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The Nascent Threat

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There are bars on Harry’s window. They had already been put in place when he arrived, sitting sullen in the back seat of Uncle Vernon’s car during the ride to Privet Drive from King’s Cross. He’d seen them out of the car window, and had not given it much thought at the time, but now, two weeks into his time in solitary confinement he’s not sure he’s ever resented any piece of metal more in his life. He can open his window still, at least, but Hedwig can’t fly out and feed herself, which means that the measly amount of food the Dursleys push through the cat flap on Harry’s door and the water he’s able to carry back in his mouth from his trips to the loo have to be shared with her. He doesn’t resent her, of course; she’s his only companion, locked up as he is. A few other owls have come to his window bearing letters, but unable to land they’ve been forced to return with their mail undelivered. Harry hopes that two weeks with letters coming back unopened will have convinced his friends and Sirius and Remus and whoever else might be writing to him that he’s been murdered and that they should come investigate sooner rather than later. Then again, if the first one hadn’t done the trick he’s not sure what will.

He just wants to know what’s happening. The last word he’d had from the magical world was Sirius’s letter, delivered on the last day of term, and he doesn’t even have the ability to confirm his suspicion that Voldemort’s escape with the Philosopher’s Stone was the cause of his return to the Dursleys. He has no way to ask why they thought this would be any better for him than going to stay in Sirius and Remus’s warded London flat. He has no idea what anyone is doing, if they’re chasing the Stone, if they’re hunting Voldemort, if his friends are safe. Maybe the reason no one is coming for him is that Voldemort has returned in a blaze of glory and burned the magical world to the ground, and everyone he loves is dead. He wakes from nightmares of that exact thing often enough Dudley has already stopped teasing him about crying out in his sleep “like a baby”. Now the Dursleys just glare at him when they let him out to do his chores (inside tasks only; no working in the garden lest he try to run, or something). Harry knows he has terrible bags under his eyes. He’s not sleeping much, and he’s lost a lot of the weight he’d gained at Hogwarts, even just in a few weeks.

It doesn’t matter. None of it matters if something terrible is happening and he’s stuck here. At the beginning, when the Dursleys first started keeping him inside like some sort of prisoner, he thought it was insane; he didn’t see the point. He had had no plans to run away. Where would he have gone? Even if he’d been able to get to London, he doesn’t actually know the address of Sirius and Remus’s flat, and in any case they’d abandoned him back here with the Dursleys, so there’s little chance they’d welcome him. He has no idea where Hermione or Neville live, or Ron, Blaise, or Theo for that matter; Blaise probably lives in Italy and Harry definitely can’t get there. He might have been able to catch the Knight Bus, which Professor Sprout had taught him how to hail last summer, but his wand is locked up in his trunk along with his remaining magical currency, and that’s locked in the cupboard under the stairs. All he has is Hedwig, the single set of good clothing he’d been wearing when Uncle Vernon had picked him up from the train, and a whole pile of broken toys and torn shirts that he’d roughly shoved into the closet of the second bedroom.

But now Harry thinks that if the Dursleys let him out, if they even left him alone in the house by himself, he’d run for it. Even without all of his things, even knowing that he’d be trapped on the streets with nothing. He’s too desperate for news, for fresh air, for anything to save him from the looming restlessness that’s been growing inside him. He hates the Dursleys for making his life so miserable. He’d never felt this way before: he’d never known that he could hate them. He’d never known that there was anything better out there for him, but he knows it now and he knows that if only they were just slightly less horrible, he could get away once more.

No chance of that, though. If anything, they’ve only grown more horrible with time, not less. Harry sighs and rolls over in his bed, where he’d been staring at the ceiling for lack of anything better to do. It’s late afternoon and he’s already finished doing the laundry and washing the dishes from breakfast and lunch, his chores for the day. Uncle Vernon should be arriving home shortly, Dudley is out with his gang, and Aunt Petunia is out in the garden weeding. That used to be his job, not because Aunt Petunia is bad at it or anything, just because she’d avoid it if she could because it was dirty.

There’s a murmur of voices outside, audible through his open window: a man’s, then another man’s. They sound vaguely familiar, but Harry reckons it’s just the neighbours. Too quiet for him to tell what they’re saying, so he ignores it.

Then he hears Aunt Petunia say loudly, “Excuse me, please don’t tread on the grass, sir!”

“So sorry,” someone replies, sounding deeply insincere. Harry bolts upright. That’s Sirius’s voice. “Petunia Dursley, yes? I’m here to collect my godson.”

“Wh—oh, no,” Aunt Petunia says. “You’re one of that sort.”

Harry flings himself out of bed and races over to the window. It’s already open as wide as it goes, and he leans out of it to press himself against the bars so that he can see what’s going on. Sirius and another man who Harry doesn’t recognize are standing on the lawn. The other man, a broad, dark-skinned fellow with a bald head and a colourful African-style overcoat, has a wand held subtly in his hand, tucked against his wrist so that if a neighbour were to peer over the hedge they wouldn’t be able to see it easily. Aunt Petunia can clearly see it, though, and though Harry’s looking at the back of her head, he can imagine the glare on her face.

“Sirius!” Harry shouts, and Sirius looks up at him.

Even from this distance, Sirius looks tense, but his face brightens when he sees Harry—then darkens again when he realizes that Harry is waving at him through bars. He looks back at Aunt Petunia and says something too quietly for Harry to say, though obviously through gritted teeth. She flinches.

“I think we had best take this inside,” the other man says, gesturing toward the house. His voice is deep and resonant. “Come along, Mrs. Dursley, we’re not here to make trouble.”

Sirius mutters something that causes the other man to give him a severe look, and then the three adults go inside, out of Harry’s line of sight. He goes over to the door of his room and presses his ear against it, waiting until he hears the sound of someone coming up the stairs to back up.

A moment later, he hears the tremendous rattle of all of the locks on his door coming undone at once. It swings open to reveal Sirius, who looks furious. But he opens his arms without hesitation, and Harry flings himself at him, letting Sirius gather him into a close hug. They stand there for what feels like a long time before Sirius speaks.

“Oh, Harry,” Sirius says into Harry’s hair. “I’m so sorry. I came as soon as I could—those bars must be why my letters weren’t getting to you.”

“Yeah,” Harry says, his voice muffled in Sirius’s chest. “The owls kept having to fly away. I’m so glad you’re here. I thought something awful had happened when no one came.”

“I’m so, so sorry,” Sirius says again and clutches Harry tighter. “I can only imagine. Listen, I promise there’s an explanation but I can’t give it to you right now; this isn’t the place. Come downstairs with me, we’ll get your things, then Kingsley and I will take you back to London—you’re done here. You’re never coming back to this damned place, okay?”

“Okay,” Harry says, relieved. He glances around the room, then grabs his bundle of clothes and Hedwig’s cage. She’s sleeping, but wakes when she’s jostled and looks as thrilled as an owl can look to be taken out of the room. Sirius leads the way back down the stairs, and when Harry points at the cupboard under the stairs, Sirius unlocks that too with a wave of his wand and helps Harry haul his trunk and his rucksack out.

The fury returns to his face when he sees the stained mattress on the floor, and Harry’s old childish drawings on the walls.

“Harry…” he says, looking over at Harry, but when Harry looks away he leaves it. For the moment, anyway; Harry’s sure he’s in for an interrogation later.

Sirius leaves Harry’s trunk in the hall for the moment and goes into the living room. He motions for Harry to stay put, but Harry creeps to the edge of the hall so that he can listen.

“Alright, Kingsley,” Sirius says as he walks into the room. “I’ve got him and his things. You’ll want to take a look into the cupboard yourself before we go, for Pensieve testimony.”

“Well, Mrs. Dursley,” Kingsley says. He sounds very calm. Sirius had not. “I’m sorry to say that you have not seen the last of me. I appreciate your… cooperation, but I do believe I will have some follow-up questions.”

Harry hears someone get up off the couch. “You’re not welcome here,” Aunt Petunia says a moment later, so it was probably her who’d been sitting. “Get out. And take the boy with you; good riddance.”

“I’ll be happy to,” Sirius says. “And I’m sure you’ll be happy to know that you have seen the last of me. Because if I ever have to look at you again, you hateful bitch, I’m going to kill you for what you’ve done to my godson.”

“Sirius,” Kingsley says in a warning tone. “We’re leaving now, Mrs. Dursley. I’ll be back in a week or so, I expect.”

“Get out,” Aunt Petunia says. Harry steps back from the door, enough so that it looks like he probably wasn’t eavesdropping, and a moment later Sirius and Kingsley come through the doorway. Sirius gives him a knowing look, but doesn’t say anything.

“Let’s go, pup,” Sirius says, wrapping an arm around Harry’s shoulders. “I’m sure you’re well ready to be quit of this place.”

“Yeah,” Harry says, burrowing close to Sirius’s side. Sirius grabs the handle of Harry’s trunk as they walk past. Behind them, Harry hears Kingsley pause at the open door of the cupboard, then a rattle as a soft hoot as he picks up Hedwig’s cage and comes along after them.

“We’ll be Apparating back to London,” Sirius tells Harry once they’re outside. “We just need to walk to the park down the road; there’s a corner there hidden by a hedge where we won’t be seen vanishing.”

“Okay,” Harry says, and a moment later realizes the problem with that plan.

Before he has time to tell Sirius, however, a voice shouts from up the block, “Oi, freak! Where’re you going?”

Sure enough, Dudley and his small gang of friends are walking toward them from the direction of the park. Dudley has a sneer on his face.

Sirius seems about to say something, but Harry steps out from under his arm and calls back, “I’m leaving, Dudders. Isn’t that obvious? Or do you need me to put it into smaller words?”

“Hey!” Dudley shouts, and rushes forward. Harry steps back into Sirius’s space, and sure enough, the sight of the tall adult looming over Harry’s shoulder is enough to bring his cousin up short. “You can’t leave, my dad says so.”

“Your dad doesn’t get to tell me what to do any more,” Harry says. “And you can tell him that. So long, Dudley. Have fun at Smeltings. I hope someone uses their Smeltings Stick to smack some sense into you one of these days; you need it.”

Then Harry turns to look up at Sirius and says, “Can we go?”

“Yes, Harry,” Sirius says, sounding amused. “Come on.”

His posh accent makes Dudley look a little dumbfounded, especially alongside the tidy muggle suit he’s wearing and his aristocratic features. He looks like someone who’s better than anyone in this neighbourhood, better than Dudley had probably ever imagined Harry could associate with. He wraps his arm around Harry once more and sweeps him away down the block, leaving Dudley and his friends behind. Kingsley catches up with them and smiles down at Harry.

“I take it your relationship with your cousin was less than amicable?” Kingsley asks.

“Yeah, I guess,” Harry says. “He and his friends used to play ‘Harry Hunting’ when we were in primary together. They’d chase me and beat me up if I got caught.”

Sirius is tense against Harry’s side, but Kingsley looks relaxed, and his voice is still calm when he asks, “And he called you names?”

Harry shrugs. “Yeah.” There’s no point in hiding it now, even though he doesn’t want Sirius to hear this.

“Did your aunt and uncle ever call you names?”

Harry narrows his eyes at Kingsley. “Why are you asking me these questions?”

“I’m an Auror,” Kingsley says. “A magical policeman, in case you didn’t know. I don’t usually work child abuse cases, but I’m a friend of your godfather’s and he asked me to come along and see what I thought of your situation. I’ll admit, neither of us expected it to be so… obvious.”

“Does it matter?” Harry asks.

Kingsley gives him a surprised look. “Of course it matters, Mr. Potter.”

“But it’s not like they’re going to stop being my guardians,” Harry says. “Knowing that they’re not nice to me doesn’t mean that I have anywhere else to go all of a sudden.”

“You’ll come live with me and Remus,” Sirius says, his voice rough. They’ve arrived in the park by now, and Sirius pulls him over into the secluded corner he was talking about and then stops, kneeling down so that he can look into Harry’s eyes. “All the reasons I had before, they don’t matter enough to be worth you needing to come back here ever again. I’ll do what I need to do make sure you can stay with me from now on—even if I have to duel Dumbledore for the right.”

“That’s probably more than is necessary,” Kingsley says, sounding amused. “Come, Sirius. We should get back to London.”

“Right,” Sirius says. “We’ll talk about this more once we’re home, Harry. Now, come on, hold tight.”

“Okay,” Harry says quietly, his head spinning. Then it’s spinning more literally as Sirius Apparates away from Privet Drive. An intense few seconds later, Harry is stumbling, out of breath, as their feet touch down on concrete. They’ve reappeared in an alleyway, slightly dingy, and a second later Kingsley appears with a loud crack beside them, holding Hedwig’s cage. It’s empty, and Harry panics for a moment, but Kingsley sees his expression and reassures him that he’d released her and told her their destination; she’d catch up with them on the wing.

Sirius leads them out of the alleyway, and Harry realizes they’ve come out a few blocks away from the flat. As they walk, Sirius explains quietly that they’d expanded their wards to include their balcony as a security measure, so it no longer functioned as an Apparition Point and they had to use a nearby one, one of the engineered CCTV blindspots, carefully warded from muggle attention, that exist in London thanks to the Ministry of Magic. Fortunately there is one in Sirius and Remus’s neighbourhood, and they’ll just have to put up with the walk from now on.

Other than that brief explanation, they’re silent until they reach the flat. Sirius unlocks the door and ushers Harry through, and he comes into the den to find Remus sitting on the couch, perched on the edge of the cushions. He jumps up when Harry walks in and immediately sweeps him into a hug, then lets him go and holds him at arm’s length to inspect him, drawing in a deep breath.

“Welcome home,” he says to Harry, once he’s given him a long look.

“Thanks,” Harry says, and is embarrassed to hear that his voice his choked up. He clears his throat, trying to duck his head, and Remus spares him by pulling him in close once more. Harry can hear Sirius and Kingsley moving his things down the hall into the guest room—maybe his room now—but he takes a moment just to enjoy Remus’s strong hug. When they return, Remus lets him go and they sit down on the couch together. Sirius flops into his ugly floral armchair, and Kingsley remains standing.

“I should get back to the Ministry,” Kingsley says, looking down at them all. “And I suspect you three have some things to discuss. Mr. Potter, it was a pleasure to meet you. I hope to see you again soon.”

“Nice to meet you too,” Harry murmurs, and Sirius and Remus bid Kingsley goodbye before he lets himself out.

The moment the door clicks shut behind the Auror, Sirius lets out an explosive breath and slumps backward into the armchair.

“That was much worse than I was expecting,” he says, and then sits up again to look at Harry. “Harry, I am so sorry. I can’t say it enough.”

“It’s alright,” Harry says, shrinking back into the couch a little under the look Remus levels on him. “It wasn’t so bad.”

“There were bars on your window,” Sirius says flatly. “And a cat flap on your door. Not the mention the dozen locks, the fact that your things were being kept from you in a locked cupboard, and that it looked not a little like you used to sleep in that cupboard. Would you care to explain any of that?”

Harry looks away, uncomfortable. “It was fine,” he tries to say, but Sirius interrupts before he can get any further.

“It was not fine!” he shouts, and when Harry flinches he immediately says, “Sorry, sorry. It’s not you I’m angry at, Harry.”

“I know,” Harry mutters.

Sirius sighs. “Harry… why didn’t you tell us earlier? Things were messy at the end of term, but we thought you’d be safe there. Safer, anyway. If we’d had any idea, we’d have made sure you never went back.”

“I thought Dumbledore was in charge of where I stayed,” Harry says. “And it really wasn’t that bad. They don’t hit me or anything; I’m not abused.”

“I’m not so sure you aren’t,” Remus says quietly. “You needn’t be slapped around to be abused. Verbal and emotional abuse, and neglect, are forms of child abuse as well, Harry.”

“I’m not stupid,” Harry says. “I know that. I just… it really wasn’t so bad. I didn’t want anyone to worry.”

Remus and Sirius exchange a look. “We worried anyway,” Sirius says bluntly. “I’m sorry I came even as late as I did. When the first owl returned unanswered… I started getting nervous then, but I thought you might just be angry at me for breaking my promise. I gave it a few days and sent another—when Ajax came back again, with the letter even unopened, I knew something was wrong. That was only yesterday, Harry, I swear.”

“I’ll need to send Hedwig to my friends with letters,” Harry says, looking at his knees. “You weren’t the only one whose mail I couldn’t answer.”

“Okay,” Sirius says. “Okay, Harry. Listen, I… I know you probably don’t want to talk about this, and we don’t have to, not right now. There’s a lot going on, and I’m sure you’d like to get settled in.”

“Yeah,” Harry says. He looks up to see that Sirius has a frown on his face, but he can’t tell if it’s hurt or sadness or anger or what it is that his godfather is feeling, just that he’s upset. “Can I go to my room?”

“Of course,” Sirius says, and when Harry gets up off the couch and walks past the armchair on his way toward he catches Harry’s wrist and tugs him briefly into a hug. “I’ll call you for dinner if you haven’t come out yet, okay?”

“Sure,” says Harry, and hugs Sirius back, then makes his way to his room to flop on the bed and try not to think about anything at all.


As soon as he hears the sound of Harry’s door clicking shut, Sirius scrubs his hands vigorously over his face and groans. “Was I ever like that about my mum?” he asks into his hands.

“Yes,” Remus says, apologetic. “Worse, really. You were never in denial that you hated her but you’d just call her a bitch and then act like the fact that you didn’t like her was enough justice in return for her abuse.”

“Ugh,” Sirius says. “Moony, they kept him in a fucking cupboard.”

“I know,” Remus says softly, and gets up from the couch. He comes over to sit on the arm of Sirius’s armchair and pulls his hands away, then looks down into his face with compassionate eyes. “It’ll be alright, Sirius. He’s safe now, and he’s happy to be here.”

“Of course he is. Compared to that… that room they had him locked in, I’m sure he’d be happy just about anywhere. We could live in a dirty cave and eat rats and he’d still want to come live with us.”

“Because he trusts you to provide a good life for him.” Remus reaches out to smooth down Sirius’s hair and cups the back of his skull, soothing. “Harry loves you, and he needs you to be there for him right now. I remember when Charlus and Dorea first got you out of Grimmauld. You struggled too; a lot changed very quickly. None of us begrudged your needing support then, in whatever form you needed it. And none of us begrudged the fact that at first you just weren’t ready for the comfort that we wanted to give you.”

“I don’t begrudge him,” Sirius says quickly. “I know he needs me. I’m going to be there for him, however he wants.”

“I know,” Remus says. “And I’m sure you remember that sometimes what you needed was for us to wait. We had to let you come to us. You spoke up when you were ready, and then we could heal the wounds she left on your spirit. It’ll be the same with Harry, I imagine.”

“He’s more… contained than I was.”

“He’ll open up eventually,” Remus says, and strokes Sirius’s hair again. “And if not, well, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”

“Okay,” Sirius says, and cranes his face up. Remus gives him the soft kiss he’s asking for and then gets up and heads for the kitchen.

“I’m going to make tea,” Remus says. “If he comes out and wants some, all the better; if not, just for us.”

Sirius makes an agreeable noise and slumps down into his armchair. He’s not sure what he was expecting from today’s excursion to collect his godson from the Dursleys, but it was not what he found. He’d worried when the letters returned unopened that Harry might be injured or sick, in a muggle hospital somewhere. He’d had some suspicion, too, that it might have been Harry’s aunt or uncle that put him there. Harry had always been cagey in talking about his home life, but the details he’d let slip… well, at first Sirius hadn’t entirely noticed, because Harry hadn’t spoken out openly about disliking his family. But Harry is not like Sirius; he holds things close to his chest, doesn’t entirely trust enough to be open, not just yet. No matter what Remus says, Sirius knows that if Harry trusted him fully, he’d have told them about the Dursleys.

Now it’s all a muddle. Certainly Sirius had always been planning to take Harry for the summer, but having seen what he did today, there’s absolutely no way in any hell that might exist that he is ever letting Harry go back to that house. Tidy and uniform on the outside, Number 4 Privet Drive had hidden a deep rot, and he refuses to allow his godson to be exposed any further to the hatred that was festering there. Forcing a magical child, especially one with Harry’s power and pride, to live in a place like that was asking for him to turn to black magic and cruelty. Sirius would know: he’d probably have done it himself, from desperation if nothing else, if he hadn’t had the safe haven offered by James’s parents and later, his Uncle Alphard. All he wants is to offer Harry that same safe haven, but…

It’s going to be a fucking mess. He knows that already. But he also already knows that he’s going to do anything he can to keep Harry safe, to give him the best life he can. That’s all he can do.

Remus comes back into the living room with a tea tray and sits down on the couch, leaning over to press a mug into Sirius’s hands, fixed black with one sugar, just the way he likes it.

“Alright there?” Remus asks.

Sirius sips the tea, wincing when it burns his mouth, then says, “Yes, I’m fine. Just worried about the pup.”

“He’ll be okay, Sirius. Give him time.”

Sirius nods. He can do that. They have all summer now. In the next few days, he and Harry are definitely going to have to have a talk about what’s going to happen now, but it doesn’t have to happen this afternoon and they’ll have most of the next two months to work out what all of the consequences of their decisions are going to be and deal with them. So he sips his tea again and waits.

Harry emerges that evening for dinner, subdued but not upset at least as far as Sirius can tell. He doesn’t talk much over the meal, but he smiles when Sirius mentions maybe going to the park tomorrow and he tells Remus in a quiet voice about what his homework assignments are for the summer when he’s asked. He has two helpings of the curry that Sirius has made, helps with the dishes, and then asks politely to be excused so that he can write to his friends and let them know that he’s okay. Sirius lets him go, and some time later sees out the glass balcony door the white shape of Hedwig winging away into the night, bearing a set of letters clutched in her talons.

The next day Sirius and Harry go to the park as promised; Remus goes to work. They have a quiet evening. Before bedtime, Sirius tells Harry that they need to have a conversation tomorrow about what the summer is going to look like, and Harry gives him a serious look and a nod, then slips off silently to his room to crawl in bed with a novel that he’d borrowed from Remus.

In the morning, Harry shows up at breakfast with a grim expression on his face. Remus is already gone, working the early shift, and Sirius sighs and sets the plate of toast and eggs that he’s holding on the table in front of Harry.

“Eat first,” he says. “It’ll be alright, Harry.”

“‘Kay,” Harry says, and tucks into his breakfast. He scarfs the food and puts his plate away in the sink, then comes to Sirius with an expectant look.

Sirius waves him into the living room and sits down with him on the couch. “Harry,” he begins, but is almost immediately cut off.

“Are we going to talk about Voldemort?” Harry asks bluntly.

“Uh,” Sirius says, caught off guard. “How did you—yes, that’s definitely on the list. How did you know?”

“Me and Neville and Ron and Hermione knew he was after the Stone last year,” Harry says. “And we knew something had happened when all the teachers were looking so grim in the last few days of term, and Quirrell vanished. Hermione didn’t think it was because he’d gotten away with it, but I did, and when you sent that letter I was pretty sure. He’s coming back, isn’t he?”

Sirius takes a long, slow breath. This isn’t how he’d hoped to broach the subject, but if Harry already knows, there’s no point in keeping things from him. Not that he’d really be planning on keeping secrets, but he’d wanted to be slightly less blunt. “We think so,” Sirius says. “We don’t entirely know what his plans are or how he’s going to go about it—there’s a lot of Dark magic that could potentially bring Voldemort back, especially with the Philosopher’s Stone available to him, and we’re not sure which route he’s going to choose or how long it will take.”

“Okay,” Harry says. “So… what are you going to do about it?”

“Right now we have to wait,” Sirius says, scowling. “Dumbledore has been reaching out to old friends from the war, bringing people together again. We’re going to start hunting for information, especially on the Death Eaters that got away without being caught. Some of them have been sighted here and there over the years; others not, but we’re looking into it to see if anything has been missed.”

“Why did you have to send me back to the Dursleys?”

“Security,” Sirius says. “It sounds callous, I know, and I’m so sorry. We thought though that you’d be safer in the muggle world, since no one knows exactly who your family is, and it was safer for both you and us if no one knew that you were staying with us.”

Harry’s quiet for a moment, thinking that over, then says, “That makes sense, I s’pose.”

“It won’t happen again,” Sirius promises. “We’ll find some other way to keep your location secret so that you’re safe, without sending you back there.”

“Okay.”

“In any case: you’re here now. You’ll probably see me coming and going, and I’m going to be digging into my family’s library to see if there’s anything there to help us figure out what Voldemort’s plan might be so that we can try to stop him. You’ll meet other members of the Order of the Phoenix—that’s the group Dumbledore ran in the last war, sort of the resistance—too, as people start getting together again. And…” Sirius hesitates a moment, then he sighs. “This is a lot to put on you, Harry, because you’re young and I’m going to do my very best to keep you out of danger, but if you’d like I want to start teaching you some ways to defend yourself, better than what you’d get at Hogwarts.”

“Oh,” Harry says, blinking at him. “Like… spells?”

“Some spells. Some other things, too. As I said: I’m going to keep you safe as best I can. However, it’s always possible that something might happen to me or you might end up in a situation where I’m unable to help you, and I want you to be as prepared as possible.”

Sirius watches as Harry frowns, looking down at his hands. It is a lot to put on an almost-twelve-year-old boy, but he refuses to let Harry go into the world unready for whatever the coming days will throw at him. There’s a faint hope that if they can figure out what Voldemort is planning for his resurrection, they’ll be able to stop him, but they have to do a lot of research and then find the bastard first, and that’ll take some doing. Meanwhile, Voldemort is sure to begin rallying his followers as he prepares for his return, and Sirius wouldn’t put it past them to target kids like Harry, who are likely to grow up to be threats, while they’re still vulnerable.

“Okay,” Harry says. “I’ll learn. I want to be able to look after myself.”

“Figured you would,” Sirius says. “We’ll figure out lesson plans and… whatnot with Remus when he’s home this evening—he’s much better at that sort of thing than me. I’m hoping of course that you won’t need it. Maybe we’ll stop the snakey bastard before he can get ahead, and it’ll all be unnecessary, but—”

“I want to be ready,” Harry says, resolute. “Just in case.”

“You’re very brave,” Sirius says, and reaches out to ruffle Harry’s hair. “Maybe you should’ve been in Gryffindor after all.”

“I’ll do whatever it takes to protect myself and my friends, and I don’t want to depend on anyone else for that,” Harry says. “I think that’s still pretty Slytherin.”

“True enough,” Sirius says. “Alright. Speaking of Slytherin, there was another thing.”

Harry gives him a tired look, weary beyond his years. It’s both funny and sad, to see an old man looking at him out of this child’s eyes already. “Is it going to be politics?”

“How did you guess?” Sirius says, and laughs when Harry groans dramatically. “I know, I know, you hate it. You mentioned that enough times in your letters last year.”

“At least now there’s a reason for it,” Harry mutters. “Alright, tell me.”

“Slytherin is going to be… a minefield for you next year,” Sirius says. “I don’t know the names of all of the kids in the House, of course, but even just of those you’ve mentioned there are a lot with Death Eater parents, and some of those parents might know that Voldemort is returning and tell their kids. You’ll have to decide for yourself how you want to play it with them, because you’ll be the one to have to keep it up, but I can help you strategize and if you give me names I can let you know whether or not they’re probably… safe, I guess.”

“I can’t really avoid them,” Harry says.

Sirius shakes his head immediately. “That’s not what I mean. It’s more… some of those kids, you won’t be able to tell them anything. You’ll have to be twice as careful. Three times as careful. Others might be valuable allies. One of the things I want to help you learn this summer is how to judge that, at least a little; another is how to do things like ward your bed and your things, just in case.”

“Do you want me to tell you what they’re up to?”

“Only if you want,” Sirius says. “I’m not going to make you a spy, and Hogwarts is safe with Dumbledore there; Voldemort won’t be able to reach within the walls of the school. It’s more for your own safety, because as time goes on, some of your Housemates—and, don’t get me wrong here, some kids in other Houses too—will become your opposition. I hope to all the small gods that this war will end well before any of you need become involved, but as I’ve said already, I want to be sure.”

“Alright,” Harry says, nodding firmly. “I’ll play it safe. I’ve got some idea already of who’s going to be, uh, a problem.”

“I’m sure you do,” Sirius says. “The other thing is… I’d like you to give some thought this summer as to whether or not you want to take up the seat of Black Heir.”

Harry looks surprised. “I thought you wanted me to wait to decide.”

“I do,” Sirius says, “but I suspect I’m not going to get what I want in a lot of things for the next while. Having that status would grant you some advantages among your peers, at least the purebloods and halfbloods who care about that sort of thing. It’ll also have disadvantages, namely that you’ll be blatantly declaring that you’re my heir and therefore almost certainly aligned with my politics, which are… not those of Voldemort and his supporters, to say the least. So it’ll come with a shield and a target on you. We can talk about it more, I just wanted you to know that I hope you’ll consider it.”

Harry nods and takes a deep breath. “I’ll think about it.”

“Good. Now, c’mere.” Sirius grabs Harry close in a hug, and when Harry’s arms wrap tightly around him in return he bends his face to sigh into his pup’s dark, messy hair. “We’re going to be okay. I promise.”

“… I love you, Sirius.”

Sirius squeezes Harry tighter. He’s said that before, but to hear it now of all times, with this dark conversation looming over them, the shadow of war cast over their future… it’s a nightmare and a reassurance. “I love you too, Harry.”

Chapter Text

Sirius gives Harry some time to settle in and get used to living in the flat in London before he feels okay about going back to his regular business. There’s plenty to do, of course, but it can all wait a few days while his pup adjusts. He wants to be available if Harry needs anything or has any questions. Harry first takes two or three days first to think everything over in quiet moments, and Sirius catches him often staring out the balcony door or sitting curled up on the couch, a book open on his lap but none of the pages turned in long minutes. Harry writes letters to his friends, too; Sirius sees Hedwig return partway through the week and Harry reads the three letters she brings with her and pens replies and sends her off again. When Sirius asks who’s writing to him, he learns that it is unsurprisingly Hermione Granger and Neville Longbottom, and very surprisingly Blaise Zabini.

“I hadn’t realized you were such close friends with him,” Sirius says carefully when Harry tells him that.

Harry shrugs. “I don’t know about friends. But I… I upset him at the end of last year with something I said, and he tried to send me a letter at the Dursleys. I figured I should apologize and find out what he wanted.”

“Alright, kid,” Sirius says, ruffles Harry’s hair, and leaves him to it.

As the week drags on, Harry does come to Sirius with some questions. First, about what’s going to happen with the Dursleys. Sirius has an inkling of a plan, but how it goes will depend on whether or not Harry takes up the heirship of the House of Black. Harry nods solemnly when Sirius tells him that and says that he’ll try to decide soon. Sirius does his best to reassure him that no matter what happens, Harry is not going back to the Dursleys; Harry seems only half-convinced by the conviction in Sirius’s voice. His follow-up questions then are all about being Black Heir, what sort of things he’ll need to know and do, how they go about declaring it. Sirius explains the process as best he can, but it’s complicated and it’ll all take time, and some of it can happen after Harry actually becomes Heir, if that’s what he decides to do. This Harry seems more reassured by, that he’ll have time to figure it out, and at the end of the week he comes to Sirius and hugs him and says that he’ll be his Heir.

“Oh, pup,” Sirius says, and gets up out of his armchair to hug him tight. It’s evening on Sunday and Remus is there too, sitting on the couch with a newspaper. “Are you sure? You can take longer to decide.”

