da, not my fault."

"You know," snapped Hermione, "sometimes people really do get deceived, or they turn a blind eye because they're in love. You don't know anything about her, Ron, maybe you ought to find out instead of assuming."

"So much judgement," mumbled Harry, and they both looked at him questioningly, but he said nothing more.

Harry sat alone at the Gryffindor table as students began to pour into the Great Hall. Ron and Hermione were off helping corral the new students with the rest of the prefects. Harry didn't want to look at the head table, at the gold chair that should have been Dumbledore's, where Professor McGonagall now sat. Harry realized with a start that she was usually out lining up the first years at this point in time; all the comfortable rituals he had come to know at Hogwarts were changing.

Hagrid himself led in the column of new students, which was considerably longer than usual, and kept getting taller as it progressed. He attempted to line them up before the head table, but there were simply too many. Harry reckoned it must have been "standing room only" on the train. When Hagrid finally managed to arrange the "first years" into two cramped rows, he stepped to the end of the table with arms spread wide, and solemnly said, "Headmaster, I present the new students at Hogwarts."

Professor McGonagall gave him a formal nod, then looked up expectantly. Hagrid smiled broadly, still indicating the group of students with his hands. McGonagall flattened her lips pointedly and jerked her eyebrows toward the center of the group. When Hagrid merely continued to grin, she tried tossing her head slightly, then harder, finally resorting to a sharp whisper, "The Hat!" Hagrid immediately gulped and brought out the traditional stool to the front of the group, and set the Sorting Hat upon it.

Ron and Harry exchanged a knowing glance. The Hat sat silently for a very long time, until Harry anxiously began to wonder if Hagrid had accidentally knocked it out with his powerful grip. It finally came to life and sung a solemn dirge:

By sorrow is this grand occasion bound,
We gather here still mourning for the slain.
A traitor walks the earth, while underground
The noble man whom he betrayed remains.
This year will see a prophecy fulfilled.
Upon his task the Chosen shall embark.
I only know that life's blood will be spilled
But whether good or evil, light or dark,
Cannot be known until the deed is done.
But certain 'tis, that one of two will fall.
If Dark succumbs, then broken will be One,
If Light dies, then accursed are we all.

For thirty-five score years now, my decree
Has sent the students to the House they sought.
On their first night, division did they see.
Divided did they live, divided taught.
To reinforce and strengthen was the goal.
Alas, behind closed doors, prejudice bred.
Like-minded friends all swimming in one shoal,
Came to distrust the others. Lies I've fed,
Foundations shattered, made rivalries last.
This lie must end! All persons must unite,
Must lay aside divisions of times past,
Collect their will and courage for the fight.
I was brought forth tonight for my decree
To rend this group along ideals enshrined.
Aut se jungite aut morimini
To sort you, I respectfully decline.

The silence that followed this song was both long and complete; were it not for the candles illuminating row after row of stunned faces, a passerby outside the doors would have thought the Great Hall was empty. Harry didn't dare take his eyes off the hat, for he knew people were staring at him from every direction.

The entire staff table had turned pale, except for one. Professor Ondossi studied the Hat for a moment, then came around the table and poked it roughly several times. It remained silent. She picked it up and, after examining the brim and looking inside, put it on her head. "Slytherin," it whispered immediately, the sound carrying through the entire Hall. She set it back down, petting it as though it were a living creature.

"It's not hexed or confunded," she said matter-of-factly. "It's fine. But it's quite firm about its decision."

Only Hagrid had both the presence of mind and absence of prudence to point out, "But it jus' sorted you, Professor." Ondossi responded only by winking at Hagrid with a sly grin.

Harry leaned onto his elbow, resting his chin in his hand and shaking his head cynically. The Hat obviously had to admit that anyone who would strike a deal with Voldemort and seal it with a kiss obviously belonged in Slytherin.

After a stunned pause, Professor McGonagall stood to address the crowd of bewildered first years. "It seems that our traditional welcome will not be performed this evening," she said. "You would normally have been each assigned to one of the four Houses tonight, but our Sorting Hat clearly believes that distinguishing between Houses is harmful in the...present clime.

"I ask all students present to consider the meaning of this gesture. You have become accustomed to neighbors with whom you have much in common. For the first time, you will be exposed to others in your common rooms that will be distinctly different from you, in their opinions, skills, and values. Uncomfortable confrontations will arise, in which both parties will feel that they simply cannot see eye-to-eye; they may find no ground on which to settle the matter.

"In the past, the Sorting has sheltered each of you from the difficult process of tolerating different beliefs. This is a process that requires maturity. It requires you to assume the best intentions of your fellow students, to accept that a word or act that you perceive as 'wrong' might mean something harmless to someone else, and therefore you cannot automatically take offense to such things. It requires you to be honest, and generous, to ask difficult questions, and accept answers without judgement.

"These are tasks which, frankly, many adults have never mastered. One reason for the Sorting is that these tasks were considered too burdensome for children. Perhaps we've had it backwards: that it is difficult for adults because we did not learn the process of tolerance when we were young.

"I do not want the Unsorted students to feel isolated within the established Houses. Tonight we shall make a first step toward that end, and establish a new tradition. I ask all of you to stand now, and step back from your House tables."

There was a tiny delay before benches began to scrape noisily on the flagstone floor and robes began to rustle. Harry and Ron exchanged a suspicious look before reluctantly getting to their feet, but Hermione had been one of the first to stand. As the students rose, Professor McGonagall huddled with Professor Flitwick in an intense discussion. The two of them raised their wands and traced them in an interwoven pattern.

The long tables snapped apart into squares; benches became chairs; students stepped back toward walls and aisles as the furniture and flatware arranged themselves into sets of twelve. The gold chargers turned color, so that each table bore twin processions of red, yellow, white, blue, green, and white place settings. The corners of the tables snapped off and Vanished, leaving four long edges and four short, then a second snap removed a section of each long edge. This turned the square tables into dodecahedra, with twelve equal sides. With a final flourish by Professor Flitwick, the chairs took on colors to match their place settings, and all became still again.

"From this night on," said McGonagall, "dining will be an opportunity to practice getting along. I ask each of you to find a new seat, according to your House colors; the white settings are for new students." She gazed sternly down at the group, lest anyone protest this new arrangement. The entire student body glanced nervously at one another, then (to no one's surprise), Luna Lovegood trotted blithely from the main door all the way down the center of the room, and plopped contentedly into a blue chair.

"Come on, Ron," said Hermione, dragging him by the hand to the next table and leaving him there. She turned back to give Harry an encouraging grin, then found a spot further away. The other prefects began following her lead. Harry clapped Neville and Seamus on the shoulders and the two of them nodded wordlessly and moved to separate tables, as did Parvati, Lavender, and other older students. The younger ones scattered quickly, once they realized they'd better hustle if they wanted to sit in pairs together. Ginny Weasley took the remaining red chair at Harry's table.

When everyone had found a seat, Professor McGonagall's glowing smile warmed the whole room. "Thank you," she said with such heartfelt sincerity it was almost painful to hear it. "I think we can uphold one tradition, that is, to save my opening speech until after the Feast." With those words, the tables became splendidly laden with food. Harry picked up a goblet of pumpkin juice and tipped the rim in a little salute to Ginny. She returned the gesture and they drank a silent toast.

Although conversations finally began to pick up at other tables, not much was said at Harry's. The Sorting Hat's song pretty much eliminated what little appetite he'd had, but he ate mechanically, rather than answer the questions that he knew were burning, unsaid, all around him. It was bad enough that he could hear snatches from the other tables, mutters of "Chosen," "prophecy" and "broken will be One." Why the Hat had felt compelled to bring all that up was beyond Harry; he wished it had kept its big yap shut.

When the tables had magically cleared, Professor McGonagall stood up once more. "There is much I need to tell you, though I don't wish to keep you from your beds too long.

"The forest on the Hogwarts grounds is forbidden to all students. There is to be no leaving the castle after dark, and no leaving the grounds at any time without the express permission of a member of the faculty. In years past, we have permitted occasional excursions to Hogsmeade, but I regret to announce--"a collective groan began to arise in the room before she could even complete the sentence "--that such trips are suspended until further notice. This is for your safety, young ladies and gentlemen; please do not attempt to circumvent this rule in any way.

"Quidditch trials will be held in three weeks. Anyone wishing to play should speak to Madame Hooch. We will continue to have House teams, though the captains will be required to invite at least one Unsorted player per team.

"As the Headmaster of Hogwarts, it is unfitting that I should remain Head of Gryffindor House." This was unexpected, and produced a number of gasps around the Hall. She acknowledged them with a nod and continued. "I have invited Professor Rubeus Hagrid to take over that responsibility." Harry, Ron, and Hermione leapt to their feet with wild applause, and though many of the other Gryffindors were not nearly as thrilled, they followed suit. Hagrid beamed; even his enormous beard couldn't hide the flush in his cheeks.

When the clapping had settled, McGonagall said, "We also need a new Head of Slytherin House." That darkened the mood considerably; Harry looked in turn at Ron and Hermione, each of them grim-faced from the reminder of Snape's foul deed. A traitor walks the earth, Harry recalled, rolling his wand through his fingertips under the table. "Professor Horace Slughorn who came out of retirement to teach, has agreed to fill this position as well." Polite applause filled the room, though some (undoubtedly hoping to curry favor with the well-connected Slughorn) displayed considerable enthusiasm.

It took hours to "sort" all the new students into dormitories, however, and as prefects, Hermione and Ron were deeply involved in that chore. Harry ended up napping on his four-poster, after practically sprinting up to the Tower when the Feast ended. Ron finally woke him up, bumbling into the dormitory and looking frazzled. "Good grief, Harry, I had no idea the Hat had such a hard job. Getting the right number of girls, boys, right ages, all matched up for roommates. And of course Slytherin House is like a Swiss cheese, people missing from every year...You don't care, do you, mate?" Harry shook his head firmly. "Fine then. Just give me five minutes to catch my breath, I'll be right down."

"Well, I guess the word's out now," said Hermione brightly, when Harry joined her at the window, slinking unobtrusively into a chair. There weren't many people left in the common room by then; most had gone upstairs to unpack or meet any new roommates. Nonetheless, he barely had time to wrinkle his nose at Hermione before all other conversations in the room ceased and all eyes were upon him. She scowled and, standing up, said loudly, "You're welcome to join us if there's something on your mind." Several more students were inspired to retreat upstairs while others turned away awkwardly, but Neville Longbottom and Ginny took her up on the offer.

"So," said Harry, "what do you think? 'Broken will be one?' Sounds great, eh?"

"Some would say Bill's broken, you know," said Ginny pointedly.

"And Lupin, for that matter," said Hermione. "I'm not too worried about that part, Harry, I don't think even you expect to get through a full scale battle with Voldemort unscathed. That penultimate line, though, that was pretty frightening. I don't think the Hat could have been more direct, do you?"

Ron had ambled over to the group by then. "Well, other than the fact it used a language no one speaks, I'd have to agree."

Hermione rolled her eyes. "That was Latin, Ron. Like, oh, nearly every spell we've ever cast? Oh, never mind, I'm not even going to ask if you bothered to read the language supplements in History of Magic. It said, 'Either join yourselves together or die.' Is that clearer?"

"Crystal," said Ron, in a strained voice. Everyone shifted in their chairs as that settled in.

Harry weighed that a moment. "You know, it's almost contradicting itself. If 'the One' has to finish Voldemort, then what difference does it make if people work together?"

Hermione stared at him. "I think maybe that comes, um, if you don't, uh..."

Harry sunk into his chair. "Oh. Yeah. If I die trying." He ran his hands through his hair and tried to stretch his neck.

Ron took Harry's shoulders and gave them a firm shake. "Never happen. You've cleaned up the floor with him every time!"

Harry looked plaintively up at Ron's encouraging smile, not bothering to point out that he'd also had help at every single encounter. The one time he'd faced Voldemort alone, back in the graveyard, he got away only because of a freak malfunction of their wands--and Voldemort wouldn't make that mistake again, either. One on one, even the Sorting Hat couldn't tell who was truly the stronger.

"This year will see a prophecy fulfilled," Harry recalled. "I guess we'll all find out soon enough."

The next two days were adventurous, to say the least. With twice as many new students as usual, there were twice as many incidents of people getting lost, arriving late for class or meals, or simply getting trapped by the moving staircases (which apparently assumed that climbers over a certain height or weight were returning students who ought to know their way around). There were times when every level of the marble stairs had trapped at least one student on a balcony or dead-end hall, leaving them calling for help like so many mountain sheep bleating on a cliff face.

Hermione had naturally enrolled in every course she could possibly take, and therefore had little time off during the day. Harry and Ron, however, had determinedly taken the most slothful path they could get away with, which was essentially the same schedule as their sixth year: Charms, Herbology, Potions, Transfiguration, and Defense Against the Dark Arts. Hagrid had invited them to look in on his Care of Magical Creatures classes now and again, and neither could think of a graceful way to decline the offer. They resolved to lend Hagrid some moral support at least once a month, since his seventh year classes (woefully small) were all right after lunch, and they'd probably just waste that time loafing in the common room anyway. Each of them also had one class period assigned to assist with Defense Against the Dark Arts.

Wednesday morning began with double Defense Against the Dark Arts with the Ravenclaws. The classroom windows had been completely covered and two small lamps burned in the front corners. Ron gave Harry a skeptical look; he was clearly envisioning Professor Trelawney's suffocating red classroom. "What is this," said an unidentifiable student, "Defense Against the Dark?"

Ondossi entered the room just as the bell rang, skirting the edges of the room with her eyes closed, guiding her way with one hand on the wall until the door clicked shut. Once the little bit of reflected sunlight from the hall had been banished, she stepped smartly to the front of the room.

"Good morning," she said to the class. "First off: no complaining about the darkness. This is an entirely practical class, and attacks in the dark are commonplace. And you won't be doing any reading in here anyway. Second: for obvious reasons, I'm emphasizing defenses against a direct assault, from human and non-human opponents. Those who have been in the Duelling Club have done a bit of this already. Please help one another; a little practice could make the difference between life and death. Quite possibly your own, even. Finally, I'm better at one-on-one than group instruction, so this is how class will be run: I do a demonstration, you pair off and practice, I walk around and help your form. Everyone got that?" She stopped abruptly and glared around the room, and when no one spoke up, she nodded.

"Good. Lesson number one: Your first line of defense is to avoid the fight. Always, always, always walk out of the line of fire if you can. By this I mean, if you see an aggressive situation arising, do your best to sidestep it. Cross the street; hide; run; Apparate. The surest way to come out without a scratch is not to fight in the first place."

She paused and peered around the room, giving Harry a little wink when she came to him. "Some of you think that I've just described cowardice. Not true! If you're alone and a gang of enemies attacks you, or even just one against whom you are totally outmatched, there's nothing cowardly about escaping. In fact, it would be stupid to remain and fight in those situations. I want all of you to think about that, and think hard. One of the Dark Lord's tactics is to isolate his victims so they'll go down easily. He knows that noble people want to act courageous. He counts on you to confuse foolishness for courage--that you won't run away even if you can run. You must remember that if flight is an option, take it!"

A dissenting grumble began to form, but she raised a hand for silence. "That was lesson number one, the most important, and the one few people bother to teach. Running away, if you can, may save your life. You may not think of flight as a weapon, but you must make it part of your arsenal."

She wrinkled her nose with a fiendish grin and raised her wand like a baton before an orchestra. "Now we can spend the rest of the year learning what to do when fleeing is NOT an option." Hoots and applause broke out around the classroom. "Yeah, yeah," she said, rolling her eyes but still grinning, "I figured as much. I tell you how to save your life and you grumble, but I talk about mixing it up and it's 'Woohoo!' There's something fundamentally human about that."

She paused and peered at the class thoughtfully a moment. Harry felt an eerie sensation as though one of the castle's ghosts had walked through him, just as he caught her eye. He knew she was using Legilimency on everyone in the room, but no one else seemed to notice. I've got to find out how she does that, he thought to himself.

"Well, let's start with the Patronus charm. Hermione Granger, front and center!" Hermione glanced at Harry and Ron with a hint of self-consciousness, then headed to the front of the class. "Would you be so kind?" said Ondossi.

Hermione took a deep breath and made her Patronus, which drew several admiring "ooh's" from the class. A silvery otter took to the air as though it were a river, zipping about in a sleek swimming motion with many playful twists and rolls.

"Wonderful!" said Ondossi, who looked like she wanted to give chase to the otter and play with it. "Lovely animals, otters. Now, Miss Granger, if I wanted to make my own otter, what would I need to do?" She had Hermione describe the process, asking questions about all the details of performing the charm. "I think I get it," Ondossi finally said. "Do you mind if I try?"

"It's your classroom, Professor," said Hermione gamely.

Ondossi raised her wand and said, "Expecto Patronum," producing a fat, bewhiskered walrus which, in some ways, vaguely resembled Professor Slughorn. It pushed up onto its front flippers and attempted to follow the otter's graceful path, but after a few awkward lurches that sent jiggles and ripples all over its blubbery skin, it just rolled onto its back and curled its tail in the air. The class roared with laughter.

"Either I've been misled, or that was one fat otter!" said Ondossi cheerfully. "Very good, then. Pair up, everyone, and let's try to make a zoo."

Ondossi went around and rearranged a few pairs to see that each set had at least one person that could perform the charm to some extent. Harry ended up with one of the "first year seventh years," a seventeen-year-old fellow living in Ravenclaw who was new to Hogwarts. He held his wand stiffly as though he was afraid it would backfire, and Harry reckoned he ought to help the fellow loosen up.

"I'm Harry," he said, offering his hand.

"Elias," said the other boy, fumbling with his wand to his other hand in order to shake with Harry. "Heh, sorry. I'm still getting used to this thing," he said in a heavy Scottish brogue, looking a bit embarrassed.

"New wand?" said Harry.

"Aye." He pronounced it "ah." "That is, I just started using one. I live up in the highlands. Me family's never had much use for wands...or much else in the wizard world, for that matter."

"That's why you've never come to Hogwarts before?" asked Harry. Elias looked away, frowning. "I'm sorry!" said Harry sincerely. "I don't mean to embarrass you. I just never met anyone that...any other kind of wizard besides the kind that went to school." Great job there, he thought to himself.

Elias looked at him guardedly, but apparently decided that there were no hidden contempt in Harry's statement. "Aye, well, I've never been around so many other wizards in me life. We keep to ourselves mostly."

"What do you do, then?" Harry knew he ought to be working on the lesson, but if this fellow didn't even know how to use a wand, his prospects of making a Patronus were not very good.

Elias glanced around at the nearby pairs of students, all of whom were occupied in their own discussions. "Can you keep a secret?" he asked Harry with a mischievous grin.

"You have no idea," Harry said, winking.

"Well, for a living, we farm, right? But what we do is..." he dropped his voice, "we haunt things."

Harry's eyes grew wide. "You mean Mugglebaiting?!"

Elias nodded, grinning broadly. "Well, not like the Death Eaters or anything! We don't make trouble, we're artists. We keep the legends alive, so to speak."

Harry was duly impressed. "But that's against the law! Hasn't the Ministry come after you?"

Elias waved his hand contemptuously. "Oh, once in a great while something gets back to London and we get an inquiry. But it's not like we're doing anything spectacular--scary shadows in the cemetary, a weak love potion here and there, keep things interesting in the "haunted" houses, that sort of thing. Never anything that can be traced or proved--that's the whole point, ennit? Those twits who make toilets spit back at people? Kid stuff! Strictly amateur--who can't hex a toilet bowl? But you try setting up a scene that can't be explained by some scientific-minded Muggle with a clipboard! That's without leaving a shred of evidence, nothing to be filmed or photographed, not even a footprint or a scrap of cloth. But outrageous enough that the witnesses will stick with their story forever; if it's too weak, they decide they must've imagined it and all your effort goes for naught. It's an art form, you know."

Harry gazed in awe. "That sounds wicked! But what's that got to do with wands?"

Elias laughed. "They're not exactly subtle, eh? What good's a nice, intricate piece of spellwork that'll have people guessing for years if you have to stand in front of it with a wand to make it go? Rather gives you away, dunnit? So I've learned all me spells that don't need a wand. You don't use your wand to Apparate, eh? Okay, I may not be able to make a teapot turn into a perfect bunny rabbit, but I can make a Muggle portrait look the other way, or make a horse rear up at just the right moment. And fly me broom."

"Yeah? What're you flying?" Harry asked.

"A Nimbus. Got it used, after I sold me prize heifer--an' worth every Knut of the trade."

Harry smiled. "You play Quidditch?"

"Aye," laughed Elias. "Beater. I'm the seventh son of a seventh son, got enough cousins for ten teams. Me family's nearly as big as Hogsmeade!"

Harry had a feeling that this was his lucky day. "I'm captain for the Gryffindor team. Would you like to play for us?"

"Love to!" said Elias cheerfully. "I thought I'd play for me house, but no one's asked me. Probably be better to play for another, I suppose, with the spirit of the times, eh?"

"Works for me." Harry proffered his hand. "Harry Potter." To his surprise, Elias shook his hand without any particular reaction, not even checking for his scar. It must have shown in his face, because Elias gave him a knowing grin.

"Aye, I guessed as much. I know how it is, having a famous name. I've got one too, you see." He paused with a somewhat abashed grin. "Elias Ravenclaw."

Harry's jaw fell open automatically, even as he realized that this was exactly the kind of unwanted reaction he usually received. At that moment, however, Ondossi appeared beside them abruptly and said, "Less talking, more conjuring, gentlemen."

"You've saddled Potter with a grim challenge," said Elias, holding up his wand. "I've barely just learned which end of this to hold onto."

Ondossi gave Elias a piercing look which only Harry understood, then nodded approvingly. "An old-fashioned sorceror, hmm? I like that." She stepped in front of Harry as if he weren't even there, which made him feel rather affronted, but he let it go--he was quite curious about what this lesson would entail.

"Hold your arm out. Fingers straight up," she told Elias, and he did as he was instructed. "Palm forward. The Patronus will come from your palm. Keep your fingers out of the way." She moved to his side and placed her hand behind his, furrowing her brow. "You don't speak your spells either, do you? Very old-fashioned. You're all ready for the Spanish Inquisition!" She paused as nearby students snickered. "You'll need to speak out loud for this one though--focus your mind on the joy and courage and let the words bring the spell together. Try it. I'll help you this first time."

Elias frowned at her uncomprehendingly for an instant, but closed his eyes and appeared to concentrate. Most of the class had turned to watch by now. Harry noticed Ondossi quietly raise her other hand and rest a single fingertip on the back of the boy's skull. This ought to be good, he thought to himself.

Presently Elias said, rather loudly, "Expecto Patronum." A silvery mist erupted from his hand, and though he immediately yanked his arm back as though it had touched something very hot, the mist swirled and coalesced into a vaguely quadruped shape before dissipating.

The entire class cheered. Elias looked rather embarrassed to be the focus of attention, but Ondossi held up his hand as though he had just won a boxing match. "Wonderful!" she said. "Now the rest of you, get back to work!"

Harry missed being able to talk to Ron and Hermione at mealtimes. Even if one of them sat with him at the same table, they had to practically shout across to one another. They had managed to find three red chairs in reasonable proximity at three adjoining tables, and established a little triangular territory for themselves. But they had to turn their backs on one another to eat, and people were constantly walking around the tables; any lengthy private discussion was hopeless. Besides, Hermione kept insisting that they pay more attention to people from other Houses like Professor McGonagall had intended. After less than three days of school, Harry and Ron were already developing a complex series of coded looks.

Knowing that their vocabulary of glares was not sufficiently developed for the news about Elias Ravenclaw, Harry bounded up to Ron to tell him in the corridor as they left the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom. "I invited him to come and practice with us tonight, just to see if he can really fly, but he sounds like a ringer!"

Ron laughed. "Hey, now, just because he's from a big family with lots of brothers won't automatically make him a Beater! Okay, a lifetime of dodging obviously helps the old reflexes, but not everyone's as mental as Fred and George." Harry and Ron had reached the Great Hall by that point, and regarded one another with the usual resignation that their conversation would have to be postponed...

As though a Muggle film projector had suddenly flipped on before his eyes, Harry saw a strange sort of vision. Ron had not quite disappeared like he would during an episode of Legilimency, yet Harry knew he was seeing a fragment of Ron's thoughts. Quidditch, that's right, thought Harry. We were talking about Quidditch, and brothers. Ron was recalling a scrimmage match with his brothers on a warm summer evening. Bill and Percy were there, not Charlie though, and Dad came home from work early enough to toss the Quaffle about with them. Fred and George had to behave themselves--no knocking young Ronnie off his broom and stranding him in the treetops with Dad around. Mum had even brought their dinner out to the stand of trees where they were playing, and it had smelled just like the aromas wafting out of the Great Hall...

"What?" said Ron, looking puzzled but not upset. The vision disappeared and Harry snapped back to the external world.

"Did you..." began Harry, but he wasn't quite sure what to ask. "I think I just read your mind. Were you thinking about a picnic with your family that smelled just like--"

"--what we're smelling now. Yeah," said Ron. "You read that?"

"Yes!" said Harry enthusiastically, but Ron looked downright flustered.

"Oh, that's just grand! Everyone tells me when you do Legilimency, their whole life flashes before their eyes. And all I see is dinner?" Ron's face sagged with disappointed resignation.

"No, no, something was different this time," said Harry. "It was like I just caught a single the forefront of your mind." Harry's voice slowed as comprehension began to dawn in his mind. This must be the same thing Tura had done earlier in class. "Ron, quick, think about something else," he said with excitement. "Don't tell me what it is." Harry concentrated on recalling and duplicating his composure before he saw the vision.

Ron gaped at Harry as though he'd just asked Ron to do a backflip. "Uhh..."

Harry rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on, just think of anything! What'd we do in class tod--ah, never mind, I can't already know what it is. Just think, already!"

Staring in disbelief at Harry, Ron only managed to open and close his mouth, resembling a brilliant red tropical fish. "My mind's a blank."

"RON!" said Harry in exasperation.

"Well, you try it sometime, you big git!" squawked Ron defensively. "This is worse than being called on in class! Just shut up a minute, let me think." He closed his eyes, but Harry could see the pupils flickering about under the lids. ", wait, not that, hold on."

"Oh, for Pete's sake, Ron!" Harry was afraid if he waited too long to try again, he'd lose the insight of how to do it.

"Okay!" Ron finally said sharply. "Try it now."

Harry started to peer deep beyond Ron's eyes, but his stomach tightened and he knew instinctively that he was pushing further than he wanted to go. It was just casual eye contact, a friendly glance. Harry tried again with a less intense gaze, but nothing happened.

"Well?" asked Ron dubiously.

Harry harrumphed. "Are you sure you're thinking?"

Now it was Ron's turn to roll his eyes. "I'm about to start thinking you're a complete prat."

Harry grinned despite his efforts to concentrate. "Fine, fine, just don't tell me, I have to try before I forget how." He forced himself to unfurrow his brows, drop his shoulders, unclench his jaw. He'd been perfectly relaxed, having a normal conversation with a friend; they'd been exchanging the casual sorts of glances that people do as they walk along and talk with someone. Harry blinked his eyes several times, trying to focus at the proper depth, but nothing worked; all he could see was Ron, who was looking more and more dubious with every passing second.

Small crowds of students were beginning to gather both behind them in the Entrance Hall and before them in the Great Hall. Harry and Ron were not completely blocking the door, but they were certainly prominently visible within it, as though it were a picture frame. Harry began to feel self-conscious, knowing he must look ridiculous standing in the middle of the entryway, blinking and staring. Drat! Harry thought, I guess I just have to wait until it happens again.

At that precise moment, the room became less distinct again, and Harry saw the two of them flying Mr. Weasley's blue Anglia into the Whomping Willow.

"The car, our second year, right?!" Harry nearly shouted, gripping Ron gleefully by the forearms.

Ron grinned, surprised. "That's it!"

"And you didn't feel anything, did you?" Harry asked.

Wrinkling his forehead and shrugging, Ron said, "You were just looking at me strangely. That was it."

As Harry broke into a broad grin, Hermione pushed past them and said crossly, "For heaven's sake, you two, maybe you ought to go someplace private!"

Harry and Ron glared after her in affront, then Ron snidely remarked, "Isn't that nice? Malfoy's gone, but his spirit lingers on!"

Harry, Ron, and Hermione headed for the Quidditch pitch as soon as they finished their dinner that evening. Hermione brought along some books, to study in the quiet evening air, but of course Harry and Ron could think of nothing but the game. Elias was already there, zipping high above the field on his broom.

Harry and Ron stopped right in the middle of the entrance to the stadium, staring up in joyous disbelief. Elias was a skilled flier, executing incredibly sharp turns with practiced ease, all the while holding his Beater's club high overhead in one hand. At times it seemed as though his broom had stalled out underneath him; he was practicing some sort of abrupt vertical drop that neither of them had ever seen before.

"Harry," said Ron, after a long pause, "please tell me that's our guy up there."

"It's him," said Harry. They watched a few more minutes as Elias switched to practice an abrupt upward leap, the opposite version of his first stunt. It looked as though his broom was possessed by a wild bronco, yet Elias maintained a graceful posture along with his tenacious grip. He was clearly used to playing a rougher-than-usual version of Quidditch with those many cousins of his.

Elias caught sight of Hermione sitting in the stands and utterly ignoring him, then presently noticed Harry and Ron and made a smart landing right before them. "Think I'll do, then?" he said cheerily.

"How did you learn to fly like that?" Ron sputtered.

"Matter o' survival, ennit?" said Elias, laughing. "We play a pretty tough game when we all get together. We allow any magic as can be done without a wand--at least when the mums and aunties aren't watching." He winked. "Got to stop pretty sharp when a spell's comin' straight for yah. Get up, I'll show the both of you a trick or two, if you like."

Harry and Ron leapt onto their brooms in an instant, leaving Hermione clicking her teeth reproachfully in the stands as she flipped open her Arithmancy text.

By Friday afternoon, it occurred to Harry that he had not done a single Occlumency lesson during the entire first week of school. Potions and Charms were all fine and good, but he hadn't returned to Hogwarts to take classes; he was here to learn whatever Ondossi was supposed to teach him.

The professor didn't attend dinner in the Great Hall that evening, so Harry trudged down to the dungeons to inquire about their next lesson. It was hard for Harry to go down there at all, but somehow in the summer brightness and quiet, it had seemed more neutral, more bearable. But now that the nights were growing longer and the familiar background sounds of house-elves and Slytherins echoing almost imperceptibly through the stones had returned, every trip down to the dungeons was a stark reminder of the man Harry hated almost as much as Voldemort. It was no wonder Slughorn had declined to inhabit Snape's former office again this year; the very walls were contaminated by treachery of their former occupant.

Ondossi didn't seem to mind a bit, but of course she had never met either HIM or Dumbledore; for her, they were just more rocks and stones that didn't "know" her. Perhaps the feeling that the dungeon somehow still contained Snape's inherent evil was the sort of magic she was referring to when she spoke of the Earth as though it were alive. It was strange, Harry pondered, that the stones of Gryffindor Tower were probably mined from this very passage of the dungeons, yet the two places could hardly feel more different. Down here, the stones were cold, dark, suffocating; in the Tower, they seemed cozy and protective. But surely they were the same color and temperature in both places. Perhaps there was something to Tura's ramblings after all.

Ondossi didn't answer when Harry knocked on her door. It annoyed him that he'd made the trip down that despised corridor for nothing, almost as much as the fact that he still had no lessons planned. Harry knew he would see her on Sunday to assist with her remedial Defense Against the Dark Arts class, but that would make it a whole week since his last lesson. Even though he hadn't liked what he'd seen in her mind, he'd managed to step away on his own, and he'd limited his vision with Ron. Who knew when he'd be in the groove like this again?

Frustrated, Harry climbed the long, familiar flights of stairs to his room atop Gryffindor Tower and rummaged through his trunk. He found the Marauder's Map after a brief search--it was a lot easier to find things after Hermione forced him to clean the trunk out to repair that mirror. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Ondossi's presence on the Map. Harry searched it carefully from top to bottom; she wasn't in the castle.

Ron bounded into the dormitory, startling both of them with his sudden appearance. "Hey, Harry--we're all getting started on that big Charms assignment, you coming?" he asked, picking up his textbook from the foot of his bed.

"Hmm?" mumbled Harry distractedly. "Erm, yeah, I'll be down in a bit, I suppose."

"You suppose?" Ron asked indignantly. "Better not let Hermione hear you talking about homework like that! She might drop dead from the outrage." Ron peered more closely and recognized the Map. "What're you up to, then?"

"I was trying to find Ondossi," Harry said. "As much as I love my other classes, I'd rather like to get on with Occlumency lessons. She's not in the castle."

Ron looked intrigued. "Are you fancying a little hunt, then?"

Laughing, Harry said, "Now Ron, if I didn't know better, I'd say you were procrastinating."

"On a Friday night?" said Ron. "Why, I resemble that remark!"

As the sun had not quite set, the two of them felt justified in going out to the grounds, but they brought along Harry's Invisibility cloak for their return--not to mention for slipping past the rather unenthusiastic group of seventh years in the common room watching Hermione set up the Charm they'd been assigned. Once out on the stone steps before the castle, however, they weren't quite sure where to start.

"Do you suppose she's back in the Shrieking Shack?" asked Ron.

Harry frowned. "I doubt it. She sticks to her word, once you can get it out of her. But she did mention moving into the greenhouses once."

A quick jaunt to the Herbology buildings revealed no sign of anyone, except a few semi-sentient plants which seemed to eyeball the young men hungrily, despite their lack of ocular apparati. Harry wondered if she were crazy enough to move into the Forbidden Forest despite the centaurs, when he spotted the lights on in Hagrid's cabin.

"You know, Hagrid's her friend, maybe she's down there," said Harry.

"Let's go then," said Ron enthusiastically. "Hagrid may have some more news about the giants, in any case."

Harry hesitated a moment. "He is our Head of House now...maybe we shouldn't deliberately sneak down to his house after hours."

Ron had already started down the hill, but he stopped and glanced back at Harry with pure incomprehension. "Are you joking? This is Hagrid we're talking about. He'd probably dock House points if we didn't come visit once in a while!" Ron winked and continued down the hill.

Harry rapped firmly on Hagrid's door. As soon as it opened, Fang bounded out to bestow loving (but slobbery) greetings upon both of them. "Knew it was you!" said Hagrid with equal affection, ushering Harry and Ron inside. "Term's not even a week old--who else would be out after dark, breakin' the rules already?"

"Hi, Hagrid," said Harry warmly, extracting himself from Fang's soggy welcome so the mutt could concentrate his efforts on Ron. Harry did a bit of a double-take as he regarded the interior of Hagrid's hut; the stone walls were darker, charred by the same fire that had consumed the roof, which was now made of a pale, fragrant wood. Gone were the dozens of items Hagrid had always kept suspended from hooks in the ceiling--only a thin bundle of unicorn hair, some cured meats, and a coarse net bag full of fruit dangled beyond Harry's reach now. Though Harry recalled putting out the fire fairly quickly, apparently Hagrid's furniture had been damaged beyond repair and had been replaced. Even Hagrid's immense table, which had seemed sturdy and thick enough to weather a bit of fire, was gone; in its place stood one equally large but far more delicate-looking.

"Quite a difference, eh?" noted Hagrid rather proudly. "Yeh know, I remembered somethin' me mum once tol' me, when I was just a wee tot. I was cleanin' up from the fire and suddenly it was clear as day: her sayin' that it wasn't good teh stay in one place fer too long, yeh have to move on and break clean or yeh'll become a slave to yer possessions. I think that mighta been righ' before she lef' us, maybe. Anyways, I'd forgot all about it 'til I was pickin' through the rubble and feelin' sorry for meself, and then it come back to me in a flash. I'd been livin' in one room more'n fifty years, never changin' nothing."

Hagrid tut-tutted at himself, shaking his head. "An' here I'm tryin' ter get to know a classy lady, tryin' to make a nice little home for Grawpy, wi' half a century o' dirt on me floors and walls. It was hard, losin' all the things I'd had fer so long, but then Mum's words set me straight. It's all junk, yeh know, Harry, Ron...all tha' matters in the en' is the company yeh keep."

With that, Hagrid began to sniffle tearfully and pulled Harry and Ron swiftly into one-armed hugs that tenderly knocked the wind out of both of them. Trapped on either side of Hagrid's vast girth and turning purple with effort to breathe, Harry and Ron regarded one another with hints of smiles in their bulging eyes, along with a tad of concern that Hagrid might inadvertently do them both in.

When Hagrid finally let go and both of them enjoyed a welcome rush of air into their lungs, Harry fell into Ron's mind further than he had ever gone with anyone.

As he had done with Ondossi, Harry found himself shrugging off his own identity and seemingly becoming Ron, seeing his memories not only through Ron's eyes but all of his senses, with all the rich emotional overtones that were unique to Ron and therefore colored every minute of his day with a shade all his own. But Ron was no Occlumens, and did not restrict Harry's vision only to selected incidents. Ron's whole life was suddenly open to Harry, probably more of it than Ron himself could remember.

Harry recognized immediately that the limited glimpses he'd seen of Ron during the wedding reception were but a distorted fraction of his friend. At a moment of chemically-enhanced lonliness and self-pity, Ron had dropped briefly into a mode of thinking he'd outgrown years before. The "modern" Ron was quietly confident: the young man who had stepped courageously into the unknown in the Chamber of Secrets, the Department of Mysteries, and the vacant lot at Godric's Hollow.

Harry could see the turning point that had brought Ron out of his shell. It had happened on the Quidditch pitch, of all places. Not the game in which Ron believed he'd taken the Felix Felicis, nor even the one after that, but their last match, the one Harry spent in detention with Snape. Through Ron's memory, Harry saw the entire game in a flash--as well as Ron's epiphany. Ron was out there without Harry. All the excitment and admiration he'd felt from the stands as a spectator...and now he was a player, as independent and valuable as Charlie or Fred or George had ever been. He'd let the Quaffle slip past him, he was so caught up in the revelation that, just perhaps, he'd been valuable all his life.

What little bit of Harry that remained separate and objective chuckled at the irony, that Ron had faced so many fearsome challenges over the years, yet his confidence had finally bloomed during a Quidditch game. Harry made a mental note to point that out painstakingly to Hermione in the near future. Realizing that he'd become distracted, Harry parted from Ron's mind almost effortlessly, only to find that he could barely stand when he was firmly planted in himself again.

Just as the Legilimency had been more powerful than ever, so now was the numbness that followed it. Harry felt as if his will had evaporated; even breathing seemed a paltry waste of time and effort. Fortunately, Hagrid caught him as his knees gave way. "Oops, there. I've seen that look before," Harry heard Hagrid mutter. "No turnin' blue on me now, Harry, lad," he said firmly as he picked Harry up like a rag doll and set him rather roughly in one of the oversized chairs at the table.

"You okay there, Ron?" said Hagrid, shaking Harry's shoulders until his daze broke long enough to put his lungs back to work. Harry slumped sideways until he became wedged into the chair; he was far too serene to care if he fell, or twisted his neck uncomfortably. But he recognized that breathing was a requirement, and Hagrid nodded approvingly before turning back to Ron.

"Yeh'll be needin' a bit o' chocolate, I wager," said the enormous professor as he lumbered over to the fireplace and fetched the kettle. Hagrid poured two oversized mugs of tea and rummaged in his new pantry for a tin of chocolate squares. Ron was quite relieved to find that these were "store bought," not homemade, and gratefully took several bars to have with his tea.

"Hagrid...what's wrong with Harry? Did I do something to him?" Ron asked.

Hagrid glanced back at Harry before plopping into his own chair and slurping some tea. "Nah, he's all right," said Hagrid with a casual wave of his arm. "He'll come roun' again pretty quick. Tura gets like that too, though I've never got a straight answer from her abou' why it is. Said somethin' about "becomin' a being o' pure thought," wha'ever that means, silly gel."

Hagrid reached over and gently pulled Harry's eyes closed with one swipe of his huge hand. "Can't stand tha' empty stare," he told Ron confidentially. "Reminds me of a fish layin' out on a slab of ice, yeh know? There were a few times I thought we'd los' Tura; she worked over some o' them Sasquatch giants pretty hard before she'd trust 'em with Grawpy. I think they get so caught up in Legilimency, they forget they got a body ter keep alive, too. She gets her hackles up at me an' says, 'I never died yet,' but it's no fun watchin' her turn gray from bein' so still. You an' Hermione oughter keep an eye on Harry, make sure he don' forget ter breathe."

Harry attempted to say, "That's not necessary," but the words were so slurred, no one could understand him.

"Oh, an' wait'll he starts ter talk," said Hagrid with a knowing wink. "He'll say the darnedest things."

Ron kept an anxious eye on Harry as Hagrid chattered away as though nothing was amiss. "Whad'ya think o' me new digs, eh? Cherry wood," he said reverently, rapping on the glossy tabletop. "Made in America. Oh, Ron, lad, you should see them giants there. It's like night an' day, compared to us. There's a giant city not far from where Tura grew up; tha's how she knew of 'em, to arrange the meetin's. I guess the giant city's in Canada, technic'ly speakin', but it's all just miles and miles o' wilderness up there anyhow. That's where me furniture came from--built by giants!" He rapped the table again proudly.

"It's very nice, Hagrid," said Ron politely, and it was; though big and strong enough to hold Grawp, the chairs were elegantly made with flowing form and many carved details. Ron recalled a story Harry had once mentioned about a man named Gulliver who had traveled to a land of tiny people, then to a land of giants. Perhaps the author had stumbled into the northern Canada wilderness. "What's the city called?" Ron asked curiously.

Hagrid cocked his head a moment, then to the other side. "I don' reckon it's got one, Ron. Never heard no mention of a name, now that I think of it. There's only one, so I suppose they jus' call it The City."

Ron nodded, grinning. Giants were not big talkers, even if they did "get civilized."

Both of them jumped as Harry spoke. "Hagrid." Harry had opened his eyes, though he still slouched to the side of his chair as though his body had been forgotten.

"Need somethin', Harry?" asked Hagrid.

"Yes. I wish to ask you some difficult questions."

Hagrid paled slightly and gulped. He peered uneasily at Ron. "Ut oh." He pulled the tin of chocolates closer to his chair. "All righ' then, Harry. Ask away."

"Tell me all that happened in Godric's Hollow."

Hagrid groaned painfully. "I was afraid o' that comin'. You sure this is the time, Harry--you bein' all funny at the moment?"

"I'm sure. Please speak of it."

Turning even more pale, Hagrid gulped the rest of his tea, then pulled his chair around to face Harry. "Better get comfy, Ron," he said with a final glance at his other guest. "We'll be here a while."

Chapter 14: Chapter 14: Shadows of the Past
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Rubeus Hagrid pulled off his soaked moleskin coat and hung it beside the fireplace. He had just returned from the Forbidden Forest. It was cold and windy enough to be mistaken for a winter night, not autumn, but he'd deliberately and cheerfully faced the stinging rain. It was Halloween, after all, and he'd enjoyed a lovely feast up at the castle; he wanted his friends in the forest to celebrate the holiday as well.

Hagrid had been expelled from Hogwarts and lost his magical privileges because of one of those friends, Aragog, but he was far too kindhearted to hold a grudge. He'd spent the next twelve years wandering the world, unwelcome in either human, wizard, or giant society, but universally accepted by animals both mundane and magical. Any creatures who were not calmed by his patient and gentle nature were no match for his persistence and sheer strength.

Albus Dumbledore recognized all of these qualities (and their value) in Hagrid. As soon as he became Headmaster of Hogwarts, he found Hagrid on a small Mediterranean island, getting to know a minotaur (or, to be completely accurate, attempting to get to know a minotaur. Such beasts were as reclusive and ill-tempered as centaurs, but with twice their muscle mass. Hagrid had foolishly annoyed the creature further by mentioning a wizard named Daedalus Diggle. It turned out that this very beast was a direct descendant of "The Minotaur" made famous in Greek mythology--when he was imprisoned in a Labyrinth by a bloke named Daedalus. It hadn't helped when Hagrid responded to this information by saying, "Amazin'!"). Dumbledore appointed Hagrid the gamekeeper at Hogwarts, and never regretted the decision. Hagrid kept all of the beasts in the Forbidden Forest under a firm but gentle thumb, and in addition grew some of the finest squash and apples in the UK. Ogg, the Keeper of Keys and Grounds at Hogwarts, had refused to retire from his post until he was certain that the castle would be left in capable hands. Within ten years of Hagrid's arrival, Ogg departed in complete satisfaction.

Despite Dumbledore's unyielding esteem, Hagrid did not feel it was his place to dine in the castle. He knew his beloved Aragog was not the Beast from the Chamber of Secrets, but he'd been raised to respect his "betters" and if they'd seen fit to expell him from the school, then by Jove he must've done something wrong. He tended his own garden and cooked for himself, but on holidays and special occasions, he would sneak down to the kitchens after the Great Hall had emptied and assist the other servants at eliminating all the leftovers. The house-elves always made plenty of food on such occasions, and they barely nibbled more than a kernel of corn at any one sitting, so Hagrid felt he was doing a valuable service by disposing of the excess.

As always, when he left the castle, the house-elves foisted upon him all the food he could carry (which was a considerable amount). Hagrid hauled it straight out to the Forest, sharing sweet pumpkin tarts with the unicorns and savory meats with the thestrals (his pride and joy, being the only breeding herd in captivity). Even a few of the younger, more "hip" centaurs were in the habit of trotting by for candied apples on Halloween, although this year the rain kept most of them in their deep forest dwellings. They preferred Hagrid's apples straight off the tree anyway.

The fireplace in the groundskeeper's cabin had been included in the Floo Network over 500 years ago, but like the rest of the castle, it was limited strictly to communication purposes, not travel (except during the summer months when there were no students present). There had been a legendary mistake in the 1870's when a hearth in Hogsmeade had been added to the routing and somehow crossed paths with the fireplace in the cabin. The groundskeeper at the time became so furious with unexpected "guests" popping through the Floo that he rigged up an elaborate deterrent system of pulleys and ropes, culminating in the release hatch of a huge reservoir of water over the hearth. At the first sign of movement, the hatch would open and drown the fire, leaving the poor traveler stuck in the network, too dizzy to find another fire and too drenched to get out anyway. Eighteen sorcerers had become long-term occupants of the Floo before the Ministry had managed to correct the problem; there may have been more, but only these were hauled out by the repair crew. The Ministry had developed a rather unfavorable impression of the cabin and its fireplace in lieu of the circumstances, and the Floo had never worked very well after that.

Thus Hagrid was taken quite by surprise, as he warmed his damp, chilly backside over the roaring flames, suddenly to hear Dumbledore himself speaking from the Floo. "Hag-- good gracious me, have I reached the right Floo? Oh. Quite so."

Hagrid performed a leaping pirouette that a ballerina would envy, were it not for the ungainly landing. "Headmaster!" he sputtered, chagrined by the view he had just provided his employer.

"Hagrid, this is most urgent. Meet me at the castle doors immediately!"

Hagrid paused only to pull on his leather boots before bursting from the cabin, without coat or umbrella. He dashed up the slippery lawn, nearly tripping over the first of the stone steps in the rainy darkness.

Dumbledore had already propped open one oak door, his pointed hat eclipsing all but a sliver of the golden torchlight within the Entry Hall. In an uncharacteristic fashion, he waved to Hagrid impatiently, almost frantically. The summons was unnerving enough, but the concept of Dumbledore needing to rush sent Hagrid into a near frenzy. He bolted up the steps four at a time, again nearly losing his footing on the sleek wet stone.

"Hurry, Hagrid," said Dumbledore, stepping outside onto the landing and closing the oak doors behind him. Casting a cautious glance overhead, Dumbledore finally leaned close to Hagrid and placed a silver quill in his hand. "Take this. A Portkey. Listen carefully, Hagrid, there may not be much time." Hagrid swallowed hard, straining to hear and memorize every word that Dumbledore uttered.

"The Portkey will take you to Godric's Hollow, to the home of the Potters," said Dumbledore in a quiet, strained voice. "I will activate it in a moment with the password. I believe something very terrible, or very great, has happened, but I also fear a trap. I do not know what you will find. Search thoroughly, Hagrid, but do not be seen by anyone, Wizard or Muggle. You will repeat the password to return here when you must."

Dumbledore paused and put his hands on Hagrid's forearms. "Hagrid, please be cautious. I dread that I may be sending you into great danger, but I dare not leave the castle undefended. You must be my eyes and ears, Hagrid. Are you ready?"

Hagrid nodded, too astounded to reply, and Dumbledore responded with a curt nod of his own. "Very good. Listen closely: the password to the Portkey is Campanula--" At the end of the last syllable, Hagrid felt as though his belly had tossed out a rope and lassoed a passing train.

In an instant, the wind, rain, and castle were gone and all Hagrid could see was a giant pile of rubble. "The Potter's house?" Hagrid mumbled. It took him a moment to process the notion that the detritus before him was all that remained of his destination. Dumbledore's ears and eyes, he thought, and forced himself to concentrate. He had to collect every detail at the scene, even those he might not usually grant a second glance, for it was impossible to tell which ones would be crucial.

Something had been dragged along the ground from the rubble. Hagrid followed the smudges through the dust, but the trail ended at a paved road, the stiff macadam indifferent to Hagrid's desperate need for information. He returned carefully alongside the trail to the edge of the wreckage, noting the occasional marks of dragging fingertips or heels; clearly a body had been hauled over the dirt. He identified a few partial shoeprints here and there along the trail, though most had been obliterated. Men's style shoes, pointing toward the rubble; it appeared that the cadaver had been pulled out by one person walking backwards, barely strong enough to lift the torso from the ground.

Hagrid knelt at the point where the trail began, observing a few more prints of that same shoe. He tried to envision the pathway within the rubble where the pilferer had removed the body, and sure enough, he could see a few bits of cloth, blood, and tissue snagged on some of the debris. The blood was still wet; Hagrid realized with a shiver that whatever happened here had taken place just moments ago.

He could barely hear the distant wail of a siren, but otherwise all was still. No, not completely. There was a sound coming from...where? Hagrid pulled his unkempt hair from his ears and turned his was within the rubble! Something was still alive in there, a cat by the sound of it.

Or, he suddenly realized, a baby.

Hagrid had not known Lily or James terribly well, but joyous gossip of babies always traveled widely at Hogwarts. He knew the Potters had a wee tot. Whoever had pulled the body (Lily's? James's?) out of the rubble had left the poor lad behind. Hagrid no longer considered his charge of gathering information; there was a life at stake, and that trumped all other concerns.

He focused completely on the sound and made a beeline toward its source. Fortunately it was not very far into the jumbled heap. There, under that bit o' roof. Hagrid flipped it out of the way, to reveal a human baby so small he could hold it in one palm.

Hagrid had seen babies before, certainly many baby animals, but this little tyke looked so tiny
and delicate that he hardly dared pick it up. He told himself not to be so silly, the little one had just survived his house crashing down around him, and besides, he had to be at least a year old, surely past that floppy, fragile stage. Poor little angel. Hagrid steeled himself and picked up the baby carefully, bringing along the little blanket to bundle the wee thing.

There was a sudden rumble of machinery approaching, but it was too loud and sudden to be the Muggle vehicle with the siren. Hagrid stood up and scanned around anxiously, then saw a glint of thin moonlight reflecting from the chrome fenders of a motorbike. He recognized it at once; Sirius Black had earned the ire of a great many centaurs by leaving a number of "donuts" in their favorite clearing of the Forbidden Forest. "Black?" he called.

A strangled groan came to him in response. Hagrid headed straight for the sound with little Harry crying loudly in his hand. Black stood frozen beside the motorbike, clenching and unclenching his hands in helpless fury. He sputtered a few more times, unable to form a coherent sentence, but when Hagrid grew nearer, a glimmer of recognition formed as Black heard Harry's cry.

"The baby? Harry? Hagrid?" said Black. "Where are they? Where's James?" He gripped Hagrid's forearm tightly as soon as he was near enough to reach; Black's hands were clammy and white as the moonlight.

"I dunno, Black, I dunno what happened. Someone's been dragged out, maybe it was James pullin' Lily, I dunno."

Black's eyes glazed with horror. "It wasn't James," he said, choking on the words. "James is dead."

Hagrid pondered this only long enough to reason that if someone had pulled James's body from the rubble, then Lily might still be in there, possibly alive. "Lily," he said with determination. "Take the lad." There was no need to give that order; Black was already reaching for the baby with a look of reverent gratitude, and hugged the little bundle tightly against his chest. Hagrid strode immediately back into the ruined house to search for Lily. "A good mum'd be near her tot if there was danger," he muttered, kicking aside large sheets of plaster and roofing on his way back to the crib.

He found her. Sure enough, she must have been only steps from the baby. The sight of her gave Hagrid a chill. She looked calm and serene as though she were merely staring off into space, lost in thought. Hagrid knew she was dead, from the Kedavra curse, by the look of it. She was barely out of school. Hagrid howled in agony over the terrible injustice that would leave a young woman dead and her baby an orphan.

Her remains were pinned underneath a heavy piece of timber, probably the main crossbeam that held the roof together. Hagrid couldn't lift it, and to his chagrin, the sirens were definitely coming closer. He clambered back out of the wreckage once more to find Black sitting on the ground, pressing little Harry to his chest and rocking his upper body as if to comfort the child, but his own sobs kept the baby from calming down.

Hagrid plopped down beside Black, knowing they must go before the Muggle authorities arrived. He squeezed Black's shoulders and patted his hair gently, trying desperately to find something to say to dispell the young man's grief. "Black! Pull yourself together, lad! We gotta go! Gotta get little Harry someplace safe, lad. There's a good chap," he said, as Black nodded in recognition of Hagrid's point and rose unsteadily to his feet.

"I'll take him," said Black with firm finality.

Hagrid wasn't too sure about that decision. "Maybe he oughter come with me, ter Hogwarts...Dumbledore might--"

"I'LL take him," snapped Black, looking him in the eye. "I'm his godfather. I'm all he has left. He's all I--" Black's voice cut off under threat of renewed sobs. He opened his black leather jacket and put Harry inside, cinching the belt at the bottom very snug and buckling the front nearly all the way up, leaving only Harry's little face peeking out. The baby had stopped crying, as though comforted by Black's presence, but he still whimpered with distress. "Ma, ma, ma," he said plaintively, as a Muggle police wagon rounded the last bend up the road.

"Where will yeh take him?" asked Hagrid urgently, but Black leapt onto the motorbike and sped off without another word. The headlights from the Muggle vehicle were approaching rapidly; Hagrid took hold of the silver quill in resignation and muttered, "Campanula."

"Hagrid!" Dumbledore sat behind the desk in his office. Hagrid noticed right away that the furniture had been moved to clear a space for him, but Dumbledore nonetheless jumped at his sudden appearance. "I didn't expect you back so soon."

"Had ter get out right quick, Headmaster," said Hagrid. "The Muggles were showin' up."

"Tell me everything, Hagrid," said Dumbledore in a level but urgent tone.

The Headmaster had winced as though stabbed in the chest when Hagrid told of finding Lily's body in the destroyed house, but he took the news of the mysterious disappearing cadaver with his usual unflappability. As Hagrid described his rescue of little Harry and the peculiar cut on the child's forehead, Dumbledore's face grew more and more solemn. He was scowling deeply by the time Hagrid reached the end of the tale.

" asked young Sirius where he intended to take the child?"

"Yessir. He din' answer, sir." Dumbledore's demeanor was making Hagrid feel more apprehensive by the minute, and he began absently fiddling with the nearest silver contraption on the Headmaster's desk. Dumbledore whapped Hagrid's hand smartly, but did not look up from his internal reverie nor speak for several minutes.

"I have a number of concerns, Hagrid," Dumbledore finally began, lacing his fingers together on his desk with a grim stiffness that suggested he'd prefer to be wringing his hands then holding them so calm and still. "I believe Sirius is acting somewhat rashly at the moment. I don't think he has much experience with young toddlers and has bitten off far more than he can chew. Nor is he the only remaining family of the child. I would like the boy brought to me."

Dumbledore took a small scrap of parchment from his desk drawer and tapped it with his wand, muttering softly under his breath. An address appeared on the parchment, along with a small green arrow pointing south. Dumbledore looked long and hard at the writing and nodded, then offered the parchment to Hagrid.

"There are things I must attend to, my friend," Dumbledore said. "I would like you to perform one more service for me. I ask you to find the boy and bring him to this address. It is in London--a distinctly Muggle section of London. I will meet the two of you there at midnight tonight, but you will still need to be discrete when you approach. The arrow will direct you," Dumbledore added with a reassuring smile, but the casual demeanor didn't fool Hagrid for a minute. His normally ruddy hands were pale and trembling as he took the parchment and tucked it into a shirt pocket.

"I'm not certain where Sirius would take the boy," continued Dumbledore in a conversational tone. "Obviously, you might first try his house in Bristol, then the house of his parents in London. If neither proves productive, you must attempt to track him down. I can think of no one more resourceful at tracking than you, Hagrid. Just be sure to bring your umbrella." Dumbledore leveled a knowing look at Hagrid that made him gulp uncomfortably.

"I think it is probably best, Hagrid, if you encounter any other wizards during your efforts, to keep mum about what you have seen. I also caution you that young Sirius may be most unwilling to part with the baby. Perhaps utterly unwilling." Dumbledore paused as the anxious scowl returned to his face momentarily. "I hope that you can persuade him, however, it may be necessary to be more...firm."

"I'll have little Harry to yeh by midnight," said Hagrid quietly.

Dumbledore's eyes sparkled briefly behind his crescent-moon spectacles. "Of that I have no doubt, Rubeus."

Hagrid charged into his cabin to snatch up his umbrella and pull a large slab of pork from the icebox. His puppy, Fang, yipped excitedly at his return, particularly when the pork appeared, and Hagrid automatically let him outside as he took the meat into the forest and set it out to attract a thestral. The rain had stopped, and he hoped that the forests' denizens would still be prowling nearby in expectation of their annual Halloween tidbits. Fang naturally fled back to the cabin at the sound of the first snapped twig. Hagrid had considered bringing him along on the hunt--the pup had a clever nose that might come in handy. But there was no foot trail to follow, after all, and Hagrid knew of some magical creatures that might better serve his purposes than his cowardly pooch. He had no bait with which to entice them, however, so he set out the pork and hoped the thestrals would hurry.

Indeed, a small herd arrived scant minutes later, clopping softly in the wet undergrowth. Hagrid placed a lariat around the neck of the largest one he could find and tethered it to a tree. He shooed the others away to enable the one to eat all of the meat; it had a long ride ahead of it.

Hagrid knew he had no peppers in his cabin, so he ran back up to the castle. There were only a handful of house-elves in the kitchen preparing pastries and muffins for breakfast; they were only able to find a few somewhat withered green bell peppers for him, which he knew would not suffice. For a moment, he considered waking the new Potions professor, who must have a store of capsaicin-rich plants in his stockroom. Hagrid had many years of experience handling grouchy creatures, however, and decided to hold that off as a last resort. Instead, he scooped up the peppers and charged up the stairs to Minerva McGonagall's quarters.

She opened her office door wearing a tartan bathrobe and ridiculous fuzzy slippers, her hair in disarray and smelling vaguely of cucumbers. "Hagrid?" she said skeptically, blinking at the torchlight in the corridor and looking dangerously close to clubbing him with the nearest heavy object.

"I'm sorry, Professor, emergency. Can you Transfigure these fer me? Only I've got to catch some Fireflies an' these aren't strong enough."

She blinked a few more times, then shuddered off the last vestiges of sleep and stepped back to allow the groundskeeper into her office. "Of course. Fireflies. Whatever for, Hagrid?"

He cleared his throat nervously. "I've got ter find someone quick."

Rolling her eyes, McGonagall set the peppers out on her desk for the Transfiguration. "I inferred that much, Hagrid," she said pointedly, and glared at him expectantly.

"I'm not s'posed to say nothin' about it, Professor, but trus' me, it's important."

Her brows flew up in surprise at his unusual discretion, but she Transfigured the bell peppers into a small, red-orange, shrunken variety that looked positively lethal even to Hagrid and his cast-iron stomach. Just picking them up and wrapping them in his handkerchief made his fingertips tingle uncomfortably. "They're perfect, Professor," he said with a little bow of gratitude. "Thank you."

She called after him before he closed the door. "Hagrid? You dropped this." In her hand was the scrap of parchment with the address in London where he was to meet Dumbledore. It was too late to stop her; she was already studying it curiously.

"Ah, tha's nothin' there, just..." Hagrid began, but he was one of the world's worst liars, and she one of the world's shrewdest judges of character. The battle was lost before it had begun and he knew it. "I'm meetin' the Headmaster there at midnight," he confessed resignedly. "But please don' tell anyone else! It's...very important."

McGonagall's expression softened. "So you've said. Well. I don't suppose the Headmaster would object if one of his staff took a holiday to discreetly scout out this important meeting place. Perhaps I shall see you at midnight, Hagrid--which leaves me less than twenty-one hours to locate this address. I bid you adieu, then," she said, stuffing the parchment into his hand and closing her office door firmly.