Harry shrugs. “I don’t think I’ll change my mind if I wait longer,” he says. “It’ll make things easier, right? For you, dealing with the Dursleys and stuff, and for me with the Slytherins.”

“Yes,” Sirius admits. “It probably will. But a lot of people will be looking at you after we do this.”

“That’s okay,” Harry says. “It can’t be worse than what Neville has to deal with; he’s told me a bit about being the Boy-Who-Lived. From what he’s said, it sounds like it’s pretty rubbish most of the time, not that he said it like that.”

“It probably is,” Remus says from the couch, humour in his voice. “He grew up with a lot of eyes on him.”

“I don’t know how he feels about it,” Harry says, “but I know that I wouldn’t like it very much. But being Black Heir… that won’t be as bad, and then I can help you, Sirius.”

“It’ll be different, at least,” Sirius says. “I’ll help you as much as I can. And you can write to some of your friends—young Mr. Zabini will know a thing or two, although his family doesn’t hold one of the hereditary seats, and Neville is Heir to the Longbottom seat.”

“Okay,” Harry says. “I’ll definitely do that. When will we start?”

“Soon,” Sirius promises. “Not right away—I’ll need to give some thought to what order I want to teach you these things in. The truth is, you know the magical world very differently than I did when I was your age; there are more things you don’t know, but you’ve also had a… broader upbringing in some ways. You’ll just have to ask if you ever get confused.”

“I will,” Harry says. “Can I go write to Neville now?”

“Sure thing, kiddo,” Sirius says. “Maybe tell him not to let his grandmother know just yet what we’re planning. We’ll have to make a strategy for announcing your new Heirship; it could be fun to have it be a surprise to all those stuffy windbags.”

“Sure.” Harry smiles and hugs Sirius again, then darts off to his room, presumably to do as he’s said. Sirius sits back down in his armchair and looks over at Remus, who’s watching him with a soft look.

“He’s a good kid,” Sirius says helplessly.

“He is,” Remus agrees. “I have every faith in your ability to teach him what he needs to know, Sirius. Come on, let’s make lesson plans.”

They do just that over the course of the next week or so, running things by Harry as they go to make sure that he’ll have at least some idea of what they’re going to be talking about, and when he’s totally confused Sirius makes notes and tries to figure out where the best place to start might be. (“Ritual? What sort of ritual?” Harry asks. “Bloody hell,” Sirius mutters, and makes a note on the parchment that they’ll need to have a comprehensive lesson on bloodline ritual magic before they actually get to that step.)

On the tenth of July, an even two weeks after Sirius collected Harry from the Dursleys, Sirius’s planning is interrupted by an two owls. The first is from Dumbledore, who requests that Sirius come to Hogwarts for a meeting sometime in the next few days. Sirius has not told Dumbledore anything about his plans with Harry beyond the date of his retrieval, and knows that it can’t be about that; he has to assume it’s about Voldemort and sighs and writes back proposing that they meet the following day. Better get it over with.

The second owl is from Kingsley Shacklebolt, informing Sirius that he’d returned to Privet Drive to collect further evidence of the Dursleys’ abuse of Harry. He promises to hold it in very secure and private trust until such a time as Sirius has decided what he’s going to do about the situation. Sirius can read in the letter the unspoken promise that if Sirius decides not to do anything for any reason other than Harry insisting that it be so, Kingsley will be going after a pound of flesh personally. It’s gratifying, really. He always knew Kingsley was a good sort.

It’s also, however, an uncomfortable reminder that Sirius is going to need to sit Harry down and discuss that particular tangle as well. He’ll respect Harry’s wishes, but he honestly has no clue what they might be. Tonight, he resolves. No point in putting it off, especially since they might need to do something before Harry takes the Heirship.

And, indeed, after dinner that night Sirius quietly broaches the topic with Harry, sitting him down at the dining table and saying, “Harry, we’ll need to talk about the Dursleys.”

Harry swallows. Then he says, “Right.”

“I know it’s not a very welcome topic—”

“It’s alright.”

“Alright.” Sirius clears his throat awkwardly. “What happens with them will depend on what you want.”

“I never want to see them again,” Harry says in a quiet voice. “I don’t care what happens to them. I just don’t ever want to have to go back.”

“That I can do,” Sirius says. “If it’s alright, Harry, I’m going to sue openly for custody of you. There might be some issues—Remus, and all—but I have a meeting with Dumbledore tomorrow and I’m hoping that he’ll agree to cede guardianship. With that, the fact that you’re going to be my Heir, and the evidence of abuse, it should be easy to convince the Wizengamot.”

“That sounds good,” Harry says. “Do… do we have to tell them I was abused?”

“It would make the case stronger,” Sirius says quietly. “But if you’d rather not…”

“I’d really rather not.”

“Alright. We’ll keep it in our back pockets for an emergency, then. But how’s this: I was thinking that we might do it all in one fell swoop, as it were. The Wizengamot sessions fall on the new moons, as well as on the summer and winter solstices; there’ll be one on July 29th.” Sirius had skipped the last one, giving his proxy to Lady Urquart. He’d been more concerned about Harry, newly arrived at the London flat, than about spending several hours in a stuffy room listening to morons spew bigoted rhetoric or argue about inconsequential bullshit. “We could go to the session together, announce my suit for custody and our intention for you to take up the Heirship together. And you could get a look at the Wizengamot. Then, on your birthday, we can complete the ritual to make you my heir by magic as well as by law.”

“That sounds good,” Harry says, nodding. “Will I need to do anything at the Wizengamot?”

“They might want you to speak,” Sirius says. “We’ll prepare you for anything ahead of time, though; it’s some weeks away. Also, uh, manners and bowing and whose hand to shake and such.”

“Politics?”

“Politics,” Sirius agrees wryly. “Easier than some of the other kinds, though.”

Harry nods again. “Is that all, then?”

Sirius gives him a look, gauges his mood, then says, “Yes. But, Harry, listen. I’m not going to force you to talk about the Dursleys, the things that happened to you there or how you feel about it, but it might be good for you. If you ever want to tell me anything, you can.”

Harry shifts uncomfortably in his seat, but he says, “Okay, Sirius.”

“Off you go, kid.”

Harry’s off like a shot, and Sirius looks down at the table and sighs. He’s not sure he’s much good at this parenting thing, but he’s all the more glad now that he’d not tried to raise Harry ten years ago. He’d have been absolute rubbish at it back then.

The next day, Sirius makes sure Harry is happily ensconced in the apartment with everything he needs for a few hours (including materials for a sandwich if he gets hungry; Harry had sighed and promised he knew how to feed himself) and then walks to the Apparition point and pops off to Hogsmeade. Dumbledore had offered to open his Floo briefly, but Sirius had decided not to risk missing the window or having some other issue with the wards occur and lead to his bruising his nose on the barrier; he’d asked for the gargoyle password instead, and written that he’d walk up. It’s not like it’s a bad walk, anyway, and in mid-July the weather is quite nice. Summer robes in maroon linen are enough to keep him cool and comfortable, and he makes the meandering trek up to the castle from the village slowly, enjoying the birdsong and the distant splashing of the squid in the Black Lake. There’s a faint trail of smoke coming from the chimney of Hagrid’s hut in the distance, and Hogwarts as always is a grey bastion, looming over the Forbidden Forest, Hogsmeade village, and the lake alike. It really is quite majestic; it’s a shame that he hasn’t been back often since his graduation, except for a few times during the war.

The entrance to Dumbledore’s office is guarded by its gargoyle, leaving Sirius slightly stymied. He’d asked for the password, but Dumbledore hadn’t actually replied, which really only occurs to him now. “Er,” he says to it. “Cockroach clusters?”

The gargoyle rolls its eyes at him, which seems it should be impossible given its lack of actual eyeballs, and proffers from somewhere a piece of parchment. Sirius takes it, and reads out loud, “Cinnamon hearts.”

The gargoyle steps neatly aside in response, and Sirius rides the rotating staircase up to Dumbledore’s office. The door swings open at his knock, and he’s greeted by the sight of Dumbledore sitting at his desk browsing some sort of massive tome. The book has a magical presence that dwarfs that of several of the other artifacts in the room, and Sirius steps closer, intrigued.

“Ah, Sirius. Good morning,” Dumbledore says, looking up and smiling. His eyes glitter behind his half-moon frames. “Please, take a seat. Tea?”

“No thank you, Headmaster,” Sirius says, sweeping his robes flat beneath him as he sits on one of the plush armchairs Dumbledore keeps for guests. “Good morning to you, too.”

“Indeed it has been!” Dumbledore says. He pushes the book aside without closing it and leans in slightly. “Thank you for requesting to meet so promptly. I would have been fine to wait.”

Sirius shrugs. “I knew if it was Order business you’d have said as much, so probably not urgent, but I didn’t see much point in putting it off. Plus, well, you know me and my curiosity.”

“Like a dog with a bone when you get a question between your teeth,” Dumbledore agrees, and they share a chuckle. “How is young Harry settling in at the Doghouse?”

“Well,” Sirius says proudly. “He’s a bright kid, very adaptable. Also very full of questions; maybe he should have ended up in Ravenclaw!”

“Good to hear that young minds are being nurtured even outside of school. What has he been asking about?”

Sirius shrugs. “Oh, everything. My job as Lord Black, the magical world at large, London, really anything that comes to mind.””

“I see,” Dumbledore says, and then his expression goes serious. “Have you spoken with him about the current situation?”

“With Voldemort, you mean?” When Dumbledore nods, Sirius continues, “Yes. I know your feelings about involving the kids in the war, and I share them, but… I think they’re going to get dragged in one way or another, and I’d like for him to be prepared. Especially what with his running around with Neville Longbottom half the time, and Theodore Nott Jr. the other half.”

“Harry’s situation is precarious,” Dumbledore agrees. “You intend to tutor him in politics, then?”

“Yes. And self-defence, you know, duelling technique and so on. Maybe Occlumency if I can get him to meditate. And really anything else he seems interested in; as much as I can cram in over the summer that doesn’t overlap too heavily with Hogwarts curriculum.”

Dumbledore nods. “Well, as for Hogwarts curriculum, as you know, the Defence Against the Dark Arts class has a tendency to change every year.”

“Yes,” Sirius says. “Who’ve you hired this year? Hopefully someone competent—with the curse I know it’s become difficult to find folk willing to take the job, and of course they don’t stick around. But as many years as possible of good instruction are vital right now, I should think.”

“Indeed,” Dumbledore says. “I’m please to hear you say that, Sirius, as that is precisely why I’ve asked for you to meet with me.”

“Wh—hold up.” Sirius blinks at him. “You mean you want me?”

“Yes.” Dumbledore taps the book sitting on his desk. “This is the Contract Book. I should very much like for you to add your signature to those who have come before in agreeing to teach here at Hogwarts. You are of course welcome to read the Professor’s Contract first.”

“I can’t teach children,” Sirius says. “I was rubbish with them even when I was one; I was never even a prefect!”

“I am aware,” Dumbledore says. “And before you remind me of that as well, I also remember well the antics you and your friends got up to in school. However, there are few qualified people left in Britain who do not have other full-time commitments. No Auror would be willing to take a year’s sabbatical to teach, I am sure, especially with the risk.”

“What about Remus?” Sirius asks. “He’s as good as I am with a wand and a much better teacher.”

“I thought of him as well,” Dumbledore says, and sighs. “For obvious reasons—”

“Not valid ones,” Sirius insists.

“No, but the parents would not view it that way. Perhaps in an upcoming year, when I have made preparations to accommodate for his needs and to keep his condition a secret.”

“Then, then what about, uhm—” Sirius wracks his brain. “Alastor Moody! He’s retired!”

“Much as I respect Alastor,” Dumbledore says, “I would only in dire straights put him in charge of children. He traumatizes Auror recruits easily, if I am to believe the stories, and they are young adults.”

“Andromeda Tonks? She’s a fine witch, very talented.”

“And specialized in Potions.”

“Er—”

“Sirius.” Dumbledore looks at him squarely, his customary twinkle long gone, exchanged for a much more solemn look. “There are others I could ask, yes. But I am asking you. This early stage of preparation is perhaps the only time in the coming conflict that I believe you will be spared from other responsibilities, and your research into Voldemort’s actions can be conducted here at Hogwarts, with the benefit of access to our library and to minds like my own and that of Professors Flitwick and McGongall.”

“I still hold that I’m not the best person to be doing that,” Sirius mutters. “Give it to Remus!”

“You are the one with access to the Black library,” Dumbledore says. “We have had this conversation before.”

“I know,” Sirius sighs. “And what of the curse? I’ve an eleven-year-old to care for now; if anything happens to me the consequences for him could be dire.”

“No more dire than a return to his aunt and uncle,” Dumbledore says.

Sirius stares. Then he says, very calmly, “Over my dead body and my dead body only will Harry be returning to Number Four Privet Drive.”

“Ah,” Dumbledore says. He sits back in his chair, clearly taken aback by Sirius’s vehemence. “I see. Well, rest assured: your commitment to your Lordship and the fact that you will not be able to keep the position long term due to other factors should protect you in large part from the curse.”

Sirius sighs again and runs a hand through his hair, looking up at the high ceiling of Dumbledore’s tower office while he mulls it over. Really he knows that he has no good reason to say no, but… teaching. Teaching children. He’s qualified, of course; he was an Auror for years and knows most nasty things inside and out, both the ones to defend against and the ones used for defence. He has missed Hogwarts. And… this way, he could spend more time with Harry, keep an eye on him.

“Fine,” he says. “I’ll take the job. Give me the bloody contract, you… you old… agh, I can’t think of a suitable insult. Give me a minute, it’ll come.”

Dumbledore chuckles and turns the book so that Sirius can sit forward and read it. By and large, the Professor’s Contract is standard legal language, ensuring that he’s aware of restrictions on his own conduct as a teacher at Hogwarts, his responsibilities, etc. The contract is magically binding, of course, and because of that fairly loose and lenient. Nothing that would conflict with his Lordship Oaths, nor his oath to the Wizengamot.

“Looks alright,” Sirius finally says, and when Dumbledore hands him a freshly inked quill he signs and then touches the pages of the book gently, channeling his magic forward into his fingertips to leave behind an imprint of that signature, as well. Dumbledore nods approvingly and closes the book; with a soft pop of displaced air, it vanished back to wherever it lives when the Headmaster doesn’t need it. “That’s all?”

“That’s all,” Dumbledore says. “Thank you, Sirius. You are doing me a great favour in accepting this post.”

“I know,” Sirius says. Probably rude, but whatever. He fully intends on remembering this favour to call it in later; Dumbledore can judge if he wants. Sirius might have been a Gryffindor, but he was raised a Black… and now he has to go home and raise his godson just the same. Minus the screaming and thrown curses, that is.


Over dinner, Remus asks, “So, Sirius, how did your meeting with Dumbledore go?”

“Oh, fine,” Sirius says casually. “Nothing dramatic, you know.”

“What did he want?”

“Just to check on how the kid was settling in. Oh, and I accepted the post of Defence Against the Dark Arts professor for next year.”

There’s a pause. Then Remus chokes on the sip of water he’s taken, and Harry has to reach over to pat him on the back, wide-eyed. It takes a minute, but finally Remus stops coughing and croaks, “Has he gone senile?”

“Oh, rude,” Sirius replies, sounding offended. “He had perfectly good reasons for asking me. I’ll have you know that I am very qualified.”

“Qualified, yes,” Remus says. He sits up and Harry withdraws his hand, watching the conversation between the two adults. To him it mostly sounds like very good news: Sirius will be coming to Hogwarts! “I’m not quite sure you’ve the, ah, temperament though, my dear.”

“I can’t be worse than any of the previous professors,” Sirius points out. “And one of his other options was Alastor bloody Moody. I’m definitely not worse than him.”

The name means nothing to Harry, but he decides to pipe up anyway. “I think you’ll be great, Sirius. I can’t wait.”

Sirius turns to grin at him. “Glad to hear it, pup. I’m sure it’ll be a fun year.”

“What’re you going to teach us?”

“Oh, lots of stuff,” Sirius says with a vague hand gesture. “That’s what I’ve got the rest of the summer to figure out. What do you want to learn?”

“Something useful,” Harry says emphatically. “Quirrell was fine, but he taught a lot of theory. And how to shoot sparks out of our wands.”

“That’s useful,” Sirius says. “Sparks make a good distraction in a duel, or a way to signal an ally.”

“There’s a thought,” says Remus. “You know plenty of powerful or complicated magic, Sirius, but really what’s most useful to kids Harry’s age is how to use the simpler spells that they already know or are sure to learn in the next few years, leading up to OWLs. The teaching of DADA is so uneven that there’s no way they’ll be able to get enough practice with more difficult or advanced things, or get much use out of esoteric theory. You should focus on making use of every-day magics to defend yourself, instead. And whatever’s on the exams, of course, but even that can be made practical.”

“Cheers, Remus,” Sirius replies, sounding pleased. “I’ll do that. It might sound boring,” he says to Harry’s disappointed look, “but it’ll save your life one day.”

“Alright,” Harry sighs.

“Anyway,” Sirius says, “I’ve got all summer to teach you more complicated stuff. Starting soon, I think: summer will be over before we know it.”

“Sounds good,” Harry says, mollified. “What’re we going to start with?”

“Meditation,” Sirius says, and laughs when Harry’s face falls all over again.

Meditation proves not to be quite so boring as Harry had thought, though. At first, yes. Sirius teaches him the basics of how to clear his mind and focus on his breathing, and makes him do it every night before going to bed; he promises to explain exactly why he wants Harry to learn this in a week or so, once he’s had some practice and is less likely to distract himself with possibilities. During the day, they focus on other things, mostly politics and procedure. The Wizengamot meeting will be on July 29th, and Harry has to be ready. Sirius teaches him plenty of dry things, like how to bow when meeting a Lord or Lady of an Ancient and Noble House rather than just a Seated Peer in one of the appointed seats, or an Heir, or whatever, and the most important who’s-who of the Wizengamot. But they learn fun things, too: Sirius explains the theory behind the Heirship ritual that they’ll complete on Harry’s birthday, and a bit about family magic. The House of Black has always had a deep well of family magic, and Harry will become connected to it after the ritual; he’s already connected to the Potter family magic by birth, but it’s of a different kind by far, and Harry won’t have to access it unless he decides to take up the role of Head the House of Potter properly; that, Sirius says, can definitely wait until Harry’s seventeen. He’s the last Potter, or the last who can be Head, and without an inherited Wizengamot seat, it’s only important to maintain the House if Harry decides he cares about that sort of thing.

Harry thinks privately that he will probably want to be Head of his own House, because otherwise it would feel a bit like abandoning his family, even if they are mostly dead and entirely gone. But being Heir Black is more important right now, he understands that.

Harry does have one day off, and entirely to himself, not long before the Wizengamot session; Sirius has to run errands at Diagon Alley, Remus has to work, and they mutually decide that Harry can look after himself for a few hours. He’s perfectly content to be left with a peanut butter sandwich and an afternoon in which to read uninterrupted, and decides to pull out the Animagi manual that Sirius had given him for Christmas. He’d not given it a proper look just yet, unwilling both to let his roommates get a look at it and knowing from others’ mentions that it was an advanced magic. He’s pretty sure that he won’t be anywhere near capable, but he wants to learn the first steps and look forward to when he can achieve them.

To his surprise, the manual is insistent that the first step is to learn to meditate. It’s part of “learning himself”, which is step one to becoming an Animagus. Step two is “finding his form”, which involves a ritual to bring out the animal aspect buried inside himself. Then step three, “learning the beast”, then “transformation”. Four steps doesn’t seem like very much, but from what Harry can tell, none of those steps is easy. Even just part one requires that Harry know himself inside and out; he makes a note to buy a book on human anatomy, and also maybe to start getting more exercise. Maybe Padfoot would like to go on runs? Those are all supposed to be helpful things to do. And meditation so that he can know his mind. He also makes a note to ask Sirius about something called “Occlumency”, because the manual suggests that “an accomplished Occlumens is significantly more likely to be able to achieve the first stage than any other wix.”

Sirius laughs when Harry approaches him with his questions that evening; Remus is working late, so they’re having dinner just the two of them. “Smart kid,” Sirius says, when he’s done chuckling. “That is why I’m having you meditate, yes. It’ll help you become an Animagus, but it’s also the first step to Occlumency, which is the magical art of organizing and defending your thoughts. I’m not sure you’ll be able to learn it right away, because it takes a lot of discipline and I was definitely rubbish at it when I was twelve, but I want you to start. Voldemort is a Legilimens—he can attack your mind to read your thoughts or dig through your memories—and so are both Snape and Dumbledore. Not that I don’t trust Dumbledore, but it never hurts to be able to keep your own counsel when you want to; I’ve certainly never let him in my head, for all I have faith he’d never hurt me.”

Harry nods. He likes the idea of being able to protect his thoughts and secrets a lot, and says, “I’ll work hard on it.”

“I figured you’d like that,” Sirius says, seeming pleased with himself. He shovels a bit of salad into his mouth, then says through it, “I’ll start teaching you the basics soon.”

Harry rolls his eyes at Sirius’s manners. He’s sure that Sirius is capable of being lordly and posh and stern; he’s seen hints of it when they’re in public. At home, though, all the Lordship is shucked off like a cloak and all that’s left is Sirius… or Padfoot, depending on the situation. Like right now, when his table manners really more resemble a dog than a grown man.

Once Sirius has swallowed, he continues, “I’m planning to continue to tutor you during the school year, since I’ll be there and all. And I was wondering if you might like to ask your friend Neville to join us. He’ll need all the help he can get, what with Voldemort surely after him. I’ll owl his grandmother about it, but I reckoned you might like to extend the invitation to him yourself.”

“That’d be brilliant,” Harry says. It really would; he’d been thinking that after their adventure near the end of last year that he might like to spend a bit more time with Neville. It’ll get him away from the certain subtle madness of the Slytherin common room, too. “I’ll owl him.”

Sirius agrees, and they get back to their dinners. They spend the rest of the evening relaxing, Sirius with a newspaper he hadn’t had time to read this morning and Harry playing solitaire with a charmed deck on which the face cards shout advice and grumble about his poor shuffling skills, and welcome Remus home when he arrives. Just before bedtime, a late owl arrives for Sirius; he reads it then explains to Harry that Kingsley would like to come and talk to him the day after tomorrow, the day before the Wizengamot session, about what they were planning to bring forward with regard to the Dursleys. Harry, though feeling slightly leery, agrees. He’s already committed to doing what he can to help Sirius’s suit for custody, and that means talking about his time at Privet Drive, maybe. He knows. He’s just… not looking forward to it.

He is looking forward to other things about the session. He feels like he’s had so much information crammed into his head about the Wizengamot in the last few days that he’s eager to see what it’s really like. All the wixen in their fancy robes, putting on heirs and maneuvering for power. It’s politics, of course, and Harry’s still not especially glad to have any more of those around, but it’s adult politics for reasons that make sense, namely that someone has to run things or nothing would get done. Sirius says nothing gets done anyway, but Harry doesn’t really believe that. Or if it is true, he hopes that maybe one day his being involved and wanting to see things get done will help to make it happen.

He’d written to Blaise and Neville as Sirius had suggested, and gotten two very different responses. Neville’s had mostly been excited that another of his friends would be dealing with the confusion that came from trying to learn how to navigate magical government when you were just a kid yourself, and encouraging Harry to look for him at the session; he’d promised to ask his grandmother if he could come along. He’d mentioned that his own occasional visits to the Wizengamot had always included people being very interested in what he thought of issues, his being the Heir and all. It had been a reassurance in some ways; Harry was glad that he’d have a friend there. It was also a reminder that being a kid wouldn’t save him from being maneuvered by adults in the Wizengamot or anywhere else in his life, but having political power might.

Blaise, on the other hand, had mostly made Harry glad that he’d included an explicit request that he not tell anyone about Harry taking up the Black Heirship until after the session. He’s not sure Blaise will listen, but at least he probably won’t tell anyone other than his mum and maybe Theo. Blaise had been full of questions: What are you going to do with the Heirship? Are you planning to try to influence the Lord Black’s politics or just go along with his agenda? Are you going to put pressure on any of the other Slytherins? And some more subtle things; he’d made mention of alliances and there’d been an implied question as to whether or not Harry was seeking an alliance with him and by extension the Italian Domus Zabini. Harry doesn’t really know how to answer any of those questions, but he’d written back promptly that he’d think about it. And he will—he’s glad at least that Blaise has given him an idea of what sort of things his other Slytherin peers are going to be wondering, even if he doesn’t really have any answers. Sirius had hmm’d at the letter when Harry had showed him, and then told Harry that he should probably come up with answers for himself, though of course he’d help as much as he could.

Harry’s sure that the Wizengamot session will be interesting, Dursley-related stress aside. He can’t wait to see Sirius in action in front of the other wix in charge of the magical world, and he’s definitely interested to see what their response is going to be. He’s hoping for the best, but privately, as he looks toward first Kingsley’s visit and then the session itself, he steels himself for the worst.

Chapter Text

“Thank you for agreeing to speak with us, Mr. Potter,” Kingsley Shacklebolt says in his deep, calm voice.

Harry is ensconced in Sirius’s armchair, with Sirius sitting perched on the arm; Kingsley is sitting on the couch, and there’s a woman with him, someone Harry’s never seen before. Her appearance had been a surprise to Sirius, too, and she’s yet to be introduced; they’d just sat down. Remus had excused himself to the balcony for a smoke.

“Sure,” Harry replies. He leans a little into Sirius’s side. It’s only a day before the Wizengamot session, and he’d known Kingsley would be coming, but hadn’t expected this stranger as well.

“You know me, I am aware, but for the record: I am Kingsley Shacklebolt, a Senior Auror with the Ministry’s Department of Magical Law Enforcement. My companion here is Amanda Krasno; she works for the Department of Magical Child Welfare. She agreed to come along and help with my interview today, and is very good at keeping things confidential.”

“However,” Amanda says, sitting forward a little, “if you’d be more comfortable just speaking with Kingsley, I can leave. While I have more experience with cases like yours—and don’t worry, Mr. Potter, he hasn’t told me much at all—Kingsley will manage just fine and I don’t need to be here.”

Harry thinks about it for a moment, then says, “It’s fine.” It’s not, really, but he doesn’t want them to know how nervous he is. Asking her to leave will probably make him look like a scared baby.

Amanda gives him a look like she probably knows that he’s not okay with her being there, but she doesn’t say anything. She just sits back again on the couch and lets Kingsley take over.

“Good, good,” he says. “Well, Mr. Potter, Sirius has told me that he’s intending to sue for custody of you, which is frankly quite pleasing for me to hear. I do not really believe that there will be any issue among the members of the Wizengamot with the case. He has blood right, was close with your parents, was named in their will as a potential guardian, and of course is a high-ranking pureblood, whereas your aunt and uncle are muggles. The last is discrimination, but it helps you in this case.”

Harry nods when Kingsley stops talking, as he seems to be looking for an acknowledgement.

Amanda says, “Still, there’s a chance there’ll be some contest. This interview will help you and Lord Black decide what you might want to say in front of the Wizengamot, and be a sort of… practice session. As well, while I know you don’t want to draw attention to it right now, if you some day want to press criminal charges or otherwise seek reparations in either the muggle or magical worlds, you should collect whatever evidence you have now, and try to get an account of what you remember of their treatment of you. If you really struggle to tell us about it today, I’d encourage you to write a journal, but sometimes it’s difficult to put words on paper. Plus, this way, we have multiple witnesses hearing the same version of the story from you. Kingsley and Lord Black saw your living quarters at your aunt and uncle’s house, right?”

“Right,” Harry says. “Sirius saw the second bedroom—I mean, my room. And they both saw… they both saw the cupboard.”

“The cupboard?” Amanda prods gently.

“That’s where I slept.” Harry knows his voice is too quiet, but he can’t help it. He looks down at his hands. “Before this summer.”

“You mean like a broom cupboard?”

Harry nods. “The cupboard under the stairs.”

“Okay,” Amanda says. “Thank you for telling us about that. Would you like to tell us more?”

Harry shrugs and looks up at her. “Do you need to know this stuff?”

“It helps us to understand how to help you,” she says. “What sorts of things you’ll need, or that might be harmful to you in the future because of harm that’s been done to you in the past.”

“Oh,” Harry says, frowning. “Like how I don’t much like small spaces.”

“Exactly,” Amanda says. “You’re very bright, Harry.”

He shrugs. “If you say so.”

Sirius rests a hand on his shoulder then, and leans forward a little to say, “She’s right, pup. Don’t put yourself down.”

“Okay, Sirius.”

There’s a pause. Then Amanda says, “Is there anything else about living with your aunt and uncle that stands out in your memory as being particularly bad, Harry?”

Harry thinks about it. There were plenty of things that weren’t great, but he knows that some of them weren’t that bad. Like Harry Hunting—sure, Dudley was a bully, but that wasn’t abuse. “Aunt Petunia tried to hit me with a frying pan once,” he offers. “They almost never hit me, so that stands out, I guess.”

“Almost never?”

Harry shrugs. “Uncle Vernon grabbed me sometimes, and once or twice he threw me into the cupboard before locking me in for punishment. And Dudley beat me up sometimes, when he could catch me.”

“Dudley is your cousin?”

“Yeah.”

“Did your aunt and uncle ever try to stop Dudley from hurting you? Did they ever encourage him?”

“They never told him not to,” Harry says. “They told me pretty often not to ‘spoil his fun’ when he complained about me not letting him win at games and such. Sometimes he was talking about Harry Hunting, which is what he called when he and his gang would chase me about and beat me up if they caught me.” Harry smiles a bit. “Once I was running away from them and I ended up on the roof of the school—maybe I Apparated there? Can magic do that on its own?”

Kingsley and Amanda exchange a look, and then both look at Sirius before refocusing on Harry. “It’s possible,” Kingsley says finally, “though uncommon.”

“Oh,” Harry says. “… Sorry.”

“No need to apologize,” Kingsley says. “It’s not your fault, Harry. What other accidental magic did you experience when you were a child?”

“Uhm,” Harry says. “Well, once I grew back my hair overnight after Aunt Petunia gave it a really awful cut before school. Oh, and I made the glass at a snake exhibit disappear at the zoo last summer—the snake was quite friendly, really, and very polite after I let him out.”

“It didn’t try to eat anyone? That’s good,” Sirius jokes.

“And he said thank you,” Harry informs him.

There’s a pause.

Then Sirius says, an odd, strangled tone in his voice, “Did you talk to the snake, Harry?”

“Er, yeah,” Harry says. “Is talking to animals not… normal for wixen?”

“No, Mr. Potter, it is not,” says Kingsley. His voice is still calm, but now it’s more like he’s making himself sound that way. There’s tension in his face. Amanda, beside him, has gone a little pale. “Have you spoken to any other snakes?”

He nods. “Sure, though really just the portrait in the Slytherin common room. It’s not polite at all, but it is funny.”

“You should try to avoid doing so in front of others,” Kingsley says. “Parseltongue—the ability to speak to and understand snakes—is a rare gift and one that runs in only a single British line.”

“James’s paternal grandmother was from India,” Sirius says, “and not the first from that region to marry into the Potter line. That’s likely where it’s from.”

Harry looks down at his hands once more, at his own brown skin, and realizes that he’s never actually known where his family was from before. Some were English, he knows that: he and Sirius are related. But India, close enough to pass down dark skin and silky black hair, makes sense.

“That’s well enough an excuse for those who know the Potter family’s history and pureblood talents from Asia,” Kingsley says, “but few meet those criteria. I would be careful, Mr. Potter.”

Harry makes a face. “Let me guess: people don’t like Parseltongues, do they?”

“Parselmouths,” Kingsley corrects gently, “and no. They do not.”

“Cheers.”

Sirius reaches up to squeeze Harry’s shoulder again. “It’ll be alright, pup. Think of it like a secret weapon.”

After that, Amanda steers the conversation back to the Dursleys and to the sorts of questions that the Wizengamot might ask. She also does Harry the courtesy of explaining why the Wizengamot might be curious about these things: mostly because they’re bigoted and love sordid details about awful things muggles do, but also because wizen have very specific ideas about what constitutes child abuse, and also have a well of curiosity about it, as the straightforward kind is rather rare in the magical world.

Harry does his best to be honest. Some questions he evades: he does not at all want to talk about not being called by his name ever and how even now the word ‘boy’ makes him flinch, nor about the way the Dursleys referred to him as a freak and made certain that everyone in the neighbourhood thought he was a delinquent, nor about teachers and peers alike at school looking at him either down their noses or with distant pity, nor about dumbing himself down so as not to out-perform Dudley, who was distinctly average, in class. But he explains the cupboard and his chores, the Dursleys’ obsession with seeming ‘normal’, and their denial of food and liberty for punishment or just because they could. Harry has never thought of these things as abuse, really. Discipline. Just the way of things, by and large. Maybe the last on the list, because he remembers being very small and afraid that he’d be forgotten in his cupboard and left to starve, before he figured out that they wouldn’t go that far, if only to avoid the consequences. He’s always known the Dursleys don’t love him, and he’s long over being upset by it. It’s clear, however, that all three adults in the room are upset; they are of the belief that Harry’s upbringing was abusive. He’s not sure how closely he wants to think about that, really. He resolves to deal with it later, once this whole Wizengamot mess is finished with—better, he decides, not to let his own complicated feelings about the Dursleys get in the way of Sirius’s getting custody of him.

Finally, Amanda and Kingsley finish asking their questions. Harry is left feeling wrung-out, and slumps back into the armchair once they’ve left. Sirius comes over and bullies his way into the armchair as well, maneuvering Harry until they’re sharing the chair, which, given that it’s not that large, means that Harry is sitting halfway on Sirius’s lap. It’s only a little uncomfortable.

“Sorry about that, pup,” Sirius says, hugging Harry tightly. Harry leans into him. “It’s done with now. The Wizengamot probably won’t be so thorough, if they ask at all—they’re mostly idiots, not like Kingsley. And I’ll do what I can to keep them from digging for details.”

“Alright,” Harry says.

The balcony door makes a soft shushing sound as it slides open to admit Remus back into the flat. “All done with?” he asks. He comes over, smelling strongly of cigarettes.

“Mhm,” Sirius agrees. “Sorry, that took longer than expected.”

Remus shrugs. “I could have gone out properly if I were bothered. But Moony felt better about being close, even if I didn’t much like what I was hearing through the glass.”

“Sorry,” Harry says.

“Not your fault,” Remus says, and leans over slightly to ruffle Harry’s hair, much to Harry’s dismay. “None of what happened to you there was your fault, Harry. Your aunt and uncle didn’t treat you properly, and once you’ve grown up a bit and gotten some perspective on that you’ll probably understand that better. But for now, just keep in mind that none of us want you to apologize, even if we seem upset. We’re not upset with you.”

“Okay,” Harry says, looking between Sirius and Remus. Sirius is still holding him tightly. It’s a bit awkward—he’s really too big for cuddling like this—but it’s also nice. That they care about him, and all. Knowing that Sirius will be there with him and will be there to hug him just like this after the Wizengamot session is enough to make it okay that he might need to tell strangers—and Dumbledore—about the Dursleys. Knowing Sirius will be there would be enough to make most anything okay, really.


The 29th of July dawns clear, sunny, and warm. Remus wakes Harry up for breakfast; he’s an early riser this far from the full moon, and is pulled back toward nocturnal habits contrary to his human preference as the moon begins to wax again. Sirius is sleeping in, as he does when he’s able, and so Harry and Remus have tea and toast, and then bacon and eggs once Sirius is awake. Remus leaves for work, and Harry and Sirius head out for Diagon Alley. They have to pick up the new robes that Sirius had commissioned for Harry, finished just in time, and they have an appointment with a magical hairdresser in hopes that she can make Harry look somewhat more put-together than usual. The Wizengamot meeting starts at 3 o’clock, so they have time to run their errands and get lunch before they have to get to the Ministry.

Their first stop is the hairdresser. She tuts at Harry and then sets to work with scissors and wand in tandem, trimming stray curls and taming what’s left. When she finishes she says that the magic won’t hold for long, most likely, but she’d tried to keep as close to its natural state as possible so that Harry’s own magic won’t reject the changes. When she spins him around to face the mirror, he has to gawk for a moment; his hair is still flyaway, but now it looks purposefully tousled rather than like a hopeless mess. Shorter on the sides than the top, his hair actually looks curly, not just a wavy mess. Sirius grins at him from over his shoulder, tells him he looks properly handsome, like a real magical Heir, and is only stopped from reaching out to muss Harry’s hair all over again by the deadly glare of the hairdresser, who takes Sirius’s money and warns them direly not to touch it too much or the styling will be done for within the hour.

After his haircut, Harry and Sirius go on to the tailor’s. Sirius and Harry had come to the Alley together some days ago so that Harry could be measured, and now he simply has to stand and let the tailor show him how to fit the layers of formal robes over one another: first trousers and a tidy white shirt to go underneath, to suit Harry’s preference, then a fitted short tunic with a high collar in the deep red of the House of Potter, and then a shining black overrobe with silver embroidery, to show his allegiance to the House of Black, held together over his chest with nearly-invisible buttons and belted tidily with black leather as an accent. Sirius had helped Harry with his choices, explaining the symbolisms as they went: a shorter tunic and an overrobe close to Hogwarts style to symbolize his youth and student status, the colours of both of his Houses present but his to-be-declared Heirship worn most prominently, and, should he shake back the wide sleeves of his robe, a neutral cufflink to emphasize that he’d yet to choose a political stance for himself. All of it in light fabrics to account for the warmth of summer, though of course the Wizengamot chambers were kept at a comfortable temperature with magic. All of this seemed, at the time, very overcomplicated to Harry, but he has to admit that he looks good in the mirror. The tailor helps him out of the clothes once more after the fitting is complete and both Sirius and Harry have expressed their satisfaction and packs the layers away into a box with anti-wrinkle charms so that Harry can pull them on again just before they leave for the Wizengamot meeting. Sirius already has robes at home, and Harry is sort of excited to see them. Magical fashion is very different from muggle, and he’s sure Sirius will look brilliant.

They have lunch at Diagon Alley and then return to the flat to get ready in the time they have left. Harry changes in his room, fumbling with the unfamiliar clothes a bit, and finally has to give up on fastening the cufflinks—simple silver bars that Sirius had pulled from his own collection of jewelry—himself. He just can’t quite get the hand motion necessary, when Sirius and the tailor had both made it look so smooth. When he comes out into the living room, Sirius is already waiting. Sure enough, he looks incredibly dashing: he’s wearing multiple layers as well, though his take the form of a sweeping cloak over a tabard decorated with silver runes over a long tunic over trousers, all in black. His tunic’s sleeves are fastened at the wrists with garnet cufflinks, and Sirius’s hair has been tied back into a short tail, the ribbon used to hold it also a deep red that matches Harry’s tunic. The two of them match subtly but strikingly; Harry’s sort of looking forward to seeing everyone’s faces. He hopes Remus will take a photo of the two of them tonight so that he can show Hermione later.

“There you go,” Sirius says, once he’s fixed Harry’s cufflinks. “Lookin’ good, kiddo.”

“Thanks, Sirius,” Harry says. “You too.”

“We’re ready to knock ‘em dead.” Sirius winks. “Come on, we’re Flooing. Let me put an Impervious on you to keep the ash off and then we’ll go.” A deft twist of Sirius’s wrist sends his wand sliding into his hand from the holster on his arm and he charms himself and Harry swiftly before he turns to the fireplace and fetches a handful of Floo powder from the pot. “You remember how to do this?”

Harry nods. “What’s the Floo address?”

“Ministry atrium. We’ll go together, though—it’s more difficult, you’ll have to hold on tight, but you’re not approved to pass through the wards by yourself yet. We’ll get that clearance sorted for you at some point.”

“Alright.” Harry steps forward and allows Sirius to wrap an arm securely around his waist, and then once Sirius has thrown the powder into the hearth and called “Ministry atrium!” clearly, they step through together in tandem. The whirling feeling of the Floo is definitely worse with two of them together, and Harry trips on the edge of Sirius’s cloak when they emerge from the other side. Fortunately Sirius is able to catch the both of them with only a minor wobble, and shakes his head to clear the dizziness.

Once Harry can see properly again and doesn’t feel like a disturbed bobblehead, he takes a look around at their new location. The Ministry atrium is impossibly grand, with an immensely high ceiling paved with blue tile and polished dark wood floors. Many people are bustling here and there, some queuing for a wall of fireplaces opposite where they arrived and others at a desk with a bored-looking wix in a uniform. The wall they stand nearest is also lined with broad fireplaces, from which people Floo in in a steady stream. The centre of the atrium is dominated by a massive gold fountain portraying a witch and a wizard standing dominant over a group of magical creatures, including a wild-looking centaur who reminds Harry a bit of Bane, and a strange, small creature with bulging eyes and floppy ears. He’s not sure he likes the thing much; it’s very gaudy.

Sirius leads the way past the gaudy statue and through the wizen passing to and fro all around them toward a bank of lifts. They step into one, attracting looks from the other wixen who are already on board. There are only three other people, but all of them turn to stare at Sirius and Harry. Sirius, Harry sees, presses the button for Level Nine, the highest (or possibly lowest, as the elevator moves downward) available, and then looks straight at the door of the elevator in front of him in an aloof manner; Harry tries to adopt the same sincere disinterest in the other people, but isn’t sure he does a very good job.

It turns out the atrium is on Level Eight, and so they are soon able to step out of the lift with the other wixen and proceed down a long hallway. Only one of the people in the lift with them continues down the black-tiled hall toward a distant door; the others turn left behind Sirius and Harry down a small flight of stairs. The bottom of the staircase delivers them to another long hallway, this one with rough-hewn stone walls lit by torches. On the left and right, well spaced out, are wood doors with heavy iron fixings. The remaining two wixen break off into two of these, opening doors to admit the sound of chatter and bustle from the rooms on the other side; once the doors close again, the hallway is silent.

Discomfited by the surroundings, Harry draws closer to Sirius, and Sirius places an arm around his shoulders.

“Nerve-wracking the first time, I know,” Sirius says. “Level Ten is the courtrooms, so they’re meant to be intimidating. Even just for spectators, who make up most of those who get into the rooms from this hall. Jury members, guards, prisoners and so on have access from other hallways.”

“Oh,” Harry says. That makes sense, from a certain point of view. “Where’s the Wizengamot chamber?”

“Down there,” Sirius says, gesturing toward the end of the hallway. Sure enough, there is one grand black stone door at the end of the hall, with silver numbers that say ’11’ on it. As they pass the courtrooms two-by-two, Harry sees that yes, there are ten of them. “Admittedly we could have Flooed directly into the antechamber, but I thought you might like to get a look at the Ministry.”

Harry nods. “It’s very… grand.”

“That’s one word for it,” Sirius snorts, and then they’re standing before the door. Sirius draws his wand once more and taps it, and it swings open before them without a sound, admitting them into the antechamber.

For an antechamber, it’s a rather large room, long and rectangular. Three fireplaces line one wall, and set into the same wall next to them is a small booth with a witch who’s in the process of accepting a cloak from a tall wix who has their back to Sirius and Harry. The other side of the room is home to several comfortable-looking benches where a few wixen are sitting, some in conversation with one another. The centre of the room seems to simply be an open space for folk to mill about and greet one another, which several wixen are doing. The walls are wood-panelled partway up and rough stone above that, leading to a high arched ceiling; the floor has a large patterned rug in the centre of it.

Several heads turn when Sirius and Harry enter, including those of two boys sitting on one of the benches to the right. Both of them immediately spring up and hurry over: not Theo and Neville, as Harry had expected (though whether those two would ever be caught dead in conversation with one another…) but Theo and Blaise.

“Harry!” Blaise says as they approach.

“Uh, hello Blaise,” Harry replies. Sirius taps his shoulder and holds a hand out for Harry’s cloak, which he quickly shrugs out of and hands over. Sirius goes to hand over their outerwear to the witch in the booth, leaving Harry to talk to his friends. “I wasn’t expecting to see you today.”

“Theo brought me as his guest,” Blaise replies. “I wasn’t planning on missing the fireworks.”

“Fireworks?” Harry asks, alarmed.

“Not literally,” Theo says. “But you and your godfather are going to make quite the splash today. I reckoned Blaise might like to see it for himself, and my father can’t be bothered if I bring a guest. He’s not even here today himself.”

“Oh,” Harry says. “Well, good to see you both, anyway. Having a good summer?”

“So far so good,” Blaise says. “I’ve mostly been in Rome with my mother.”

“Mine’s been no worse than usual,” Theo says blithely. “I am looking forward to the look on my father’s face when he sees you. Lovely robes, by the way, who did them?”

Harry names the tailor he and Sirius went to, and both Blaise and Theo nod approvingly.

“Good choice,” Blaise says. “I’m impressed; Lord Black doesn’t come across as the type to have that sort of taste.”

“I was raised as snobby a pureblood as you,” says Sirius from over Blaise’s shoulder. Harry had seen him coming, but hadn’t warned his friends; their jump makes him snicker.

“I-I’m so sorry, Lord Black,” Blaise stammers. “I didn’t mean—”

“I took no offence, Heir Zabini,” Sirius says. “If you think your parents didn’t snark and gossip about their own parents when they were your age, you’re wrong. We just like to pretend we’ve taught the new generation better.”

“Yes, sir,” Blaise says, stiff and formal. Next to him, Theo has stood up straight and put his shoulders back, his face firming into a stoic mask; Harry is reminded of the way the Slytherins put on a good face in front of the others Houses at school.

Sirius seems to notice it too, and glances down to say to Harry, “I’m going to make a quick round of greetings here—I see Lady Urquart.”

Lady Alexandria Urquart; Harry remembers the name from Sirius’s crash course in the who’s-who of the Wizengamot. Urquart is one of the Ancient and Noble Houses, just like the House of Black, and holds a hereditary seat; they’re a Light House, but Lady Urquart is allied with Sirius, if distantly, and is also very formidable. Harry doesn’t know what she looks like, but is sure he’ll be introduced at some later point, so he just nods to Sirius and turns back to his friends, who relax a little once Sirius is gone.

“You don’t have to be so formal with him,” Harry says to them. “He’s really very casual about things.”

“Maybe with you,” Blaise says, “but you’re his family. It’s different with strangers.”

Harry shrugs. “I guess.”

They chat idly for another few minutes, trading stories about their summers—Harry’s foray to the muggle theatre attracts a raised eyebrow from Blaise and a number of questions from Theo—and then Sirius comes back and tells Harry that they’d better get into the chamber before the session starts. Harry says goodbye to Blaise and Theo and lets Sirius fuss for a moment with the way his collar is laying, and then they head together toward the doors from the antechamber into the main Wizengamot chamber, Harry just a step behind Sirius.

The Wizengamot chamber is big, is what Harry thinks first upon stepping into the room. It’s impressively cavernous, with a domed ceiling rising high above the circular room. Rising up all around are four concentric rows of seats, 48 in total, and in the top row there are twelve larger boxes, each with its outward-facing front wall bearing a crest. At the far end of the room from the doors, there are two decorated seats sat side-by-side with a curtain behind them, and just below them there’s a small wooden chair and a desk where a wix seems to be setting up a typewriter. Many of the seats are already filled, including some of the high boxes, and almost every head turns to look at Harry and Sirius as they come through the door. Wixen in every colour and cut of robes imaginable, of every age, from some seemingly older than Dumbledore to Harry’s own age. As Sirius leads the way over to a staircase that will take them to the top floor, a whisper starts making its way around the room. Harry can’t hear what anyone is saying in detail, but he can feel the weight of their stares and knows that they’re talking about him.

“Better get used to it,” Sirius murmurs as they step onto the stairs. The moment their feet are settled on the steps, the stairs begin to move like a muggle escalator, conveying them swiftly up to the walkway that runs along behind the boxes. Twelve boxes, Harry thinks: one for each of the Ancient and Noble Houses that bears a hereditary seat in the Wizengamot. “This is what it’s always like, and they’ve seen plenty of me in the past.”

Harry sighs. “Really?”

Sirius shrugs. “At least they’re whispering. When I first took my seat, they talked openly.”

“I don’t think I like the Wizengamot much,” Harry mutters.

“Fair enough,” Sirius says, laughing. He steps off the moving staircase at the top smoothly; Harry only stumbles a little. “Some of them are fine, but that’s not a bad attitude, generally speaking. We’ll see what you think at the end of the session, hm?”

“Yeah.”

The Black box is near the end of the row, and Sirius steps down into it and finds his seat, settling his robes around him neatly. There’s a smaller chair, just right for Harry, beside Sirius’s; when he settles into it he finds it’s actually quite comfortable. The box itself isn’t especially decorated, just draped with black and silver curtains. In front of Sirius and Harry on the banister is a small version of the Black crest. From their vantage point, they can see the backs of the heads of every member of the Wizengamot on their side of the room and all of the faces of those across from them.

As Harry is looking around, someone behind him awkwardly clear their throat, and Harry turns to find that Neville has appeared in the entrance to the box.

“Hello, Lord Black, Harry,” he says, when they’ve turned to look at him.

“Hello, Neville,” Harry says. “Come in.”

“I, um—”

“It’s alright,” Sirius says. “Come on in.” To Harry, he explains, “Entrance to the box requires authorization from someone with the appropriate authority. You’ll have the right to grant entrance once you’re confirmed as Heir.”

Neville nods, stepping down into the box. He’s dressed very nicely, in the olive green and black of the House of Longbottom. In fact, it’s probably the most put-together Harry’s ever seen Neville look. He’s more used to a sloppily-tied tie and a cowlick. Looking at this polished version, with his hair combed neatly and his shoes shined, a shining pin in the shape of the Longbottoms’ ivy emblem on his breast, Harry isn’t sure which he prefers.

“You look nice,” Harry says. You don’t really look like my friend, he thinks.

“Thanks,” Neville says, and raises a hand to rub the back of his head, barely stopping himself in time from mussing his hair. That’s more familiar. “You too, Harry. How’s your summer been?”

“Pretty good,” Harry says. “Sirius has been teaching me a lot.”

“My grandmother has stepped up my lessons, too. She says since I’m at Hogwarts now I need to learn to comport myself with the honour and diligence of a true Longbottom.” He sounds like he’s quoting.

Harry smiles. “You’ve always seemed pretty honourable to me, Neville. Here, have you met Sirius?”

Neville nods and makes a bow in Sirius’s direction. “Nice to see you again, Lord Black.”

“Call me Sirius, really,” Sirius says, standing to make his own bow. “You’re friends with my Heir, after all.”

“So you’re really going to do it?” Neville asks, turning back to Harry. “Good luck, then. Not that I much expect you’ll need it.”

“I’ll take it,” Harry says, and holds out a hand. “Thanks for being here, Neville.”

“Of course,” Neville says, and shakes Harry’s hand, meeting his eyes squarely. “I’m not much good at this whole politics thing, but I think you’re going to be great at it, Harry. I… um, if this isn’t—well. I hope we’ll stay friends.”

“I look forward to working with you,” Harry replies. He’s not sure he really has the right to do this, to make what Sirius called an ‘overture of alliance’, but Sirius doesn’t interject and Neville’s smile in response is bright and genuine. He really does look forward to seeing what his friend can do in the future. Neville had explained his own situation in a letter: the House of Longbottom was a Patriarchal House, but there wasn’t anyone currently sitting in the Longbottom seat. The only surviving adult wizard in the male line was Neville’s great-uncle, Algernon, who had abdicated the role of Patriarch and the seat to his own younger brother, Neville’s grandfather, years ago, and so was unable to claim the seat himself. That left Neville as Heir, waiting until he came of age to take the seat himself. He could attend the sessions and even speak, but not vote, not until he turned seventeen. But once he did, he would have full control over his House and its affairs, and Harry was excited to see what Neville made of the House of Longbottom.

Neville lets go of Harry’s hand after a long moment and clears his throat again, then says, “I should get back to my grandmother. But it was good to see you, Harry. And you, Lord—er, Sirius.”

“Lord-er-Sirius,” Sirius says, sounding amused. “Has a ring to it. Nice to see you too, Heir Longbottom.”

“Bye,” Neville says, and then ducks out of their box.

Once he’s gone, Sirius gets up from his seat and comes over to Harry, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Nicely done,” he says. “For someone who claims to hate politics, you’re quite good at them.”

“Had to learn something in Slytherin,” Harry says. “Otherwise what’s the point of putting up with all the prats?”

Sirius’s laugh is loud enough that there are still people craning their necks to look up at the Black box when Harry sits back down and looks out over the crowd again. He tries out his most forbidding frown, modelled after some combination of Snape and McGonagall, on a few of the nearest rubberneckers, which is enough to make them turn back to their neighbours, much to his delight. Sirius, seeing it happen, pats Harry’s shoulder again with another chuckle.

It takes another ten minutes or so, but finally the last stragglers from the antechamber filter in and take their seats. The Wizengamot chamber is about three-quarters full, which Sirius murmurs is about average turnout; those missing are either empty seats which will be re-elected, or those unable to attend, whose proxies will be held by their allies.

Most of the major magical families are represented here, Harry knows now, and a few of the minor ones. Technically anyone—or, any family—can hold a Wizengamot seat, one seat per Family or House. That means that most everyone important in the entire magical world is represented here today. Which is… very nervewracking. Harry settles deeper back into his seat and takes a deep breath, and Sirius reaches over to place a hand on his shoulder.

“You’ll do fine,” he promises, in a voice so confident and steady that Harry believes him.

Sirius had timed the encouragement well: as soon as his hand falls away from Harry’s shoulder, there’s a rustle of curtains at the bottom of the ring, and from behind the two ornate chairs emerge first Dumbledore in brilliantly purple robes, speckled with shimmering golden stars, looking calm and regal as ever, and then, hurrying after him, a man in green robes who Harry thinks he recognizes from a photo as Minister Fudge. They take their seats at the heart of the Wizengamot, and a hush falls, into which Dumbledore clears his throat.

“Wixen of the Wizengamot,” he says. His voice is projected magically around the room, though Harry hadn’t seen him draw his wand or cast a spell; either Dumbledore is really that powerful (not unbelievable) or there’s some other device at work. “I welcome you all today to this session, for the new moon of July, 1992. For those who do not know me—” a quiet chuckle passes through the room, and Dumbledore smiles behind his beard, “—and for the record, I am Chief Warlock Albus Dumbledore of the Dumbledore Family.”

“And I am Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge,” Fudge declares, without leaving space for Dumbledore to continue.

“Just so,” Dumbledore says, still with that serene expression. “I call this session to order. First, I would ask for notice of proxies.”

Lit wands go up around the room, about half a dozen of them. Dumbledore gestures to them one by one, and those who raised their wand speak up to say who they are and their Family or House, as well as whose proxy they hold. None of the names are familiar.

Once that’s done, Dumbledore calls for a list of empty seats, at which Fudge produces a roll of parchment and reads off, “The hereditary seats for the Ancient and Noble Houses of Longbottom, with Heir; Nott, without Heir; Prewett, with Heir; and Prince, with Heir, are currently empty. There are an additional three regular seats currently vacant, and we are accepting nominations for election at the Winter solstice session, as in every year.”

“Thank you, Cornelius,” Dumbledore, says, which elicits a slightly grumpy sigh from Fudge, who seems to have forgotten that his voice, too, is amplified. “We have one matter of law only to settle today. Are there any addenda?”

At this, Sirius stands and places his right hand on the Black crest set into the banister in front of him. As he does, a mirage-like version of him appears in the centre of the circle down at the bottom, facing Dumbledore and Fudge. Harry restrains himself from saying “brilliant” out loud, because it is, but he doesn’t know if his voice would be picked up by whatever charm is causing speakers to be audible to everyone in the room.

“The Wizengamot recognizes Lord Black,” Dumbledore says, once the image has settled.

“Chief Warlock, Minister,” Sirius greets respectfully. “I have a matter of blood to add to the agenda.”

Whispers race around the room, and Harry can see necks craning to peer up at him and Sirius. Dumbledore seems unfazed, but Fudge’s jaw drops.

“I see,” Dumbledore says. “Thank you, Lord Black. Would you like to inform us ahead of time of the matter’s details, or would it be better to wait?”

“I’m sure you have an idea,” Sirius says. “And that being the case, I am content to wait.”

“Indeed,” Dumbledore says, and nods. Once he’s done so, Sirius removes his hand from the Black crest in the box and his image in the circle vanishes; as he’s sitting back down, Dumbledore continues, “Then our agenda today consists of a matter of law and a matter of blood. Any others?”

No one else indicates a desire to speak, so Dumbledore nods again and proceeds. He introduces the legal matter: they’re not voting on it today, because this is the first time it’s been introduced, but one of the lesser Houses has drafted a bill that would… something about taxes. Harry doesn’t really understand; Dumbledore reads it out and it’s all in dense legal speech. The only thing he catches is the name of its sponsor: one Asphodel Parkinson, which Harry recognizes as the name of Pansy’s mother.

Sirius leans over and murmurs, “You’ll get used to the legalese, but for now, what you need to know is that they want muggleborns who go back to the muggle world to pay income tax on their muggle income to the Ministry of Magic as well as to the muggle government.”

Harry blinks. “That sounds…”

“Punitive,” Sirius says darkly. “Yes. It’s a questionable bill—they’ve couched it all in terms of ‘wixen who benefit magical services’. They’re implying, of course, that muggleborns or halfbloods who work muggle jobs and don’t pay income tax to the magical government are leeches, taking advantage of magical resources and not giving back. It’s not true, of course.”

“Hm,” Harry says. He glances at Sirius. “Is this sort of thing… normal?”

Sirius sighs. “Unfortunately, yes. In fact, this is fairly mild; it’s not unlikely to pass. The discrimination is masked by wording that makes it sound like it’s purely meant to be fair, egalitarian, and ultimately beneficial to the magical world. Which it would be—at the expense of muggleborns, who increasingly, by laws like this one, are forced to choose between rejecting magic, giving up their wands, and living entirely as muggles, or leaving the muggle world completely and immersing themselves in magical culture instead, where they have significant disadvantages. It’s a more insidious, less murderous version of Voldemort’s aims.”

“And the people who put these bills forward—” Harry begins, and Sirius nods.

“Are by and large Voldemort’s followers, whether or not they were Marked Death Eaters during the last war.” He gestures to the floor, where Lady Parkinson is presenting her case. “Case in point: Asphodel Parkinson was never Marked as far as I’m aware, but her husband was and is still in Azkaban. She’s also a close associate of Lucius Malfoy, and they’re both allied with Lord Flint.”

Lord Nicodemus Flint, Head of one of the Dark Ancient and Noble Houses. Sirius had told Harry that Flint was the only bastion of Death Eater loyalty among the Ancient and Noble Heads, but certainly not the only pureblood supremacist; the others had simply chosen to stay ostensibly neutral in the war. That, Harry had thought at the time, and still thinks, is almost more despicable than choosing a side and sticking to it, even if you weren’t going to fight. They were willing to go with whichever side that won instead of actually making a stand of any sort. From the Slytherin perspective Harry supposes he can understand it, because it was a war and speaking out got a lot of people killed or thrown in prison at the end of it all, but Slytherin or not, he’s still willing to stand up for what he believes in. He just wants to do it effectively.

A few people make speeches down on the floor. Madame Parkinson first, and then Lord Ogden who’s pretty straightforwardly opposed, then a Master Burke who seems to be in favour but talks incredible circles around the whole thing, until Harry can’t really quite gather what his stance is at all. Then the image of a slightly stooped old woman with a long braid of silver hair that falls in a tidy line down the middle of her back appears in the circle as Lord Burke’s fades, and Sirius sits forward, grinning.

“This’ll be good,” he says to Harry. “That’s—”

“The Wizengamot recognizes Lady Ollivander,” Dumbledore says.

“Like the wandmaker?” Harry whispers, and Sirius nods.

“Watch.”

The Lady of the Ancient and Noble House of Ollivander takes a moment to clear her throat, and then says in a clear, strong voice that seems unmatched to her small stature, “How do you define ‘magical resources’, my Lords and Ladies?

“For it is clear to me, and I think therefore that it should be put in plain terms, that this bill implies that a muggleborn must either accept this tax or give up their wand.” She gazes around the room, a motion of the mirage that must echo her actual motion; it’s impressive, really. “As someone with a, shall we say, vested interest in the business of wixen buying and carrying wands, this is troubling to me. Magic is the birthright of all wixen, and to see them discouraged from its use and from interaction with it—for that is what you imply—is heinous. In the short term, perhaps there is no harm. Yes, perhaps muggleborns who work in the muggle world might be encouraged to make some contribution back to the magical world. But it might be in the form of their business in our shops, their children in our schools, and their voices in our votes. Yes?”

“Hear hear!” cries Sirius, startling Harry; he’s echoed by other voices around the room.

Lady Ollivander smiles and nods. “Well then. I have said all I shall say.”

Her image disappears, and Dumbledore waits until the general murmuring of the gathered Wizengamot has quieted before clearing his throat and saying, “Is there anyone else who would speak on this bill?”

There are, of course. More who support it than oppose it, unfortunately, though the wind does seem somewhat taken out of their sails by the Lady Ollivander’s comments. Sirius is content to ignore the speeches and brewing debates, and instead says to Harry, “A formidable woman, Lady Ollivander is. No clue what her relation is to the Mr. Ollivander in the shop—they’re probably cousins or some such—but she’s got a certain amount of influence.”

“She’s Light?” Harry asks, trying to remember what else Sirius had said about her during his who’s-who. Not much.

“Yes,” Sirius says. “Though on the neutral side of it, at times. The Ollivanders don’t much care about blood, but they care an awful lot about magic. The only reason she respects me at all is that I’m powerful; she has the same respect for all of the Heads of the Ancient and Noble Houses, for Dumbledore, and for any number of those in the seats down there. Anyone with less actual magic at their disposal is… less worthy of her consideration.”

“So… she supports the bill because she wants muggleborns to come into the Wizarding world and stay here?” Harry asks. “Not because she thinks they shouldn’t be punished for wanting to work in the muggle world. Just because she thinks that punishment isn’t the way to go. She thinks a law like this will make muggleborns give up magic entirely, instead of going the other way.”

“That would be my guess. Very astute of you, kid.”