Bolting down the marble stairs to the Entry Hall, Hagrid gnawed on a wisp of his beard and muttered, "I shouldn'ta tol' her that."

For what he hoped was the last time that night, Hagrid rushed back to the Forbidden Forest and set out his next bait near the thestral, which was already beginning to tug at its tether impatiently. Although it realistically took no more than five minutes, it seemed like hours had passed and dawn must surely be imminent before the peppers worked their own magic. A single flash of light, soon followed by two more, appeared over the dry pods. Hagrid tossed his handkerchief over the peppers and the three Fireflies eagerly gobbling them up, then folded them all together and stuffed them into a pocket. He hoped the peppers were beg enough to keep them munching contentedly until he was ready to use them, otherwise he'd need another new shirt when they burned their way out of his pocket.

Hagrid gave the thestral an apologetic pat as he climbed on its back. It snorted at him but took to the air obediently, and within twenty minutes, the lights of London appeared as a steady glow on the distant horizon. The beast soon put London well on his left, heading for Bristol.

Like all of its kind, the thestral had an innate and magical sense of direction, and took him directly to Sirius Black's doorstep. Pity they can only find locations so easy, not people, Hagrid thought as he dismounted the reptilian horse. He felt doubtful; there was no sign of the motorbike and the house was dark and silent. Hagrid pounded on Black's door for some time anyway, until an irate neighbor shouted something barely intelligible but almost certainly derogatory. Hagrid sighed. Black could ignore enough pounding to wake the neighbors, but the baby would be wailing by now if he were within.

The thestral found the Black's ancestral home in London quickly enough, though it reared at the curb and refused to step off the pavement. The sun had not risen but there was certainly enough ambient light for the beast to be seen quite clearly as it stood in the road, but Hagrid didn't have many options. Fortunately, few people would be up at this hour, and even fewer of them had the prerequisite experience to see a thestral anyway. Hagrid tethered the beast to a lamppost, wishing he had Dumbledore's marvelous little Put-Outer for the occasion.

The house itself existed in Unplottable space between two other homes; a non-wizard would never even know it was there. But the thestral was not fooled by such things, and Hagrid knew he could trust it. He simply walked up to the region where the thestral refused to tread and, sure enough, the lawn parted to reveal another sidewalk. Two steps upon the cobbles and the neighboring houses parted similarly, as the House of Black appeared between them.

Hagrid paused at the top of the worn stone steps. It was one thing to wake Professor McGonagall in the middle of the night on semi-official business, but another entirely to disturb the powerful and wealthy Blacks unannounced. Hagrid knew that Sirius Black had been at odds with his family; one look at the door knocker in the shape of a twisted serpent explained why. This was a house of pureblood wizards, most likely Dark at that. Hagrid would not be welcomed here under any circumstances, particularly the current ones.

He had one shining beam of hope: these aristocrats probably kept servants who would respond to the door at this hour. Crossing his fingers, Hagrid attempted to lift the silver tail of the serpent and knock, but the blasted thing was obviously charmed to resist the grip of non-purebloods or non-humans, or whatever "undesirables" the Blacks saw fit to exclude (a category to which he obviously belonged). Not very hospitable at all, I'd say, he thought, and resorted to rapping the door very gently with a knuckle.

A wizened house-elf yanked open the door on his third attempt and stared at him reproachfully. It regarded him silently for so long that Hagrid began to wonder if it was a mute. When it finally spoke in a deep, croaking voice, Hagrid quickly decided he preferred the silence.

"What's all this, then? Someone leaving garbage, great dirty heaps of it, on Mistress's front step? Who would guess that such ill manners still existed in this modern world, that decent folk would be harassed at all hours of the night by giant heaps of rubbish?"

"An' a good mornin' to you too, there, yeh little weasel," said Hagrid; it had been a long night and he was in no mood for this sort of treatment. "What say yeh turn off the snide an' help me out, so's we don't have ter bother your precious Mistress."

"It speaks! And an unusually wise heap of rubbish it is, to realize that the Mistress should not waste her time attending to it herself. Perhaps I should throw a few nice pieces of trash upon it as a reward."

Hagrid came dangerously close to throttling the little twerp, but he was not yet tired or footsore enough to lose his head. "I'm lookin' for Sirius Black. If yeh can tell me where he is, I'll be on my way an' we'll both be the better for it."

The creature's watery gray eyes bugged out even further and a hint of red popped into its cheeks at the mention of that name. "How dare you speak of that traitor in this household?" it hissed, too angry for games anymore.

"I'll speak it again an' again, as loud as I need to, 'til I get yer answer," Hagrid said boldly. "Is he here?"

The house-elf glanced fearfully over its shoulder and stepped out onto the porch, pulling the door nearly shut behind it. "Quiet!" it hissed again, glaring malevolently at Hagrid. "Mistress will be most upset if she hears you. That boy has not set foot in this house for years now. Not tonight, not any night. He is not permitted here. If you seek to punish him or collect a bounty, then I bid you good luck, but you will not find him here. Now go!"

"Funny you should mention bounties," Hagrid said coolly, crossing his fingers once again that he could pull this off. "It'd help me quite a bit if I had summat of his, jus' ter give me trackers a whiff of his scent. You wouldn't have anythin' he lef' behind, now, would yeh?"

The elf opened its wrinkly mouth in a grimace, but stopped in mid-thought. "Something for a scent...there might be something. Not anything he owned, all his tainted rubbish was thrown away along with him, but if something he used would be sufficient?" It glanced up at Hagrid with a sly, malicious smile. "Wait here, bounty hunter." It slipped back through the front door, reappearing a few minutes later with a delicate silver comb clutched in its blue-veined hand.

"Mistress used this to comb the brat's hair when he was little. It was too beautiful to throw away, too beautiful; it can't help that it was used on his nasty head." The elf stuffed the comb through the crack to Hagrid. "Good riddance to it, if it helps you put an end to him," said the elf with an ugly smirk, and closed the door abruptly.

Hagrid took a good look at the comb. The teeth were thin and close together, obviously made for a baby's fine hair, but the spine of the comb was fashioned like an actual spine; the teeth were supposed to represent ribs hanging from the backbones. Now that's just wrong, he thought, but slipped the comb into his pocket with a relieved sigh. He permitted himself a wide grin as he returned to his thestral. He'd managed to get exactly what he needed from the elf, without an ugly scene. It was a stroke of pure luck that the creature had made assumptions on its own; if Hagrid had been forced to lie, he would probably be feeling the pureblood wrath of Lady Black by now.

Hagrid urged the thestral to Diagon Alley, but they were too late. The stars were slowly winking out overhead as the earliest rays of the sun illuminated the highest atmosphere, and the Fireflies could not show their faces in sunlight. Hagrid wished he had simply come to London first, but Dumbledore had told him to try Bristol...ah, well, no point in looking back, he was here now and could only go forward. He took the thestral around the back of the Leaky Cauldron and put it in one of the few livery stalls that the tavern still maintained, then ordered both of them a hearty luncheon to be served in their respective quarters. Adding a handful of hot peppers to his lunch menu as an afterthought, Hagrid finally climbed wearily to his room, yanked the mattress from the too-small bed to the floor, and collapsed upon it in exhaustion.

Hagrid awoke when the delicious scent of potatoes and cutlets pried its way through his dreams. He felt quite muzzy-headed, but gladly opened the door for old Tom the innkeeper bearing his lunch tray. He set aside the peppers for the Fireflies, and ceased devouring his lunch only long enough to assure Tom's stablehand that yes, there really was an animal in the third stall, just leave him the food and don't even think of skiving off a bite for yourself.

Hagrid next checked on the thestral, planning to take a cautious stroll down Diagon Alley and see if any news of the Potters had reached the general Wizarding public. He was quite stunned to find that not only had the story spread, it had acquired details that Dumbledore had never mentioned: that Voldemort himself had attacked the Potters and been killed, and that little Harry had survived. Hagrid began to wonder if he'd been talking in his sleep--how had all these people learned about Harry? He was afraid to stop and press anyone for details; he'd been told to keep quiet and he knew painfully well that he would spill the beans if he engaged anyone in conversation.

Not that it would have mattered, really, he thought to himself; everyone in the Alley seemed to know the whole story--up until the moment he and Sirius Black had entered the scene. He overheard two Ministry employees at a tea shop discussing how Lily and James were found in the destroyed house (though they had many little details incorrect), but no mention of the missing body that had been dragged off. It slowly dawned on Hagrid that the body must have been Voldemort's, a thought which threatened to bring his fine lunch back to the surface. Perhaps he's not dead at all! he thought, although everyone seemed so certain. But without a body, what proof was there?

On top of that, they were all raving about Harry's survival of the attack, yet no one mentioned Black or claimed to have seen Baby Harry at all. Hagrid grew more and more uneasy as the afternoon passed. How could they just swallow all this hogwash about You-Know-Who being killed when there wasn't a scrap of proof of it? Not to mention the part about Harry surviving, even though that was true--but whoever had started that rumor couldn't have known it was true...

...unless they'd been there in Godric's Hollow to watch all of the events unfold.

Hagrid suddenly felt as though a giant glowing target was affixed to his forehead. He scurried back up the Alley and into his room as quickly and discretely as a half-Giant could. He spent the rest of his day with the doors and shutters locked, his back pressed tightly into the corner of the room and his pink umbrella balanced at the ready on his knee.

The sun set around 4:30 and he waited another hour to let the Fireflies out of his handkerchief. They were glowing intensely orange and had not even finished their first peppers; McGonagall had truly outdone herself this time. Hagrid let them fly free in the room for a few moments to get their bearings, then set down to business.

He trimmed down the wick of the oil lamp on the nightstand until only a tiny blue wisp of flame remained, then removed the glass chimney. The Fireflies immediately came over and buzzed about the fire in concern; they instinctively tended any dimming flame as though it were a fallen comrade. Hagrid next pulled out the comb and waved it slowly about the wick, brushing it gently against the insects when they flew near until he was certain it had touched each of them at least once. Holding the comb very near the lamp, Hagrid suddenly raised the wick, restoring the flame to a warm yellow glow. The Fireflies hummed triumphantly, landed on the comb, and began to polish it lovingly with their front legs. Though their bottoms were bright, their heads were not particularly so; they assumed that the comb had rescued the flame and considered it a friend for life.

Now that Hagrid had their attention, he carefully submerged the comb in a tall glass of water (making sure he did not dampen the Fireflies in the process). The water would block it completely from their senses and they would soon become frantic, wondering where their new ally had gone. Hagrid raised the sash of the window just an inch, then cautiously crept downstairs to the stable and led out the thestral. The two of them watched carefully until the three Fireflies emerged from the window, circling one another in a luminous braid as they searched for the comb.

Now was the tricky part. Hagrid reckoned they would fly first to Grimmauld Place, and he was correct. A waste of time, but it couldn't be helped; they were very good at finding their "loved ones," but only because they were so utterly methodical in their search methods. Fortunately, they would recognize very quickly that Lady Black was irrevocably not the beloved comb they were seeking, and would immediately take it upon themselves to sniff out Sirius. Hagrid could only hope that no one else had used the comb, or that the Fireflies wouldn't waste the whole night exploring Hogwarts or Godric's Hollow or any other place Sirius had ever been.

The Fireflies bonked their hard little heads a dozen times on the glass panes of Lady Black's bedroom until that same house-elf opened it and pointed some sort of atomizer at them. They zipped away to a respectable distance and hovered, weaving around each other in an apparent intense discussion. The elf soon began to nod, undoubtedly realizing who they were looking for, and did not spray them with his atomizer. "You won't find what you want here," it rumbled softly to the Flies, who slowed their intricate dance. The elf cackled nastily and called, slightly louder, "Good hunting," then silently closed the window.

The Fireflies apparently understood the house-elf, for they immediately pulled into a close formation and headed off in a new direction. Hagrid knew they'd already begun to work at one of the other scents on the comb, hopefully that of Sirius Black. The thestral followed them without any urging, apparently enjoying the prospect of a scenic flight on a nice evening like this.

It took them over an hour to reach the house in Bristol, but Hagrid was relieved. He knew the Flies were certainly trailing the right person, and would now get a much stronger whiff of Black's scent or magnetism or whatever it was they followed. It was now only a matter of catching up to Black; if he hadn't left the country, Hagrid should make it to Privet Drive in time.

The Fireflies resumed their tight formation and began racing to the northwest. With a good solid scent to guide them, they traveled at considerable speed--the Muggles below would believe them a shooting star. To the thestral, however, this was barely a canter, and it kept pace with them easily. After nearly another hour, Hagrid began to wonder if they were heading for Ireland, but the Fireflies presently descended over Gwynedd in Wales. That made sense; the homeland of Taliesin the Bard was packed with sorcerors, perhaps even outnumbering the Muggles. Hagrid knew the story of Taliesin by heart; the Bard's mother had been a witch and his father (well, stepfather, to be more precise) a giant.

There was not a light to be seen where the Fireflies were heading. They soon reached the treetops of a dense forest, which proved a bit of a challenge for the larger travelers. Once again Hagrid silently thanked McGonagall for her excellent Transfiguration; her peppers had turned the Fireflies' bottoms into miniature lighthouses, enabling him to spot them even after he and his mount had struggled to the ground through the boughs.

There was Black, sitting beside his motorbike in a small clearing with his back against a giant stump, and the little bundle that must be Harry in his arms. The Fireflies had already landed on Black's arm and were presumably cuddling him affectionately, but he made no effort to brush them away. Hagrid realized that Black was asleep. The young man looked terrible, with streaks of tears traced all through the dust and grime on his face. Even though Hagrid was careful to make no sound, Black started awake as Hagrid approached, already raising his wand.

"All right there, Black? It's jus' me, Hagrid."

"How did--oh." Black's wand was pointing directly at him, but the young man was looking at the Fireflies on his forearm. "Are you alone?" Black asked in a slightly less belligerent tone.

"Jus' me, an' me thestral," Hagrid announced cautiously. "Mind if I come over to yeh?"

Black nodded, dropping his defensive posture; even from a distance Hagrid could see he was exhausted and pale. Hagrid came up and sat beside him, immediately fumbling through his pockets for something to eat. He turned up a nice dinner roll from the Halloween feast, but Black waved it away with a grimace.

"No, thanks, Hagrid, I have food, I just can't eat yet. I'm too sick about what's happened." He kissed little Harry's forehead as the tot began to stir from all the chattering.

"We're all sick about it," agreed Hagrid. "Though there's a lot o' rumors goin' roun' about what happened back in the Hollow."

"I know what happened," said Sirius Black dully, but he did not elaborate.

Hagrid debated whether to press him for details, but he had one assignment from Dumbledore: to retrieve the baby. It was getting late, and he didn't want to disappoint the Headmaster by showing up late for the meeting. He decided to try a direct approach.

"Listen, Black, Dumbledore's asked me ter come an' fetch little Harry there, an' I have to say, yeh don't look like you're up to carin' for him at the mo'."

Black closed his eyes tightly and pressed his mouth against Harry's fuzzy head. He was clearly in agony; tears began to spill down his cheeks. His voice was still dull when he spoke, however, as though he had already cried so much that his throat had no remaining capacity for grief. "I don't want to let him go, Hagrid. He needs me. I'm the only one in the world who knows him."

"Yer a mess, Black," said Hagrid gently. "Yeh look like yeh got one foot in the grave an' the other on a banana peel. You know Dumbledore'll take good care of the lad. Don't yeh think he's better off safe in the castle than out here alone in the woods wi' you? Let me take him back to the Headmaster, put 'im down in a nice, cozy bed tonight. We'll figure out what ter do with him tomorrow. Or the next day. If what they're sayin' is true, he's not gonna want for nothin'."

Black continued to nuzzle Harry's head for some time, but his face gradually relaxed. "I don't want to give him up, Hagrid," he finally said. "But you're right. There's something I need to take care of, and little Harry can't go with me." He paused briefly, then continued in a firmer tone. "Did you say you came here on a thestral?"

"I did," said Hagrid. "He's over there...ah, no he's not, hang on." Hagrid leapt to his feet; he hadn't tethered the beast this time, and it was already sneaking off. "Get back here, you!" He stomped into the brush and caught the errant thestral by the tail. "Shame on yeh, tryin' ter run off. After all the nice food I give yeh, an' let yeh see the sights..." The beast lowered its head and tail meekly and trotted after Hagrid, a guilty look in its hollow white eyes.

Black almost managed a smile as Hagrid led the beast into the clearing. He stood up awkwardly, trying not to jostle the baby. "Give me the lead, Hagrid, I could use a ride that's fast and silent. You take my motorbike and bring Harry to Dumbledore. Harry likes it, the sound seems to soothe him a little." Black stopped, looking down at the baby stirring in his arms. "I'll come find you as soon as I can, sproggie," he said in a shaking voice, then handed Harry off to Hagrid.

"He'll be okay," said Hagrid, a little shakily himself. "I'll see to him an' then I'll bring yer bike back to yer place in Bristol."

Black shook his head grimly; his face had transformed into a mask of hard determination. "Keep it. I won't be needing it anymore." Black bent forward to kiss Harry's forehead one last time, then raised his wand and performed an enlargement charm on the motorbike so it would fit Hagrid. He turned his back, leapt gracefully onto the thestral, and launched into the starlit sky without another word.

Hagrid had never ridden a motorbike, but he was always game to try something new. It was a bit awkward, settling onto the machine and figuring out the levers and knobs with the baby in his hand, particularly since the child decided it was a fine time to wake up and experiment with pulling on Hagrid's beard. Hagrid quickly handed Harry the dinner roll, which produced the desired effect; the tot began to gnaw it cheerfully, filling the beard with soggy crumbs. It kept him from squirming too much, and Hagrid was able to suss out the keys, throttle, and brakes until he felt ready to ride the chopper. He stuffed the now sticky baby into his shirt as Sirius had done the night before, leaving Harry's head poking out through his beard, started the motorbike, and took to the air. Little Harry kept gnawing on the roll as though he didn't have a care in the world.

Chapter 15: Chapter 15: Mysteries Afloat
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Harry didn't interrupt Hagrid as he poured out his tale of the Halloween night when the Potters were killed, though Ron asked occasional questions. Harry simply remained slumped in the chair, gazing off blankly as though he weren't listening at all, or even capable of listening for that matter. About midway through the story, Harry finally developed the motivation to sit up more comfortably; as Hagrid had surmised, he simply wasn't concerned about anything as mundane as a wry neck prior to that.

"I heard the Muggles comin' closer, so I had to leave yer poor mum an' get back out to Sirius. I tol' him yeh'd be better off in a cozy bed in the castle, an' we could settle out the details later,'cause I din't know at the time that Dumbledore was givin' yeh to the Dursleys an' all. Sirius jus' kept huggin' yeh and sayin', 'Yer right, but I don' wanna give him up, I'm all he's got now,' along them lines. An' he said he had to take care of summat and did I, did I...did I want ter take the motorbike to bring yeh back to Hogwarts. He said he din't need it anymore." Hagrid scowled and scratched his head. "There was another thing but I can't think of it at the the mo." He jumped with a shiver. "Scuse me, Harry, I think someone jus' stepped over me grave."

Harry's eyes were still blank, but his voice contained a hint of his usual demeanor. "Keep going, Hagrid, please."

Hagrid frowned again as he collected his thoughts. "Well, that was mostly it, I reckon. Sirius gave yer little head a big kiss g'bye an' did a charm on the bike so's it'd fit me, an' he took off. I spent a few seconds figurin' out how to start an' stop the bloody thing, then I buzzed off to Privet Drive an' handed yeh to Dumbledore."

Ron began to fidget in his seat uncomfortably. He glanced between Harry and Hagrid. Ron knew very well that this story did not agree with the reports from the Gamidges or Uther. Yet Ron also knew that Hagrid was an inept liar, and he was not showing any of his usual giveaways when he fibbed. Either Hagrid believed this story, or within the last half hour he'd developed a talent for deception that had eluded him all his life.

Harry said nothing for some time, just stared blankly at Hagrid. Ron wondered what he might be thinking. It was rather like a picture he'd seen once, in a Muggle book in his Dad's old office: a black and white image of a fancy candlestick, but if you stared at it long enough, it suddenly became a white-and-black image of two faces (knowing that Muggle pictures didn't move, that effect had impressed Ron greatly). One minute Harry looked as though he would shout at Hagrid in rage, then he would suddenly appear deeply hurt, or on the verge of cynical laughter--all the while never moving a muscle. Ron began to hope Harry would just snap out of the trance and get the confrontation over and done.

"You're certain it happened as you said, Hagrid?" Harry finally said quietly.

"Tha's all I can remember, Harry. It was a long time ago, an' for years I thought Sirius was a traitor; did me bes' teh forget parts of it. Thought all his tears an' kisses for yeh were a big act, that sort o' thing." Hagrid settled back in his chair and took a relaxed draught of his tea.

"When you carried me out," Harry said slowly, "was my scar on my head?"

Hagrid glanced up in confusion. "Well, in a manner o' speakin--it was a wound still, yeh'd just got it, after all."

"A wound," said Harry. "Was it bleeding?"

"O' course. It was on yer head, after all; head wounds tend ter bleed pretty heavy."

"Yes," agreed Harry. "Think hard, Hagrid. When Sirius kissed me goodbye, did he get any blood on his face?"

Hagrid frowned hard, clearly put off by the very concept. "Not as I remember," he said, eyeing Harry quizzically.

"And when you handed me to Dumbledore, was there still blood on my head?"

Hagrid's jaw dropped, quickly followed by his shoulders; he began to shift his weight in the chair as though the seat had suddenly sprouted thorns. "I...I don't really...I don't think so, Harry. No. It was already dry. Scabbed over." Hagrid passed the point of squirming and jumped up from his chair to pace. "It was dry an' all washed off, even yer little face was all wiped clean. But I didn't...I don't remember tidyin', Sirius musta done it, he musta cleaned you up an' did some sort of healing charm..." Hagrid's voice drained away; Sirius might have had the presence of mind to try Healing the baby, but he was in no state to bother washing Harry's face.

"Did you speak to Professor McGonagall that night, Hagrid?" asked Harry.

"Did I?" Hagrid croaked. Fuzzy slippers and the scent of cucumber salad flashed through his mind, but it seemed to be part of another memory, unrelated...or was it? "Did I?" he asked again.

"We've all heard the story," said Ron. "McGonagall spent a whole day spying outside the Dursleys' house, Transfigured as a cat. She's always said that you told her you'd be meeting Dumbledore on Privet Drive at midnight."

Hagrid began to twist strands of his beard between fingers and thumb of both hands. "Well, now, tha's just impossible, innit, Ron? Harry? I din' know meself about the meetin' till Dumbledore sent me ter the Hollow, an' I came right from there Privet Drive." He sat down suddenly, burying his face in his hands and rubbing his forehead firmly. "I went straight ter Privet Drive on the motorbike, an' the both of them were there, Dumbledore an' McGonagall, an' she even mentioned she'd spent the whole day there as a cat..." Hagrid dropped his hands to his lap, turning pale and wide eyed. "But she couldn'tve, could she? Because none of us ever heard about Privet Drive 'til late tha' night, after the attack. Besides, she was at the Halloween Feast, the elves told me, they'd fixed her the special pumpkin tarts she likes an' I fed the leftovers to the unicorns just before I went ter Dumbledore's office."

"You said you met Dumbledore at the main doors of the castle," said Ron gently.

"I did!" blustered Hagrid, growing agitated. "I met him in the blasted rain on the steps...but I also went to Didn't I?"

"Come here to me, Hagrid," said Harry, with such command that it turned Ron's blood to ice water. Hagrid looked frightened, but he shuffled haltingly to Harry, who motioned him to sit on the floor.

"I think you believe what you have said, Hagrid," said Harry, finally focusing his gaze on the bearded, anxious face of the half-giant. "But I also think your memory has been compromised. I would know the truth, Hagrid. Forgive me for this." Without another word, Harry set his hand upon Hagrid's forehead and deliberately stepped into his mind.

Harry had seen a modified memory before, in Dumbledore's Penseive. Slughorn's reconfiguration of his talk with Tom Riddle about Horcruxes had been carelessly done, with an obvious substitution spliced over the part he wanted to hide. But whoever had altered Hagrid's memory had created a masterpiece. It was meticulous and detailed enough for Hagrid himself to mistake it for the truth for sixteen years. But although it had been done with exquisite attention to detail, it wasn't flawless, and despite Harry's rather limited experience as a Legilimagus, he knew this memory wasn't the genuine article.

Harry rolled through the events over and over, seeing points of discontinuity. Sirius's face went from clean to dirty to clean again. The background subtly changed from the pile of industrial rubble to what appeared to be a tree trunk. Sirius had disappeared abruptly, but there had been no crack of Apparation, no broom, no Portkey, no transformation into a mastiff, no footsteps. Like Everett Gamidge and the Ministry automobile, Hagrid might not be able to recall little details like the sound of steps or Apparating, but they would still be there in the province of weaker dendrites, a background detail too insignificant to drag into consciousness. However Sirius had departed, it had been clipped from Hagrid's memory with surgical precision.

Harry moved beyond the meeting on Privet Drive to the next day, and the next. His parents had been killed on a Monday night. Hagrid's imprint of the following days were dim, but present: he had returned to Hogwarts right after dropping off Baby Harry, and woke up tired but ready to work on Wednesday morning. There was no indication that Tuesday ever happened.

Harry had no idea how to break past the alteration, or if it were even possible. He was certain now that it was no fault of Hagrid's that his recollections of that time did not agree with eyewitness accounts. What Harry did not know was exactly whom had modified Hagrid's memory, what had happened during those missing twenty-four hours, or why any of this was done in the first place.

For the first time, Harry felt completely in control of his presence in another mind. He chose to pursue this one line of inquiry, and chose to step out without delving into any other train of thought. Which proved to be an excellent decision, as Ron was frantically attempting to break his connection to Hagrid, covering Harry's eyes with one hand and shaking his shoulders violently with the other.

"Please stop that, Ron," croaked Harry. His voice sounded so warped it startled Harry himself, despite a whole new layer of chilling calm enveloping him.

"Blimey, Harry!" roared Ron. "I thought you were at death's door, mate!" Harry could still see his friend's wild eyes, but once again slipped deep into the strange waking coma and could not answer. By then Hagrid had recovered his senses and put a somewhat shaky hand on Ron's shoulder.

"It's over now, Ron, he's done. It's okay," said Hagrid. "It's just as well, now yeh've seen him go gray like that, you'll be ready for it nex' time." Hagrid patted Ron and slumped back against the leg of the table wearily.

Harry heard the words and agreed completely, but he felt so light and unencumbered that he didn't even try to speak.

Harry woke up in his four-poster before the break of dawn. He remembered it all: the farce of Hagrid attempting to put on the Invisibility Cloak and Ron's comment about being half the giant he used to be; the way they rolled him up, unresisting, in his cloak like a burrito; Hagrid practicing for twenty minutes, walking with Harry draped along his arm so that he would not appear to be holding anything; Ron tirelessly coaching him to say the line, "Just havin' a meetin' with one of my prefects, Mr. Filch." They'd pulled it off, even though Hagrid had slipped up and said "two of my prefects" when Filch inspected him, but apparently Hagrid's new status as a Head of House afforded even more leniency in Filch's eye. Ron had used the Levicorpus spell to haul Harry through Gryffindor tower after they made it to the Fat Lady. Aside from Hermione getting ruffled about their absence from her Charms homework session, the whole evening went off without a hitch.

He'd focused himself enough to thank Ron for bringing him upstairs, then fell into a dreamless sleep. It was restful and refreshing, but unfortunately it took place about three hours before his normal bedtime. Hence Harry woke up far too early, with no desire to doze. Naturally, his thoughts turned immediately to Quidditch.

Fawkes warbled softly as Harry took up his Firebolt, but didn't seem interested in accompanying him for a flight. Probably wants to sleep some more, Harry thought with a chuckle, and sure enough, as he softly pulled the dormitory door shut behind him, he glanced back to catch the end of a wide-beaked yawn.

He saw no one else, not even Mrs. Norris, as he slipped silently through the castle. Harry hopped on his broom as soon as he escaped through the oak front doors, gliding casually down to the pitch. Stopping at the dressing rooms to don his practice robes, he took a handful of Snitches from the captains' locker and set out to greet the sunrise with a few rounds of none-on-one.

The practice Snitches were, by definition, in too poor condition to use in matches, having become mangled over time in various irreparable ways. One had pretty much lost all its usefulness after losing half a wing; ironically, that had happened after a practice when two Bludgers, frantic to avoid being confined in their box, suddenly smashed themselves together on the fingers of the person carrying them (everyone knew it was a mistake to handle both Bludgers at once, but people tried to save time every now and then). McClaggen had also been carrying the Snitch at the time, and the little thing was crushed in mid-flap. When he attempted to straighten the wing, it had simply snapped off along the crease, prompting Madam Hooch to lecture the entire team on the relative costs of Snitches, Bludgers, and finger splints. At any rate, the practice Snitches could still get around the field, more or less, and Harry really just wanted an excuse to fly.

The sun crept rather quickly over the horizon, turning to gold the tops of the castle towers, then slowly descending to reflect from the many windows. Owls swooped past Harry on their way to roost after a night's hunting; Harry had to chase one down after it snapped up a Snitch in its talons, undoubtedly mistaking it for a potential bedtime snack. It was not eager to part with its prize, and a number of other owls regarded Harry's rescue mission with great disapproval. Fortunately, the broken Snitch put up its own fight, scraping the owl's toes with its broken wing. The owl finally gave up, dropping the Snitch with an outraged screech. Harry reckoned he'd bring something up to the Owlery from breakfast, just for the sake of keeping the peace.

Chasing five different Snitches was a pleasant exercise in concentration and speed, and the otherwise empty airspace was an ideal environment in which to do it. Harry was thoroughly enjoying himself when the silence was shattered by an unidentifiable squawking from one of the grandstands around the pitch. At first he thought it was a great row among rival gangs of crows, but the sounds were a bit too prosaic for mere cawing. Harry swooped over the top of the bleachers to investigate the source of the sounds, with a most unexpected result.

"What the Sam Hill is this thing?" Ondossi had switched from her glottal native tongue to English as soon as she saw Harry, but she did not adjust the volume at all; her question came as a shriek. She was sprawled awkwardly on a plywood platform about a meter below a net hammock, which was swinging rather wildly over her head. With one hand gripping the edge of the platform, she was frantically swatting at the broken Snitch, which dodged in and out of her reach with obvious cheerful sportsmanship. Harry laughed so hard he was forced to land on the platform to catch his breath.

"Gee, thanks, pal," she groused at Harry, still attempting to smack the Snitch as though it were a pesky fly. "Did you sic this thing on me?"

"No, I swear, it wasn't me. Although I wish I'd arranged for you to meet it sooner, that was the funniest thing I've seen all week!"

She turned her attention from the Snitch to point an accusing finger at him. "If this develops into a regular occurrence, bucko, you are hosed. Got it?"

"Is that good or bad?" Harry asked, unable to keep a straight face. He leapt effortlessly back onto his Firebolt and captured the offending Snitch, dangling it by the unbroken wing so Tura could take a close look. She peered at it intensely.

"Is that a machine of some kind?" she finally asked.

"Let me guess. You've never heard of Quidditch," said Harry, shaking his head.

Ondossi furrowed her brow. "I have too. That's that game, isn't it?"

Harry closed his eyes and sighed. "It's a sport."

"Whatever. You're supposed to hit that thing with a bat, right? Through a hoop?" Harry winced. This was worse than a nightmare. Well, it looked like Hermione would finally have someone equally disinterested to talk to during matches.

"Not exactly," Harry muttered.

She reared backward as the Snitch attempted to flutter toward her; it had not received much attention since its injury, and it clearly considered her attempts to clobber it as a positive gesture. "I think it likes you," said Harry playfully, holding it at arms' length toward her. She glared at him suspiciously, but stopped cringing and leaned her head over the platform for a closer look. She finally reached out to pat the broken wing, leaping back with a shudder when the Snitch flapped energetically.

"Yuck," she said. "It feels like a big bug."

"I can tell we won't be debating the finer points of Quidditch any time soon," grumbled Harry. "Uh, Tura? What in the name of Merlin are you doing up in the rafters of the Quidditch bleachers? And is that a sack you're wearing?" Now that the hysteria of the Great Snitch Attack had worn off, Harry realized there was a whole new level of absurdity to explore.

"Don't be dissin' the sack," she said, again leaving Harry amazed by her ability to speak his native tongue in ways that meant absolutely nothing to him. "It happens to be very comfy. I got it from a big cargo vessel down in Anchorage. It came all the way from Colombia! Here, sniff." She crunched up some of the fabric at her shoulder and waved him over. "It used to have coffee beans in it. Go to bed and smell the coffee!" She giggled.

It definitely smelled like coffee. "Yeah, that's nice," said Harry politely. "But why are you wearing it--up here in the rafters?"

"Hey, hotshot, this happens to be my bedroom." She sat back, patting the platform and waving in invitation for him to land again. "Grawpy built it for me! It's a bit, um, high up, but Hagrid thought I shouldn't sleep too close to the ground outside."

"Right," said Harry, taking a seat on the plywood. "But why are you sleeping outside in the first place?"

"Geez Louise, Harry. I can't stay in the castle with the dream broadcasting going on. People will hate me! It wasn't so bad on the tundra, the dreams just kinda soaked into the Earth."

"My nightmares don't wake everybody else up," noted Harry.

"Well aren't you clever?" she snapped. "Maybe they will in a few years--it's fairly common among Legilimagi. I can usually keep it under control, but since I came here, they've been breaking through."

"Because of the stones?" asked Harry.

Her face wrinkled up with dismay, and she pulled her knees up inside her coffee sack. "No," she said, then looked up at him with great sorrow. "I'm just falling apart, I think." She began to hunt around on the platform, finally taking up a strip of black cloth and tying it around her eyes. "Sorry, the sun's too bright already," she said, though Harry suspected she was crying behind the blindfold.

"Tura." Harry had no idea what to say, but unless Grawp came by, he was definitely on his own under the circumstances. "Do you miss Northpole?" he finally stammered.

"No. Well, yes, I do, but that's not it. I just never imagined how hard this would be. To be around so many people all the time. To have to talk all day, answer questions. I'm so tired all the time--and it's only the first week! It's not the Occlumency," she added, as though guessing his next question. "I can do that in my sleep. Literally. But I'm not cut out to be a teacher, Harry."

Harry frowned. "You're doing quite well, Tura. Lots of people say they like your class."

She shrugged. "I just copied the style of a teacher in Northpole that everybody liked. It seems to work. But it takes a lot out of me--I'm not like that, Harry! I don't talk to people! I avoid people! I feel like I can barely drag myself up that pole for bed after classes." She paused a moment as the absurdity of that statement sank in; she and Harry both chuckled. "I haven't given you any lessons either, Harry," she continued dolefully, "and that's more important than all this DADA doo-doo."

"Yeah, well, I was beginning to wonder...but Tura, the Defense lessons are important. Look at Elias--he doesn't know the first thing about defense. People need to learn how to challenge Voldemort--"

"Challenge him?" Tura spat, cutting Harry off. "No one can challenge him but you, Harry. You know that!" Though her eyes were hidden behind the black band, she turned toward him and he could feel her angry glare. "All these people have one defense, Harry, one: YOU. All the rest is just duct tape and bailing wire. All the time I'm wasting showing them how to save themselves from dementors--that's all time I could have spent getting you ready to face the Dark Lord." She erupted once more into her native tongue, in what Harry could only guess was an angry invective. It ended with a sudden burst of tears.

Shaking his head at Ondossi's ability to switch moods faster than Vernon Dursley could change the television channels with his remote controller, Harry patted her back uncertainly until she settled down again. Two large wet crescents stained her blindfold when she turned her head toward him again.

"Harry, you have to understand, I've been waiting years for you to confront him. Everyone has--at least everyone who knew about the Prophecy, that is. Every year, every hour, every minute of delay is precious time wasted. Lives lost, pain, suffering, all that...just so I can teach Elias Ravenclaw how to stop a dementor that might never come for him at all. Or worse, for you to skate around on your broom catching mechanical bugs."

Harry's stomach lurched most uncomfortably. Tura abruptly stopped speaking, then lowered her head.

"I'm sorry, Harry. That was totally unfair--you're still a kid, for Pete's sake. You know, in America, wizards don't even come of age until eighteen. It's an outrage--you didn't do anything to put Lord Voldemort in power, and yet everyone's impatient for you to come along and clean up the mess. Including me. I told Dumbledore two years ago that I'd make you my apprentice, you know. During your fifth year at Hogwarts, when he began to suspect you were a Legilimagus. I told him to send you to me and let me hone you into a weapon. I even said I'd go to Hogwarts if you didn't want to leave. He said, 'No way, Jose.' I nearly had a cow. I even went over his head and talked to your guardian."

Harry sat up straight. "You met Sirius?"

"Ugh. Not really. What a fiasco. I had to find out who he was, then find him, in his Unplottable house with the Fidelius charm. It was worse than tracking a lowbush moose in a blizzard. Then I finally get the address, buy the Floo powder, borrow a fireplace since my woodstove is too small to put my head in. After all that, wouldn't you know, he'd apparently just talked to you in the Floo and was on a rampage."

Harry's stomach sank, recalling that rushed conversation with Sirius and Lupin in Dolores Umbridge's office. Harry had already known that Sirius was livid afterward--he had threatened to come up to Hogwarts right then and give Snape a piece of his mind. "I remember that day. Sirius was quite upset. But he would have wanted you to teach me--he was angry because he'd just found out former Occlumency teacher had stopped the lessons."

"Yeah, he mentioned that. Loudly. He thought it was a little too coincidental that five minutes later I was there, offering to teach you. He seemed to think I was the Dark Lord's secretary or something."

Harry pictured Sirius turning back to the Floo with Lupin practically restraining him, to find an unknown witch with a strange accent asking about Occlumency. It wasn't a pretty sight. "I see what you mean. You're probably lucky he didn't try to pull you through."

"I think he would have if there hadn't been an entire planet between us," Tura agreed. "So that was it for Black, but Remus Lupin was there too, and he was a little more reasonable. He let me explain who I was and what I wanted. But I also mentioned that I wanted to get you ready to face Lord Voldemort, and that was the end of that."

"Remus turned you down?" said Harry skeptically. "Without even asking Sirius, or me?" That didn't seem like something Lupin would do.

Tura sighed. "That's my point. He said you had just Flooed because of some teen angst issue and before you went off to get killed, he'd like you to have a shot at growing up first."

She gave Harry a wan smile, then continued. "Well, he didn't say it quite like that. But that was what Dumbledore was trying to tell me, and I finally got it: that the world could take care of itself for a while before demanding that you step up and save it. So I crawled back under my rock and waited. As it should be."

Harry rolled that idea around in his mind for a while. "No. I think you were right in the first place, Tura. People have died because I've been out playing Quidditch and dancing at weddings--"

"NO!" she shouted, cutting him off again. "People have died because Lord Voldemort is a monster, not because you need time to grow up just like everybody else. Your real magic is just now developing, Harry. Rushing it would've been a grave mistake. Rushing it now would be a mistake! Maybe it's just as well that you had a week off; it probably gave you a chance to grow into what you've learned."

Harry pursed his lips. "I did make some progress this week." He described both readings with Ron, and how he'd read Hagrid. Ondossi's brows poked up over the blindfold at the latter.

"Wow. Hagrid's like an Occlumens with me. You didn't have any trouble?" she asked.

Harry shrugged, then remembered rather sheepishly that she couldn't see. "No, it was just like anyone else. But I found out his memory has been modified. I rather hoped you might know a way to get around that, actually."

Now her forehead wrinkled into a scowl above the blindfold. "Really? Giants tend to resist magical influences like that. It must have been somebody good. Hmph." She began tapping her fingers on the platform and chewing on the inside of her lip. Harry smiled; her concern for Hagrid was rather touching. With the two of them looking after one another, they ought to be the safest people on Earth.

"Let's go have a word with Mr. Hagrid after breakfast," she said, still drumming her fingers uneasily. She stood up and began walking toward a thick vertical beam, but as she was still blindfolded, Harry's feet and palms suddenly tingled in consternation.

"Eh, uh, Tura," he sputtered, leaping to his feet, "no offense, but you're going to break your neck going down that pole in your blindfold. Come here, we'll take the easy way." Harry steered her by the shoulders to the open side of the platform, then picked up his Firebolt. He wasn't quite sure how to put a second rider on it; this was a sports broom, designed for performance, not passengers. If he put her in front, it would be rather difficult to hold the handle, yet if she was behind him, she could conceivably fall off--with that blindfold on, she wouldn't be able to anticpate any bumps or swerves. Well, it wasn't like this was a speed trial; all he wanted to do was ferry her up to the castle. He would just have to take it slow.

"Very good, then, come up behind me," he instructed, stepping between her and the edge of the platform and carefully manuvering the broomstick between her feet. He was a bit worried about tripping her, but as always, the Firebolt wriggled efficiently into the proper position. Harry legged over the broomstick, relying on it to hover as he reached behind and put Ondossi's hands around his waist. "Hold on tight now!" He kicked off from the platform rather sluggishly, not certain how the unusual weight distribution would affect the broom's performance. Harry was marveling at the fact that the Firebolt flew almost as smoothly with two as it did with him alone, when Ondossi suddenly squeezed him so hard his vision dimmed for an instant.

"What are you doing?" she howled, which was exactly what Harry intended to ask her as soon as he could inflate his lungs again. "Are we flying? Put me down! Put me down! Down! Down!" Harry had to let go of the broomstick to pry her hands from the death-grip on his abdomen. That only made her shriek louder, and despite her insistence upon descending, she launched herself up toward his shoulders, as though putting as much cushion between herself and the ground as possible. Fortunately, his Firebolt saved him again; it glided over the grounds toward the castle at a gentle angle of its own accord, leaving him free to grapple with the squalling lunatic attempting to climb onto his head.

The broomstick alighted gracefully at the foot of the stone steps, but the same could not be said for Harry and his reluctant passenger. Once Harry's feet touched the ground, the levitation spells on the Firebolt released them, and suddenly Harry's right shoulder was bearing her full weight. Amazingly, she landed on her feet, more or less, while he was knocked flat onto the lawn. Harry opted to just lay there a moment, breathing in the moist, rich scent of grass and soil that smelled nothing like coffee. He felt as though he'd just tried to stuff a giant octopus into a tin can.

Ondossi was breathing hard, but that was a hands-down improvement from the shrieking in his ear. She stood rock still for a moment as though confirming that she was, in fact, on terra firma once more. "We made it!" she finally bubbled. "I flew!!"

Harry groaned. That must have been her first broom ride; she was still breaking in her wand, for Merlin's sake. "Yes. Aren't you clever," he mumbled, still easing his lungs back into the space from which they were so rudely evicted.

"Harry?" she said in a childlike voice of hope and wonder. "Can we do that again?"

Chapter 16: Chapter 16: Untangling the Web
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There was little hope of an inconspicuous entrance after Ondossi caterwauled the entire length of the grounds, but fortunately the Great Hall had just opened for breakfast and only a few groggy faces had pressed against the windows for the spectacle. Hagrid's was among them, and Harry could hear his great booming laughter long before he threw open the oaken doors of the entrance hall.

To Harry's surprise, however, Ondossi was nowhere to be found. He had closed his eyes but a few seconds, groaning inwardly at the ribbing he knew was soon to come, and in that time she had simply vanished. Harry tapped his pocket reflexively for his Invisibility cloak, wondering if she might have nicked it, but it was there. He considered donning it himself, but he knew quite well that his entrance was expected, and the cloak was still a secret from the rest of the student body. Grunting in displeasure at Tura's mysterious, if timely, escape, Harry gritted his teeth and went inside to face the cheers and jeers.

Hagrid nearly plowed him over, rushing out the oak front doors just as Harry stepped in. "Alright, Harry!" he bellowed heartily, clapping Harry on the shoulder enthusiastically but delicately. "Tha' was the funnies' thing I've seen in ages. Dunno how yeh got her on it, she's scared to death of flying."

Harry smiled grimly and nodded, feeling it unnecessary to acknowledge that obvious fact. He grinned and waved to one and all who aimed a loud remark at him, regardless of the content; playing it cool seemed the best approach at this point. He plopped into a red chair at an empty table and promptly wolfed down an entire loaf of toast and jam. Hermione presently sauntered in, grinning smugly at him. "The view from the girls' dormitory is simply amazing," was, thankfully, all she said about it.

Ron, it turned out, had filled Hermione in about their meeting with Hagrid, and she was quite interested in tagging along. Harry intercepted Hagrid as the professor headed out of the Hall, and Hermione followed from her neighboring table, snatching a scone for the road. On the way to Hagrid's cabin, Harry explained his other encounter with Ondossi that morning, and that she might be able to recover Hagrid's original memory. Hagrid frowned. "Gee, Harry, whoever did it--erased the memory, that is--might'a had a bloody good reason for it, eh? 'Specially if it was as tough ter do as Tura says."

They had reached the cabin at that point and were immediately aware of a considerable commotion coming from inside. Fang seemed to be both barking and laughing. Hagrid threw open the door in alarm, but it was only Ondossi once again; she and Fang were rough-housing on the floor, each looking most entertained by the process. "Hi, Hagrid," she chirped, attempting to get Fang into a sort of half-nelson. Fang simply put his head under her belly and flipped her off her feet.

"Hey, now, easy aroun' the new furniture," said Hagrid, though his beetle-black eyes sparkled cheerfully.

Hagrid had to shove Fang outside to restore some peace in the cabin, and the mood sombered immediately as they sat down to discuss the issue again. "I'm sure there was an important reason," said Hermione, "but Hagrid, without knowing who did it, we can't know if it was a good reason or a bad reason." Hagrid's jaw fell at that comment; apparently it had not occurred to him that his memory might have been modified by someone with ill intent.

Ondossi chewed her lip again. "I don't like this, Hagrid. Someone took the truth from you and left a lie. And not on just any old thing--on one of the most significant events of this era. Even if it was for 'your own good,' as they say, it's your truth, your knowledge. I'd like to look for it." She gazed up at Hagrid, genuine concern in her empty black eyes.

"But yeh've always said yeh can't do yer Legilimency on me," said Hagrid almost plaintively.

"I can, Hagrid, it's just an effort. Besides, Harry and I will do this together. He sounds like he's ready for something new. Your mind will be the laboratory for our experiments," she added in a tone reminiscent of an old Muggle monster movie, most likely from a character named Igor.

Hagrid looked back and forth at the two of them several times. "Well, I suppose whatever happened, there's little sense in keepin' it hidden anymore. 'Specially if it might'a been the other side that hid it. All right," he said in grim resolution. "What'll I need to do, then?"

"Just sit there and look beautiful," Ondossi said with a wink, but then her smile disappeared. She put her elbow on the table and leaned on it a moment, rubbing her chin thoughtfully.

"Here's the deal," she said abruptly. "Memories can't be erased. Each one represents a change in the brain itself, in the structure of its cells. The only way to erase them is with tissue damage. But even that's not easy. Memories aren't just stuffed into one cell like sardines in a tin. They're made of connections, how one cell reacts with another with the touch of a particular dendrite. Thousands, maybe millions of cells each hold part of any given memory. Really important things like your name have an anchor in every single cell; the only way to erase them is to kill the entire brain.

"But memories can be ignored. That's also built in. Think of how many things happen to you in a day--every touch, every sound, everything you see, don't even notice most of them. You don't remember every footstep, but you know you've gone for a walk, that sort of thing. That's one way to hide a memory--to reclassify it as 'just one of those things,' too unimportant to bring to the surface." She turned to Hagrid. "Are you ready for this?"

Hagrid squared his shoulders. "Aw, it can't be all that bad," he said gamely.

"All right, well, open him up, Harry, and we'll see what we can find."

Harry nodded and motioned to Hagrid to come closer. He grinned encouragingly at Hagrid and set his hand gently on his friend's forehead.

Harry was able to head straight to the memory of interest without even having to get his bearings. He ran through it, wondering if Tura was keeping up with him. Harry became dimly aware of Tura knitting her fingers with his own on Hagrid's brow, but he had no sense of her presence in Hagrid's mind until her words formed.

"Show me the gaps." Harry called the memory forth slowly, spotting even more inconsistencies than the first time--for one thing, the baby (himself!) was wrapped in one blanket when he was pulled from the wreckage, and a completely different blanket when he was presented to Dumbledore. Unless Sirius had routinely kept a fleecy blanket with teddy bears on his chopper, there was no explanation for this change.

As Harry watched, the memory slowed of its own apparent accord, though he suspected Tura must be doing it. Hagrid glanced away from the baby wrapped in a yellow blanket, then it was blue with teddy bears the next time he looked.

The blanket seemed to grow, filling the entirety of Harry's vision as though it had been placed over his head, and yet not so, because it seemed to grow dimmer or thinner. It felt almost as though he was using Occlumency to push back out of Hagrid's consciousness, yet it seemed he was getting closer to the memory, if anything. Harry could feel Hagrid's forehead, Tura's fingers--he was slipping out of Legilimency, and yet the blanket was all he could see. He broke out in a cold sweat after a sudden rush of vertigo; the discrepancy between the vision of his mind's eye and the feelings from his nerves disoriented him. For a moment, Harry's knees became so wobbly he nearly had to break the link to steady himself.

Suddenly the blanket shrank away and Harry was gazing down at Sirius Black from Hagrid's height. He didn't know if they were in Godric's Hollow anymore, but they were certainly not at the site of his parents' home. Sirius had been crying and looked quite worn, but Harry could see the determination in his bearing. This was the man who would track down and confront Peter Pettigrew and be blamed for the Potters' murder, all within the next twenty-four hours. Harry had to fight the urge to call to him from the future, to warn Sirius of the extent of Wormtail's treachery, to save him from his inevitable fate.

"I don't want to give him up, Hagrid," said Sirius. "But you're right. There's something I need to take care of, and little Harry can't go with me." Don't do it, Sirius. It won't bring them back. Sirius looked up at Hagrid. "Did you say you came here on a thestral?"

A thestral? What thestral? Where are they? Harry thought. Tura seemed to recognize that this was only a fraction of the missing piece, as Sirius's face abruptly disappeared, replaced by the destruction in Godric's Hollow. Hagrid was speaking. "Maybe he oughter come with me, to Hogwarts. Dumbledore might--"

"I'LL take him!" said Sirius, glaring at Hagrid with such strength and defiance that the giant flinched. Harry thought that Sirius looked almost as powerful as Dumbledore at that moment; a fearsome wizard, no longer the boy Harry had seen in the Pensieve toying with Snape, not yet the emaciated shadow that would emerge years later from the horrors of Azkaban. "I'm his godfather. I'm all he has left. He's all I--" Sirius's throat constricted, apparently from grief, and he began stuffing the baby into his leather jacket.

Harry heard Tura again. "It's there now. Study if you wish. I'm leaving." Harry needed no further prompting.

Harry patted Hermione when he remembered how to raise his arm, to thank her for staying with him all afternoon in the cabin. He had no idea when Ondossi had left, and vaguely recalled Hagrid announcing he needed a long walk and departing some time earlier. He wasn't ready to speak for another hour, and by the time the numbness completely wore off, it was nearly dinner time.

Harry held off describing what he'd seen until he, Ron, and Hermione were gathered comfortably around the hearth in the common room. "It's almost worse, knowing Hagrid's full memory," he concluded miserably. "I mean, what did we learn? We already knew that Sirius carried me off on the motorcycle, Everett told us that!"

Hermione peered at him reproachfully. "Now, Harry, you can't get all unwound because Hagrid didn't have all the answers on a silver platter. You may not have learned everything, but you learned a lot. You learned that Sirius took you to Wales. You spent nearly twenty-four hours with him there. Now that you have a place to look, maybe someday you can snoop around a bit, like we did in the Hollow. Sirius must have picked Gwynedd for a reason; maybe there's still someone there that knows it."

Harry didn't find her comments particularly comforting. "Yeah, another mystery," he grumbled. "I may or may not live long enough to solve it. We were just unspeakably lucky that it happened to be Everett walking by that night in the Hollow, you know. If it were anyone else in town, we never would have known about the Ministry car, or Sirius keeping me. You think we're going to have that same kind of luck in Gwynedd?"

"That's not true at all, Harry! We would have tried harder at the Green Dragon until Uther talked to us," said Hermione. "Or maybe we would have needed more time to learn what we wanted. I expected all along that we'd have to comb through Muggle records to find your parents' old address, and then chat with the neighbors on all sides until we found one that knew what happened. Which would have put us at the Gamidges' doorstep anyway, it just would have taken a bit more work and time."

Harry stared at the tabletop, sulking, until Hermione sniffed in annoyance. "Honestly, Harry. You get discouraged too easily. You know, Lupin may already know the connection Sirius had to Gwynedd. Maybe he had a relative there--perhaps that uncle that took him in when his parents disowned him? And if Lupin doesn't know, maybe we can find the answer in some of Sirius's papers--Lupin kept everything Sirius owned up in the attic. It will just take a little legwork...Harry?"

Hermione abruptly stopped speaking. Ron, who had been ignoring her in favor of watching the fire, noticed the unexpected quiet and looked up. Harry was gripping the edge of the table with both hands turning white from the tension, and staring fixedly off into space. "What is it?" asked Ron, his brows drawn in concern.

"The attic. Of course. Hermione, you're brilliant!" Harry looked up at them with rekindled excitement.

"Oh, great, encourage her," grumbled Ron. Hermione cast a dagger at him with her eyes, but then they regarded one another and shrugged; neither had any idea what Harry was going on about.

"Lupin put everything in the attic," said Harry. "He even told me so himself, gah, how could I have forgotten? Come on, we're going there right now." Harry leapt to his feet and headed for the fireplace, but stopped and whirled back around to face them. "Drat! I forgot, school's in session, the Floo won't work. We'll have to Apparate."

Ron and Hermione didn't budge. "Harry, what are you thinking?" said Ron. "It's after dark, and you not only want to leave the castle, but the grounds? Unless your Cloak has suddenly grown, how are we supposed to get past Filch?"

"Oh, who cares for Filch?" Harry said crossly. "This is much more important than some stupid curfew."

"What is, Harry?" said Hermione. "You haven't even told us what you want to do!"

Harry sighed impatiently, but sat back down at last. "The mirror. Sirius's mirror...the mate of the one we fixed. Lupin put it away, he said so. It must be in the attic with everything else." Ron and Hermione continued to stare at him so vacuously he wondered if he had accidentally spoken in Parseltongue. "Don't you see? We might not have to snoop around to find out what Sirius did that night. Maybe we can get it straight from him!"

Both Ron and Hermione rolled their eyes at this proposal; Harry expected as much from Hermione, but he was ready to kick Ron in the shins. To his further dismay, it was Ron who spoke up first to dissuade him.

"Harry, you know I'm always right there with you, but mate, you need to think this through. Assuming we can get off the grounds without getting caught, and manage to find this thing in Headquarters, AND get into the Ministry (which is the second-most guarded place in the UK after Hogwarts since the attacks), it's a very, very, very long stretch that Sirius will...that this plan will work. That's a lot of risk and effort, Harry, for something that stands a good chance of going nowhere."

Harry smacked the tabletop with his fist and jumped up, but even as he pushed his chair back, he realized he had nowhere to go. Ron was right. The odds of it working were astronomically low, while the obstacles to get there were both large and numerous. He exhaled, closing his eyes and trying to think calmly.

"All right," he finally said, returning to his seat for the third time in five minutes. "It can wait until tomorrow. We get permission from Hagrid to leave the grounds first thing in the morning, then head to London--"

"Where we can spend a whole Sunday in a dusty old attic, just after spending Saturday in Hagrid's cabin," said Hermione crossly. "I have a better idea. Why don't we wait until the next time Lupin checks in, and then ask where the mirror is. Perhaps he can even bring it here. Then at least we can face the Ministry with a fresh start--although Merlin forbid we make up a plan for getting in the building...hello? Harry?" He was staring off into space with a look of inspired concentration once again, but when she called his name, he turned to her with an even wider smile than the first time.

"We don't need to get it ourselves, or ask Lupin. Kreacher can do it!" Hermione glowered at him, but Harry ignored it. "Come on, you know he's got a tally of every little thing in that house now, after that business with Mundungus Fletcher. Think of it as: now we don't have to bother poor Remus. Kreacher," Harry called out to thin air. "Come here! Can you hear me? Kreacher!"

There was no appearance, no reply, no acknowledgement of any kind. Harry frowned, glancing between Ron and Hermione. Ron shrugged, but Hermione wouldn't even look at him. "Well that's odd, isn't it," said Harry, quite stunned that the house-elf did not show up immediately. "Think we ought to nip off to the kitchen, then?" he asked Ron.

Ron nodded gamely, then patted his belly. "Could pick up a little cake or something for later, too. What about you, Hermione?"

Neither expected her to come along, or even answer them for that matter, given her opinion on the rights of house-elves. However, she crossed her arms and leveled them both with an angry glare. "You're wasting your time, you know. Even if you can find him, he won't obey you. He doesn't have to anymore. You're not the Master of The Most Noble House of Black anymore, Harry. Remember? You gave it to Lupin--and Kreacher went with it." Hermione grimaced in distaste at the whole notion, then sat back into her armchair with an angry huff and resumed ignoring them.

"Oops," said Ron.

"Yeah," said Harry. "I forgot about all that." He slumped in his chair.

Ron looked up with a sly grin. "Imagine--Lupin owns a house elf, and the Malfoys don't. What's the world coming to, eh?"

Now Ron received the delighted grin that had twice been given to Hermione. He caught on immediately; Harry and Ron said "Dobby!" at the same time.

There was a loud crack, and Dobby appeared promptly, wearing, to their surprise, a sweater that was obviously knitted by Ron's mother. "Harry Potter! Dobby is so happy you called! It has been ages since Dobby has visited his best friend, Harry Potter!"

The sudden appearance of a house-elf in the middle of the common room produced an immediate hush among all present, and Dobby's exuberant greeting carried to every corner. Harry shrank in his chair and motioned to Dobby to keep his voice down. Dobby understood and leaned in conspiratorially, with the result that all they could see of him were his big bulbous eyes peering over the tabletop. A muffled "What can Dobby do for Harry Potter?" issued up from around their knees.

"Hi, Dobby," said Harry quietly. "We were wondering if you could lend a hand with something." Dobby's eyes somehow managed to grow even wider, and Harry quickly brought a finger to his lips, in anticipation of another loud, enthusiastic outburst from the elf. The eyeballs began bobbing up and down gleefully, but made no sound.

"I'm not sure what exactly you can do," said Harry, thinking hard. "Here's the rub: We need to find something that belonged to Sirius. I know it's somewhere at Headquarters, probably the attic. Kreacher would undoubtedly know, but I don't...I don't think he'll cooperate with me. I was wondering--" Harry paused. Dobby was already shaking his head, something Harry had never seen him do before. Hermione had taken an immediate interest in this apparent refusal, but Harry could tell by the dejected look in Dobby's eyes that there was more to it than a simple "no." "What is it, Dobby?" he asked gravely.

Dobby was so upset his ears drooped, making him look like a drowned rabbit more than anything else. "Oh, Harry Potter," he said mournfully, "Dobby would gladly do anything for his friend, but no one can speak to Kreacher any more. Kreacher is dead."

"Dead?" gulped Harry. "What happened?"

Dobby shrugged, his shoulders poking briefly up over the tabletop. "Kreacher was very old. One night after his supper, Kreacher went to his nest off the kitchens, and did not wake up again. That is the usual way with my kind, Harry Potter."

Harry felt rather disconcerted, although he was not saddened by the news. Kreacher had schemed with the Malfoys, betrayed the Order, and set into motion the events that led to Sirius's death, and Harry had never forgiven him for that. Nonetheless, Dumbledore had impressed upon him a sense of responsibility for Kreacher, and it was giving him a nagging sense of guilt. Harry hadn't even realized he'd passed Kreacher on to Lupin, much less that the elf was dead, and he felt as though he'd failed somehow as a caretaker.

"When did this happen?" Harry asked Dobby somberly.

Dobby's eyes tipped upward as he concentrated. "Let Dobby think a moment...It was June, the third week...June 19?" He peeked around anxiously, as though worried he had offended Harry by hesitating.

Harry's stomach turned to lead for a moment. He recalled his brief intention to summon Kreacher to cook dinner for him back on Privet Drive; the elf had been dead for a month at that point. Well, it's not like he would have known--or cared--if I died, thought Harry stubbornly, but it didn't make him feel any better.

"Well, I guess that shoots down that plan," said Ron. "Any other ideas?"

Hermione thwapped Ron's knuckles with her wand, apparently too fed up to bother berating him anymore. Dobby, however, perked up at Ron's remark; of all of them, he seemed the least upset by the notion of Kreacher's death. "Dobby would still like to help Harry Potter. Perhaps Dobby could find the thing you want. Dobby knows some of Kreacher's hiding places, you know," the elf said confidentially. "Dobby never trusted him. He was always squirreling things away, Dark things from that Dark house."