They listen to the remaining speakers. Sirius doesn’t speak, and Harry doesn’t ask why; he reckons Sirius is saving it all for his own item. Harry’s not really sure at the end which way the Wizengamot will vote; it seems pretty equally split, at least among those who spoke. Sirius’s expression is neutral, and Harry hopes that they can talk after the session about what Harry should have been paying attention to in order to get a better idea of the currents in the room. There’s not a lot going on—only a single speaker at a time, and most of them unfamiliar to Harry—but at the same time Harry expects there’s a lot going on, in the glances that the Peers throw at one another, the postures and expressions of those they can see, the whispers from one person to the person seated next to them.

Finally, it ends, and Dumbledore declares that there will be a short speakers’ list to be collected before the next session for final statements on the issue, preceding the vote. If anyone wishes to speak on the issue, he says, they should express interest in such to the Minister.

Then he looks up toward the Black box and he says, “I would now call Lord Black to the floor, to present his matter of blood before the Wizengamot.”

Sirius rises again from his seat and lets his palm fall onto the Black crest, and once more his image appears in the circle. He nods his head regally to Dumbledore and Fudge, and says once Dumbledore has recognized him, “Thank you. I bring today before my Peers a matter of blood, as the Chief Warlock has said; a matter that has weighed heavily on my in the past year, since my ascension to the role of Patriarch of the Ancient and Noble House of Black.

“As you all know, I’m not exactly the marrying kind.” There are a few chuckles around the room—some probably just because Sirius has a bit of a reputation from when he was in school, and others because they know that Sirius happily lives with a male werewolf; it’s a joke either way. “This comes with the issue of, shall we say, issue. I have no blood Heir, and have no real prospect of ever acquiring one in the traditional manner. And so I come before you today to announce that I am accepting as my personal Heir and the Heir of my House the son of my heart, Harry James Potter, son of James Potter, the Head of the House of Potter.”

Sirius turns toward Harry in the box, and with his free hand he gestures for Harry to place his own palm over Sirius’s, on top of the crest. Harry does so, and sees his own image appear next to Sirius’s in the middle of the floor. In his opinion, the two of them make a striking picture; clearly the Wizengamot agrees. Chatter breaks out among the Peers, the room filled with hubbub in an instant. Fudge looks taken aback, and Dumbledore has leaned forward in his seat, turned to look up at the real Harry and Sirius in their box.

It becomes apparent after a minute that the talk isn’t going to die down on his own, and Dumbledore raises his hand and snaps his fingers. A sound like a gunshot echoes around the room, and a hush falls. Into the new silence, Dumbledore says, “This is unorthodox, Lord Black.”

“Not really,” Sirius says. “Harry is of my blood, if distantly, and his father and I were brothers in all but blood; anyone you asked could tell you that. An adoption of this kind, given those factors, is actually fairly routine.”

“You’re Lord Black!” shouts someone from among the seats. A wizard that Harry doesn’t recognize rises on the other side of the room. “No Lord of the House of Black has ever accepted a halfblood into his House!”

Sirius sighs. With his voice magically amplified, it’s clear to everyone in the room exactly how unimpressed he is with that comment. “I accept halfbloods into my House,” he says. “Harry isn’t even the first—I’m sure you all recall the memorable session in which I restored Andromeda Tonks to her status as a daughter of the House of Black, and granted membership to her husband Theodore and her daughter Nymphadora. The lattermost is, of course, a halfblood. And her father, Ted, is a muggleborn—and was my previous Heir, in case you hadn’t noticed. If anything you blood supremacist types should be happy.”

The wizard sputters, and his neighbour, a woman with grey-streaked blonde hair in a severe ponytail, reaches over, snags the back of his robes, and yanks him back into his seat before he can embarrass himself further.

“Thank you, Madame Bones,” Sirius says dryly. “Are there any substantial objections to my choice of Heir?”

“Not so much an objection,” Dumbledore says, “but I must, of course, do my due diligence when it comes to the law, Lord Black. You are aware, of course, that you have no legal status as Harry’s guardian?”

“I am aware that declaring him my Heir qualifies as a declaration of intent to sue for such status,” Sirius replies, meeting Dumbledore’s gaze with a steely look on his face.

“Do you have documentation from Mr. Potter’s family permitting you to assume custody?”

“You know full well that I do not,” Sirius says. “However, I am happy to inform this body that I am in need of no such thing.”

A murmur goes around the room, and Dumbledore sits back again in his seat. “Lord Black, you are a respected figure in this assembly and I do not doubt your word, but I am afraid I must insist that you elaborate.”

“Harry’s aunt and uncle are unfit guardians for a magical child—or any child—and thus I am exercising my right as a magical blood relative and a member of the Wizengamot to remove him from those circumstances and claim him as a member of my House, and therefore under my protection,” Sirius says. “I am happy to provide evidence if you desire it, Chief Warlock.”

“Please do,” Dumbledore says. “Though first I would very much like to hear from young Mr. Potter himself on the issue. Harry?”

“Uhm,” Harry says, and then flushes slightly. Not the best start, really. There’re just a lot of people watching. “I’d much rather have Sirius be my guardian than my aunt and uncle, sir. He’s right that they’re not, er, fit guardians.”

Dumbledore frowns. “I see. I believe that you think so, but you must understand, Harry, that my position does not allow me to take you entirely on your word. You are a child, and I must ensure that you are not being removed from circumstances that are acceptable into ones that may be overwhelming; accepting Heirship of an Ancient and Noble House when you were raised in the muggle world—” There are shouts of dismay alongside gasps from the audience; clearly Harry’s background isn’t well known.  “—is sure to be difficult,” Dumbledore continues over the noise.

“Dumbledore, you cannot claim that a muggle home is better than a magical one for a magical child,” shouts a voice from among the seats; Harry thinks it was Lord Ogden.

“Never!” cries another, in agreement.

“Even so,” Dumbledore replies calmly. “I must do my due diligence.”

“Fine,” Sirius says. “I am content to speak to what I witnessed myself when I went several weeks ago to retrieve Harry from his aunt and uncle’s home, if you will accept that as evidence; otherwise I can call other witnesses. Or you can ask Harry himself.”

“I should like to speak first to Harry himself,” Dumbledore says. “Lord Black, please return to your seat and allow us to get Harry’s perspective.”

“Certainly,” Sirius says, and makes a point of saying to Harry before releasing the crest and therefore the amplifying charm, “I’m here if you need anything, Harry. Don’t let them intimidate you; you know the truth.”

Harry nods, and Sirius slips his hand out from under Harry’s. His image in the circle vanishes, leaving Harry’s alone, but he doesn’t sit down. Instead he places the hand that had been on the banister onto Harry’s shoulder and stays close beside him.

“Well then,” says Dumbledore. “Harry, what about your home circumstances makes you feel that your aunt and uncle are not fit guardians?”

“I had thought you knew, sir,” Harry says. “Professor Sprout said you’d be hearing about the cupboard and all when she came to introduce me to magic.”

Harry can’t see from where he is if Dumbledore’s expression changes, but his voice seems purposefully light when he says, “Professor Sprout did recount a moderate concern, but nothing that to me warranted your removal from your aunt and uncle’s home, Harry. I wrote them a letter about the issue, and when you arrived at Hogwarts and did not follow up with her or myself, I assumed things had improved.”

Harry tilts his head, considering that. “Well, I suppose you were right. They did put me in Dudley’s second bedroom instead of continuing to make me sleep in the cupboard under the stairs, like I did during the rest of my time living there.”

Shouts of outrage from the crowd. Harry steels himself and continues, as if it doesn’t bother him at all to admit to any of this, “They never liked me much, you see, Headmaster. And they hate magic. I had no idea I was a wizard, growing up, nor that Sirius was alive, but you can understand that I jumped at the chance to live in a place that I belonged when I met him and found out that he wanted me.”

“I see,” Dumbledore says gently. “I apologize for not taking Professor Sprout’s concerns more seriously, then, and for not following up with you.”

“It’s alright. I don’t think it’s your fault, Professor.” That’s not true, but Harry’s not here to undermine Dumbledore’s authority. “You take good care of us at Hogwarts, but you can’t know everything—and if there were something I’d wanted you to know, I’d have told you. As it was… I’m very glad that Sirius cared enough to look into it. And now all we want is for me to be able to live with him, and never have to go back to my aunt and uncle.”

Dumbledore nods. “That seems fair, Harry. In that case, unless there are arguments, I shall consider this a successful suit for custody by Lord Black.”

He gazes around the room, but none of the Peers indicate a desire to speak for a moment… and then Lucius Malfoy stands up. It couldn’t be anyone else: Harry has never met him, but he’s as blond as his son and just as pointy-faced. He’s seated across the room from the Black box, and so Harry can see the way he looks up at the box, instead up at Dumbledore, when he places a hand on his family’s crest.

“The Wizengamot recognizes Lord Malfoy,” Dumbledore says, and Harry’s projection-self shimmers away to make room for Lucius’s, though when he makes to remove his hand from the Black crest, Sirius quietly tells him not to.

“Thank you, Chief Warlock,” Lucius says. “Mr. Potter’s statements are certainly enough for me to believe that he ought to be removed from the home of his muggle relatives posthaste… however, I would question whether Lord Black should be the one to assume custody.

“After all, I am sure all of us here remember that when Lord James Potter and his wife were declared incompetent and placed in St. Mungo’s, Lord Black, then Mr. Black, declined to assume custody of his godson as their Will requested. That forfeit makes me wonder why he now wishes to take Mr. Potter as his ward and his Heir, when there are others who could take him in and Lord Black himself has other, closer relatives whom he might accept as his Heir.”

Sirius reaches forward to place his hand on the crest above Harry’s, and Dumbledore says, “The Wizengamot recognizes a rebuttal from Lord Black.”

This time when Sirius’s image appears, Malfoy’s doesn’t disappear. Instead, they stand facing one another, a study in shining opposites. Malfoy is wearing white robes edged in pale golden yellow, tall and slim, with traditionally aristocratic features that make him a study in masculine beauty and controlled hints at power and wealth. Sirius, on the other hand, is a dark and striking figure, of equal height but much wilder intensity, and he leans forward slightly as he speaks.

“When James and Lily—Lord and Lady Potter, and don’t think any of us missed your omission of her title, Lord Malfoy—were attacked, I was a young man with a dangerous job and no idea of how to be a father. I had no confidence that I could have taken care of Harry, and believed that he would have a better life if allowed to go to his aunt and uncle. I was wrong, and believe me when I say that the depth of regret I feel for having made that decision is inexpressible. However, despite their abuse, my godson, the son of my heart, has grown up into an incredible child with vast potential, and I intend to do everything in my power to give him what he needs to live up to that, and that includes making him my Heir.

“We haven’t formally moved on to the discussion period allowed for whether or not the Wizengamot believes Harry is an acceptable choice for my Heir, but I’m going to say my piece about it now,” Sirius says, and steps up close to the banister, so that his projection-self steps right into the space of Malfoy’s. “Not one of you can argue that he isn’t an excellent choice. Instead you make your case now, Lord Malfoy, because you know that if Harry becomes my Heir, you’ll be barred now and forever from any sort of grasp on the House of Black. Just looking at him, you know that you see before you a boy who will one day be an eminently powerful wizard, and with the power of this House behind him, he’ll be nigh-unstoppable. Not the kind of person you want associated with me, of course.

“But for that very same reason, you have no case to make that would ever justify denying Harry the right to the seat of Heir. He might be new to the magical world in many ways, but magic will always tell. You all can see that he belongs among us, and I will see him take his place here—and, in fact, I’d like to see you try to stop me.”

There’s a long and profound silence. Then Lord Ogden laughs and rises in his seat to applaud briefly before placing his hand on his family’s crest. Dumbledore recognizes him, and then he says, “Quite the speech, Sirius. I believe you have made your point quite roundly.”

“Thank you, Tiberius.”

Lord Ogden nods and then looks over at Malfoy, whose face is pale and pinched, looking altogether thwarted. “Well, Lord Malfoy?” he says. “Care to add to your previous questions, or has Lord Black addressed your concerns?”

“He has,” Malfoy says, his voice tight, and sits back down, his image vanishing from the circle.

Lord Ogden vanishes too. Harry’s image reappears beside Sirius’s, even as Sirius looks around the room and asks, “Is there any other disagreement?”

There’s none, fortunately. Dumbledore then says, “Perhaps then we might proceed directly to the confirmation vote?” He pauses for a moment, but when no one else steps forward, he continues, “In that case: does the Wizengamot hereby confirm that the judgement of Lord Black in selecting his Heir is sound and uncompromising, that he has chosen well and wisely, and that his Heir will in days to come stand well in his stead on behalf of their shared House? All in agreement, raise wands.”

All around the room, wands go up, lit at their tips to register their agreement. It’s most of the room—at least eighty percent, Harry thinks, though he can’t count quickly enough to be entirely sure.

“All opposed?”

This time, no wands go up, and Harry sighs a quiet sigh of relief. Sirius, beside him, smiles.

Dumbledore says, “Any abstentions?”

There are a few of those, but of course it doesn’t matter now what Lord Malfoy or Madame Parkinson or any of the rest of their odious crowd think. The vote passes; a moment later, Dumbledore says so. The projection of Sirius down in the circle bows, and Harry hurriedly follows his example.

“My thanks to my Peers and to our Minister and our Chief Warlock,” Sirius says, and then pulls both his and Harry’s hands off of the crest together.

Up in the box, Sirius sits down again in his chair and Harry sits next to him, and then Sirius turns to Harry and says, “Congratulations, Heir Black.”

Chapter Text

Harry gets a lot of mail between the Wizengamot session and his birthday. Sirius had shuffled him out of the Wizengamot chamber fairly quickly once the session was over, only pausing briefly to let Harry say goodbye to his friends and to exchange a few words with Lord Ogden, and then they’d dodged the press and returned home. Sirius had owled the statement he’d prepared to the Daily Prophet as soon as they’d gotten back to the flat, and the next morning, the whole magical world had known that Harry Potter was the new Heir Black.

It seems like pretty much everyone has something to say about it. Of course he’s gotten letters from his friends, including Hermione who has kept up her Daily Prophet subscription despite being back in the muggle world for the summer, but he’s also gotten letters of congratulation from a number of Wizengamot Peers, from Heads and Heirs to Houses, and a number of Heads of Families. One is from a woman named Marigold Dunbar, apparently the head of the Dunbar Family. Her letter was longer than most of the rest he received, and in it she expressed concern for the fate of the House of Potter. She’d signed the letter Marigold Dunbar vPotter, Head of the Dunbar Family.

That one Harry had brought to Sirius, and they’d had a long conversation about the whole thing. The Dunbars are one of the few remaining vassal families to the House of Potter, it turns out. Their daughter is Harry’s age; he vaguely remembers her having been sorted into Gryffindor. Sirius doesn’t know why they haven’t renounced their vassalage already, so he helps Harry to draft a letter back that asks that exact question, but also tells Madame Dunbar that Harry has no intention of dissolving the House of Potter, and that he’ll sort out the confusion of Headship when he comes of age, if it doesn’t become an issue sooner.

Most people seem pleased with Harry’s Heirship, or at least inclined to be polite about it. Sirius says that he’s checked the wards and it looks like a few Howlers have been caught, but all of them were addressed to Sirius himself. What Hogwarts is going to be like, neither of them can be sure, but if Blaise and Theo’s letters are anything to go by the shape of things in Slytherin is likely to shift.

But that’s a problem for September. Still in July, Harry has a birthday to celebrate. He helps Sirius mail party invitations to a few of his friends; they’ll be hosting a little gathering at the flat for family and a few Gryffindor friends, and then Harry’s invited Blaise and Theo out to dinner in Diagon Alley afterward, because he doesn’t really think it’s a good idea to trap them in the same room as Sirius, who makes them nervous, and Hermione and Neville and Ron, who make them roll their eyes. He’s never really celebrated his birthday before, but he’s excited. If Dudley’s birthdays are anything to go by, there will be cake and presents, and he’ll have a lot of people paying him a lot of attention. The first two things he definitely wants; he just hopes that Sirius won’t fawn over him like Aunt Petunia did to Dudley.

Fortunately, that doesn’t seem likely to happen. Harry is woken on the morning of his birthday by a ginormous black dog bounding onto his bed and licking a huge wet stripe up his face and refusing to get off until Harry has laughed so much that his ribs are sore and Remus has come into the room to scold Padfoot for being a pest. Remus makes a full English breakfast, with things that Harry has only ever eaten at Hogwarts: bacon and scrambled eggs, fried tomatoes and mushrooms, toast and baked beans and black pudding. It’s more food than the three of them can get through, even with Remus indulging the depths of his appetite, enhanced as it is by his lycanthropy, and it’s all the more delicious for having been made by hand just for Harry.

After breakfast, Harry is shooed out of the kitchen by Sirius to help Remus blow up balloons and hang them around the house. Wizards don’t need helium to make them hang in the air or tape to stick them to the walls; Remus patiently teaches Harry the Sticking Charm, which he manages after a few tries; Remus dutifully reminds him that he’s not supposed to use magic outside of school, but then with a wink says that since this is a registered magical residence, it’s alright if Harry brings out his wand for a bit of practice while he’s home.

Home, Harry thinks, beaming, and cheerfully helps with finishing the decorating. The Doghouse is his home now: the place where he has breakfast and celebrates his birthdays, and gets his hair ruffled when he does the Sticking Charm correctly, and can hear Sirius’s cursing in the kitchen when his less-than-practiced dishwashing charm splashes him with water. He thinks he could get used to that thought.

Around noon, there’s a knock on the door. Harry bounces up from where he’d been playing Exploding Snap with Sirius to pass the time and distract himself from the small pile of gifts that had appeared on the coffee table to go answer it, and finds himself faced not with his friends as he’d hoped, but with a group of three strangers: a man and a woman both a few years older than Sirius, the woman sharing his deep grey eyes, the man with a square jaw and a smile, and a younger woman with short-cropped hair dyed a bright pink.

“Hello,” says the older woman. “You must be Harry. I’m your… cousin, I suppose, Andromeda Tonks.”

“Oh!” says Harry. “Hullo. Sirius said you’d be coming. Er, come in.”

He opens the door wider to allow the three of them in. Each of them kicks off their shoes in the entryway, the youngest Tonks bumping into the shoe-rack as she does so. Then they follow Harry into the den, where Sirius stands up from the couch with a warm smile. He greets his cousin, calling her “Andi,” and then her husband Ted, and her daughter Nymphadora.

“Thought I’ve told you to call me Tonks,” says Nymphadora, when Sirius gets to her.

“But wouldn’t that just be confusing in this company?” Sirius says, and laughs when she scowls at him. “Come in, sit down.”

They all arrange themselves on the couch; Harry and Nymphadora—call me Tonks, she insists—end up sitting on the floor. The Tonkses all wish Harry a very happy birthday and produce a present, and then Tonks starts telling Harry an outlandish story about Auror training. Apparently her mentor, who she calls “Mad-Eye” in a very affectionate tone, is completely paranoid, and makes a habit of hiding in some truly absurd places to try to catch her off guard—usually with great success.

Her story is interrupted a few minutes in, however, by another knock on the door, and Harry springs up even more eagerly to answer it. This time, he opens the door to find Hermione there, with a woman who shares her features. She gives him a massive hug and immediately starts talking.

“Oh, Harry,” she says. “Happy birthday! I’ve been reading about you in the papers! Are you really some sort of peer now? I hadn’t even realized that the magical world had an aristocracy!”

“I didn’t know either,” Harry admits. “But Sirius has been teaching me a lot, and we decided together that this would be a good idea. Plus, now he gets to adopt me, or at least I can live with him and no one can give him trouble.”

“That’s wonderful,” Hermione says. She’d clearly gotten some idea last year that Harry’s home life wasn’t happy, though she’d never pried for details. “This flat is very nice!”

“It’s very nice to be introduced to your friend,” the woman at Hermione’s shoulder says drily, and Hermione flushes a little.

“I’m sorry, mum,” she says. “Mum, this is Harry Potter. Harry, this is my mum, Helena Granger.”

Mrs. Granger smiles warmly. “A pleasure to meet you, Harry. Hermione’s talked about you a lot.”

“Oh,” says Harry.

“He talks about Hermione often, too,” says Sirius from behind Harry. “I’m Harry’s guardian, Sirius Black; nice to meet you, Mrs. and Miss Granger.”

“And you,” Mrs. Granger replies, and holds her hand out to him to shake. Instead of shaking, Sirius takes her hand and bends to kiss it, then winks at Harry when Mrs. Granger says “Oh!” in a tone quite surprised and delighted.

“No flirting!” shouts Remus from the den, and there’s a burst of laughter, including from Sirius.

“Excuse my partner,” he says to Mrs. Granger, amused. “He’s not as jealous as he pretends.”

“Your… partner?” Mrs. Granger says, looking surprised.

Sirius’s expression cools, and Harry feels a faint stirring of dread. He knows exactly what sort of thing Uncle Vernon or Aunt Petunia might have said about two men living together, and especially their taking in a young boy, and really hopes that Hermione’s mum isn’t about to say anything like it, or take Hermione away and not let them be friends any more.

“Yes,” Sirius says, “my partner. I hope that—”

“Oh, it’s no problem!” Mrs. Granger says hurriedly. “I’m so sorry. I was only surprised—from the things Hermione has told us, it’s always seemed that the magical world was in some ways a bit… ah, out of date. I was only surprised that you could be so open about it; things have really only gone that way in the muggle world in the past decade or so.”

Sirius nods, relaxing again. “I see. Yes, magic does change things quite a bit.”

“I can imagine!” Mrs. Granger says. “My apologies again.” Then she looks down at Hermione and she says, “Have a good time, dear. I’ll be back at four to pick you up.”

Hermione makes an affirmative noise and kisses her mum’s cheek when she leans down, and then Mrs. Granger is headed back down the hall, and Hermione turns to Harry and says, “Sorry about her. She means well.”

“It’s alright,” Harry says. “Your mum seems nice.”

Hermione smiles. “I’m glad you think so. Hello, Mr—er, Lord Black,” she says, turning to him and offering her hand to shake. “Very nice to meet you.”

Sirius takes her hand and bends to kiss it just like he had with her mum, and Harry sees Hermione blush a bit. “A pleasure to meet you too, Miss Granger. Sirius is fine, if you prefer.”

“Then you must call me Hermione,” she insists.

“Come in, come in,” Sirius says, waving both Harry and Hermione back toward the den. “Come sit down. Would you like anything to drink, Hermione?”

She agrees, and soon enough Harry and Hermione are settled on the den floor, both of them with a glass of lemonade and listening to the continuation of Tonks’s story, once everyone’s been introduced. A short while later, Ron and Neville arrive one right after the other. Ron is escorted by one of his older brothers, a stocky young man with shaggy hair the same shade as Ron’s, apparently named Charlie; he chats amiably with Remus for a few minutes before taking his leave. Neville comes with his grandmother, who insists on drawing Sirius aside for a longer conversation, probably about politics if Harry is reading the shift in Sirius’s bearing correctly.

Harry and his three friends, Remus, and Tonks all settle down to play a magical board game that Remus pulls out from the cupboard—with six of them, they’re able to make three teams of two. The game’s rules seem like a mystifying mix of Cluedo and Monopoly, as far as Harry can tell, though he admits to Hermione who he picks as his partner that he’s never actually played either of those, either, only watched. Still, she picks the game up quite quickly and he’s not far behind, and in no time they’re doing quite well.

In the end Remus and Neville emerge victorious, having his a stroke of luck with the dice, but it’s a riot to play. Once they’re done, Sirius comes out of the kitchen with a platter piled high with sandwiches, and says that after lunch they’ll have cake and presents, and then some more time to play games or hang out before Ron, Neville, and Hermione have to go.

The sandwiches (tuna, as per Harry’s request) are quickly devoured, and then Sirius brings out a massive treacle tart—not cake after all, but it’s Harry’s favourite dessert. Everyone sings a slightly discordant “Happy Birthday to You”, and then Harry eats two generous slices of the tart before he has to give up, groaning and clutching his stomach. Sirius laughs at him and promises to dig out a stomach soother from the potions cupboard if Harry’s still feeling unwell in a while, and then declares, “Now, presents!”

Sirius ushers Harry into the den and insists that he sit in a place of honour on his ugly armchair, then grabs a gift from the table and shoves it into his hands. Sirius looks almost more excited than Harry feels, which everyone else clearly notices; when Remus grabs him and forces him to sit down, there’s a laugh.

Each of Harry’s friends has brought a present, and Remus and Sirius have each given him something as well, while the Tonks family brought a joint gift. The gift Sirius handed him was the Tonkses’ gift, so Harry opens that first and finds a box of sweets and the first three books in a series of novels, written for the magical young adult. They look really interesting, about a young boy who goes on adventures around the world, and he thanks them: he’s looking forward to the chance to read some magical fiction.

Ron’s gift is a package of home-made fudge, courtesy of his mum, and a little trio of coupons which say “Get Out Of Prank Free” on them.

“‘S not really from me, I guess,” Ron explains sheepishly. “Though it was my idea, and I had to ask them for it—anyway, that’ll buy you either a quick fix for any prank Fred and George play, or a week of immunity if you really need some time to study or something without being bothered.”

“Brilliant,” Harry says, having witnessed some of the jokes played by the twins last year. Nothing harmful, of course, but the Slytherins are frequent targets and he thinks it’ll buy him some reputation if his Housemates think that he has some sort of secret in with them. “Thanks, Ron.”

“No problem, mate.”

Hermione’s gift is a new planner for the next school year and another slim book with plain lined pages, which she says he can use as a journal if he’d like.

“You said you were learning to meditate,” she says. “Sometimes writing down your thoughts can help you get them out of your head, so it’s easier to clear your mind. I keep a journal—it really helps my focus, I think.”

Harry grins and thanks her too. Sirius had mentioned recently that keeping a journal, either just for dreams or in general, could be helpful in learning Occlumency, so he’ll be sure to put this to good use.

Neville’s gift is less utilitarian, but still very nice. It’s a handsome steel bracelet that looks like a snake with tiny emerald eyes. When he puts it on, it warms to his body heat rapidly and then twitches and twines tighter around his wrist, then looks up and flicks its tongue at him before settling back into stillness.

“Whoa,” Harry says, shaking back his sleeve to look at it better. “Neat, Neville.”

“My grandmother helped me pick it out,” Neville says. “It doesn’t really do anything other than what it just did, it’s a pretty simple enchantment, but I thought you’d like it.”

“I do,” Harry assures him. “I’ll definitely wear it. Thank you!”

Neville just grins back.

Then all that’s left are the two gifts from Sirius and Remus. Sirius’s is a single envelope, and Remus’s a package. Harry reaches for Remus’s gift first, but Sirius stops him and says, “Better open mine first, pup. They go together.”

Intrigued, Harry reaches instead for the envelope and opens it up. There’s a birthday card inside with magically animated drawing on the front of a person on a broom looping across the card trailing clouds to spell “Happy Birthday”. When he finishes his run and flies off the bottom corner, the letters fade and he flies on again at the top to restart. Harry flips the card open and a sheet of folded parchment inside nearly falls out, which he almost unfolds and then forces himself to read the card first.

Here’s to another high-flying year! It says in printed letters, and below Sirius and Remus have both signed with their love, so Harry sets it aside and opens the sheet of parchment.

On it is a picture of a broom. Specifically, it’s a picture of a Nimbus 2001, which Harry had seen in a catalogue that Sirius had been looking at only a week ago. The newest, fastest broom on the market, and Harry had been quietly covetous of it, wanting to know what it would be like to cut through the skies on something like that.

“What…?” Harry says, holding up the drawing.

Sirius is grinning. “Well, wrapping the actual thing would’ve spoiled the surprise pretty quick, don’t you think?”

“The actual—Sirius!” Harry shouts, joyful, and launches himself out of the armchair to give his godfather a massive hug. “I can’t believe it!”

“You’d better!” Sirius says, and hugs him back just as hard. “You have to promise you’ll try out for Quidditch next year, alright? If you’ve gotten any of your dad’s talent, between you and the broom you’ll blow the rest of them out of the water.”

“A Nimbus 2001!” Ron cries, having picked up the parchment from where Harry had flung it in his rush to hug Sirius. “Blimey, Harry! And, oy, Sirius, don’t you have any House loyalty? No one on the Gryffindor team’s got anything on this!”

“Sorry, Ron,” Sirius says, pulling back from the hug. “Much as it pains me to know he’ll be using it to kick Gryffindor’s arses, Harry comes first for me.”

Ron huffs, but it seems good humoured. He hands Harry back the parchment and says, “Well, can we see it? Maybe have a go?”

Sirius laughs and gets up from his seat on the couch. “I’ll be right back.” He ducks down the hallway into his and Remus’s bedroom, and comes back a moment later holding the broom. It’s slender and graceful and looks like it’ll cut the air like an arrow, and Harry can’t wait to get on it and give it a go. He takes it eagerly from Sirius hands when he offers it, and runs his hands down the broomstick. It’s smooth and strong, and he has to pass it to Ron so that his friend can examine it and hug Sirius again.

“Thank you so much,” Harry says, his voice muffled in Sirius’s chest. “I love it.”

“Figured you would,” Sirius says, and ruffles Harry’s hair. “Go on, open Remus’s gift too.”

Harry nods and does so while Ron admires the broom, and finds that Remus’s accompanying gift is a care kit for the broom and a pair of fingerless leather gloves for flying. He hugs Remus too for good measure, and then says, “So, can we go out for a fly?”

“Somehow I knew you’d ask that,” Sirius says. “I got us a portkey to a park where you can fly.”

From the couch, Andromeda clears her throat. “I think we’ll take our leave, if it’s all the same to you, Sirius.”

“Of course,” Sirius says immediately. “Thanks for coming, Andi.”

“Wouldn’t have missed it,” she says kindly in her low, smooth voice, and then she turns to Harry and says, “It was a pleasure to meet you, Harry. Perhaps next time we’ll get to talk a bit more.”

Harry nods, a little embarrassed at having basically ignored her and Ted. Fortunately, they don’t seem to mind so much, and after all three Tonkses bid Harry, Sirius, and Remus adieu, they leave. Remus goes into the kitchen to fetch the portkey while Harry and his friends put on coats and shoes. Harry races to his room to grab his Snitch, then returns to stick his new gloves in his pocket and grab the broom, too. The portkey is a slightly bent whisk, which everyone puts their hand on at Sirius’s order to grab on. Ron and Neville don’t seem perturbed by this, but Harry and Hermione have a chance to exchange confused looks before Harry feels like a giant hook has caught behind his bellybutton and they’re all being spun up into the air, whirled about violently, and then thumped back to the ground somewhere entirely different. Harry staggers on landing and falls on his bum, the Nimbus landing in the grass beside him, and he shakes his head to fend off the dizziness.

“I hate magical travel,” Harry announces, making everyone else laugh, and Remus reaches down to haul him up back onto his feet. Hermione seems to have managed not to fall, but she does look a little green.

“That really is very unpleasant,” she says. “Has anyone ever done experiments to try to make it less violent?”

“Mm,” Remus says in a considering tone, and then starts talking about some article he’d read about the state of portkey research, which Hermione looks fascinated by and everyone else swiftly tunes out.

“Well,” says Ron, “we’re here. Gonna try out that broom, Harry?”

Harry nods, bending down to straighten it out on the ground. Then he looks around, trying to get his bearings. They seem to have arrived in a large open field, with a town visible some distance away. “Where exactly are we?” Harry asks, as he pulls on his flying gloves.

“Magical park space,” Sirius says. “Basically a bit of land set up with muggle repelling charms and some basic illusion wards, so that magical city folk have a place to go and fly or whatnot if they don’t have a warded yard.”

Harry nods. Then he puts his hand out over the broom and commands, “Up!”

The broom snaps to his hand so quickly it’s almost unbelievable after a year of dealing with Hogwarts’ clunky school brooms. Neville and Ron both go wide-eyed, Ron from excitement and Neville from second-hand nerves. Harry doesn’t hesitate in mounting the broom and kicking off. He rises swiftly into the air, smooth and even, and once he’s got about fifteen feet of lift he leans forward and makes a circuit, then a wider one, testing the broom’s responsiveness, and then he leans down and makes the same loop as fast as he can: very fast indeed, in fact. On the ground, Ron cheers, and Harry tilts himself again to race skyward, then does a loop, and then another one because the first was so fun. Then he dives, pulls up less than ten feet off the ground with the sound of the wind rushing in his ears, and buzzes over his friends’ heads. Ron is still cheering, as is Sirius.

“You’re a natural!” Sirius shouts. “Brilliant, Harry!”

“Woohoo!” Harry shouts back, and does another few loops up high before returning to the ground, his hair tousled and a grin splitting his face. “Sirius, this is amazing!”

“You’re amazing!” Sirius says, and hugs Harry.

“Brilliant!” Ron says, running over. “Could I have a go, Harry?”

“Sure,” Harry says, and offers the broom to Ron, who grabs it reverently before mounting and rising into the air to try it out. He does a few small tricks himself, mostly just little loops and a corkscrew spin that Harry thinks he’d like to try himself, though nothing as daring as Harry’s dive.

After a while, he comes back down, and Harry offers to broom to both Neville and Hermione. As he’d expected, both of them say a firm no, and so Harry and Ron take turns for a while on the broom, trading off and daring each other to try out new tricks. Harry pulls out his Snitch, too, so that they can take turns chasing after it. Ron takes a turn or two to warm up, but then he’s matching Harry for daring, though he doesn’t have half as much luck with the Snitch, and they pass an excellent half-hour before Harry decides he’s had enough for the moment. Really he thinks he could stay out there all day, but he doesn’t want to neglect Hermione and Neville any more, and Hermione in particular has looked more and more nervous as their tricks got riskier. They portkey back to the Doghouse and Harry stows his broom and Snitch reverently in his room, then comes to sit in the den with his friends.

Without the distraction of the board game from earlier, they take the opportunity to catch up on their respective summers so far. Hermione had gone to Paris for two weeks with her parents. Neville and Ron had both stayed home, Ron playing modified Quidditch with his siblings and honing his chess strategy against his father, Neville stuck in lessons on comportment and history and estate management with his grandmother.

“She’s only getting more and more strict,” Neville sighs. “I’d always thought it wasn’t possible. But I guess now that I’m older, she wants me to start doing more of my duties as Heir.”

This seems to remind Hermione of something, and she sits bolt upright. “Harry!” she says. “You’re Heir Black now!”

“Yeah,” he says cautiously. “Sirius and I decided it would be a good idea.”

“I don’t understand the magical government at all,” Hermione says. “I’ve been trying to read up since I heard about you, but there’s so little information in the books!”

“They don’t like muggleborns trying to get involved,” Neville says. “The old pureblood families, I mean. Especially the Dark ones, but the Light and the Grey have got conservative factions too.”

“That’s rubbish!” Hermione declares. “It’s my government, isn’t it?”

He shrugs uncomfortably and glances at Harry. “Yeah. Well, it governs you. But there’s lots of rules about muggleborns getting votes, and they seem to reckon that if you can’t get a vote, no reason you should know about any of it.”

Harry nods and says to Hermione, “I got lucky with Sirius and Remus. Otherwise I wouldn’t know anything about any of this either. The House of Potter isn’t very powerful, but I’d have had a vote and never known about it, probably.”

“The Slytherins would’ve told you,” Neville says. “You room with Theodore Nott Jr., right?”

Harry nods. “Yeah, he and Blaise have, uh, tried to teach me some stuff. But I don’t much like politics, so—”

“So why get involved at all?” Ron says abruptly. He’s scowling when Harry looks over at him. “Better not to get wrapped up with all that. That’s what my mum says, and I think she’s right—it’s all just rich people and Slytherins not getting anything done and acting superior about it.”

Harry raises an eyebrow. “Can’t really avoid it, can I?”

“Sure you could,” Ron says.

“No, he can’t,” Neville cuts in. “C’mon, Ron. Your family might not like pureblood politics much, but you are purebloods. When your brother retires from Gringotts, he’ll be eligible to take the Prewett seat. And I’m just as stuck with it all as Harry is, but even if it weren’t for my being born Heir Longbottom I think I’d want to be involved, because it’s my family, and people like us, good people, being in the Wizengamot is the only way the magical world’s ever actually going to get better for people like Hermione and for less powerful Families like the Weasleys.”

Ron looks away, but Harry and Hermione both stare at Neville with surprise and, on Harry’s part, some pleasure. It’s always a bit of a shock when Neville shows his spine like that, because he does it so rarely that Harry keeps forgetting he has one.

“Thanks, Neville,” Harry says.

Neville flushes. “You’re welcome. Sorry, Ron. Didn’t mean to bite your head off, there.”

“S’alright,” Ron says, but he sounds grumpy, and after that he doesn’t take much part in the conversation. Harry and Neville try to answer some of Hermione’s questions about the Wizengamot and being Heirs, but eventually Harry has to recruit Remus, who’s much better at explaining these things. He ends up grabbing a few books off the shelves to lend to Hermione, at which point she finally lets it go and they’re able to play a few games of Exploding Snap and return to lighter topics.

Not long after that, Hermione’s mum returns, and then Neville’s grandmother, then Ron’s brother. Once they’re all gone, Harry flops down onto the couch and sighs happily. Sirius comes over and ruffles his hair, making Harry complain and swat at him, and he laughs.

“Good birthday?” he asks.

“The best,” Harry says.

“Well,” says Sirius. “It’s not over yet.”


 

That evening, Sirius, Harry, and Remus get dressed up in nice but not overly fancy robes and go out for dinner in Diagon Alley. They’re joined by Blaise and Theo, because Harry hadn’t wanted to neglect two of his friends on his birthday, even if they’re a different sort of friends than Hermione, Neville, and Ron. It’s not quite as much fun as his birthday party, but Theo and Blaise are both smart and interesting to talk to, and it’s sort of fascinating to watch them interact with Sirius and Remus, mostly because they treat Sirius like he’s royalty and Remus like he’s also royalty by virtue of being Sirius’s partner, so they have to be extra polite to cover for the fact that he clearly makes them nervous. Probably, Harry reckons, it’s about the werewolf thing, and he resolves to set them straight in September.

For the evening at hand, he instead makes a bit of a game of trying to get his friends to either forget that Sirius is there (and then they remember and get sort of hilariously jumpy when he inevitably interjects with a joke), or that Remus is anything other than just a very interesting person to talk to (and then they remember and pointedly ignore him for a few minutes). Sirius and Remus catch on pretty quickly, and seem amused, which Harry takes as license to keep doing it. All the better to get them used to the sort of company he keeps.

They both give him gifts of jewelry. Blaise’s gift is a pair of dark jade cufflinks without a design, but the stones are so beautiful that they don’t really need to be carved. They’re understated enough to be worn with a Hogwarts uniform, Harry thinks, and the colour will match Harry’s House crest. Theo gifts Harry a small filigree silver cuff which he explains is meant to be worn in a person’s hair.

Sirius nods at that approvingly, and says, “Up to you, of course, Harry, but it’s very traditional for young men—and men who’d like to think they’re young—of aristocratic Pureblood families to grow their hair out and wear it long. And it might make yours a bit more manageable.”

“Okay,” Harry says, and thanks Theo sincerely for the gift, as he had Blaise. Both, he thinks, will go well with the snake bracelet that Neville gave him.

After dinner, Harry, Sirius, and Remus stroll along Diagon Alley to the Apparition Point near the Leaky Cauldron and Apparate out, Sirius with his arm wrapped tight around Harry. They reappear not in the alleyway near the Doghouse as Harry had been expecting, but in a different, cleaner alley surrounded on either side by the high walls of London townhouses in a part of the city Harry had never seen before. They emerge out onto the street and Sirius leads them up the block, then pauses in front of two houses numbered 11 and 13.

Sirius clearly sees Harry’s confusion, because he leans down and he whispers into Harry’s ear, “The Black townhouse is at Number 12 Grimmauld Place.” Harry frowns up at him, but then when he looks again, there it is, as if it had always been there: another townhouse, identical to those beside it if slightly more grungy, with a silver 12 placed on its front door, which otherwise has nothing but an ornate knocker.

“Whoa,” says Harry.

“Fidelius Charm,” Sirius says as he steps forward to unlatch the gates. “A nifty bit of magic. Complicated, though.”

“How does it work?” Harry asks, following Sirius.

From behind Harry, Remus says, “It’s used to hide locations. Only a certain person, or persons, are designated Secret-Keepers, who are able to tell the Secret to others. And if you haven’t heard the Secret, you can’t ever see or know the location of the place hidden by the charm.”

“Neat,” Harry says. He pauses behind Sirius, who’s stopped on the doorstep to press his hand to the door, murmuring something under his breath. After a moment, he finishes and opens the door with a wave of his wand, gesturing Harry and Remus through first, then stepping inside himself.

The foyer of 12 Grimmauld place is dark and dreary. It seems clean, dust- and cobweb-free, but the carpet is old and darkened by the tromping of many feet, and the wallpaper has a dark pattern that makes the whole space feel closed-in. Harry immediately shrinks close to Sirius, something tightening in his chest.

“We won’t be here long,” Sirius murmurs quietly. “Kreacher!”

There’s a pop, and then the strangest creature Harry has ever seen is standing in front of their small group. It’s small, with an oversized head capped with large, floppy ears, and giant green eyes which reflect the light like a cat’s. It’s wearing what looks like a pillowcase, tidy but grey with age, and it has spindly hands and feet; its skin is greenish-grey. Harry remembers, looking at it now, that he’d seen a similar creature depicted in gold in the Ministry’s terribly fountain, and goggles at it a bit.

“Master has summoned Kreacher?” it says in a croaky voice, tilting its head to peer at Harry and Remus. “Master has brought guests.”

“Harry and I will be going up to the ritual room. Presumably it’s been kept tidy? And prepare tea for Remus while he waits,” Sirius says.

“Yes, Master,” the creature says. “The ritual room is ready, Master. I will fetch tea for Master’s wolf.”

Sirius sighs, but doesn’t have the opportunity to say anything before the creature pops away again. “Sorry,” he says to Remus, with a tired tone, as if he’d made that same apology many times.

“It’s really alright, Sirius,” Remus says. “I don’t mind. Better than the things that blasted portrait used to call me.”

As Sirius leads them into the next room, a sitting room, Harry asks, “What was that thing?”

Sirius blinks at him. “Right,” he says. “Suppose you wouldn’t know. Kreacher is the Black family’s house elf—he’s about a million years old, I think… er, not actually. Anyway, house elves are magical creatures which can be magically contracted into service with wix bloodlines, and they do housework, cooking and cleaning and stuff, whatever you need, really. Kreacher and I don’t get along all that well, since I hate this house and hated living here and hated my mother, who he worshipped, but we managed to sort things out after I became Lord Black and he looks after Grimmauld Place in exchange for my not bothering him very often, except for annual ward maintenance and special circumstances.”

Harry nods. “Okay.”

“And this,” Sirius says, gesturing to the wall of the room they’ve just entered, “is the Black family tree.” The wall he points to is covered by a massive tapestry in black and silvery, depicting a tree covered in shimmering names. Several have been burned until illegible, and Harry wanders over to look at it while Remus takes a seat on the loveseat. A moment after he sits, a tea tray appears on the coffee table, in much the same way that food appears on the tables Hogwarts, and he begins softly clinking about making himself a cup.

“It’s cool,” Harry says, tracing his eyes along the tapestry until he can find Sirius’s name. It’s got a black scorch mark around it, and by all rights shouldn’t be legible, but it shines brightly and unnaturally silver, cutting through the gloom. Harry points to it. “What happened there?”

“My mother burned me off after I ran away,” Sirius says softly, coming over to trail his fingers down the branch that connects him to Walburga Black and Orion Black. The tapestry shimmers and glows as he touches it, and fades again when he withdraws his hand. “When I became Lord Black, my name reappeared. And after tonight, your name will be on here too — actually, if I wanted to muck about with the spell, you could be on it now, since you’re descended from Dorea.”

He points up to a spot on the family tree a few branches distant from himself, where Harry can see Dorea Potter and Charlus Potter. His grandparents.

“Oh,” Harry says softly, and reaches up to touch their names. They both shimmer weakly when he does, not as much as when Sirius touches the tapestry, but… the magic knows him. “Wow.”

“Yeah.” Sirius gives him a moment to stare, to look over all the names, and then he says, “We should get going. Come on.”

Harry nods and follows Sirius back into the hall, saying a quick see-you-later to Remus as they go. They head upstairs one floor, and Sirius leads them through a neat study with an upholstered chair sitting behind an old-fashioned writing desk and a collection of full-to-bursting bookshelves, and then through another door which appears only when Sirius approaches it. That lets them into a small room, perfectly circular, which Harry thinks really shouldn’t make sense.

“It’s magical space,” Sirius explains quietly. There’s a hush in the room which encourages the hush in his voice, a little like being in a library. “Intrinsically tied to the magic of the house, and therefore the bloodline; if the bloodline ever dies out entirely, the house will collapse, and this room and all of the Black family magic performed within it and tied to it will collapse as well.”

“Whoa,” Harry says. “So… the magic we do today, the ritual, it’ll sort of… stay here?”

“That’s right,” Sirius says. He takes off his cloak and hangs it on a hook on the back of the door, then reaches out to do the same with Harry’s. “You’ll be becoming a part of the bloodline, the House and the actual physical house, in the way that I am. This is the House of Black’s ancestral home—well, sort of, it’s complicated—and it’s the heart of the family in a lot of ways, even if I don’t come here often, and don’t live here.”

“Why do you hate it so much?” Harry asks as he wanders to the centre of the room. There’s a pedestal there with a round black stone bowl placed upon it, which is carved with runes inlaid with silver all around the edge. It’s understated but beautiful.

“My mother was a terrible person,” Sirius says. “I hated her. She abused me and my brother, though I shielded him from a lot of it… which, maybe I shouldn’t have. Maybe he’d never have bought what she was selling, if he’d known better what she really was.”

Harry nods. He thinks about the Dursleys, and then stops thinking about them, turning to Sirius. He’s got a new family now. “So, what do we do?”

Sirius smiles. “Stand there.” He points, and then gives a series of other directions as he readies himself. When they’re ready, Harry and Sirius are standing on either side of the ritual bowl, each with their sleeves rolled up to bare their forearms, and Sirius has in one of his hands a small, sharp knife of gleaming metal.

He takes the knife first to the palm of his own hand, and as his blood drips into the bowl, he says solemnly, “Familia magica.” Light flares from the bowl, shining silver, and then recedes until the bowl seems to be filled with swirling black and silver light, settled like mist but never still, shifting and occasionally flaring to wrap tendrils of silver around Sirius’s hand.

Sirius smiles an exhilarated smile, his eyes seeming luminescent in the ritual room’s dim light. “Filium adoptandum conveni,” he continues, and Harry reaches out his own hand, hearing his cue. Sirius cuts his palm, and Harry hisses at the pain but doesn’t pull away, nor does he flinch at the flare of light when his blood drips into the swirling silver and black.

Then Sirius takes his hand, the wounds pressing together, and their mingled blood trickles down. “Blood to blood,” Sirius intones. “Life to life.”

“Blood to blood,” Harry repeats. They’d gone over this so many times he thinks he could do it in his sleep, but the words don’t feel practiced—they feel real. “Life to life.”

Coniungamus. Augeamus. Vigeamus.” These words Harry and Sirius speak in unison. As the last syllable leaves their mouths, the light flares a third time, wrapping around both of their hands. Now Harry feels what Sirius must have felt earlier: a blaze of energy within himself, racing through his veins like lightning. Every sense is briefly consumed by the flare, and he gasps, clenching his hand around Sirius’s, even though it hurts. It’s like nothing he’d ever felt before, not even like holding his wand for the first time, and he feels for a moment as if he’s left his body, lost in a shining current of something much bigger and older and more powerful than himself, a thousand woven strands of life and history wrapping around him, tying him tightly to a past and a future shared by others: shared by Sirius, who is a beacon before him, the two of them connected by a blazing strand. Then Harry blinks and is back in the dim ritual room, and Sirius’s dark eyes are fixed on his, his expression concerned. Breathless and a little dazed, Harry nods, and Sirius smiles.

He doesn’t let go just yet, however. First, he says, “By blood and word, from this day forward, you are Harry James Potter, son to myself, Sirius Orion Black, by spirit and by magic.”

“By blood and word,” Harry says, and has to clear his throat before he goes on. “From this day forward, you are Sirius Orion Black, father to myself, Harry James Potter, by spirit and by magic.”

Initiare familiae,” Sirius says, and the light around their hands, clinging tendrils of silver mist and black shadow, flares and then fades, leaving only those occasional brushes as the manifestation of the family magic in the ritual bowl reaches out to them. Sirius takes a deep breath, Harry echoing him, and then he goes on.

“You are of the House of Black,” Sirius begins.

“I am of the House of Black.”

“I am Lord Black; you are to be Heir Black.”

“You are Lord Black; I am to be Heir Black.”

Sirius grins wider. “Do you so swear to uphold the honour of the House of Black in your role as Heir, to fight for its future, and to defend its interests?”

“I so swear,” Harry says, resolute. A tendril of silver light raises up from the bowl and twines around Harry and Sirius’s joined hands.

“Do you so swear to love your family in your role as Heir, to respect your friends, and to treat fairly your allies and those who depend on you?”

“I so swear.” A second tendril.

“Do you swear to stay true to those you are sworn to in your role as Heir, never to betray them, and to protect them?”

“I so swear.” A third.

Sirius nods. “Then by these three oaths, you are bound as Heir Black. Iurur.”

A final flare of light, the tendrils wrapping tightly around their hands and flaring hot for a brief second, and then they fade, leaving only tingling remnants of sensation.

Sirius nods meaningfully at Harry, and he looks down at that swirling silver which now dances up to touch his skin as eagerly as it had first touched Sirius. He’s felt it now, in all its depth and power, and he hopes that this has worked, because otherwise he’s pretty sure something terrible is going to happen. But nothing else to be done but test it, so he says, “Familia magica,” and focuses all his will on releasing the magic.

And, sure enough, it recedes, draining down the sides of the bowl like a sink being drained, until the only light left in the room is from the candles on the walls. Sirius releases Harry’s hand and immediately comes around the pedestal to hug him tightly.

“You did a great job,” he says into Harry’s hair. “You were so strong. It’s a lot, I know.”

“It was a lot,” Harry says, hugging back. He’s probably getting blood on Sirius’s shirt, and Sirius is getting blood on his, but he doesn’t care. “There’s so much of it, Sirius.”

“It’ll always be there for you now, if you need it,” Sirius says, taking Harry by the shoulders and pushing him away to look into his eyes. “Don’t get me wrong: it’s dangerous. One of our lessons this summer—well, over the next year or so, probably—will be teaching you enough control over your own magic that you’ll hopefully be able to use the family magic. But I do think you’re strong enough to use it eventually, soon if not now, and I don’t want you to be afraid of it. Okay?”

“Okay,” Harry says, who doesn’t think he has enough energy to consider that right now. When he expresses that exact thing to Sirius, Sirius nods and ushers him back out of the ritual room and downstairs, gathering their cloaks on the way, where Remus is finishing a cup of tea and rises to his feet when he sees them coming.

“Everything went well?” he asks.

“It went wonderfully,” Sirius says. “We’ve got a strong kid. But I think we’re both pretty drained.”

“Bedtime,” Remus agrees. “Can we Floo back?”

Sirius sighs. “I don’t think I’ve got enough in me for mucking with the wards. Can you Side-Along Harry?”

“Of course.”

With that, they head out of 12 Grimmauld Place, back onto the London street. Harry ends up leaning on Sirius, who looks tired himself. He hadn’t even realized how much the ritual had taken out of him until they’d come downstairs, but now he feels a bit like he’s about to fall asleep at any moment. His hand is still both sore and tingling, though when he looks down at it, he realizes that the cut has actually sealed up. He still takes care to wash it gently when they finally get back to the Doghouse and he’s getting ready for bed, because the skin is still tender.

When he comes out of the bathroom and heads for bed, he finds Sirius sitting on the edge of his mattress.

“You feeling okay?” Sirius asks, when he sees him. “I know the family magic can be intense.”

“I’m okay,” Harry says. “Just tired.”

Sirius rises and comes to give him another one of those big bear hugs, and ruffles his hair. “You’re amazing, you know that? I’m proud to have you as my Heir.”

“I’m proud to be your Heir,” Harry says, as sincerely as he can when he can feel exhaustion dragging on him. “I love you, Sirius.”

“Love you too, pup.” Sirius bends to kiss his forehead, then says, “Go to sleep. I’m going to do the same. And tomorrow, we’re going to get properly started on Occlumency. I think you’re ready.”

Harry nods, smiling. “Good night.”

“Good night.”

Sirius slips out of the room, and Harry crawls under the covers. He’s asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow, and he dreams in black and silver.

Chapter Text

 

 

August arrives and runs past at incredible speed, filled with lessons and adventures, in both magical and muggle worlds. Harry sees his friends a few more times—Neville, mostly, who sometimes joins Harry and Sirius for their lessons on politics, for a new perspective, and on Occlumency, of which Neville’s grandmother approves but isn’t herself a master and so cannot teach. Sirius tells Neville quietly after one of their lessons that he’s going to be their DADA instructor in the coming year and plans to give Harry some continuing extracurricular instruction, and that he’ll ask Dumbledore to allow him to do the same for Neville, which Neville seems equal parts nervous and pleased about.

Harry has lessons with Sirius four days a week, and sometimes the other days are unintentionally educational as well; they go see muggle movies and magical plays, visit gardens with fairy populations and take a trip to the British Museum with Hermione and her family. Harry learns to meditate and clear his mind, and which Sirius says is the basics of a lot of things: Occlumency, the Animagi transformation, and wandless magic for those powerful enough—and he thinks Harry is. He tells Neville the same the next time he joins them for a lesson, which makes Neville blush, surprised; the two of them make a quiet pact in Harry’s room when relaxing later that same afternoon that by the end of this school year, both of them will have mastered at least one wandless spell, and will help each other to practice between classes at Hogwarts.

Harry and Neville also study politics together, mostly under Sirius tutelage, though sometimes Mrs. Longbottom has a firm suggestion of some reading she thinks Harry ought to do. The Blacks are a Dark House, and the Longbottoms Light, so they by all rights should be on the opposite sides of things, but in debates with Sirius about the various issues present on the magical world’s political stage, they find themselves agreeing often, which Sirius seems happy about; they rapidly learn strategies for ganging up on him while he plays devil’s advocate, repeating arguments he’s heard pureblood conservatives make in the Wizengamot, or things his own parents had tried to drill into him. But he also sometimes takes the part of an extreme liberal, insisting for example that the Statute of Secrecy should be disbanded entirely so that wixen can live in harmony with muggles, or that all magic should be legal, because isn’t it just about intention? And so Harry and Neville have to learn to argue against that too without accidentally falling back on blood supremacist rhetoric or the arguments of the often magically conservative Light.

It’s immensely interesting and helpful, and Harry reads a lot of history and some magical theory and old newspaper articles, mostly on Remus’s recommendations, to try to educate his own arguments. Neville does the same, and Sirius encourages them to discuss what they learn, share resources, and consult their other contacts—Neville has an infrequent correspondence with Ernie Macmillan, who’s the grandson of the current Lady Macmillan, and with Hannah Abbot, whose uncle is Lord Abbot. Neither of them are Heirs, or even eligible, but they’re close enough to the main branch of each of their families that they’re getting lessons of their own, if less intense than Harry’s and Neville’s, and have their own opinions, learned from different families with different positions in the magical world.

It’s all good in theory. Harry’s more than a little concerned about his ability to put it all into practice in September, when he’s once more thrown into the deep political mire that is Slytherin. The lessons help a bit with the minute-to-minute sort of things, because Neville’s had the etiquette of Heirship drilled into him since he could walk and it’s all brand new for Harry, but knowing how to address Cassius Warrington or whether or not he should shake Gemma Farley’s hand when he sees her again isn’t going to save him if Malfoy calls him any more stupid names or tries insulting his mum again and Harry loses his temper.

So, to help put his mind to rest, Sirius and Harry start going over possibilities in detail. On a day that Neville is absent, Sirius and Harry sit down together and discuss everyone who Harry’s made the acquaintance of in Slytherin and a few he hasn’t, who their Families are vassal to, and for those who are from full Houses, where their votes tend to fall. They discuss Dark, Light, and Neutral Inclination, families that still care and those that don’t. They talk about the teachers, too: apparently Professor McGonagall had once been married to an Urquart, and Dumbledore, as Chief Warlock, is a potent political figure; Flitwick has goblin blood, which is a complicated but powerful alliance as well.

“What about Snape?” Harry asks, unsure if he really wants to know, but also hoping that the answer will be ‘he’s a nobody’ so that he can continue blithely on their campaign of mutual silent disdain. He doesn’t recognize the name from any of the lists Sirius had showed him of Families and Houses and alliances.

Sirius sighs. “He’s complicated.”

“I knew that,” Harry says.

“I suppose you would, dealing with him all the time—not looking forward to that part of being on staff at Hogwarts, I’ll be honest. In any case: not that many people know this, because he keeps it locked down pretty well, but Severus Snape is in fact the unacknowledged Heir of the House of Prince.”

Harry stares. “He’s what?”

Sirius nods. “I know. He doesn’t seem the type, hm? But he is. His mother, Eileen, was the last scion of the family, and when her father passed away Snape became Heir apparent—but her marriage was never recognized by the House and so neither was he as Heir. The issue is, the rest of them are all dead.”

“So why hasn’t the House collapsed, and the seat passed on?” Harry asks. He knows the Malfoys are panting after one of the inherited Ancient and Noble House seats, and Sirius has told him that they actually do have Ancient and Noble status, having enough vassal families with enough history to qualify them… but no seat has become available. Some are close: the House of Prewett is teetering on the edge of losing status and therefore also their seat, though theirs could only pass to another Light House, and so is the House of Prince; the House of Nott, on the other hand, has plenty of support but no Heir, as the House is matriarchal and Theo is the last of the line.

Sirius shrugs. “A number of reasons, varying vassal Family to vassal Family. A number don’t want to see new blood get into the Wizengamot, even a House as theoretically respected as the Malfoys—they’re French, originally, and young enough a lineage to irritate some true traditionalists. Others admire Snape himself; he’s a talented wizard by all rights, the youngest Potions Master maybe ever, and he distinguished himself in the last war. He’s a polarizing figure, because he was a Death Eater and according to Dumbledore turned spy, but that was enough to win respect from types as shady as he is. And some Families have simply been loyal to a given House for so long that they refuse to change allegiance, which has been to my benefit, but by all accounts has been pissing Snape off since he came of age.”

“He doesn’t want to be Lord Prince?”

“Not at all,” Sirius says emphatically. “I asked Dumbledore to prod him about it after I became Lord Black, just to find out where he stood, and from what Dumbledore said to me about it after, he’s really just hoping all the Families will give up, trade their vassalage to another House, and leave him alone. But I reckon most have a few more years of stubbornness in them, and some, like the Flitwicks, have actually given vassalage to the House of Prince in recent years, hoping to see a halfblood in one of the Dark seats.”

“A—” Harry starts, and then decides not to open that can of worms; he can see Sirius’s amusement at his false start. “Right. Why doesn’t he just revoke the vassalage?”

“He’s not acknowledged, remember,” Sirius says. “That’s a right only the Lord of the House has, and Snape won’t accept the role, even for long enough to dismantle the House. I suspect his worry is about the family magic.”

Harry nods. They’d had long talks about family magic, too, and Sirius had let him practice a few times with calling on it, though only small amounts, a trickle of energy rather than the raw living torrent of its entirety. Controlling it was extremely difficult, even with the help of his wand, and Harry had learned well the lesson Sirius had been trying to teach about not trying to use it frivolously. Even just being bound to it came with a weight that Harry is still trying to get used to.

“So what should I do about him?” he asks.

“I don’t really know,” Sirius admits. “I’ll speak to him at Hogwarts; I’m Lord of the House, so really it’s more my issue than yours, but if he treats you badly I’ll have more recourse now that you’re my Heir. Just… keep me up to date on him, too.”

Another nod. They’d discussed possibilities for continuing Harry’s political education at Hogwarts, and decided that part of it should be that they would try to find at least an hour a week to discuss the political moves of Harry’s classmates, to help Harry work through the muddle and become more adept, while also keeping Sirius informed for his own political purposes. Harry’s looking forward to September, because he’ll get to have almost all of the things he loves best in one place: Sirius and Hogwarts. If only Remus could come too, but Sirius says that Remus’s lycanthropy means he has to tread carefully about how much time he spends in the school. He promises to try to visit, though.

Sirius also says that defence lessons will continue into the school year, and he suggests that Harry try out for the Quidditch team—he says that Harry’s a true talent with his Snitch, and though Harry thinks it’s probably mostly flattery, he also knows that Sirius doesn’t lie outright about anything. They already go for a run together a few days a week, Harry and Padfoot, as a part of Harry’s quest to “learn himself” so that he can become an animagus, and though it leaves Harry tired, he also gets stronger and stops getting out of breath as quickly, which Sirius says is very good for duelling. In the afternoons, Sirius teaches Harry a few spells that he can use to protect himself, and promises that there will be more, and plenty of time to practice, once they’re both in the castle and needn’t worry about Harry’s use of magic outside of school being flagged by the Ministry. Altogether, as August draws near to a close, Harry feels significantly more prepared to defend himself physically or with his magic, and while he still isn’t sure his political training will hold up, he’ll at least know how exactly he’s messed up if he does put his foot in his mouth.

The August Wizengamot session is on August 27th, and Sirius suggests that Harry stay home with Remus, then come meet him in Diagon Alley after the session so that they can do Harry’s shopping for school. Harry had gotten his Hogwarts letter a few weeks prior, including his list of books and supplies (Sirius’s assigned text, Practical Defence for the Modern Age, was near the top of the list) shortly after the beginning of August, but they’d chosen to spend the time on other things.

“We’ve left it a bit late,” Sirius sighs, a few days prior. “It’s sure to be a madhouse. But maybe Neville will also have put it off—why don’t you write your friends and ask who still needs to go, Harry?”