Harry sighed. "This wasn't a Dark thing, Dobby. This was just a mirror. It was magical, but it belonged to Sirius. Lupin most likely packed it away."

Dobby stood up so straight and proud that his chin crested over the table. "Dobby would be delighted to check the attic for this mirror. Dobby would check a hundred attics; nothing is too much for Harry Potter to ask."

Harry waved at Dobby before he went off on another extended praising; those embarrassed him under the best of circumstances, and he felt particularly undeserving right then. "I'd be grateful, Dobby, if you could have a look around for it," Harry said sincerely. Dobby looked ecstatic, but Harry again put a finger to his lips to hush the elf. Dobby ducked down again below the table and settled for casting Harry an adoring gaze, then disappeared with another loud crack.

Hermione peered kindly at Harry, which surprised him. He had expected her to be outraged about this latest exploitation of house-elves. "I'm sorry about Kreacher, Harry," she said gently. Ron made a face, but fortunately her attention was on Harry and thus Ron's other hand went unsmacked.

Hermione soon set to work on some Arithmancy problems and Ron attempted to build a house of cards without using any magic, but Harry was so sure that Dobby would return any moment that he couldn't concentrate on any sort of project. After fifteen minutes passed with no sign of Dobby, however, Harry began to fidget and tap his fingers. After an hour, Ron and Hermione were fidgeting as well; Harry was driving them crazy. "Will you stop pacing, already?" grumbled Ron. "I'm about ready to take your Cloak and get down to Headquarters myself, just to get this bloody well over with!"

"Why is he taking so long?" Harry fretted for the millionth time.

Hermione slammed her Arithmancy book shut and shot Harry a glare that could fry an egg. "I don't know, but stomping in circles around the hearth isn't going to speed up the process! Here's a thought, Harry: Do some homework. You didn't get any done last night, or today, and if Dobby turns up with the mirror, you won't get any done tomorrow either. It's our last year here, after this we're on our own. Don't you think you ought to be taking advantage of it while you can?"

Harry opened his mouth for a snappy comeback, but the words stuck in his throat as he recalled his earlier conversation with Ondossi. People have died because I've been out playing Quidditch and dancing at weddings. Hermione was right (again, blast it); if he was going to stay at Hogwarts, he ought to soak up every bit of knowledge he could hold.

The common room quieted as students filed off to their dormitories or the library. Ron completed his house of cards and grudgingly opened his Charms textbook as well, when it became obvious that Harry was as determined to finish his homework as Hermione. By the time Dobby returned to the common room, it was nearly midnight, and Harry was caught up on more homework than he'd ever been on a Saturday night. One look at Dobby's dejected face, however, and he knew he'd have plenty of time to keep working on it tomorrow.

"Did you have trouble, Dobby?" Harry asked gently, knowing that the elf had undoubtedly berated himself far more harshly than Harry would ever dream of. There were tears welling up in his enormous eyes.

"Dobby is so ashamed, Harry Potter. The mirror could not be found."

Harry closed his eyes and sighed with disappointment, but he didn't blame Dobby. He knew the elf would leave no stone unturned; if Dobby couldn't find it in the attic, then it wasn't in the attic. He would just have to wait until Remus checked in. "It's alright, Dobby. Remus must have put it away somewhere else."

Dobby looked even more miserable. "There is more to tell, Harry Potter. Dobby spoke with Master Lupin. The attic at Headquarters, you see...Dobby did not think Master Lupin left it that way. It looked fine at first glance, Harry Potter, but beyond the first row of nice neat shelves, many things were strewn about, pulled from their boxes. Dobby went to find the Master of the House right away, and brought him to the attic." The elf pulled his ears down beside his head and began twisting them, an old reflex from his service with the Malfoys. Hermione clicked her tongue and gently tugged the ears from Dobby's hands, then pulled a rubber band from her hair and gave it to him. Dobby beamed at her in gratitude and began snapping it around his fingers instead.

"Well, what did Lupin say?" asked Ron.

"Master Lupin was most upset," said Dobby meekly. "He had worked very hard to put things away neatly. Master Lupin became quite angry that someone had gone through the boxes, especially since they had tried to conceal what they had done. He spoke with Dobby for a long time." Dobby paused, puffing up his chest with pride. "He even asked Dobby for his opinion about the culprit! Harry Potter has such lovely friends, they treat Dobby with the same respect as Harry Potter! Dobby is so lucky to have met Harry Potter; Dobby would be curled up miserable in the basement of Malfoy Manor right now if it weren't for Harry Potter."

"It wasn't all up to me, Dobby," said Harry firmly, hoping to stem the oncoming tide of compliments. "You had to find the courage to defy your master and come to me, you know. I couldn't have done it without you."

Dobby's mouth fell open and the rubber band twanged as it flew, forgotten, across the common room. Oops. So much for that idea, thought Harry. He had to endure a long geyser of raw, bubbling praise from Dobby before the little elf could return to his story.

"Dobby of course suspected Kreacher was the thief. There were many valuable things left behind, and besides, who else would be so cunning about disguising his mischief? That horrible Mundungus Fletcher would not. He would take anything he could sell from every box, not leave two whole shelves untouched. Master Lupin agreed with Dobby on that score." Dobby blushed, his thin ears suddenly glowing red in the firelight.

"Dobby helped Master Lupin put things back in their boxes, but there was no mirror. Master Lupin found the box he'd packed it in, and it had been opened." Dobby's high spirits evaporated once again, and he regarded Harry mournfully. "Kreacher must have taken it, Harry Potter. He always favored shiny things. But Dobby looked through every hiding place he knew and did not find any mirrors." He looked so crestfallen that Harry feared he'd go after the ears once more.

"Thanks, Dobby," said Harry. "I know you tried." Though Harry was careful to mask it in front of the house-elf, he felt completely crushed. He'd come to think of the mirror as a linchpin in this final, desperate crusade against that mystical veil under the Ministry. Without it, without the capacity to prove with his own two eyes whether Sirius was held somehow within that cursed thing, Harry knew he would be haunted, tormented, enslaved by the question of whether his godfather still lived.

Chapter 17: Chapter 17: The Killing Curse
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For weeks after Dobby's report, disappointment draped over Harry like the morning mist on the Hogwarts grounds. Ron and Hermione exchanged many pointed looks over Harry's sudden intense focus on his studies, as well as his irritable brooding when he finished his homework. Hermione considered the studious aspect an improvement, but neither of them knew how to help Harry snap out of this funk.

The Quidditch tryouts on the second weekend seemed to help a bit, at least at the time. Elias Ravenclaw downplayed his flying skills considerably, while tossing an occasional rouguish grin to Harry or Ron. He'd spent his life deliberately hiding his finest magic, and he seemed perfectly content to be the Gryffindor team's best kept secret. There were a number of angry glares when Harry picked Elias for Beater (many of which were from the Ravenclaw team, who considered Elias a turncoat from that day on), but on the whole, the tryouts were largely absent of the hostility that had been seen the year before.

Ron, Ginny, and Demelza remained in their previous positions of Keeper and Chasers. It was a tough choice between last year's Beaters, Ritchie Cootes and Jimmy Peakes, for the final slot on the team, but Harry finally went with Cootes. Cootes had clearly practiced over the summer and his aim was now dead-on 99% of the time. Peakes was disappointed, but he took the decision fairly well and he was accepted later that day by the Ravenclaw team. Harry had a feeling there would be some rather fierce rivalry between the two teams' Beaters; it would surely be an interesting season, if they didn't Bludger one another to death.

As the team captain, Harry dutifully scheduled practices on Saturday mornings, but his heart wasn't really in it. He couldn't shake off the guilty notion that he was wasting precious time and precious lives by doing anything other than battling with Voldemort.

One balmy evening, Harry and Ron were zipping about the Quidditch pitch on their brooms as the lapwings snapped up insects in the field below and pink-footed geese yip-yipped their goodnights to one another on the lake. Ron had asked Harry to come and knock the Quaffle about so he could practice tending goal, but he soon brought up what was really on his mind.

"Harry, what's got into you?" Ron blurted after a particularly easy save. "You've barely cracked a smile in two weeks. You're studying so much it's starting to scare me! And now you're not focusing on your game? This is getting serious, mate." Ron held onto the Quaffle instead of throwing it back, so Harry couldn't hide behind the pretense of practicing.

Harry sat back on his broom with a look of sorrowful resignation. "I don't know, Ron," was all he said.

"All right," said Ron with a frown. "Let's look at each thing separately. Starting with your game." He flung the Quaffle back to Harry and, having drifted off to the left, nudged his broom back to the center hoop. "Look at you. Going soft, Harry. You think you're such a blooming Quidditch genius that you don't need to train anymore?"

Harry mustered a lopsided grin and tried to bounce the Quaffle off Ron's head. "It's not that. I just...I don't know that I'll be playing anymore. I'm thinking of putting Dean Thomas back on and making Ginny the Seeker."

"Ah, well, that explains everything," Ron said incredulously. "You've gone mental!"

"Look, my last few games weren't all that great, Ron. In fact, you seem to have done better without me."

Ron rolled his eyes and hurled the Quaffle at Harry so hard that he slid backwards on the broomstick from the impact. "Oh, please! We didn't do too well that time McClaggen cracked your skull, or so I was told," he scoffed. "And that final match with Ravenclaw--well, we had to win that, didn't we? Couldn't let that prat hold you prisoner in the dungeon without showing him a thing or two about Gryffindor!" Harry had spent the last game of the previous season serving detention with Snape.

Harry grinned again, but his eyes were downcast. "Or maybe you just didn't need me. Not like others need me."

Ron nodded thoughtfully, his broomstick gently bobbing in time with his head. "So that's it, then. Merlin's beard! Hermione's right again, blast it all. I thought you were moping about on account of missing Sirius again, but she said it was guilt about the Prophecy," he added in explanation. "Gah! Do me a favor and don't tell her she nailed it, eh, Harry?"

Ron could always cheer him up, even if only temporarily. "Never," Harry assured him. Ron gave an exaggerated sigh of relief.

"Well, just between us then," said Ron, "what are we going to do about it? I won't have you doing homework and sulking for the rest of the year, Harry. It's beginning to feel like a detention just going to the common room anymore!" Ron shook an accusing finger at him. "Here's what I think, mate: Maybe we need a change of scenery." He gleamed sidelong at Harry, who blinked in surprise.

"Are you thinking what I think you're thinking?" said Harry, and Ron smiled grimly. "You think we should just go? Pull a Fred-and-George?" The twins' theatric departure from Hogwarts during the reign of Dolores Umbridge had become a part of Hogwarts's local vocabulary.

Ron nodded again. "Why not? You know it's got to come sooner or later, and you don't seem to be weathering the wait very well. Maybe it's time, Harry."

"But the Horcruxes...we can't really put a stop to him without finding them first."

Ron shrugged. "Maybe not, but dying sure slowed him down the first time, didn't it? And if he wants to come back again, he'll need 'the blood of the enemy' for his little potion, just like last time. So we'll just keep killing him over and over until he uses up all those bits of soul he's got stashed around."

Harry stared at his friend. "You're a genius, Ron," he finally whispered reverently.

"So we'll do it, then?" said Ron, his voice grave, his jaw set.

Harry flattened his lips and gripped the broomstick very tightly, just once. "All right. I guess I'm as ready as I'll ever be."

The sound of a single pair of hands clapping to a slow tempo echoed around the pitch. "Bravo! Encore! Encore!" It was Ondossi. Ron scanned around in confusion, but Harry knew precisely where to find her. He motioned to Ron to follow, and the two of them flew around the back of the bleachers and up to her platform. She remained in the shadows from which she'd observed the whole exchange, and kept clapping until Harry stepped off his broomstick. Then she just folded her arms and glared at both of them.

"You have something to say, Professor?" said Harry indignantly.

She motioned to Ron to land as well and sat down at the edge of the shadows. "You know," she began in a sour tone, "I was warned about this. 'Stubborn is his middle name,' he told me. 'If you ever need him to do something, tell him to do the opposite.' And here it is. What was it, two weeks ago, that I said it would be a terrible mistake to rush while your true magic is finally coming in? I suppose I'm lucky you made it this long before leaping into some idiotic plan."

Harry clenched his teeth angrily, but Ron spoke up. "Who's to say it's idiotic? No more idiotic than doing nothing while V-Voldemort has free reign out there."

Ondossi turned her full attention to Ron. "Let me ask you something, Mr. Weasley. Do you recall how your mother reacted when her twin sons left Hogwarts to start a joke shop on Diagon Alley--a venture which has turned out to be a staggering success? Do you?" Ron dropped his gaze to the platform, but Ondossi didn't back off in the slightest. "Mm-hmm. And how do you suppose she'd take it if her baby boy walked out to get slaughtered in some forsaken swamp or desert or whatever? Maybe to return as an Inferi, even? Wouldn't that make her day?"

Ron looked up with a vicious glare, but he was hopelessly outgunned. Ondossi went silent and Harry knew she was in Ron's mind, describing in exquisite detail the kind of death Voldemort had planned for him. Ron's eyes were blank, but as soon as Ondossi turned away from him, they were filled with shock and loathing. Ron gasped for his next breath, but did not speak.

"And you!" said Ondossi, baring her teeth at Harry like an angry wolf. "What did he say earlier? 'You think you're such a Quidditch genius you don't need to train?' HAH!" She tossed her head, her long hair flicking into a rather impressive arc behind her. "He said it, hotshot--and now you don't need to train anymore to face Lord Voldemort either. What talents you have! Must be nice to have everything come so easy."

"Are you finished, then?" Harry said sullenly.

She smiled with arrogant triumph. "Oh, no, that was just the first piece, hotshot. It's time you got the whole thing. Let's you and me do a little flying. We're gonna need more room." She stepped out to the edge of the platform, squinting hard in the rays of the setting sun.

Harry picked up his Firebolt. "No hysterics this time?" he growled, mounting the broomstick at the edge of the platform without trying to assist her.

"All business on my end, bucko," she said contemptuously. "Let's roll." She hopped over the back of the broom and took hold of his waist, but despite the tough talk, Harry could feel her shivering behind him. He had thought to push off the platform at full tilt and give her a little taste of fear, but he realized that would be a bit overkill if simply sitting on the broom was enough to make her tremble.

Harry glanced at Ron once more, but Ron, still a bit pale, gave him a reassuring wave. "Where are we heading?" he asked Ondossi gruffly.

"Forest. Find a quiet clearing," she said, straining to keep her voice even. He gave up on any lingering thoughts about putting the Firebolt through its paces. Ondossi annoyed him, but not enough for frank cruelty--and besides, if she lost it over the Forbidden Forest, there was no telling where they might land. Harry pushed off gently and flew in the general direction of Grawp's former "home." Hagrid had chained him up deep in the forest proper, but during Grawp's "taming" period, the spot became a clearing pretty quickly.

Harry landed a bit roughly; there was a slight difference in the Firebolt's handling near the ground with a passenger. He was a little embarassed, but as he turned to face Ondossi, he doubted she had noticed the faux pas. She was crouched down, clutching and releasing the soil of the forest floor with both hands, and even in the long shadows he could see the cold sweat on her forehead. She really hates flying, he mused, unable to fathom such a sentiment.

Ondossi cleared her throat and stood up. "Thank you," she said. "For not trying to scare the bejeepers out of me, that is. You'da needed a serious broom cleaner if you'd tried," she added quietly.

Harry chuckled. "I reckoned as much." He paused as his sympathy drained away and defiance returned. "All right," he said crossly, "you have something to show me? Going to humble me, then? Prove how much more you know than I do?"

"Far be it from me to prove anything to you, hotshot," she snapped. "It's your turn. Show me your stuff, Killer! Impress me."

Harry deliberately let his shoulders slump in a gesture of hopeless disgust. "You want me to duel with you? Is that it?" He reached into his robes for his wand.

"Duel?" she scoffed. "Oh, no. No parlor games. I want to see you kill."

It was Harry's turn to scoff. "Bloody dramatics. You dragged me out here for this?"

"Come on, hotshot, I said show me! You were ready to march out that gate and kill Lord Voldemort. I want to see you kill right now, just in case I miss that show later."

Harry shook his head in disgust. "Okay. Sure. Watch." He cracked his knuckles and made a show of readying himself, shaking out his shoulders and doing some deep knee bends. She scowled harder and harder during the process, which suited him just fine. He finally stood up straight, his face the very essence of concentration, raised his wand--and dropped to the ground, ripped up a tiny sapling tree, and sprang back to his feet. Harry snapped the miniature trunk in two and threw the pieces at her. "Happy now?"

"Cute," Ondossi said in a grudging voice, though screwing up her face to keep from smiling. "Let's try something that can fight back." She stepped back, spreading her arms wide as if to make herself the biggest possible target. She bowed, regarding him with smug expectation.

Harry just stood and stared at her, but she didn't show any signs of dropping this absurd stance. He finally hissed angrily, "Enough, already! You don't even have a wand!"

"Correct," she said evenly. "Even so, I'm hardly quaking in my boots. Any guess as to why that is?"

"I don't have to guess, Tura. It's because I can't take a shot at you and you know it. You're trying to prove some point about how hard it is to kill another person but it's just stupid."

"Wrong!" she announced, rolling her eyes. "I do have a point to make, but not that one. I'm not worried about the curse, Harry, because I know you can't do it, period. You can't use it, you can't make it work."

"And what makes you so bloody certain?"

She dropped her arms to her sides and laughed. "Because you're not Dark enough, sweet thing. Remember when you tried the Cruciatus on Bellatrix Lestrange? I heard all about that. She barely winced, didn't she, and you hated her up one side and down the other. Try and hit me with the Cruciatus, hotshot. Don't worry about the law, I'll forgive you for it," she taunted.

"My pleasure," said Harry, his voice dry and sharp, slicing the air like a sword. He pointed his wand. "Crucio."

As soon as the word left his tongue, Harry was appalled that he'd let her goad him into such an abhorrent act. But to his relief and dismay, she took a single step backwards and coughed, then squared herself up, hands on her hips. "Not as lame as I expected," she conceded, "but I've had white-sock bites that hurt worse."

"Don't you ever do that to me again," Harry said through his teeth.

"No need," she replied with disdain. "I've seen for myself now: you can't do it. Just like the Kedavra."

Harry shook his head. "No. I can do it. I may not be able to inflict pain, but I can kill. I know it."

" 'I can't torture, but I can kill'," Ondossi parroted in a mocking tone. She scanned around the treetops for a moment, then pointed up into a willow tree. "Here's an idea. You're afraid to aim it at me? Then kill that finch up there."

Harry saw it; the finch was preening on a branch about halfway up the tree. He gave Ondossi a furious glare and pointed his wand.

The words wouldn't come. Harry watched the little animal as it straightened its feathers, oblivious to any danger. No, not oblivious; its shiny eyes were constantly peering around, alert for hawks or other enemies. Harry didn't know if the bird really understood the concept of mortality, but whether it did or not, it took measures to protect itself and preserve its life. Furthermore, it had never done Harry any harm. The idea of killing an innocent creature made the curse stick in his throat.

"C'mon, Killer!" Ondossi sneered. "Do it! What's the matter?"

Harry lowered his wand. "This is stupid. I'm not going to kill some helpless bird just so you can prove some sadistic little point."

Ondossi yanked hard on the front of Harry's robe, pulling him down to meet her gaze. He started to twist away from her, but she held even tighter to the fabric, using her weight to pull him down lower, closer, until his face was pressed against her throat and her lips brushed his forehead. He watched, transfixed, as her neck flattened and spread out, the skin rippling into a semblance of pebbly scales. Twin needles briefly pricked him on either side of his scar.

"Know this, Potter," she breathed in an icy, distorted whisper, "if I ever have a 'sadistic point' to make, it will be very, very clear."

She released him as her throat snapped back to its normal contour, her skin smoothing instantly, though he straightened up quickly enough to see the tips of fangs retract over her lip and disappear.

"What in the name of Merlin was that?" Harry said, holding his ground although his skin was crawling.

Ondossi put her hand over her mouth, wide-eyed with mortification. "I didn't mean for you to see that," she mumbled. "You really frost my apples sometimes, Harry."

"Apparently so," said Harry, though he was not at all relieved by her apparent chagrin. "Answer the question."

She hung her head. "That's one of my little secrets. I'm an Animagus. I learned to do it back in the steam tunnels. It's a lot easier to enjoy a rat kabob as an animal than as a girl."

Harry slowly began to nod. "Let me guess. A snake," he said.

"Cobra, actually," she said, glancing up furtively as though she were ashamed. "I wanted to be a wolf but that was what worked."

Harry leaned back against the broken stump of what was once a huge pine tree. "You are one creepy sorcerer," he said in complete sincerity.

She replied, equally somberly, "I know that."

Harry finally averted his own eyes. "Alright, alright, I was out of line with the sadistic point remark. But so are you. I don't want to kill that bird for no reason; that would just be evil."

"It's not 'for no reason,' Harry," Ondossi said briskly, regaining her composure now that they were off the subject of snakes. "There's a very good reason. This is the most challenging spell you'll ever cast--and you don't plan to practice it beforehand? Think about what you're saying! You despised that Umbridge woman for denying you the right to practice spells. Now you're saying you don't need practice?"

She stepped back, glancing around on the ground. "Look, you don't want to kill the bird, that's all right. Start with a bug. You've killed bugs before, even without magic. Here's some ants right down here. Kill a few of them. They don't mind, they're a hive; one ant is nothing."

Harry looked carefully at the line of ants. She was right; unlike the finch, Harry had no sense whatsoever that the ants feared death, or even knew that they were alive to begin with. He rolled his eyes at her and said, "Alright. I'll do it." He pointed his wand. "Avada Kedavra."

Nothing happened.

Harry's jaw dropped. He leaned closer, certain that at least one of the ants must have keeled over; perhaps the amount of magic required to wipe out one ant was so miniscule that they hadn't been able to see the light from the wand. But the line of ants was trudging along unbroken as before; there were no little ant corpses to be found.

"Try to concentrate, Harry," she said dully.

Harry crouched down to get a closer look at his targets. Maybe he had to focus on one ant to make it work. They were zipping along purposefully; perhaps his curse had simply missed all of them. "Darn it, they walk so fast!" he muttered. He finally flicked a few ants out of the line, where they at least stopped marching and began to mill about, tapping one another with their antennae to reorient themselves. He pointed his wand again. "Avada Kedavra."

The ants continued their frenetic tapping.

"I don't believe it," he said. "Did I say it wrong? Tura, what's happening?"

"What's happening," said Ondossi, "is that you're getting the point. Do you see it's not just aiming the wand and saying the words? It's much more than that, Harry. You don't just belt it out like some penny-ante jinx and let your wand do the work. Killing is an act of your will, yours, not the wand. You have to summon your magic, all of it, good, bad, and indifferent, all the power you have in you, and propel that curse through your victim."

Harry had been so sure he could do it. He meant to leave with Ron tonight to put an end to it all. Hermione probably would tag along despite their efforts to sneak off without her, and Harry would secretly be glad to have her there. They would track down Voldemort, trusting Harry to pull off the "impossible" one more time, and he would fail them. He couldn't even kill an ant. Harry thought he might be sick.

"Do you understand now, Harry?" said Ondossi. "You have to become a killer. It's not enough to feel righteous, or vengeful, or angry. You have to perform a spell, a very, very complex spell that you have to practice, and that practice is going to hurt you and change you and make a dark, ugly place inside you. And that's all peanuts compared to what'll happen when you finally kill another human being! You won't even be yourself anymore, Harry, part of you will be ripped out forever."

Ondossi looked momentarily as though she were on the verge of tears, but she shook her head and settled into a cold stance. She took out her thin white wand and pointed it at the ants, still circling where Harry had flipped them. Beckoning Harry closer, she whispered, "Avada Kedavra." A narrow beam of green light shot from her wand, and all of the ants shriveled and fell. She pointed at the long row of ants on the march. "Avada Kedavra." Another green ray and every ant in a six-inch section of the line froze on the spot, dead.

Ondossi looked at Harry with her fathomless eyes and held out her left hand. Harry wasn't sure what she wanted--his wand? She beckoned again and he understood; setting his jaw, he put his hand in hers. She tugged and guided him gently until he stood alongside her, draping his right arm and hand over hers. She looked up at him once more, then concentrated on the finch, pointing her wand. "Say it, Harry."

He looked up at the little bird and felt chilled to the core, but he spoke. "Avada Kedavra." A ripple like an electric current ran the entire length of his arm. The finch fell to the ground instantly, landing on its back with its claws curled.

For a moment, Harry felt nothing. He just stood there and looked at the creature they had killed, expecting it to wake up and fly away at any moment. The whole thing seemed unreal, a mirage or hallucination. It couldn't possibly be so painless, so simple, to snuff out a life. But the finch was most certainly dead, and all Harry had done was say two words; the magic had come from Tura. Mostly. Hadn't it?

Harry suddenly dropped to his knees, breaking out in a cold sweat from head to toe and reeling with nausea.

"Ho-oh!" said Ondossi, leaping backwards. "Chunder time!" Harry had never heard that word before, but he knew exactly what it meant. It was as if his insides were punishing him for his crime, for casting the ultimate Unforgivable Curse. By the time he no longer had to retch, he was shaking so badly he could barely hold himself up.

"Good, then," she said, gathering him in her arms to guide him away from the puddle. "It's good that you're sick. I'm glad. Killing should make you sick. If it made more people sick, the world would be a better place." Just as she had done on the night they met, she conjured a blanket with her wand and covered him, bringing his head back to rest against her shoulder. She was chanting under her breath in her native language, which Harry couldn't understand but found strangely comforting nonetheless.

Eventually the warmth returned to his face, then his limbs, until only his hands were jangling with paraesthesias. It was getting rather dark, and the forest was no place to linger, but Ondossi laid her hand on his forehead. "Don't hurry to get up or you'll just collapse again," she said, and Harry knew she was right. Just his intention to stand made his forehead turn clammy.

"The forest isn't safe at night, Tura," he muttered hoarsely, thinking of Aragog's multitude of hungry offspring.

"Pfft," she sniffed. "I'm the scariest thing out here." Ondossi resumed her chant, resting the side of her face against his head. Harry could feel the song as well as hear it, the strange words resonating through the bones of his skull. He was nearly lulled to sleep by the time she stopped, leaving only the crickets to disturb the heavy quiet of the forest night.

"What were you singing?" asked Harry.

"I was thanking the mother finch for giving us her baby so that you could learn how to save us all."

Harry's stomach wrenched once again, not with nausea, but a twisting tension of overwhelming sorrow. A minute before, Harry felt he'd recovered enough to return to the castle, but he had passed only through the guilt and moral outrage. Now grief swept over him and he burst into great, racking sobs, drawing his arms and legs up against his chest as though to keep his heart from falling out of his rib cage. All the while, Ondossi curled her arm protectively across his shoulders, without singing or speaking or attempting to intervene until every tear was shed and all of his grief was spent.

"It's good that it hurts, too," she said quietly as his breathing finally returned to normal. "You'll be all right, Harry. You should fly back to the castle now, people are probably worried about you."

Harry broke in to a wry grin and pressed his head back briefly against Ondossi's throat. "Funny, that," he said. "I don't think I've ever felt safer in my life." He meant every word; after all the emotional upheaval, her warm, steady presence made him feel like a grizzly bear cub gathered in its mother's paws.

She shifted to look him in the eye, regarding him with disbelief. "Really?"


Her whole face softened in warmth and wonder at this admission. Harry did a double-take at her expression; he'd never really noticed that she perpetually wore a guarded, cynical scowl until it was absent. He sat up and turned to face her, and her wide, dark eyes no longer seemed empty or cold at all. Harry raised his hand to her cheek without thinking. When she caught her breath at the contact, he felt an unexpected but compelling impulse to lean forward and kiss her.

Although there was no Legilimency involved, a very rapid exchange of ideas seemed to take place between them and Ondossi leapt abruptly to her feet. "Bad idea," she mumbled, and promptly began trudging through the undergrowth toward the Hogwarts grounds.

Harry wasn't sure if she referred to his words or his intentions, but he didn't exactly relish the thought of asking her to clarify. Instead, he just followed her through the forest, tripping and stumbling over roots and vines in the darkness. He wondered how she managed to move so quietly through the unknown terrain when it dawned on him that she probably saw better at night than a cat. Moments later, this was confirmed when she stopped suddenly and crouched down, nearly sending Harry tumbling over her back.

"Oooh, walnuts!" she bubbled. "Yum! And you horfed up all your dinner, poor thing, I'll get some for you." Though Harry could barely see his own shoes under the forest canopy, he heard the clinking of what he assumed were walnuts as she gathered them into a fold in her robes.

"That's okay, Tura," he said, not at all eager to eat anything that grew in the Forbidden Forest. "I'll just get something from the kitchen later. Really."

"Huh? You can do that?" she asked, reaching up into the branches to pluck a nut from the tree.

"Um, yeah," said Harry. "The house-elves love to feed people, all you have to do is ask. You should have already known that, after all the snooping you've done in people's heads."

A walnut bounced off his head somewhat painfully. "You turkey!" she said. "I've had my fill of siphoning every random thought around me, thanks very much. I don't poke very far into unwilling minds unless I have to. I don't like that numb feeling afterwards. You saw the difference with your friend Ron. That's where the real power of your magic resides, Harry--that you can bring whatever's on their mind out into yours. If they're thinking about it already, so can you. It's only when you try to dig up stuff that's idle that it costs you."

Harry nodded. "That's why Ron didn't feel anything when I read him that day?"

"Exactly," said Ondossi. "It's almost like talking, when you just skim the surface. Except that you hear everything and they hear nothing." She paused, then added, "Which is still kind of like talking, with most people." She chuckled ruefully and resumed her quest for walnuts. "You don't have to hang around, you know, if you don't want any of these. I can find my way out."

"There's a reason this isn't called the Friendly Forest, Tura," Harry chided. "I don't think you should be out here alone."

"Hagrid comes out here alone all the time."

Harry sighed. "Yeah, I know. Hagrid's a bit mental in that respect."

"And I'm not?" Ondossi said, laughing. "You're talking to the wild child of the tundra, you know."

"I seem to recall that you weren't thrilled to learn there were centaurs out here," said Harry sternly. He felt vindicated at the sound of several earthy thumps as she dropped some of her walnuts in consternation.

"Right. Well, it's just a phobia, really," she said a bit shakily. "Snakes have a thing about big, heavy animals with hooves." Harry laughed, but his mirth was brought to a quick halt as another walnut hit his forehead, this time with considerably more force.

"Ow! You weren't kidding about your aim." Harry firmly resolved to duck immediately if he had another opportunity to tease her.

Her voice went suddenly serious. "Harry--you won't tell anyone about the snake thing, will you?"

Rubbing his forehead, he replied, "Um, well, I guess not...but why?

"I told you, I wanted to be a wolf. I feel silly being a snake. I mean, I'm an Arctic reptile. How dumb is that? Below zero half the year and I'm cold-blooded."

"If I laugh," he asked, "are you going to throw another nut at me?" Ondossi snorted noncommittally. "It's not dumb," he finally said, forgoing any chuckling. "I don't think you have much choice anyway, you just turn into what comes most naturally to you."

"Great," she grumbled. "I'm a metaphor for a spitting snake from the tropics."

Harry knew he was in for it, but he couldn't stop himself from laughing out loud. "Yeah, who would ever have guessed?" he said, dodging behind a tree just in time to avoid a small, nutty hailstorm, though she was giggling as well.

When the assault faded, Harry gingerly stepped out of the ballistic shadow and picked up the few nuts he could see. "I still say it's silly to be shy about it. Besides, didn't you have to register?"

"Register? Where?" She sounded genuinely nonplussed.

"At the Ministry. Or with your own government. Animagi are supposed to register."

"You're kidding!" she sputtered. "Wow. We don't do that back home." She scoffed. "They can barely get a decent census every ten years, much less keep track of whose magic does what. Although maybe they do it down south, I don't know," she added thoughtfully. "Anyone tried that in Northpole, they'd be tarred and feathered."

Harry shook his head, smirking. "Santa's Little Helpers don't exactly respect authority, do they?"

"Bing," laughed Ondossi. "You'd fit right in."

Harry waited in resignation until Ondossi found all the "good" walnuts, then escorted her out of the Forest. She wanted to show Hagrid the walnuts, so Harry left her at the door of his cabin and darted off on his Firebolt straight to the Owlery. It was nearly empty since most of the owls were off hunting, so it made for an easy entrance into the Castle. Harry realized it had been some time since he'd seen Hedwig; she had grudgingly brought him his letter to himself a few weeks earlier and promptly disappeared again. He wondered if Fawkes could possibly make her see reason. Fat chance, he thought, and reckoned he'd better send away for a box of Owl Treats if he had any hope of making peace.

Harry donned his Invisibility Cloak and returned to Gryffindor Tower, narrowly avoiding Mrs. Norris at the foot of the Owlery stairs. Upon entering the portrait hole, however, he was immediately accosted by a very distressed Hermione, who had clearly been pacing around the common room, leaving a bevy of quivering first- and second-years in her wake.

"Where have you been?" she demanded, before he even had time to stuff his cloak into his pocket.

"With Ondossi. Didn't Ron tell you?"

"Yes, but Ron barely had time to talk--he and Ginny got called to McGonagall's office! Something's the matter, Harry, and I don't know what, and the suspense is unbearable!"

Harry's jaw dropped. "When?"

"Over an hour ago. He came back just before dark, and it's a good thing, too, because McGonagall had sent someone to bring him the moment he arrived. The last thing he needed was to get caught red-handed being out after dark! Anyway, it's been over an hour now and, well, you know it can't be good." Hermione wrung her hands anxiously. "Maybe you and Fawkes can look in on Bill like you did after the attacks on the Ministry," she whispered, bouncing rapidly on her toes to dissipate her nervous energy.

Harry shrugged his shoulders, pondering the idea. He wasn't quite sure how Fawkes had done it the first time. Fortunately, at that very moment, the portrait hole swung open again, and two red heads bobbed through it.

Hermione catapulted across the common room, gasping at their pale, dazed faces. "Oh my goodness, what is it?" she blurted.

Ginny looked as if she were about to cry, and not for the first time that evening. Both of them slumped into the nearest chair, then Ron spoke up weakly. "I never, ever, thought I'd say this, dad's been appointed Minister of Magic."

Chapter 18: Chapter 18: Lessons in Humility
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"You're joking," said Harry.

Ginny burst into tears, but Ron only shook his head. "I just can't believe it," he said. "All those worthless bullies sticking daggers in people's backs for years, and then climbing up the hilts to the top, and every last one of them suddenly takes their name out of the running and disappears. Until it's time to elect the new Minister, of course. Dad wasn't even at the meeting--they didn't send him the memo in time! What do you want to bet that wasn't an accident, eh?" Ron buried his face in his hands, rubbing his forehead.

Hermione was rendered speechless, plopping into a chair that had just been rapidly vacated by an insightful third-year student. Harry, however, was already clenching his fists with a murderous expression.

"How DARE they?" he shouted. "He can decline, can't he? Tell me he refused the appointment, Ron." But even as Harry asked, he knew the answer. Arthur had never expressed any ambition to become Minister, but he would never turn down such a challenge if he believed he could help others by accepting. "Morgan le Fay. He's taking it, isn't he?" Again, Harry didn't have to ask, but at least the sound of it in the air gave him something on which to focus.

"They can't do this!" said Hermione. "Surely there must be a rule against--"

"It's legal, Hermione," said Ron, his voice weary with defeat. "They declared a state of emergency when Scrimgeour was killed, which gives them the power to appoint the next Minister without the usual process. Dad could refuse, but that would pretty much end his career in the Ministry. And besides that, someone else would get railroaded into the job. Dad reckons he's the best prepared to handle it, out of all the people likely to get the shaft, so he's taking it."

Harry finally flopped into a chair as well, clutching his head as if it were about to explode. "But doesn't he understand what they're doing?"

"Of course he does!" wailed Ginny suddenly. "He knows bloody well that they're just using him as a target, to set Voldemort's sights on him and off their useless hides! Oh, why does every man I know have to be the world's biggest bloody hero?" She leapt to her feet and charged up the stairs to the girls' dormitory, followed immediately by Hermione.

Ron and Harry gave each other a glum look before each settled into their chairs for a furious, private brooding.

"What are we going to do?" Harry finally asked, though he didn't really expect an answer.

"I suppose what we talked about is pretty much out of the running," said Ron bleakly.

Harry grimaced, shaking his head. "I'm not ready. I thought I was, but I'm not." He paused. "I'm sorry, Ron."

"It's okay, mate. Mum really would have a paddy if I disappeared now. She's in a right state. You know that clock of hers with all our names on it? The minute they took the vote, the hand for Dad popped clean off."

"How's she taking it?" asked Harry.

"Oh, you know Mum," Ron sighed. "She'll stand right behind him like a rock, then go worry herself sick every day after he leaves for the office. She's trying to make a show of being proud of him, as though he's been promoted because he deserves it."

"He does deserve to be Minister, Ron," said Harry angrily. "Just not the way those prats gave it to him."

"Well, one thing's for sure," Ron said with a wry grin, "he's due for a big raise."

The Great Hall was already buzzing with the news by the time Harry, Ron, and Hermione arrived for breakfast the next morning. The Daily Prophet had a huge photo on the front page of Mr. Weasley, flanked by dozens of smiling toadies "showing their support" for the new Minister-to-be. Harry stared at the moving photograph for some time, convinced that if he watched carefully enough, he'd spot them plunging little silver daggers into each others' backs.

"Is this really true, Ron?" said Luna Lovegood, who rushed up to their back-to-back chairs as soon as she entered the Hall.

"Every word of it, except the lies," groused Ron.

"Well, in that case, congratulations!" said Luna, quite sincerely. "How fabulous! Finally, a real person appointed as Minister! My dad would love to interview him for The Quibbler. He's virtually unknown, you know, and people would love to hear his stand on all sorts of issues."

Harry and Ron exchanged a sour glance, each pondering the "issues" of interest to The Quibbler. "Yeah, well, I'll be sure to pass that along," said Ron. "He's bound to be pretty busy, though, so he may not be able to squeeze it in."

"Oh, that would be lovely! Thank you, Ron!" Luna tweaked the tip of Ron's nose and floated off to her usual seat at the front of the Great Hall. Harry silently admired the fact that Ron kept a straight face throughout the whole exchange.

Hermione didn't manage it as well, and opted to face her table and concentrate on her breakfast as the lesser of two impolite evils. That gave her a few moments to study the article about Mr. Weasley. When Luna left, Hermione quickly poked her head over the back of her chair with an purposefull expression. "Ron, it says here that your dad won't be sworn in for two weeks."

Ron nodded. "I know, it's some formality. But there's not going to be any talking him out of it, he's made up his mind on that score."

"That's not where I was heading. Harry, I think if we're going to do anything with that mirror, we need to take care of it before Ron's dad takes office."

Harry simply stared at her, too flummoxed by the non-sequitor to reply. Hermione rolled her eyes and began speaking more slowly. "The archway and the veil, Harry! Once Mr. Weasley is sworn in, he'll ultimately have to answer for anything that goes on within the Ministry. You can bet he'll be less than thrilled if we're caught tampering with that thing. And if something goes wrong...well, if we do it now, it's basically no one's fault, but if we do it once Mr. Weasley is in charge..."

Ron scoffed. "I don't think there's been so much as a leaky faucet in the Ministry that didn't cost someone points, Hermione. It'll probably still get back to Dad if we sneak in there now."

"Maybe, but it certainly will after he's sworn in! In fact, I don't think I'd want to do it--I'd feel like I was betraying him personally, making trouble in the Ministry when he's in charge."

"Believe me, he's used to it," said Ron. "The man raised Fred and George, remember? If anyone knows how to handle heat when he's supposed to be the boss, it's my dad."

"Lowering the boom on Fred and George for blowing up the toilet is one thing. But if his son got caught trespassing on Ministry property--in the Department of Mysteries, nonetheless! The Prophet would rip him to shreds!"

Harry smiled mischievously. "All the more reason to do it before he takes over. If we get caught, maybe we can get him disqualified from the post."

Ron's eyes widened. "You know, that just might work! I could be Family Hero, keeping Dad from becoming Minister!" He tilted his head and sat back in his chair. "Good grief, I can't believe I just said that."

Hermione let out a frustrated growl. "You two...well, regardless of the reason, do you agree we ought to get right to work on this?"

Both Harry and Ron nodded. "Good then," said Hermione smartly. "Now we just need to find that other mirror, get out of Hogwarts, sneak into the Ministry and try it out!" She grinned cheerfully and turned back to dig into her remaining breakfast with vigor.

Harry eyed Ron, who shrugged and grabbed a slice of toast. "Piece of cake," Ron muttered before chomping half of it in one bite.

By lunchtime, Ron was feeling rather fed up with all the attention he was receiving on account of his father's appointment. "Merlin's beard, Harry, what am I supposed to say to these people? Most of them are all smiles like this is a good thing! And the rest still look jealous. I think I might throttle the next person that says 'congratulations' and shakes my hand."

Harry reached immediately for Ron's hand and said, "Congratulations!"

"You git," Ron sneered, shoving Harry's hand away. "I could handle this whole spotlight business when we won the Quidditch Cup. At least that really was a good thing. But this stinks. Most of these people wouldn't give me the time of day a week ago, and now they act like we're the best of friends." Ron stuck out his tongue.

"Catching flies?" said Hermione as she took her usual seat nearby.

"Yeah, lunch was really bad," Ron replied without missing a beat.

"Well, it's good you're done early," Hermione said. "Today's Wednesday, after all." After a few seconds of silence, she glared over her shoulder at the two of them. "Wednesday? As in, 'Moral Support for Hagrid Day?' You haven't gone down to see him yet, and it's almost October."

Harry and Ron exchanged a pained grimace. "Oh, no you don't!" snapped Hermione immediately, waggling her fork at them. "Besides, I'm sure he'd like to talk about the news. If you go now, while it's still early, you can use the start of class as an excuse to leave." She rolled her eyes in exasperation over having to explain such an obvious tactic to the two of them, and turned back to her plate.

"You know, Ron," said Harry with an impish grin , "if we go and visit Hagrid now, just before class starts, we can--"

"Silencio!" said Hermione, pointing her wand over her shoulder without even looking. Harry's voice cut off abruptly, and Ron wisely kept his laughter to a very low volume.

The charm wore off about halfway to Hagrid's cabin, just in time for Harry to answer Hagrid's cheerful shout of greeting. Hagrid was bustling around at the edge of the forest, clearly preparing for his next class. He had a bundle of lethal-looking peppers in his hand, and Harry immediately guessed the topic of today's lesson. "Fireflies today, Hagrid?" he asked cheerfully.

Hagrid set the peppers down on a small folding table and began to untie them. "Yeah, 'fraid it'll be a short class, seein' as they gotta come back out tonight ter get their Flies. Then I'm havin' half of 'em hide and the res' have ter use the Flies teh find 'em. Too bad it's all gotta be done a' night, we could'a used the great outdoors, but it'll still be alright in the castle. It'll be pretty in there, all the Flies zippin' about in the corridors. I jus' hope we'll have time fer both groups ter hide tonight."

As Hagrid rattled on cheerfully about his lesson plan, a little candle suddenly went on over Harry's head. " you think Ron and I could join your class for this lesson?"

Hagrid's smile widened until it threatened to overtake his earlobes. "Yeh really mean that, Harry? You two wanner be part o' my class again?"

Ron, who was standing behind Harry, had managed to hook the waistband of Harry's underwear through his robe and was clearly threatening to give him an atomic wedgie, but Harry ignored him. "Sure, Hagrid! I saw your memory of the technique, after all; I'd like to give it a try myself!"

Beaming, Hagrid gave Harry the pepper he'd just untied. "We're meetin' inna Entrance Hall at sunset, Harry. Ron, you dig up somethin' small o' yers teh give 'em the scent."

As they walked away, Ron quietly demanded, "Have you gone spare?"

Harry winked. "No worries, Ron, there's a method in my madness. If I've got this right, those Fireflies are going to lead us straight to Kreacher's hiding place."

After the sun disappeared below the horizon, Harry left the Gryffindor common room and met up with the handful of other seventh-years in Hagrid's class at the oak doors to the castle. Hagrid marched them down to the edge of the Forbidden Forest. "Lucky it's been a warm fall, there's still lots of 'em aroun'. Come now, set out yer bait an' get back a bit, they'll be comin' along before yeh know it."

That was a bit of an exaggeration, but pale flickering lights eventually appeared in the lower branches, and soon after that a number of Flies took interest in Harry's pepper. When it was covered in glowing Flies, Harry tossed a handkerchief over it and collected his little swarm. He wished he'd had some of these fellows when he'd walked through the Forest with Ondossi. With a bit of their light, Harry could have caught those walnuts she was tossing like so many Snitches.

Ron was waiting for him just inside the oak front doors, having a bit of a staring match with Filch. The caretaker was most displeased that he was required to let Hagrid's students out after dark, and naturally insisted that they present for inspection upon entering the castle. He eyeballed Ron as though he expected him to make a headlong charge at the doors at any moment. As Harry came in, Ron made a slight feint in that direction and Filch leapt to his feet, only to scowl menacingly when Ron merely leaned over and picked up a scrap of parchment from the floor. "What a blooming git," commented Ron quietly as the two of them headed downstairs.

A small crowd of house-elves welcomed them into the kitchen with plates of buttered rolls and cake (which both Ron and Harry felt honor-bound to accept graciously). The elves were a bit put off, however, by their request for a dark space in which to prepare the Fireflies. Harry felt a bit guilty as he monitored their anxious discussion; they were appalled by the idea of deliberately introducing insects into their kitchens. He turned to Ron, who nodded in resigned agreement. A clean kitchen was a rather nice thing.

Dobby saved the day when he burst into the main scullery. "Harry Potter! They told me you was visiting! Of course Harry Potter may use the kitchen in any way he requires," Dobby said with a sharp glare to all the elves present. There were a few dissenting grimaces, but none of them spoke up. Apparently Dobby's status as a free agent had won him a position of authority.

"Thanks, Dobby," said Harry as the elf escorted them to his own sleeping quarters, a rather roomy nook in a storeroom with two wooden window shutters for doors. It was a bit reminiscent of Harry's cupboard under the stairs at the Dursleys' home. "We've got a plan to find the things that Kreacher took. We just need a few minutes to prepare the Fireflies. You wouldn't have an oil lamp, would you?"

"Dobby can find one, of course, Harry Potter," said the elf, but Harry noticed the slightest furrow between his spherical eyes.

"Is something wrong, Dobby?" he asked.

The furrow immediately vanished, but Harry could still see a trace of...something in Dobby's eyes. Resentment? Harry had never seen Dobby indicate displeasure before, and he found it rather chilling. "Dobby...what's on your mind?" he asked cautiously.

Dobby looked back up and opened his mouth as if to speak, but sighed and drooped his ears instead. "It is nothing, sir. Dobby knows there was no offense meant, sir."

Harry's mouth fell open. "No, Dobby, there wasn't! But you have to explain--I don't even know what I said to offend you!" But even as he spoke, Harry recognized that this was the same peculiar emotional state he was in when he was able to skim the surface of Ron's thoughts: a bit of disappointment, a smattering of regret, and a hopeful optimism about future success. He didn't need Dobby to tell him (and the elf certainly seemed reluctant to do so), he could lift the answer from Dobby's mind.

Harry peered at the elf's huge green eyes. Within seconds, his vision dimmed slightly; the process was beginning--

The next thing Harry saw was the bottom of a rack of pots and pans hanging from the kitchen, completely framed by an oval ring of enormous, concerned pairs of eyeballs. "How did I..." Harry mumbled, realizing that the back of his head hurt sharply.

Ron's voice carried from somewhere outside the ring of eyes. "You've been out for twenty minutes, Harry. Dropped like a stone, for no reason we could see. You okay?"

Harry groaned, gingerly patting the goose-egg on the back of his head. "Been better. Why am I back out in the kitchen?"

"I told the elves if you didn't wake up, they could serve you for breakfast tomorrow," said Ron wryly. Dozens of scandalized house-elves glared at Ron in indignation and horror. "Easy, easy, just a joke! We wanted to give you some air. It was a compromise, so they wouldn't nip off and fetch Madam Pomfrey."

Good thinking, Ron, Harry mused silently. This was getting ridiculous, all these delays. Harry sat up, ignoring the new headache this produced. "I'm all right, really, I think I know what happened. Where's Dobby?"

"I don't think he left his, um, room," said Ron, wisely sidling up next to Harry to help him stand up. "He's pretty upset--he thinks he hurt you."

"Oh, no," groaned Harry. "He's not banging his head, is he?"

There were no thumping sounds emanating from behind the shutters, but Dobby apparently did not hear their knock. By the time Harry cautiously pulled open one of the shutters, the elf had twisted his ears up so tightly that they looked like braids. He practically leapt into Harry's arms when he saw him.

Harry patted the creature's papery skin and gently unfurled the ears until Dobby had calmed down enough to speak coherently. "Harry Potter, Dobby would rather die than--"

Harry put his hand over Dobby's mouth. "Shh," he crooned soothingly. "It's all right, Dobby. It was my own fault. I tried to use Legilimency on you, and I think it backfired." Dobby calmed down at the news that he was not responsible for Harry's collapse.

"Dobby doesn't know about Wizarding arts like Legilimency. No one has ever tried such a thing on Dobby."

Harry attempted to smooth the crumpled ears. "There's a lot I don't know about it either," he admitted. "But all's fine again, so let's get back to the task at hand. Now, I'd asked for a lamp, and that bothered you. Why?"

Dobby averted his gaze with an air of shame or humiliation. Harry glanced at Ron, who shrugged. Both of them stared at Dobby with concealed impatience for some time before the little elf finally spoke, his eyes never leaving the floor of his cubbyhole.

"Harry Potter knows that a gift of clothing will free a house-elf from his master, but that is only one of our customs." Dobby's voice became gravelly. "There are many more, which Harry Potter has never learned, because he has never kept one of us under his thumb. Harry Potter asked if Dobby had a lamp. For a moment, Dobby felt insulted by this question, but that was foolish!"

Fearing a new auricular onslaught, Harry reached protectively for the ears again. Dobby dropped his hands into his lap, sighed, and continued. "Harry Potter would not try to insult Dobby, no, not ever. Not on purpose. He just didn't know that, like clothes, house-elves doesn't own lamps."

Harry raised his brows. "But I see house-elves carrying lamps all the time."

"Carrying them for master, yes, sir, and to light fires to cook master's food or warm master's bed. But not to keep in their own quarters. Even Dobby, who was set free by Harry Potter, does not presume to own a lamp."

"Why not?"

Dobby cleared his throat. "A rule from hundreds of years ago, sir. If master wishes an elf to work at night, he will provide enough light. If it is dark, an elf is supposed to sleep until it's time to work again."

Harry frowned. "But it gets dark early in the winter! What if you finish your work and you're not tired yet? You're not allowed to play a game, or read?"

Dobby's hand flew over his mouth as though Harry had uttered something blasphemous. "That is exactly why house-elves doesn't keep lamps, sir. Elves are forbidden to read!"

Not just Harry's jaw, but his whole head fell forward in shock. "Not allowed to read?! Says who?"

"Dobby told you, this has been the rule for centuries. Elves work, Harry Potter. Time spent reading is time wasted from their chores, or from getting the proper rest before the next chore. And worse than that, reading leads to thinking. Ideas." Dobby's squeaky voice dropped in both volume and pitch. "Slaves who thinks and has ideas does not make good slaves, Harry Potter."

Harry's chest tightened uncomfortably, and one look at Ron showed that his was doing the same. The pidgin English most elves spoke, their limited comprehension of concepts like freedom and payment, their intense distrust of changes to the status quo--all of these made sense now. Most elves lived alone with their masters, or perhaps one or two other servants. Isolated by silence, unable to even send an owl once in a while, they could go an entire lifetime without even hearing of any code of conduct besides the one their Wizard masters imposed upon them.

"Dobby," Harry said quietly, but was too conscience-stricken to continue.

The elf looked up at last with a wan smile. "Dobby will fetch a lamp for Harry Potter right away, sir."

Harry silently watched him depart, then turned to Ron. "Ever get the feeling that maybe the world would be better off without any wizards at all?" Ron said nothing, but nodded grimly.

Harry felt his face flush heatedly. All right, I never listened to Hermione, I just looked the other way, but now I know better, he thought. I'm going to do something about this. I'll buy Dobby a lamp while we're down in London, and some early reader books. Just planning out a redress for this unscrupulous "rule" helped him feel better; the tightness in his chest dissipated at last into a comfortable warmth.

"Ron, I think--" Harry began, sitting up straighter, but to his great surprise, Ron was staring at him and pointing to his chest.

At that moment, the warmth became painfully hot and Harry caught a whiff of smoke. "Mother of Merlin, the Fireflies!"

Any lingering fantasies Harry had of quickly finding Kreacher's stash were immediately quashed. Harry scrambled to get out of his robe, which was now smoldering in the front, trying desperately not to crush the Flies. This was not a simple matter, since he was crouching inside a cupboard. Ron, seated against the opposite wall, quickly gained the presence of mind to take out his wand, and cast the Aguamenti spell before Harry could stop him.

"Turn it off! Turn it off!" Harry shouted desperately, turning his back to shield the Flies from the stream of water. Even one drop would douse their lights! Of course, protecting the little blighters took several precious seconds from his attempt to disrobe, at the price of his shirt. By the time he managed to yank the robe down from his shoulders, even his nice silk Gryffindor tie was singed.

But that didn't end the chaos. No longer personally on fire, Harry collected his thoughts and realized that the Flies must have eaten all of their pepper and thus had no further reason to stick around. Harry tossed fold after fold of his robe over them frantically, hoping to keep them trapped under the layers until the lamp arrived. With one foot he attempted to tug the shutters closed, lest the flies escape when they finally emerged from the robe, but then he and Ron were trapped in the cupboard with the acrid smoke from the burning robe. Harry finally had to give up, though ultimately the Flies would have burned through the wood just as easily as his clothes.

Coughing and gasping, Harry and Ron half rolled, half crawled from Dobby's nook. Then it hit him: along with the Fireflies, the pockets of Harry's robe contained other important things--his Invisibility cloak, the Marauder's Map, and Sirius's mirror, to name a few! He reached for his wand to perform an extinguishing spell--it might kill the Flies, but those other things were just too valuable--and realized his wand was in the robe as well. Rudely yanking Ron's wand from his hand, Harry pointed it at the burning heap and croaked, "Flammafrigus!" It was the spell used by witches in the Middle Ages who were being burned at the stake, to cool the flames to a tolerable temperature. Once again he owed Hermione for her most excellent History of Magic notes.

Thus poor Dobby returned with the lamp to find smoke billowing from his tidy little cubbyhole, a huge ashy puddle in the center of his mattress, and Harry buried to his elbows in an apparent campfire from which he was frantically extracting various objects. Dobby's eyes bulged out further than ever before, but Harry and Ron were too busy extinguishing Harry's favorite possessions to notice. By the time they sat back, panting, with stunned looks upon their faces, Dobby's ears, shoulders, and even his long thin nose had sagged and drooped until he rather resembled a waxworks model of himself (one which had been left out in the hot sun too long).

Harry winced guiltily at the sight of the horrified elf, but there was no time yet for apologies. The Flies had not yet emerged from the cinders of his robe. There was still a chance to pull this off. Harry took the lamp from Dobby's unresisting hand, lit it from the remainder of his torched robe, and lowered the wick. He quickly noxed the three small sconces on the walls of the storeroom and conjured a black curtain to cover the arched entrance.

The only light in the room came from the Fireflies' bottoms and the feeble blue flame of the oil lamp. The Flies began exploring the storeroom slowly and silently, meandering among the shelves like glowing butterflies. Harry hoped it wouldn't take long for one of them to discover the waning lamplight. He turned at last to Dobby, or at least in the direction he believed was facing the elf.

"Dobby? I know this looks terrible, but I promise, I'll fix it all up--"

"Harry Potter is being silly!" said Dobby, though unable to disguise the distress in his voice. "House-elves cleans up messes, sir, and this is just another mess. Harry Potter mustn't fret about it one more minute. You sirs go on about your business and don't give Dobby another thought."

Harry opened his mouth to protest, but by now his eyes had adjusted to the darkness and he could see Dobby's face. The poor fellow looked as though he'd rather return to Malfoy Manor than allow Harry in his sleeping-nook again. Harry sighed, vowing to find an exceptional lamp for Dobby at the next opportunity, and perhaps a new pillow as well.

A Fly meandered past the lamp at last. It burst into a loud buzz, and the remaining flies rushed to rally around the lamp, humming loudly in their concern. "Finally!" Harry muttered. The Fireflies were hooked at last--they would not wander off until their "companion" was safe once more. "Worst is over!" Harry said brightly to Ron and Dobby, but neither of them looked any cheerier. Harry set his jaw and pawed around until he found the mirror.

"Now it's just a matter of imprinting them with the scent," Harry said to no one in particular as he brought the mirror over to the Flies whirling over the lamp. "All Hagrid did was hold the comb up near them and let each one rub against it or land on it, or whatever. The trick is keeping track of which ones have touched it. I can see why he only picked three when he hunted for Sirius." Harry had assumed that "the more, the merrier" applied to Fireflies, and had trapped closer to fifteen of the insects under his handkerchief. That probably explains why they went through the pepper so quickly, he noted inwardly as he unwrapped the mirror from the strip of cloth he'd wound around it to protect it.

As Harry held up the mirror, the first Fly to notice it zipped over to it encouragingly, but stopped a hand's breadth from the mirror and hovered, staring at it intently. Harry frowned; Hagrid's Flies hadn't seemed to notice the comb at all, even when Hagrid brushed it against their glittery wings. Another Fly joined the first, then another, all stopping and hovering. Harry tried to move it closer, but the Flies backed up, keeping their distance from the mirror. He then pulled it away, hoping they would give chase and overtake it, but again, the Flies simply followed it in perfect synchrony with his movement. A fourth one caught sight of the mirror and joined in.

"What's the matter with you blokes?" Harry wondered aloud. "This isn't at all how they acted with Hagrid," he continued, almost apologetically.

Ron screwed up his face thoughtfully. "You know, it's almost like they're dancing with it. Maybe they think their reflection's another Fly."

"I suppose that makes sense," said Harry. "They're probably just sizing up the new fellows."

"Or maybe they're wondering why these Flies aren't helping the lamp," said Ron ominously. Harry realized that the Flies in the mirror probably seemed antisocial, hanging about up here while there was a friend in need. That was not the impression he wanted them to make about the mirror! He quickly yanked it away from them.

As if on cue, the four hurled themselves at the mirror in unison, determined to teach those snobs a lesson in manners. There was a startlingly loud thud as four hard little heads rammed the glass, and one Fly fell to the ground, its little rump suddenly dimming to a pale red. One of the others dove protectively after it, while the remaining two obviously geared up for a second strike.

Harry tried to turn the mirror away from them, but the little fellows were lightning fast and followed the mirror as if glued there on an invisible stalk. Another thud and the two Flies rebounded in irregular spirals through the air, clearly a bit punch-drunk from the assault. Harry flattened the mirror against his chest before had a chance to recover.

"Well, that went as well as could be expected," said Ron glumly. "I don't think you want them getting back to the rest of the crowd with the news, Harry."

Harry groaned. "Merlin's beard, no. They probably imprinted on the mirror already; the last thing we need is for them to tell the others it's an enemy! Ron, can you conjure up a net really quick? My wand's still in the pile."

Ron did so, and scooped up the dim Fly still lolling dazed on the floor. He tossed the little fellow out of the storeroom, its faithful companion following with an angry buzz. The others were now flashing around the room at high speed, determined to find the traitors and give them a good thrashing. With a more athletic effort, Ron managed to trap one of them, but his net only lasted a fraction of a second before the Fly incinerated it and continued on its vengeful way. Ron faced toward Harry, but his eyes were crossed in pure vexation.

"Think you can make one out of metal?" Harry pleaded.

Ron distorted his face even more. "Morgan le Fay, Harry, I'm glad Hermione's not here, we'd never hear the end of being dumber than bugs." Ron's first attempt to conjure a woven wire net failed miserably, the fibers becoming tangled and stretched to the breaking point. With a snort of frustration, he started anew with very fine chain mail. Harry watched in admiration; this was one of the most meticulous spells he'd ever seen Ron perform.

"No, now you've got to bring the edges in--link two at a time with one ring," he prompted, as the net reached a nice depth.

Ron, whose forehead was beginning to ache from the concentration, waved at Harry to shut him up. "Don't bug me!" he grunted, focusing intently on the final few rows, interweaving larger jump rings with the tiny loops to make the net drew itself closed with an elegant series of pleats and darts. Ron sealed it shut by running a single wire through the end loops, cinching it tight with a triumphant flick of his wand.