Harry does so, but it turns out that everyone has already gone. When he tells Sirius this, Sirius pats his shoulder and says it’s just as well—just the three of them will be easier to manage in and out of shops, whereas with a larger group they’d be liable to lose people. They also have the opportunity to run some more official errands which might have been awkward, depending on their company. On the day, all three of them sleep in and have a late breakfast together, and then Sirius dresses in the regal fashion that he adopts in his role as Lord Black and sweeps out of the flat, a wave directed over his shoulder. Harry and Remus spend most of the day relaxing, Remus sprawling across the couch with a novel and Harry curled into Sirius’s ugly armchair finishing up Mrs. Longbottom’s most recent assigned reading, a collection of somewhat dry essays on magical ethical philosophy by some fellow named Sweetwater. At four thirty, they both get ready to go out, Harry putting on a nicer robe over his shirt and trousers, and grabbing his satchel, and Remus helps him to run a comb through his hair, ineffectual though it may be. They walk down the block and Apparate to Diagon Alley, then get an ice cream while they wait for Sirius to arrive.

When he does, striding out of the crowd with enough presence to make people scurry out of his way, he gives them both a narrow look and says, “I cannot believe you two.”

“What?” Harry says, innocently as possible, and bites off a chunk of waffle cone.

“Something you wanted, Sirius?” Remus says, in the same tone.

Sirius makes a grumpy noise at both of them and points. “I’ll have my payback. But first: Gringotts! The goblins wait for no wix.”

Harry finishes the last few bites of his cone, then laughs when Remus’s attempt to slurp down the last of his milkshake quickly causes him to clutch his head and complain about brain-freeze. Sirius leads the way away from Fortescue’s and cuts a path through the crowd of people swarming in and out of what seems like every shop in Diagon Alley. It is, as Sirius predicted, extremely busy this afternoon, including a number of young wixen with their families doing their Hogwarts shopping for the very first time. However, Sirius’s commanding stride paired with the striking figure he cuts in his formal robes does as good a job of encouraging people to get out of his way when he has Remus and Harry with him as it did when he was on his own. It only takes them a few minutes to get down the Alley to the crooked building that is Gringotts and inside of its imposing doors, and then they find themselves at the end of a queue to see a teller. Fortunately, there are only three or four people in front of them, so within ten minutes Sirius is handing his key up to the goblin behind the tall desk.

As he does, something occurs to Harry, and he says, “Oh! Sirius, wait.”

Sirius looks down at Harry, and the goblin pauses as well.

“Er,” says Harry. “It’s just—do you suppose we could visit the Potter vault today? I’ve got a manifest somewhere with my school things, but I didn’t really… know how to look at it properly, and I forgot to ask you before.”

Sirius looks a little surprised, then shakes his head, laughing. “I honestly forgot as well.” He looks up at the goblin. “I doubt Harry has had a key minted, other than for his trust vault. Can we commission that done today, sir goblin?”

The goblin nods and leans over his desk to say, “Give me your hand, Heir Potter.”

Harry does, and the goblin pricks his hand with a thin dagger that he pulls from apparently nowhere and lets a drop of blood fall onto a sheet of parchment. He then releases Harry’s hand back to him and says, “Gringotts will mail you your keys—for vaults 831 and 540—when they are minted, in a day or two. For today, I shall accompany you down to the vaults and unlock them. Would you like to visit both?”

“Erm,” says Harry. He thinks back to the manifest, as best he can remember it. There’s both money and items in both vaults, but he can’t entirely recall what was where. “Yes, please.”

The goblin nods, then turns to Sirius. “And you would still like to make a withdrawal, Lord Black?”

Sirius confirms that, and then the three of them are invited to follow the goblin, who did not offer his name, down into the vaults. They take another of those exhilarating rides on a mine cart, arriving first at vault 831. The goblin uses another drop of Harry’s blood, drawn from the still-open cut on his hand, and a drag of his own claw to open the door, then stands back to allow them entry.

Inside is a jumble of items, not sorted or organized. In the middle of the vault is a small pile of coins, gleaming silver and gold, and stacked against the walls are… mostly random things. Harry spots a magical painting of Hogwarts in the evening placed against one wall, tilted on its side; there’s a green glass lamp in another corner, and an armchair, and an open box that contains what looks, from a distance, to be a set of silver. He steps in, looking around, and behind him hears Sirius and Remus both make noises of shock as they follow him in. He turns to look and finds that both of them have gone slightly pale, staring around at the items in the vault.

“Right,” says Remus, after a moment. Sirius is still mute. “We knew—I mean, we arranged… but I hadn’t been quite prepared. I forgot… Harry, these are… these are the contents of the cottage in Godric’s Hollow that your parents bought and lived in just before you were born and during the first year of your life.”

“Oh,” says Harry, and looks around at the stuff with new perspective. These are the furnishings his parents, newly-married, about to have a baby, had chosen to fill their house with. It’s not everything that you’d need to furnish a home, but it’s a lot. All of a sudden, he can imagine the painting of Hogwarts, the Whomping Willow’s arms waving, hanging above a mantelpiece; he can imagine his mother—the version he’d seen in the Mirror of Erised, healthy and vibrant—sitting in that armchair. “… Oh.”

Sirius clears his throat. “We… the cottage was sold to the Ministry and has been set up as a sort of museum, a monument to the last war. Some of the original furnishings are still there, and others were destroyed, but anything the Ministry didn’t want or that was sentimental to your parents we made sure was stored here. We were pretty hands off about it though. I haven’t seen these things, except in the few photos I have, in years.”

Harry blinks and files away photos to ask about later, but nods. “Okay,” he says. “Is there… can I look around for a minute?”

“Of course,” Sirius says, and comes forward to pat Harry’s shoulder. “I… think I’ll wait outside.”

He does as promised. Remus stays, and lingers near the armchair, breathing deeply in a way that makes Harry wonder if, to his sensitive werewolf’s nose, the upholstery still smells a little like Harry’s parents. Harry himself skirts around the pile of coins and goes looking through the stuff, prodding the piles of random items. Some things are completely absent—no clothing, for example. But there’s kitchenware and furniture, a few more paintings stacked behind the one of Hogwarts and some framed photographs. Harry picks up one of those, a magical photo of his parents in motion, dancing together in a cobblestone square somewhere. It’s a small photo, and he sets with aside to take away with him and pack into his trunk. In another pile, he finds a wooden box, which, when opened, proves to contain a jumble of jewelry. Clearly a mix of masculine and feminine when he digs through it, it looks like whoever had cleaned up his parents’ house had just grabbed any valuables they saw and threw them together in here.

At the clink of metal, Remus comes over and looks over Harry’s shoulder, then says, “Ah.”

Harry shoots him a questioning look.

“Anything heirloom would have magically reverted to the Potter vault,” Remus explains. “This would be jewelry the two of them bought for themselves or each other during their lifetimes, bar their wedding rings, which are automatically categorized as ‘heirloom’ even though they were new.”

“Oh,” says Harry, and picks up a delicate emerald stud earring. “I…”

“You can come back another day to look more carefully,” Remus says gently.

“… Okay. One minute,” Harry says, and gives one last cursory look, then pulls out a silver chain with a pendant on it shaped like a lily. The flower’s delicate petals are inlaid with chips of some orange stone, and it gleams in the low light of the vault’s torches.

“James wore that,” Remus murmurs. “People would sometimes comment on it—it’s fairly feminine—but he loved it. Not only because Lily bought it for him.”

Harry nods, feeling a little choked up. He closes his fist tightly over the pendant and holds it close, then says, “Should I bring it to him? Do you think—”

“I think he’d want you to have it, Harry,” Remus says. He sounds like he’s trying for gently, but there’s a roughness to his voice, too, that betrays the emotion he must be feeling.

“Okay.” Harry takes a deep breath, then he says, “Just one more minute?”

Remus hums agreeably, tells Harry that he’ll be outside checking on Sirius, and steps away. Harry finishes digging through the pile, and near the bottom finds a cardboard box. Inside there are an assortment of cosmetics and a few bottles of cologne and perfume, and he very carefully unscrews each until he finds a scent he likes. He thinks it might be a woman’s perfume, actually, a slightly spicy floral scent, but the smell makes nostalgia rise within him so strongly that he decides that it has to be this one. He takes the bottle and the necklace, collects the photo, and returns to the door.

Sirius and Remus are standing close, their heads bent together and their hands wrapped around one another, not talking. The goblin is politely turned away, but looks over when Harry emerges and says, “Done?”

“Yeah,” Harry says. His voice is a little rough, and he clears his throat. “I’ll take these three things. Please update the manifest?”

The goblin nods. “If you still have the papers you were given on your first visit, they will be magically updated.”

“Okay,” Harry says.

“What did you find, Harry?” Sirius asks, coming over. He sounds relaxed, maybe a little too relaxed; there’s a tension around his eyes that makes Harry think that he’s still pretty upset.

“These,” Harry says, and shows him and Remus the items. They both smile softly at the photo, and Sirius touches the necklace reverently; when Harry gingerly unscrews the perfume again for them to smell, Sirius just nods and tells Harry softly that it was Lily’s favourite scent, but Remus has to close his eyes for a long moment, the expression on his face a little like he’s just been punched in the gut. Harry puts the items away in his bag, and then, as they walk over to the cart, he drifts over to Remus, and says quietly, “Sorry.”

“No, no,” Remus says. “I… well. Scent is the wolf’s strongest sense, as you know. Very many of my memories of Lily are tied to that smell.”

“Mine too, I think,” Harry says, and tries fumblingly to explain the nostalgia he felt when he first opened the bottle. Remus lays a hand on his shoulder briefly before they climb into the cart, and once they’re out of the cart again and at the next vault, he pulls him into a brief hug.

The next vault is vault 540, the Potter vault proper. They get into this vault the same way they had into the last one, and this one proves to be significantly more massive, as well as thankfully more organized. There’s an enormous pile of money stacked neatly against one wall, and other parts of the vault are occupied with reams of portraits and paintings and tapestries, several towering shelves of old and valuable books, a rack of antique weapons, and multiple tidy boxes of jewelry. Sirius and Remus stride into this vault with much more confidence, and Sirius guides Harry first to the jewelry to point out the wedding and engagement rings that had belonged to his parents. His mum’s engagement ring had been a luminous emerald flanked by two thin chips of diamond set into the band, and his dad’s a masculine band with a rectangle-cut ruby set into the gold. Both had had gold wedding rings, simple bands engraved on the inside with their paired initials and the date of the wedding.

“Lily almost never wore her engagement ring,” Sirius explains. “She was always paranoid about losing it even though it fit her fine and wouldn’t have fallen off, no matter how much she worked with her hands—but it was an heirloom piece, and she cared more about that than what people thought of her for not wearing it. The wedding rings and James’s engagement band were new, custom work.”

“They’re beautiful,” Harry says.

“D’you want to take them? We can grab a chain, too, so you can wear them around your neck.”

Harry shakes his head. “No. But maybe… if there are some Potter House cufflinks or something?”

“Sure, pup.”

They do find several sets of cufflinks, a ring, and a brooch with ornate Ps, or with the rearing (what Sirius calls rampant) horse of the Potter crest. Sirius promises Harry that they’ll find a few pieces with Black heraldry for him as well, when they’re in the Black vault, so that he’ll have his choice, but he comes away quite happy.

They also find a case containing many wands of Potters past. Sirius spends a while looking at Harry with a measuring look, then says, “Why don’t you go ahead and give a few of those a wave, Harry? Normally I’d say you need at least one more year of magic with your magic before it’s under control enough for you to make much use out of a second wand, but you’ve been doing very well with the family magic.”

“Er,” Harry says.

“It’s a good idea,” Remus adds, from where he’s examining a sleeping portrait of a grey-haired man, probably Harry’s many-times great grandfather or something. “If someone uses a Disarming Charm on you, it only takes whatever’s in your hand. If you have a second wand in a wrist or ankle holster, it’ll stay on you, and you’ll still have a chance in a fight.”

Harry nods. “Okay.”

Then he spends a while waving various wands from the case. None of them have explosive reactions, but none feel as good as his holly wand does. Eventually, he finds one, rowan and dragon heartstring according to its tag, that seems tolerable—nothing amazing, but he thinks with some practice he could make it work, which Sirius says is about as much as they could expect while he’s still bonded with another, better suited wand.

There’s not much else in the vault that he wants, though Harry makes a mental note to show Sirius the manifest later so that they can go through the contents more thoroughly together. Harry takes a few coins from the pile so that he’ll have some spending money for the train, ignoring Sirius’s attempted insistence that he’ll give Harry some change, and then finally they head on to the Black vault. Sirius fills a pouch with coins, and Harry stares around in awe at the contents of the vault. Even larger than the Potter vault, and filled with shelves and shelves of items, not to mention the small mountain of money. Heirlooms of every kind, furniture, clothing, art of every sort… it’s a truly impressive collection, the accumulation of hundreds of years of the House of Black’s wealth. Sirius laughs when he sees the look on Harry’s face and promises him they’ll come back another day, and he’ll tell Harry a few stories about some of the more gaudy monstrosities in here.

Their goblin guide takes them back to the surface and makes both Harry and Sirius sign paperwork, and then they’re released back out into the early evening sunshine and the hustle and bustle of Diagon Alley. They make their way back along the Alley, stopping into the necessary shops to pick up Harry’s school supplies and books, some owl treats for Hedwig, a few extra potions ingredients to replenish Sirius’s stores, a new novel for Remus. They pop into Quality Quidditch Supplies for an extra tin of broom wax, and then into Madame Malkin’s to get Harry fitted for some new shirts and trousers as well as new robes; he’s had a slight growth spurt over the summer and it’s about time for new clothes. They detour to one of Diagon Alley’s side streets once their shopping is done and have a nice supper at an Italian restaurant, and when they’ve eaten their fill, they stroll back along the Alley to the apparition point, the crowds subsided with the oncoming night. It’s a lovely evening, the sky clear and the air warm with the last lingering traces of the facing summer, and Harry happily bumps his shoulder against Sirius’s arm as their walk, then beams up at him when Sirius ruffles his hair.

He’s had a wonderful summer, and now, with his books and his supplies in hand, he’s ready to go back to Hogwarts.


Then finally it’s September 1st, and Harry is being woken by an exuberant Padfoot who turns into a somewhat more somber Sirius just before breakfast. They eat and get dressed and pack the last of Harry’s things into his trunk, a book and the Snitch and his wallet into his satchel, and then Remus kisses Harry’s forehead and goes to work. A few minutes later, Sirius has got his own cloak on and they’re headed for the apparition point, and Sirius pops them over to King’s Cross Station. Harry still isn’t quite used to the feeling, but Sirius has assured him that it’s better when he’s doing it for himself.

King’s Cross is as busy as Harry remembers it from last year, muggles walking to and fro pushing trunks on trolleys and guiding their children by the hand. Harry has his own hands on his trolley’s handles, but Sirius is close by his side, and they run together through the barrier between platforms 9 and 10 to gain access to Platform Nine and Three Quarters. The Hogwarts Express is also as magnificent as he remembers—even having seen it a few times doesn’t quite diminish the wonder of the bright red steam engine, surrounded by a sward of wixen in brightly coloured robes, parents kissing children and children greeting their friends. Some are hanging out of windows to say goodbye to siblings or guardians; others Harry can see have already settled onto the train and have newspapers or books or cards out. Sirius escorts him partway down the platform to a train door without too many people surrounding it and helps him unload his trunk and Hedwig’s cage, casting a featherlight charm on both, and then bends down to hug Harry tightly.

“I’ll see you at the castle,” he says. “I’ll be Flooing there—”

“I know, I know,” Harry says, laughing. “You’ve only told me the plan ten times, Sirius. I’ll be just fine. It’s only the train.”

“I know,” Sirius says, and kisses Harry’s forehead, brushing his hair back. “Be good. Say hello to your friends for me.”

“I will.” Harry hugs Sirius one last time, squeezing him tight around the middle, and whispers into his chest, “Love you, Sirius.”

“Love you too, pup,” Sirius says, hugging back, and then lets go and pats Harry’s shoulder. “Off you trot.”

Harry smiles and nods and tries to pretend he’s not feeling foolishly a bit sad. He knows he’ll see Sirius in just a few hours, but… it’ll be different. Sirius will be his teacher, not his… his guardian. And next year, he won’t have Sirius at all—he’d better save feeling sad for then. So he takes his trunk and Hedwig’s cage, Hedwig already sent off to fly to Hogwarts herself, and clambers aboard the train to try to find a compartment or his friends.

Before he gets very far, however, he comes across Gemma Farley loitering in the hall, and she stands up straighter when she sees him.

“Hello, Harry—or, Heir Black now I suppose,” she says, and winks.

“Hello, Gemma,” Harry replies. “Harry’s still fine.”

“Good,” she says. “I’m glad I caught you. Would you like to come share a compartment with me and some of the other Slytherins?”

The older Slytherins, he think she means. He doesn’t know exactly who her friends are, though she shared the Prefect role with Higgs last year. He wants to say no and go sit with his own friends, who he actually likes and will be able to relax and have fun with, but he knows from his talks with Sirius that this is a good opportunity to feel her and her group out, and that they probably want the same with him. Now that he’s Heir Black, everyone’s going to be much more curious about him than they were last year. So he sighs and says, “Sure.”

Gemma smiles. “I know you probably don’t want to, but I promise everyone will be—well, probably not nice. But polite.”

“It’s alright,” Harry says, trying to sound gracious. “I’d love to be introduced to your friends.”

“Great.” She waves him after her down the hall to the far end of the train car, where three other Slytherins are waiting. As Harry had expected, one of them is Higgs, one is a tall, broad boy who Harry thinks he recognizes as Cassius Warrington, the last is an unfamiliar girl with an aquiline nose and striking grey eyes against brown skin, who’s wearing an embroidered burgundy scarf over her hair. They all stand and bow as Harry enters, which he hates, but he bows back and gets out of the way so that Gemma can enter the compartment and make introductions. He’d corrected identified the tall boy as Warrington, it turns out, and the girl is Ayesha Hussain, in Gemma’s year.

Once they’ve all taken their seats, Harry sitting on one bench next to Warrington with Higgs, Gemma, and Hussain opposite them, Gemma leans forward a little in her seat and says, “Did you have a good summer, Harry?”

“It was busy,” Harry says, drawing a laugh from Gemma and from Warrington, “but good, yeah. How about yourself, Gemma?”

“Also good,” she says, smiling. “Not as eventful as yours, clearly, but I got to go with Ayesha and her family to visit the Middle East, which was exciting—I’d never been, and it’s very beautiful.”

Harry looks curiously at Hussain, and she says, “My family has had several generations in England, but we are originally from Damascus.”

“What’s the magical community like there?” Harry asks.

“Very different from the English one,” she says. “Very traditional, though obviously the traditions are different. Much more focus on the magic in craft and in language—spells are longer, more poetic and complex in Arabic or Hebrew.”

Harry nods. “I’m still learning about the magical world,” he admits, a little sheepish. “I barely know what I need to about Britain, never mind the rest of the world. But if you have some stories to share, I’d love to hear them.”

Both of the girls seem enthused, and he’s able to sit back for a little while and listen to them talk about their trip. They’re clearly close and know each other well, and they fill in the details of each others’ tellings. Harry doesn’t know much about the Middle East, though they talk a little about how they’d had to be careful; there was always some sort of conflict going on, and the political situation wasn’t very good, from what he can gather. But they describe desert vistas and riding camels, and Harry thinks that despite the tensions he might like to visit there some day.

Eventually they wind down, and Higgs interjects at the end of Hussain’s last story to say, “But what about you, Harry? I’ve heard these two talking about their trip for weeks; I’m more curious as to what you’ve been up to.”

Warrington snorts. “Not subtle, are you, Terence?”

“Don’t pretend you’re not curious either,” Higgs says with a shrug, then directs a wry look to Harry. “No one ever said Slytherins can’t be straightforward, when it works.”

“No,” Harry agrees. “I prefer it, honestly.”

“Good,” Higgs says, satisfied. “Now, share with the class, little Heir.”

While Gemma elbows Higgs, Harry rolls his eyes and says, “Well, obviously I became Heir Black. Sirius and I talked about it a bit last year but hadn’t planned to do it so soon, but… I don’t know. I guess I felt like there was no point in wasting time.”

“Straightforward, as you said,” Higgs says.

“Yeah, I guess so,” Harry says. “I’m still… learning. There’s a lot to know about being Heir to an Ancient and Noble House, and though Sirius has taught me a lot, I’m really not sure I’ve got it together just yet, but I’m going to try. I don’t want to dishonour the House or Sirius. He really believes I can do a good job at this, so… I’m going to try.”

There are a round of approving nods from all of the older Slytherins, and then one of those speaking glances is passed around the circle. Harry wonders if he’ll ever have friends close enough to share one of those, because his Gryffindor friends mostly just say what they’re thinking and he’s not really there yet with Blaise and Theo.

“Well,” says Gemma, after a moment. “If you’ve been studying as you say over the summer, I’m sure you’re at least somewhat prepared.”

“Here’s hoping,” Harry says, carefully. She sounds like she’s fishing for something.

“You’ve been to a Wizengamot session, right?”

“Yeah,” Harry says, “though just the one. It was… an experience.”

“I can imagine,” Hussain says.

Harry pauses and tries to weigh his words. He’s never had much practice at thinking before he speaks—just speaking and then dealing with the consequences. But Sirius had told him that he needed to be a little more careful, because you could later say something that you hadn’t said, but you can’t unsay something. Finally, settles on saying, “I grew up in the muggle world, where being powerful looks a lot different. It was interesting to see which things were the same and which ones were different.”

“There are many ways to be powerful,” Warrington says in his calm voice.

“And a lot of different kinds of power,” Harry says, nodding. “I’ve sort of been handed one, and it was interesting to see what it looked like in the Wizengamot. But I’m pretty sure it’s going to look a lot different at Hogwarts.”

“You’ve got that right,” Higgs says. He leans back and stretches his arms over his head. “What do you want it to look like? Because what you’ve got right now—don’t look at me like that, Cassius, he’s not an idiot and we might as well help out—what you’ve got right now is potential. You can do whatever you want with it.”

“I know,” Harry says. He’s pretty sure he’s only pretending to be calm, because he’s thinking a lot of things all at once, but Sirius said ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ at least a dozen times during their lessons over the summer, and Neville had agreed pretty strongly when he’d heard it. He looks around at all of the older Slytherins: Higgs is leaning back, relaxed, but has an intent look in his eye; Gemma is leaning forward slightly, but her face is softer than Higgs’s. Hussain’s expression is entirely neutral; Harry’s never really met her, doesn’t know how to read her, but he thinks she might be as intent as Higgs and hiding it better. He glances over at Warrington and finds him looking the most truly calm of all of them, his arms crossed casually across his chest.

“Argh,” Harry says, and runs a restless hand through his head. Warrington chuckles and the others seem to relax a little, and Harry decides to lay his cards on the table, as Higgs has sort of just done for them. “I don’t know exactly what you want from me,” he admits. “But I can tell it’s something. I don’t really like politics, and I’m not so good at them yet, but if you’ve got some sort of proposal for me I’ll hear it. I’m definitely going to need allies, and all of you have been at Hogwarts for a few years, so you know things that I don’t; you also grew up with this stuff, and I definitely didn’t. So you’ve got things to offer me, and depending on what you want, I’ve probably got things to offer you too.”

Gemma smiles. “You definitely do. Mostly we wanted to get a sense of you, because you were a total unknown last year and you’re still one to some degree; you’re hard to predict, and that makes those of us who’re concerned for the social politics in Slytherin a bit nervous.”

“I still find it frustrating that it matters at all what we do when we’re kids,” Harry says grumpily. “But I know it does.”

“It does,” Gemma agrees. “You’re going to be a force in the world once you’re grown up, and this is our chance to impress upon you that we’re valuable allies to have—and we are.” She gestures at herself and then the others. “Between us, on the political level, we represent one House and three Families, each with its own connections. But we’re also potential allies for you at Hogwarts, because somehow I suspect that the status quo is going to be rather upset by you this year, whether you want it that way or not.”

“What Gemma’s saying in a roundabout way, Potter,” Higgs interjects, “is that you could be king in Slytherin if you wanted, and though I suspect that you don’t want, you should keep it in mind.”

“I don’t want to be king of anything,” Harry says.

“So what do you want, Harry?” Gemma asks. “We’ll help you, if you can.”

I want for Voldemort to not have the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry thinks, but he’s not going to say that. He wants there not to be a war brewing. He wants Sirius and Remus to be safe, and for his friends to be happy. But none of those are things he can ask for right now. Instead, he says, “I want to learn magic, mostly. But it would be nice if people got off my back about making the connections I want to make, instead of the ones they think I should be making.”

“You’re talking about your Gryffindor friends?” Gemma asks. “Especially Granger, I imagine.”

“Yeah,” Harry says. “She might be a muggleborn, but she’s probably the smartest person at Hogwarts other than the professors and anyone who gets on her bad side is an idiot, so I’ll be staying friends with her; I don’t care how politically stupid it is.”

The reactions to that are mixed: Warrington raises an eyebrow, Higgs crosses his arms and frowns a bit, Gemma smiles, Hussain stays carefully neutral. Their problem, Harry thinks. They asked what he wanted, so he told them.

“Well and good,” Higgs says, after a moment. “Not like interhouse friendships are completely unheard of, though mostly not until upper years. But what are you going to do when Malfoy inevitably mouths off to you about it?”

“Sirius once punched Lucius Malfoy in the face,” Harry says blithely, “and it apparently worked pretty well to shut him up, so I’m considering that.” Then he laughs at the looks on all their faces: mostly horrified. “I’m joking. But if he ever says the word mudblood in my hearing ever again, he’ll regret it. Maybe not immediately, but eventually.”

Higgs grimaces. “Fair enough, I suppose.”

“Very good, in my opinion,” Gemma says. “No self-respecting Slytherin lets some brat with an upturned nose talk shite about their mum.”

Harry nods to her, even as Warrington makes a noise that makes Harry think he’d forgotten that Harry is a halfblood.

“And what about Neville Longbottom?” Higgs says after a moment. “An… interesting choice of acquaintance, that.”

“We sort of became friends by accident,” Harry says. “And, well. There’s no formal arrangement between the House of Black and the House of Longbottom, but I consider Neville both a friend and an ally.”

There’s a round of nods.

“Well,” Gemma says, “I’ll be honest: none of us can afford to openly stand opposed to Draco Malfoy until you’ve established yourself a little more, but he’s sort of the prince of Slytherin right now by virtue of his father’s influence. You have the opportunity to usurp him, or at least act as a rival—I can’t say how everyone would fall out into factions if it came to that, but it’s a valid option for you.”

“That’s sort of what I’m expecting,” Harry says. “I don’t think he’s going to leave me be. Even not saying anything, he’ll think of me as a challenger, and I can’t do nothing. I’m going to stand up for myself and the House of Black. Especially since—well. You’ll see. But that means that people are going to have to pick sides. I think I’ll have Blaise and Theo in my year, and… maybe Bulstrode, too. And if I have you as well, that’s enough for me to be getting on with, at least to… defend my position, I guess. I don’t plan to take over or use the influence that everyone’s giving me, because I don’t want it, but at least having it means I can make people leave me alone.”

“Do you play Quidditch?” Higgs asks.

“I never have,” Harry says, “but I love to fly. Do you think I should try out?”

Higgs shrugs. “It wouldn’t be a bad plan for you—the Quidditch team is tight-knit and has its own influence to wield. If you managed to get onto the team, it would reinforce you.”

“Even if I’d be gunning for your position?” Harry says, because he’s spent enough time playing with the Snitch over the summer that he thinks he’d try out for Seeker, and Higgs was Seeker last year.

Higgs narrows his eyes briefly, and then laughs. “Go for it, Potter. I’ve got two years left in me at most anyway, and I’ve gotten a bit tall for the position anyway—I’m not as fast. I’ll try out against you, of course, but if you’re any good on a broom you’ll probably beat me.”

“I’m very good on a broom,” Harry says, because he is. It sounds like bragging, but from what Sirius and Ron have said, and from the way he feels in the air, he knows he’s a natural at flying. “But we’ll see.”

“Ha! Indeed,” Higgs says. “So you did some flying this summer, I take it?”

Harry nods, and launches into telling him a bit about the flying he’d been doing this summer. The conversation eventually drifts to Quidditch at large—Harry still has never been to a live game, but Higgs and Warrington both love the sport and talk enthusiastically about it. They spend a few hours wrapped up in that conversation, but eventually Harry realizes how much time has passed and says to the others that he’d like to go say hello to his other friends before they get to Hogwarts and the madness of the Welcoming Feast. The older Slytherins let him excuse himself and he ducks out of the compartment to wander down the halls for a while, seeking his friends.

He finds his Slytherin friends first: Theo and Blaise are sharing a compartment with Daphne Greengrass, Tracey Davis, and Millicent Bulstrode, the lattermost of whom has a newspaper open in front of her face and seems to be ignoring the rest’s conversations. She looks up with the rest of them when Harry slides the compartment door open though.

“Harry!” Blaise says, smiling. “Good to see you. We’d wondered were you’d gotten off too.”

“Gemma Farley caught me,” Harry says. “I’ve got a compartment with her and some others.”

Theo nods. “Not surprising. I’m sure more than a few groups were hoping to snag you to talk.”

“Probably,” Harry says. He shrugs. “Can’t say I’m not glad she found me first—she’s nice.”

“That’s one word for it,” Davis says, sounding a bit sour.

Harry raises an eyebrow. “You don’t like her?”

Davis shrugs, glancing away. “She’s not very discriminatory, is all.”

“Neither am I.” Harry says looks away from her to nod to Greengrass and Bulstrode. “Heir Greengrass, Heir Bulstrode,” he says politely, and makes a shallow bow.

They both rise and return the bow, each saying, “Heir Black.” Greengrass sits down again, but Bulstrode steps closer and says, “Mind if I have a word, Potter?”

Harry blinks at her, then nods. “Sure.”

She steps past him out into the hall and he follows, shutting the door behind him. “What can I do for you, Bulstrode?” he asks.

She meets his eyes squarely and says, “I can’t offer you any sort of formal alliance now, my House being what it is, but when I’m Lady, I intend to be a bit smarter about certain things than some of my foremothers. For now, I’m neutral in my politics, and I’m going to stay that way, because it’s valuable to have a view of both sides.”

“I don’t expect you to take my side,” Harry replies. “But you seem to expect things to get ugly.”

“Draco Malfoy is a brat,” she says and shrugs. “And he’s got most of our year, including all the girls, in his pocket.”

And she has to sleep in a dorm with them, Harry understands. Well, fair enough. “Aren’t you putting yourself at risk talking to me like this?” Harry asks, glancing over toward the door of the compartment, where the others aren’t even pretending not to be watching.

“Don’t think so,” Bulstrode says. “They don’t know me well, but they know that I don’t beat around the bush.”

“A lot of people have decided to be blunt with me,” Harry says. “Maybe I should be insulted.”

“It’s not because anyone thinks you’re stupid or incapable,” Bulstrode thinks. “Or that’s not why I’m doing it. I just know you well enough to know you’d be more irritated than appreciative of those sorts of games—you don’t think playing them makes any of us look smarter or more adept, like some people do. Going all ‘round the house to get to the door makes some people think you’re cautious and sly; you just think it’s bullshit.”

Harry blinks at the profanity, then smiles wryly. “Well, you’re right about that. I value your insight, Bulstrode.”

“I value your will, Potter,” Bulstrode replies, and holds out a hand to shake. “Make it Millicent. And we’ll have a good year.”

Harry shakes and offers his own first name in return, surprised at the gesture—she’d said she wasn’t offering any alliance, and he’s content with that; he’d expected nothing from her. But this at least seems to mean she’s willing to work together when it doesn’t put her in a bad position. He’s looking forward to it; last year he’d appreciated her silent unconcerned company at times when he was alienated from the rest of the House. He’s glad to know that his ascension won’t prevent him from seeking it again this year, at least sometimes.