"Woohoo!" Harry howled appreciatively, slugging the air victoriously with his free fist. "You're wasted on those houses of cards, mate, that was some wicked magic!"

Ron nodded, turning the net over in his hands and giving it a few experimental swishes. "It is good, innit? Think I'll make a full-size version or two for my beloved brothers. Dangle them from the ceiling of their own shop. Now that's funny, what'cha say, Harry?" Ron beamed impishly.

"You could open your own place right next door. 'Weasley's Revenge On Wheezy Wizards.'

Ron gazed wistfully, imagining the torture he would inflict on Fred and George if he had a life-size chainmail sack for each of them. He snapped out of his reverie. "Well, enough of that. I've had all I'm going to stand of these bloody Flies for one night. Engard, insects!" he bellowed, flourishing the net like a rapier.

Even Dobby eventually came down with the giggles as he and Harry watched Ron's prolonged but relentless pursuit of the Fireflies. They had by now revved themselves up into a frenzy and buzzed up around the ceiling like laser blasts in a Muggle movie, with Ron leaping from shelves and crates in his attempts to ensnare them. When he finally captured one Fly, the momentum created by the creature's great speed nearly ripped the net from his grasp.

Harry burst out laughing as Ron quickly flipped the little beast out of the storeroom. "What's so funny?" he demanded.

"Nothing," Harry lied unconvincingly. "Just for a second there, it looked as though it would just keep going, with you flapping after it, hanging on for dear life..."

"Laugh while you can, monkey boy," muttered Ron darkly, and resumed his pursuit.

After finally turning out the last meteoric Fly, Ron calmly scooped up nearly all the remaining would-be Good Samaritans from their vigil around the oil lamp, shoving them beyond the curtain despite their squeaks of protest. Two remained anxiously tending the tiny flame, apparently not even noticing that their companions had disappeared. "There," said Ron with a defiant huff. "Now we've got a manageable number."

Harry nodded. "All right, then, I guess what I need to do is hold the mirror backwards and make sure they don't see themselves, right?" He hoped that would work, anyway. After all this trouble, Harry's confidence in his Firefly Management skills had dwindled away to nothing.

Luck at last seemed to favor them. The Flies paid no more attention to the dull side of the mirror as they had to Sirius's baby comb. As soon as Harry was certain that each fly had bumped against the mirror at least once, he brought it up next to the lamp and raised the wick.

The little gleeful sounds the Flies made were so droll that Harry, Ron, and Dobby all cooed over them like new fathers over their babies. All three smirked in embarrassment, but it couldn't be helped; the little blighters were cute when they cooperated. To everyone's relief, both Flies immediately landed on the mirror and began rubbing it gratefully with their forelegs.

"Set it down, Harry!" said Ron. "You don't want them bumping into your fingers!"

Harry laid the mirror on the floor by the lamp and leaned back against a sack of flour. "Well. I hope I never do that again for the rest of my life."

"Eh, now you've got all the bugs worked out, so to speak, next time it'll be a piece of cake!" gaffed Ron, poking Harry's shin with the end of the net. "And I've got this lovely thing that I made. Maybe Professor McGonagall will give me extra credit for it in Conjuring."

Harry smiled and leaned his head back against the flour sack to enjoy a window of quiet after all the chaos, glimpsing Ron doing the same as he closed his eyes. Harry finally noticed that between the smoke in his face and the smack he'd received on the back of his head earlier that evening, he had quite a headache.

The sweetly crooning Flies on the mirror were almost enough to soothe the tension away, but Harry knew this was no time to relax. He asked Dobby to bring him a glass of water, feeling guilty that the poor elf had returned to such a disaster from his last errand, but it couldn't be helped. Harry knew that water from the Aguamenti spell would fade away once the magic wore off, and he didn't know how long it would take the Flies to find the other mirror. If this mirror resurfaced, they'd simply return to it and the hunt would have to start over from the beginning.

Dobby brought the water quite quickly and Harry was about to submerge the mirror when he stopped short. "Ron, I just remembered something. If Kreacher's den isn't down here, these Flies may leave in a big hurry! Hagrid followed them on a thestral when they were looking for Sirius. I think I better get my Firebolt before starting the hunt." Harry suddenly felt crestfallen. "You, uh, want your broom?"

Ron lowered his eyebrows in a brooding stare. "Hah. You know the Cleansweep can't get half the speed you can. You're on your own if it comes to that, mate."

"Sorry, Ron. I forgot. You can try..." Ron wrinkled his nose cynically, and Harry stopped asking. He knew he'd have trouble keeping up even on the Firebolt if those Flies really opened throttle.

Tossing on the Invisibility cloak, Harry slunk up to Gryffindor Tower, where he changed out of his burnt shirt and soaked, ashy pants. He settled on plain Muggle jeans and a warm sweater, realizing that he'd just burnt up his second set of robes in two months. Fawkes eyed him knowingly from his preferred perch on the headboard of Harry's bed. He must have smelled the ashes and smoke, because he looked downright smug. Apparently Fawkes found it ludicrous that a lesser flame than his own would presume to touch Harry. Tell that to my best tie, Harry mused.

Harry finally returned to the dungeons with his broomstick and a backpack in tow, having surprised everyone in the common room by descending from the boys' dormitory when they had all thought (correctly) that he was out with Ron. "Okay, I'm ready for anything. Let's get this started," he said. The flies were still fawning over the mirror, but their humming had faded and he suspected they were starting to get bored with their unresponsive new friend. He picked up the mirror and prepared to dunk it, but a nervous little cough from Dobby rattled his concentration.

Harry looked up at the elf, who looked dangerously close to attacking his ears again. He immediately supressed a groan. "Oh, Dobby, of course, I'll set to work on your bedroom as soon as I get back--"

"Oh, no, sir, Harry Potter, sir, that's not it at all, sir," said Dobby anxiously. "Dobby will see to that. It's just that..." The elf looked as though he'd rather bite his own tongue than speak at that point.

"What is it now, Dobby?" said Harry, immediately wishing he'd phrased it more gently.

"It's just that...Dobby told all the other elves that it was all right for Harry Potter to bring his insects into the kitchens because Dobby knows sir would never, ever make troubles on purpose. But now most of the flies is not with Harry Potter anymore..."

Harry and Ron groaned as one, but Ron spoke up. "Now there are at least a dozen Flies snooping around and thinking this might make a nice cozy new home. Okay, Dobby." Ron pulled himself to his feet. "I'll take them outside." Harry gave Ron a look of total gratitude. "How about you get me a pot with a lid to put them in?" said Ron to the elf. "Chasing them down will be bad enough, but carrying them one by one up the stairs to let them out is just plain silly."

"A pepper in the pot would help too," added Harry.

Alone at last with the Fireflies, Harry picked up the mirror and gently shook them off. He immediately dunked the mirror in the water glass and hid it behind Dobby's shutters just to be sure. If they happened to spot their reflections in the mirror through the water glass, Merlin only knew what they might do.

While Harry scooped his things into the backpack, the Flies slowly began to circle one another in a rising column. Harry held his Firebolt at the ready, watching the spiraling flecks of light. Realizing that he might have to depart the castle itself, Harry pulled his Cloak out of his backpack. As he shook it out, both flies headed straight for him, alighting on his forehead and nuzzling him like a long-lost cousin.

"Not me, you idiots!" He pushed the Flies from his head, but they immediately landed on his neck. "No!" he growled, wiping them off again. "I'm not your buddy. Go look for someone else." The Flies tried landing on each ear, then his nose, then finally the top of his head (with one becoming so tangled in his hair that it required a considerable effort to extract the little blighter). Harry was ready to swat them by that point, but fortunately, they gave up on him at last and returned to their midair spiral to discuss their next tactic.

They were clearly picking up speed, and Harry stepped over his Firebolt, which was hovering where he'd left it. He pointed his wand at the curtain over the doorway and said, "Finite Conjurum" to clear the way. The Flies darted out through the arch and through the kitchens at a rapid pace, and Harry suddenly recalled that Hagrid had opened a window back in the Leaky Cauldron to let his Flies outside. Oh, no, he thought, and launched his broom with all the acceleration it was capable of.

He made it to the kitchen entrance before the Flies and opened it before they burned a hole through the painting, but he was not so lucky with the oak front doors. Filch had suspected that some Flies might try to get out during the evening; he was standing right beside the main entrance with a bucket of water. In desperation, Harry aimed his wand while still flying up the stairs, which was no easy feat at that speed, and launched a charm to open the door. Sparks shot from his wand and reached the door before the Flies, preserving the ancient oak from a burning assault, but Filch, in a fury, tossed his pail of water at them anyway. Once again Harry's clothes were soaked, but the quest was truly on at last, and thanks to the Invisibility Cloak and a determined silence, the caretaker had no idea what had really blasted out through that door. Harry heard Filch shout, "Peeves! I'll get you for this!" as he rose in the air, cold and wet but free.

Chapter 19: Chapter 19: Be Careful What You Seek
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Twinkling lights danced at the limit of Harry's vision. The Fireflies were outpacing him. Harry pressed his body against the broomstick to minimize drag as much as possible, but the Firebolt simply could not keep up. The gap between he and the Flies was growing wider. To make matters worse, the insects were content to cruise just above the treetops. At this speed, Harry felt a constant nagging fear that some unexpectedly tall obstacle would flatten him into a pancake at any moment.

A rather Hermionesque voice in the back of his mind began to speculate that perhaps another night, another pepper, and some better preparation might be the wisest course, but Harry had been through too much to accept defeat. He wondered if he could Apparate while riding the broomstick, just far enough to catch up to the Flies. Not at this speed, he finally decided. He had to concentrate just to stay on the Firebolt; there was no way he could focus sufficiently to Apparate.

Harry thought he'd lost the Flies on the horizon, but he spotted them again after they'd moved beyond the lights of a small village. This was ridiculous. Harry was sure they were headed for London; he couldn't hope to track them through the lights of the city.

He could stop now and apparate to Grimmauld Place. Where else would Kreacher keep his possessions? Where, indeed. The little git proved he wasn't bound to the house when he visited Malfoy Manor and tried to betray the entire Order. And besides, Dobby had searched Sirius's--no, his--no, Lupin's--house quite thoroughly, Harry was certain of that.

Poor Dobby. His whole bedroom had been destroyed on account of these stupid Flies, and now Harry was going to lose them! He wrapped one arm firmly around the broom handle, freeing his other hand to pull in some folds of his cloak that were flapping in the wind. Every ounce of drag was his enemy tonight. His shoulders were aching from the effort of steadying the broom, and it still wasn't fast enough!

But what if I slow them down?

The idea hit Harry out of the blue. What good was it to be a Legilimagus if you couldn't get into the minds of a couple of Flies and suggest they cool their afterburners a tad? For a moment, Harry laughed out loud at his narrow view of the solution up until that point. But then he realized he hadn't the slightest idea how to contact the mind of an insect half a mile off and zooming away from him.

He had to try. Harry climbed a few hundred feet to ensure a clear flight path, though it cost him an even greater lag behind the Flies. He could actually see them a bit better from above, but only because the moors were so empty and dark. Harry stared at them, envisioning their multifaceted eyes, their tiny little heads encasing what passed for a brain in the insect world. His own eyes began to lose their focus, it was working, he could feel himself stretching out to make the contact--

Directly in front of him, a fireball exploded.

There was no time to comprehend what happened, let alone react to it. The shock wave flipped Harry's broom in midair, but his momentum carried him through the actual flames so quickly that he barely felt the warmth. The broomstick was spinning like a drunken gyroscope, however, and Harry was forced to slow down and regain control. By the time he leveled off again, he was no more than fifteen feet from the ground. The Fireflies were nowhere to be seen.

Fawkes landed on the front of Harry's broomstick with a gusty flap of his crimson wings, peering over his sharp bill with a look of unmistakable reproach.

"What was that all about?" Harry demanded. "Now I've lost them!" Fawkes made no sound, but wriggled his tail insolently. "Oh, for the love of Merlin," said Harry crossly, "this had better be important. I've spent all evening working with those Flies, and now I'll have to start over." Harry glared angrily at the phoenix, but when it came to expressions of unctious disdain, Fawkes could beat Hedwig, McGonagall, and Ondossi combined.

Harry finally landed the Firebolt, as it was clear that Fawkes wouldn't relent until he'd accomplished his objective (whatever that was). As soon as Harry tried to stand, he discovered his legs were shaking from the effort of controlling the broomstick. Fortunately, the ground was dry when his knees gave out beneath him.

He glanced over at the phoenix, who had watched his collapse with an expression of mild curiosity. "All right, fine. I was pushing the broom a bit. But I had it under control! And if you'd given me ten more seconds to reach out to those Flies--"

Fawkes cut him off with a very loud, angry screech that would surely fuel the local legends of terrible beasts haunting the moors. For a moment, Harry just gaped at the phoenix, stunned that such an ugly sound came from him. "You're getting a temper, mate," he finally said.

Snorting, Fawkes let go of the broomstick and trundled over to Harry in the lurching manner of a creature unused to walking. He clambered into Harry's lap and looked him sternly in the eye, fanning his long tail flat onto the ground. Harry cringed. "Something tells me I'm about to get an earful, so to speak."

There were no words, not even images, but the phoenix was definitely in his mind. Harry was overcome with grief, the unbearable sorrow of an immortal confronting another's death. Then images came, at first hazy and indistinct, then extraordinarily clear. He saw himself flying at top speed on the Firebolt, as he'd been only minutes earlier. Harry watched his own eyes close in concentration as he sought the minds of the Fireflies. His head suddenly lolled to the side, and then he was simply gone.

He'd literally flown off the broomstick; at that speed, the instant he relaxed, his body became a sail smashing into a headwind. He watched himself plummet, his limbs flapping uselessly in free fall. Strangely, even though it was dark and his body was becoming smaller and smaller in the distance, Harry could still see every detail as if the body was merely shrinking, rather than falling away. His eyes never opened as he fell, not even when he struck the ground and disintegrated.

Harry was jolted back to reality by another angry screech from Fawkes, who poked his bill right up against Harry's nose. The phoenix leveled him with an expectant glare, but for some time, "Oh" was all Harry could manage to say out loud.

That was my future, wasn't it? You're a Seer--the real thing, what Trelawney wishes she could be. Fawkes made no sound, but Harry knew the answer. "You Saw it, and you came to save me. Fawkes." It was hard to know exactly how to hug a bird; their wings were sort of like arms, after all, but folded up at their sides in a rather standoffish way as far as hugs were concerned. Nonetheless, Harry threw his arms around Fawkes and stroked his thin, delicate neck. The phoenix finally relented, settling into Harry's lap with an affectionate trill.

Harry's whole body was shaking, both from the exhausting flight and the raw nerves from witnessing the death he'd barely escaped, but Fawkes was warm and light and comforting. Harry slumped onto his back and gazed at the stars. "You know, this is exactly what I was doing last night. Sitting out in the middle of nowhere with someone who'd just saved my life." Fawkes waddled up onto Harry's chest and roosted again, shaking his tail as he settled in. "Maybe I do need to slow down. But every minute I wait...the next one could be Remus. Or Mr. Weasley." He snorted. "Or both of them, most likely. They're probably the next thing in Voldemort's to-do box."

Harry sighed as Fawkes began tugging delicately at his hair, apparently trying to put it in order. "Don't bother," he advised the phoenix, pushing the bill away gently. "You could straighten it all night and it'll still look exactly the same. Trust me." Fawkes made a sound that resembled a hiccup, but he laid his head on Harry's shoulder in apparent agreement.

When Harry finally stopped shaking and his legs no longer felt like rubber, he gave Fawkes a quick tap on the shoulder. Fawkes needed no further prompt, hopping off Harry with a casual flap of his wings. We're already starting to understand each other, just like Hagrid said, thought Harry. That was a cheering thought.

Harry sat up, patting the ground beside him for the Firebolt. "Well, Fawkes, I suppose there's nothing for it but to go home. At least we can fly together some more. That'll be nice, won't it?" He found the broom and prepared to mount up, but Fawkes sat still on the ground, his tail spread out again. Harry furrowed his brow and leaned down, looking the phoenix in the eye. "You fan your tail when you have something to say to me, don't you? Not that you talk to me, that is. When you have something you want me to think about," Harry corrected himself.

Fawkes gazed at him with a bright expression, then stretched out his long neck such that it paralleled the handle of Harry's broomstick. Harry cocked his head with a puzzled grin. "What are you up to?" he wondered aloud, but once again he inexplicably knew the answer. Somewhat stiffly, Harry took the Firebolt in both hands and held it down before Fawkes. The phoenix stepped upon the handle and perched comfortably, then opened his scarlet wings and draped them over Harry.

Furthering the Muggle legends about the will-o-the-wisp haunting the moor, the wizard and his familiar disappeared in a burst of blue flame.

It was a bit of a stretch to call it "Apparating," as it felt nothing like the warped compression of the Wizard transportation. It was more like doing Legilimency, actually, except that flames were involved. Harry seemed to step out of himself, not into a new mind but a new place, while his body simply burned up and formed anew when he reached the destination. Harry peered skeptically at Fawkes, who warbled at him innocently. The sensation that he'd just been reconstructed out of fresh ingredients was rather disconcerting, but he was pleased to see that for a change, he still had all of his clothes.

"Where are we?" Harry said as he looked around. It was cloudy and quite dark, but he spotted a distant Muggle street lamp that he recognized almost immediately. He groaned. They were in the cemetary of Godric's Hollow--the lamp illuminated the gated entrance to the grounds. "Of course. The Fireflies. They'd look for my dad next, it was his mirror to begin with."

There was no sign of their lights up on the hillside yet. Fawkes climbed onto Harry's shoe, obviously wanting to be picked up, so Harry set the phoenix on his shoulder and began climbing the hill. Within a few steps, he began to hear a familiar voice ahead. It was Ondossi; she was chanting in her Inupiat language just as she had in the forest the night before. He could barely see her in the overcast night, but he could tell she was dancing, much like she had in her memory of the seal hunt. Harry ascended to the graves without interrupting and sat by the headstones, setting Fawkes to perch upon the little marker that was meant for Harry himself. When Ondossi finally finished her chant, all remained silent for a few minutes until Harry spoke.

"Were you thanking them?"

"I was," Ondossi said quietly, sitting at the end of the flowerbeds.

"For what, exactly?"

She sighed. "For you. For dying so you could live. I had to make up a chant for it, there isn't one that I know of for that purpose. If my people need food so desperately that they have to kill a mother animal, they take the young as well. A baby alone in the Arctic wouldn't survive anyway."

"You did," noted Harry.

She had been gazing at the flowers over the graves, but her head snapped up at his comment. "Seems that way," she finally said, a bit gravelly. "Well, then," she began in a colder, more typical tone, "what are we doing here? As if I'm not spooky enough already, you summon me to skulk around in a cemetary?"

"Summon you? I didn't summon you!" said Harry indignantly.

"I was talking to the turkey, Harry." Fawkes puffed air noisily through his bill. "What gives, bird-brain? Couldn't you at least have waited until Halloween?" The phoenix made quite a show of turning his back to Ondossi, though he wobbled awkwardly as he swung his long tail around his low perch.

"I suppose it's my fault," said Harry. "Fawkes caught me doing something that nearly got me killed. I'd imagine he wants you to hear about it."

"That so? You know, Mr. Potter, you're really in the doghouse, because I have some current events to discuss as well. You see, about an hour ago, I woke up with such a start that I flipped right out of my own hammock, which is never pleasant. I had this absolute certainty that I had to get to a place called Godric's Hollow. I even knew how to Apparate there, which was very strange because I'd never Apparated before in my whole life. But I had a funny feeling it came from Feathers over there, so I went with it."

She stood up and came toward him, holding out her arm. "Imagine my surprise when I landed or rematerialized or whatever one does after getting sucked through that wormhole, and within seconds, there's an owl here with THIS." She was thrusting a piece of parchment under his nose. As soon as Harry took it, she lit her wand so he could read it. "I got a TICKET, for Apparating without a license! They fined me twenty Galleons! How am I supposed to pay that?"

Harry looked over the parchment and groaned again. "Tura, you nitwit, why didn't you get licensed? Kingsley Shacklebolt is an examiner, he licensed me right there in Headquarters!"

"Why didn't I get licensed?" she squalled. "I just told you, I don't Apparate! And even if I did, I didn't know you need a license! Geez, you guys need to get permission from Big Brother to do any magic at all! I may have to pin down that sanctimonious little yes-man Percy Weasley, and go through his stock of rules and regulations just so I can keep out of jail!"

Harry rolled his eyes. "Look, I'm sorry. Maybe we can get the fine reduced if we explain that you weren't told about licenses."

"Oh, but that wasn't all," she said, the pitch of her voice rising from annoyed to near-hysteria. She flipped the wandlight from the parchment to her face, yanking back the hood of her cape. It took every ounce of Harry's self-control not to laugh, but he knew the consequence would be much worse than an onslaught of walnuts.

Ondossi was as bald as an egg.

"Where the Sam Hill is my HAIR?" she screeched so loudly that Harry feared the whole town would come running. He almost kept a straight face, but Fawkes started clucking with what could only be laughter and it was just too much. Harry laughed so hard that his stomach hurt and he had to lay on the ground.

"Oh, yeah," snarled Ondossi. "Hardy-har-har. I'm not a happy camper, you two."

Sitting up, Harry wiped his eyes. "Tura. It's called 'splinching.' Your hair's probably right where you left it."

"Joy. And can it be unsplinched, or resplinched, or whatever?"

"I think so. Sure, Ron splinched his eyebrow once, and they put it back on. It'll be fine. Honest."

She noxed her wand and sat down abruptly. "I hope you're right," she said sullenly. "Now, please tell me I've gone bald for a good reason. Why am I here, Harry?"

Harry summarized the comedy of errors that made up his evening. When he finished, she nodded and asked what he'd learned.

"Well, besides how not to handle Fireflies, I gather it's not such a good idea to do Legilimency on non-humans."

"Well, actually, animals are fine--it's only magical creatures that will give you trouble. You can do it, I'm sure. The fact that you can find Hagrid so easily makes me think you're not as sensitive to nonhuman magic as I am. But obviously you're not immune to it. Geez, kiddo, didn't you figure it out when the elf knocked you out?" There was more than a hint of concern in her voice.

"I got that part, yes; it just didn't occur to me that the Flies might do the same thing."

"Hmph," grunted Ondossi, then fell silent for a moment. Harry had no guess as to the meaning behind the sound, and felt it best just to wait for her to elaborate. He grinned to himself in the darkness; he was getting better at managing this volatile creature.

She finally spoke up in a thoughtful tone. "You've worked hard, Harry. I guess it's only natural to explore your magic, now that you've learned so much Occlumency." Ondossi sighed. "Maybe it's time to start some Legilimency lessons, too."

"Yeah? Like that talking-inside-your-head that you do?" Harry asked, beaming.

"That, sure," she said with a wry chuckle. "That is pretty cool, huh? But that's nothing, really. There's so much much power, Harry."

Harry was tempted to say, "Bring it on!" but held his tongue. It didn't matter; as soon as the thought was complete in his mind, Ondossi sniffed.

"There's that hotshot again," she said, surprisingly without contempt. "Can't wait to dive headlong into the abyss, can you?"

"Why not? I can't stop the train, so I might as well get on it, eh?"

Ondossi shrugged. "I suppose you've got a point. Can't exactly stuff the magic back in the can."

"Tura," Harry growled in exasperation, "you talk about your magic like it's a plague or something! All right, I know it gave you a rough start, but come on! You're one of the most powerful sorcerers alive!"

"Hah! Oh, yes, and look at all the influence and wealth that my magic brings me." She held up her hands to indicate the empty air.

It was Harry's turn to sniff in disdain. "Don't start with that. You could have fame or fortune any time you wanted."

"Oh, really, Harry?" she asked crossly. "And how would I do that? Sell my gift to the highest bidder? That would be the Dark Lord. He'd make me a queen, remember? Not too shabby."

He scoffed. "Now you're just being stubborn. You know very well you could pick and choose which offer to accept. There are decent wizards out there too, that could make good use of your magic."

"That may be even be true," she began, her voice quiet and free of sarcasm. "It's not so easy, though, Harry, finding the decent ones. Have you ever met anyone that pretended to be all noble or helpful, and all the while they were stabbing you in the back?"

Snape's face popped into Harry's mind immediately. "I have," he grunted.

"Spotting liars isn't as easy as it seems, Harry. People lie to me all the time, you know. Sometimes just for sport, to see if they can pull one over on the 'mind reader.' If it's not important, I let them get away with it--just so they'll overestimate themselves. If it matters, I skim their thoughts, but even then I can still miss a lie. Decent people can't help thinking about the truth or feeling guilty when they fib, but amoral types can just rattle off lie after lie without the slightest pause. The only way to be sure is to go in deep, which, as you know, is not my favorite thing."

"But you could do it, Tura. You could be as choosy as you wanted, and still earn a living. You don't have to worry about whether you can pay the fine on an Apparation ticket or buy food instead of hunting it!"

"Hey, I happen to like hunting! But I know what you're saying, Harry. The thing is, if I keep my magic under my hat, at least I know no one's abusing it. Think about it. What if whoever discovered the Dark Arts decided that wizardkind wasn't really capable of handling that power? Don't you think we could have done without that whole aspect of magic? Or how about the guy who figured out how to put house-elves under Wizards' control? I was skimming you while you told your tale tonight--I heard what you said, that the world might be better off without wizards. Well, I happen to think the world is better off without Legilimagi."

Harry tugged at the collar of his shirt. "And have all the Legilimagi been like you? Living on the fringes and eating rats, since they were the only ones wise enough to use their gift?"

Ondossi took a long time to answer. "No, not all," she finally said quietly. "There were a few exceptions. The most recent was named Grindelwald." Harry swallowed hard; he knew the name. "He had a title, too: the 'Reichzauberor.' Not regarded as a kindhearted guy. Albus Dumbledore put an end to him, if I remember the history books correctly."

"Point taken," said Harry somberly. "So I suppose I'm doomed to either replace Voldemort, just like you told me once, or hide away from the Wizard world for the rest of my life?" He braced himself for a scathing response from Ondossi, but to his surprise, she laid her hand delicately on his knee.

"No. Harry, listen. I'm the last person who should give advice about how to get along in the world!" She crossed her eyes and wrinkled up her nose in a ridiculous and disarming way until he smirked. "The fact is, I like living in my little shed and just being left alone--it suits me. But you seem to handle attention pretty well, much better than I do. Maybe for you, this magic really will be a gift, not a curse."

She squeezed his knee firmly and started to withdraw her hand, but Harry impulsively caught her wrist. "Tura," he blurted, "why do you touch me so much?"

Her brow furrowed. "What, now? Do I?" She scowled at her hand as if it was a separate entity, a look of rebuke such as one might give a playful puppy that was making a pest of itself. She jerked her hand roughly to her own lap. "I'm sorry! I'll stop, I'll make a point of stopping--"

"Don't," he said. Harry's voice came out much deeper than he'd intended, and he suddenly felt quite ill-at-ease, but he stretched his own hand in invitation. She glanced down at it, then back into his eyes, and rather timidly set her fingers onto his. "It's... it's okay. I just wondered..." he began. By that point, however, Harry wished he'd never broached the topic it at all.

Ondossi turned away, staring off into the valley, but she kept her hand in his. "You're not much of a cuddler, are you, Harry? Our roles seem reversed--the misanthrope likes to hold hands and the gregarious Gryffindor withdraws. Funny." She paused thoughtfully. "The Inupiat snuggle all the time. From the day we're born. Babies never get set down--they ride around in the hood of mother's atigi. Her parka--her coat. Always being petted and held. Even me, an igitaq with no mommy! Other people carried me in their coats instead. It's always been the way--babies are meant to be cuddled. Outsiders say our babies are 'spoiled.' For a long time my people couldn't even translate that word. Finally someone worked out that it meant we pick up our babies and snuggle them as soon as they cry. That makes them happy. Why Outsiders think 'happy' means 'spoiled' is still a mystery to me, and I've lived in the minds of Outsiders for a long time."

Ondossi spread her fingers to entwine them with his. "I've seen your aunt and uncle in your thoughts, Harry. Now they're what I call spoiled! Auniq, in my language--sour and drippy, like a couple of nasty old cabbages. They never put you in the hoods of their coats, I can tell! They made you grow up without the affection that was your birthright, and now what's natural feels foreign to you. That just burns my toast, Harry. It's hard enough to get by in this world without having to feel isolated the whole time."

Harry scoffed, and though Ondossi scowled incomprehendingly, it took him a moment to find the right words. "I'm sorry," he said with a wry chuckle. "You have to admit, it's funny, though, don't you? For you to complain about me being isolated? That's a bit of 'Pot, meet Kettle,' don't you think?"

The moon had peeked from behind the clouds, and Harry was rather surprised to see the warmth in her smile. "Not at all, Harry. Let me show you something. We can even call it your first Legilimency lesson."

Ondossi held out her other hand and Harry took it, though his stomach immediately tightened with anxiety. "What are you going to do?" he asked, falling short of bravado.

"Nothing bad. I'm going to introduce you to someone."

Ondossi put her weight onto their hands such both she and Harry were pulled toward one another. Harry drew a rapid breath and instinctively tilted his head. But her head was bowed, and he quickly realized that she was not drawing him close, but placing their hands flat on the ground between them. As she chanted softly, Harry was surprised to hear the words "James" and "Lily" interspersed through her strange language.

Harry's first thought was that the ground beneath their hands was sinking, as though it were caving into an underground cavity. He nearly recoiled in horror, envisioning the soil spilling into his mother's coffin far below the surface, but Ondossi interrupted her chant long enough to bark, "Calm." It wasn't particularly soothing, but it was enough to make him snap to the realization that this was a magical process, not some sort of quicksand. Harry looked down at his hands, and found that they were buried up to his wrists into the earth.

Not buried, no. It was as if the ground were really water, and he was merely dipping his hands below the surface. There was no pressure, no sensation of being surrounded by cold, moist earth. The soil itself was undisturbed, which was perhaps the most eerie aspect of all--there was no buildup of displaced dirt around their arms, not even a ripple. They were sinking into the earth as smoothly as Peeves ducking out of sight through a stone wall.

"Tura..." Harry began awkwardly, not at all eager for his head to sink underground in this fashion, but before he could complete the sentence, her words formed in his mind.

Open yourself, Harry. Let out your magic.

He felt an unexpected warmth in his hands, but what she said made no sense. "Let it out? But where am I supposed to send it? There's nothing there!" Was she trying to get him to commune with the earthworms?

Close, kiptaitchuq. The earth.

"The earth," he repeated aloud. "Tura, you crazy spook, how am I supposed to--"

She silenced him with the briefest irritated glare, then the warmth in his hands surged up into his arms and chest, all the way to his mind.

The absolute blindness of not having eyes at all. Soundlessness that came from having no ears, no breath, no heartbeat. This was death, Harry thought, wondering after a few seconds why Fawkes had not saved him. That was the sort of thing he did, after all, and he was perched but a wingspan away.

You're alive, silly. Focus. Harry would have smirked if he still had a face. Fate would surely not be so cruel as to banish him to an eternity with no one but Ondossi for company. He expected to receive some sort of mental raspberry for that, but there was only a tiny tug at his hands.

Hands--he still could feel his hands, in fact only his hands and forearms. It took a moment for Harry to realize that he was feeling his hands from the outside--his and Ondossi's together. It occurred to him that this was the perspective of the Earth, two tiny pairs of hands softly penetrating an almost infinite darkness.

Ondossi's thought: Yes, Harry. But it made no sense; the Earth was a giant ball of rock spinning through space. It didn't have nerves to sense with, nor a brain to process that sensation. How could the Earth feel the two of them, it wasn't even alive!

Try again. Open yourself, kiptaitchuq, she repeated. For a moment, the connection faded and he was back in his body, peering through his own eyes at the ground now inches from his face. In an earnest effort, Harry gathered himself as if he were reaching for Remus or Hagrid and let his arms sink further into the earth.

The dark silence was even more intense and overwhelming, as though the first time he'd only penetrated the outer mantle of the planet and now he reached through to the core. It was incredibly peaceful, with a strange and distinct feeling that time had stopped. Knowing what to look for, however, Harry sought the delicate tickle of their hands at the edge of the darkness, and found them with surprising ease. This time, however, he realized that the Earth did not sense their mere physical presence of skin and bones digging into its surface, it felt their magic.

Yes. Not alive, but still magical. Harry didn't need Ondossi's prompting, for he understood it too. The magic at the core of his wand recognized him, and though it was once part of Fawkes, it was not alive, at least not in the sense that Fawkes was alive. Yet it wasn't just cold and empty either; strange, to think of the feather as both alive and dead at the same time. But in the same way, the entire Earth was both alive with magic and yet made of inert minerals--as though, like the feather, it was merely an offshoot of a greater being.

This was all getting to be a bit too heady for Harry, and he tried to pull free of Ondossi's grasp and sit up. Wait. Follow me back to this hillside. He could sense her magic shrinking, as though focusing through a lens. "Occlumency," he thought, and followed suit, finding that he, too, could resist expanding into the entire planet and, instead, remain present just in the land on which he sat. There were hands, his hands and Ondossi's, and a strange red needle that must be Fawkes, his magic deeply grounded by a single glowing filament.

There was something else, too. The warmth in his hands and arms--he'd assumed it came from Ondossi, but he could sense the color of her magic as well. The mossy green that emanated from her hands permeated the hillside along with his gold, but his arms themselves were encased in a faint sheen of red-orange magic, as though he were wearing the sheerest of gloves made from glowing coals. It seemed most curious, until he realized where he'd seen that color before.

It was just like the sphere of wild magic that had collapsed into Number Four, Privet Drive.

Harry was so startled by the recognition that he lost his focus, and found himself sitting bolt upright with a loud gasp. He saw Ondossi slide her hands from the soil as though it were mercury, and she took hold of his arms with a look of concern. "Why'd you pull away? That was a good thing, Harry--"

"I know what it was. I know EXACTLY what it was. Tura, that was my mother! My mother's magic!"

Relief and delight were evident in her smile. "Yes! That's right! Oh, Harry, I'm so glad you could see it! I thought it might be strong enough right here."

Harry was overwhelmed by the upheaval in his heart, by the number of questions he wanted to ask, and by the irrepressible desire to plunge his hands back into the earth and find that orange glow again. Frozen by conflict, all he seemed able to do was shake his head.

"It's amazing, isn't it, Harry? You're surrounded by it, all the time, and you don't even know. You're a magnet, Harry, drawing it in like so many iron filings. It's probably your father's magic too, and Dumbledore's--anyone who cared about you. It's in every blade of grass, every pebble, every stream, all the time. It's strongest here, where their bodies lay, because this earth is made from them--ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and all that. This place resonates the most with their magic. But it travels throughout the whole Earth, Harry. You're never alone--every time you set foot upon the ground, they're with you." Even though the moon was hidden again behind the clouds, Harry could see the warmth in Ondossi's smile.

"And look who else is here!" she said, glancing over his shoulder. Harry furrowed his brows and turned around, and it quickly became clear: two specks of light were settling down on them from the atmosphere. The Fireflies had caught up to them at last.

Harry and Ondossi stood up to make way for the Flies. They spiraled down in a lazy helix, orbiting one another just as they had when they began this flight back at Hogwarts. "Those are nice," Tura said. "Man, if those lived in Northpole, they'd make the best Christmas lights. Everyone would want a set swirling over their chimney. Probably too cold, though." She sighed. "How long will they take to do their little thing, d'ya think?"

Something seemed odd but Harry couldn't quite place it. "Huh? Erm, I don't know... they took a couple of minutes to figure out I wasn't what they wanted. Not long. Then they needed some time to plan..." His words trailed off, as he watched them closely. They had come into a tight column and were buzzing rapidly over one of the graves.

His mother's grave.

Harry's stomach twisted itself into a knot. "What is this? Merlin's beard, what's going on?"

"What?" Even Fawkes made an inquisitive little hoot.

"They're looking for my dad, but they're flying over my mum's grave. This isn't right!" Harry was becoming more agitated by the minute. "That's got to be my dad down there! They've put them in the wrong graves, or switched the headstones, or something!" Even though Harry knew it didn't ultimately matter, he was outraged by the notion that his parents were not laid to rest properly.

Ondossi didn't seem too concerned. "Weird," she finally mumbled. "Well, don't get all discombobulated, now, this is easily fixed. We can just move the headstones, no harm done."

"Oh, no, we won't! Who's to say they only switched their coffins? Maybe that's not even them down there! Well, okay, it has to be my dad, obviously, but the other one might not even be Mum!" He was practically shouting and he didn't care--if the cemetary's keeper came out to investigate, Harry was ready to give him an earful.

"Harry! All right, all right. You're pretty upset, let's just fix it now." She pulled her wand out of her robe and flourished it a few times, as though warming it up. "You go down the hill a ways and I'll do some digging, okay? I don't want you to look, though. Promise you won't watch?"

The plunge from indignant fury to mortified dismay made a shiver travel down his spine. Harry was speechless for a moment, realizing this was the logical solution but dreading it nonetheless. "Uh, but the, uh, Fireflies?" he said feebly.

"I'll keep an eye on them. This won't take long. Go down the hill, Harry. You too, Red," she said, shooing Fawkes from the little marker with a gentle shove. The phoenix flapped up onto Harry's shoulder of his own accord and pressed his chin to the top of Harry's head, humming quietly.

Harry lumbered out of earshot, at least as far as the sounds of digging were concerned. He had no doubt that Ondossi could shout loudly enough to summon him if she needed to. "I can't believe it. This is just..." He wanted to vent his anger in words, even though Fawkes obviously didn't need to have anything explained. Of all the stupid mistakes... and now Ondossi had to disturb them to sort it all out. And even though his parents were long gone, even though no one else, least of all the two of them, knew about the mistake, it still mattered.

Between fuming and muttering to Fawkes, he didn't hear Ondossi come up behind him. Startled, Harry leapt to his feet when she tapped him on the shoulder, but, whirling around, he held back the exclamation that came to his lips. She was pale and shaking, and even her colorless eyes looked wider than usual. "Tura? What is it?"

"Harry... I need your help with this. I, I, we're getting into something very very wrong."

"What is it?" he repeated, his voice suddenly deep and stern.

"Okay, listen. In the grave marked with your mother's name, there were two bodies. Man and woman. I think it's pretty safe to assume it's both of them." Harry began to sputter in outrage, but Ondossi raised her hands for silence. "Not now, Harry. Just listen. She'd been laid out properly, hands folded and all that. He hadn't. He was... okay, this is terrible, but: he'd been kind of thrown in there, I think. Face down. These were, uh, under where his pocket would have been." She pulled a pair of glasses from her sleeve; the Fireflies were sitting on the frame. Harry took them gingerly in his hand as she continued.

"I thought... I didn't know what to think. Obviously he wasn't put in the other grave. So I thought, well, maybe the mortuary stole the payment for the coffin, you know, just buried them in one instead of two. I dug up the other site. Harry... there was a coffin in it. I'm afraid to open it by myself, Harry. I'm a hunter, for Pete's sake, but I'm scared to see what's in there, I don't even know why."

She looked it, too. Harry put his hands firmly on her shoulders. "You don't have to, Tura. I'll do it right now." He gave her arms a reassuring squeeze and started up the hillside.

"I'm coming too!" Ondossi squeaked, chasing right on his heels. "I'm a bit too creeped out to sit in the dark by myself right now."

A pile of earth sat beside his father's gravesite, with the coffin levitating over the pit where she had left it. She'd obviously restored the other grave already; but for a few bent leaves and stems, it looked just as it always did. "Tura, I know you're upset, but you keep stepping on my heels," Harry grumbled. "Back up a bit. And do you mind setting it down on the ground? It makes it even worse, having the thing floating in midair like that."

"Sorry, sorry," she said, waving her wand to land the coffin and inching away from his back slightly.

"How do you even open one of these things?" Harry asked.

"There's a little latchey thing on the lid--no, under the rim." He patted the cold, damp wood with his hand until he found a bit of metal. It gave way with a firm push, but the lid remained stubbornly in place when he tried to lift it.

"I think it's spelled shut too," he said, taking out his wand. "Alohomora!" There was a sharp clacking sound, and both expected the lid to rise open of its own accord, but it did not. Harry took hold of the lid and heaved much harder than was necessary, flinging it open so violently that the hinges groaned and rebounded promptly slamming it shut. He jumped back just in time to avoid getting his fingers crushed, but practically bounced off of Ondossi.

"I told you to back up!" Harry growled, more anxious than angry.

"You're the one playing Slam the Coffin!"

"Okay, okay. It's lighter than I expected. One more try." Harry lifted it gently, so distracted by the complications that he forgot his trepidation until he was actually looking into the box.

After all the excitement, it was a bit anticlimactic to discover an unremarkable skeleton inside, looking for all the world like a medical display, albeit a bit dirty. Harry sighed and raised his brows. "Well. After all that, I rather expected something a bit more spooky, didn't you?" His anger was returning, now that he'd "met" the stranger who'd displaced his father from his rightful spot. It took him a moment to notice that Ondossi did not answer him.

"Tura?" Harry said, glancing over his shoulder. She was staring into the coffin, her jaw slack, clutching her hands over her chest like a shield. He turned back just to make sure he hadn't missed something, but the skeleton was still resting quietly. "What's the matter? Do you know who it is?"

"His ring. His ring," she said in a breathless whisper, backing away as she spoke.

Harry looked down at the skeleton's hands. There was a ring looped over one finger, but it looked rather ordinary, just a plain gold band. He frowned as he looked up at Ondossi again. "What?"

She pointed at the coffin. "Voldemort."

Chapter 20: 20: Overtime
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"Voldemort? The body? What are you..." Harry's voice trailed off. He didn't understand how such a common-looking ring could give away the skeleton's identity, but it would explain why Voldemort's cadaver had never been found. Whoever dumped the body could hardly have found a more convenient hiding place.

Harry turned back for another look. He was no pathologist, but upon peering closely at the skull, his breath hitched in his chest. At the base of each canine tooth, there was a deep groove in the bone, revealing the roots--and a slender object nestled within them. It seemed to be another tooth, but it clearly didn't belong there.

Fascinated, Harry reached down and tapped experimentally at the proximal end of the foreign object with the tip of his wand. The thing slid easily down through the native tooth; it was, in fact, a fang, long and delicately curved like a snake's. Harry vividly recalled the way Ondossi's Animorphed fangs had retracted into her mouth the day before; clearly these were designed to work the same way, or at least to look like they did.

"Unbelievable. What a bloody lunatic," he said, sliding the fang back into its socket with his thumbnail.

"Are you nuts? Don't touch that!" Ondossi yanked on the back of Harry's sweater so violently that he nearly lost his footing.

"Tura, it's dead! It's not going to come jumping out at us! What's gotten into you?"

"Dead or not, it's bad juju! That IS the Dark Lord, Harry! The original! Don't desecrate him, for Pete's sake--you know how wicked he is! If anyone was spiteful enough to leave some sort of hex on his skeleton, it's him!"

That gave Harry pause. "Fine, fine," he acceded grudgingly, removing his hands from the coffin. "Well, we've got to do something. We can't just bury him again in my father's place." He pictured kindhearted Everett and Birdy trudging up the hill to lovingly tend to the garden over Voldemort's remains, and became incensed anew.

"No!" she agreed. "Definitely not. This is a job for those Aurors, Harry. They might even be able to figure out who put him there." For the first time, she looked away from the coffin and into his eyes. "Go to Headquarters. Now. Bring back anyone you can find. I'll stay here."

"Right, then." Harry made ready to Apparate, but paused. "Are you going to be all right here by yourself?" She'd been shaking with fear just seconds ago.

"I'm good. Feathers will stick with me... I hope. Will you?" She gazed at Fawkes imploringly, and he tilted his head at Harry for a brief instant, then flapped up onto her shoulder. Harry grinned; they looked cute together.

"You know, if he sat on your head, it would look like he was hatching--"

"Oh, go stuff yourself, you big gussuk," she snapped.

She's obviously feeling better, Harry mused. He gave Fawkes a stern glare and willed him to stay and keep her company, then Apparated to the sidewalk in front of number twelve, Grimmauld Place.

It seemed this was the evening of Perpetual Hurry-Up-And-Wait for Harry. He couldn't even begin to plea for help until he'd endured a sound lecture from Lupin about departing from Hogwarts without notifying anyone. No sooner had Remus finished when Tonks came bounding down the stairs in her bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, and delivered a much louder and more concise version of the same speech. When Mrs. Black chimed in with her own unrelated opinions, Harry began to wonder if he shouldn't have gone to the Ministry of Magic instead.

His problems were still far from over, as no one quite accepted his story of finding the original remains of Voldemort in his father's coffin. It took Harry the better part of an hour to describe unlocking Hagrid's lost memories, which of course had to be debated and discussed before he could move everyone on to current events. By the time Shacklebolt and Moody gathered up their gear for a trip to Godric's Hollow, it was after midnight and Harry had dozed off in the drawing room, curled up in one of the refurbished chairs.

"Look at this, then," said Moody, tapping Harry's foot with his wand. "Just like an old campaigner, grabbin' a bit of sleep when and where he can." Harry sat up with a start and blinked at the old Auror, relieved to see that Moody was grinning as he spoke. "Turning more into a soldier every day, lad." He clapped Harry on the shoulder, but Harry glimpsed a hint of sorrow in the old man's eyes before Moody turned away and headed downstairs.

The three of them took the Floo to Godric's Hollow, as Kingsley had never been there and didn't want to waste any time studying maps to prepare for Apparation. Besides, the Green Dragon had reopened and Harry was glad to say a brief hello to Uther as they stepped out of the fireplace into the pub.

"Calliope will be sorry she missed you," Uther told him. "All she talks about now is how she learned a spell from Harry Potter."

Harry smiled broadly. "You'd best keep track of her, you two," he warned Shacklebolt and Moody. "She'll be Auror material someday."

Moody, who had watched Harry encounter the young lady in question through the magical pendant, nodded accordingly. "Aye, Kingsley, Potter's lucky she left him in one piece!"

The three of them proceeded quickly to the cemetery and once again found Ondossi dancing and chanting. Fawkes was sitting in the hood of her cloak with his wings spread open behind her. The two of them looked like some sort of strange angel. Harry held out his hand to keep the Aurors from interrupting the ritual, but there was no need. Moody's magical eye became uncharacteristically still and focused as it watched the dance.

"You know," Moody said quietly, "sometimes she makes me wish I was a young man again." He regarded the two of them with his human eye, the magical one remaining fixed on Ondossi as he turned his head. Harry moistened his lips and glanced up at Moody; unbeknownst to him, Shacklebolt had done the same thing.

"Course, then I remember what she is," Moody continued gruffly. "That she could kill me with an errant thought. Then I start thinking about my ex-wife, whether I'd be around at all if she had that kind of power. I think not."

"You were married?" muttered Shacklebolt incredulously, just before Harry could blurt out the same question.

"Three times," Moody grunted. That broke their concentration, as both of them frowned and tried to figure out how that worked with the "ex-wife" (singular) comment. Moody smirked. "Same gal. Metamorph, like Tonks. I didn't even catch on until I got this." He tapped the magical eyeball, making a small click. "Just in time to stop Marriage Number Four. Never knew what she saw in me, but she sure kept coming back for more. Crazier than a trunk full of bats, though. Shame." Moody turned back to watch Ondossi, leaving Harry and Shacklebolt to gape at one another.

Ondossi finally snapped to a halt, panting, with her back to the three men, and Fawkes closed his wings. Moody stepped forward. "I always heard that witches danced naked amongst the tombstones," he called out.

Ondossi spun on her heel with a snort, still catching her breath. "Not in Alaska, they don't!" she said jovially. "Of course, if you're offering, Moody, be my guest!" She gestured with a sweeping flourish, as though inviting him to take the stage.

Moody laughed unexpectedly. "No one wants to see that, missy, believe it. Let's have a look at this mystery cadaver, then."

"No mystery," she growled. "It's the Dark Lord. The mystery is, how'd he get into James Potter's grave?" She stopped speaking and scanned all around the cemetery, even the sky, as though expecting Voldemort's wrath to start raining down on them at any moment. She shuddered and stomped down the hillside without another word.

The Aurors exchanged a bemused glance and began removing strange devices from their packs that reminded Harry of the silver instruments that had always littered Dumbledore's office. Though he was dearly inclined to stay and watch the Aurors at work, Harry had to speak to Ondossi. The Fireflies were nowhere to be seen, and he hoped desperately that she'd kept track of them somehow. He dashed down the hill and caught up with her.

"Tura, the Flies... tell me you know where they are?" he pleaded.

She slowed her pace and looked at him with a sheepish grimace. "Well, no, not exactly. They started winding up in that little column thing they do, just after you left. I tried to read them, Harry; that is, I did read them, even though it knocked me flat on my back for twenty minutes. They have very strange little minds. The world looks really beautiful through their eyes, though--they can see almost everything at once."

"So what did you learn?"

Ondossi frowned. "You disappear for two hours and now it's rush, rush, rush! Fine. It was the weirdest thing I've ever done as a Legilimagus. In the end they sort of zeroed in on a place I've never seen before. It's almost as though they could smell it, their next destination, except it wasn't smell either, it was almost... electrical. They take in the sensation from every direction as they spiral like that, and when they triangulate on the strongest 'scent,' they just sort of know where they're going."

Harry bit his lip as she spoke, and stared at her long after she stopped. "Well?" he finally demanded.

"Well what?"

"Well, where did they go?"

"How should I know? I told you, I've never seen it before! It wasn't Grimmauld Place, or Hogwarts, or the Ministry, but other than that... wait a second." Ondossi closed her eyes, frowning. "I haven't seen it before, but someone has."

Harry folded his arms in an effort not to strangle her.

"Someone... someone I read recently," she continued. "It must have been Hagrid. Hagrid's seen it before. Let me think; I wasn't really paying attention because I was trying to dissect out the alterations in his memory." Her brow furrowed deeply in concentration. "He was there, at night... and someone yelled out their window for him to be quiet. That's right, they used a bad word; that's the only reason I noticed it. Bad words always sound funny with a foreign accent."

Harry knew every part of Hagrid's memory from the night his parents died. A neighbor had berated Hagrid for banging so loudly on Sirius's door. "The house in Bristol, then."

Ondossi shrugged. "It was a house, at least. They went that-a-way," she said, pointing northeast. "Is that toward Bristol?"

Harry nodded, deep in thought. "They found my dad, and now they're looking for Sirius," he muttered quietly. "Both Sirius and my dad made the mirrors." Harry sighed audibly in relief--it was certainly about time things started going smoothly. He looked from side to side absently, trying to recall where he'd left his Firebolt.

"Sirius... as in Sirius Black?" asked Ondossi. "Your godfather? The grouch who yelled at me in the Floo?" When Harry nodded, she sniffed. "Why are you looking for him? He's dead, isn't he?"

Harry clenched his teeth and glared at her, then started up the hill.

"Tell me you're not going to follow them again," said Ondossi. Harry didn't answer, scanning for his broomstick, certain that he'd left it leaning against some nearby headstone. "Dare I point out they've had a huge lead, on top of being incredibly fast?"

Harry waved at her brusquely. "They go faster when the scent is strong. Sirius hasn't been in Bristol for sixteen years; they're following just a trace. They might not even be there yet." Harry came to an abrupt halt, squaring his shoulders in surprise at his own words. "How did I know that?" Cocking his head, he felt an uneasy sensation, as though someone had just tried to hex him. Then he recalled it, like an old dream: Hagrid had been aware of this as he followed the Fireflies the first time, though he had never once enunciated it. "Hagrid knew it... and now I know it." Harry gaped at Ondossi, stunned to realize that he had absorbed this bit of knowledge straight from Hagrid's mind, bypassing the usual process of learning.

Ondossi snickered, then spread her arms wide and made a slight bow. "Welcome to my world, hotshot."

Harry wished he could discuss this new development, but he was determined to give the Flies another go. He nodded at Ondossi and turned resolutely up the hill. He soon spotted his broom leaning against a headstone, silhouetted against the faint blue glow produced by the Aurors' instruments. If they find out I'm leaving, they're not going to like it, he mused, and crept up silently to retrieve the Firebolt. His plan was undone, however, when he turned around and smacked noisily into Ondossi.

"Sneakin' off on us, Potter?" called Moody, though his back was turned.

"Wouldn't dream of it," Harry said, giving her the evil eye.

He stomped down the hill with Ondossi trotting at his side, intending to give her a stinging admonishment when they were out of earshot of the Aurors. But she spoke up first. "Well, what was I supposed to do? You're my only way back to Hogwarts!"

Harry stopped and faced her. "What are you talking about? The Aurors could take you back--they can Apparate you to the front gate. Maybe they'd even put your hair back on if you asked nicely!"

"All things considered, I'd rather fly--and you know for me, that's saying something. Besides, didn't you just get chewed out for swooping off alone tonight?"

Harry opened his mouth, then pressed his lips together tightly. "I wasn't alone, really--Fawkes was with me."

"Only after you nearly pulled your own plug! Harry, face it. By the time you get to Bristol, those Flies will be long gone. Even in low gear, they're fast--and they've got nearly two hours head start. You've got to start fresh, maybe with a thestral next time. You discovered something more important here anyway. Let's go see how those Aurors are doing and bid your parents a proper goodbye." She gave him an imploring look.

"All right," Harry finally said. "I suppose it is more important to finish this." He sighed and glanced back up the hill, then added, "But just on principle, Tura, can you please stop following right on my heels?"

"Sorry. I just didn't want you to hop on that thing and disappear without me. I don't know Kingsley very well, but that Moody gives me the willies."

Harry cracked a wry grin. "I'm pretty sure it's mutual."

Ondossi punched his arm halfheartedly and they returned to the open grave. The Aurors were making meticulous adjustments on the magical contraptions they'd laid out, speaking in jargon that intrigued Harry.

"I've got twenty-three on the S.T. Can you boost the gain?"

"Nah, site's too open. The MACs'll come undone if we get much more visible."

"I'll make do. Anything from the Thanadust?"

"Got to add a bit more horn, I think."

By surreptitiously skimming the Auror's thoughts as they spoke, Harry was able to follow the conversation. "S.T." was short for "signature tracer," and referred to a series of small, spinning objects that looked like dreidles. They were set about on the handles of the coffin, the latch, and several points on the skeleton inside. They were used like a Muggle fingerprint kit, identifying unique magical energy left behind by wands. Shacklebolt was operating this instrument, hoping to find evidence left from any levitating or locking spells that had been used on the coffin or the body.

Shacklebolt was grumbling irritably to himself because Ondossi's recent magic had flooded the area with her own wand signature. He was unable to increase the device's sensitivity because of their position on an open hillside in Muggle territory. The soft blue glow could pass as a wisp of fog in the moonlight, but any more power would make it clearly visible--hence Moody's warning about the "MACs." This referred to the Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes, whom Moody suspected were already spying on this operation, waiting for a chance to shut them down in the name of discretion amongst Muggles.

Moody himself was waving his wand over a pentagram drawn with a chalky powder known as Thanadust. It contained ground asphodel seed and unicorn horn. Asphodel was generally associated with death and the underworld, while unicorns were creatures of vitality. Having opposite polarities, these compounds tended to react violently to one another and release their magic into their surroundings. Moody's spell was designed to use this flux of energy to create images of the last living sorcerers to touch the deceased. Harry grimaced as he saw his own face appear over and over in the center of Moody's pentagram. He wished he'd never noticed that stupid tooth.

Moody stood up straight and held out a leather sack, waving his wand over the chalk outline. It slithered neatly into a powdery column and deposited itself into the sack. "You two rubes need a crash course in basic Auror training," he growled, as he took a small scoop of powder from a second pouch and sprinkled it slowly into the first. "When you come across a crime scene, don't bloody alter it! Anything might be a clue."

"Fiddle-faddle!" snapped Ondossi. "We didn't know it was a crime scene until after we dug the thing up! We thought it was just a Stupidity Scene--although you people probably consider stupidity a crime, too; you seem to think everything else is." Harry regarded her with surprise; she sounded downright petty. Upon closer look, however, he realized she was blushing, undoubtedly embarrassed that she'd butchered so much latent evidence with her magic.

"An' you prefer anarchy, do you, missy? Like in the Wild West?"

Ondossi bristled. "I prefer a little room to breathe."

"Mmm," grunted Moody. "I suppose when you live in the wide open tundra, you take breathing room for granted." He finally appeared satisfied with the powder and pulled the drawstrings shut to give the pouch a good shake. "Some of us live in a civilized country, and have to compromise to get along." He looked over at them for the first time.

"No one has to live anywhere. You choose to do it," Ondossi said in a calm, quiet voice. "I wish I didn't have to even visit this place, but they tell me they need me."

Moody and Ondossi held each other's gaze for a long time, although it seemed not so much of a staring match as an honest appraisal. The old man finally nodded and got back to his work, sprinkling the Thanadust back onto the ground in another pentagram.

"What was that all about?" Harry whispered.

"Nothing," she whispered back. "Two rogue wolves testing the air between them."

"And? Is there enough for both of you to breathe?" Harry asked pointedly.

She made a wry face. "Listen to you! You're supposed to be an assassin, not a diplomat! Don't you worry about me and Mad-Eye, we're both just a little too jaded for our own good. But I kinda like him, after all. He reminds me of my afatkuq, back in Barrow. My shaman," she added helpfully, though Harry remembered the Inupiaq word.

"His heart's in the right place," said Harry. "Though Merlin-only-knows about his other parts." Ondossi's hands flew over her face to hide her snort of laughter.

The Aurors continued to work their craft over the coffin for at least an hour. Harry watched with interest, but soon he couldn't keep from yawning, despite his curiosity. Unfortunately, the best that Shacklebolt could prove was that the coffin had never been lowered into the ground by magic. "Most likely, the bodies were switched before the funeral," he deduced. "The Muggles buried the coffin without even knowing that the wrong body was inside it."

Harry sighed, shaking his head. Shacklebolt put a firm hand upon his shoulder. "I'm sorry, Potter. I really am. There's no more we can get out of this scene, not even back at the Ministry. It's just been too long." He paused, pressing his lips tight, then continued in an even milder tone. "We'll bring in You-Know-Who's remains, but there's still the coffin. It was supposed to be your father's... I don't suppose you want us to put him in there, under the circumstances?"

The question was enough to make Harry's insides clench. "No. Just... just bury it again, empty. Fix everything up just as it was and let Birdy keep coming over and planting her flowers. She believes he's down there--that's all that matters."

Shacklebolt patted Harry's shoulder and turned away to take down his instruments. Harry let out a deep sigh and dropped his chin to his chest. His neck was sore and taut, and he rocked his head from side to side in an effort to loosen the muscles.

"I didn't know them, obviously," said Ondossi, "but I think they wouldn't mind being buried together like that. You know?" She nudged him lightly on the elbow. Harry didn't answer.

When the Aurors had packed everything up and the gravesite had been restored to its usual appearance, Shacklebolt bade them farewell and Apparated to the Ministry with their gear. He would send a squad back to get Voldemort, as soon as he could get one assembled. Moody scowled at the skeleton for a moment, then leaned over and yanked out the fang that Harry had touched.

"Might as well have a souvenir, Potter," he said. For a moment, Harry thought this was Moody's way of chastising him again for touching the body, but the old Auror appeared quite sincere. "Go on. Keep it. Not that you need another reminder," Moody added. "But you know it'll get picked over, soon as it gets to the Ministry. Trophies."

Ondossi knelt beside the skeleton, her gaze unfocused as though she were entranced. "It's true. People are drawn to him. That's why he's so powerful--he makes you want to serve him, even if you know it's a terrible mistake." She drew the other slender fang out of its artificial socket and studied it for a moment before palming it. "We'll keep the matched set, Harry. Know why?" She rose to her feet, the sharpness returning to her eyes. "'Cuz we're gonna come 'round and bite him in the butt."

A feral grin spread to all three of their faces.

In a rare display of anarchist tendencies, Moody made up an illegal Portkey for Harry, Ondossi, and Fawkes to use to return to Hogwarts. They arrived just outside the gates, only to find them locked. "Oh, for the love of Pete," Ondossi groaned. They looked at one another glumly--both knew that a simple Alohomora stood no chance of opening this gate.

"Well, it can't be too much longer 'til dawn..." Harry began, but he was interrupted by flapping wings and a gust of air. Fawkes launched himself from Harry's shoulder and fluttered gracefully to the top of the gates, where he perched on one of the winged boars and peered down at them brightly. Harry grinned at Ondossi and held up his Firebolt. "Care for a lift, miss?"

"I never thought I'd be glad to get on one of these," she said, though she nearly squeezed the stuffing out of him when he pushed off the ground.

Harry wondered if Fawkes somehow raised the wards over the gate to let them enter the grounds, or if the wards themselves had recognized them and permitted passage. He glided all the way to the castle entrance, too tired to bother walking up the path. Besides, once Ondossi relaxed her death grip, Harry rather liked the way she felt pressed up behind him.

"Well, I'm starving," she said as they landed at the top of the stone stairs. "I'm gonna go catch something. See you in class." She gave his sides two quick pats as she let him go and hopped off the back of the Firebolt.

"You don't have to do that, you know. I told you yesterday, the house-elves will feed us. Unless you're feeling peckish for a bit of field mouse."

Ondossi wrinkled her nose. "Point taken. People food sounds better."

The oak front doors opened without pause, and though Harry expected to find a fuming Filch just beyond them, the Entrance Hall was empty. He turned back to Ondossi and raised a finger to his lips for silence, and they stole across the Hall on tiptoe, not even rousing the portraits on the walls. They both broke into silent giggles at the top of the dungeon stairs, but their exhausted giddiness was shattered by a harsh voice bellowing from directly above them.


As the echoes died, there was a sound of scraping metal; the suits of armor at the doors turned their heads toward one another in a pantomime of complete bafflement. Ondossi was staring upwards with a similar expression. "What the Sam Hill was that?" she said.

"Professor Trelawney," Harry groaned. "I'd know that voice anywhere. She must be at the top of the stairs."

She scowled. "And people call me spooky!"

Harry shrugged. "She has these prophetic moments once in a while, but when they're over, she's done. Probably standing there wondering what she's doing out of her tower. Come on." He tugged her arm and scampered down the staircase, knowing that Filch would appear momentarily to investigate all that ruckus.

It seemed like a week had passed since Harry had last stood before the portrait hole to the kitchens. He wondered briefly if he would be refused entry after the fire he started in the storeroom, but when he tickled the pear, it dutifully became a handle and allowed them inside. Harry smirked at himself for worrying--Fred and George had never been denied access to the kitchens, and surely they had done far worse.

They were greeted with the wonderful smell of baking bread and the sight of rows of bowls being filled with berries and cream by a pair of elves wearing identical window draperies (right down to the silver napkin rings that gathered the fabric at their shoulders like a toga). A small delegation ran over to greet them with a platter of fresh muffins, still steamy inside. Harry and Ondossi were shuffled to a sideboard by a friendly elf who told them that they could have all they wanted to eat, as long as they stayed out of the way of the breakfast rush. "Eggs is getting cold quickly, whilst bacon and toast burns if you turns your back, so we is very focused at breakfast time. But no one is wanting to be rude, just rushing!"

Harry and Ondossi sat crosslegged on the wooden countertop with the muffins and two huge steins of milk, mesmerized by the coordinated chaos of fifty elves preparing hundreds of breakfasts. After four muffins, Harry's eyelids began to droop and the long climb to his dormitory seemed like far too much effort. He had just leaned his head against the wall to rest his eyes when Ondossi whacked the side of his leg with the back of her hand.

"Harry, look!"

He gawked at her, then followed her gaze to the burners and grates of the main cooking range. It was still too early to start the food, but a few flames were lit beneath giant copper tea kettles. Harry didn't notice anything out of the ordinary and frowned at Ondossi, but she continued to point toward the cooktop. "Above it, in the funnel," she whispered.

Harry looked up at the large round exhaust vent over the range, still unsure what she was on about, then he spotted it: What he had taken for reflections of the cooking flames were, in fact, two Fireflies, slowly spiraling down through the flue. His jaw dropped, and both of them scooted off the sideboard to their feet, their eyes never leaving the flickering Flies. Once they had cleared the conical hood, the Flies stopped spiraling and flew side-by-side at a casual pace across the kitchen, soaring down the hallway a scant meter from where Harry and Ondossi were standing.

Too dumbfounded for words, the two of them followed as the Flies wove their way down the branching hall, then dipped down a very narrow staircase. This ended in what was once a wine cellar but had obviously fallen into disuse, as it was now littered with empty, broken racks and barrels, and spent corks. The Flies honed onto a large barrel with several missing slats and ducked inside it.

Harry stubbed his toe immediately as he tried to navigate the dark, unkempt room, but Ondossi was clearly in her element and moved silently through the rubble, pulling Harry by the hand to the faintly-glowing barrel. She glanced up at him with a buoyant grin and tossed her head toward the opening, bouncing excitedly on her toes as she waited for him to look inside.

He poked his head between the missing slats and beheld, in the Fireflies' contented glow, a heap of familiar items from Grimmauld Place, including a small hand mirror identical to the one he'd left hidden in Dobby's cupboard.

Chapter 21: 21: Basileio Oneiro
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Harry scooped the whole of Kreacher's hoard from the broken barrel and returned to Gryffindor Tower on his broomstick. Nearly every flight of the marble stairs swung at him during his ascent, obviously perturbed about being bypassed and determined to teach him a bit of respect. Harry had to perform some slick maneuvers to avoid being turned into a human pinball, but it had been much too long and tiring a night to climb all the way up from the dungeons. He even called out the password to the Fat Lady from the beginning of the corridor so he could fly straight into the common room, but he pulled up to a halt before the stairs to his dormitory. Attempting the narrow spiral staircase on his broom would require some intense concentration, particularly if anyone happened to be walking down at the time.

He didn't encounter any early risers, and burst into his room rather noisily but without effect; his roommates had apparently become inured to sudden sounds in the night. He almost shook Ron awake anyway, but decided to let him rest. They were going to have a busy day, and one of them should be operating at full steam. He fumbled around in the murky twilight to find his quill and a scrap of parchment, leaving Ron a quick note before collapsing in his four-poster. Though his heart was pounding, his eyes felt dry and sharp, and before long, mind prevailed over matter and his snores joined the other four.

It didn't seem to do much good, however; when Ron jostled him awake, it felt as though he had just closed his eyes. "Harry, it's nine o'clock, get up!"

He groaned a little, but sat up. "Ugh. I thought I said to wake me up at eight!"

"Tried, mate," said Ron with a shrug. "You just rolled over and snarled at me. 'Never tickle a sleeping dragon,' you know. I thought I'd try again after breakfast. I saved you a bit." He pointed to a rather familiar-looking muffin perched on his trunk.

Harry shook the cobwebs from his mind, unable to remember rolling or snarling. "Huh. Okay. I guess I was pretty wiped out."

"Still are, I reckon! When did you get in?"

"Just before dawn. You won't believe the night I had!" Harry scooted over to make room for Ron on his bed, then recounted the whole story. "After all that, the mirror was just around the corner the whole time!"

Ron shook his head, laughing bitterly. "I figured as much; that's the sad part. Those Flies aren't very efficient. Not like the stuff those Aurors were using! Merlin's beard, Harry, that must have been brilliant, seeing all that!"

"It was, mate. But you'll get there--one more year and it's Auror training, right?"

Ron laughed in agreement. "No more Wizard Wheezes! Well, come on then--we've missed Potions, but we can still make it to Charms."

Harry threw off the covers and began pulling off his jeans and sweater from the night before. "Not today. I'm skiving. Now that I have this mirror, I'm going to London. You coming?"

It took Ron a heartbeat or two to reply. "Of course. But... do you have a plan?"

Harry scoffed. "No. But at least I have an excuse! Tura got a citation last night--Apparating without a license. I'm going to pay her fine. That'll get us inside the Ministry."

Ron's eyes narrowed into a sly grin. "And if the lift just happens to stop at the wrong floor, and we end up in the Department of Mysteries..."


Harry quickly found that he was down to one set of robes after last night's fire. He had outgrown them, which was why they were in the bottom of his trunk in the first place. Ron burst out laughing when he saw Harry stand up. "Where's the flood?" he asked glibly.

Harry sighed. "Are they really that bad?"

Ron tried to look calm and detached, but failed miserably. "Well, kinda. Yeah. I mean, the sleeves don't even come down to your wrists! It looks like someone did a Shrinking Spell while you were getting dressed!"

"Fine," Harry grumbled, pulling off the uncomfortable robe. "I'll wear the nice ones from Fred and George. I guess I have to go to Madame Malkin's while we're down there."

"Not to mention we have to pick up a new bed for Dobby," Ron reminded him.

As they were crossing the common room, the portrait hole swung open to admit a large group of students who were between classes. Harry and Ron grimaced at the same time and glanced back at the dormitory stairs, but it was too late. A chorus of whoops and whistles ensued as people noticed Harry dressed to the nines, and to make matters worse, Hermione poked her head through the portrait hole in curiosity at the noise. She snickered and dashed over to them, tossing her backpack onto a table. "Don't you look sharp today, Mr. Out-All-Night?" she teased.

"Did you hear something, Ron?" Harry asked innocently.

"I waited up for you until midnight, you know!" chided Hermione. "I was worried! If Fawkes hadn't been with you, I would have Flooed Headquarters."

"And I probably would have answered!" Harry said rather smugly. "I was there around midnight, I think."

Hermione's eyes widened. "You were? What were you up to, Harry? Ron must have taken a Silencing Sweet or something, I haven't been able to get a word out of him!"

Harry glanced at Ron to convey his thanks, and Ron shrugged as if to say, "I tried." But the cat was out of the bag now, so he took Hermione by the elbow and steered her to a quiet corner for a quick explanation.

"You were going to cut classes and go to London--" she began as soon as he finished the tale, but Harry spoke over her.

"We ARE cutting classes and going to London. You're not going to stop us, Hermione."

She gave him a withering glare. "You didn't let me finish. I was going to say, without me?" She sat back in her chair, arms folded and chin pointed.

"Oh," mumbled Harry. "I didn't... that is, we didn't think you'd approve--"

"Harry, the trouble is that you don't think at all. It's true I didn't approve of gadding off in the middle of the night to break into the Ministry, but this is a whole new scenario. And a much better one, I might add," she noted briskly. "Besides, I'd love to go shopping in Diagon Alley. Let's get to class and we'll start out after lunch."

Harry and Ron gaped at each other, then at Hermione. "After lunch? We were going to leave now!"

"Oh, it's much too early!" she said matter-of-factly, removing one book from her backpack and replacing it with another. "We'd be stuck sitting around for hours, waiting for the Ministry to close." Taking in their confused glances, she continued. "So we can have the Department of Mysteries all to ourselves. Right? You were planning on hiding inside the Ministry until closing time, weren't you?"

Harry and Ron exchanged a guilty look. "Honestly!" sniffed Hermione. She muttered about their bad habits all the way to the Charms classroom.

After lunch, the three of them convened at the statue of the one-eyed witch in the third floor corridor. Carefully watching the hallway and the Marauder's Map, they slipped one by one into the secret passage behind the statue and slid down the ramp to land in a giggling heap at the bottom. Harry felt as though he knew every twist and turn of the passage by heart, and he dashed unerringly through it without even lighting his wand. He remembered how long the tunnel had seemed that first time he went through it his third year; now it felt like Hogsmeade was but a hop, skip, and jump away.

As they neared the top of the long stone stair to Honeydukes, Ron called for a halt. "You know, if we're going to be stealthy about it, we should just Apparate from here, rather than going up into the cellar. Less chance of running into someone, eh?"

"To Diagon Alley, then?" said Hermione.

"Last one to the Leaky Cauldron buys the butterbeer!"

Harry arrived first, grinning broadly about the race, but his cheer quickly abated as he realized a number of the other patrons were staring at him. As Hermione, then Ron Disapparated, more heads turned, all glaring, and soon all three of them began to wonder if they'd landed on someone important. Ron even turned around to see if something unpleasant was going on behind them.

They were soon rescued by Tom, the proprietor, who came over and steered them to the main parlor. "You know this place connects the Muggle and Wizard worlds, don't you?" Tom said quietly as he walked with them. "Muggle London, right on the other side of the front door. A door that opens wide and often, during the course of a day. Can't have people Apparating in here like that, can we? The Magic Reversal Department would have my head on a platter, they would, if a bus full of Muggles saw a crowd of kids appear out of thin air."

Harry, Ron, and Hermione each felt a sharp pang of embarrassment, but Tom's stern demeanor brightened. "No harm done this time, lads, lady--" he inclined his head courteously at Hermione, "--but you've got to use the cloakroom if you want to Apparate in here. Not the pub, neither; the noise startles everyone and it's rude. Now, each of you take out one Sickle an' put it in that big glass bowl on the bar. That's your fine, for the insult." All three of them dug obediently into their pockets and produced a silver coin. Harry noted with relief that the bowl was over half full.

By the time the third coin had clunked into the bowl, the chatter in the parlor had resumed and the few patrons that were still eyeing them looked curious rather than irritated. "Everyone in here knows there are times you just have to Apparate," chuckled Tom. "You pay up right away and no one will think anything of it. That's because when the bowl finally overflows, I use it to buy a free round for the whole house."

"Which reminds me, Mr. Weasley, I believe the first round of butterbeer is on you," said Hermione.

After a bottle or two, Harry, Ron, and Hermione set off to make their purchases. Hermione wanted to go to Magical Menagerie, the pet store, to buy a toy for Crookshanks. That stop proved more quite useful, as Harry found a bed for Dobby. Though intended for dogs, crups, and other such pets, it was the perfect size for a house-elf, and included a nice self-cleaning cover. "Perfect!" remarked Ron, "Dobby will be all set the next time we visit."

Harry was fitted for new robes at Madam Malkin's and found a nice reading lamp at the Scribbulus ink-and-stationery store. He and Ron picked up Owl Treats at Eeylops, and all three browsed in Flourish and Blotts for quite some time before Harry chose a nice set of "Wee Wizard" books for early readers. Despite all these errands, they had time for an early dinner at a cafe' before heading over to the Ministry. Harry had no appetite, but ate anyway--the last thing they needed was to be caught lurking after closing time because his stomach was growling.

At one point between reluctant bites, Harry mentioned Professor Trelawney's unexpected prediction on the stairs that morning. Ron and Hermione were pretty skeptical. "No, no," Harry assured them, "this was one of her real ones. I could tell because, even though she directed it specifically at me, she didn't say a single thing about me dying a horrible death in the near future."

Ron looked impressed, but Hermione snorted in disdain. "She mentioned answering with your own blood, though; that's practically the same thing."

"Nah," said Ron. "That's too direct. You know how she is--if she was 'predicting' him to be hurt, she'd say it like, 'There is a bitter wound on the horizon of your...' uh, your..." Ron had imitated Trelawney pretty well for a moment, but obviously got befuddled in the wrap-up.

Harry helped him out in his own Trelawney voice. "The horizon of time," he suggested with a dramatic sweep of his arm.

"Yeah! Perfect!" said Ron. "That way the next time you fall down and scrape your kneecap, she can strut around looking smug, even if it takes twenty years." He and Harry exchanged a sneer and a high-five. Even Hermione capitulated to a brief giggle.

Harry was unable to sustain the lighthearted mood, and poked listlessly at his salad. "Seriously, though, this one was real. She used her Scary Voice, the one she gets when she means it. I'm surprised she didn't roust out half the castle."

Hermione nodded. "People definitely heard it; there was a lot of gossip between classes. Some thought it was Peeves, and others were sure it was the Grey Lady of Ravenclaw. It seemed too serious for Peeves, but the Grey Lady hardly ever speaks. Well, this certainly explains a lot; no student has ever heard Trelawney deliver a real Prophecy, so naturally no one recognized it for what it was."

"From ashes and mud she will rise," mused Ron. "Who do you suppose that is?"

"Sounds like a phoenix sort of thing to me," said Hermione matter-of-factly as she dug into her mashed potatoes.

"But Fawkes is a boy... I think," said Harry. "I've always assumed so, anyway. Maybe he's a she?"

Ron waved. "It doesn't mean Fawkes, I'm sure. I mean, even I could predict that Fawkes will rise from the ashes. Surely she wouldn't waste a real prophecy on that? I wonder, though, maybe 'she' means a new phoenix--a girlfriend for Fawkes? How are new phoenixes born, anyway?" All three of them frowned at their dinner plates; neither had ever thought about it.

"I suppose in the usual way, you know," said Harry tentatively. "Boy phoenix meets girl phoenix, they build a nest, lay an egg, it hatches, and poof: a new little fireball in the family."

Hermione pondered a moment. "No, you know what? I don't think it's that simple. Since they never die, it must be very, very hard for them to reproduce. Otherwise they wouldn't be so scarce."

"S'truth," said Ron sagely. "Imagine if rabbits never died. The whole planet would be waist-deep in them."

"Exactly!" said Hermione. "Maybe the birth of a new phoenix has a major significance--the sort of thing that only happens, say, when a Dark Lord is overthrown..." She looked at Harry with a shy grin, as if apologizing for bringing up the subject.

"Well, it isn't as though Trelawney said anything about a birth, or a hatching, or whatever. Just that 'she' would give 'him' a boon, whoever 'he' is. Drat these stupid things anyway!" Harry groused. "If her Inner Eye (or whatever) is so eager to tell us, why can't it just speak plainly?"

Hermione sniffed. "Well, there it is. Maybe the Inner Eye is just as big a fraud as Trelawney herself, it's just a slightly more accurate fraud. Its predictions really can come true, if you work them hard enough, while hers are just so much hot air, no matter what."

"The one about me was made months before I was born. And more than a year passed before the part came true about Voldemort marking me as his equal," Harry remarked thoughtfully. "But the one about Pettigrew returning to his master came on the same day it happened."

"Hmm," grunted Ron. "I suppose we should be on the lookout from now on, for some unknown female bearing gifts." He brightened. "I, for one, will give it my best efforts." He winked mischievously, though Hermione shot him a scathing look.

Harry's heart began pounding as soon as they left the cafe'. As they neared the Visitor's Entrance to the Ministry, Ron put his hands up to call a halt. "I've had a thought just now, Harry. Maybe you ought to put on your cloak. Hermione and I can pay the fine for Ondossi just as easily, and if we happen to get caught, well, at least you'll be sure to get to the Department of Mysteries on your own."

"Right," said Harry. "Though I'd rather you didn't get caught, mind." The idea of facing that eerie, hypnotic veil alone did not appeal to him at all.

"We'll hide separately; that will improve the odds of at least one of us making it," said Hermione, "Shall we plan to meet you at the veil room, say, half an hour after closing?"

Ron scoffed. "Good grief, Hermione, this is the Ministry we're talking about. Trust me, the place will be empty as a tomb within five minutes of closing time. Only gits like Percy stay late, and we needn't worry about them; they'll be locked away in their offices pretending they're doing something important." All of them chuckled.

Harry donned his cloak and slipped into the telephone booth between Ron and Hermione, who utterly ignored him as they dialed the entry code. "Welcome to the Ministry of Magic," said the cool, polite voice. "Please state your name and business." The greeting had not changed since Harry's dealings with the Ministry in his fifth year at Hogwarts, but those memories were not at all pleasant, and the familiar voice gave him a chill.

Ron spoke up immediately. "Ron Weasley, here to cause general mayhem, which will go unpunished because I'm the Minister's son." Hermione laughed out loud and shoved him, which was quite fortunate because Harry snorted at the unexpected comment and nearly blew his cover. A silver badge bearing the words Ron Weasley, Hooligan dropped out of the coin slot. Ron admired it with a huge smile before pinning it to his robe. "I should've said I was Fred or George; they'd love to have a badge like this for the shop," he whispered.

Hermione had to catch her breath before announcing her name. "I've come to pay an Apparation fine," she said, glaring at Ron lest he make her giggle again. Her badge read Hermione Granger, Traffic Violator, which made Ron howl with glee and Harry shake with suppressed laughter under his cloak. Hermione's eyes nearly bugged out of their sockets, and she didn't remove the badge from the slot at first. "I didn't do it," she said plaintively to the uncaring tardis. "I'm just paying the fine for a friend!"

"I'm sure that's what they all say," laughed Ron, but then he frowned. "Why aren't we moving, then?"

The cool voice said, "All visitors must state their name and business."

Harry gulped. Apparently the entrance could see through his cloak. There didn't seem to be any way around it. "Harry Potter," he said, his voice cracking with a nervous squeak. After clearing his throat, he continued. "I've come to... perform a few experiments." Without hesitation, a third badge clinked in the coin slot, and Harry reached out gingerly from under the cloak to pick it up.


"Thank you," said the voice as the floor of the entrance began its descent into the Ministry. "Visitors, please attach the badges to the front of your robes. You are required to submit to a search and present your wand for registration at the security desk, which is located at the far end of the Atrium. The Ministry of Magic wishes you a pleasant afternoon."

Harry eyed Ron and Hermione, who obviously could not see him but were glancing about anxiously. "Pin it to your robe, Harry," whispered Ron. "It's not your fault that the cloak is hiding your robe." Hermione turned pale, but Ron wrinkled his nose confidently. "I'd offer up your wand from under the cloak as well, and if old Munch doesn't take it, that's his decision."

"RON!" hissed Hermione, but Harry rested an invisible hand on her arm.

"He's right, Hermione--that's exactly what I would have done if they hadn't given me a badge, eh? Either way, I'm sneaking. At least now I'm sneaking per the rules."

They crossed the Atrium without drawing so much as a glance. The guard at the registration desk recognized Ron and chatted with him for a few moments, congratulating his father's "promotion." He then registered Ron's and Hermione's wands in an utterly bored manner. Harry dutifully offered up his wand while remaining beneath the Invisibility Cloak, and went completely unnoticed.

The three of them proceeded through the golden gates to the bank of elevators, each a bit awestruck that the plan had worked so far. "With security like that, it's no wonder the Death Eaters got in here!" muttered Ron.

"Don't knock it at the moment, Ron," hissed Hermione. "Though you ought to tell your father; the very least they could do is make sure the number of badges agrees with the number of registrants."

"They used to," said Ron, pausing as they entered an elevator, but it was otherwise empty (except for a few folded parchment memos flitting overhead). "I remember coming here with the whole family and Munch counted heads--Fred and George kept him going for five minutes. Maybe the entrance got broken during the raid and no one's noticed yet."

"More's our luck, whispered Harry. "Listen, as you get off, push the button for Level Nine. Just in case someone comes in."

The doors opened on Level Six and Ron casually bumped the button for the lower floor as he exited. A witch did come in, but she scowled at the lit-up button and stomped back out, casting an angry look after Ron as she pressed harder than necessary on the wall button to summon a new elevator. The door slid shut and Harry was on his way to the Department of Mysteries.

He listened at the entry door to Level Nine for some time, until he was convinced there was no one behind it. He slipped quietly into the corridor, once again feeling a cold shiver of familiarity--another place that held nothing but bad memories. Harry forced himself to think about that pear hurtling out of the veiled archway, and stayed close to the wall as he scurried down the empty hallway.

At the entrance to the Department, Harry paused. The anteroom had been a disaster the last time he'd been here, but the black door had been returned to its hinges and looked rather imposing. He doubted that he could hear through it, even if people were shouting on the other side.

Harry nipped at the inside of his lip while he considered his next course of action. He had hoped the black door would still be blasted off, but clearly that wasn't the case. The obvious plan was to wait until someone went in or out, then slip through the door before it swung closed, but the corridor was narrower than he'd remembered. He couldn't stand in the doorway without the risk of being plowed down as people exited. It would be handy to be able to Morph into a snake, he thought glumly.

Just then, the black door swung open and two wizards stepped out, chatting animatedly about pro Quidditch scores from the weekend. They were apparently members of a "Fantasy Quidditch" league and were comparing the progress of their made-up teams. There was no way to get past them as they walked side-by-side, and Harry was forced to back up hastily. They were in no hurry, so Harry was able to get a few steps ahead of them, when a new thought sent a bolt of panic through him: What would happen when he reached the doorway to the elevators at the far end of the corridor? He'd be sandwiched between that door and the wizards. Even if he somehow managed to stay out of their way, the door would slam into him when they threw it open. Why didn't I stick with the original plan and just hide in a bathroom until closing time? Some irrational portion of his brain blamed Hermione for this mess, but that was hardly fair; the Invisibility Cloak had been Ron's suggestion, after all.

Harry was saved by good luck once again. He spotted the stairwell to Level Ten out of the corner of his eye as he passed it, and was far enough ahead of the two ersatz Quidditch managers that he leaped into it without detection. The torch above his head flickered and he held his breath as they passed, but they were busily arguing about statistics and paid it no attention. Harry rested his head against the cool stone and took several deep breaths until his heart calmed, then he grinned. Why hide in the bathroom, after all, when this convenient staircase was available?

Harry realized the answer to that question as soon as the chime went off at five o'clock. Within seconds, a hubbub of voices began echoing up the staircase; it was quitting time for the Wizengamot as well, and the stone steps would soon be filled with people heading up to the elevators. Harry gritted his teeth. The stairwell was even more narrow than the corridor! He dashed up the steps and flattened himself against the wall just to the left of the stairs, barely avoiding a collision with a tired-looking wizard hefting an overstuffed briefcase out of the Department of Mysteries.

Harry reckoned that no one from the courtroom would turn toward the Department, and he was correct; everyone was quite eager to get to the lifts and call it a day. He'd unwittingly scrambled to the one safe spot in the whole corridor, as the people leaving the Department gave the stairwell a wide berth, to avoid colliding with anyone coming off the stairs. Time and again Harry pressed back hard against the wall, grimly certain that one of the Unspeakables would walk right into him, only to watch the offending witch or wizard veer away at the last minute, missing him by scant inches.

As the flow of sorcerers through the black door began to dwindle, Harry waited for a suitable gap and leaped lightly across the corridor. This was risky, he knew, but it seemed that most of the people leaving the Department came out one at a time, and it gave Harry an idea. The black door had not quite closed when the next Unspeakable pulled it open again. A witch came out of the Department toting a broomstick that she clearly intended to ride home; it was a commuter model with a small basket nestled amongst the bristles. She was still stuffing a yellow lunch bag with a black badger embroidered on the front into the basket. She must have been in Hufflepuff, Harry noted offhandedly, watching the bag distort itself to the width of the basket and slump inside.

Ducking under the handle of her broomstick, Harry made sure there was no one right behind her and slipped through the black door. As he suspected, the room had been repaired, with its familiar blue candles and identical black doors lining the curved walls. But with people leaving for the day, several doors were open at once and the room showed no immediate intention of sending the walls into a whirl. Harry darted carefully to the center of the room, carefully dodging people traversing the room from all directions. It was a bit of a juggle, looking out for passers-by while trying to peek into the various doors, but he eventually spotted the doorway leading to the veil chamber. It was no longer directly across from the exit door; apparently the anteroom was not rebuilt according to its old floor plan.

Few people came out of the veil chamber door, so Harry had to wait beside it for some time before he had a chance to slip inside. He hopped over the first row of benches and sat down, steadfastly keeping his back toward the archway. Even this far away, he could feel its strange Siren call at the edge of his consciousness. It was tempting, even with his magical mirrors in his pocket, to use Legilimency and explore that thing with his magic. As Harry pondered that idea, he caught the faintest whiff of ozone and quickly recanted. He understood the sign; Fawkes would arrive in a very conspicuous fireball if Harry tried anything dangerous. He grinned warmly; having Fawkes watching his back was better than a Foe Glass and a Sneakoscope combined.

The Department was quiet, but there were still a few muffled scrapes of chairs pushing back from desks and faint echoes of "Good night" and "See you tomorrow." As Harry waited, the sounds grew further apart, then ceased altogether. Ron was right--the Ministry became a ghost town at quitting time. Harry prowled quietly to the other doorways in the veil chamber, scanning the adjoining rooms to make sure there were no stragglers. The beguiling whispers issuing from the archway were making him antsy, and he needed a distraction. He could easily understand why no one would want to hang around this part of the Department after hours.

Once Harry was satisfied that the surrounding rooms were empty, he returned to the external door and pulled it open just slightly. He watched through the crack as a last straggler emerged from a door on the opposite wall and charged across the polished floor. For a heartbeat, Harry thought fearfully that the wizard must be running from something, but then he realized what was happening. The man wanted to reach the exit before his office door swung shut--otherwise the walls would rotate and he would have to waste time finding his way out. Harry cheered internally for the fellow and noted that he didn't actually make it in time, but because Harry's door was open, too, the walls remained still. The man grinned proudly to himself as he departed, obviously pleased that he'd been fast enough to beat the security system.

The Department went completely silent after that, and it seemed to Harry that he waited at least an hour before the exit opened and Ron's head appeared. His face lit up when Harry poked his shoulders out from under the cloak and waved. Harry sighed with relief when Ron came into the veil chamber; the simple presence of another person diluted the pull of the archway.

"Working perfectly," Ron whispered. "We got to the window just before the bell, but it took a while to pay the fine because we didn't have the actual ticket. The fellow had to look it up in the records, and we just waited at the window and watched the whole place empty out. We hardly even needed to hide!"

Harry was about to reply when Hermione appeared in the anteroom. She had a very uncomfortable look on her face, and ran across the polished floor when Harry waved at her. "You won't believe who I just saw," she gasped, closing the door to the anteroom and leaning against it as though she expected a horde of invaders to smash into it at any moment.

Harry and Ron raised their brows expectantly. "Umbridge!" she spat. "I went to hide in the ladies' room, and when I walked in, there she was, primping." Hermione winced with an exaggerated shudder. She looked up to find them smirking and quickly became indignant. "Oh, it's easy for you two to laugh; you didn't have to see it! Merlin's bum, she was arranging her hair and batting her eyes at the mirror like she was preparing for a date... I nearly lost my supper!"

Ron laughed, but the thought was enough to turn Harry's stomach as well, and he pulled a wry face at Hermione. "Here, hold still," he said, taking out his wand. "I'll Obliviate you."

Hermione rolled her eyes and batted his wand away. "You know, I might just let you once this is all over. Yeurgh!"

The three of them snickered a bit, much longer than the situation really deserved. They were nervous, and the silence after the chuckling died only reinforced that fact. They glanced at one another uncertainly, conscientiously avoiding the direction of the archway.

"Well, I suppose we'd better get on with it," Harry finally said halfheartedly.

"Right," said Ron. "Probably ought to head down there, then." Ron jerked his thumb over his shoulder toward the archway. Even as they clambered over the rows of benches, none of them looked at their destination, but when they reached the bottom of the amphitheater, they had little choice.

Harry boosted himself onto the dais, leaving two damp handprints on the smooth stone surface. Now that he was standing in front of the archway, his resolve began to waver. What if there was someone else that day, who threw the pear at them and ducked out of sight? What if he threw in the mirror and it sailed right through the veil and smashed into bits on the other side? Or worse, smashed to bits in whatever realm lay beyond the archway--how would he ever know? Suddenly the whole project seemed like a really bad idea.

"Harry?" said Hermione, startling him; she had climbed onto the dais and come right up beside him, and he hadn't even noticed. "Can I suggest that you start with something other than the mirror?"

"Yeah. That's a good idea." Harry began patting down his robes, searching for some expendable item. He turned up a silver Sickle, the change from one of his purchases.

He held it up and Hermione squeezed his arm gently. "Perfect," she said encouragingly. Harry set his jaw and squeezed the coin between his thumb and forefinger, then tossed it into the archway.

It promptly landed on the opposite side of the stone dais with a sharp clink.

All three of them stared at the coin as it rolled in an arc and flopped onto its side. "Well," said Ron, "That could have gone a little better, couldn't it?"

Hermione proved a bit more helpful. "All right, then, it obviously doesn't care for coins. I'd imagine the Unspeakables have thrown any number of things in there at some point. It's too bad we don't have access to their results; we're going to have to reinvent the wheel here, to some extent. But no matter. We know Sirius went through, and a pear went through; perhaps it only accepts living things."

Harry's stomach lurched yet again. "That'll take care of all my plans for the mirror--"

"I said 'perhaps,' Harry," Hermione interrupted rather sharply. "Let's just take this one step at a time." She began digging around in her own pockets. "Bother! I thought I had some almonds in here."

"You did. I ate them back at the Leaky Cauldron," said Ron sheepishly. "But here," he continued as he stooped to pick up the Sickle. "I'll just Transfigure this into a mouse and we'll see how that works."

"Do a frog; you're better at those," said Harry, and Ron paused his wand in mid-flick to start over. Seconds later, the Sickle in his hand was replaced with a Red-Eyed Tree Frog with oversized orange limbs.

"Cute little beggar," Ron noted, and set the frog down on the dais. It sat on its hindquarters, staring at the archway just like they themselves had earlier. "Go on, then," Ron urged, and nudged the frog's pointy rump with his wand. It didn't budge, apparently feeling as daunted by the archway as everybody else. Ron, however, had no empathy for the creature. "Now listen here! You'd still be a tarnished old coin if it weren't for me; you hop in there like a good frog, and if all goes well, you should be able to hop right back out!"

The frog spread its knobby, adherent toes on the granite and hunkered down defiantly. Ron sighed, and readied his wand. "All right, then, if you won't cooperate, I'll just have to help you along! Mobilirana!" The frog's body rose from the ground, its legs stretching as it clung to the stone, until they sprang off with a little popping sound. Ron glanced up with a glum expression. "The little fellow's laying on the guilt a bit thick, don't you think? I should have made an earthworm."

Hermione patted Ron's arm. "He'll be all right. What's the worst that can happen--he'll turn back into a coin, right? I'm not sure that Transfigured animals are really alive, anyway." She nodded and Ron pointed his wand at the archway, sending the ersatz frog on a collision course with his spell.

Though it was moving slowly, as soon as it touched the veil, it disappeared into a ripple in the fabric. All three of them jumped, despite the fact that they had anticipated just such a reaction.

"Call him back, Ron!" said Harry urgently.

Ron flicked his wand wordlessly, then repeated the motion, saying "Accio frog," then "Accio coin." Neither the tree frog nor the Sickle came forth.

"That settles that, then," said Hermione. "Apparently it's impossible to draw objects back to this side--which is probably just as well," she added pointedly. "And it does seem to tell between living and non-living."

All the air seemed to leave Harry's chest at once. "I guess that's it for the mirrors, then!" he said miserably.

"Not necessarily," mused Ron. He dug into his pockets a moment. "I wonder, maybe it's not a matter of alive or dead, maybe it's magical or non-magical." Ron finally produced a coin of his own: a golden Galleon. "This is one from the Dumbledore's Army days," he said, showing them the telltale date and time "stamped" onto it. He gave them both a knowing look--Hermione had imbued the coins with a powerful Protean charm. "Let's see how it fares." He pulled back to toss it into the arch, but Harry caught his hand.

"Wait--don't throw it. I won't be able to throw the mirror because it could break. Let's try gliding it gently, like you did with the frog."

"Might as well slide it along the ground, too," added Hermione. "Though Merlin only knows if there's a long drop on the other side, I suppose."

Nodding grimly, Ron set the coin on the dais and pointed his wand. "Mobili... uh, Hermione, what's the spell to move a coin?"

Hermione's brows nearly flew off her forehead. "Oh! I, um, I'm not sure." She looked mortified. Harry might have poked fun at her distress, had he but known the proper spell himself. "Hold on," she finally said. "It's gold; try aurium."

"Mobiliaurium," said Ron.

The Galleon slid obediently toward the archway, producing sighs of relief among the trio. When it vanished at the touch of the veil, Harry jumped, punching a fist victoriously into the air. "YES!" he said loudly, though he knew better than to make too much noise. They were all too excited to care.

Hermione dashed around the archway and back. "I just wanted to make sure it didn't end up on the other side. It didn't. I think if you still want to try a mirror, Harry, now's the time."

"Yes, yes," said Harry. He was clutching both mirrors in one hand, his wand in the other. He set one down on the dais and readied his wand, his hand shaking from the pounding in his veins. He took a long breath to calm the tremor and whispered, "Please work," to the mirror, then flicked his wand. "Mobilispeculum!"

The mirror scudded softly over the dais to the archway and vanished.

Over and over he tried the spell. It was not simple, but he'd cast it a million times and he knew the full sequence like he knew his own name. He just kept making one inane mistake after another. His wrist would catch, his fingers would fumble, the incantation would come out of his mouth with one misplaced letter. On and on, starting over each time and growing more and more frustrated with every attempt.

He could hear them taunting, the ghostly voices that were not ghosts. He couldn't remember why he wanted to cast this spell, but he had a vague feeling it was terribly important. He looked down and realized he wasn't holding his wand at all, but a very small fishing pole. Of course, that's why the spell hadn't worked. He wondered briefly how he'd mistaken this fishing pole for a wand in the first place. The fact that he knew how to operate this Muggle device even though he'd never seen one before didn't seem all that important.

Something tugged on the line. He wound the reel automatically. There was no fish at the other end, but something very strange and solid--something that surely didn't belong at the bottom of a lake. He sniffed it. It was a piece of fruit, but so old and rotten that the stench of it was sickening. He hurled it away hard and it struck Remus in the back of the head. He laughed, but Remus disappeared in a blinding flash of light, and he realized that it wasn't very funny at all.

No, in fact, something was quite wrong. He raised the fishing pole again and tried to cast it, but the air around him had become thick and viscous. It was all he could do to get the pole into position over his shoulder. How could he possibly hope to launch the shimmering lure through air like this? Wrenching, he brought the pole forward in an absurdly slow arc, but it was the best he could do. He flicked the release on the reel, but the lure didn't even drop to the ground. It just hung there unmoving at the tip of the pole, just like his arms and legs and eyes, pinned in place by unseen forces.

As he watched, the lure became a gold coin, then a mirror.

Something was definitely very wrong.

"Do you see anything? I don't see anything."

"You won't. They'll only work for me and Sirius--it looks like a mirror to everyone else."

"And? Morgan le Fay, Harry, open your eyes!" Ron shook his shoulder. Harry steeled himself and did as he was told.

Adrenaline shot through him like lightning. "It''s black, but it's not just a mirror! Sirius!" he shouted, bringing the glass close to his face. "Sirius! Can you hear me?" He glanced up at Ron and Hermione for a brief instant, then returned to the mirror. "Nothing yet. SIRIUS!"

He'd heard nothing but vague murmurs for what seemed like...well, a lifetime, if he thought about it. The haunting voices around him were always too soft to understand, their meaning hovering just beyond his comprehension. It had been exasperating, and yet in many ways, it was just a mild annoyance, as transient as the buzzing of a fly.

As he stood motionless with the fishing pole, he heard a clear, loud voice. Someone was shouting into his ear, yet there was no one there. It, too, was taunting him. "Fishing? You can't be serious." The lure sparkled at him on the end of the pole, glinting like a brilliant firework. Any fish would chase it down, eager to bite it.

"You can't be serious."

He tried to speak, but his breath was locked down as tightly as his limbs. He knew the voice demanded an answer--it was very, very important to say something. His life depended on it, though he couldn't say why. He sucked desperately at the glassy air, trying to force some sound from his throat. "Nnng," he managed to grunt, his tongue too thick to form a proper letter.

He kept at it, beginning to panic. Not because he couldn't breathe; that fact didn't upset him in the slightest. The words, the words, he had to say the words, any words. "Nnm. Nnnmmm. Immmm."

Just as suddenly, the air became fluid once more. "I am serious."

"That was him!" bellowed Harry, and he bolted toward the archway. Fortunately, Ron tackled him and brought him down on the dais, but Harry could think of nothing but reaching into that veil. He tried to crawl out from Ron's grasp. "Lemme go, I heard him, he's in there!"

"Harry!" shouted Hermione, planting herself between him and the archway and shaking his shoulders. "All right, we believe you, but you've got to use your head!"

"He's been in there a year, Harry, two more minutes won't hurt!" groaned Ron, straining against his struggling friend.

Something sunk in, as Harry stopped his frantic efforts. "Okay, okay," he said, sitting up, then helping the others to their feet. "He sounded terrible! I couldn't make out what he said, it was all slurred. We have to help him!" Ron kept a wary focus on him, as Harry's limbs and body kept twitching toward the archway as if he meant to take flight at any moment.

"We will, Harry, we will," said Hermione, but the look on her face belied her words. None of them had any idea what to do next, and they all knew it.

He was awake... or was he merely dreaming that he was awake? Something was not right, but everything was unclear, unfocused, monochromatic. "Where am I?" he muttered softly, unconcerned that mere seconds before he was frozen in place, unable to breathe.

He saw a flash from the lure. Ah, yes, he was fishing. But wasn't Remus here a minute ago, too? Did he go swimming? Then he heard Harry's voice, which was odd, for he knew Harry wasn't here. Harry was shouting so loudly that he turned angrily to look for him and tell him to quiet down, but the lad was nowhere to be seen. Harry's words were slow and garbled but filled with urgency, and he strained to make them out. It sounded like "we have to help him."

Remus must be in trouble! Drowning? He remembered, he'd just hit him in the head with that fruit, maybe it knocked Remus out and he fell in the water! But he looked around, and there was no water, no Remus, no Harry... only a murky gray landscape without a horizon, and the fishing pole in his hand.

He did the only thing that made any sense. Raising the pole over his head again, he cast it. The reel spun freely as the line played out, but the fishing lure remained hanging there at the end of the pole.

He was almost positive that was not how they were supposed to work.

Harry paced rapidly before the archway. Ron stared into it, seemingly waiting for inspiration to strike. Hermione held her hands to her temples, her lips moving as though she were reading an invisible book out loud with a silent voice.

Ron had conjured a length of rope and tried to toss one end into the archway, but it had flopped to the ground when it hit the veil, as though it were a solid wall. Hermione snatched it from him and set one end on the ground by itself, then tossed in the other end, but the entire rope had vanished with a tiny pop the instant the far end touched the veil. It was clear that you were either inside or out of the thing; there was no hovering at the threshold.

"We can't pull him out, that's obvious," said Ron, in a surprisingly calm, assured voice. "The other things we've put in have not come out, but the pear did, therefore it's possible to get out. I think we have to assume that Sirius threw the pear. Either he can't or won't throw the other things back out, but he has the capability. Since he can throw other objects out of there, he can probably put himself out too. Why won't he?"

"It's dark in there," said Harry. "Maybe he can't see the exit. Maybe he's on a precipice or something and doesn't dare move. Maybe he's being held in there!" Harry wrung his hands in frustration. "Anything could be happening!" He held up the mirror again, tilting it as though he might spy something from a different angle. "Sirius, I know you're there," he said to the glass. "Can you talk? We want to help you!"

Before Harry completed the sentence, a streak of red sparks shot out of the archway. It was a signal from a wand.

"SIRIUS!" Harry howled, once again lunging instinctively toward the archway, but he stopped himself before Ron knocked him down again. He clenched his fists. "We can't help him unless we know what's keeping him there! I don't care," he said abstractly, as though speaking to someone outside of the room, "I'm using Legilimency. We have to know!"

Harry opened his arms toward the archway as though he were holding a huge, delicate ball in his hands. Ron and Hermione leapt up to stop him, but they never even made it to their feet. A fiery explosion threw both of them off the dais to the third row of stone benches.

"I know you're there," shouted Harry. 'Confound that boy, what's the meaning of all this yelling? He's going to scare away all the fish!' But with his best lure obstinately hanging there at the end of the pole, the fishing was bound to be poor anyway. He took the lure in his hand; it wasn't even tied to the line. No wonder it didn't cast properly.

'And look, there's a nice line right there I can use.' It was beautiful, fine and thin and glowing red, the only color in his entire vision. He smiled. Somehow he knew, as he always just knew things in this place, that this was the toughest, strongest line he could ever hope to find. He reached up and delicately took it between his fingertips.

None of them could see anything, just an expanding ball of flame, but it dissipated in one blinding rush. It took a moment for their eyes to readjust to the dim torchlight in the room, but they could hear it. Harry was sobbing.

Ron pulled himself to his feet, some part of him wondering where Hermione had been thrown by the blast, but for the moment he had to see what had happened on the dais. The first thing he saw was a tiny, naked baby bird, curled into a ball near the edge of the dais. Ron scooped it up instinctively, knowing it needed to stay warm.

Harry was kneeling on the stone, his head bent. He was cradling something in his lap.

A hand reached up and patted Harry clumsily on the face.

"Wha'smatter, Harry? Bad dream?" said Sirius Black.

Chapter 22: 22: Awakening
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Remus Lupin picked up the tiny box on the mantel in the drawing room and resumed pacing. He muttered softly to himself, frequently ceasing both his words and his steps abruptly, only to start anew after an anxious expression and a deep breath or two. At one point he set the box back down, pressing it against the marble as he worked it open; the hinge was far too stiff. He opened and closed it several times to soften the spring. When the action finally suited him, he paused reverently to arrange the contents: a small but elegant diamond ring, nestled in the velvet lining.

Glancing for the hundredth time at the drawing room door to assure himself it was closed and bolted, he returned the box to the mantel once again. He continued to pace, this time without mumbling, though the look on his face was no less intense. He had finished planning and rehearsing the words he would say; now it was time to convince himself to go downstairs and say them. People were just sitting down to dinner. With any luck, he'd be ready by the time the kitchen was empty again--empty except for Adora, who had agreed to meet him for a late supper.

After another five minutes of pacing, he picked up the box again and worked the hinge a few more times. At this rate, the box would open itself at the right moment, out of a conditioned reflex.

This was madness. He was a marked man, Voldemort's next target. What in the name of Merlin was he thinking? I love her. So you'll make her a widow? At least she'll have that to remember--that she was truly loved. Just what she needs hanging around her neck like an albatross, that her "one true love" lies buried or, worse, forgotten on some battlefield. No! She's a soldier too, she knows the risks--she cherishes the time we have together, just as I do. And how many times have you believed that, if by some miracle you survive and she does not, you will never find another? That's different. I'm a werewolf, she's not; it'll be easier for her to move on. It would be easiest for her to move on now, if you were man enough to let her go, even send her on her way.

Lupin stopped pacing and threw himself into one of the easy chairs, his knuckles white as they gripped his hair in a feeble attempt to silence his internal dialog. He was staring at the box on the mantel again when the fireplace below it burst into emerald flames.

"Hermione? What in--Harry? You too? And I just..." Lupin's voice shriveled to nothing as his gaze moved past the paradox of Harry's tears and euphoric smile, onto the dark form draped heavily on Harry's shoulders. He was dimly aware of a fourth person coming through the Floo, and of Hermione dashing out of the room, and of shouting, laughing, crying, but such things barely registered. His mind was reeling, trying to grasp the incomprehensible, to somehow make the sight before him jibe with reality.

I'm dreaming. I've gone mad. I'm dead.

Then Harry was beside him, leaning onto him for support, and so was the other. He felt Harry's cool, wet tears, felt the young man's body trembling from excitement and exhaustion. Lupin dared not believe his eyes and ears, but touch was irrefutable. He threw his arms about both of them, fearfully and desperately taking on the weight of Harry's burden.

Warm gray eyes met his own and a brief but jaunty grin flashed from a weary face, and Lupin's heart accepted what his mind could not.


By the time Hermione returned (trailed by the entire crowd from the kitchen), Harry and Lupin had managed to settle Sirius into one of the armchairs. He was pale and weak and could barely talk, but his expressions were quite clear and spoke volumes: he was utterly mystified by their behaviors and wondered what all the fuss was about.

"Drink this," said Hermione, shoving a pewter tankard of water to his lips and tipping it for him. He drained it in a long series of gulps, looking surprised by the recognition of his own thirst. Someone handed her a pitcher and she refilled and served the tankard again, but Sirius pulled it away after drinking half of it. "Thank you," he rasped, his hand falling away from the vessel as he tried to grasp the handle. He frowned at the hand as though it was a foreign thing, perplexed by its unwillingness to obey his wishes.

"You're very weak. Just let us help you," admonished Harry, continuing to smile and cry at the same time.

As if to prove Harry wrong, Sirius placed a clumsy but tender hand on his shoulder. He moistened his lips several times and coughed, then spoke. "What in Merlin's name is all the fuss about? I just fell asleep, is all. Sleeping. Nothing amiss."

Harry and Lupin had the same impulse to crush Sirius in a hug, and ended up clunking their heads together en route. "Of course, Sirius, just be patient with us," said Lupin with a groan as he clutched the goose egg already developing on his forehead. "We've got some explaining to do."

At that point, Sirius took in the crowd of strangers gawking at him and uncertainty dawned in his eyes. "Uh, Reem? Where... who are all these people?"

Harry answered him, squeezing him about the shoulders joyfully. "They're the Order, Sirius. The Order of the Phoenix! This is only a handful of the ranks now; we're at Headquarters!"

Sirius blinked, then glanced about the room, his eyes widening as he took in the warm, clean appearance and the dour Black Family Tapestry in the corner. He gaped in disbelief, first at Harry, then at Lupin. "This is my house?" he croaked, his dry, disused voice breaking in surprise.

Harry and Lupin eyed one another mirthfully. "You know, I suppose it is," smirked Lupin, shaking his head. "Though we may have to dig out the deed itself, to make sure." He hugged Sirius again, and though Sirius accepted it, he looked more bewildered and distracted than ever.

Molly Weasley arrived in the doorway at that moment with a steaming bowl of soup and some bread. Rather than jostling her way through the spectators, she loudly insisted that everyone clear out and let the poor man regain a little strength. There was something unquestioningly authoritative about her, though her wand was nowhere to be seen. Despite a few quiet grumbles, all present promptly filed out of the drawing room. When Harry and Lupin were the only ones remaining, she glared at them and approached with the soup. Sirius winked at Harry, who shrugged, smiling, and left him to Molly's ministrations.

They had scarcely reached the stairway when Lupin took Harry by the arms and pulled him around until they faced each other. The wonder in Lupin's eyes was being displaced by suspicion and distrust. "Harry... how?" he asked solemnly.

"We pulled him out from that veil, Remus! Come on, I'll tell you the whole story."

Harry led the way to his bedroom on the second floor. He sat on the window seat and waited for Lupin to close the door, then recounted the whole story of their trip to the Ministry. "I'm still not quite sure what happened at the very end. Fawkes showed up and went incendiary on the spot, and then the next thing I knew, Sirius was staggering out of the archway. Well, more like he fell out of it, right onto me, and I caught him."

His eyes suddenly wide, Harry jumped up off the sill. "Oh, my God! Fawkes! I have to go back and find him!"

He headed for the door, but Lupin caught him by the arms again. "You're not going anywhere, Harry," he said severely. "Sit down. I'll send someone after Fawkes."

Harry gulped. He had only heard Lupin use that tone once before, during his third year at Hogwarts. It was in the Shrieking Shack, when he, Ron, and Hermione were confronting Sirius and Peter Pettigrew for the first time. Lupin had meant business then, and he meant it now. Though Harry knew it was his duty to tend to Fawkes, he dropped his gaze and sat obediently on the windowsill. He didn't budge until Lupin returned.

"Ron had Fawkes. He's fine," Lupin held out a tiny chick cupped in his hand. Harry took the phoenix and cuddled him in the crook of his elbow, petting his damp, fuzzy down. "Finish your story," said Lupin bluntly.

"There's really nothing else to tell," said Harry, subdued. "The three of us hauled Sirius up to the Atrium as fast as we could and Flooed over here. Obviously Ron must have grabbed Fawkes on the way--Hey!" Harry yanked his hand away and shook it. "He bit me!" he exclaimed.

"I'm not surprised," said Lupin flatly.

Harry's jaw seemed to fall all the way to the floor of the room below his. "Remus, what's the matter with you? We RESCUED SIRIUS!"

"I know very well what you did. And while I'm... while I can't even describe how glad I am to see Sirius, I'm also very angry with you, Harry." He folded his arms and glared until the younger man averted his eyes.

"I wasn't alone, you know, I had--" began Harry, but Lupin raised his hand in a no-nonsense gesture for silence. Harry's shoulders drooped in resignation. He set his hands in his lap and twiddled his thumbs nervously as he waited for Lupin to read him the riot act.

He didn't have to wait long. "I made it clear last night that it's too dangerous for you to go out alone." Lupin's voice was cooler and softer than ever, which was somehow worse than if he had yelled or ranted. "I know you understood me, Harry, because that was the first thing you said just now to defend yourself. Technically speaking, you weren't alone. But we both know that technically speaking, you wouldn't be alone if you had a Muggle with you either. Or a Death Eater, for that matter! In terms of your protection, Harry, there's a big difference between the company of someone in the Order versus other students! I'm embarrassed that I have to stand here and explain this to you."

That stung. Harry stared fixedly at a wrinkle in the rug below Lupin's feet.

Lupin's voice finally took on an angry timbre. "I anticipated that this might happen, Harry. I hoped it wouldn't--I hoped you'd grown out of your willful, reckless habits. I thought that witnessing Dumbledore's death might have finally made it clear that even the most powerful wizards can be cornered and overwhelmed. I trusted you to keep your word and use your head." He paused a moment to let that sink in, but there was no need; Harry just wanted to crawl under a rock and wriggle with the earthworms by that point.

Lupin sighed, a sad, defeated sound. "But as I said, I anticipated this. I'd made arrangements a long time ago, hoping I'd never have to implement them. I almost did it last night, but I thought you had listened to me. Having to accept that it was all just lip service, Harry... well, I've already made it clear how I feel about this whole business. Now it's time to act.

"As of today, I'm assigning you a bodyguard. You're not to leave this house until he arrives. Hopefully he'll be able to come right away and escort you back to Hogwarts in time for class tomorrow. One of the Aurors will take Ron and Hermione back this evening, at any rate; I assume that once you're under guard, they won't run off alone without you. If you think they might, Harry, tell me now--I can assign guards for them, too, if they need it." Lupin paused, then spoke more firmly. "I want an answer, Harry. Do I need to assign guards to Ron and Hermione?"

Harry raised his head. "No. They won't leave Hogwarts. They wouldn't have left today if it weren't for me."

Lupin held his gaze a moment longer, then nodded. "All right, then. I'm glad I won't have to pull anyone else from the field."

Wriggling with the earthworms was sounding better and better all the time, but there was only so much guilt Harry could take before it transformed into anger. Lupin must have sensed that Harry had nearly reached his quota; his face softened at last and he laid a firm hand on Harry's shoulder. "I should have done it a long time ago anyway," he said gently. "James and Sirius and I always had each other's backs, and we were... well, no one ever got the better of us when we acted together, let's put it that way. It was only when we were separated that we had any trouble."

Harry looked him in the eye. "Ron and Hermione and I are like that."

Lupin gave him a half-smile. "Only to a point, Harry. You and Ron and Hermione are also the prime targets of the entire Dark Army. That's a lot of powerful enemies for three students to hold off."

Harry averted his eyes for a moment. "I'm sorry, Remus," he said, simply and sincerely.

At that moment, a beautiful arpeggio issued forth from the vicinity of Harry's elbow. Fawkes had stretched out his neck and was singing in a delicate soprano. Both wizards listened raptly, holding their breath. When he finished his song, Fawkes waggled his pointy rump into a cozy spot, tucked his bill under his featherless wing, and closed his eyes.

"I think he's forgiven you," said Lupin. Harry furrowed his brow in confusion, and Lupin continued. "He died tonight, you know--to save you. Just because he's reborn every time doesn't mean it's easy for him. Or painless."

Harry looked down at the little ball of fluff tucked in the crook of his arm and felt a fresh pang of guilt. He covered Fawkes's back with his hand to warm him, which resulted in a tiny chirp and a contented wriggle.

"The worst part is that he can't protect you now, not until he grows again," continued Lupin. "That's why he waits until his feathers are literally falling out before he burns up under normal circumstances, you know. He hates this period in between, knowing that he's helpless to protect you if you need him."

"How do you know these things?" asked Harry quietly.

"I don't--not for sure, anyway. But I do understand what it's like when your body goes through harsh transitions." Lupin grinned wryly. "Plus, I know he loves you desperately; that's why he Bonded to you. Knowing that you're vulnerable has to be torture for him." Lupin's voice thickened as the ring in its little box popped unbidden into his thoughts. "He'd be devastated if he lost you because he couldn't be there when you needed him."

A fresh tear slipped down Harry's cheek. He lifted up the little cygnet and kissed him on the head. Fawkes nuzzled Harry's chin, but his little eyes were droopy, as though he might fall asleep at any second. Harry briefly rubbed the arch of Fawkes's skinny neck and then tucked the cygnet into the inner pocket of his silk robes, right over his heart.

Wiping away the tear with his palm, Harry spoke, his voice rattling with emotion. "Yet he knows I'm not immortal. Poor Fawkes. I wonder how he can stand it, giving away his heart, even his life, knowing that no matter what, he's going to have to carry on alone again, sooner or later."

Lupin thought again of the box on the mantel in the drawing room, and had no answer.

The sounds of an excited crowd began to filter up from the staircase, and with one deep look in Lupin's eyes, Harry saw that his anger and frustration had passed. "Well, now that's done, shall we go meet Sirius again?" Harry asked. Lupin responded by crushing Harry to his chest in a quick, tearful hug, and then pulled him down the stairs by the wrist at top speed.

Molly Weasely had stuffed Sirius with soup and bread to her satisfaction and announced that visiting hours were now open. Judging by the squeals currently issuing from the drawing room, Tonks was at the forefront of the welcoming committee. As Harry and Lupin dashed in, Sirius looked at them with pleading eyes above his enormous smile. Tonks was squeezing him nearly inside out, laughing and crying at the same time such that only a loud wail was coming out of her mouth. All the solemnity dropped away from Lupin at last, and he simply piled onto Sirius's other side and commenced with his own howl of pure joy.

When all available members of the Order had mauled Sirius to their hearts' content, he was finally permitted to flop back into his chair in a cheery daze. Seeing that all eyes were upon him, Sirius shrugged in a flustered way and shook his head. "Well then. It's very nice to see you all again," he said, "though for the life of me, it only seems like a few hours since the last time. Does anyone mind telling me just what in the name of Merlin I got myself into, then?"

That calmed the excited atmosphere even further. Lupin and Arthur Weasley eyed each other uncertainly. "Sirius," said Lupin in a slow, level voice, "what do you remember?"

Sirius blinked, then frowned. "I'm not sure, Reem. I've been asleep, haven't I? It feels like I've slept for days, or weeks, even. The dreams I was having... they were so long and so complicated, I don't know how I could have dreamed them all in one night."

"Do you remember what you were doing before you, uh, went to bed?" said Lupin tactfully.

Sirius frowned harder, concentrating. "I... I was talking in the Floo downstairs... with Sniv--with Snape. He said... he told me that Harry thought I was being held prisoner in the... in the Ministry of Magic?" Sirius cocked his head and peered at Lupin in a silent query. Though Lupin nodded assuringly, Sirius looked skeptical of his own memory, but he continued his story.

"Next were all standing around arguing about who should go help Harry, and whether we should wait for Dumbledore. I shoved Snape up against the wall and told him this was all his fault for stopping the Occlumency lessons. I remember I told Kreacher to wait here and send Dumbledore along when he arrived." He paused, scrunching up his face with the effort to recall further. "It seems like we Flooed somewhere; I remember the green flame and the spinning, but from there... Did I fall, maybe? That's the last I remember: green light and a feeling of falling for a long, long way... was I sucked off into the Floo Network?"

Lupin sighed. "No, Sirius, you weren't. We all took the Floo to the Ministry. From the Atrium, we went straight to the Department of Mysteries. We found Harry, and others--" he gestured toward Ron and Hermione "--battling with a band of Death Eaters in the interior. You took out at least two of them, then you faced off with Bellatrix Lestrange."

Sirius reared his head in confusion; this was obviously news to him. "Please tell me I smacked her down," he said, but judging by the look on his face, he already guessed the answer.

Lupin shook his head. "In a word, no. She knocked you into... something. An archway, with a veil; some sort of artifact hidden in the Department. We all assumed it was some sort of gateway to... well, to SOME other world, presumably the Underworld. We didn't know what had happened to you, but we all thought you were gone. Dead."

Sirius stared at his oldest friend for some time, then snorted in disdain. "The day my cousin Smellatrix can kill me in a duel will truly be the end of the world. You ought to know that, Reem," he chided.

Lupin chuckled. "You're right, Padfoot; I should have known you were up to something." He resumed his somber tone. "But all the signs agreed with it. Your will revealed itself, just as though you had died, and Harry clearly had possession of the house and Kreacher. We just... believed the worst." Tears suddenly welled in Lupin's eyes.

Sirius promptly threw a small pillow at Lupin's head. "I promise if your will reveals itself, I'll assume you're dead and return the favor," he said with gruff affection. "Besides, no harm, no foul, eh? I'm back and the house is all clean!" He turned to Harry with a big grin. "Your mum was always tidying up the common room after us; I should have guessed you'd inherit the neat gene."

Lupin and Tonks smirked and Harry laughed outright. "Interesting," added Harry innocently. "I seem to have passed it on in unexpected directions."

They all spent the next hour dining in the drawing room with Sirius (who ate ravenously despite his recent meal), explaining the state of Grimmauld Place and the Order. Arthur Weasley and Lupin did most of the talking, which suited everyone just fine; they did a nice job of skirting the heavy issues that no one wanted to talk about. Eventually, however, Sirius began to detect that there were pieces missing and brought them up himself. The first came as he took a hard look around the room and suddenly asked, "Where's Dumbledore?"

After a strained silence, Mr. Weasley spoke up. "Dumbledore was murdered, Sirius. Some four months ago."

Sirius turned pale, gripping the arms of his chair. "Who?"

"Severus Snape," said Mr. Weasley quietly.

A series of contractions coursed over the muscles in Sirius's face and his skin went from white to red in a matter of seconds. He finally spoke through gritted teeth. "Still alive?"