They return together to the compartment and Harry sits down for a few minutes to catch up with Blaise and Theo. The two of them are circumspect, asking him only how he’s been since his birthday, and he knows they’ll want to talk more, and more openly, when they’re in the privacy of their dorm later. After a while, however, the chilly stares of Davis and Greengrass are enough to drive Harry to move on, and he says goodbye to his friends and to Millicent, then heads on down the corridor to see if he can find his Gryffindor friends.

Eventually he does come across them, a few cars down. Neville, Ron, and Hermione are sitting together in a compartment, and they all greet Harry cheerfully when he slides the door open, inviting him to sit down.

They catch up briefly, and after a while Hermione says, “Oh, isn’t it wonderful to be headed back to Hogwarts?”

“Definitely,” Harry says, grinning at her. “Last year was very exciting.”

“Maybe too exciting,” Neville says, shaking his head. “I’m… worried.”

The four of them all look around at each other silently for a moment, sharing the unspoken understanding that Neville is referencing.

“Things aren’t going to be the same,” Harry says.

“But we’re not going to let anything bad happen,” Ron says.

“Not if we can help it,” Neville replies heavily. “But my gran has been saying dire things all summer.”

“Sirius hasn’t said anything,” Harry says, “which is maybe worse. But he’s been really determined to make sure I can defend myself.”

“That’s a good start.” Hermione has a determined look on her face, sitting up straight. “All of us should work hard in Defence Against the Dark Arts this term, and, well, we’ll do whatever we can. Maybe we can get the adults to tell us some of what’s happened over the summer—we can’t help if we don’t know anything.”

“I think Sirius is trying to keep me out of it,” Harry says. “Neville… I know things are a bit different for you.”

“Yeah,” Neville says, and sighs. “I’m not sure how much Gran really knows, because she was complaining a lot about Dumbledore not telling her anything. But she said that he said to be on guard—they don’t really know what Voldemort’s doing, how he’s going to use the Stone, but I reckon they’re trying to find out. And Gran was dragging me into the Wizengamot all summer, probably to try to keep a thumb on the political side. I’m not really good at either of those things, though.”

“You knew a lot more than I did at the start of the summer,” Harry says. “You were a big help to me in the lessons, anyway. Listen, we’ll do what we can. You three, you’re Gryffindors, Dumbledore likes you. If you get the chance, try to get some information out of him. I’ll work on the Slytherins.”

“Yeah, guess they would see things from the other side, wouldn’t they,” Ron says, a bit of venom in his voice.

“Some of them,” Harry says cautiously. “We’re all still kids. But some of them are as interested to know what’s going to happen this year as we are, maybe not because of Voldemort, but just… in general. And some might know stuff about Voldemort, too. So I’ll keep my ears open, and Farley and her group might be willing to help me. I’m thinking I might tell them, if they don’t already know. Blaise and Theo, too. Maybe Bulstrode.”

“Is that a good idea?” Hermione asks, concerned.

Harry shrugs. “Maybe not. I’m going to make Sirius tell me whose families were involved, and then I’ll know who I should and shouldn’t talk to. But even if their families were part of the war, on either side… shouldn’t everyone get to make their own choice? Shouldn’t they know too, and be prepared, like we are? I don’t want anyone to die, even if I don’t really like some of them.”

His friends all nod, and Neville, who Harry’s sitting next to, reaches out to put a hand on his arm. “Good thinking. And… good luck, Harry.”

“You too, Neville.” Harry runs a hand through his hair. “You too.”

Chapter Text

Harry knows there’s a smug grin on his face when he walks into the Great Hall with his friends and all of their jaws drop open seeing Sirius sitting at the head table, even Blaise’s and Theo’s. Hermione, Neville, and Ron are a ways ahead of him and his Housemates, but all three of them turn around to give him varyingly dirty looks for keeping the secret. Beside him, both Blaise and Theo turn and almost in unison hiss, “Did you know?”

“Of course,” Harry says, laughing. He waves at Sirius across the hall, and Sirius, also laughing as he watches this interaction, waves back, then makes a remark to McGonagall, seated next to him, that makes her roll her eyes.

The Slytherins make their way in a drifting clump over to their table, and Harry ends up sitting next to Theo, who turns immediately after sitting to give him a stern look. “I can’t believe you didn’t warn us that Lord Black was going to be the Defence professor!”

“Oh,” says Harry, putting on an innocent tone. “Was that something you would have wanted to know?”

“Yes!”

“Well then,” Harry says. He snickers. “Maybe next time. Anyway, he’s very excited. And he’s a pretty good teacher, though sometimes you need to ask him to explain things twice. He’s way better at practical demonstrations.”

“Has he been teaching you Defence this summer?” Blaise asks.

Harry nods. “Politics too, obviously, but we’ve been doing a lot of… I guess you could say foundation stuff. Running in the mornings and learning how to draw a wand quickly. Things like that.”

Theo and Blaise both look intently interested. “Could you teach us some of that?” Blaise asks.

“If Sirius doesn’t,” Harry says, nodding. “I think—well. Anyway, it’s kind of fun.”

Blaise nods, but Harry notices out of the corner of his eye that Theo is looking at him carefully. Theo meets his glance and then turns away, says to Blaise, “Why on earth would you want to run in the mornings?”

“It’s good for you,” Harry insists. “You’ll feel better, and last longer in a duel, and it’s supposed to be good for your magic, too.”

“There you go,” Blaise says, waving at Harry. “Maybe you should start waking up earlier, Theo.”

“Ugh,” Theo says. Both Blaise and Harry laugh, well-used by now to Theo’s feelings about getting up in the morning. All through first year, he was consistently the last one out of bed and ready, though never late; on the other hand, Harry was usually the first one up, and sometimes had gotten a pillow tossed at him by his grumpy roommate if he failed to keep quiet while getting ready.

“Well, I’ll try it,” Blaise declares. “If you’d like a running partner, Harry.”

“Sure,” Harry says. “I think I’m sometimes going to run with Sirius, but he said he wasn’t planning to run every day at Hogwarts, and I am. But you can still join us if you want.”

Blaise nods. “It would be a pleasure to get to know Lord Black better.”

“Professor Black, now,” Harry says. “Though he’ll probably try to make everyone call him Sirius.”

Blaise shudders. “I’m not sure I can manage to be that informal. I would feel my mother flicking my ear every time I did it.”

“Me, too,” Theo says. “My father’d have my head for being that casual with a Lord of an Ancient and Noble House, especially Lord Black.”

Harry just shakes his head. His friends are welcome to try to out-stubborn Sirius, but he’s pretty sure they’re going to fail.

Then a hush begins to travel across the hall, and all of them look up to see that Dumbledore has stood up from his seat and is looking out at all of the students. Everyone falls silent, attentive, and Dumbledore raises his hands in a gesture of welcome. At the other end of the Great Hall, the doors open to admit the small column of first years, who look just as small and terrified as Harry had felt this time last year. They troop up the isle between the Gryffindor and Ravenclaw tables, following McGonagall like ducklings, and she leaves them there to go up to the stool on the dais and stand behind the Sorting Hat on its stool.

As with last year, a rip opens in the front of the hat and its folds fall into something approximating a face, and it begins to sing.

You can keep your deerstalkers

Your caps and bowlers bold

Because none of them are talkers

Like the Sorting Hat of old.

I may not be so shiny

I may not shrink and grow

But don’t think my magic’s tiny

For there are many things I know.

I can look inside your heads

See exactly where you fit

Where each of you will make your beds

What fate for you is writ.

Whether it be in Gryffindor,

Where dwell the blunt and brave,

Voices like the lion’s roar

From justice, never stray.

Perhaps endure when times are tough

With friends loyal by your side,

The earnest steadfast Hufflepuff

May hard work be your guide.

Or if you prefer to learn from books

Fly swift to Ravenclaw

Not everything is as it looks

Seek truth, seek wisdom raw.

And those who seek just to survive

Nay—those who seek to win

In complex times like these do thrive

Those wily Slytherins.

Let them never say of me

That I can’t see what’s really there

Or that my words are less than free

I might be clothes, but facts I bare!”

Different from last year’s, just a little. Harry chews on the Hat’s words as the Sorting Ceremony begins, tiny first years being called up one by one. He listens with half an ear to who goes where while he mulls over differences in the Hat’s song, wondering if it means anything. A few names catch his ear as ones Sirius or Remus had mentioned, and he pays attention to those. Luna Lovegood (“Good old Xeno,” Sirius had sighed, shaking his head, “mad as the proverbial hatter, and his wife Aster too, really, though she was also a brilliant spell creator—some of her work saved my arse a few times in the war. You’ll probably be meeting their daughter at Hogwarts sooner or later.”) goes to Ravenclaw; Iuliana Urquart (“Procne Urquart, Heir to that House, is a few years older than us,” Remus says, patiently listing names, “but her daughter, second-in-line as it were, is a year younger than you. The family is mostly Ravenclaws, some Hufflepuffs, so you’re unlikely to be close with her, but do introduce yourself if you have the chance.”) to Harry’s surprise ends up in Slytherin. And then of course Ginny Weasley goes to Gryffindor, to raucous cheering from her brothers. A few seats down from Harry, Malfoy scoffs audibly at that, and Harry rolls his eyes.

Once the Sorting is over and the first years have all found seats, Dumbledore clears his throat at the front of the room. The chatter that had arisen settles as the Headmaster smiles at them all benignly, and once it’s silent he speaks.

“Welcome back one and all to another year at Hogwarts,” Dumbledore says, “and to those who are new, a simple welcome. I am sure you are all very hungry and so eager to get to the feast, but first, a few start-of-term notices.

“Firstly, I would like to welcome to our staff this year’s Defence Against the Dark Arts instructor, Sirius Black.” Sirius rises amid applause and makes a showy bow, then sits again, grinning. Once it’s quiet, Dumbledore continues, “Professor Black has graciously agreed to replace the late Professor Quirrell, who suffered a tragic accident at the end of the last school term. He is unfortunately only able to be with us for a single year due to his commitments elsewhere, so I hope you all shall show him the best our school can be, which I hope is perhaps slightly less chaotic than what it was when he was a student here.”

Harry laughs, then shakes his head at the curious looks from his roommates and promises in a whisper to tell them later. Dumbledore isn’t quite finished yet. He repeats his warning from last year about the Forbidden Forest being out of bounds, and tells the returning students that the third floor corridor is once more accessible, and that the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom has returned to its proper place. Harry makes a mental note to pretend not to know how to get to that corridor better than he knows how to avoid it, and listens as Dumbledore offers another bizarre selection of nonsense words (among them “quince”) before waving a hand to begin the feast.

The feast itself passes in a bit of a haze, filled with laughter and small-talk. Theo and Millicent get involved in a conversation about pro Quidditch, and Harry leans over to listen, occasionally asking questions about what this or that statistic refers to. He’s planning to try out for the team when tryouts happen in a few weeks, and he’s done plenty of flying, but between everything else this summer he hadn’t had much time to try to learn anything about the way the game was played by the pros. Fortunately, neither begrudge him his questions, and in fact seem pleased to be pulling him into their love of the game. So they talk about sports and eat roast beef and potatoes and fresh dinner rolls, and then for dessert Harry has a generous slice of treacle tart. Eventually, he has no more room in his stomach, even for the wondrous food at Hogwarts, and the Slytherins begin to rise from their table and head down to the dungeons. Harry waits for his friends, who get up around the same time that the new fifth year prefects begin ushering the first years up and out of the hall. They follow the small group down through the hallways of the dungeons, and Harry breathes the cool damp underground air and refamiliarizes himself with the route, its turns and landmarks, and finally the stretch of wall that hides their common room door. The prefects step forward and the girl, who Harry doesn’t know, announces the password clearly, so that everyone can hear: “Moly.”

Inside, the common room is just as Harry remembers, and he glances up at the hissed greeting of the snake portrait over the mantle with a smile, though he reminds himself not to reply. Sirius and Remus had said nothing else about Harry’s ability to speak with snakes after that initial revelation with Kingsley and Amanda, but he remembers their suggestion to keep it hidden—and the warning of the reception he might receive if he did reveal the ability. So he keeps quiet and looks around, absorbing the familiar details. It’s like coming home, really—he’s loved his weeks at the Doghouse, but there’s nowhere like Hogwarts. Even if he has to deal with Snape.

And indeed, unlike last year, Snape is already present in the common room and waiting for them. He’s standing in front of the fireplace just below the snake portrait, and all the Slytherins who left the Great Hall before the first years and Harry and his friends are still gathered in the common room, as far as Harry can tell. No one has dispersed back to the dorms, and Harry wonders with a faint sense of foreboding what Snape is going to say.

Of course, he doesn’t say anything at all until the last of the Slytherins have trickled in from dinner, and then he raises a hand to catch their attention. What little conversation had been going on in the room ends instantly, all of the students turning to look at their Head of House, and he nods to their gathering.

“For those who do not know me, I am Professor Severus Snape, your Potions Master and Head of House,” he begins. “In previous years I have allowed the prefects to begin with their orientation for the first years and allowed the rest of you to stay or my address or go as it pleased you; not this year. First years, the prefects will teach you Slytherin House’s expectations for your conduct when I am done, but for now, I ask all of you to listen very carefully to what I am about to say.”

He looks out across the crowd, his gaze pausing here and there, making eye contact with certain students and then moving on, making sure that he has all of their attention—and perhaps conveying some special message. To Harry’s surprise, he himself is one of those whose eyes Snape meets, and Harry looks back as evenly as he can, feeling snared already as he was last year. Snape lingers on him for only a moment, but in that moment, Harry feels a gentle touch in his mind; his eyes go wide with shock even as Snape looks away. Harry hasn’t learned yet how to build shields and misdirects in his mind, a proper Occlumantic protection, but he had learned enough to know when someone was trying to get into his head, and Snape had definitely been in his head just then. Subtle, gentle, a very light touch—but there. Harry scrambles mentally for some explanation for what Snape might have been trying to do, but he has no answers; he needs to talk to Sirius.

And he needs to listen to whatever it is that Snape’s going to say, in hope that it’ll give him some clues. Fortunately, Snape takes another few seconds before he starts speaking again, enough time for Harry to gather his thoughts.

“We as Slytherins are held separate from the rest of the school,” Snape says. “We are reviled as a body by the other Houses, and while it is certainly possible to build individual friendships, they always exist under the weight of the dislike that everyone outside our House holds for us, our values, and what we do. Namely, that we openly admit our ambition. Do not be fooled: everyone has things they want. But Slytherins see no need to disguise that fact, to call it intellectual curiosity or earnest hard work or bravery in the face of opposition. All of those things serve a goal, and all of them have goals.

“We do not shy away from the fact that there are things in this world that we want, that there are goals that we pursue, and that we do what it takes to satisfy our ambitions. The Hat calls us wily, or clever, or complicated—all of these are true, but a better term is resourceful. Our cleverness is not bland intelligence. It is the ability to recognize something for its usefulness, which is something you will acquire if you do not have it already; our ambition is the willingness, then, to use that ability, which can only be inborn, and that is what a Slytherin is.

“If you wish to be successful here at Hogwarts and in the wider world, you will become resourceful, clever, in order to serve your goals. However, you must also clarify for yourself what your goals are. Each one of us in this room is an individual, with their own thoughts, biases, and connections. Consider that as you move forward this year, and consider yourself: what do you want? What do you truly want from this life? Who do you want to be? For if you do not make something of yourself, the world will make you into something, and it may not be something that you like.”

Snape takes a long, slow breath then, that on another person would be a sigh, but on him seems only like a punctuation mark.

“Whether you choose to be aware of it or not, things are changing all the time, both within the school and without. My advice to all of you this year is to pay attention. Do not let the details pass by under your nose, for if you aware, you can be ready, and if you are ready, you can choose how you respond when the moment comes. As well, understanding the currents will allow you to protect yourself, prevent yourself from being swept up in the undertow of someone else’s actions. These are the first and most basic tools of a Slytherin: awareness, calculation, preparation. If you do not use them, you are not a Slytherin.” He pauses, only for a moment, then says, “But you are all Slytherins.”

In the breathless silence left by his speech, he nods, gestures to the fifth year prefects to take the floor, and then sweeps away, making his exit from the common room with only the faintest snap of his black cloak and the click of the door settling back into place behind him. Everyone stands, almost stunned, for another moment, and then one by one the Slytherins begin to filter away. The prefects begin their usual beginning-of-year lecture to the first years, and Harry slips away, headed for his dorm. His mind is spinning, or so it feels, and he knows it’ll be days before he can process what Snape said—and what it might mean.


Harry wakes early the next morning, as is still his habit even after a leisurely end of summer, and finds to his surprise that Theo is already awake and dressed, sitting on his bed. Theo looks up when Harry clambers out of bed, and whispers, “Meet me in the common room?”

Harry nods and hurries through his morning routine, wondering what Theo might want to talk about that he’s gone to such lengths to catch Harry alone. He so rarely does anything without Blaise, and yet has chosen to avoid Blaise very carefully, even to the point of rising hours before his usual preference.

As promised, Theo is waiting in the common room when Harry comes out, and gestures for him to follow. Theo leads him out into the cool hallways and deep into the dungeons, walking a meandering path that seems designed to get them both lost. After close to ten minutes of quiet walking, Harry keeping track of the twists and turns as best he can so that he can find his way back if Theo ditches him, Theo stops. They’re in an old abandoned corridor, the corners liberally covered with cobwebs, and there are few doors lining the walls; no one would have any reason to come here.

“What’s going on?” Harry asks, once Theo has turned to face him.

Theo takes a deep breath, then says, “I’m trusting you with something.”

“Oh?”

“My father is a Death Eater.”

Harry blinks. Theodore Nott Sr. had been on Sirius’s list of suspected-but-never-confirmed Death Eaters who were parents of his classmates, so it’s not a total surprise. “Why are you telling me that?”

“Because I think something bad is coming, and Snape’s little speech last night confirmed what I already knew—I’m going to have to pick a side sooner rather than later,” Theo says. “I don’t want to join the Death Eaters, Harry. But I’m not spy material, which means I’m not useful, either. The Light isn’t going to protect me, so I’ve got to protect myself.”

“But why are you telling me?” Harry asks, bewildered. “Do you think I can protect you, Theo?”

“You can.” Theo’s tone is blunt. “You’re Heir Black, Harry, and Lord Black is close with Dumbledore. If you ask him to shelter me, he will, right?”

“Of course,” Harry says without hesitation. “Sirius would want to help you, if he could.”

“Good.” A little of the tension flows out of Theo; he sighs. “I don’t know much, but I’ll give you what I do know. Things are happening, and happening fast. My father’s mostly been staying out of it so far—he was always more on the political side, from what I can tell, which is how he avoided getting caught. But he’s been meeting with some of his shadier friends and when I’ve managed to snoop into his correspondence, I’ve seen letters in code. And he’s been muttering a lot about the return of the old order.”

Harry nods. “Okay.” He wracks his brain for what he needs to know now, and then says, “Listen, you’ve got to be careful. I know what’s going on, and we’re going to try to stop things before they get really bad—Sirius has been doing research all summer—but if we fail, you’re going to be in a lot of danger until we can get you out.”

“I’m in danger now,” Theo says with a humourless laugh. “I’m necessary to my father, because I’m my mum’s only heir; I’m all that gives him access to the Wizengamot. But he hates me, and I hate him.”

A number of pieces are clicking into place now, things Theo has said in the last year, the way he acts. The House of Nott has a matriarchal hereditary seat in the Wizengamot, which means that the Ladyship is currently empty and will remain so until Theo marries or has a daughter, and if his mum was the born Heir, that means that without guardianship of Theo, Theo’s dad will have no blood claim at all on the House. So Theo’s dad is stuck with them, but it’s clear that their relationship is sour. Harry gets that.

“Alright,” Harry says. “So then you already know to be careful. And you know that…” he hates it, but he has to be honest, “that I can’t make you any promises, right? I’ll try to protect you, but it might not be possible.”

“You have things you value more,” Theo says and shrugs. “I understand.”

Harry steps forward and places his hand on Theo’s shoulder. “You’re my friend,” he says fiercely, so much so that Theo looks taken aback. “You’re valuable to me. But if what I think is going to happen happens, no one’s going to be safe and… and bad things happen sometimes.”

He thinks of his parents, lying in those hospital beds. The grief that had aged Remus and Sirius prematurely. The photo they’d shown him of the original resistance, those who’d fought Voldemort in the first war, who’d been their friends—most of them are dead now, including Neville’s parents. Skilled people, strong people, good people, but that didn’t stop death from taking them. So, while Harry means it when he says that he’ll try to protect Theo, or get Sirius to protect him, he knows there’s no way to be sure.

“I guess they do.” Theo’s voice is quiet. “Listen, I don’t know anything for sure, but the way you’re reacting… what do you think is coming, Harry?”

“Do you remember how the third-floor corridor was blocked off last year?” Harry says, and when Theo nods, he continues, “Well, the teachers were hiding the Philosopher’s Stone in the school. But Voldemort isn’t dead, and he stole it.”

“What,” Theo hisses. “What? Harry, that’s—he’s dead! Longbottom killed him!”

“He didn’t,” Harry says. “I don’t know what happened, but Voldemort is definitely alive and he has the Stone, and we think he’s going to use it to come back. We’re going to try to stop him, but… I don’t know.”

“That’s insane!”

“I know! I know. Just… listen, if your dad says anything about the Stone, or buys any weird ingredients, or anything, tell me, okay?” Harry says. He squeezes Theo’s shoulder and then finally lets go. “Sirius is trying to figure out what they’re going to do with the Stone, but… it’s really obscure.”

“No kidding,” Theo says. “The Philosopher’s Stone is basically a myth.”

“It’s too real,” Harry replies bleakly. “And Voldemort has it. So we’ve got to try to… figure it out, I guess. Not much to be done until we know more, right?”

“Like Snape said,” Theo says, and sighs. “If you’re aware, you can be ready.”

Harry nods. “Exactly. And we need to be ready if we’re going to survive.”

Their eyes meet, and Harry knows that the fear he sees on Theo’s face is probably reflected on his own. This stuff, it all feels too big for them. It’s times like this that Harry really feels like he’s still just a kid, when the world is falling down around his ears. It’s the world they have to live in though, and Harry’s not ready to lie down and die just yet, so they’re going to have to muddle through. So he holds out a hand, and Theo takes it, and they shake.

“You’re a good friend,” Theo says. “More than I’d ever really expected, Harry. Thank you.”

“You too, Theo. Now come on, we’d better get back, or Blaise is going to ask questions.”

Theo shrugs. “I think I’m going to tell him, too. I don’t want him to be caught unawares, either. I wasn’t sure if you knew anything, but that’s why I told you.”

“Not just because I can protect you?” Harry asks as they begin their walk back through the dungeons.

“Nah,” Theo says. “I don’t want you to get hurt either, Harry.”

“Thanks, Theo.”

The two of them return together to their dorm, where Blaise is just waking up. He gives them both a strange look for being up and about, but says nothing; Harry expects Theo will pull him aside later and fill him in. He hopes that it’ll settle the last of the lingering discomfort between himself and Blaise from their brief conversation after the theft of the Stone last year. Or maybe it’ll only make it worse, that Harry had known this long that Voldemort was alive and working to return, and hadn’t told anyone until now. He decides not to dwell on it; he has other things to worry about.

Like the fact that Snape had tried to use Legilimency on him on the first night. To Harry’s frustration, when they receive their schedules at breakfast that morning, he discovers that the second year Slytherins don’t have Defence Against the Dark Arts until tomorrow, and he doesn’t know where Sirius’s office and quarters are; he’ll have to wait. Worse, Sirius isn’t at breakfast, so Harry can’t even try to catch him at the meal. With the troubling start to the day, Harry spends most of the first day of classes distracted, though not so distracted that he doesn’t register that the second year schedule is fairly sparse, even more so than the first year one—they have long gaps in their days, which the professors seem to take as an excuse to fill the time with piles of homework. Harry will be spending a lot of his second year at Hogwarts in the library, reading for essays. Ugh.

Still, it’s nice to see some of his professors again, especially Professor Sprout, smiling at all of them in Herbology. Harry hasn’t missed Binns at all, and he feels like he’s spent all summer catching up on the magical history he should have been learning in school, but at least he can use the period to get ahead on his readings before Transfiguration in the afternoon. Tomorrow, they’ll have Potions, Defence, and Charms; no Astronomy until next Tuesday. In truth, Harry’s glad to be back to learning magic after a long summer trying to learn politics. It’s not that spells are easy so much as it’s something that he knows he can do, or learn to do eventually, and he wants to know magic and do magic—it’s wonderful to be able to use his wand again now that he’s back at school and he feels surer with it in his hand. He has no such confidence about his ability to navigate the magical world’s murky social waters, and even less desire. He tries not the dwell on that, though, and to enjoy his first day back at Hogwarts, the start of classes, the whole atmosphere of the place. He’s seen more of the magical world now but there’s really nowhere like Hogwarts, with its ancient stones and drafty halls and students all over, practicing spells and paging through old books. Harry had rarely read anything fantastical growing up, such books being banned by the Dursleys, but once in a while he’d heard a story during class storytime or had something assigned that was about magic and dragons and elves and such, and Hogwarts was like a place from one of those stories, truly magical right down to its bones. It makes Harry feel lighter just to be back here, to be a student again and only have to worry about becoming a capable wizard. So he tries to spend the day thinking only about that, about being in school and being a kid, and decides that tomorrow he can talk to Sirius and deal with all of the problems that have already come up then.

He even manages it. He can tell that Theo talks to Blaise that evening, because they disappear for a while after dinner and when they come back Blaise is bloodless beneath his dark skin and he gives Harry an unreadable look, but neither of them say anything, they just leave Harry alone to lie on his bed and read and then meditate before he sleeps, practicing clearing his mind. He sleeps without dreaming, rises early and goes for his run, and then gets ready for his day. It’ll be a complicated one, he thinks—Potions first thing in the morning, and maybe Snape will finally stop ignoring him completely, and then Defence with Sirius right after lunch, which he’s looking forward to but… has its own complications; he wants desperately to have some time to just talk to Sirius, but knows he’s not going to get it until the evening at the earliest.

The morning starts out okay. Potions is fine… almost. The Slytherins are paired with the Gryffindors for Potions again this year, which Harry still thinks is stupid, but at least it means he gets to sit with Hermione and  while they work they chat quietly about how their first nights went. Apparently things in Gryffindor are as always; Harry decides not to tell her about his conversation with Theo until he’s had a chance to discuss it with Sirius. Snape doesn’t ignore Harry quite so completely as he had last year, calling on him once when he’d put his hand up to answer a question, and pausing to give his and Hermione’s cauldrons a narrow look, but he doesn’t say anything. And then, as Harry is packing up and preparing to make his escape to the library so that he can start the assigned essay on the uses of lemongrass in potions with long brewing times, Snape says, “Potter, remain behind.”

A few of Harry’s Housemates pause very briefly, their eyes darting between Harry and Snape, including Blaise and Theo… and Malfoy. But they leave without questioning. Hermione pauses as well, looking askance. Harry just shakes his head and waves her off, and she goes without argument, knowing by now that he’s not going to let her get between him and Snape. He finishes packing his bag and then waits.

Once all of the other students are gone, Snape says, “I will be in my office for two hours after dinner this evening.”

There’s an implied demand, but Harry’s not feeling particularly gracious. “Good to know, sir.”

Snape narrows his eyes. “I will expect to see you, Potter.”

“Not going to send me a demanding note over breakfast again, sir?”

“No.” Snape continues to give him that narrow look for a moment, then lets out a hard breath. “You are going to make a problem of yourself, Potter. Go speak to your useless dogfather, then come speak to me. Do you understand?”

Harry really wants to tell him not to talk that way about Sirius, but knows that it’s not going to earn him any favour, and Snape is being weirdly mellow right now. “Fine, sir,” he says instead. “See you after dinner, then.”

“Good. Dismissed.”

Harry is already on his way out the door, his mind spinning.

He has a spare block and then lunch before Defence. He goes to the library as planned, meeting Millicent and Theo; Blaise has gone off somewhere, claiming that he’ll do his Potions essay later. All of them know that ‘later’ means ‘at the last possible moment’, but of course they also know that no amount of cajoling will stop him. Normally Harry would prefer to study with Hermione, since she has an encyclopedia for a brain, but the Gryffindors have Herbology with the Ravenclaws right now. Harry is a bit distracted, wondering what Snape’s up to, but his friends being there keeps him on track enough that he makes good progress into the foot of parchment that Snape wants. Then they go off to lunch together and chat about Quidditch, and then head back to the dorms to drop off their Potions supplies and grab their Defence textbooks.

The Defence classroom is, of course, different than it had been last year. The normal Defence classroom is just off the third floor corridor, which to Harry’s relief is markedly less gloomy and cobweb-covered than it had been. How it had gotten that way so fast he’s not sure; maybe it had been an illusion of some sort to discourage the curious, or maybe Hogwarts’ spiders were just very industrious. Either way, the doorway they go through is fortunately not the one to the room where Fluffy had lived. Instead, the door opens to a large room with one wall covered in windows, and set up with long tables in two rows with an aisle down the middle rather than individual desks. At the far end of the room, there’s a staircase leading up to a doorway which, Harry thinks, might be the professor’s office. Around the room, Sirius has put up posters with images of the wand movements for common defensive spells, which Harry remembers Remus coming home with one day from a trip to Diagon Alley. There are a few people already there, and, like Potions, they have this class with the Gryffindors. The tables seat four, to Harry’s pleasure, and his Gryffindor friends have already arrived and have saved an empty seat at their table, just on the aisle. When he approaches, they all greet him cheerily and wave him into it, and he grins at them all as he pulls out and arranges his supplies.

The rest of the class streams in quickly, and then everyone waits. The time for the class to start ticks by, and the moment it does, Harry gets suspicious. He’s not the only one glancing around, but he thinks that not many of the others know what they’re looking for.

Sirius is a better-trained wizard than Harry and very good with illusion spells, which means that it takes a few minutes of searching for Harry to catch what he thinks is the faint distortion caused by a Disillusionment Spell. He focuses, trying to arrow his mind past the magic, and a moment later finds himself able to see the faint outline of a person standing just beside the Professor’s desk at the front of the room. Harry isn’t sure what Sirius is planning, so it gives it another two minutes before he realizes that Sirius is going to wait for someone to do something. Probably, from the muttering, someone is going to get up and try to leave in a moment, but Harry thinks that’ll be less interesting.

Instead of waiting for his classmates to finish getting fed up, Harry slips his hands below the desk and draws his wand from his pocket as subtly as he can. With a twist of his wrist and a whispered incantation—which draws the startled attention of Neville, sitting to his left—Harry looses a Tickling Hex toward Sirius’s hidden form.

As expected, in the next moment a shield blooms at the front of the room, and the hex splashes off in a shower of light. Students shout in surprise, even as the casting of the shield reveals Sirius standing to the left of his desk, and Harry had expected. He’s laughing, and drops his shield.

“Good, Mr. Potter! Five points to Slytherin,” Sirius says, and winks. “Admittedly you have an advantage because you know me, but even so: it’s not easy to see past anyone’s Disillusionment, never mind that of a well-trained wix.”