Mr. Weasley gave him a stern look. "He escaped. There's been no sign of him since. And before you get all worked up about revenge, bear in mind that you'll have to go to the end of a very long queue." Every head in the room swung in unison toward Mr. Weasley. Such sentiments did not come out of his mouth very often and were worth confirming.

It seemed to mollify Sirius somewhat, as he bowed his head and stared thoughtfully at his knees. "Four months," he said absently. He took a long, critical look at Harry. "You've grown. I saw it before, but I was a little too overwhelmed to put it all together. Just how long have I been gone?"

Harry flattened his lips in an unwilling grimace, then answered as calmly as he could. "A year ago in June. It's just October now, so a year and three months."

Sirius's jaw fell. "October... Mother of Merlin, I've been asleep for more than a year?"

Mr. Weasley took over again. "I'm not so sure. There was a lot of destruction in the Department that night--in particular, the Time Room had a great deal of damage. The Unspeakables never recovered the Time that was lost that night. There's been a lot of speculation about where it went. We know Time is subject to gravity, so we expected it to pool in the lowest point in the Department. That would be the ampitheater in the Veil Room, unless it managed to escape from the Department into the hallway. We never found it down on Level Ten, but it wasn't in the Veil Room either. I have a feeling it followed you through the veil."

Sirius reached up and stroked his chin thoughtfully. "You know, this is about three day's worth of whiskers," he said. "And I've shaved every day since I moved back in this house, just for something to do."

"That's it, then!" said Hermione. "You must have been floating in a pool of Time for most of your absence. You aged only a few days, even though a year passed for the rest of us. That would also explain how you survived so long without food or water."

"Do you remember throwing something during the time you were dreaming?" asked Harry pointedly.

"I do!" said Sirius. "I was... let me see, I was fishing, of all things, and this nasty piece of rotten fruit--it might have been an apple--got hooked on my line. I nailed Reem in the head with it!" He smiled impishly; Harry and Lupin exchanged a glance. "I barely had time to cast the line again when I woke up... which of course was when you pulled me out of there. That's right," he said, recalling more of the dream, "I thought I'd knocked Remus into the lake, and I heard you, Harry, saying, 'he needs help, we have to help him,' something like that. Then I saw your line and grabbed it. I had just enough time to realize that if you'd thrown it to Remus, you might need my help pulling him out--and then you pulled me out."

Harry needed a moment to muddle through that, but fortunately Lupin took over the explanations. "You hit me with that fruit just over a month ago, Sirius. Harry and I were down there after... well, more on that later. Regardless, Harry had a bag of pears, and one rolled into the veil. It came back out and hit me on the head, just as you said."

"Perhaps the fruit got caught in some sort of time vortex, so it grew old and rotten before it reached you," said Hermione, frowning. "It must have reversed again when you threw it out, or perhaps the effects of the rogue Time didn't persist once it came back to our side. Either way, one month for us passed by in the blink of an eye for you!"

"And I never throw you a line, not then or now," noted Harry. "We tried to throw in a rope tonight, but it just disappeared."

"No, it wasn't a rope," said Sirius. "It was just like a fishing line, Harry--except it was red. Glowing red, actually, as thin as a hair, and perfectly straight too. It seemed to go on forever in both directions. And it showed up just seconds after I threw the fruit. That's why I thought I'd find Remus on the other end of it."

Around the room, people puzzled over this latest mystery, but soon all eyes fell upon Harry. He was clutching at his chest with a grimace of pain. Stunned, no one moved at first, then several people leapt to their feet to attend him. Harry gave a weak but reassuring wave with one hand as the other fumbled awkwardly at the collar of his robe.

"I'm all right," he finally gasped. "I just... that red line, I've seen it before. It was Fawkes. That's what his magic looks like." Harry extracted Fawkes from his inner pocket and held the tiny cygnet in his palm. His down had dried in the warmth of Harry's robe and he looked quite fuzzy and cuddly, save for his long, sharp bill. "I didn't pull you out at all, Sirius; Fawkes did it."

"Dumbledore's Fawkes?" said Sirius in surprise.

Harry felt an irrational surge of jealousy at those words, followed immediately by chagrin. Sirius looked taken aback and Harry knew his anger had shown on his face, which made him even more embarrassed. "He's sort of my Fawkes now," he mumbled with a guilty shrug.

Sirius exchanged a knowing look with Lupin but said nothing. There was a gleam in his eye, though, that seemed either impressed or proud, and it filled Harry with a warm sense of relief. Look at me, getting jealous... We're Bonding stronger and stronger all the time, aren't we? he mused, absently bringing the phoenix up to his cheek for a nuzzle. Sharp, shrewd eyes peered at him from crimson fluff, and Harry was certain that Fawkes knew his thoughts and agreed completely.

As the conversation resumed, Fawkes began to chirp and whistle quietly but urgently, and Harry realized that his familiar was hungry. Fawkes eyed the cherry pie that some thoughtful soul had brought up for dessert, but Harry tapped his beak. "No sweets for you until you've had a good meal," he whispered. Harry had no idea of what constituted good nutrition for a hatchling phoenix. Fawkes was no help; he avoided Harry's inquisitive gaze and stared intently at the pie.

Beckoning Remus closer, Harry pointed at the cygnet and mouthed, "Hungry." Fawkes confirmed the point by stretching his neck straight up and opening his bill in a characteristic pose of hungry baby birds of all species. Lupin nodded straightaway and excused the two of them from the drawing room.

"Do you know what to feed him, Harry?" asked Lupin in a low voice as they passed the portraits in the hall.

"I don't," said Harry with a pang of guilt. "He wants pie."

Lupin scowled. "He needs to eat something good for him. We'll have to Floo Hagrid." Fawkes let out a disgruntled hoot that made both of them snicker.

It proved impossible to reach Hagrid by Floo, which Harry had suspected, based on his knowledge of the tricky connection in Hagrid's fireplace. Lupin ended up having to Floo Professor McGonagall, who made it clear she'd prefer to roast Harry on a spit than to run off and summon Hagrid at that moment. The plaintive chirps of a desperately hungry phoenix are hard to resist, however, and she soon relented for Fawkes's sake. Harry and Lupin succumbed as well; by the time Hagrid appeared in the Floo, they'd fed Fawkes a huge slice of pie.

"Are yeh daft? Yeh can' give a baby pie jus' coz he wants it!" grumbled Hagrid as he brushed the ashes from his moleskin coat. "Course he's gonna wannit! That don' mean it's good fer him, though!" He scooped Fawkes out of Harry's hand with two fingers and eyed the fluffy cygnet appraisingly. "He needs somethin' that'll stick ter his ribs! Izzere any butter about?"

Harry felt a bit squeamish as he watched Hagrid shovel butter by the spoonful into Fawkes's gaping maw. It was clearly what the little fellow needed, though; he appeared to grow right before Harry's eyes. "There's a good boy," Hagrid cooed encouragingly as Fawkes pumped and rattled his little gullet. Harry felt another jealous pang that he should be the one feeding Fawkes, but Hagrid looked so blissfully happy, he let it go... this time.

After devouring more than his own weight in butter, Fawkes's neck began to weave back and forth as he stretched up for his next gulp. "I think he's getting full," said Harry. Hagrid nodded, but raised the spoon again. Fawkes seemed to swallow it in slow motion, his little eyes drooping at half mast, but he gamely opened up his mouth once more.

"Uh, Hagrid?" said Harry nervously. "Don't you think he's full?"

Hagrid contentedly dropped in another dollop. "Not jus' yet." Fawkes nearly missed it, his neck was wobbling so drunkenly. Again he barely swallowed it, as though his stomach was too full and the butter was backlogging in his throat. Still, the little mouth tipped upwards.

"Hold still, little feller," Hagrid said soothingly as he tried to position the spoon over his flailing target. Fawkes snapped his bill and caught most of the butter, but a large blob fell to the tabletop. He didn't even make the swallowing motion this time, just opened his mouth for more. Sweat beaded on Harry's upper lip, and he caught Hagrid's arm when the giant scooped up another spoonful.

Hagrid looked up at him with a dazed expression. "Ah, I'm sorry, Harry. Here, you feed him." He handed over the spoon with a warm grin.

"Hagrid!" Harry was certain the little phoenix would either choke to death or explode. Hagrid peered at him incomprehendingly, obviously wondering why on Earth Harry wasn't stuffing in the next bite. At that moment, however, Fawkes let out a burble of pure contentment and flopped flat onto the table, feet and wings sprawling on either side and his neck stretched out to its fullest. Hagrid beamed.

"That'll hold him fer a while!" the giant boomed triumphantly. "Now, is there any bacon?"

All Harry could do was stare. Lupin put a paternal arm around his shoulder. "Hagrid's been caring for Fawkes a long time. I think you can trust him on this."

"But... look at him!" Harry pointed in horror at the unconscious cygnet.

"In' he beau'iful?" said Hagrid, oblivious to Harry's distress. "He'll grow the size of a pigeon durin' his nap, an' he'll wake up hungry! No more pie for him, though, 'til he's leas' as big as a chicken. Fruit's not rich enough. He needs a lotter energy teh grow so fas'."

Harry sighed in defeat and picked up the limp cygnet. Fawkes really had grown; Harry could barely stuff him into the pocket that he'd slipped into easily a mere two hours before. Hagrid watched approvingly, then pointed to a cast-iron skillet hanging on the wall.

"Fry up about three pounds o' bacon fer his nex' meal, Harry, an' see if there's some olive oil. He's boun' ter be thirsty, too."

Hagrid returned to Hogsmeade by Floo and took Ron and Hermione with him. It was well after 9:00 by the time they Flooed to the Three Broomsticks, but at least they'd get past Filch with Hagrid as their escort. Knowing full well that if the Headmistress wasn't standing at the door when they arrived, they'd be marching straight to her office, Harry pleaded to go too. Lupin wouldn't hear a word of it.

"Your bodyguard will arrive tomorrow afternoon. You'll remain in this house until then. Full stop. And if you feel guilty that your friends are going to get the brunt of Professor McGonagall's wrath, good. Remember that the next time you get the urge to go out on your own." Lupin glared at him sternly, but he relented a bit as he handed Harry the frying pan. "Better get going. That bacon's not going to cook itself. I have a feeling you're in for a long night, Harry."

At 2 AM, Sirius Black appeared at the top of the kitchen stairs. His legs were trembling, but he sat on the top step for a breather and waved at Harry to go on with what he was doing.

Harry had little choice. Fawkes was awake for the third time that night, his appetite more fierce each time. About the size of a duck now, Fawkes gulped the butter so quickly that Harry didn't have time to refill the spoon before the phoenix howled desperately for more. Feathers poked out from his down, each one rolled tight around its axis and encased in a waxy sheath. Fawkes looked for all the world like a long-necked hedgehog, although at least the quills weren't sharp.

By the time Sirius managed to plod down the stairs to the kitchen, Harry, too, was shaking. "Hey," he gasped between frantic spoonfuls, "You should be in bed."

Sirius watched the proceedings with awe. "You should too. Morgan le Fay, Harry, he's an eating machine, isn't he?" Harry nodded without answering.

After a moment or two, Sirius asked, "Would it help if I grabbed a spoon too?"

Harry shook his head. "I think we're over the worst part. He's slowing down. A few more bites and he'll be ready for bacon."

Sirius raised an eyebrow. "A bird after my own heart." He stretched his hand toward the platter of bacon on the table next to Fawkes, but stopped short after a glare from Harry.

"That's his. I'll cook some for you if he eats it all, but believe me, we don't want to run out."

"No worries," said Sirius. "I'll find something else." He continued to watch Harry with an expression of bemused fascination. Harry, focused completely on the task at hand, didn't even look up again until Fawkes was halfway through the bacon. He was taken aback by Sirius's expression. "What?"

Sirius smiled ruefully, shaking his head. "Nothing. Just... You know you look just like your father."

"Except for the eyes, yeah." Harry rolled those very eyes in annoyance.

Sirius smirked. "Right, the eyes. But I swear, Harry, I've seen James in the exact same pose as you're in now, right down to the slump of your shoulders. It's uncanny. And you know what he was doing at the time?"

Harry was too tired to come up with a sassy remark, so he settled for a weak shrug.

"He was tending to you," said Sirius wistfully. "You were about a week old. You woke up every few hours hungry, day and night, just like all new babies. Prongs and Lily were worn out, but the minute you cried, they were right on it, seeing to whatever you needed. I'd never seen James so tired, and yet he was so happy, so enthralled to have this noisy little bundle to take care of. That's how you look now, Harry." Sirius smiled warmly, then cleared his throat. "Ah, listen to me, sentimental sap. I've been in Dreamland too long."

Harry shook his head. "It's not sappy. It's nice, hearing things like that about my dad." He felt a brief tug at his hand and looked down. Fawkes had lunged at the bacon he was holding and snapped off half of it, which he was quietly gnashing in his bill.

"Look at that!" said Sirius. "Strong enough to chew it himself, already!"

Harry offered the rest of the bacon and beamed proudly as Fawkes snatched it from his fingers. He heard the scrape of Sirius's chair but was startled nonetheless when his godfather's hand came to rest on his shoulder. Harry pulled the plate of bacon within closer reach and put one arm around Sirius's waist as he fed Fawkes with the other.

"Go get some sleep," Sirius said when Fawkes finished eating and collapsed contentedly on the table. "I'll feed him the next time."

"What about you?" Harry looked him up and down in concern; Sirius was still pale and rather shaky.

"Not sleepy. A year of dreaming will do that to you, I reckon. Besides, I'm feeling a little peckish myself. Fawkes and I can raid the pantry together in an hour or two."

Warmth radiated from the center of Harry's chest. He was tired to the bone, and yet he would have gladly stayed awake to tend to Fawkes. Knowing that he could trust Sirius to do this flooded Harry with happiness. He stood and pulled his godfather brusquely to his chest. "Sirius. I'm so glad you're back."

Chapter 23: 23: From the Ashes
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Harry sat up in a panic. A strange sound awakened him, and he had forgotten where he'd gone to sleep. He blinked at the bright midmorning sunlight and realized that the screams were merely Lady Black lamenting that the wrong prodigal son had returned.

He dressed quickly, anxious to check up on Fawkes right away. As he pulled on his socks, there was a little coughing sound from the wall by the window. Phineas Nigellus Black was staring down from his portrait, tight-lipped and stern. "What's your problem?" Harry thought irritably, but he returned the gaze with one brow raised quizzically.

Phineas Black cleared his throat, then said stiffly, "I understand that you restored my rightful heir."

Harry snorted. "I helped bring Sirius back, yes. Fawkes deserves the real credit, though." He tied his shoes and jumped up.

"Potter!" belted the portrait. Harry, his hand already on the doorknob, halted and turned around, but did not speak.

The figure in the portrait moved closer, until his face nearly filled the frame. Harry's jaw softened when he realized the former Headmaster's eyes were brimming with unshed tears.

"Thank you," said Black, very quietly and simply, then he turned and rushed from the frame.

Harry knew the old Slytherin would rather eat turpentine than say such a thing to him. "My pleasure," he answered softly to no one in particular, then padded quietly down the stairs.

He found Fawkes in the kitchen, being fussed over by a crew of adoring witches. They were taking turns feeding him sliced oranges. His plumage was filling in nicely, in part because the ladies were preening him, breaking open the quills with their fingernails and gently unfurling the vanes. Roosting on the table with his eyes half-closed, Fawkes was the very image of bliss. He greeted Harry with a cheery trill, followed by a wide yawn.

Sirius sat alone at the far end of the table. Grinning, Harry slid into a chair beside him and jerked his thumb at the spectacle.

Sirius winked cheerfully. "Typical, isn't it? Two good-looking, eligible blokes right here, but are they peeling grapes for us? Oh, no. They're too busy with Mr. Soft and Feathery." He sniffed in mock disdain and shook his head.

"That's because you're too easy. They don't get many chances to play with Fawkes."

Sirius stared at him for an instant, then laughed. "Good grief, Harry, you're as bad as Reem!" Harry laid a hand warmly on his shoulder and got up to make some toast.

After breakfast, they found Lupin and Arthur Weasley in the drawing room upstairs. "Ah, Sirius!" said Mr. Weasley. "We were just talking about you." He scooted his chair away from Lupin to make room for the two of them to sit and join the discussion.

"Good things, I hope," said Sirius as he settled heavily into an armchair. Lupin and Mr. Weasley exchanged a pointed glance.

"Well, maybe," said Mr. Weasley. "We've been thinking about how to announce your return."

Sirius raised his brows. "I have a feeling this isn't going to involve ballrooms and champagne."

Lupin averted his gaze and shook his head but Mr. Weasley smiled briefly. "Maybe someday, Sirius. Merlin knows you deserve a hero's welcome. But the war's not over, and I think we ought to keep a tactical edge."

"A tactical edge," Sirius said dubiously. "Meaning...?"

Lupin raised his head. "Only the Order knows you're back, Sirius, and really, only a small part of it. The rest of the world, including the enemy, thinks you're dead."

Understanding gleamed in Sirius's eyes. "That makes me a secret weapon, doesn't it?"

Lupin smiled broadly, though the cheer was tempered by a predatory hardness around his eyes. "Exactly," he said.

"An unexpected ally, that's for sure," said Mr. Weasley reasonably. "The fact is, Sirius, the general public has never learned the truth about your situation. The Ministry, even under Scrimgeour, wasn't eager to admit it was a mistake to send you to Azkaban. I can even sympathize with that to some extent. We need every ounce of trust we can get. Plus, Peter Pettigrew still hasn't been seen in public, and many people simply won't be persuaded that he's alive until they see him for themselves. Without physical proof, there will be accusations that it's all just another elaborate tale, and the last thing we need now is yet another argument to distract people."

Sirius frowned, but nodded. "I'm sure the Ministry has a closet full of those already, but you're right. An appearance by Pettigrew would go a long way toward proving my innocence to the more stubborn louts out there."

Mr. Weasley sighed with relief. "Internally, though, when you were killed, the Aurors were told the whole story. So the manhunt is off and you have a bit more freedom to move about, though you'd still need a disguise. But you wouldn't have to worry about being shot on sight by MLE."

"Sure, they'd have to haul me in first, to see who's running around impersonating Sirius Black," he smirked.

"Which is exactly what the Aurors will tell the Prophet if you're recognized," Mr. Weasley continued. "I'm more worried about you being spotted by Death Eaters, actually. They know about Snuffles; the Ministry still hasn't caught onto that."

"So basically, I'm under house arrest again," Sirius said, his voice suddenly downcast.

"Hey! It's not so bad!" said Lupin, scooting forward to the edge of his chair and putting his hands on Sirius's shoulders. "Really, there are days when I wish I could find a moment's peace around here!" He gave Sirius a gentle shake. "It won't be just you, me, and Buckbeak anymore. The House of Black has become... a house of hope."

Sirius and Lupin stared at each other with such intensity that both Harry and Mr. Weasley looked away self-consciously. In the periphery, Harry saw Sirius clasp Lupin by the forearms, then they settled back into their chairs. They both looked a bit misty, and Harry suddenly felt choked up as well.

Sirius rubbed his eyes. "Well, that settles that," he said, clearing his throat. "Can I still have Buckbeak here?"

Mr. Weasley left for the Ministry soon afterward. Harry, Sirius, and Lupin talked in the drawing room the rest of the morning, interrupted only by a Brazilian witch who brought up a lunch tray. A contingent from South America had brought in a huge spread of their native foods, each attempting to outdo the others in flavor and splendor. Fawkes had squawked in protest when Harry picked him up and removed him from the buffet. He'd actually made a lovely centerpiece for all the exotic food, but leaving Fawkes in the company of strangers for so long was giving Harry the jitters.

They had barely finished their dessert of alfajores when Mad-Eye Moody poked his head in the drawing room, his face unreadable. "On your feet, Potter. Need to see something outside," he said.

Harry furrowed his brow. "What?" he asked, though he could tell from Moody's pinched expression that there would be no answer; he would have to go look for himself. The old Auror had already headed back to the ground floor.

Harry glanced at the others. Lupin was staring at the spot where Moody had appeared as though he could, via sheer willpower, force him to return and explain himself, while Sirius just made a funny face and shrugged. "He's got the ultimate poker face," Sirius said lightly. "With those scars of his, you can't tell if he's deadly serious or having you on. Either way, I'm curious now." Harry and Lupin both nodded silently. Harry settled the sleeping Fawkes into his armchair and all three followed Moody down the stairs.

By the time they reached the entry hall, they heard a muffled commotion. Someone was shouting in the street outside. Moody raised the brow over his intact eye and jerked his thumb toward the front door. "Recognize it yet?" he asked.

Within half a second, Harry's stomach clenched uncomfortably and Moody's flat expression became a grimace. Harry glanced again at Sirius, whose eyes widened in recognition, then closed as he lowered and shook his head. Only Lupin continued to look puzzled, and finally raised his hands questioningly at the others. "Okay, fellows, I'm obviously not in on this one; who is it?"

Harry and Sirius spoke at the same time. "Petunia."

Lupin regarded them as if they'd just announced that Voldemort himself was standing on the lawn. "Harry's aunt? That's impossible! She doesn't know the Secret--how could she find this place?"

"You'd think so, an' yet there she is," Moody noted gruffly. "Only she's going to have all the neighbors out in the street if we don't put a stop to that noise. Let her in?"

Sirius was already pushing his way to the front door. "We'd better. If she draws a big enough crowd, this location could leak out, Unplottable or no." He flung the front door wide and stepped out onto the worn stone landing. "Petunia Evans!" he shouted. "Have you gone spare?"

Harry spotted her through the doorway, standing on the street in the midday sun and looking around frantically. He had a sinking feeling that she was searching for him, but then he realized that her gaze was not focused; she obviously couldn't see the magically concealed House of Black. A terrified expression passed over her at the sound of Sirius's voice. To her credit, she stood her ground, though all color left her face.

"Suh-suh-Sirius Black?" she croaked.

"So much for secrecy! Concessere Petunia!" Sirius snarled quietly. Harry recognized the incantation--it would reveal the hidden dwelling to the specified person--but Petunia continued to gaze blankly in the direction of Sirius's voice. Irritated, Sirius rolled his eyes and stepped off the porch, but her expression did not change.

Harry thought that perhaps the house had become confused regarding its true owner, and uttered the same spell with a flourish of his wand. Instantly Aunt Petunia gasped and stumbled backward. Sirius was but five steps away from her by then; he must have popped out of thin air from her point of view.

"What on Earth is the matter with--" Sirius began, but Petunia cut him off with a frightened but firm squeal.

"Where is my nephew?"

Wincing, Harry stepped onto the landing. "I'm here, Aunt Petunia." It felt incredibly awkward just to say her name, and Harry suddenly wished with all his heart that he could just throw on his Invisibility Cloak and sneak off.

Petunia looked only slightly relieved to see him. She pointed at Sirius. "You said you inherited this place. Is this a ghost, then, Harry?" she asked, again holding up with unexpected temerity despite the fear in her voice.

Both Harry and Sirius sighed awkwardly. "No, I'm not a ghost," said Sirius, his tone conveying that he expected this same question to pop up frequently in his future, and that he would be annoyed by it every time. "Reports of my death were greatly exaggerated," he added with a smirk.

Petunia didn't seem particularly happy about that news, but at least she turned back to her normal pasty shade of pale and started up the walk. Sirius crimped his face in distaste after she passed, then followed.

By the time she reached the steps, she was trembling so hard that her teeth were chattering. She stopped short on the landing to stare at the silver door knocker shaped like a serpent. The thing stuck out its tongue out with an insolent leer, and Petunia crashed backwards into Sirius as though she'd been launched from a slingshot. "Knock it off, knocker," Sirius growled with a menacing glare. The snake turned its head disdainfully, but froze into place like an obedient piece of hardware.

Petunia had gone colorless again, and though Harry had wished many times for an opportunity to confront his relatives on his own magical turf, he felt sorry for his aunt. She didn't look well. Scrawny to begin with, she'd managed to lose even more weight and was now downright skeletal. Even her hair seemed thinner, and certainly more gray. "Tell you what," Harry began, gently edging his way past her and down the steps, "if you're here to see me, Aunt Petunia, why don't we just talk out here in the garden?"

Petunia's eyes remained fixed on the silvery serpent, even as Sirius propped her back up onto the landing, but she answered Harry with a weak nod. Glances passed among all the others as Harry put his hand on Petunia's elbow and directed her toward a stone bench just beyond the corner of the house. Sirius and Lupin went back inside, but Moody parked himself stonily on the top step and took out his hip flask. Though he faced the street, Harry was certain his magical eye was roving like the beacon of a lighthouse.

As they approached, Harry surreptitiously poked his wand at the bench and performed a nonverbal revealing charm, but found no evidence of enchantment. He sat down first, nonetheless, concerned that the bench might react negatively to the pressure of a Muggle rump. Aunt Petunia's lip curled ever so slightly at his apparent lapse of manners. Harry swallowed the irritation that soured his mouth and said simply, "Just making sure it wouldn't run off or buck." He patted the bench to indicate it was safe for her to sit, gloating inwardly at the alarmed comprehension in her eyes.

Now came the tricky part. Aunt Petunia was busy struggling to sit down without actually touching the bench, so it was obviously up to Harry to initiate the conversation, but he had no idea what to say. Commenting on the weather was ridiculous under the circumstances, and polite inquiries about Uncle Vernon or Dudley would sound phony and staged. He didn't want his aunt to talk about them, or anything else for that matter, but he couldn't quite bring himself to ask point-blank why she had made a Herculean effort to find him in the Wizard world.

Aunt Petunia finally accepted that the bench was not an immediate threat and let out an anxious sigh. "Well, Harry," she said awkwardly, "I suppose you're wondering why I'm here."

"Um, yeah," he mumbled, feeling his ears warm up and turn red.

She folded her hands in her lap and turned so that her knees, pressed tight together at the hem of her skirt, pointed toward him. Her voice took on a hint of its usual carping timbre. "I've been looking for you for some time, young man. I went all the way up to that school of yours, then they told me you were absent--without permission, nonetheless." She glared at him reproachfully, as if it were any business of hers whether or not he cut classes. "I spoke to your Headmistress. She knew where you were, but she couldn't tell me or anyone else, because she wasn't the Secret-keeper." Petunia scowled. "I knew what that meant. The Fidelius Charm! I'm surprised anyone still uses that rubbish, after what happened to my sister."

Harry was glad he'd seated himself securely on the bench, because hearing his aunt spout Wizard words as casually as she would recite a grocery list was enough to knock him off his feet. His astonishment must have showed in his face, as Aunt Petunia stopped for a brief snicker.

"Oh, yes, I know about those things, Harry. Your mother got all the magical powers, but I wasn't about to be utterly left behind! She left her old books at home when she back to school every fall. I read them all, just in case I turned out to be magical, too. It never happened, though; no, I was just ordinary. Plain, common Petunia, not lovely, magical Lily, not destined to strike fear into Dark Lords with a wave of my wand." She paused, her lip curling into something between a sneer and a desperate effort to hold back a wave of grief. "No, I was born to a plain, common life, with a plain, common husband and a plain, common son. Until you came along."

Harry had been watching a small beetle make its way through the sparse grass at the foot of the bench, but he looked up indignantly at that remark. "Excuse me? 'Came along?' It's not as though I had any say in the matter. Do you think that's what I would have chosen, if I ever had a choice?"

Petunia closed her eyes and took a deep, noisy breath through her nose, then let it out slowly. She had clearly put some effort into calming herself down, and Harry found that rather disarming. It almost felt like a gesture of respect from his aunt, like she had listened to him and considered his feelings on the matter. The novelty of being treated like a human being by anyone from the Dursley household was enough to silence him.

"I got a bit distracted, young man. These past few months have not been easy for me, and my temper... I only have a few nerves left, and it doesn't take much to get on them." Her tone was chilly, but the simple fact that she had explained herself made Harry feel a strange lightness all over his skin.

He needed no Legilimency to see that his aunt had changed, profoundly, since he saw her last. "What happened, Aunt Petunia?"

She sighed again and for a moment Harry feared she would start crying, but she merely drew her shawl a little more tightly about her shoulders. "Very well. I suppose the beginning is the best place to start," she said. This time Petunia stared at the beetle scurrying along the ground while Harry watched her.

"No one saw fit to notify us about... what happened on Privet Drive. We came back from Marge's estate to find a heap of cinders where our home used to be. Vernon insisted that you'd done it deliberately. He made quite the scene, ranting on the burnt-up lawn about you and your "black magic." The neighbors were simply captivated. One of them even had the presence of mind to run along home and get his video equipment!"

Harry shifted uncomfortably on the stone bench. Had he been watching from afar, Harry would have assumed she was kvetching with a neighbor about the latest aphid repellant, loud teenagers, or (at worst) a "strong" chicken she'd purchased at the Safeway. He began to wonder if Sirius had a point after all; perhaps she'd finally gone completely round the bend.

"But the BBC was only the beginning!" she continued. "Your uncle certainly had his fifteen minutes of fame. The stockholders at Grunnings weren't pleased at all to see their plant director in the Daily Mail, going on about 'vengeful wizards' and 'evil curses.' Next thing you know, they served his notice. We promptly had no home AND no income.

"Then it came time for Dudley's school to start. Far be it from Vernon to send in the tuition to Smeltings in advance--oh, no, mustn't part with a penny before it's necessary. Never mind that you can pay in installments if you begin early. Not Vernon; he'd rather wait until the very last minute and pay the lump sum. Except without his last two paychecks, we didn't have the lump sum in the bank. And after Vernon's spectacle in the press, Smeltings leaped at the chance to dismiss Dudley from their esteemed school."

Petunia snorted loudly, startling Harry enough to make him jump. "Marge was letting us stay at her estate as we got back on our feet, but when she learned that Dudley wouldn't be going off to school after all, she sent us packing. A bit cold, but acceptable, I thought, for I was expecting a check from our insurers any day. That's when I learned that Vernon had under-insured the house--to save on premiums, you know. Once again demonstrating his brilliance at finances.

"With the miserable payout, even after we sold the land, we hadn't enough to buy a new home--especially with Vernon out of work. And since he couldn't seem to stop ranting about magic and witchcraft, no one would hire him. I had to arrange to lease a flat; Vernon kept frightening the landlords at every place we looked into!"

The beetle disappeared into a clump of grass, and Petunia looked up at Harry with a rueful grimace. "Then things turned around," she said, her tone so sarcastic that an unwelcome picture of Professor Snape formed in Harry's mind. "Your uncle finally found his calling, Harry--his true niche. Just guess what he's doing. See if you can guess."

Dazed, Harry shook his head, and Petunia sniffed in disdain. "Just as well, you'd never get it. Your uncle Vernon," she continued after a dramatic pause, "has taken to evangelical preaching."

That was all Harry could take sitting up. Groaning, he slid from the bench to the ground, resting his elbows against his knees and burying his face in his hands. After a few seconds, he took off his glasses and set them aside, in order to submerge his head even further. The image of his uncle in a cheap canvas tent, standing on a tree stump or old crate and bellowing about hellfire and brimstone, made him feel like crawling under a rock for the second time in two days.

Petunia sat quietly for a few minutes, then continued. "Needless to say, Harry, I've had a lot of opportunity for reflection over the past few months. I can say with authority that it's a lot easier to come to terms with witchcraft and magic being real, than to accept that one's husband is an idiot and one's son is not much better."

Harry's head shot up to stare at his aunt.

"It's quite true," she said with remarkable calm. "I'm sure you expected me to scream and rant that this was all your fault, that you'd ruined our lives, our home. And no doubt to demand part of your inheritance." She paused, cocking her head thoughtfully. "Funny about Black not being dead; I suppose you haven't a penny to your name once again. Ultimately no better off than the rest of us," she noted.

"Well, as I was saying, had I found you two months ago, I might have done all of those things, yes. Vernon may rile up his 'flock' regarding the evils of magic and 'the devil's work,' but he's not too principled to turn down any Wizard gold! He sent me off with all his blessings to hunt you down for the purpose of making him a comfortably wealthy man again." Petunia's face soured into a bitter sneer. "But I came home early during one of his 'revivals' while I was looking for Hogwarts. I stood just outside the tent and listened to him rave to whomever would listen that my sister was evil..."

Petunia's voice tapered off to a whisper and cracked into silence. For Harry, it was like a third eye had opened right in the middle of his forehead. He immediately saw the truth of Petunia's story on open display like a Turkish bazaar. Her sudden burst of outrage that sweet, gentle Lily was being vilified by a man who was too greedy to make sure his own son's tuition was paid. Her recognition that Vernon was nothing more than a bully; that from the very beginning he'd been attracted not to her, but to her shyness, to her embarrassment that her sister was some sort of "freak" and had to be hidden away from the rest of the world. He took that vague, unformed anxiety and sculpted it into a wall around her, making her his personal pet, a trinket he kept boxed up for his own selfish amusement.

Petunia had played along for years without even realizing the game was on. She'd helped pour Dudley into his father's mold, catering to his every whim until he, too, took it for granted that he could, would have his way at all times, for there simply was no other way in his perceptions. She'd never seen her life for what it was until it collapsed like one of Ron's houses of cards while she stood outside that tent and watched her son pass the hat while her husband railed against the gentlest, sweetest person Petunia had ever known.

Harry rested his head against the bench; the thick layer of moss gave it an agreeable cushion. "There is great evil in magic, but not in all of it," he said bluntly. "Just like anything else. Dark wizards destroyed your house in minutes with their hatred--but my mother's magic had kept it all at bay for sixteen straight years."

Petunia nodded but said nothing.

"Why have you come here, Aunt Petunia?" Harry knew he could simply lift the answer from her mind, but he wanted to hear it spoken aloud.

She straightened up primly and picked up her handbag, fingering the plastic clasp for some time before replying. "I'm leaving, Harry," she said quietly. "I'm not sure where, but I've taken a third of the money that's left and I'm leaving. There's no stopping Vernon. Not only does he fancy himself quite the martyr, but I think he rather enjoys being the center of attention in his makeshift pulpits. As for Dudley..." Her face clouded, but she steeled herself and continued. "Dudley likes attention, too, as well as not having to set the alarm or attend classes. The endless summer holiday is making up for the loss of all his gadgets--for the time being. But when the novelty wears off... Somehow I suspect that by Dudley's eighteenth birthday, he'll have enough of wandering the countryside with his father."

She looked so despondent that Harry felt he must say something. "I could... try to look in on them now and again," he mumbled, knowing full well that he might as well offer to fly to the moon.

Petunia stared at him a moment, then laughed, but without mockery or contempt. "Probably best not to, Harry, or you might be burnt at the stake, or worse. Vernon's gone Pentecostal--taken to snake-handling, you know. He might hurl the whole basket of them right into your face."

"That's okay, I can... talk to snakes." Harry suddenly felt utterly absurd, casually discussing his talent for Parseltongue with Aunt Petunia, something he didn't even tell other sorcerers, for Merlin's sake! Her lip curled with mild revulsion, and Harry shrugged. "Not that I make a habit of it or anything! It's just... come in handy a few times."

Petunia's dubious look suggested that she could think of more worthwhile skills to possess, but she nodded half-heartedly. "I suppose it's, erm, much easier than having to run and fetch a rake when you find one in the garden."

After a brief, incredulous stare, Harry laughed so hard that he snorted.

His aunt, having managed a few stiff but sincere chuckles of her own, finally opened her purse and peered carefully inside. She closed it again but did not fasten it, and edged forward on the bench. "I sought you because I have something to give you before I leave, Harry. She leaned down and spoke in a low voice, despite the fact that there was no one to overhear. "I don't know what customs you... people have, so if this is considered distasteful, I beg your pardon."

She sat back up and gazed at the rooftop of the Muggle tenement on the other side of Grimmauld Place. "When my sister died, there was of course an inquiry. The police suspected some sort of explosion, perhaps a faulty gas line--wanted to make sure the public was safe, you know. They cleared out the wreckage to investigate the matter. Most of their possessions were lost, but a few things turned up here and there."

Petunia reached into her purse. "I chanced to be in Godric's Hollow on some matter or another--I believe I was hunting for a legal record of your birth--when these were found by one of the detectives." Giggling nervously, she pulled out two thin wooden rods, one dark, one light, each one easily twice the length of her small handbag. "I never get over the way they squeeze themselves in there." Harry's full attention focused on the objects in her hand.

"The young man asked if James and Lily were musically inclined. He thought these were conductor's batons. I told him that was exactly what they were and took them, with every intent of throwing them into the nearest bin. But I couldn't. I tried, you understand, I simply couldn't. Every time I picked them up, there would be an interruption--the telephone would ring, or one of you babies would cry--and I'd attend to it without realizing that I'd set the wands down instead of throwing them in the bin. I'd discover them months or even years later, on some high shelf or seldom-used drawer, and I'd even recall putting them there, though I certainly hadn't meant to at the time."

Harry's hand was steady as he reached for the wands, despite the fact that his heart was racing and he felt somewhat lightheaded. He took them from her one at a time, first the slender, delicate willow rod that had been his mother's, then the sturdy mahogany wand of his father. He expected some sort of reaction, a rush of magical energy or at the very least, a tingling, but there was none. But it warmed his heart deeply to hold each one of them, and after deciding that a more dramatic effect was not likely, he took both wands in one hand and pressed them against his cheek.

"Thank you," he finally said.

"I'm glad this wasn't for naught. I spent weeks trying to find Hogwarts, you know--I'd only been there once before, when we all went up to see Lily off to school. And then to find you weren't there, and Dumbledore had passed on... Lily and James both thought the world of him. I didn't realize things were quite so grim."

Petunia snapped the clasp on her purse. "Fortunately, Lily had told our mum how to find your godfather, and Mum told me. I came here once before, you know, soon after you were left with us. I'd hoped to... well, to persuade your godfather to take you off our hands." She shuddered; Harry knew that a meeting between Petunia and Sirius's parents could not possibly have gone well. "I remembered that you'd inherited the place, and when you weren't at Hogwarts, I thought it was worth a try. And you were here, and now you have the wands, and my errand is done, although I admit a bit of curiosity about Sirius Black no longer being dead."

Harry flattened his lips and frowned. "It's kind of a long story. It turned out he wasn't dead, just... trapped in time. And dreams." This sounded pretty thin, even to Harry's own ears, but Petunia simply grimaced and raised her hand.

"On second thought, I'm quite sure I'd rather not know." She rose a bit stiffly from the concrete bench, and Harry leapt to his feet.

"Would you like to... come in for tea, or..."

Petunia glared down her nose reproachfully, but there was a tiny hint of warmth there as well. "Got to be on my way, Harry," she said primly. "This was my last obligation; it's time for a fresh start. I believe I'll go to Greece. Always wanted to see the ruins and what not. I trust you won't send Vernon on my trail."

Harry rolled his eyes. "Not likely. Though he'll probably accuse me of sacrificing you in some black magic ritual."

Petunia laughed outright, a strained sound like a suppressed sneeze. She was clearly out of practice. "Oh, lovely! Do play along with that, Harry, if it should come up. That will make my return all the more dramatic." With that, she patted his arm and walked resolutely to the street, even giving Moody a brief nod as she passed the steps.

Harry accompanied her to the magical barrier that hid the house from Muggle eyes, and gazed after her as she stepped into the street. She never looked back. When she reached the end of Grimmauld Place, he sighed and went back inside.

The bit of melancholy that Harry felt as he watched his aunt depart disappeared at the sight of Remus, Sirius, and even Tonks, each hastily retracting a set of Extendable Ears. Harry didn't need to say a word; their guilty looks and placating grins told him all he needed to know. "You people are pathetic," he noted, then laughed. If any of them had been outside chatting with Petunia Dursley, he would have done the same thing, and everyone knew it.

Sirius and Lupin both stared at the wands he was holding. Harry hefted them a bit, as though confirming they were real and solid. He studied them intently for a moment, biting his lip, then took his mother's wand in his left hand. Holding his father's wand by the tip, he extended the handle toward his godfather.

"Harry..." Sirius's voice strained into a whisper.

"You lost your wand," Harry said softly. Gaping, Sirius shook his head. Harry rolled his eyes and jiggled the wand, though there was no question that his godfather had noticed it. "Go on. Take it."

"I can't take that from you, Harry--"

"You're not taking it! I'm giving it." He jabbed the wand further toward Sirius. "Come on. My dad would want you to have it."

Sirius reached hesitantly for the wand, but pulled Harry into a fierce hug instead of taking it. "I can't... I don't know what to say Harry!" Easing his grip, he finally took the wand by the handle, raising it with reverent admiration. He clasped Harry to his chest once more. "Thank you," he murmured as he withdrew.

Harry managed half a smile. It hurt to give the wand away, even to Sirius, but it also felt right. There was too much good magic left in those wands for them to sit unused in his trunk.

He and Sirius departed to the courtyard to put the wand through its paces. Harry remembered all too well the rather unreliable behavior of Ron's borrowed wand, though that was certainly not helped by the Spellotape holding it together. "I had to borrow Moony's wand now and then," mused Sirius, "but I don't think I've ever used James's." He tapped it against his palm warily, but there was no burst of sparks or other indication that the wand was affronted to be in his hand.

"Try something simple first," said Harry needlessly.

Sirius scrunched his brows together in a petulant glare before smirking and pointing the wand at a chrysanthemum bush. "Accio flowers!" he said assuredly.

Nothing happened. "Hmph," Sirius grunted, giving his shoulders a little shake. He pointed the wand at a yellow beech leaf and tried again. "Accio leaf!"

Both wizards frowned. Sirius offered Harry the wand; he took it and pointed it. Wordlessly, he Summoned the leaf in an instant. Sirius blinked. "Now, no need to rub it in," he said cheerfully, but there was no mistaking his disappointment.

"Why didn't it work for you?"

"Oh, Merlin only knows," sighed Sirius. "Most wands go dormant when their owners die. That's why they don't get handed down. I always wondered if that was built in, you know--to keep the wandmakers in business and all that." He grinned cynically. "I suppose you have enough of James in you to reach the magic. It was a nice try, though, Harry. Thank you."

"Maybe my mum's?" Harry said, fishing the willow wand out of his robe.

Shrugging, Sirius accepted it and gave it an experimental flick. "No sparks," he said glumly. "I tried to make some that time." He pointed at the mum again. "Accio flowers." He sighed aloud when they remained stubbornly motionless.

"I'm sorry, Sirius." Harry really meant it. "I guess you'll have to buy a new one after all. With Ollivander's closed, though, that'll be tough. Maybe Tura can help you get one from America--it sounds like they've barely heard of you in Northpole."

Sirius looked askance at him, his sincere smile restored. "Where? You mean Northport? Morgan le Fay, Harry, you sound like a Muggle jet-jetter, talking of shopping in America like it's an everyday thing."

"Jet-setter," Harry corrected wryly.

They spent the next few hours basking in the afternoon sun as Harry recounted his tales of becoming a Legilimagus. Sirius remembered Ondossi from the time she had Flooed him, and was not thrilled to learn that she was Harry's tutor. "I don't like her, Harry. She's ruthless, and she's spooky. Dumbledore, rest his soul, never even met her--at least, not as far as I know." Harry nodded, recalling that Ondossi had said as much. "He always trusted people far more than they deserved," Sirius concluded bitterly.

Harry conscientiously stared at a bumblebee buzzing around the chrysanthemum. "She seems all right to me."

"Well, just be careful. I'm sure it's good to have a mentor--it does sound like this magic you've got is tricky business. But I don't like her reaching into your mind and taking hold of you. Sounds like possession to me, and that's as bad as the Unforgivables. If not worse!"

Harry bristled. "She only did that once, when we first met. She didn't trust me either, you know--she was afraid I might give over to Voldemort and then she'd have to take me on."

Sirius tossed his head with a snort of disdain. "As if you'd ever... Why, if she's so good at Legilimency, how could she even suspect such a thing? There's not a drop of Darkness in you, Harry."

Though it was a compliment, it felt inexplicably like an insult. Harry's shoulders tightened, and he frowned at his godfather. "You think? I'm a Parselmouth, with Voldemort's mark upon my forehead, but no Dark magic?"

Sirius dropped his jaw, then gripped Harry's arms as though to shake him. "That's right!" he said angrily. "He may have passed those things to you, but he didn't make you Dark! I know it!"

Harry was taken aback, and blinked at the older man for a moment. "What do you mean, 'you know it'?"

Sirius clenched his teeth. "Nothing. I just do. And if this Tura could really, really see, she'd know it, too." With that he folded his arms and leaned back against the trunk of an elm tree, obviously intending to say no more.

Harry gritted his teeth as well, then sighed. Two days ago he didn't know if Sirius was still alive, and now they were arguing! This was not what he wanted at all. "Sirius, look. I know you and Tura got off to a bad start. But you have to give her a chance. She's taught me so much. She helps me. She kept me from making a terrible mistake, one that would've got me killed." He shivered, reliving that moment of stunned horror when he realized how close he'd come to luring his friends off to certain death.

Spurred by the intense emotion, Harry's thoughts shifted to the hillside in Godric's Hollow: her small, warm hand on his knee; their hands entwined; the brief illusion that she was drawing him close in the cool quiet of the night. At the time, he'd been too surprised to think and react. Now, however, the memory made his breath hitch in his chest.

Harry forced the thought out of his mind with such vehemence that it was practically Occlumency. He looked up at Sirius, who had been staring determinedly at the ground just beyond his shoes during Harry's reminiscence. He felt a flood of relief that his godfather had not seen the look that surely crossed his face.

Tonks suddenly appeared out of nowhere, in all her colorful glory. "Where's the funeral, you two?" she demanded playfully, planting a noisy smooch on Sirius's cheek, then another just like it on Harry's. The two wizards regarded one another uneasily, but quickly relaxed. Both found it hard to remain grumpy when bearing a ruby lipstick kiss.

She held her hand out to Harry and pulled him to his feet. "Come on, luv, vacation's over. Your bodyguard's just arrived." She offered a hand to Sirius. "And you ought to get some sleep," she chided.

"I'm still not tired," Sirius grumbled, but he got to his feet.

"You know," began Harry, "I don't have class until Monday. Maybe I could--"

Tonks was already shaking her head. "Not a chance," she said, cutting him off with a wave of her hand. "Remus wants you back at Hogwarts. He's still a bit peeved about you running off. Doesn't want you enjoying a weekend in London after all your mischief, you know." Both Harry and Sirius rolled their eyes, which she observed with a scowl. "And don't give me that mutinous look!" she chided. "You're supposed to be studying, and you--" she pointed to Sirius, "--need to get your strength back." She pulled open the heavy door and held it for them to enter.

"Drawing room," Tonks said quietly, and they stole past the sleeping portraits and up the stairs. Harry's palms began to sweat with trepidation; he knew nothing about this new guardian, and visions of Percy Weasley suddenly leaped to mind. The idea of having some snooty old killjoy shadowing him and keeping him on leash was unpleasant, to say the least. I've got to stop messing with Remus, he noted glumly.

Lupin smiled warmly, however, when they entered the drawing room, and Harry recognized the man standing beside the fireplace.

"Ve meet again, Harry," said Viktor Krum.

Remus Lupin collapsed onto the settee before the fire in the drawing room. He spotted the tiny box on the mantel. He had not forgotten that it was there, but all the miraculous chaos of the preceding twenty-four hours had forced him to set it aside, both physically and mentally.

He'd been up most of the night talking with Sirius. It was surprisingly difficult to accept his friend's return, after spending more than a year coming to terms with his death. So many times he'd wished Sirius alive again, or that he had fallen in Sirius's stead, but such wishes weren't supposed to come true. His emotions had run the entire gamut from disbelief to exhilaration, from joy to guilt. If it hadn't been for that lost Time, my best friend would have starved to death while I sat out here feeling sorry for myself. I did all that I could; only Fawkes had enough magic to pull him out of there. I'm going to wake up any moment and find this is all a dream. Bless you, Harry Potter, and your unwavering faith.

Lupin had spent most of the morning tracking down Viktor Krum, who had been in Eastern Europe, helping to resettle the last of the Giants from that part of the continent. Lupin had been loathe to pull him from the field, but Krum's assignment was nearly complete. Keeping up with Harry was no mean feat, and the ideal bodyguard stayed a step or two ahead; if anyone could outpace Harry, it would be the former Champion of Durmstrang and a fellow Seeker. More importanly, Harry respected Krum. He wouldn't be likely to sneak off behind his back.

Lupin grinned wryly, remembering the brief instant he'd considered assigning Sirius as Harry's guard. How I even gave that a moment's thought, I'll never know! Sirius had grown so much since the days of the Marauders, but Harry brought out his devilish impulses in full. He chuckled softly to himself. Hogwarts probably couldn't take a whole year of those lunatics together.

He let his head fall back against the settee and closed his eyes. Harry was safe, and it was quite clear that his Bond with Fawkes was deepening. Were it not for the fact that the phoenix could only repel one deadly curse at a time, Harry probably wouldn't need a guardian. He was gaining good control over his magic, too; Ondossi was an odd sort, but Harry obviously benefitted from her teaching.

With a deep breath, Lupin forced himself to loosen his shoulders. The Order was hunting for the Horcruxes. Harry was growing into a very formidable sorcerer. Arthur Weasley would soon steer the resources of the Ministry against Voldemort in a meaningful way. And now Sirius was back, a powerful wizard and a trusted friend.

For the first time, Remus Lupin thought he might actually survive being the leader of the Order of the Phoenix.

Lupin leaped up from the settee and sent off his Patronus, a duck-billed platypus, with a decisive slash of his wand. He waited at the doorway, ushering Tonks inside when she responded to the signal. She barely cleared the door before he Charmed it closed over his shoulder; he was determined to act before he lost his nerve or his palms got damp.

Lupin dropped to one knee, wordlessly Summoning the box from the mantel. "Adora Tonks, will you marry me?" he blurted.

She leaned back for a moment, rolling her head from side to side with a stunned expression. Lupin bit his lip and opened the box. The spring had re-stiffened overnight, and it snapped open so sharply that the ring was launched from the velvet lining. He lunged and caught it before it hit the floor, wriggling back to his upright position even though he suddenly felt quite ridiculous.

Tonks's smile had never looked more lovely. "Oh, Remus. I thought you'd never ask."

Chapter 24: 24: Ends And Beginnings
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The return to Hogwarts was far from quiet. Harry and Krum Apparated outside the front gates and walked the main path to the castle. It should have been easy to slip in unnoticed, but Colin Creevey happened to be studying on the lawn at that moment, and his shriek of excitement turned every head on the grounds. By the time they made it to the Entry Hall, it seemed that the entire school had their eyes on the AWOL Chosen One and the idolized Quidditch player--and their tongues wagging in whispered speculations about their presence.

Harry glanced at Viktor, amazed by his ability to appear unfazed by this attention. "Doesn't it ever bother you?" he murmured quietly, his mouth barely moving as he formed the words.

"Alvays," said Krum succinctly, his face as impassive as ever.

They climbed the marble stairs to the Gryffindor common room. Seeing that neither Ron nor Hermione were about, Harry headed straight up the spiral stairs to the dorms, Krum quietly shadowing him a few steps behind. I wonder where he's supposed to sleep? Harry mused.

"Hey, Harry," Ron mumbled with a wan smile when Harry burst into the dormitory. He was sitting in a rumpled heap on his bed reading the Charms textbook, and looked as though he'd had the wind beaten from his sails recently. When Krum followed and closed the door, however, Ron's eyes bulged. "Viktor." He glanced between them a few times. "The bodyguard?" he asked, addressing neither of them in particular.

Harry nodded. What more needed to be said? He flopped onto his bed, then eyed Viktor uncertainly. Unruffled, Krum strolled to the window and sat on the sill, putting his feet up on Neville's trunk and looking perfectly bored.

Ron closed his textbook. "Looks like you're pretty well tethered, eh? Both of you," he corrected. "At least you can move a bit. McGonagall put me and Hermione under house arrest. We're stuck in our rooms for everything except classes for a week. Even meals--the house elves bring us a tray. She's got them carrying it all the way up the stairs, too, so it's cold once it gets here." Ron brightened slightly. "I reckon Hermione has a fit every time."

Harry hung his head. "I'm sorry, Ron." He really meant it, too; he would much rather have had McGonagall take out her wrath on him.

Ron smiled warmly. "Ah, forget it! We got Sirius back, and we had a wild time doing it. I swear, I wish we'd had more danger than we did--they might have felt sorry for us and lightened up a bit on the punishment side!"

Krum snorted, then immediately reset his features into their typical cool mask. "Sorry," he said with a little wave.

A breathless first-year arrived shortly to summon Krum to the Headmistress's office. He said nothing upon his return, other than, "I haff my orders." McGonagall never called for Harry. She must have known that the silent treatment was much worse than simply punishing him. He spent the weekend in self-imposed exile with Ron, and the house-elf not-so-subtly brought food for three at every meal.

On Monday morning, Harry and Ron slunk down to the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom at the last minute, arriving just as the bell rang. Ondossi gave Harry a murderous glare as he came in, and her angry words popped into his mind: You were supposed to assist me yesterday. He stopped in his tracks and smacked his forehead; he'd forgotten all about his volunteer duties. Ondossi taught Remedial Defense to the locals in Hogsmeade on Sunday mornings--he could have gone into town for a few hours.

Receiving funny looks from several people (including Ron), Harry collected himself and took his seat. Krum was only a few steps behind, and when he entered, there was a fresh round of gasping and whispering. Harry nearly smacked his forehead again, having become accustomed to his bodyguard's presence in his room. Of course Viktor's appearance would cause a whole new uproar.

Ondossi frowned as she looked for the source of the disruption. She spotted Krum leaning against the wall by the door, where he apparently planned to lurk during class. She stared at him in surprise, then looked him up and down with an intensity that Harry found strangely unsettling in the pit of his stomach.

"Alo, kraciv," she said, in a throaty, rolling manner quite different from the gutteral bark she used when speaking Inupiaq. Viktor raised his brows for an instant, but responded only with a sharp nod and a brusque, "Professor."

She stared at him a moment longer with a hard smile, then turned to address the class. "Apparently you all know this gentleman," she observed, drumming her fingers loudly on the podium. "I believe this class is about to get even more interesting."

Harry nudged Ron with a grin, but one look at Hermione and he sat up straight and faced the blackboard. She could poach eggs with that scowl.

When they paired off to practice the lesson, Hermione grabbed Harry's arm with a pinch to rival a giant crab and hauled him to the furthest corner of the room. "Will you look at them?" she snarled, tossing her head toward Ondossi and Krum, who were huddled in the front corner in a quiet discussion. "Who does she think she is?"

Harry, who had braced himself for the full force of Hermione's wrath at being banished to her room for a week, was at a loss for words. "Who... what?" he finally squeaked.

That was obviously not the correct response. Hermione gave him a new glare that could wilt a steel rod. "Don't you dare cover for her, Harry Potter! I saw her look him over--she's up there flirting with Viktor!"

Too stunned to speak at first, Harry just gaped, which did nothing to soothe Hermione's temper. "No!" he finally said, quietly but firmly. "She's just..."

"Being friendly?" Hermione interrupted, then scoffed. "Please. Since when does she get chummy with strangers?"

Suspicion began to nip at Harry as though he'd stumbled into an anthill. He watched them intently until he caught Viktor's eye; it was brief, but sufficient. He felt a puff of pride at his progress in skimming thoughts, then turned triumphantly to Hermione. "She's just asking him what Dark magic he learned at Durmstrang."

Jealousy quickly turned to outrage. "She what? Viktor doesn't know any--"

Harry put a finger to his lips and shook his head. "Yes he does, Hermione," he whispered, surprised at his own certainty. "He doesn't use it, but he was taught. They all were."

Hermione stared at him, her mouth popping open and shut as the ideas she was processing attempted to spill out and were forced back down. Harry suddenly felt sorry for her. "Come on, Hermione," he said gently. "Moody showed all of us the Unforgivables... that is, Crouch did, as Moody. That doesn't make us Dark wizards. Viktor's all right."

She fell silent, lost in thought. Harry raised his head with another tingle of self-congratulations at his success at averting this latest crisis; Hermione had forgotten all about Ondossi for the moment. But then he spotted Ron standing midway along the wall with his back pressed tight against it, peering bitterly back and forth between Viktor and Hermione.

Harry hunched in defeat. I've really got to stop messing with Remus.

The week crawled by at a snail's pace, cooped up in their rooms during the last few pleasant days of autumn. Dark clouds began to gather on Saturday afternoon, the last day of their banishment, and sure enough, a terrific storm struck that night. All the crisp fall leaves were blown into dank corners and turned to slime, and the temperature went from pleasantly brisk to downright cold. Thus when Harry finally regained the freedom to leave Gryffindor Tower, it was just the sort of day one preferred to stay in bed under the covers.

He found Viktor in the common room, wearing an obviously toasty overcoat of brown wool with fur trim. Harry gulped; his own coat would come up to his elbows--if he could get it all the way over his shoulders. It was going to be a chilly walk.

Ondossi was waiting for them them in the cloudy gloom outside the oak doors, wearing an even toastier-looking leather parka with a huge hood. "Morning!" she said cheerfully, her breath turning to steam in the damp air, then she did a bit of a double take. "You gonna be warm enough like that, Harry?"

He rolled his eyes. "I'm fine. Let's get moving."

His fingers were white from the cold by the time they reached the Three Broomsticks, but Madam Rosemerta met them with mugs of hot butterbeer. He wrapped his hands around his mug and gritted his teeth at the sting of the thaw, but by the time the townspeople had taken their seats, he was ready to duel.

Ondossi had squirrelled Viktor off to the back room, so there was no awed muttering about the famous Seeker--yet. "We have a guest today," she began, addressing the class. "He's going to add a whole new level of realism to our lessons. He'll be using a modified wand so that his spells won't be powerful enough to cause lasting damage, but they're going to be the real thing. Not just hexes and jinxes, but true Dark magic."

The room went silent, and Tura peered intently at each student in turn. "Some of you think I'm joking. I'm not. Most of you are afraid. That's good. If you ever face a Dark enemy, you'll be afraid, possibly overwhelmed by fear. Today you'll practice doing what you must do, even when you're too scared to think. POTTER!"

Harry jumped at her sudden shout, resulting in nervous twittering throughout the classroom. His wand was already in his hand, though he'd been holding the butterbeer only a second earlier.

Ondossi grinned wryly and pointed at him with her thumb. "Did you all catch that? Bonus for not even spilling your drink, Potter." She paused for the laughter to die down. "Reflexes. His reaction to the unexpected was not to turn and look, not to duck, not to wince, run, hide, put up his fists... all a huge waste of time when faced with a magical threat. No. He had his wand ready in an instant. Automatically. Which means that even though he was just standing there casually enjoying a hot drink, he knew at some level exactly where his wand was--and how to get it in a hurry. That's half the battle, right there: being ready when the moment comes. Well! Let's see what happens in the moment, then." She clapped her hands and stepped back against the bar, making room for Harry and Viktor to duel.

When Krum stepped out from his hiding place, Harry had to cover his face to hide his snort of laughter. Viktor had a paper bag on his head, undoubtedly to conceal his identity from any Quidditch fans in the class, and to make him appear more like a masked Death Eater. The bag had come from the Eyelops Owl Emporium, however, and the eye holes were cut out right in the middle of their logo, a fat owl delivering a rolled-up parchment with an enormous smile. Viktor's eyes, peering out from an upside-down owl's face, utterly ruined the effect Ondossi was obviously shooting for.

That is, until Krum flicked his wand and shot a bolt of purple light at Harry. "Protego!" Harry shouted, barely deflecting the spell.

"Nicely done--both of you," said Ondossi. She turned back to the class. "Your Ministry--" she spat the word, as usual "--advised all of you to 'be aware' of emergency measures like the Shield Charm. However, I'd be surprised if half of you can cast it. Hand me your wand, Mr. Potter."

Harry's stomach lurched, but he obeyed. He had no idea what would happen next, but he was pretty sure it was going to hurt.

Ondossi nodded at Krum, who flicked his wand again and launched another purple bolt. This time it hit Harry square on, knocking him flat on his back. The spell did more than that, however. From the ground, Harry saw a copy of himself stagger from the blow, clutching at his chest. Blood suddenly spattered all over the floor before this other Harry, but just as the class began to scream, the image went still, flickered, and disappeared.

Ondossi pulled him to his feet. "Line up, people," she ordered the class. "Mr. Potter, if you'll assist with the actual casting, I'll set up the preliminaries." She smiled at Krum. "Mr. Bad Guy? Ready?"

Two hours and dozens of sore bottoms later, nearly all of the locals could produce a basic Shield Charm, and when Ondossi dismissed the class, they hobbled out of the Three Broomsticks with an air of pride. When the room had cleared, however, Krum yanked the bag from his head to reveal an uncharacteristic scowl. "Dat vas unpleasant," he said.

Ondossi nodded. "I know." She shrugged and patted Viktor warmly on the shoulder. "Thank you, though. It really helped them." She wrapped a black cloth over her eyes and left without another word.

Krum seemed to take it all in stride, as usual. "Tell me, vat is up vith her eyes, Harry?" he said.

Viktor hadn't really spoken much since he'd come to Hogwarts. Harry smirked and took a seat at one of the tables, beckoning Krum to join him. He caught Rosemerta's eye; she immediately drew two more tall glasses of butterbeer. It was time to catch up a bit.

When they finally returned to the Gryffindor common room, Hermione jumped up and bustled them right back out through the portrait hole. "For Merlin's sake, Viktor, can't you even keep him out of trouble?"

"What?" said Harry defensively. "We were helping Ondossi--"

"Which ended an hour ago! Professor McGonagall sent for you right after class. Honestly, Harry! As if a week in your rooms wasn't enough."

"Well, at least I wasn't alone this time," he noted weakly.

Remus Lupin was sitting by himself in the Headmistress's office, balancing an empty teacup and saucer on his knee and drumming his fingers on the armrest of his chair. He glowered at Harry, who cringed, then at Viktor, who didn't. "I assume there was a delay after Ondossi's class," he said, looking as though he didn't believe that for one second, but he didn't want to waste time going through the excuses. "Harry, there's something we need to discuss. Mr. Krum, if you could wait outside..."

That was startling. Harry glanced at Viktor. "No, it's all right. Let's just hear it."

Lupin frowned a bit, but closed the door with a flick of his wand. "Very well; I suppose you'll be talking about it with the others later anyway." He paused a moment, then resumed speaking in a gentler tone. "There's been some... developments, Harry. With Sirius."

Harry' skin tingled all over as he broke out in goosebumps. "What developments?"

Lupin bit his lip briefly. "He's all right, mostly, Harry. We're not sure what they mean. For one thing, he can't sleep. He hasn't so much as catnapped since he returned. It doesn't seem to bother him; he's not tired at all. We're all hoping he's just been immersed in dreams for so long that he's full up on sleep for the moment."

Harry was holding his breath. Remus didn't come all the way to Hogwarts to tell him Sirius was having insomnia. He fought the urge to simply sweep the real issue from Lupin's thoughts.

"There's more, though. Again, no one knows how or why, or if it's just a temporary thing, but... Harry, Sirius can't seem to do any magic."

Harry had to sputter a moment before any words would come. "What?"

"I know, Harry. We can't believe it either. Twelve years in Azkaban couldn't break him..." Lupin's voice broke, and he closed his eyes to compose himself. "No, no, we don't know that anything's broken. None of us have ever seen anything like this. People do lose their magic, but usually they're wounded or starving... something debilitating. Then as often as not, they've just given up using their magic because they've lost all hope--but they still have magic.

"Sirius, though... He's been happier this week than I've seen him in years! Flirting with girls at dinner, going over strategies; it was like the last fifteen years hadn't happened! But then he borrowed my wand to straighten up his old bedroom, and he couldn't do it. He couldn't even levitate a sock. It doesn't make any sense!" Lupin smacked the arm of his chair with his fist.

He immediately looked sheepish, and brought his voice back down to a civilized tone. "We've only got one Healer in the Order. She hasn't been able to come see him yet. And it's not like Sirius can just drop in at St. Mungo's!"

"He can if that's the only choice!" Harry burst angrily. "He's not a criminal, Remus; it was fine to keep him hidden for the sake of the Order, but if he needs a Healer, the secret's over! It's not worth it!"

"Calm down, Harry! I told you, our Healer will see him, she's just been busy. Voldemort's been stirring up trouble in Hong Kong, where she lives, and she hasn't been able to get away. That was in part why I came here; I'm trying to decide if we should get Poppy Pomfrey involved."

"Yes! Why not?" demanded Harry.

"Because I'm not sure she knows the whole story, Harry. She's seen Snuffles in the past with you and Dumbledore, and she might know who he really is, but I'm just not sure! Plus it's bad enough that half the Order knows he's back--if we're going to keep mum about this, we have to start somewhere!"

Harry sat back, silent. This whole "secret weapon" idea was looking more misguided all the time.

Once again, Lupin lowered his voice. "Besides, I know for certain Madam Pomfrey's never seen a case like this here at Hogwarts. Loss of magic is the sort of thing only a top-level Healer would address. But believe me, Harry, it's killing me to sit around and wait as well. That's why I'm considering this." He sighed and rubbed his eyes.

"This explains why he couldn't use my dad's wand," said Harry, gazing out the window at the roiling clouds. "He can't do anything? Even Apparate?"

Lupin shook his head sadly. "We've tried everything, Harry. He can't even morph into a dog. He never needed a wand for that."

All three wizards sat pondering this heavy news for a moment, then Lupin spoke up again. "Obviously, we hope it's only temporary. Like the sleep problem. Perhaps they'll go hand-in-hand. Or the Healer will have some ideas. But Harry, in the meantime... Sirius isn't taking this very well. He was so happy when he first got back, but now he's... not. And to make it worse, he can't sleep, so he sits all night by himself, thinking about it."

Harry winced as though his scar had suddenly heated up, and Lupin's eyes widened. "I'm sorry, Harry! I probably shouldn't have mentioned anything, but--"

"No," said Harry. "I'm glad you told me. You know how much I hate being left out." He managed a quirky grin, and Lupin returned it. "But what should I do?"

"I don't know, Harry. I have a feeling he's going to try to avoid you--he doesn't want to be seen like this. He didn't even want me to tell you, but I reminded him how you hate being left out. Just... just talk to him, when you can. I don't want to see him shrink back into himself like he used to. When he was alone too much."

Harry nodded, remembering how bitter his godfather became, cooped up in that gloomy, Dark house.

Lupin rose and gave Harry a hand up. "I've got to get back to Headquarters; it's tomorrow in the Pacific Ocean already, and I have a meeting in the Phillipines. They've made a potion from some jellyfish or eel, which seems to confer some immunity to the Cruciatus. Or so they say. It's worth looking into."

The three of them descended the moving staircase. Harry stopped Lupin at the bottom. "You know, before you go back, maybe you could go down and visit Hagrid," he said. "I bet Buckbeak would love an invitation to go home."

Harry-and-Viktor, Ron, and Hermione spent the next week in the library, hoping to find, if not a cure for Sirius, at least an explanation of what had happened to him. Unfortunately, there was not a single report mentioning the Veiled Archway in the Healing section of the library. Either no one had ever come out of it alive, or the Ministry had kept such news under lock and key.

They asked Neville to check his Herbology journals for plants that affected dreams or restored magic, crossing their fingers that he wouldn't piece together what they were up to. But unlike the Triwizard Challenge, Neville was unable to find a solution. Harry even paid a call on Professor Slughorn, hoping he might have a helpful potion, but he had to be even more cautious about the details he gave to the nosy professor. In the end, it was impossible to ask for what he needed without raising suspicion, so he took a last chunk of crystalized pineapple and left.

Hermione seemed to take it as a personal insult that she couldn't find anything to help Sirius. "I wonder how long they've kept that thing down in the Department of Mysteries?" she grumbled one evening. "I've never even noticed a reference to it, not in any book I've ever read. It might as well not even exist, for all that's known about it!"

Ron peered up from an obscure Muggle text about alleged magical artifacts, something he'd pilfered from his father's bookshelf at the Ministry. "Well, it's not like they call it the Department of Everyday Household Items, is it?"

She scowled. "Obviously. But they might have a filing cabinet full of cases like Si--Snuffles, for all we know, and yet we're stuck reinventing the wheel out here."

Ron shrugged dismissively. "Eh, the thing's obviously dangerous; I'm glad they have it under lock and key, myself."

"Lock and key is one thing, Ron. They keep the Time-Turners under lock and key, too, so that people don't go around rewriting history. But they still let people know about them, and use them!"

"And they keep the Prophecies locked up and DON'T let people use them. Which I'd say is a good thing, considering what You-Know-Who would have done if he could have just checked out that one about Harry like a library book."

Harry was watching a couple of third-years struggle with a copy of The Monster Book of Monsters in order to ignore the bickering, but that last bit caught his attention. "I wonder if they have the latest one about me?" he said.

Hermione looked up from the argument. "I'd imagine so. Why not?" she said.

Harry shrugged. "It's not like it was made in private--Trelawney shouted it for the whole school to hear. Do you suppose they'd tuck it away in a little globe anyway?"

"Does seem a bit wasteful," Ron agreed.

"Wasteful would be putting in all the little nuggets she comes up with during class," noted Hermione, shaking her head in distaste. She sat up abruptly and looked at him. "You know, Harry, it just occurred to me--I think it already came true!"

"Really?" said Harry skeptically. "This I have to hear."

"No, seriously, Harry. She would rise up from ashes and mud--isn't that what your Aunt Petunia did? Returned from her burnt-up house? And she had a gift for you, 'at long last:' the wands! You said she'd wanted to just throw them away over the years. That sounds like something she was 'loathe to give'." Hermione sat back in her chair with a smug grin, clearly pleased with her interpretation.

"But there's also that part about answering with my own blood," Harry reminded her.

Her smile became a frown in an instant. "That's true. I wonder, then... You wanted to give a wand to Siri--Snuffles, right? Perhaps this prophecy is actually saying that your blood needs to be spilled in order to restore Snuffles' magic." As soon as she finished speaking, Hermione's jaw fell in alarm.

Ron made a wry face, but gazed wide-eyed at Harry. "You know, mate, I think she's onto something. I mean, it's a bit silly for Trelawney just to prophesize that your aunt would bring you those wands back! And didn't she say that the gift was 'his' due? As in, someone else's besides yours?"

Harry groaned. They were right; he hadn't thought about it before. The boon was meant for someone else, not himself; if it had been meant for Harry, it would have said "the boon that is YOUR due." "Oh, bugger," said Harry, recalling the night he was bound to the tombstone in the Hangleton cemetary. "I'm in for another bloodletting, then. I'll be lucky to have a drop to my name before this is over."

On the day Arthur Weasley was sworn in as Minister of Magic, all of the seventh-years were allowed to attend the ceremony. They Apparated as a group from the Hogwarts gates to the Ministry atrium. It had been polished up for the affair, but still seemed gloomy and dull. Harry's thoughts turned immediately to the cave under the cliffs where Slytherin's locket had once been hidden. Perhaps the Inferi created some sort of lingering magical aura, a trace of their misery from being reanimated and abused.

The swearing-in was held in the Wizengamot chamber, obviously in anticipation of a crowd of onlookers. The terraced rows of seats were far from filled, though, and the ceremony itself was short and terse, as though all present simply wanted to get it over with and disband before any Dark forces could attack. Harry watched from the back with a cynical eye, trying not to look at the prisoner's chair in the center of the room, chains still attached to its arms and legs. You'd think they could have taken that out for the occasion, he mused, but on second thought, perhaps they were worried that Mr. Weasley might come to his senses and run away. The chair would be handy if they had to chain him down and force him to take the office.

At the close of the ceremony, an enormous red banner suddenly popped into existence with a loud bang, proclaiming "Way to Go, Da!" in huge gold letters. The view was especially clear, since most of the bystanders dropped in terror at the noise. Harry was not among the crowd sprawled on the floor; he would have been more suprised if Fred and George hadn't done something spectacular. The Prophet photographers immediately began snapping pictures for the front page, ensuring that Weasley's Wizard Wheezes would go up another notch in the esteem of pranksters everywhere.

The Order held a little celebration in Mr. Weasley's honor afterward, since no one in the Ministry was brave enough to host a congratulatory affair. At his first opportunity, Harry scampered to the top floor bedroom and knocked. He refused to take silence for an answer, but he dared not pound too loudly, even with the noise of the party to cover the sound. Sirius finally gave up and let him in, just as his knuckles were turning pink.

"I hope you were sleeping," said Harry, a bit grouchy at being snubbed for so long.

Sirius snorted. "I should be so lucky. Mother of Merlin, Harry, I thought time moved slowly in Azkaban. I had no idea how long a week really is."

Harry bowed to Buckbeak and sat down on the end of Sirius's bed. "Has the Healer found anything yet?"

Another snort. "Nothing. She gave me a double-shot of Draught of the Living Dead, and I didn't even yawn. And I'm still not tired, just bored. When I think of all those times in school when I'd drop off in my chair in the common room with a half-finished roll of parchment, then scramble the next morning to get it done before class... Ah, Harry, if I could bottle this stuff and sell it, I'd be a rich man."

"You are a rich man."

Sirius's face twisted up far beyond sneering. "Oh, yeah. I keep forgetting. Must be all that wild carousing."

Harry sighed. At least Sirius was talkative. Cheerful really was too much to hope for. He reached into the pocket of his robes. "Exploding Snap?"

"Ah, go on, Harry. You should be down there celebrating." Sirius tipped his head at the bedroom door and the sounds of the party.

Harry made a raspberry sound. "I'd rather be up here playing cards with you than shmoozing with that lot. Even with the free mead!"

A real smile, one that reached the eyes, finally spread over Sirius's face. He reached over and cut the deck.

Presently there was another knock. "The man of the hour!" said Sirius, when Arthur Weasley's head poked around the door. "Congratulations, Mr. Minister of Magic!"

Mr. Weasley closed the door behind him, grinning bashfully. "Yes, yes, yes," he said with a dismissive wave. "All this fuss is like an Engorgement Charm on my ego. Molly swears I've gone up three hat sizes this week." Even in the gloom of Lady Black's old bedroom, his eyes sparkled cheerfully.

Sirius shook his hand, blinking in surprise when Mr. Weasley pulled the chair from the dressing table and sat. "In for a hand or two, then?" he asked.

Mr. Weasley smiled wearily. "You know, I would rather be up here playing cards, but sadly, parties are now a duty I can't avoid. But I do want to talk a bit." Harry started to get up, intending to give them some privacy, but Mr. Weasley raised his hand. "To both of you."

Harry and Sirius exchanged a curious glance, their game forgotten.

"I've been thinking a bit more about your re-introduction. Been getting a few lessons in Advanced Politics, you know, from Fleur. I have a lot to learn, it seems." Mr. Weasley's smile faltered, as though a bug had suddenly flown up his nose, but he continued gamely. "Anyway, her family has quite a bit of experience with the press.

"As I said before, some of the Ministry, particularly MLE, knows the truth about you, Sirius. There were all sorts of rumors regarding who was present that night in the Department of Mysteries, but since you had disappeared before the crowds started arriving, your name didn't come up too often in the press. Most of the confessions in the Wizengamot were kept out of the Prophet, too, but again, your name came up now and again.

"Fudge had promised that there would be an official inquiry into the matter, after he was forced to tell the entire Department of Magical Law Enforcement that they'd been chasing down an innocent man for three years. But he put it off, and then Scrimgeour took over--and he found the whole fiasco embarassing, to say the least. In the end, he brushed it under the carpet, too."

Mr. Weasley sat up straight in his chair with a fresh twinkle. "I think it's time for that inquiry, Sirius. We need to establish that you were fighting beside Harry that night, as a member of the Order. We have plenty of witnesses, plus testimony from the trials--from our side and theirs. All we need is for the press to cover the investigation, and the evidence will speak for itself. And I--that is, Fleur already has several reporters from the Prophet curious about the story."

Sirius looked skeptical. "And just how'd she manage that? The Prophet's always hated me."

"She called it 'bait and sweetch.'" I think she originally invited them to interview her about 'the plight of the modern Veela' or some such, then mentioned your name at a few key times. She's really quite good at working the press, and life certainly is easier when it's on your side."

Having received both support and scorn from the Prophet, Harry heartily agreed.

"Once people hear that you were fighting for our side in the Ministry, they'll naturally wonder why--you're supposed to be this cold-blooded murderer, after all. That's when the formal inquiry will really kick in. They'll go back and re-open your case, this time without prejudice. There may even be a new trial, since you were sentenced without due process the first time."

"And with the head of the Order and the Boy who Lived both testifying they've seen Peter Pettigrew alive, minus one finger, who would question my innocence?" said Sirius, nodding animatedly. "Merlin's beard on toast, Arthur, this could work!"

Mr. Weasley smiled broadly. "It's an art form, managing the press, and I thank the stars that I've got Fleur around to do it. Worse than putting your head in a dragon's mouth, as far as I'm concerned. But the Delacours are famous socialites in France; they've been honing their technique for generations."

Harry rolled his eyes. "Reminds me of the Malfoys."

Mr. Weasley grimaced, but acquiesced. "They both appear on the gossip pages, it's true, but the similarities stop there. A scandalous article about the Delacours typically involves eating salad with the shrimp fork." He peeked back up with a guilty expression. "I didn't just say that."

Sirius laughed. "Arthur, you sound like a Minister already!" But instead of chuckling at his little jest, his godfather suddenly frowned and slumped against the headboard of the bed. "So, once the wizard world is ready to embrace me again, who's going to tell them I'm a Squib?"

"Stop it," said Harry.

"You're not a Squib," chided Mr. Weasley at the same time. "And I'm still not sure I want the world to know you're alive yet, just that you aren't a criminal. I have faith, Sirius, that you're going to recover from whatever it is that's inhibiting your magic, and I want to keep you as my ace-in-the-hole." He reached over and flipped the top card on the deck; it was the Archchancellor, the top trump in the game. Normally such a play would cause the opponent's cards to explode, but since Mr. Weasley wasn't technically dealt in at the time, the deck apparently became confused. Both Harry's and Sirius's piles of cards went off like packets of firecrackers.

"Brilliant, that!" said Mr. Weasley. "Couldn't have gone better if I'd planned it, could it?"

Chapter 25: 25: The Inquest
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The entire Wizard world braced itself for Halloween, anticipating that Lord Voldemort would commit some new atrocity to mark the occasion. Parents found excuses to come visit their children at Hogwarts, some scurrying them away in anticipation of a fierce attack on the castle, others crashing the annual Halloween Feast, believing themselves safer there than anywhere else. Harry could barely sit still through the meal, anxiously expecting his scar to erupt with pain at any minute, but they all made it through dessert without so much as a bump in the night.

Harry slouched beside the common room fire, still eyeing the window anxiously. "Forget it, mate," said Ron. "He's doing this on purpose. Everybody expected a big stunt this year; they've been debating it in the Prophet for weeks now. He probably just got bored with the idea--it'd be awfully trite to pull a suprise attack when everyone in their right mind's expecting it."

Hermione giggled. "I think Ron's spot on, Harry. And how often does THAT happen?" She ducked as Ron quickly Transfigured a quill into a bamboo dart and launched it wordlessly at her forehead. "He's probably sulking in his lair right now."

Harry eyed both of them dubiously, then turned to Krum. "What about you?"

His bodyguard leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table thoughtfully. "I think he vill not attack tonight, Harry, but not for these reasons." All three looked up at him in surprise, and he continued. "He plays games vit you, Harry. On this night you killed him that first time. To attack tonight is to... vat is vord, to admit something he tries to hide..."

"Acknowledge?" said Hermione.

Krum nodded. "Da. That vould 'acknollach' your victory over him. He doesn't vant to give you satisfaction, you see?"

"Wants me to think he forgot our anniversary?" said Harry, nodding with approval.


Ron grinned with all the mischief of his Wheezy brothers. "You know, Harry, it's a shame you couldn't send him a card."

The first Quidditch match of the season, Ravenclaw vs. Hufflepuff, took place the next morning. There was a huge turnout for the game with all the visiting parents, and it had a wonderfully festive atmosphere after all the grim anticipation the night before. Neither team, however, seemed to be at their best. The combination of a huge feast with a restless and anxious night had dulled their reflexes a bit. Fortunately, no one seemed to care. It was a great day to be alive and enjoying a bit of sport.

Except for Ondossi. Harry had coaxed her to watch the game, but she was outspokenly unimpressed. "My one day to sleep in and here comes 500 people tromping into my bedroom," she grumbled. "Not to mention that bug thingee. You know that one with the broken wing? It came by this morning again. They must've let it out when they were warming up. It landed on my nose. I thought it was a mosquito and smacked it so hard I broke the other wing."

She pulled the unfortunate Snitch from a pocket of her leather parka. It flapped pathetically in the palm of her hand, making an odd grinding sound. "Can't we, you know, put it out of its misery or something?"

"It's not alive, Tura," he said, trying to watch the game and make note of the various players' strengths and weaknesses.

She snorted. "Maybe not, but it sure knows how to lay on a guilt trip." She held it up in the sunlight and began fidgeting with the wing, trying to snap the joint back together correctly.

When both Seekers turned and launched their brooms straight at them, Harry realized what she was doing. For a few horrified seconds, he watched the Hufflepuff Seeker growing larger and larger without seeming to move at all--sort of the reverse of the night he'd watched himself fall off his broom through Fawkes's point of view.

Ron, sitting beside him, reacted first, probably because as Keeper, he was much more used to dodging projectiles. "DUCK!" he yelled, diving between the rows of seats and yanking on Harry's robes. Harry followed suit, first cuffing Ondossi's wrist to knock the Snitch loose, then dragging her down with him.

Amidst the screams of their neighbors in the stands, he heard the buzz of the Seeker's brooms as they rapidly skimmed through the space where their faces had been a microsecond earlier. The broken Snitch bounced to the floor in front of them and rolled itself frantically under the seats, where it lay shivering.

He pulled Ondossi up by the hood of her parka and glared at her. She shrugged. "What? I could'a handled them," was all she said.

The following week, a big barn owl brought Harry a roll of parchment bearing an officious-looking Ministry seal. He opened it right there at the breakfast table, quite curious for a change what the Ministry would want with him. With Arthur Weasley in charge, it might actually be worth reading.
November 6, 1997
Dear Mr. Potter,

You are hereby requested to appear in person at the Office of Internal Affairs of the Ministry of Magic, for the purpose of providing testimony regarding the matter of one Sirius Black.

Your deposition is scheduled for 1:00 PM, Tuesday November 11, 1997. Please arrive promptly and be prepared for a lengthy interview. Your cooperation is both necessary and expected.

Percy I. Weasley
Internal Affairs Inquisitor

Harry had to read it twice more before deciding he wasn't in trouble this time. He spotted Ron and Hermione sitting back-to-back at opposing tables near the door and showed them the letter. "Can you believe it?" he said. "Your dad put Percy in charge of the investigation about Sirius!"

Hermione, who only required one read-through, answered right away. "Absolutely! Can you think of anyone more likely to beat each individual detail to death and beyond? You can bet his report will be unimpeachably thorough when it's done--and what's more, he's very conservative. Percy would hate to report that the Ministry made a mistake, and everyone knows it; he'll do whatever he can to find proof that Sirius is guilty."

Harry and Ron sneered defensively, but Hermione wouldn't have any of it. "No, that's a good thing! Because he won't--he can't, since Sirius isn't guilty. But everyone knows he'll try. And when even Percy Weasley is forced to conclude that Sirius was innocent, no one would dare question his findings. His dad's the Minister; it would be political suicide to challenge Percy on something like that!"

Ron crossed his eyes as though Hermione had begun speaking a foreign language. "Oh, like they care about Dad. They only voted him in because the position's too dangerous for their taste!"

"Ah, but they voted him in. He's going to be Minister for a very long time. Even his enemies know they'd better agree with his agenda or they might just find themselves unemployed." Hermione's grin widened with glorious vindication.

Ron shook his head again. "You know, Hermione, you scare me sometimes. I'm beginning to think you like all that backstabby stuff."

Harry-and-Viktor reported to the Ministry precisely as ordered. They were ushered from the Atrium to the top level of the Ministry. Only two of the lobby elevators even went to Level One, and required a password to activate the button for that floor. Harry learned this the hard way, as he received a nasty Stinging Hex when he pressed the button on his own.

The Atrium guard, who had obviously seen many people make that mistake, smirked a bit as he stepped in the car and waited for the doors to close. "Convection oven!" he announced, then pressed the Level One button himself. Harry glared, but didn't ask why the guard hadn't warned him. It had to be pretty boring, sitting at that desk all day.

The elevator doors opened onto a wide, carpeted foyer with enormous paintings on the walls, all of whom looked very stuffy and self-important. Most of them ignored the visitors, but some peered down their noses as though inspecting meat of questionable quality. "Students," one of them muttered in disdain, whereupon all of the portraits turned to show their profiles. Harry and Krum were clearly too insignificant for such important people to notice.

Across the foyer was an ornate reception desk, manned by a very severe-looking witch with her hair pulled back so tightly into a bun that her eyebrows were pulled up, giving her a look of perpetual surprise. "We're here to see Percy Weasley," said Harry awkwardly, when the witch simply ignored them as they stood before her desk.

She finally looked up, staring at their name badges for a long, silent moment before taking out a clipboard from a drawer. "Mr. Potter... you're on the list. Mr. Krum is not. He'll have to return to the Atrium."

Harry raised his brows at Viktor, who shrugged. "I am his bodyguard," said Viktor. "How vill you guarantee his safety?"

The reception witch smiled coldly. "There are no security concerns in this department."

"You think so?" said Viktor, reaching into the front of his robe and withdrawing a wand--the "modified" one he used in Ondossi's class. "For some reason, I am not so confident as you." He pointed it right between her eyes.

It was all so bizarre, Harry thought for a moment that he must be dreaming. He reached for Krum's arm, but the other wizard tossed him a furious glance that froze Harry in place. "What are you doing?" he finally hissed.

"I vill not let you continue vithout me, Harry. You," he said curtly to the reception witch. "Do vatever you must to get my name on list."

Only a hint of additional surprise showed on her face, and it seemed as though things were about to get very ugly. She stared at Viktor for a long, taut moment, then pulled one of the knobs on a panel beside her desk. Into a pneumatic tube, she said, "Mr. Weasley, your one o'clock is here with a private security detail. Will you authorize an additional visitor?"

A tinny version of Percy's voice issued from the tube. "Private security? That's not necessary."

"As I told him, Mr. Weasley. Will you authorize the visitor?"

"Um, sure, all right. Send them back, please, Medusa."

She tipped her head toward an arched entryway to the left of her desk. "Room 107," she said icily, then began shuffling papers on her desk as though the two of them had already gone about their business.

"What was that all about?" Harry asked as soon as they were out of earshot. "She could have had us thrown out, or worse!"

Viktor stuffed the wand back in his robe. "I think not. They vould not dare to cross you in that manner. For Ministry to use force in public on Harry Potter vould be political disaster. But you have real enemies here, Harry, and they are cowards. Stab you in back in deserted hallway. No, in here, I stay vith you."

Sighing in frustration, Harry nonetheless scanned the corridor briefly. "Fine, stay. But next time, maybe we can just ask instead of whipping out a wand?"

Krum shrugged. "Is faster this vay." He grinned just a tiny bit as he knocked on the door labeled, "107: Internal Affairs."

Percy Weasley promptly yanked open the door, though the expression on his face was cool and blank, as though he had much more important things to do than respond to knocking. It irritated Harry; Percy had, after all, demanded that he come here. You'd think he could at least say a simple "Hello," he mused.

Once the door was closed, however, Percy spun on his heel and immediately locked it, then cast several wordless spells that made the door and surrounding wall shimmer. Krum put his hand inside his robe, obviously gripping his wand, but Harry bugged out his eyes at his bodyguard in a silent plea that he behave himself. Viktor frowned and kept his hand on the wand, but did not draw it into the open.

When Percy finished warding the door, he turned to Harry with the same impassive expression, but there was definitely a hint of... what? Fear? Anxiety? Whatever it was, it was clear that Percy's formal letter and aloof welcome were an act of some kind, covering up a matter of uncomfortable importance. Percy glanced back and forth between Harry and Krum a few times, then said, hesitantly, "Harry? Is this bodyguard... that is, can you trust him?"

"This is Viktor Krum," said Harry firmly. "He's a member of the Order. Whatever you have to say, you can say it in front of him."

Percy swallowed hard, then offered a trembly hand. "My pleasure, Mr. Krum." Viktor shook his hand, but said nothing.

Rounding his desk, Percy indicated they should sit, then immediately began fiddling nervously with some paper clips on his desk. "All right. Well. Thank you for coming, Harry. And you too, Mr. Krum." He licked his lips a few times. "You obviously got my owl," he added.

This was getting old very quickly. "Yes, Percy, I got the owl," Harry said with an irate huff. "I came here to answer your questions about Sirius Black. I brought my bodyguard because Remus will hex me into next week if I even think about going anywhere without him. Now will you just spit out whatever's making you act like there's an ashwinder in your pants?"

To his chagrin, Percy gasped painfully, as if shot with an arrow. "Shh!" he hissed, then buried his head briefly in his forearms on the desk. "Forgive me, Harry. I'm not... used to this."

He had their full attention at that point. "Percy," Harry whispered, "What in Merlin's name is the matter?"

Drawing a few shaky breaths, Percy sat up again, leaning forward on his elbows. Harry and Viktor both leaned in close. "All right," he began quietly. "I need to start from the beginning.

"Father assigned me to open a formal inquiry about Sirius Black when he took office. I moved up to Level One and was told to leave no stone unturned. I was thrilled to do it, don't misunderstand; it was a terrific vote of confidence from Father in my research skills and my thoroughness. Something I've wanted the Ministry to appreciate and use to its advantage for a long time." His voice was almost back to normal, though still quiet; clearly tooting his own horn had a calming effect.

"Naturally, the first thing I did was investigate the rumors about Black's most recent sighting at the Department of Mysteries. Both the accused and the, ahem, Order of the Phoenix members who were present that night identified Black in the official court records. Two wizards from, ah, You-Know-Who's ranks stated under Veritaserum that Black engaged them in a magical duel and dispatched them, apparently fighting alongside the forces of the Order, though they admit he might have been acting as an independent agent."

Harry interrupted with an impatient wave. "No. He was fighting with the Order against the Death Eaters."

"Yes, yes, that's what the Order members said, if they were asked. I'm not debating that, Harry, I'm just trying to keep all possibilities in mind. That's what a good investigator does. Anyway, yes, the evidence indicates that whether or not Black fought with the Order, he definitely fought against You-Know-Who's forces.

"Now that came as a big surprise, because even though I'd heard the rumors, you realize, Harry, that I'm old enough to remember that awful day when Black killed all those people and was sent to Azkaban." Again Harry waved his hand, but this time Percy held up one index finger and pressed on. "And of course I remember all the horrible things he did when I was Head Boy at Hogwarts--the way he shredded the poor Fat Lady's canvas, for example. It made no sense at all, that such a man would oppose He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, let alone side with the Order. Particularly since he fought on your side, here in the Ministry that night, when it was obvious he'd been trying to kill you in the past."

Harry rolled his eyes, but still Percy held up his hand in a plea for silence. "I completed my research into the official records of the incident, then I asked Profe--that is, Mr. Lupin for my first interview. He told me a profoundly different story than any I'd ever heard about Sirius Black. He said Sirius had never served You-Know-Who; that he'd been framed by Peter Pettigrew for those murders and sent to Azkaban without trial. I nearly tossed him out of my office, I was so upset, but as I said, a good investigator considers all the possibilities. It is my duty to collect the evidence and see which theories are supported and which are not. People lie, but evidence does not."

"Unless it's planted," Harry interjected.

Percy sighed, his shoulders sagging. "Of course, unless it's tampered with. Which is basically what Mr. Lupin was saying--that Pettigrew 'planted' his own finger as evidence that he'd been blown up along with all those Muggles, and framing Black for the crime. Lupin says that he has seen Peter Pettigrew alive as recently as 1994--and that you've even seen him since then."

"That's right, Percy. You have too, you know. Pettigrew lived with you and your whole family for years. He's--"

Percy made a slashing motion with his hands, wincing painfully. "I've heard. And I haven't forgotten Scabbers was missing a toe. Or that I couldn't seem to do any magic on him other than basic levitation and so on." He shuddered and wiped his forehead.

"Look, Harry," he said, then paused with his mouth open as though the words had become wedged in his throat. "My father has always worked at the Ministry. I grew up respecting it. I thought if Dad had only worked harder and had more ambition, he could have gone so much further than Muggle Artifacts." Harry sat back, crossing his arms over his chest with a knowing look until Percy turned away with an embarassed grin. "Well, you know what I mean. If it weren't for the attack, Dad would still be downstairs. The point is, I thought if I threw my lot in with the right people, I could climb to the top in the traditional way."

"By stabbing everyone in the back who stood in front of you?" Harry asked, with only a tiny twinge of guilt at the harshness of his words. He'd never quite forgiven the way Percy had advised Ron that Harry was a bad influence from which he should dissociate himself.

Percy obviously hadn't forgotten either, as he lowered his eyes deferentially. "Harry, that was a mistake. I'm trying to explain. I thought I was getting involved with the right sort of people for my career. I just... I wanted to believe them. When they all said you'd gone nutters, I... You understand, I didn't want it to be true, Harry, but, well, you were always a bit scary, you know, going out and looking for trouble unless it found you first. And I knew Cedric Diggory, he was only a year behind me and a good bloke! When he turned up dead, and you alongside him talking of You-Know-Who--"

It was Harry's turn to curtly raise his hand for silence. "No need to review what happened, Percy; I was there."

"I'm sorry, Harry," said Percy in a milder tone. "I'm just trying explain why I... doubted you. No, actually, I'm explaining why I trusted my superiors in the Ministry instead of you. Because that's the long and short of it, Harry--I just wanted to keep believing that the Ministry was good. That even though there might be some rough patches here and there, it had honorable and lofty intentions at the core."

Harry sighed. "Percy, why have you called me here?"

"I'm getting to it!" he huffed in exasperation, then clenched his jaw briefly. "As I said, I questioned Mr. Lupin, then Mr. Moody, then Mr. Shacklebolt... The more I interviewed, the more names that came up right here within the Ministry, of people who knew full well that Sirius Black was serving the Order. No one else had seen Pettigrew alive, though, so the question of Black's guilt or innocence was still unanswered in my mind. I decided I needed to interview someone from the other side.

"My position as Inquisitor gives me the freedom to conduct my investigation as I see fit. I decided to go out to Azkaban personally, rather than have the prisoners brought here. It seemed more practical... At any rate, I told no one what I was doing, because I was already feeling a bit nervous. My investigations were suggesting a vast internal cover-up, and I wasn't sure who I could trust! So I simply traveled on my own, without even a Portkey to indicate where I was going."

Percy's voice began to shake again, and he scanned around the room fearfully. "I'd never been there before, Harry, so I didn't know what to expect. I knew the Dementors were gone, and they'd been the guards, so I reckoned there would be some wizard guards now, but probably understaffed. I walked right up from the docks to the fortress without seeing a soul, but it didn't seem out of the ordinary; why guard an empty dock?

"No one met me at the gate. I got angry that I'd made such a long trip and no one would answer the gate. So I pulled even harder on the bell rope, then kicked it, then... Well, I never thought it would really work, I thought the gate of Azkaban would have proper wards on it--but I cast the Alohomora."

Percy's voice had pinched off to a whisper, leaving Harry and Viktor at the edge of their chairs. "Don't tell me it opened," breathed Harry.

Percy nodded, beads of sweat dotting his forehead. "If I hadn't been so angry, I think the shock would have knocked me out. It just flew wide open, Harry, and I could see into the Keep. There wasn't a soul in the place. No guards, no prisoners. No one.

"I should have left right on the spot, but this was so incomprehensible. How could Azkaban be empty? I thought perhaps I'd landed on the wrong island. I don't even know what I was thinking, to be honest, but I went inside for a look round. I crossed the little courtyard to the tower entrance, fully expecting a guard to stop me at that point.

"I wasn't stopped. The door opened when I pulled the handle. I could see the cells inside; the tower was just an open chamber with a long slope winding its way up the walls, lined with cells. Empty cells."

Unblinking, the younger wizards sat in stunned silence until Percy continued.

"I thought if they'd broken out, I'd at least find the bodies of the guards. Nothing. No sign of struggle or rioting, no broken hinges on the cells, not so much as a turned-over cot. It looked as though someone had just rung a little bell and said, 'Class dismissed!' and everyone had left.

"That was two days ago, Harry. When I got back, I asked Shacklebolt what happened in Azkaban. He had no idea what I was on about. I didn't tell him anything, but I started looking into it myself. Nothing, not so much as a single memo, has been circulated regarding Azkaban. The guards' pay has been deposited to their Gringotts accounts. Supplies have been ordered, paid for, and sent--at least according to the records. And of course, a lot of files were lost in the attack this summer. But out of all the documents I still have, there's no official record of one living soul going to the island in seven months. No visitors, no new prisoners, no change of guards."

"Someone let them all out, and they're covering it up!" said Harry, his voice choked with fury.

"Either that or they all escaped and no one has realized it yet!" said Percy breathlessly. "But even I can't bring myself to accept that. All those criminals on the loose, having just escaped out of Azkaban? Many of them went mad long ago; they'd end up wandering around on the island, unable to concentrate long enough to Apparate. As for the others, why surely after a breakout of that magnitude, at least ONE of them would have been spotted by now. I concur with you, Harry; I think they were released, either by someone within the Ministry, or with their cooperation. And the only place I can imagine all those criminals being kept hidden, fed and occupied is--"

"With Voldemort."

"Quite so," said Percy, after nearly ducking under his desk at the name.

Harry gripped the arms of his chair furiously. "And someone here has kept it quiet for seven straight months, knowing full well that the Dark Army is rebuilding. There's still a traitor in the Ministry helping Voldemort!"

"KEEP YOUR VOICE DOWN!" hissed Percy. "I've sussed that out, Harry, believe me! Even my head's not that thick. I've put every Silencing and Obscuring Spell that I know on this room. Look at this!" He slid open a panel on a large cabinet behind his desk to reveal a Muggle photocopying machine. "I'm not even using magical means to assemble the records in my case--I don't want anyone to know which documents I've examined! Thank goodness for Father's obsession with eckeltricity; if it weren't for his books, I never could have made this bloody thing operate!"

Percy flopped back into his chair and rubbed his temples. "There's still more, Harry. While I was investigating ways of getting to Azkaban undetected, I thought I'd compile the records of Sirius Black's incarceration. He was sentenced without a trial, which was done from time to time when Mr. Crouch was in charge. There still would have been a summary of the evidence, the writ of sentencing, and so forth. I wanted to read any statements Black made at the time, interview the clerk who processed him, et cetera." He stopped and sipped some water from a mug on his desk.

"Nothing, Harry. Not one thing. Granted, a lot of those records were destroyed in the raid too, but Level Ten went unscathed and some parchments would have been kept in the official files of the Wizengamot. Other cases from that year were still there in the cabinets, but not a single page about Sirius Black. It was as though he never existed.

"Harry, this just isn't done! Sentencing a sorcerer to Azkaban involves all sorts of records. Why, just apportioning the prisoner's food rations requires paperwork in three different departments. All of it is gone--not a single sheet of parchment, not a single signature to indicate anyone involved with Black's imprisonment. It simply can't be an accident, Harry. Someone had to go through and systematically purge those records. To breach the wards and locks over every last parchment, they had to be very high up in the chain of command."

"That already narrows search," said Krum. "Only certain people vill have enough clearance to access records. Who?"

Percy gaped at him. "You mean when? The files could have been purged any time in the last fifteen years. Augustus Rookwood could have done it all before he was exposed as a Death Eater. We don't know exactly when Barty Crouch, Jr. started exerting the Imperius on his father; Mr. Crouch might have been forced to destroy the records just before he was killed. Or someone might have done it all just last week, when the inquest was ordered! We just don't know!"

Harry's face hardened. "We will know. Today. Percy, you issue an order for every single person in this building to report for an interview, and I'll find out who's done this."

For a moment, Percy just stared, his eyes bulging. Then comprehension dawned on his face, but instead of setting to the task, he jumped up and began to pace, wringing his hands. "No! Absolutely not! You aren't listening, Harry! Whoever it is, they're important. They won't have to come running the minute I call! They'll tell me to wait until they finish some business, and in the meantime they'll do a bit of investigating on their own. Why, they won't even need to pin down someone who's already been interviewed--all they have to do is ask Medusa for my appointment list and they'll know you're in here. How long do you think it will take them to figure out you're doing Legilimency on everyone?"

He lunged and gripped the arms of Harry's chair imploringly, not realizing that Krum nearly hexed him across the room for the aggressive move. "You know how this is done, Harry--you've done it before. The traitor can't know that we suspect anything. Once he finds out, he'll disappear... or worse." He let go of Harry's chair and leaned defeatedly against the desk.

"All right, then," said Harry. "What's your plan?"

Once again, Percy sat up with a dumbfounded stare. "My plan? MY plan? I don't have a plan, Harry. That's why I called you here! You're the one that does this sort of thing, skirting around right under Dark wizards' noses and exposing them. Not me! I'm out of my league here, Harry; I need your help."

It figures. Harry slouched in his chair, interlacing his fingers in his lap. "My help," he sighed. "Percy, what exactly do you think I can do? I can't just skulk around the Ministry like I do at Hogwarts. It's one thing to sneak around the castle where I live, with friends to keep watch in the corridors, and secret passages and whatnot. But here? I think I'd stick out a bit!" Percy looked crushed, as though the concept that Harry couldn't simply blend in at the Ministry had never crossed his mind.

"I say we round everyone up, lock them in Courtroom Ten, and let them out one at a time for a quick bit of Legilimency. I could help you with that, Percy. But I've given up the traitor-finding business. I'm strictly a Dark Lord Eliminator now." He smirked. "Everyone needs a specialty."

Percy looked as though he might burst into tears, which was not a pleasant prospect at all. Harry stood up and patted his shoulder kindly. "There is one thing I can do, though, to help you. I do know one place I can look for information about Sirius Black's case. He's my godfather, you know. I inherited his entire estate. I'll have a look round. Lots of papers in the attic--you never know what might turn up."

The reception witch turned up her nose as they got on the elevator, but Krum had been correct. They left the building without so much as a reprimand for smuggling in a wand, though the Atrium guard gave them a black look. Good, thought Harry. He deserved a bit of chewing-out after letting Harry press that jinxed elevator button.

Viktor went to the customary Apparation area at the end of the Atrium, but Harry waved him over to the elevator to Muggle London. "Ve aren't taking the Metro, are ve?" asked Viktor as they rose.

"It's a bit of a walk to 'my' house," said Harry cheerfully. "And I did promise Percy I'd start on that research right away."

They arrived at Grimmauld Place after a rather smelly ride on the Underground, in which Krum flinched desperately every time the train changed its velocity and nearly dropped to the floor when another train passed them, heading the opposite direction. Harry had stared at the Quidditch star in disbelief. "I don't feel safe in trains vithout magic," Krum mumbled apologetically. "Mechanical things not meant to go so fast."

Apparently Krum felt confident in the security measures at Headquarters, as he followed Harry only as far as the second-floor drawing room, where he sank contentedly in the nearest chair. Harry left him there reading a Prophet, and found Sirius in the top floor bedroom, just as he expected.

Sirius wasn't eager to cooperate, despite Harry's explanation of Percy's inquest. "I don't want you in my head," he said bluntly. "It's been almost a month, now, Harry, and I still haven't slept. There's obviously something wrong with me. All we need is for you to catch whatever I've got by prodding around with Legilimency."

Harry sputtered. "Fine, then. We can do it the usual way--out loud. Just start from the beginning and tell me everything you remember from your sentencing!"

"That was a long time ago!" he snapped. "I'd just lost my best friend, Lily, and my godchild; I found out Wormtail had betrayed us all, and I hadn't killed him! I was half mad with grief and rage, and all I could think about was how badly I wanted to kill Peter. Besides, they had me in Azkaban within hours of my capture--most of the formalities were done after the fact."

"But they had to let you make a statement, Percy said so--"

"And I'm sure I did, and it was probably along the lines of, 'Kill Peter Pettigrew!' I'm telling you, Harry, I hadn't eaten or slept, and when Peter got away from me, it was like I snapped inside! It was months before I finally came to reason again, and I was fully buried in Azkaban by then."

He set his jaw. "I'm sorry, Harry. I can't help you. I can't help Percy. I can't help anybody here anymore." He fell silent, staring at his hands in his lap for a long time. "I think maybe it's time for me to go."

"Sirius..." Harry groaned. "Don't even talk like that! We want you here. This is YOUR house, for Merlin's sake!"

"No, really, Harry, I've been thinking about it. I could move back to my place in Bristol. I could work. A Muggle job. I've always liked machines, maybe I could make motorbikes. Or fix them. Or something. Or I can cook. I'm a good cook, you know, I hardly ever cooked with magic, even when I could."

Harry shook his head, completely nonplussed. "Sirius. Just think a minute. You don't know the first thing about living as a Muggle. You never even took Muggle Studies, did you?"

Sirius puffed his chest defiantly. "I'm a Squib, not an idiot, Harry. I can learn."

"Overnight?" snapped Harry, forgetting to contradict the 'Squib' comment in his frustration. "Sirius, listen to me. You can't just walk into a Muggle city with nothing at all and make a life for yourself. You won't fit in. Muggles are as put off by strangers as wizards are, maybe even more so. You don't have any identification, diplomas, passports... not even a driver license. People will think you're some sort of criminal on the run, barging into town with no history or references. You've never had a job. You've never paid a bill... you've never used electricity! Not to mention that you were all over the Muggle news after you escaped from Azkaban--if anyone remembers that rubbish and recognizes you, you'll end up in jail!"

Sirius continued to stare at his hands, his face growing colder and more distant by the minute. "Hey!" said Harry angrily. "I'm talking to you! Look, I know you're upset about losing your magic--"

"YOU DON'T KNOW ANYTHING!" bellowed Sirius, bolting upright with a murderous rage in his eyes. Harry shrank back in his chair, intimidated even though Sirius could not possibly harm him, any more than the Dursleys could. "You can't know what it's like, Harry, none of you can. I'm worse than dead! I'm broken!" He buried his face in his hands. "Even Remus can't understand. He loses himself, but he gets himself back as soon as the full moon is over. I'll never be myself again, Harry. I'm not a wizard anymore. I'm not Sirius Black anymore. I'm nothing."

Sirius spoke in a flat, uncaring monotone, but it didn't fool Harry for a second. "That's not true!" he exclaimed. "You don't know that. You've only seen one Healer. Maybe a specialist would do better at treating this. And you haven't let me try, or Tura, to unlock your mind again. All you do is avoid everyone, even though we're all so glad to have you back. Why, Sirius? Why won't you let someone help you?"

Sirius leapt from his chair, turning his back. "Because no one can help me," he hissed. "That thing killed my magic. It's gone forever."

Harry's hands clenched involuntarily; there were times he wanted to wring his godfather's neck. "You don't know that," he repeated, forcing himself to speak calmly. "No one knows what that thing is, or what it did to you, or whether it's permanent! You have to try, Sirius!"

"And what if I try and nothing happens, Harry?" Sirius said, so quietly that Harry could barely hear. "I'll tell you what. Then I'll have no hope left." He paused a moment. "At least this way, even though I know better, my heart still says it's possible."

Harry stared at the older man's back. "Sirius... look, I'm sorry, but that's just stupid! You could go for years before it comes back on its own--you'd rather sit around and be miserable all that time, when you could find out today whether your magic can be restored?"

Sirius spun around to face him, shocking Harry with the desperation in his face. "You're not listening, Harry! All those years in Azkaban, I knew if I could just hang on, somehow, someday I'd get out. I had hope, Harry. Right now, I can live, today, because some crazy part of me still believes I can heal. If I find out for sure that it can't come back..." He shook his head, then looked Harry straight in the eye. "I won't live if my magic is gone forever, Harry. I won't go on. Do you understand me?"

Tears burned in Harry's eyes. "Sirius," he whispered, though he had no idea what else to say.

Sirius put his hands in his pockets and looked back down at the carpet. "Harry. You pulled me back from certain death, and I'm grateful to you for that. I'm trying, Harry, to find a way to live with what I have left. I really am. I just... I spent years living at my limits, Harry, and I know what I need. I have to have that hope to keep me going."

"Keep you going? Like this? Miserable and lonely and feeling broken? I wonder, would you even eat if people weren't around to make you?"

Sirius averted his eyes. "Food doesn't really taste good anymore, Harry," he admitted almost apologetically.

"Sirius... you're dying. You're not fooling me. You talk about hope, but you'll go off to Bristol and lock yourself in and die a Muggle's death all by yourself where you won't bother anyone. Tell me that's not really the plan."

"It's not," he said unconvincingly.

"Maybe your magic is gone, I don't know," replied Harry with mounting anger, "but maybe it's right there under the surface. How can you walk out of here without even looking? How can you talk about running away and, and, throwing away yourself, your life, without trying?"

"I told you, damn it! With hope, I might make it, but without hope..."

"No! You won't make it. You'll waste away and die, and my heart will rip itself to bits with grief again. As if it wasn't bad enough that you died on me once already! I'm not going to let it happen, Sirius. I'm not letting you leave here without trying to help you!"

"You can't stop me, Harry," said Sirius, his voice fierce and bitter.

Harry clamped his jaw tightly and seized Sirius's shoulders, twisting himself down until he could look his godfather square in the face. "No, Sirius. You can't stop me." On an impulse, as Harry pierced the depths of those gray eyes, he concentrated on the thought, No one can. Sirius blinked at him in shock, and Harry knew he'd heard it, just as Harry could hear Ondossi inside his mind.

"What are you?" Sirius gasped.

I'm the son of your best friend, Harry pushed into his mind with considerable effort. And I'm going to help you, whether you like it or not.

Chapter 26: 26: The Pureblood's Tale, part I
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"James. Prongs! C'mon, answer! You can't be in bed already...JAMES!"

Sirius refused to give up. He shouted into the mirror over the roar of his motorbike. It was absurd that James would be in bed before midnight. James rattled on about all his new responsibilities, but Merlin's beard, this was Halloween. He and James had painted the town red (black?) every Halloween since they were able to sneak out of Hogwarts. They never made plans or set up a time or place to meet; getting together on Halloween was simply a given, an incontrovertible law of nature.

Of course the new baby and the house made things a little different. Sirius understood that. Last year, James and Lily had dressed up the little fellow as a ladybug and taken him around to each of the neighbors for the requisite cooing and gushing. Then they handed out candies to everyone else's children until eight o'clock. Such was the price of having a family in a Muggle neighborhood, and even that was fine; the best parties never started before ten anyway. James had bathed the baby and helped tuck him in, then showed up at Sirius's door in plenty of time, even if he did quit for the night far too early.

When James still hadn't Apparated to Bristol by 9:30, Sirius decided some pressure was in order. He knew that James (well, Lily, really) didn't like it when he came to their house on the chopper because the neighbors complained about the noise, but at least if he arrived on the motorbike, he could be sure that someone would answer the door. There wouldn't be any hiding in bed and pretending not to be home if "The Hog" was rumbling outside the baby's window. Not that little Harry seemed to mind it a bit--the tot slept like a log once he was out. Getting him to sleep was the tricky part.

About halfway to the Hollow, a more evolved portion of Sirius's brain reasoned that James's absence might indicate some sort of controversy within the Potter household, and if that was the case, showing up late at night on the chopper could conceivably add to the problem, rather than solve it. Leaning back, Sirius steadied the handlebars with one ankle and poked through various pockets until he found the mirror. He nearly dropped it as he realized that releasing the throttle made him lose considerable altitude, and he was now heading straight for a steeple. Fortunately, he had time to shove the mirror into his lap before he lunged for the controls, and kept an awkward grip on it with his legs while he revved up the engine and turned hard to the left. Aside from a slight scratch in the chrome from the weather vane, the manuever went off flawlessly.

"Yo, Jimbo," he taunted into the mirror. "I know you can hear me. Get off your--"

"All right, all right, I'm here, you big git!" The mirror lit up as James's face appeared, Muggle-style electric lamps in the background. He looked both annoyed and pleased to see Sirius. "You're lucky you didn't finish that sentence, chump. We have a new rule here, now that Harry's talking: every time you swear, you have to put a Sickle in the piggy bank. Kid's going to be the richest boy in England between you and Peter."

Sirius laughed. "Bloody brilliant! Using your child to extort your friends--you always had the best head for business, James."

"Wasn't my idea," James said glumly. "Lily's. I'm already in the damn thing for three Galleons."

"I heard that," said Lily's distant voice. James grimaced painfully, but dutifully reached into a pocket of his robes and pulled out a silver coin, which made a metallic clunk inside the little ceramic pig on the countertop.

"A necessary evil," sighed James. "Harry's picking up a new word every few days now, and Mum doesn't want her darling boy talking like a stevedore's poltergeist if she can help it."

"Nothing to fret over, Uncle Sirius'll teach him the ropes in good time. Talking of which, I'll start with you: what are you doing milling about the house on Halloween?"

James averted his eyes but set his jaw. "I know, I know. I should have at least said something--"

"Said something!" interrupted Sirius reprovingly. "Nothing to say, mate. We made a promise and we're sticking to it. That's that. I'll be there in fifteen and you'd better be ready."

James hung his head. "Sirius, I can't do it. I know, I know," he said, looking at his friend with pleading eyes. He recited in a sing-song voice: "Their greatest victories are when they scare us out of living our normal lives. But this is different! Dumbledore knows we've been targeted. Specifically! I'm not hiding in fear of a random strike, Sirius, I'm..." James paused and looked away, apparently at a loss for an appropriate description.

Sirius sighed. "All right, mate, no need to drag it out. I'll just bring the party to... James?" Raw adrenaline suddenly flooded Sirius's body; James was staring intently in the direction of their front door.

"An automobile just pulled up, Sirius," said James, his voice deepened by his own rush of adrenaline. James set the mirror on the kitchen counter, propping it against a canister. Sirius still had a view of the kitchen and foyer, but James flicked a switch on the wall and the mirror went dark. Sirius's mouth went dry as he opened the throttle of the chopper as far as it would go.

They had worked many long hours developing the charm for those mirrors. Sirius knew full well that only James could see or hear him; anyone else would see only their own reflection. Nonetheless, his voice dropped to a whisper. "Who is it? James!"

A light came on from somewhere behind the countertop. Sirius caught a brief glimpse of James standing beside the foyer window, peeking out from the edge of the curtain with his wand in hand. Lily started to speak, but before she could complete a word, James spoke over her. "Turn it off!" he hissed sharply, never taking his eyes off the window, and the light immediately disappeared. There were quick, noisy footsteps as though Lily had run down the stairs, but there was nothing at all to be seen in the mirror.

"Talk to me, James," said Sirius urgently.

"I don't know. It's from the Ministry. Nothing's happening, it's just sitting there. No one's getting out. I don't like this, Sirius. Do you think maybe it's about Remus? It'd be just like those zealots at the Werewolf Registry to be working at this hour on a holiday."

Sirius hoped with every fiber of his being that it was the Werewolf Registry. Remus knew where the Potters lived, obviously, and could have guided the Ministry to their home even after the Fidelius charm had been cast. And those prats never seemed to tire of harassing Remus--it would be typical of them to detain him on Halloween and demand proof of his location during the last three full moons.

"All right, I'm nearly there," began Sirius, but James suddenly spoke, in a tone of controlled terror that shot through Sirius's chest like an arrow.

"Lily, take Harry and go! It’s him! Go! Run! I’ll hold him off."

Lily's footsteps dashed back up the stairs. The front door smashed open, briefly framing the silhouette of a tall figure against the faint moonlight outside. James immediately cast the "Expelliarmus," but another voice, louder, quicker, was already incanting "Avada Kedavra."

For a split second, the mirror flashed with green light, then showed only the reflection of the stars.



It was impossible. Unthinkable. Something had happened, but it couldn't possibly be what it seemed. They were hidden behind the Fidelius curse. Doubly so, even. Peter was made the Secret-Keeper, just to put another layer of confusion between the Potters and the Dark forces. No one would ever suspect that Peter was the Secret-Keeper; he was too far down the food chain for anyone to entrust him with so much. Which is exactly why Sirius had insisted he do it--what better way to hide the Secret in plain sight?

No. Voldemort could not possibly have found them, it was just... impossible. It had to be. Some slick little Death Eater trailed them home somehow, someone James could handle. James was already Disarming them when they cast that curse at him. Obviously their wand was not under their control when the spell discharged; it must have flown off at a crazy angle and smashed right into the mirror. In minutes, Sirius would arrive at the house and find the shards of the mirror all over the kitchen, and whoever James was pinning down to the tile in the foyer would get the beating of his life.

By the time Sirius's sensible side broke through the horror and disbelief, he was so close to Godric's Hollow that he would waste more time trying to land the bike and Apparate straight to the house than to simply keep driving. He could see the lights of the Hollow dead ahead. Sirius did not descend until he was practically on top of their house, not wanting any bother from treetops or power lines in his haste. Dropping steeply, he noticed that the house looked a bit strange from above and he could see no sign of a car. Still, it was pretty dark out, perhaps once he got on the ground he...

With a violent wrench of nausea, Sirius realized that he was less than ten meters from the ground and the roof of the house was still well below him.

How he managed to land the bike, Sirius couldn't remember. His body was acting on some sort of autopilot. He did not recall dismounting from the chopper either. When he heard his name, he simply found himself standing beside the bike, staring at the heap of rubble that had once been his favorite place in the world.

It wasn't James or Lily, but a familiar voice nonetheless. Sirius tried several times to answer, but in his shock he couldn't manage a coherent reply. There was someone moving inside the wreckage, and--wait--the baby! The baby was crying!

His heart began to pound even harder; maybe they were okay, maybe the impact of the spell had brought down the house (and broken the mirror) but they were simply trapped. There was Harry and... Hagrid? Merlin, Mordred and Morgana, what was Hagrid doing here? "Where are they? Where's James?" he heard himself say.

"I dunno, Black, I dunno what happened. Someone's been dragged out, maybe it was James pullin' Lily, I dunno."

Dragged. No one would be so stupid. Not James. If Lily were hurt, he would Apparate her straight to St. Mungo's, not drag her through broken beams and plaster. That single word snapped something inside Sirius's mind, broke through the desperate denial and brought home the reality.

"It wasn't James," he said, choking on the words. "James is dead."

His best friend, dead. It should have been him. In a flash of insight, he realized that he should have been in the house in the Hollow with the Fidelius charm. James and his family should have run even further, hidden even deeper, left him in their place with a barrel of Polyjuice potion and a toy doll to carry past the windows. He should have been inside the house, a decoy, to suss out whether Voldemort really had a traitor deep enough inside the Order to betray their secret.

A brilliant plan that was only an hour too late.

Hagrid spoke. "Lily." Sirius understood immediately. Little Harry had survived; if Voldemort came only for James, Lily might still be alive. Give me Harry and go find her! Sirius thought desperately, even as Hagrid said, "Take the lad." Sirius squeezed the little fellow as hard as he dared, finding sudden, unexpected comfort in this warm wiggly bundle that represented all the best in James and Lily.

As Hagrid plowed through the rubble, Sirius took a closer look at Harry's little face. His forehead had been gashed, but Sirius had seen enough combat to recognize a superficial wound. He pulled out his wand and pointed it at the laceration. "Consutum," he murmured, and the bleeding quickly stopped as the edges of the wound reapproximated. This was only the first of a series of spells to close wounds without scarring, but Sirius had learned only the most basic healing spells for emergencies. It would do for now, until he could get the baby to a Healer.

He realized, too late again, that he had not used any sort of anesthetic spell; the closure of the wound must have been painful. Crushing guilt struck him anew, that he had hurt his precious godson out of carelessness and distraction. A fine first step as the caretaker for this child. Sirius burst into tears.

He knew as soon as he saw Hagrid's face that the giant had found Lily and she was gone. It should have been me, he thought again, sobbing harder as the last threads of hope were cut. But Hagrid was trying to help him to his feet, and there were sirens approaching. The last thing any of them needed was a bunch of Muggles swarming around right now; the grief would have to wait. Sirius was a soldier and he knew that none of them were safe here. He had to get Little Harry far, far away.

Hagrid seemed to be reaching for the baby. "I'll take him," Sirius said, though he immediately realized he wasn't quite sure how he might carry Little Harry on the motorbike. It wasn't considered safe to Apparate children under the age of four; their little skulls hadn't fused solid yet and the pressure could hurt them.

"Maybe he oughter come with me, ter Hogwarts... Dumbledore might--" began Hagrid, but Sirius had heard enough. Dumbledore had suggested the Fidelius Charm, and look at what good it had done.

"I'LL take him," he said defiantly, daring Hagrid to contradict him. But this was ridiculous, Hagrid wasn't the enemy. The man couldn't squash a gnat without doing penance to the entire Gnat Nation. Sirius forced himself to slow down and speak with reason. "I'm his godfather. I'm all he has left. He's all I--"

James. James was gone, dead, and Little Harry was his only legacy. No more crying, there's no time. Focus. Whimpering, Harry put his head on Sirius's shoulder and touched his throat with his tiny fingers; they were cold. All he had on were jammies and a thin yellow blanket. All right. Sirius could kill all the birds with one stone by tucking the little fellow into his coat. Harry would be warm and cozy, and Sirius would have both hands free to operate the chopper.

Sirius heard Hagrid say something as he jumped onto the motorbike, but he knew the Muggles were practically on top of them. Only after he had cleared fifty meters of altitude did he realize he ought to have offered Hagrid a lift. The Muggle police would have a heyday with him, until the Aurors arrived and made things even harder.

Nobody would be looking up in the sky at the moment. Sirius cast a Silencing Spell about the chopper and doubled back to check for Hagrid. The giant was nowhere to be seen. Sirius circled the scene a few times just in case Hagrid tried to signal him from some hiding place, but apparently he had his escape route planned in advance. When Sirius was satisfied that he wasn't abandoning Hagrid to the mercy of the Muggles and the Ministry, he fingered the throttle lever, then paused.

What if, what if... Denial and doubt began to rear their desperate heads again in his mind. James could still be alive down there. Lily was gone, but maybe the curse had missed him. Maybe it hit Lily instead, or maybe it just detonated and brought the house down around them before she had time to get her wand and protect herself. James had his wand; he might only be trapped under the rubble.

Muggles were swarming like ants, and he suspected some of them were scouts from the Ministry already--especially since one of them had escorted Voldemort here in a bloody official car! Sirius vehemently wished he had James's Invisibility Cloak on him, but he realized he had something almost as good: the mirror. He pulled it from a pocket of his leather jacket.

"James? James, mate, I'm right above you, if you can make any sound at all, do it. I'll get you out if I have to break every law in the books." No response. "James!" Sirius shouted as loud as he could into the mirror. "JAMES!" Nothing.

It doesn't matter, thought Sirius. He could still be down there. Maybe the mirror is broken. He envisioned the flash of green light before the mirror went dead. That was an ironic phrase. Either the mirror had died, or James had; this was the nature of the charm they had placed upon it so carefully. It suddenly dawned on Sirius that he could check whether the mirror was whole or not. Descending again as low as he dared over the Potters' former kitchen, Sirius pointed his wand straight down and murmured, "Accio James's mirror."

When it floated up to his hand unbroken, he opened the throttle on the bike and pointed it at the stars.

Not Bristol. Not London. Sirius knew he couldn't fly around on the bike forever, but he was at a loss for a destination. Dumbledore had been right; there was a traitor, someone so far inside that they had prepared this strike before the Fidelius charm was cast. Either that, or Peter had been tortured into surrendering the Secret and was probably dead.

Now there's a thought. If they simply killed Peter, the Fidelius charm would be broken and anyone could have led a parade to Godric's Hollow if they had an inkling of the Potters' address. If someone had tortured it out of Peter, or killed him and then tortured it out of Remus... Sirius shuddered. The thought that he could very well be the last living Marauder turned his stomach violently.

His head was swimming from altitude, grief, and shock, but he knew that remaining in motion would protect him (and Little Harry) better than anything else until he could figure out a plan. The baby was sleeping soundly inside his jacket, despite the fact that he was crumpled and twisted in what had to be the most uncomfortable position ever devised outside of a torture chamber. Sirius gazed down at him fondly; the little sprat was tough.

Not tough enough to take into a danger zone, however. Peter and Remus might be in dire peril or dead, but there was nothing Sirius could do for them until Harry was tucked away someplace safe. And where, exactly, would that be? It all came back around to that. Voldemort had used information from a traitor in the Order of the Phoenix, and someone from the Ministry had helped him. That seemed to eliminate all of England, if not the entire UK.

I've got to go somewhere I've never gone, he thought. Somewhere no one will recognize me. The people I trust cannot be trusted, therefore I have to find strangers to trust. Ugh. The doublespeak alone was enough to drive him crazy.

"Never been to Wales," he muttered out loud. "Fancy a trip, Harry?" He had flown in a vaguely northeast direction from the Hollow; setting a new course would be wise at this point anyway. Banking the motorbike sharply to the left, Sirius reckoned he could be over Gwynedd in an hour. Gwynedd was the Bohemian sector of Wizarding Britain, reknown both for its size and its eccentricity. Many of these "freaks and Druids" (as his parents had called them) had probably never heard of Voldemort, much less Sirius Black. Find an inn, get a room with a Floo, and put your head together.

He grounded the bike in some town near the coast, intending to search the along the main street for the subtle signs that indicated a Wizard-friendly business. To his surprise, however, it seemed as though he'd somehow ended up in Diagon Alley or Hogsmeade. Wizarding folk were everywhere, dancing on sidewalks, shouting from windows, their wands out in the open with no apparent thought for Muggles. He pulled off the road and just sat, watching the revelry in disbelief and wondering if the strain was making him hallucinate. Okay, it was Halloween, but no holiday party in history had ever been this much fun.

A trio of pretty witches passed the bike, singing something in the Welsh tongue. If there was one thing Sirius did without planning or forethought, it was chatting up the ladies, and he was certainly desperate for information. One of them turned her head to admire the bike, and his instincts kicked in automatically.

"You ride?" he asked, not quite smiling, but tipping his head invitationally. She stopped singing and nudged one of the other chanteuses, who glanced at him, giggled and winked at her friend, and went off with the other. The first witch came over and smiled at him.

"Never have, but tonight I'm ready for just about anything," she said. There was Firewhiskey on her breath.

Oh, for the love of Merlin, why does this kind of thing only happen during times like these? "That so? Why tonight?" Sirius crossed his fingers, hoping that Little Harry would remain asleep for a few more minutes.

"Haven't you heard, handsome? You-Know-Who's been killed! Not two hours ago! The Dark Times are over!" She twirled in a pirouette, flaring out her maroon robes but then breaking into a distinct wobble, demonstrating the effects of the Firewhiskey. Fortunately, she righted herself against the handlebars and Sirius was not forced to jostle Harry in order to catch her. She laughed at her own unsteadiness, and Sirius wished he could laugh with her.

"You're joking!" he said. "How did it happen?"

Her eyes lit up at the prospect of breaking the news to an uninformed stranger. "Down in the West Country. He attacked a family, killed the parents, but somehow their baby survived! It's a miracle, don't you see? You-Know-Who tried to kill the baby too, but the curse bounced back and killed him instead. A baby killed You-Know-Who! The little chap must be the strongest wizard in history!" She laughed again, but did not attempt another pirouette.

This was more than Sirius could handle while maintaining a cool composure, but fortunately a dropped jaw was the fashionable response to the news. "Impossible," he croaked, though he didn't doubt the story one bit, just the fact that it had spread so widely and so accurately.

"No, it's true! It came straight from the Ministry in London! They have the baby, there'll be photos in the Prophet tomorrow of the Boy Who Lived."

Sirius felt like a tube of toothpaste which had been handed to a gorilla. The girl stepped back in alarm at his expression. "What's the matter with you?" she said heatedly, backing away. "You look downright disappointed!"

"No, no--hey, I'm not one of them," he managed to sputter, raising up the cuff of his jacket to reveal his forearm, emphasizing his point. "I'm just... wow. A bit taken aback. I mean, really, a baby... How could that be true? Maybe it's all an elaborate plot of some kind." Maybe?? Morgan le Fay, what have I stumbled into here?

The witch frowned at him, then grinned again and gave him a dismissive wave. "Oh, don't be such a killjoy! It's true, our Ministry rep confirmed it from London. Come on," she said, tugging his hand playfully, "this is the happiest night in fifty years! Get up and celebrate!"

"Okay, okay," Sirius said, thinking quickly. "I just need to find a tavern and put my bike away. Can you help--"

She cut him off in mid-inquiry. "Oh, just up the street, then, the Hound and Child. Better hurry, everyone's coming into town tonight. I'll look for you in a bit!" She gave him a lovely smile and capered off with a new group of passing witches.

He found the tavern easily enough, though the proprietor was downright peevish about being asked to let a room. He had his hands quite full with orders from the bar. Sirius opened his jacket enough to reveal the back of Harry's little head and the fellow changed his tune, clearly aware that a squalling baby would disrupt his business far more than a few delayed drinks. He handed Sirius a key and told him rather kindly how to find the kitchen if the baby needed anything.

The room was quiet despite the noise in the pub below and in the street. Sirius tucked Harry into the day-bed, then collapsed for a few moments on his own feather mattress.

What in the name of Merlin was happening?

In the end, he was forced to pilfer a roll of parchment and a quill from a rolltop desk just outside the kitchen and write it all out. His head was still whirling with grief, and he couldn't afford to leave out any details. After twenty minutes, he had to go get another parchment, as he had so many insertions, margin notes, and arrows, it was like reading a maze. He copied it in proper order onto the new parchment.

The image of Sirius's list can be seen here:
It's too big to fit in the HPFF image guidelines.
Cut and paste the link to see the picture.

Sirius stared at the list for several minutes, trying to decide what was most important. Would that be the Ministry traitor that helped Voldemort? The Ministry conspiracy to present a phony "boy who lived" to the public? Or the fact that Harry somehow killed the Darkest wizard on Earth--the sort of thing that's generally done by a Darker wizard? He looked over at the sleeping baby. Little Harry certainly didn't look like a fearsome Dark wizard, snoozing peacefully under a teddy-bear blanket with his hands flopped on either side of his head. But Voldemort had once been handsome too, and Sirius gritted his teeth at the sight of the wound on Harry's head. Voldemort's magic had touched the boy, of that he was certain; whether it went deeper than the physical wound was a separate and terrifying matter.

Sirius bit his lip. He wanted desperately to find out if Peter and Remus were safe, but ultimately it didn't matter; with Voldemort dead, they were probably not in danger, and therefore they could wait. That the Ministry was corrupt was certainly no news to him. Only people with an unslakable thirst for power would spend so many years clawing and stabbing their way up through the ranks. Sirius had always felt that anyone who desired to hold an office should automatically be disqualified for the position. The only competent blokes in the whole Ministry building were the ones that quietly went to their office every day and-gasp-did their jobs. There was at least one conspiracy going on, perhaps more, but it would all be well hidden behind lies, scapegoats, and "plausible deniability." Someone else would have to untangle that web.

He knew what he must do. Harry was his godson. He had vowed to protect this boy as his own flesh and blood. And no son of Sirius Black would live to see another dawn if he were poisoned with the Dark magic of Voldemort.

Chapter 27: 27: The Pureblood's Tale, Part 2
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Sirius paced around the small room, glad that the racket from the party would more than mask his incessant footsteps. If someone were to pound angrily on his door and complain about the noise, he might haul off and deck them. He had one nerve left and no one had better get on it.

He had to figure out whom he could still trust. There was only one traitor, after all, or at least he hoped there was only one. He didn't have to bear this burden alone, he could get help... as long has he didn't ask that one wrong person.

Remus and Peter were out. It seemed impossible, but many impossible things had happened that night. He had to consider that it could be one of them. They were certainly in the best position to betray the location of Godric's Hollow.

Sirius forced himself to think about Dumbledore. The Headmaster had warned James that he was being targeted and suggested the Fidelius Charm--and within a week, James was dead. Coincidence? Possibly. Set-up? Possibly. Voldemort had long considered James an annoyance, but suddenly took this specific interest--why? Perhaps Dumbledore had deliberately used the Potters as bait! Dumbledore might have made up this entire "prophecy" business and deliberately leaked it to Voldemort's spies. It was more than a year ago (supposedly) that this so-called prophecy was made, but Voldemort was only acting on it now? Was this because Dumbledore sent the Potters into hiding to entice him?

Dumbledore could have rigged the house to ensure Voldemort would never leave once he went in--which would certainly account for the collapse of the structure much better than a ricocheted Kedavra curse. And it would explain why Hagrid was sent to the Hollow before the dust even had time to settle. That Dumbledore would stoop to sacrifice the Potters was a sickening thought, but no less so than the concept of Peter or Remus betraying them. Sirius had to consider the Headmaster a threat as well.

Not the Ministry, not the Order, not Hogwarts. Sirius began to think that perhaps strangers were his best recourse for help. But Merlin's Beard, tonight's work was too important. Sirius remembered all too well what his brother Regulus had told him, not days before he was killed: that Voldemort was using ancient Dark magic to become immortal. Sirius had scoffed at the time. Everyone knew the closest one could get to immortality was the Elixir of Life, an alchemical process. Dark magic was about death and control, not eternal life. But Regulus had been so certain, and Voldemort had killed him personally...

Sirius peered for the hundredth time at the sleeping baby. He had no doubt in his mind that the scar on Harry's head was magical in origin. It was a perfectly shaped bolt of lightning, without bruising--the odds of some piece of flying shrapnel making such a wound were nil. If Voldemort truly took some Dark precaution against his own death, then Little Harry's body might even now be a vessel to house Voldemort until he recovered from the attack. Sirius bit his lip. This was not a question he could trust any stranger to answer.

Who, then? He had to stop eliminating people; it was getting him nowhere. I don't know who the traitor is. But I can figure out who the traitor isn't. There have to be some people who are absolutely beyond reproach.

"Like Dumbledore or Remus," he said out loud, spite and pain weighing heavily in his voice. The baby stirred, which was almost laughable after he'd slept through a ride on the chopper and a trip through the noisy pub. Sirius remembered James bemoaning the fact that the boy still woke up hungry in the middle of the night, despite their efforts to stuff him with food at bedtime. With a quick glance at his watch on the nightstand, Sirius realized he'd better go fetch some milk.

The kitchen smelled of sausages and Sirius brought back some Welsh currant cakes and butterbeer, but when he was out of sniffing range of the savory aromas, his appetite died as suddenly as it had flared. His stomach felt as tense as a bowstring. He drank the hot butterbeer and fed the grouchy baby milk from a cup. Fortunately, Little Harry nodded back off to sleep when he finished his milk, leaving Sirius free to stare into the bottom of his butterbeer mug and return to his thoughts.

Alastor Moody? Sirius had spoken to him on several occasions. The man knew his Dark Arts, that was certain, but talk about paranoia! If Little Harry had so much as a mote of Dark magic lingering on his pajamas, Moody would probably send the tot to Azkaban. No, this called for a slightly more level head than old "Mad-Eye."

The Longbottoms? They were top-notch Aurors and they had a boy about Harry's age. Of course they were little more than strangers too, even more so than Moody. Sirius buried his face in his hands in frustration--the bottom line was that most of his friends in the Order, like Benjy Fenwick and the Prewett brothers, were dead.

But wait--what about Molly Prewett? Gid and Fabian had introduced him to Molly several times and thought the world of her. She was married but they kept calling her "Prewett" just to annoy her. Her new name was... what, something like Wimbley, Wheatley... Weasley. That's right, her husband's in the Ministry, one of those blokes at the bottom that do all the actual work. In fact, he was a distant cousin who had been similarly disowned by the Most Noble House of Black. That made up his mind; if he couldn't trust Gid's sister and another "black sheep Black," he might as well go live in a cave.

Sirius lit the fire in his room and tossed in some Floo powder. Only after he stepped into it with Little Harry draped bonelessly over his arms did he remember it was nearly six AM. Oh, well, he thought with a shrug. Molly was in for the shock of her life anyway, might as well get off with a strong start.

To his suprise, there were lamps burning cheerily in her kitchen when he reached their fireplace. Six o'clock only came once a day for Sirius Black--he didn't normally stay up this late. Realizing that whoever lit the lamps would probably react unpleasantly to an intruder, Sirius ducked the second he stepped out of the Floo. Sure enough, something ruffled the hair on top of his head; Molly Prewett Weasley stood not three feet away in a long flannel nightdress, the wrought-iron poker from the fireplace still swinging in a backhand arc.

"What the--" "Molly, wait, it's--" "Sirius Black?" The poker remained poised for a second strike, but she had recognized him. He had a few seconds to persuade her not to crack his skull. "Molly, please. I need your help. I'm sorry to barge in like this. There's been an attack." Her eyes softened and the poker slowly sunk into a less lethal position.

"An attack. What? Is that a baby? Alright, come in, come in, dear," she said, motioning him to take a seat at the kitchen table, her maternal impulses finally overcoming her suspicion and shock. She took Harry from him immediately, bundling him expertly in the blanket with one hand and gently pushing his head back onto her shoulder when he tried to have a groggy look around. Harry must have sensed he was in the presence of a master, as he quickly gave up and snuggled down obediently for a snooze.

It didn't take long for Sirius to tell his tale. Molly squirmed uncomfortably and bit her lip as Sirius informed her that she was, in fact, holding the "boy who lived" in her arms.

"Sirius, what are you saying? If this is Harry Potter, then who is the baby in the Ministry?"

"That's the question of the hour, now, isn't it?" he agreed. "There's no mistake, Molly, I'm the baby's godfather. I know this is Harry. I arrived minutes after it happened, before anyone from the Ministry. I took him out of danger and I've had him ever since." Sirius didn't tell her about the Ministry automobile or the dragged-off body; he knew the story already sounded improbable, and Molly's trust in him was surely tentative at best.

She nodded. "Well, of course, that was the right thing to do. And I suppose that when Magical Catastrophes arrived, they must have noticed that the baby was gone and assumed he'd survived. But they say they have the baby! This doesn't make sense!"

"You don't have to tell me, that's been a recurring theme tonight. For all we know, someone kidnapped some little tyke and turned him in to the Ministry, hoping for a reward. Who knows? That can all be figured out later. What's important right now, Molly, is that this baby was the last person to see Voldemort alive, and he has a magical injury on his forehead. Molly, I'm scared. What if Voldemort possessed the boy? What if he's not dead at all, but somehow hiding inside Little Harry?"

Molly pulled her chin in and stared hard at Sirius, cuddling Harry protectively. "Don't be ridiculous, Sirius. No one can do that!"

"Oh, and babies kill full-grown wizards every day of the week, do they?" he barked in reply. Molly glared at him, but she averted her eyes and nodded.

"I suppose both stories are equally ridiculous," she said coolly.

"I shouldn't have snapped. It's been a horrible night, Molly."

Her hand moved to his forearm. "Nothing to worry about," she said kindly, helping him to his feet and guiding him into a soft armchair in the family room. "I'll put the kettle on. Arthur will be down soon and we'll think this through."

Despite himself, Sirius dozed in the chair before the Weasleys joined him with a tray of tea and porridge. Harry hadn't budged from his perch in Molly's left arm, but an even tinier redhead now occupied her right. Sirius shook himself awake. "Another new cousin?" he asked Arthur.

"That's right! Our little girl," said Arthur, beaming proudly. "Ginevra."

"She's beautiful," said Sirius, too bleary-eyed to be sure, but it was never a mistake to say it.

Arthur's tone immediately turned businesslike. "Molly's told me about this little fellow. I'm not sure what to say, Sirius. I'm inclined to bring him in to the Ministry--"

"No," said Sirius bluntly, cutting Arthur off in mid-sentence.

Arthur frowned, puzzled. "They can determine if You-Know-Who has...touched this child, AND it would prove the boy they have is not Harry Potter--"

"NO!" he repeated angrily. Arthur frowned again, and Sirius knew he needed to explain himself. "I don't trust the Ministry. I'm... not sure they didn't make up the whole 'boy who lived' business, and if they did, you can bet they won't appreciate meeting the real boy who lived."

Arthur leaned back in his chair, tapping his fingers on the rim of his porridge bowl. "Sirius, you've been up all night and you've been through a terrible shock..."

"Don't start it, Arthur. I'm not taking Harry to the Ministry and that's final."

"All right, all right, it's your decision. You understand that I do have to let my superiors know they have the wrong baby, and they may not believe me without proof. If they've been deceived about this other baby, things could get very complicated before the truth is found."

"Not my problem," said Sirius stiffly. "They issued a report without confirming the facts, they can flounder and retract and suffer the consequences. I'm sorry, Arthur. I'm not feeling disposed toward your employer at the moment."

Arthur sighed and glanced at Molly, but nodded. "At best, it was very irresponsible to announce that they had the boy without speaking to his guardian first. All right. Well, what do you want from us, then?"

Sirius closed his eyes. They felt dry and sharp, while his wits were dulling by the minute. "I don't know who I can trust. You understand that the boy's parents were betrayed by someone deep within the Order of the Phoenix? It's the only explanation for how they were found and attacked. I don't know how to look into this boy, to find Voldemort if he's there. I need help." He looked imploringly at Molly. "Gid always told me you were stronger than he and Fabian combined. Coming from him, that really meant something. That's why I came to you. Can you help me?"

Molly glanced between the two men several times, then sighed. "I can try. Not here, though, I don't want the children to have anything to do with this. Arthur, can you take a holiday today?"

He gritted his teeth. "They won't like it, but I have a feeling quite a few people will be skiving off the job today. I'll need to go in as soon as you get back, though, and I should report in about this whole wrong boy business." He rubbed his jaw, obviously ticking off a mental checklist, then looked up with deep concern in his eyes. "Where will you go, Molly? If what Sirius says is true... this could be dangerous."

"I know, Arthur, I know," said Molly, shaking her head wearily. "Let me think a minute."

"We can use my place in Bristol," said Sirius helpfully, "or I've let a room in Wales last night."

"What part of Wales?" Molly asked quickly, her eyes sparking with interest.

"Gwynedd. By the coast. I don't know which town."

Molly nodded approvingly and handed the tinier baby to Arthur. "That won't matter. It'll do quite nicely. I'll find the right people there. Let me pack a few things." She bustled out of the room with a determined air and there was a loud crack of Apparation. Within seconds, the ghoul in the attic let out a yowl and five floors down, they could hear her admonish him sternly to be still or he'd have to put all the children back to sleep.

Arthur gave Sirius a grim look. "I hope you're wrong, Sirius, but if you're right... will you be ready?"

"Heh. That's a loaded question, innit? I've been around Dark magic all my life, I think I can defend myself and Molly, but Harry... I guess we'll just have to see. I know what James would do if the worst came to pass." He set his jaw as he regarded the older wizard, and Arthur did the same.

"Good luck, Sirius," Arthur said as Molly Apparated back into the room with a small red bag.

"Arthur, don't forget to make Charlie and Percy work on writing lessons this morning, and don't let the twins get into the kitchen. Or the shed. Or the onions I just planted. And don't leave them alone with Ronnie either, they're trying to teach him how to take off his diaper. Well, what are you waiting for, Sirius? Let's get going!" She marched smartly to the hearth in the kitchen, and Sirius had to hurry to keep up.

They arrived at his room in the Hound and Child covered with soot; apparently the innkeeper did not bother to sweep the chimneys very frequently. Molly quickly dusted off Little Harry and handed him to Sirius. "You stay here with him," she said. "I'm going to have a look round and see if I can find some familiar faces."

As the door clicked shut behind her, the baby seemed to instinctively recognize that the Voice of Authority had departed, leaving behind only a tired, inexperienced pushover. Harry started to grouse, wriggling out of Sirius's arms to wobble over to the desk. He pulled open the bottom drawer and began removing everything from it, one item at a time, gnawing on each one for a moment before dropping it on the floor. Sirius rested on his side and watched wearily, realizing that the child obviously had no intention of going back to sleep. There was nothing but books and parchment in the drawer, and all of those could withstand a little slobber.

The next thing he knew, there was a small, wet hand squeezing his nose. Sirius bolted upright, scanning the room to get his bearings, then cursed. The sun was well over the horizon; he'd slept at least an hour. Thank goodness Molly hadn't returned, she'd have been furious to find him catnapping while the baby was running loose.

He took a closer look at Little Harry and groaned. The child had managed to pull a jar of ink from the desk and apparently tried first to eat it, and when that proved unsatisfactory, attempted to absorb it through his skin instead. He gave Sirius a huge grin, revealing blackened gums and four slightly bluish teeth.

"Harry James Potter!" Sirius admonished, taking the empty jar. He wondered briefly if ink was poisonous, and decided not to risk it. Rather than simply Scourgify the little rascal, Sirius concentrated and performed a complex Vanishing spell to remove all of the ink, inside and out. Harry didn't seem bothered by the process, but having lost the fascinating ink jar that had held his attention for so long, he immediately went on the prowl for some other piece of contraband. Sirius quickly Transfigured the ink jar into an abacus with big, colorful beads and handed it to the boy. Apparently it was deemed acceptable; it went straight into Harry's mouth.

Sirius sat on the floor this time, not trusting himself in the comfortable bed. He watched Harry play and explore, noting with relief that the child acted pretty much the same as he always had. But he's just a baby--even Voldemort himself probably played and grinned when he was only a year old.

Sounds of merrymaking began to carry up from the streets. He peered cautiously through the curtain, squinting in the sunlight. Once again there were throngs of sorcerers parading through the streets and popping off spells in full view. Shaking his head at the spectacle, he heard his name weakly amongst the crowd and spotted Molly Weasley waving at him from the curb. She looked rather unhappy, but gave him a quick thumbs up and motioned that she would be coming up to the room.

"Sirius... What happened to your nose?" she said upon entering. He'd forgotten all about the inky hand that had woken him up.

"Harry did a bit of finger-painting, sorry," he said, wiping ink onto the yellow blanket. To his chagrin, a group of witches followed right behind Molly, all looking rather serious until they caught sight of his nose. One of them picked up Little Harry like a porcelain doll and gazed at him with affectionate awe.

"Ladies," said Molly, "this is Sirius Black, and the baby I spoke of, Harry Potter. These are some... friends of mine, Sirius."

"Friends," said Sirius dubiously. "And do they have names?"

A stooped witch with a long white braid, who looked old enough to be Molly's grandmother, stepped forward with a scowl. "We aren't acquainted, as you've guessed, but we are all friends here. Don't snap at the hand that offers you help, young man."

"It's all right, Sirius," said Molly. "These ladies and I... well, we belong to a... well, a certain society. We don't normally, ah, include wizards in our proceedings." She looked very uncomfortable, and kept glancing at the other witches almost pleadingly.

Sirius realized he was being granted a rare privilege; this was no time for screwing around. He knelt solemnly on the floor. "I'm honored," he said, bowing his head. "Forgive me if, in my ignorance of your customs, I disgrace myself." He could almost hear the satisfied looks spread to all their faces.

"Oh, none of that, now; get up!" Molly pretended to chide as she helped him to his feet, but she gave him a quick look of deep gratitude for his gesture of humility. I've still got it, he thought privately.

"Fabian was received by the group, but Giddy wasn't ready," continued Molly, removing the last of the ink from Sirius's nose with her wand. "We're the Daughters of Modron, the stewards of Avallocian magic." She peered at Sirius to see if he understood, but the name obviously didn't register. "You and I learned standard Merddynian magic at Hogwarts, but Merlin wasn't the only great sorcerer of his time, not by far. Avallocian magic is a bit different, more feminine, obviously. It's the force behind Apparation, for example; that's why you don't need a wand to Apparate.

"It's hard to control, which is why it fell out of fashion long ago. It generally takes more than one person to complete a spell. For that same reason, it's also harder to corrupt. There simply isn't a Dark branch of Avallocian magic; if your intentions are harmful or evil, the magic simply won't manifest." The other ladies nodded, obviously pleased with Molly's summary.

Sirius bowed his head again, thrilled by the prospect of learning a whole new form of magical power. No wonder his parents despised Wales! He knew Molly was really sticking her neck out by bringing him into the group. "I've never been more honored," he said quietly and sincerely, without the formality he'd used earlier. Molly's eyes sparkled warmly, and even the old crone gave him a wrinkled smile.

The whole group made their way to the seashore, alone or in pairs to avoid attention. Molly walked with Sirius and Harry, explaining that he would have to Apparate about a mile offshore and ten feet above the surface and let himself fall into the sea. "It'll be rough, Sirius; there's normally a series of rituals for novitiates, to lead up to this one. But this is an emergency, obviously, and... Fabian told me about you. You'll handle it. All you have to do is fall in. We'll be conducting the ritual on the beach. If your mind and heart are suitable for Avallocian magic, you'll sink like a lead ingot. When you hit bottom, just walk back to the beach--the magic will sustain you even though you can't breathe."

That made him halt in his tracks. "Sink? What happens if the magic doesn't take?"

She made a face. "Well, you might sink then too, but you won't have to worry about the long walk. You can swim to shore if you have to. You can swim, right?"

Sirius rolled his eyes. "I can dog paddle."

"That'll do, if it comes to that. I'd much prefer if you were able to walk; we really need you to stand by the baby if you can."

When they arrived at the shore, the other Daughters were apparently starting whatever ritual they were going to perform on him, or for him. They were sitting in a circle on a flat rock, chanting and clapping a complex rhythm as a very pretty witch around Sirius's age danced in the center. He recalled Molly's comment about this magic becoming unfashionable and smirked. People could be such idiots.

Molly eyed him narrowly. "You boys are all the same," she huffed. "The first time Fabian saw an enchantment, he said if it were up to him, this kind of magic would be mandatory. As if you don't get to ogle the ladies enough already." She shook her head, but he caught a secret smile when she turned away.

The two of them waited as more witches took their places in the circle, then at some unseen signal, Molly took Harry from him. "Your wand," she whispered, holding out her hand. With a pang of fear, he surrendered it to her. He felt very awkward without it under the best circumstances, but there was apparently no way around it. Well, even if I can't swim back, Padfoot can. He set his jaw.

"Sirius?" whispered Molly as he prepared to Apparate. "Walk uphill."

He'd never intentionally Apparated to thin air before, and he ended up having to focus on a small buoy floating a little more than a mile out and several hundred yards up the beach. He tried to fling himself back on target as the magic kicked in, but he never knew if he succeeded. He reappeared facing out to sea, and before he had time to get his bearings, he was plunged into the freezing water.

Instinctively, he kicked up toward the surface, where the sun was fractured into a glowing mosaic by the waves. But he was falling through the sea as though it were just more air. Even though Molly had told him that this was supposed to happen, Sirius panicked; every corner of his brain screamed, "You're drowning! Swim for your life!"

Holding his breath became harder by the second as he flailed madly with his arms and legs. He had no buoyancy whatsoever; he could neither swim nor tread water, any more than he could paddle through air to cross the street. I'm going to die! He'd never felt so helpless. Not like this! He landed so hard that he sank in the muck to his knees, and the shock of it knocked his last breath out of him. Or so he thought, until to his utter amazement, he took another one.

Sirius stood in that spot, slowly sinking, for several minutes, gazing in awe about him. The cold and pressure he expected at this depth were absent. The sea around him was clear as air, the surface far above him
a glistening new sky. This must be the way fish and mermaids see the world, he pondered.

Something brushed his fingertips. A silvery fish hovered beside him, apparently wondering whether he was edible. Sirius shooed it away and began the slow process of extracting his feet from the murky sea bed. It was tricky business, for one foot would sink deeper as he shifted his weight to pull the other foot up. He finally wriggled his way to freedom and took a few steps, coming to a sudden halt as he realized he was heading down a very gentle slope. The beach is uphill, he reminded himself, and turned around. Sure enough, the horizon climbed up and touched the sky in that direction.

When his head finally crested over the waves, he realized he was a bit to the west of the circle of witches. He corrected his course before climbing any higher toward shore; he wanted them all to see him walking, not swimming. When Molly met him at the tide's edge, he realized with a start that he was completely dry.

"I knew you'd do it!" she said, giving him a welcoming squeeze. "I so wanted to see Gid emerge from the sea. I know he'd be proud of you." She pulled him into the group of witches, who had broken up the circle and were stretching their legs and backs. Each one held what looked like half of an eggshell filled with wine. The closest took a sip from her strange cup and handed it to him. He took it and drank the rest, which seemed appropriate. The next witch followed suit, until he'd shared wine with all of them. Sirius was glad the group hadn't been any larger, as he felt a bit tipsy when he threw back the last one.

"Well, you're a part of the Sisterhood now, lad," grinned Molly. "Not that you'll notice much difference, since you haven't done any of the required preparation. But this kind of magic is open to you now, and if you want to study it, you can. I can help you meet the right people later. You'll still be able to perform Merddynian magic, of course, but you'll have to be careful to keep your intentions noble and stay away from Dark spells, even jinxes. Avallocian magic is repelled by such things--you'll lose it if you prove to be unworthy of it."

Sirius nodded thoughtfully. "Can I get into mischief now and then?" Molly glanced at him askew, hiding a smile behind her hand.

Avoiding the noisy revelry of the village, the group gradually wound its way to a secluded spot in the nearby wood. Too small to be properly called a clearing, it was basically a huge tree stump, perfectly flat, with enough room around it to congregate. The witches formed a new circle around the trunk, silent and somber this time, quite different from the vivacious ritual on the shore.

Molly pulled him and Little Harry back from the group. "I haven't told them very much, Sirius," she explained in a low voice. "They know the official story about last night, obviously, but I haven't let on who you boys are. I think some of them have guessed the truth, though." Sirius recalled the witch who had cradled the baby so reverently eariler that morning and reckoned she'd figured it out.

"All I said was that an act of great evil was performed near this baby, and you needed to know whether any of that magic had... influenced him. That spell isn't actually very hard; Avallocian magic is very good at revealing Truth. When the group is ready, you only have to set the baby on the tree trunk and the spell will take care of the rest in a few seconds."

She eyed him nervously, then leaned closer to whisper even more quietly. "That's not all, though, Sirius. I asked the Sisters to help you remove any 'influences,' if we find them. They all saw how readily the Sea accepted you, even though you weren't properly prepared. They're willing to do it."

He swallowed hard. "Molly. You're an angel." He kissed Little Harry's forehead anxiously. "I knew only one way to get rid of any 'influences.' I hoped I wouldn't have to."

"It's not simple, though," she said, nodding. "There could be danger. We're talking about particularly vile magic, Sirius. We might have to neutralize it, rather than just destroy it. In other words, something good might have to... suffer, to cancel out the evil."

Sirius nodded, slowly at first, then sharply. "I'm for it. I owe it to James. What do I do?"

Molly suddenly pulled him close, squeezing him and the baby in a tight hug. When she stepped back, there were tears on her cheeks but she smiled bravely. "Gid and Fab were spot on about you, lad. I didn't want any of these good witches harmed, even if they were willing." She gave him a quick peck on the cheek.

"I'm going to join the Circle," she continued. "When we're ready, I'll signal you to put the baby in the center. The Command will only take a few seconds, and then... well, we'll see what comes next. If you're needed, just step into the center with Harry."

When she joined the Circle, her eyes immediately rolled back in her head and her outline became somewhat hazy. Without her chatter to distract him, Sirius took a close look at the proceedings, realizing that all the witches looked eerily indistinct. He stepped back involuntarily, somewhat reconsidering his earlier enthusiasm for this other magic. Knowing that these witches were tapping into a power completely unknown to him was a bit creepy.

To pass the time, Sirius opened his pack and pulled out the battered currant cakes from the tavern. He shared them with Little Harry, who gobbled them up by the tiny fistful. Once he finished his treat, the little fellow became restless and struggled in his lap, determined to explore the forest floor.

When Molly Weasley finally raised her hand, Sirius really didn't want to go through with it. It had to be done, but he suddenly brimmed with questions. Would he be killed if they had to "neutralize" something within Little Harry, or just injured? Physically or magically? Would it hurt the baby? Indecision clouded his intent for a moment, then he looked down at the grumbling boy and clenched his jaw.

Sirius hoisted up his godson and approached the Circle. The two nearest witches leaned to the side to admit the baby. He felt nothing on his hands or forearms as he reached through the magic. Having expected some sensation of the obvious power, its absence was almost worse. Harry, however, wasn't perturbed in the slightest; he toddled to the center of the stump as though he understood his role and sat down with a whump.

Within seconds, the wound on his forehead glowed with an acid green.


Without hesitation, Sirius Apparated to the center of the circle, scooping up his godson as he rematerialized.

The Lady's face was as clear as day though the roiling mists obscured all else. She was beautiful, tall with long blond hair, but he knew her youth was an illusion. He could see it in her eyes; they were ancient and wise, almost frighteningly so.

"Mae govannen, Helluin," she said, then raised her hand to reveal a glittering knife.

Sirius made no effort to resist. He knelt and bowed his head, clasping his godson tightly to his chest. He hoped with all his heart that whatever she did wouldn't hurt Little Harry.

"Adarmeleth," she said warmly, raising his chin with her fingertip. "Fear not," she continued in an accent he'd never heard, musical and rich, as though the only proper way to speak his native language. "This is Angrist. Forged by the finest smith to walk this earth, it was used to cut a stolen treasure from the crown of an evil king. It will destroy the dark talon piercing the boy."

Up close, he realized her eyes were filled with stars, as though a whole universe existed behind them. He felt unworthy to speak to such a powerful sorcerer, but she gazed at him expectantly. "Command me, Lady," he finally intoned, his voice tiny and insignficant compared to hers.

She opened her arms to receive Little Harry with a pained, wistful expression. He held up his arms willingly, though he didn't usually care to be passed to strangers. She tucked him into the crook of her elbow, which emphasized her height and long, graceful arms. She held out the knife in her other hand.

"Take it, Helluin. If you would spare the child from suffering, let the pain flow from the blade into you."

Sirius furrowed his brow, uncertain how to do what she was asking, but her gaze was so serene and confident, he knew she would guide him if his instincts weren't enough. He raised the point over Harry's wound and hesitated. The green glow was already flickering as though it could sense the presence of the blade and struggled to escape. He tilted his head thoughtfully, then on pure instinct, he placed his hand on the wound and plunged the knife deep into his own chest.

A cold wave of pain passed through him with a green glow, then the Lady smiled and vanished. The last thing to disappear were her eyes.

Stars. Definitely stars. Sirius sat bolt upright, realizing halfway up that Little Harry was asleep on his chest. The witches were gone, the Circle was gone, but he was still atop the giant tree stump, and it was night. How long have I been out? he wondered.

"What was it like?"

Sirius spun to the owner of the voice, shaking his head in surprise at the pretty chanteuse from the night before, sitting not ten feet away astride the chopper of all things! Once the initial surprise wore off, he found that he still couldn't answer, because his experience had been too remarkable for words.

She waited for a moment, then chuckled. "They told me you wouldn't answer, but I had to give it a try. You were such a smooth talker last night, I hoped you'd manage to tell it. Don't worry," she said as she dismounted the motorbike, "no one ever talks about the Lady. Some secrets just aren't meant to be shared, I suppose!"

"How long?" he finally croaked, his voice thick.

"Just a few hours, handsome," she winked. "The sun only just set. I was asked to keep watch, but there was no real need--and certainly not for the whole Sisterhood. When that green light burst from your heart, we knew the Lady herself had answered you. She left you something."

Following her gaze, Sirius looked beside him on the tree stump. He found a duplicate of the knife, Angrist, though small enough to put in a pocket. He reached for it in awe, and heard her voice in his mind when he touched the handle. "It will cleave iron and open any door; you will need it soon."

The witch peered curiously at the knife. "You know you must keep all of this secret? There are plenty of 'purists' out there that think the Daughters of Modron are even worse than the one who was killed last night. You understand, don't you?"

"Perfectly," he coughed. "They don't call me a 'blood traitor' for no reason." She laughed.

"I've left you a bit of food," she said, "here, in your pack. You can rest in the glade as long as you need to; you're quite safe here. Nothing with ill intent toward you or the boy can come near."

Sirius nodded. "We won't be long."

With a smirk, she replied, "Of course not. Saviors of the Wizard World always have some important duty to attend, I'm sure." She smiled merrily. "However, if you ever find yourself in the dull backwater of Gwynedd again, my name's Igraine. Ask around; someone will find me." She winked, then made her way down some invisible path through the wood.

In the chill quiet of the forest evening, Sirius breathed a deep sigh and Conjured a little mattress for Harry. Whether the tot was asleep or unconscious, Sirius couldn't tell, but after all he'd been through, he undoubtedly needed the rest. He pulled the little teddy-bear blanket from the tavern over him, making a mental note to return it at some point.

Watching the peaceful baby, all Sirius really wanted to do was snuggle down beside him and sleep off the horror of the last twenty-four hours. But ridding the boy of Voldemort's filthy touch was only the first task he'd given himself.

He pulled his parchment out of his pack and unfurled it. So many questions, none of which had been answered--and the longer he waited, the cooler the trails to the answers would become. "What magic can repel the Kedavra?" That one had been rendered a moot point. Whatever it was, it had worked, even though Voldemort still had time to sink a hook into Harry--some form of postmortem posession. A shiver ran along Sirius's spine as he remembered the malicious force that had passed through him in the Lady's realm. It made his stomach turn to know that abomination even touched Little Harry.

But it was gone now, and good riddance; it was time to move on. Who stole Voldemort's body and announced his death to the world? Sirius sighed; he'd probably never know the answer to either question. The Ministry was such a pit of vipers, for all he knew they'd had to draw straws to see who won the privilege of driving Voldemort to Godric's Hollow. The elder Blacks had loved to play games, spinning false realities out of lies and seeing how far they could take their stories without getting caught, but Sirius had no taste for it. He was a simple, direct man, and he preferred to challenge his adversaries head on, rather than scrabble around trying to trip them with lies.

How did the Ministry know about Harry--or did they make up a "phony" Boy-Who-Lived? It seemed like just the sort of feel-good tripe the charlatans at the Prophet would come up with. Far be it that the Ministry should admit its incompetence at battling Voldemort. Instead, they could make up some fabulous tale of a supernatural hero to show that really, the Ministry had done all it could. If it took a miraculous force to put an end to Darkness, then none could blame the poor Ministry for its series of pathetic failures. Claiming that a baby had killed Voldemort even had the advantage of exonerating the Ministry from future repercussions. If they took credit for the act themselves, then the next time another Dark power came along, they might be asked to repeat their success. How convenient to claim that a baby had done it through some unknown magic; the child couldn't counter the claim, and if he failed a second round, well, that would be just another sad twist of fate.

At least that they wouldn't get away with it. Arthur Weasley and his few honest colleagues would do their best to straighten out this lie in the Ministry. Sirius knew better than to expect any actual justice in the end, though. After the blame storm, a few scapegoats would lose their desk jobs, while the masterminds would have to abandon their plan and spawn a new pack of lies. But at least the baby, whoever he was, would not become the Ministry's symbolic Last Resort Against Darkness, and with luck would just return to his parents and be forgotten by history. And Harry, the real Boy Who Lived, well, what would become of him was yet to be seen.

All that remained on his parchment were the names of Peter and Remus. Now those were questions he could answer that night.

"Except I've got a little sprog to see to, don't I, Harry-lad?" Sirius mused out loud. He could hardly leave the little fellow alone in the woods. Even if he Apparated, he couldn't be at all sure of a quick visit to either of them. There was little doubt in his mind that one of them must be the traitor; he would likely face a duel to the death once the truth came out. "Can't just leave you here, knowing I may not ever come back, can I?"

He wrapped his Charmed mirrors in the parchment carefully and stowed them in his pack, along with the Lady's gift. He nearly strapped it to the motorbike, but changed his mind and impulsively jammed the whole thing under a root of the ancient tree. The rugated bark instantly oozed around the pack, hiding it completely as though it were simply more tree. He nodded in silent appreciation to the Lady.

Sirius picked up the sleeping baby, wishing Igraine had stayed a little longer. "Can I take you on the bike, you think, Harry?" He rejected that idea immediately. If he ended up duelling with Peter or Remus, the last thing he needed was Little Harry nestled in his arms. "Nah, I suppose that wouldn't work, would it?" Harry wriggled into a more cozy position with his head on Sirius's shoulder.

Peter. Remus. Tears welled in his eyes again. He'd have to kill one of them. It was unthinkable that either could possibly be the traitor, and yet it must be. Maybe the wolf in Remus was immune to the Fidelius charm. Maybe Peter finally got tired of being the little guy in the group and acted out of jealousy or spite. Kill James just because he's more popular? No man could sink that low, could they? And Remus, despite his lycanthropy (or perhaps because of it), had a moral center a mile wide. He'd sooner gnaw off his own arm than give in to the instincts of the wolf.

His mind whirling back and forth between two unbearable choices and his chest warmed by the trusting, comforting weight of his godson, Sirius slowly leaned his head back against the tree trunk and dozed off.

"All right there, Black? It's jus' me, Hagrid."

Sirius woke with a start, instinctively drawing his wand. He hadn't been sound asleep, so he remembered immediately where he was. "How did--oh." There were Fireflies rubbing his arm; he'd been tracked. Only Hagrid could manage to shepherd Fireflies in October. "Are you alone?"

"Jus' me, an' me thestral," Hagrid said. "Mind if I come over to yeh?"

Sirius set down his wand, knowing that the Lady's magic still saturated the glade; Hagrid would never have found him if he meant ill, Fireflies or no. A few seconds later, the huge gamekeeper produced a rather tired-looking bun from some pocket in his coat. Eww. "No, thanks, Hagrid, I have food, I just can't eat yet. I'm too sick about what's happened."

"We're all sick about it," agreed Hagrid. "Though there's a lot o' rumors goin' roun' about what happened back in the Hollow."

Yeah, so I've heard. "I know what happened."

Hagrid's face grew strained, as it always did when he knew the situation called for delicacy and tact, neither of which he posessed in large quantity. "Listen, Black, Dumbledore's asked me ter come an' fetch little Harry there, an' I have to say, yeh don' look like you're up to carin' for him at the mo'."

Though it pained him to admit it, Hagrid was right. He had to settle this score with the traitor, and Harry couldn't be a part of that. But this was his son now! How could he go and risk his life in a duel, now that his life was bound to this boy? Sirius kissed a rumpled tuft of hair. "I don't want to let him go, Hagrid. He needs me. I'm the only one in the world who knows him."

"Yer a mess, Black," said Hagrid in his tenderly blunt way. "Yeh look like yeh got one foot in the grave an' the other on a banana peel. You know Dumbledore'll take good care of the lad. Don't yeh think he's better off safe in the castle than out here alone in the woods wi' you? Let me take him back to the Headmaster, put 'im down in a nice, cozy bed tonight. We'll figure out what ter do with him tomorrow. Or the next day. If what they're sayin' is true, he's not gonna want for nothin'."

That at least was true. Dumbledore would take care of the boy--unless he was the traitor, of course. But even the Headmaster hadn't known about Peter becoming the Secret Keeper. GAH! It was enough to drive him mad. Enough guessing. I must find out who did this, and the sooner the better.

"I don't want to give him up, Hagrid," Sirius sad, "but you're right. There's something I need to take care of, and little Harry can't go with me. Did you say you came here on a thestral?"

"I did. He's over there... ah, no he's not, hang on." Sirius shook his head; it was almost enough to make him laugh. Leave it to Hagrid to trust a wild beast to stay put in an exciting new forest. It was strangely comforting to see this snippet of normality in the midst of all the chaos of the day.

Sirius held out his hand. "Give me the lead, Hagrid, I could use a ride that's fast and silent. You take my motorbike and bring Harry to Dumbledore. Harry likes it, the sound seems to soothe him a little. I'll come find you as soon as I can, sproggie." As soon as I take out the one who killed your mum and dad.

Hagrid was getting misty-eyed, the big softie. "He'll be okay," he said. "I'll see to him an' then I'll bring yer bike back to yer place in Bristol."

As if I could ever enjoy riding it again, Sirius mused, then made a decision. "Keep it. I won't be needing it anymore." Giving Harry a last smooch, he Enlarged the bike for the enormous gamekeeper. Knowing that every second he delayed would make his departure more painful, Sirius turned smartly and leapt onto the thestral's back. He could fly south in peace for a little while before deciding whom to call upon first.

Peter or Remus? Peter or Remus? Neither one appealed to him. He might find either or both dead, and if not, he might have to kill them himself. In the end, he decided on Peter. Wormy was a friend and cohort, and managed to wheedle them all out of many a harsh punishment with his smooth tongue, but he was never the brother that James or Remus had been. Well, more like a tag-along baby brother, sort of like Regulus--sometimes a fun contributor, sometimes a pest who couldn't be avoided. Of his last best friends, Sirius would prefer to find Peter dead first.

Both Remus and Peter still lived with their parents. Peter hadn't bothered to look for a place of his own, and Remus couldn't afford one with his "furry little problem" keeping him unemployed.

The Pettigrews lived under a bridge spanning the Thames. Their family had lived above the first London Bridge since the 1400's, when it boasted houses and shops over the water between London and Southwark. When the ancient bridge was remodeled in the 1700's and turned back into a thoroughfare, the Pettigrews had simply moved underneath, creating a warren of rooms hidden within the stone arches supporting the roadway. When the bridge was replaced a hundred years later, they felt quite entitled to inhabit it in the same manner, and re-created an even larger home under the new span. They staunchly denied that their magical excavations in the superstructure had done any damage, even when a mere century later, the entire bridge had to be abandoned because it was sinking. When the London Bridge was sold to an American billionare, the Pettigrews finally abandoned their ancestral home and moved upstream to the Blackfriars Bridge. The wrought-iron arches below the span proved an ideal spot for a magical patio and sleeping-porch.

It took a little less than an hour to reach the bridge. Sirius cast a Disillusionment spell upon his mount, just in case there were any Squibs about that might meet all the requisites to see a thestral. He trotted slowly over the top of the bridge, pausing at the front entrance to Pettigrew Manor on the second piling. Tying his mount to the bright red railing and giving it half a chicken that Igraine had left in his pack, he finally tapped the sculpted pier in the proper sequence to announce his presence.

After five minutes, he began to suspect that no one was home, though he knew quite well that one of the carved seabirds had a magical eye through which they screened their visitors. He repeated the doorbell sequence on the stone and did his best to grin convivially at the stone gull.

He started the sequence a third time when a man's voice interrupted. "They ain't in, you know." Sirius wheeled about, wand in hand, to discover a man in rather shabby Muggle clothing straddling a bicycle with no tires. "Easy! Easy!" shouted the man, backing away with his hands in the air. "Don' jinx me 'ead off, I'm only tryin' ta 'elp!"

"You a wizard, then?" said Sirius, who was a little too tired and stressed to think clearly.

"Wouldn' know the Pettigrews if I was Muggle, would I?" said the man. "I deliver the Prophet roun' the neighbor'ood. The Petties've been out all day. I 'eld their evenin' edition for 'em. Lots o' people up in the Alley tonight. Didja try there?"

"I haven't. Are you sure they're all out? I'm looking for Peter."

"Well, I ain't seen nobody today, an' I been by at leas' a dozen times. I fly besides the bridge when I cross, you know; the wheels what I got ain't much good for ridin' the Muggle way." He grinned, revealing a dark void where all the teeth on his right side should have been.

"Indeed. Could you do me a favor, mate? Think you could swing down past the porch and have a quick look for me?"

"Fink you wanna buy a paper firs'?" said the man bluntly but politely. When Sirius dug in his pockets for a coin, he added, "Two tonight, innit? Only this bein' a Special, wiv Wossname bein' killed an' all."

"Voldemort, right," said Sirius thoughtfully as he smiled and handed him the two Knuts. The man cringed and eyed him nervously. Sirius hoped he'd intimidated the Cockney from simply disappearing with the coins.

The man launched into the bridge traffic without even looking, apparently using the same sort of magic as the Knight Bus to keep from being both seen and crushed. His bike immediately took to the air and he soared gracefully over the railing, barely clearing the doubly-invisible thestral. A few minutes later he reappeared over the other side of the bridge, pedaling over the traffic and coming to a smooth but noisy landing beside Sirius.

"Nope. Not in. Not a single ligh' on. I even poked me 'ead up through the ironworks, to get a good look-see. If 'e's 'ome, 'e's layin' real low, inee?"

"Laying low... could be." The man grinned nervously, muttering something about needing to get on his way. Sirius waved him off as he turned and leaned against the railing to think.

Wormy, his parents, and his fat, jolly aunt (who liked to drop things onto unsuspecting Muggles as their boats passed under the bridge) could have been attacked and left for dead. It didn't seem right, though; if Voldemort or his forces had attacked and killed the Pettigrews, they would have left a Dark Mark, either on the bridge or under the water.

Without thinking about it, Sirius opened the newspaper he'd just purchased and startled at the headlines. The entire front page was devoted to articles about Godric's Hollow. He skimmed over them briefly. Amazingly, most of the facts about the attack were accurate, although there was not so much as a mention of the promised photographs of the Boy Who Lived. Frowning, he flipped through the entire edition until he discovered a small box on the inside of the back page stating that, in the interests of protecting the child's privacy, the editors decided not to run any photos of Harry Potter. Sirius let out a single bark of cynical laughter; Arthur Weasley had done well.

He missed Little Harry already.

Sirius spent the next four hours riding the thestral to every place he could think of, hunting for Peter. He came from an old family and had lots of relatives, all of whom were apparently joining the rest of wizard society in celebrating Voldemort's demise. He finally caught a distant cousin (who was actually more closely linked to Sirius himself through various pureblood marriages than he was to Wormy) just as she was heading for bed at three AM. Standing in her door in a long purple nightgown, she told Sirius that the extended Pettigrew family had gathered for a celebratory picnic at a beach across the Channel... but oddly, Peter hadn't accompanied his parents and aunt. "I saw his mum," she said, yawning, "and Auntie Bess hit me on the head with a peanut--she's a bit odd, that one--but I'm quite sure Peter wasn't there. Why in Merlin's name do you need to find him at this hour?"

"We, uh, both knew the Potters," said Sirius hesitantly.

"THE Potters?" she said with a gasp. "Good heavens! Is it true about the baby?"

Sirius winced, in no mood to discuss all that he'd seen with a near stranger. He wriggled out of the conversation as quickly as he could, declining her eager invitation to come in for tea; her sleepiness wore off immediately at the prospect of top-rated gossip. As he darted through her garden, the witch reappeared with her candle in the doorway. "You know, I remember one thing!" she called.

Fearing this was just a ruse to lure him back for more prying, he simply turned around and called, "What's that?"

"Aunt Bess did mention that Peter was planning a trip as of last week. She told me the name, but I couldn't quite hear the last part. It was 'Little something...' I suppose that's not much help at all, is it? Does it jog your memory at all?"

Sirius smiled grimly, though he doubted she could see him from that distance. "It just might. Thanks, luv."

Little something. That narrowed it down enough. There were only so many towns of that name in Great Britain. Releasing the thestral with a smart thwack on its rump, he Apparated inside the public library and opened the first encyclopedia he found.

Little Abington. Little Addington. Little Altcar. Sirius had never Apparated so much in one night. There were twenty-two Little B's alone; by the time he reached Little Bytham, he was beginning to wonder if this wasn't such a good idea. These were all Muggle towns and villages, or just rural zones lumped together under the parish name.

Since it was the middle of the night, he could Apparate at will without worrying about being spotted, but once he arrived, he often couldn't find a single Wizard establishment at which he could inquire about Peter. The few taverns he found were generally filled with drunken revelers and surly, footsore barkeeps who had run out of butterbeer hours before. None of them had seen a stranger, none of them knew Peter Pettigrew.

Little Clevelode. Little Dunmow. Little Eaton. He almost skipped Little Easton because the names were so similar and his eyes were blurring with fatigue. The sun rose as he arrived in Little Finborough, slowing him even further as he was forced to hunt for approved Apparation Points or secluded spots. He found a wizard-friendly bakery in the hamlet of Little Gringley with rich, hot coffee that almost made him feel awake again.

He knew as soon as he approached Little Hangleton that this town was different. A hostile ward threw him off course and forced him to rematerialize in the branches of a tree. Cursing under his breath, he scrambled down and checked carefully in every direction, but there didn't seem to be any Muggles about. Keeping a hand on his wand, Sirius sought the source of the offending magic, finding nothing but a very run-down, abandoned shack in the midst of an overgrown thorny hedge that must have been carnivorous at some point in its lifespan. The wards on it were just as dilapidated as the shack itself, more of a nuisance than a danger, but something about the whole scenario raised his hackles. Who would invest in such magic to shield such a worthless old hovel? He was sure there was more to this town than met the eye.

Sirius hacked his way through the thinnest part of the hedge and found a road heading into the valley of Little Hangleton. Like the shack, the village appeared disused and neglected, though there were still some inhabitants; he could see automobiles moving along the main street. Spotting an empty lean-to behind an old stone wall, he Apparated the rest of the way to town and began his search in cautious earnest.

The main road was completely Muggle, and even more haggard-looking up close. Many of the store fronts were boarded up, and the remaining businesses had a seedy, hard look. There were no restaurants or taverns, or shops full of frivolities like ladies' clothing or gifts. He passed a grocery with half-empty shelves and a hardware and repair shop with an ancient forge and anvil right in the center as though time had ignored it. The only place that seemed to be thriving was a carpentry guild, which had a display of caskets in the window.

When Sirius realized that it all felt like some cheesey Muggle movie set, he shrank into the nearest alley and took a deep breath. He knew he was in the right place. Only Voldemort would be so trite as to use a little Muggle town as his personal playground, terrorizing the inhabitants into bare subsistence like an American outlaw in the "Old West." He would find Peter here, he was certain of it, and what's worse, he might just be outnumbered when it happened. Adrenaline rushed through his jangled nerves yet again, though it did not energize him so much as make him realize how exhausted he truly was.

He stayed off the road at that point, slinking from alley to alley when he could, prowling behind buildings and in the shadows. Where would Peter go? There was a run-down manor house on the hillside that also reeked of Voldemort, though Sirius couldn't pinpoint why; there were no magical wards or sigils that gave it away as a wizard's abode. But he was absolutely certain that Peter was either up there, or would return there shortly, and he quickly found a secluded vantage point to watch for him.

He waited less than half an hour.


"Si-Sirius? What--"

"Shut up."

"Siri... help me. I'm in trouble--"

"I said shut UP!"

"What are you going to do?" It was all there in his face, every last admission, except why.

"What would you do, Peter? You tell me."

He took a step backward. "I-I-I'd get to the bottom of things before I did anything rash--"

"Oh, you're at the bottom, all right!" Sirius bellowed so loudly that heads began poking out of windows and doors along the lane. "Don't you DARE try to explain it away. How long, Peter? How long have you sided with HIM?"

"A-A year, Siri. He caught me a year ago, I had no choice, he said he'd--"

"A YEAR?" He hadn't expected that--a month, maybe two at most. The thought that Peter was duplicitous enough to maintain a loyal appearance for a whole year while secretly serving Voldemort was enough to paralyze him with rage. He brought his wand out in the open, not caring how many Muggles were now watching in concerned fascination.


"You've been the spy all along! You gave up Gid and Fabian too, not just James! Did you give him my little brother? Did you?"

"I couldn't stop him! He would have killed us all; I steered him away from the rest of us!"

Sirius had never killed anyone before, and he needed to concentrate. "SHUT UP!" he screamed, steadying his hand.

He never even saw Peter move before the explosion blasted him into the air, hurling him some twenty feet down the street before he smashed into the cobblestones.

Sirius rose clumsily to his feet, his ears ringing painfully from the shock of the blast. He'd struck his head when he landed and couldn't quite remember exactly what he was doing there at first. There was a huge crater in the middle of the street, which helped jog his memory. Ah, yes. Peter. He'd come to kill Peter, and it looked like he'd done a fine job of it.

He didn't remember setting off an explosive spell, though. I must've hit my head pretty hard! He staggered to the rim of the crater, finding Peter's empty robe at the edge. I blasted him right out of his clothes? He started laughing, though it wasn't really funny at all.

The sewer main below the street had cracked open in the explosion, leaving a secondary chasm in the center of the crater. Sunlight glinted off the current of filthy water flowing through the bottom of it. His memory was becoming clearer by the second. He hadn't set off any explosive spell. The Killing Curse had been at the tip of his tongue, but he hadn't...

The last thing he saw before the Aurors pinned him to the ground with at least a dozen restraining spells was a familiar pink tail disappearing into the broken main.

"Harry? Harry, can you hear me?"


"He's awake." There were several sighs of relief. Harry opened his eyes, though they were burning and heavy, like a dollop of some caustic potion had been slapped onto each eyelid.


"Here, drink this." It was Remus's voice. Harry felt the cup against his lips and accepted the contents. Cool, clean water spilled down the inside and outside of his throat, but it felt wonderful. He wondered if he'd had some sort of terrible fever. After he drank, he coughed a few times, clearing his voice and his mind.

"What happened?" Harry finally managed to enunciate.

Lupin shook his head. "Not sure, Harry. Sirius said you came in his room to talk and ended up doing Legilimency with him. But it backfired somehow... he said after he came to, he found you on the other side of the room, still sliding down the wall like you'd been thrown against it. He had no idea how it happened; all he could remember was reliving the worst day of his life."

Harry nodded. "Yeah," he said, still a bit too frazzled for coherence.

A few sips of water later, his head was clearer. "I don't know what that was. Something threw me out of his mind, I've never seen anything like it. It wasn't Occlumency, I don't think. It was more like an orangutan, really," he noted as an afterthought.

Lupin sighed and sat back in his chair, plainly relieved by Harry's recovery. Only then did Harry realize that there were others in the room; Viktor and Tonks were both milling behind Lupin's chair looking concerned. "Where's Sirius?" Harry asked, finding it quite strange that his godfather would be missing when these other friends were obviously so worried.

Lupin smiled warmly. "That's the good news, Harry. He's asleep."

Chapter 28: 28: The Pitch
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"Hey! How'd it go with Bighead Boy?" asked Ron, looking up brightly from a Wizard Chess match against a third-year student.

Harry had nearly forgotten about the errand which he'd originally left Hogwarts to attend. "Oh, he's... fine. Nice new office. Yeah."

Ron ignored the pawn turning his rook into a tiny pile of rubble, while Hermione, sitting at a nearby table before a lengthy parchment, allowed a huge blob of ink fall onto her essay. Ron immediately told his opponent to shove off and yanked Harry into the nearest chair.

It took over an hour to relate all the days' events. When he finished, Hermione leaned into the center of their cluster of chairs and sp