Everyone else is whispering to their tablemates, and Harry beams up at Sirius.

Sirius grins back, then turns his attention to the class at large. “So. What just happened? Anyone?”

Hands shoot up, including, predictably, Hermione’s; Sirius points at her.

“You were Disillusioned,” Hermione says, “like you just said, of course. Harry managed to spot you—somehow—and then cast a spell at you. To avoid it, you cast a shield, and it’s impossible to maintain a Disillusionment while casting other magic or otherwise doing something to actively draw the attention of those who might be able to notice you.”

“Correct,” Sirius says. “Two points to Gryffindor, Miss Granger. Now, can anyone tell me why what just happened was important?”

There’s a murmur of uncertainty in the classroom, and then, hesitant, Neville raises his hand.

“Mr. Longbottom?”

“Er,” Neville says, then takes a deep breath. “Well, if you were an evil wix of some sort and planning to harm us, then we’d have been in the room with an enemy for…” he glances at the clock, “almost ten minutes without seeing you. You couldn’t have cast a spell without us noticing, but it’d only take one spell, and if we didn’t know where it was coming from or if you got close and cast at point blank range, there wouldn’t be much to be done. …Right?”

Sirius nods. “Yes. Another two points to Gryffindor for that astute answer, Mr. Longbottom. You should answer more confidently—you’re right and you know it. In any case, for the rest of you: that is the exact issue, and very much relevant to what you will be learning this year.”

Sirius begins to pace slightly, back and forth in front of the desk, gesticulating as he talks. “Unless someone manages to break that bloody curse,” he says, causing a few students to giggle nervously at the sound of a professor swearing, “you’ll have a different instructor every year, and many won’t leave good notes for one another. That means you may end up with large gaps in the spellwork you learn, or with things repeated. I hope to avoid that by teaching you fewer spells and more how to use the spells you do learn. Not that you won’t be learning spells in this class! You will. I understand that Quirrell did little practical work with you last year, and I hope that by the end of the year you will have the basic spells necessary at least to survive a dangerous situation, even if it means causing a distraction and fleeing.”

Sirius stops and looks around at all of them. “I have been told that another professor at Hogwarts told you once that there will be no foolish wand-waving in this class.” True: Harry had showed Sirius his transcript of the speech Snape had made on the first day, both of them laughing about the Potions Master’s melodrama. “There will be no foolish wand-waving in my class, either. But only because all of the wand waving you do will be carefully considered. If nothing else, I hope that you will come away from a year with me with the ability to think, to assess a situation or a threat, and to decide how to react. How to react in time, in a way that will save your life.”

His grave tone has the entire class silent and watching carefully. Sirius has as much presence as Snape, but different. There’s so much light in his eyes, in his bearing, and he’s so clearly tidy and put-together but not formal, that when he does become solemn and serious the effect is twice as strong. There’s a pause as Sirius lets his words sink in, and then he says, “Not that everything in this class will be serious—except your instructor, of course; I am always Sirius.”

There’s a laugh, and Sirius joins them, then says, “I only get to make that joke once without it getting old, I’m glad you liked it. In any case: we will certainly be playing in this class at times. I hope that you’ll trust me when I say that everything I do with you will have a purpose. If you cannot at first discern it, think a little deeper—and if you can’t figure it out, I will be available in my office after dinner on Tuesdays and Thursdays other than today, and over lunch on Friday, as well as by appointment if you need. Please bring me your questions, because while there’s every chance I won’t know the answers, I will at least try.”

Some students nod; others are noting down Sirius’s office hours. McGonagall and Flitwick keep set office hours as well; Snape does too, but only once a week, and no one ever goes because he’s notoriously vicious about any question he considers stupid, which is all of them. Professor Sprout can be found in the greenhouses almost all the time anyway, and can be approached during or after any class for an appointment, and Binns… is Binns.

Sirius goes on in his lecture, giving them an overview of some of the things that they’ll be doing and advising that everyone acquire a pair of shoes with good grip, because they’ll sometimes be running around. Harry listens carefully, even though he knows some of it—Sirius had bounced some ideas off of him during the summer, trying to figure out what their class had learned from Quirrell and what all of them as a whole might find interesting and useful, and what other things Harry himself needed to learn that everyone would benefit from. Obviously some lessons, notably the Occlumency and Harry’s determination to master wandless casting, would not be shared, but plenty would. Harry had promised to try to get some of his classmates running with him in the mornings, with the added lure of Padfoot on Fridays.

It’s going to be a good year, Harry thinks as the class wraps up and Sirius assigns a bit of reading for the next class. A very good one, hopefully. At the end of the class Harry lingers, of his own volition this time, and once the others are gone Sirius comes over and gives Harry a big hug, which Harry returns.

“Good lecture, Sirius,” Harry says cheerfully.

“Glad you liked it! Good work with the Disillusionment.” Sirius ruffles Harry’s hair, drawing a playful scowl, and then continues, “Come see me after dinner tonight, alright? We’ll figure out a more regular time, now that I’ve got my teaching schedule sorted.”

“Yeah,” Harry says. “Sounds good. I’ve got a lot to tell you.”

“Already?”

Harry nods, and Sirius’s expression drops a little.

“Alright, pup,” Sirius says, and bends to kiss Harry’s forehead. “Good luck. See you in a few hours.”

“Bye, Sirius.” Harry resists the urge to hug Sirius again; he doesn’t need to be held for comfort. Instead he steps back, waves, and darts out into the hallway to go find his friends. He’s still got a few hours to relax before he’s got to try to explain everything to Sirius… and deal with Snape.

Chapter Text

Blaise and Theo accept with without questioning when Harry tells them that he’s going to visit Sirius after dinner, so he’s able to slip away easily and head up to the third floor. The staircases are, for once, mercifully cooperative, and while the hallways aren’t busy, they aren’t full either, with some students lingering over dessert in the Great Hall and others returned to dorms or gone to the library or the study halls; Harry doesn’t pass anyone he knows and goes straight to Sirius’s office without stopping.

He’d seen Sirius leave dinner a short while before he got up himself, so it’s not a surprise that the door to the Defence classroom is cracked open and a light is shining from within. The large classroom is only dimly illuminated by a few scattered candles, but Sirius’s office door is open and a much brighter light spells out from there. Harry makes a beeline for the stairs, climbing up, and sticks his head through the doorway.

Sirius is sitting at his desk writing something on a piece of parchment, but he looks up when Harry taps on the doorframe and smiles broadly. “Glad you made it, pup,” he says, and gets up to give Harry a hug. He waves over at the side of the room, where a long couch has been placed, and says, “Shall we?”

Harry nods and goes to sit with Sirius on the couch, wondering if it had been acquired just for their chats, or if Sirius had some other intention for it. Maybe naps; Sirius does like naps. Whatever its intended purpose, it’s comfortable, and Harry tucks his legs up under him, settling in.

“So, how have your first couple of days been?” Sirius asks, leaning in a little. “Classes are good?”

“Mhm,” Harry says, nodding again. “I think it’ll be a good year. I’m looking forward to your class most, of course.”

Sirius grins. “As I would expect. And what about everything else?”

“Well…” Harry says, and then launches into a recap of everything that’s happened in the last two days. He starts with the train and Gemma’s offer of alliance, yet predicated on his ability to actually usurp Draco Malfoy, and his terms—that he won’t stop being friends with Hermione and the other Gryffindors. And Millicent Bulstrode’s offer of cautious support, when it was safe for her to show such things. He suspects, and tells Sirius as much, that she’ll also only really come onside when he’s shown that he’s a better option than Malfoy. Sirius nods at all that, then holds up a hand before Harry can go on.

“So then, what are you planning to do about Malfoy? Because you’ll need a plan. It seems to me that if you were really dedicated to not playing politics, as you were last year, you could just… not do any of this. Those who’ve offered you support might be disappointed but probably not surprised. And I’d support you. But I’ll also support any and all efforts to show that brat his place. Hair dye might be a good start,” Sirius says, and winks.

Harry snorts. “Yeah, maybe. I can’t be… petty, though. I’ll only come out looking like a brat myself, or like a bully, if I don’t do something that makes him look actually foolish instead of just… pink. Or whatever.”

Sirius nods thoughtfully. “You’re no prankster, much as I’d like it to be otherwise. I’m happy to offer you my expertise, of course, but I think you’re right that you need to take discrediting him seriously.”

“I might be able to taunt him into making a fool of himself,” Harry says. “He’s spoiled, isn’t used to not getting his way, and he’s a humongous coward and a tattletale. Maybe if… if I get him properly and he makes a public accusation which I can then disprove, he’ll look like an idiot.”

“So you need a goat.”

“Or an ally,” Harry says slowly, a thought coming into his head. “I’m going to need the Weasley twins.”

Sirius blinks, and then begins to smile. “You think they’d do it? That they could pull it off?”

“I think so. I don’t know them very well, but they’d definitely do it, and they seem clever.”

“Excellent.” Sirius reaches out and ruffles Harry’s hair. “We’ll make a Marauder of you yet. Now, beyond making him look paranoid, which might take a while, do you have any other plans?”

Harry shrugs. “This maybe won’t be against him directly, but I plan to try out for the Seeker position. If he tries out for the team as well and doesn’t make it on, that’s points for me, especially if he also tries out for Seeker.”

“How will you deal with it if he plays dirty?”

“Dirty?” Harry asks, frowning.

“Malfoy has his father’s wealth and influence behind him, remember, and I’d bet he’s the type willing to use it if it’ll get him something he wants, like a spot on the team.”

“Like a bribe?”

“Exactly.” Sirius makes an expansive gesture. “Obviously I could offer you the same, but I think you’re trying to prove you’re different from Malfoy, not just a slightly better version of the same.”

“Mhm.” Harry frowns. “Well, I guess that’ll be up to Flint and the rest of the team. If I’m worse than Malfoy on a broom, well, fair enough. But if I’m better than him, then they have to decide what they want more—someone with integrity and skill, or someone with money to throw around.”

“Alright,” Sirius says. “Whatever you think will work. If you need some support from me, I’ll do what I can—just let me know.”

“Sure, Sirius.” Harry sighs. “There’s something else, too.”

“Oh?”

“Theo pulled me aside yesterday morning and he warned me that his dad’s been acting strange—he thinks the Death Eaters are becoming active again and wanted to tell me, and… ask for protection.”

“What did you say?” Sirius asks, his tone carefully neutral. He’s watching Harry, as if to try to gauge his thoughts.

“The truth, mostly. That he was right—something is coming. That Voldemort might come back, if we can’t stop him, and that I couldn’t promise to protect him if that happened,” Harry says, frowning. “I didn’t… like that very much, but I didn’t want to make a promise that I can’t keep.”

“No, that’s good,” Sirius agrees, and then lapses into thought for a few minutes. His gaze goes distant as he mulls over possibilities—Harry has seen this a few times before. Sirius is a deep thinker and sometimes sort of… goes somewhere else when he’s trying to puzzle something out or plan a next move. It happens most often when he plays chess with Remus. Finally, he emerges, and he says, “Theodore Nott would be a valuable ally for you to have. His father…”

“Is a Death Eater,” Harry says confidently. “He told me.”

“Interesting,” Sirius murmurs. “And what exactly did he ask for?”

“Basically, that I ask you to shelter him, if there’s an opportunity for you to do it and things get bad.”

“Alright.” Sirius sighs, runs a hand down his face. “I’ll think about it. It’ll be complicated, politically and magically. But he’s just a boy, and if you think he’s in earnest—”

“He is,” Harry says firmly. “I trust him.”

“And you told him about Voldemort?”

“And the Stone,” Harry says, making Sirius frown. “He said he’d keep an ear out for his dad talking about the Stone or alchemy or anything, that he’d let me know; I believe him. He’d never have approached me at all if he wasn’t serious—it was a big risk for him to take.”

“No, you’re right,” Sirius says. He holds up his hands as if to ward off Harry’s fierceness, laughing a little. “You don’t need to defend your friend to me, Harry. I believe you that he’s trustworthy, we just need to be careful.”

“I know. Sorry.”

Sirius leans forward and hugs Harry briefly, then draws back, his hands firm on Harry’s shoulders. “Never apologize to me for defending the people you care about. I’d rather you do what you feel you need to without hesitation; if we’re unable to stop what’s coming, hesitation might mean death.”

Harry nods. “Okay, Sirius. Is… have there been any updates? Anything you can tell me?”

Sirius looks at him for a moment, studying his face, then says, “Yes. You should probably know. We found out not long ago that it looks like there’s been a kidnapping. A pureblood woman from a minor family, fairly reclusive. She was engaged to a muggle man, which is why her brother and father didn’t report her missing until now—either they didn’t know or didn’t care. The case had originally fallen to the muggle cops, but they hadn’t found anything; her fiance was found dead in their home, signs of a struggle, and she was gone, but there were really no other suspects so their case went cold. The Aurors only found out about it so much later that there wasn’t much for them to find.”

“What makes you think it was the Death Eaters?” Harry asks, frowning. “That seems random. It could’ve even been a muggle criminal.”

“Maybe,” Sirius says. “It’s not much like usual Death Eater tactics, no; they’re terrorists, and this was pretty quiet. Or—well. They certainly made people disappear during the last war, that was really how it started, but usually they picked people that everyone would know had vanished. It was still about fear, even the quiet things. Maybe especially those. But it makes sense for them to have gone underground, and this sort of crime against wixen is hard to attribute to anyone other than another wix. We can defend ourselves with magic, after all.”

“So not a muggle. But it could have been any other wix.” Harry’s a little irritated that Sirius won’t just tell him what’s going on, but knows that he’s probably being taught some sort of lesson in being led along the garden path like this.

“Again, maybe. Violent crime like this is rare, however, and a pureblood marrying a muggle is repugnant enough to purists that she’s a likely target for their ilk; they loved to go after those sorts in the last war. And Dumbledore is suspicious.”

Harry narrows his eyes. “Why?”

Sirius shrugs. “That’s the point where I’m lost too. He seems sure, though, that she’s a probable target for Voldemort, and won’t tell me why.”

“Ugh.” Harry rubs his forehead. “He never tells anyone anything.”

“No, it’s not really his preferred modus operandi,” Sirius says. “But you are right that without that particular factor, there’s not much to twig us to this particular case being the Death Eaters. Just its rarity, really—especially since the war, there’s been a lot less of this sort of thing, because the Aurors crack down really hard on it, and it wasn’t common before, either. Kidnapping and holding a wix is difficult if they have any measure of talent or training.”

“Did this woman you’re talking about have training?”

Sirius shrugs again. “Only as much as any other Hogwarts graduate, but she had good grades in Defence, so she’s no slouch. If they are keeping her for something, it’ll take some effort.”

“What would they be keeping her for?” Harry asks, and watches as Sirius’s expression goes closed again, remote.

“Nothing good,” he says, his tone dark. “There’s one particular ritual… we’ve no evidence of it, but if she was pregnant when they took her, or if—well. You don’t need to hear about this, Harry. Just know that I’m looking into it.”

Harry frowns, but nods. Maybe Hermione will be willing to go digging in the restricted section—though if it’s something Sirius had found in one of his family’s books, it’s likely that Hogwarts won’t have anything about it in its library. He’d seen some of the books Sirius was looking at from the Black library this summer, and they’d all been musty or cursed or bloodstained or bound in disturbing things. Sirius’s family had been awful.

“But enough about that,” Sirius says. “Have you got anything else to tell me about, or is that the last of it?”

“Just one more thing,” Harry says. “Snape tried Legilimency on me on the first night.”

Sirius reels back slightly, then his face begins to flush red with anger. “He did what?” he demands.

“I don’t think he was really digging for anything,” Harry says. “More like… testing my shields. And then after Potions he said he wanted to see me tonight. I don’t know what he wants.”

Sirius growls, a noise very reminiscent of Padfoot. “I don’t want you to be alone with him if he’s trying to break into your mind, pup.”

“I don’t want to go either,” Harry says, and sighs. “But I think I have to. Better to know, right? If it makes you feel better, I’ll come straight back here after if he does anything to me.”

“If you can.”

“He can’t actually hurt me; he’s a professor,” Harry points out. Gryffindors, honestly. First his friends last year, thinking Snape was after the Stone (though in their defence, it had turned out to be a professor, they’d just suspected the wrong one because of their bias), and now Sirius, thinking Snape was going to, what? Curse him? Rip open his mind for all the secrets he doesn’t have? Harry’s on edge too, but he’s not stupid.

“That won’t stop him if he’s determined,” Sirius says darkly. “I’m coming with you.”

“Wh—no!”

“Why not?”

“He’ll think you’re babying me,” Harry says. “I’m not a baby.”

“No, but you are my… my pup, Harry,” Sirius says. “It’s my job to protect you.”

“Not from my teachers,” Harry says.

“From them if I have to. From the whole damn world if I have to. If it makes you feel better, I’ll be Padfoot and I’ll stay out in the hall.”

Harry just shakes his head. “I’ll call you with the mirror when I get back to the dorm after, unless something happens. If he tries anything, I’ll come back here.”

“That’s not—fine. Fine,” Sirius says, waving a hand. “I guess I can’t stop you.”

You could, Harry thinks, narrowing his eyes, but you aren’t. Suspicious. Still, he doesn’t actually want to fight with Sirius, so he lets it go, and leans forward for a hug. “I’ll be just fine,” Harry says. “I should probably go now, actually.”

Sirius nods. “Alright. Off you go, then. Oh—how do you feel about Saturday evenings for our little talks, hm? Unless Quidditch practice interferes.”

“I think Flint prefers to practice in the mornings,” Harry says. “So that’ll be okay. After dinner next Saturday, then?”

“Sounds good,” Sirius says, and ruffles Harry’s hair. “As a little assignment for then, why don’t you try to decide which spell you want to learn wandless this year? Talk to Neville about it.”

“Okay.” Harry smiles at Sirius and then gets up off the couch. “I’ll talk to you in a bit, over the mirror, because Snape’s not going to do anything to me.”

Sirius rolls his eyes. “Of course. Later, pup.”

“Later!”

Harry gathers his satchel up off the ground and darts off, heading back out of the Defence classroom and toward the staircases that will take him all the way down into the dungeons, to Snape’s office. The dungeons are quiet as always, very few students out and about; the stone always echoes a little. It’s enough for Harry to hear once, very quiet, the click of nails on stone. He pauses, sighs, and then decides that if Sirius can’t stop him from going then he can’t really stop Sirius from following him, no matter how annoying it is. He doesn’t like Snape, sure, but he really doesn’t understand the insistence of all the Gryffindors he knows on thinking that he’s some sort of villain. He can’t even really put it down to storybook stereotypes, because Filch is at least as nasty and also actively threatens to hang students by their thumbs, but no one thinks he’s actually going to do it, whereas they’re willing to believe just about anything of Snape.

Maybe it’s because Snape is… scarier than Filch, more menacing. More genuinely menacing, the way that happens when you can see the hatred in someone’s eyes but not on their face. Or maybe because he seems to care less. Harry’d long ago gotten over being scared of people who turned red and blustered and made grand threats when they got mad; he’s a lot more scared of people who look at a person in misery, a person’s who’s anxious and upset, and decides that it’s not his problem. It had happened to him in primary school a few times. Sometimes teachers had been nice to him, tried to support him at school when they could tell he was struggling at him. Others, though, had looked at him the way Snape looked at Neville and other students who struggled in his class: with a look that said, you’re irrelevant to me, and your suffering is an inconvenience.

Easier, after all, to teach a student without any other difficulties in their life. Easier to resent those who do have barriers than to make the effort to help them. Snape reserves his concern for the Slytherins—and even then, only for those who, one way or another, make themselves relevant to him. Easier if most simply toe the line; he can ignore those who do. Harry doesn’t, and never will, and it seems that Snape is finally figuring that out.

It is with that in mind that Harry knocks on Snape’s office door, then steps inside at the silky “Enter,” that issues from within. He closes the door firmly behind him, and wonders if Snape has silencing wards set into his walls. If so, Padfoot is going to be disappointed.

Snape’s office is gloomy as ever, but for once, Snape himself isn’t absorbed in something else when Harry approaches his desk—he’s watching him, attentive and careful. Those dark eyes are fathomless and impossible to read, so Harry chooses not to speak first, just coming to a stop in front of Snape’s desk and looking back as silently.

After a long moment, Snape gestures toward the chair set across his desk from his own, and Harry sits down. Once he has, Snape lets out a long, slow breath.

“You are going to be a problem,” he says, and laces his fingers together in front of him on the desk. It’s clear he can see the way that Harry’s hackles rise at the comment, so he continues immediately, “I do not mean that as an indictment. Only that you are a complicated person to have in my House, Mr. Potter, which I have only now begun to truly grasp—and I suspect you will only become more complicated with time.”

“I’ll try not to be your problem, sir, if that makes you feel any better,” Harry says.

“You won’t be able to help it.” Snape stares him down, and Harry meets his eyes, almost daring him to try again to probe his mind. He doesn’t, though; instead he says, “You understand, Potter, that I am in a delicate situation.”

Harry shrugs. “Depends what you mean, sir.”

“I mean what I have said,” Snape says. “Whatever you know about me is surely enough to understand it, and I’m sure your guardian has had plenty of stories to tell.”

That’s true enough. Harry doesn’t nod though; he doesn’t want to give anything away about Sirius that Snape doesn’t already know. He knows they don’t get along.

Snape raises an eyebrow. “He is lobbying for Dumbledore to allow him to teach certain students some extra skills.”

“He’s my guardian,” Harry says. “I don’t think Dumbledore can stop him from teaching me.”

“Not only you,” Snape says. “The Longbottom boy, also.”

Harry nods. “That makes sense.”

“Does it?”

Harry smiles. “We’re friends, after all.”

Snape gives him another of those measuring looks. “Indeed. I can also tell that your guardian has begun certain tutelage with you already.”

“You mean Occlumency.” No point in hiding that, anyway. “Why did you try to break into my mind, sir?”

“I’d wondered if you could feel that at this stage,” Snape says. “Good. You have promise.”

“That’s not an answer, professor.”

“No.” Snape sits back and places his hands very deliberately on the arms of his chair. “If you find yourself hitting any barriers in your Occlumency training, you have permission to come to me. I am not flattering myself to say that I am a master, and in different ways than Black or even Dumbledore.”

Harry considers that, then nods again. He’s not sure if he’s going to take that offer up, but it’s interesting that it’s been laid out.

“What is your plan for this year, Potter?” Snape asks, after a pause. “I’m sure you appreciate your own delicate situation.”

“Respectfully, sir,” Harry says, “I don’t think I should tell you.”

“So you do intend to make a move.”

“Of some kind.” Harry shrugs. “What was it you said about making something of myself? I don’t plan to let anyone else decide who I am for me, not anymore; I had about enough of that last year.”

“And who do you think the rest of your House has decided you are?” Snape asks. His tone is so even, so calm, but calm waters run deep, or so Harry has heard.

“The ignorant son of a mudblood and a blood traitor,” Harry says, striving to speak with that same calm. He doesn’t want Snape to know how much saying those words bothers him. “Who doesn’t know his nose from his navel; who has no ambition, only a Gryffindorish sense of stubborn rebellion; and who can be used.”

“And you are not those things?” Snape says, leaning forward. “You know the school sees you as an aberration, Potter, the snake who lies with lions. You have no subtlety.

“We all play the game differently, is what I’ve learned this summer,” Harry says, shrugging. “You do things in one way and I do them in another, but I’m not content to do nothing.”

“Good,” Snape says, to Harry’s surprise. “It is very possible that our interests will come into conflict, Mr. Potter, at least outwardly; I will not pretend I approve of what you are doing. But at least you are not a complete fool.”

“Are you going to stop ignoring me, then?”

Snape tilts his head. “We shall see. I intend to remain a political neutral as is possible this year, which means you should not expect advice or support of any sort from me—nor opposition. There are other issues I must manage that are significantly more important.”

Like the Death Eaters, Harry thinks. And Dumbledore and Voldemort, and that whole mess. He knows—he knows all of the adults are going to be more involved with that than anything this year. He’s grateful that Sirius is giving him even as much attention as he is; he wouldn’t have been surprised to be left to his own devices entirely, given everything else that’s going on. So, to Snape’s words, Harry just nods.

“Depending on the outcome of whatever gambit you will be trying, we may speak again,” Snape says. “… Good luck, Mr. Potter.”

Harry blinks. “Thank you, professor.”

“Now get out of my office.”

“Yes, sir,” Harry says, rolls his eyes, and then leaves before Snape’s expression turns thunderous.

Chapter Text

 

 

Two weeks into September, a notice goes up on the Slytherin corkboard that Harry had been watching for: the Quidditch team tryouts will be on the last Sunday of the month. He makes a mental note and begins counting down the days, listening to the currents of conversation. Malfoy brags increasingly loudly about how he’s planning to try out and how sure he is he’ll get a position. Harry isn’t quiet about his own intentions, talking cheerfully with his friends about it, inviting Theo and Millicent, and Ron when his Slytherin friends aren’t available, to come out and fly with him in the evenings or watch him practice—it only spurs Malfoy’s own bluster on, which is what Harry wants. He’s confident that he can show Malfoy up in the tryouts, and after all the bragging he’ll look like twice as much of an idiot.

As the day of the tryouts draws closer, Harry does have his moments of nerves. Hermione doesn’t really help; every time he mentions in her hearing his intention to try out, she gives him a disapproving look and sometimes says something forbidding about how dangerous it all seems. Harry knows it’s dangerous—he’s a good flier and he loves it, nothing could keep him out of the air, but he doesn’t entirely understand how wixen can be so relaxed about playing a high-speed, full-contact sport a hundred meters up in the air as if they couldn’t fall to their deaths at any moment. He supposes the professors watching wouldn’t let anything really bad happen, but he’s heard stories about some of the injuries in professional games, and he’s not much of a fan of breaking his limbs or his face or his ribs or any other part of himself in a fall or from contact with a Bludger. There’s also the fact that while Harry is a good flier, he still has never actually played Quidditch, and isn’t sure his skill will translate.

He tries to put it out of his mind, lets Sirius reassure him when he mentions his anxiety in one of their Saturday evening chats, the night before the tryouts. Sirius ruffles his hair and reminds Harry that his father was an excellent Quidditch player, that Harry is a natural in the air, and that Sirius himself intends to come out to the pitch as Padfoot to watch, just in case.

It’s almost enough to keep Harry from feeling nervous on the morning of the tryouts, but not quite. He picks at his breakfast and then makes a quick trip back to the dorm to get his broom and his gloves, knowing it’s early yet for the tryouts but hoping that the fresh air will settle his nerves. To his surprise, Neville is hovering awkwardly in the Entrance Hall when Harry gets back there, and joins him as he heads out through the massive main doors, matching his pace so that they walk side-by-side. Neville doesn’t say anything until they make it out through the front doors, and then he bumps Harry gently with an elbow.

Harry glances over at him and finds Neville smiling.

“You’re braver than I am,” Neville says. “Maybe you should’ve been in Gryffindor after all.”

Harry snorts. “Maybe. But I’m not braver than you, Neville.”

“I’m terrified of flying.”

“You could do it if you had to.” Harry runs a hand through his hair, trying to settle the wild strands, which are long enough now to fall around his face—it’ll be wind-tossed soon, but he might as well look composed even if he doesn’t feel it. “Do you think I’ve got a shot?”

“You’re a great flier,” Neville says, and tugs Harry to a stop, looking at him seriously. “And you’re… you’re an asset, Harry. I think you’ll do fine.”

Harry shrugs. “It’s hard to say. I don’t think Flint likes me much.”

“Is he the sort of put his personal feelings about his shot at winning?”

“I don’t know,” Harry says. “But he pushed me down the stairs last year, after that mess with Norbert.”

Neville stares at him, wide-eyed. “I didn’t know that!”

“Yeah,” Harry says, and shrugs again, then resumes walking toward the Quidditch pitch. “It was… I don’t know. It didn’t seem personal, but I still don’t think he likes me.”

“Merlin, Harry,” Neville says. “Didn’t you tell anyone?”

“Of course not,” Harry says. “I mean… it could’ve been worse. And anyway, who would I have told? Snape? Not likely he’d have done anything, probably just sneered at me for tattling. Sirius? He’s not my dad, Neville. And even if he were, he wasn’t a professor last year. No point.”

Neville sighs. “Still, Flint shouldn’t’ve gotten away with that.”

“Maybe not, but that’s how it is in Slytherin.” Harry looks up at the distant hazy blue sky and contemplates it. “Things aren’t kind, but… it was fair, I guess, by the House’s rules.”

“If you say so,” Neville says. Harry thinks he can see him shake his head in his peripheral vision, but Neville doesn’t harp on the subject—better than Hermione. She’d been with him when it happened, but he doesn’t think she’d ever really realized what had happened, and if she had, she’d never have let it go. She’d have been twice as unbearable about his trying out for the Quidditch team with Flint still captain, at least.

Halfway down to the Quidditch pitch, Neville stops and says, “I should probably go back before any Slytherins show up.”

“Probably,” Harry agrees, pausing as well. “Thanks, Neville.”

“Not sure I was much help, but you’re welcome.” Neville smiles at him, then waves and turns away, heading back up to the castle. Harry waves after him for a moment, then lets out a slow breath. Truthfully, even just having a moment to talk to Neville calmed him down a little—his friend has a soothing presence, somehow. He’s very steady. And now Harry feels… well, at least a little more prepared than he was before.

The Quidditch pitch is still deserted when he gets there, so Harry takes the opportunity to do a little last-minute practice with his Snitch and to warm up on his broom. He’s not sure what Flint’s approach will be, and wants to be ready for anything. He puts the Snitch away, however, as soon as he sees a group leave the castle and begin heading down toward the pitch. He stays in the air, doing a few idle loops around the goal posts, weaving in and out, and then putting on some speed to fly a few laps. It’s enough to distract him, so much so that he doesn’t notice the other Slytherins enter the pitch until someone from below shouts, “Oy, Potter!”

He pauses, sits up on his broom to bleed off speed, and looks down. It’s a bit too far to really see who’s there, even wearing his Quidditch goggles, which Sirius had helped him get enchanted with his prescription, so he dips down. Most of last year’s Quidditch team is there, carrying several bags of gear: Lucian Bole and Peregrine Derrick, the Beaters, and Adrian Pucey, Graham Montague, and Marcus Flint himself, the three Chasers. Only Higgs and Miles Bletchley, the Keeper, are missing. As Harry drifts downward, Flint raises a hand to wave him closer, so Harry drops quickly, pulls up, and then lands a short distance from them, sweeping his broom out from under himself smoothly as he walks over.

“I take it you’re planning to try out,” Flint says, once Harry’s in easy earshot. Bizarre, Harry thinks, to realize only now that he’s never actually spoken to Flint before. The older boy’s voice is deep and even, surprisingly pleasant for a person with such a brutal reputation. He’s big, yes, built tall and broad, and not particularly pretty, but Harry doesn’t feel menaced. Not right now, anyway.

Harry responds to the observation with the nod. “I’m looking forward to it. You can have the pitch, if you need to set up.”

“Kind of you,” Flint says, his tone bone-dry. “Go sit in the stands.”

“Yes, Captain,” Harry replies, trying not to sound sarcastic. From Pucey’s snort, he fails, but Flint doesn’t seem angry, just waves him away. Harry goes as bid, taking his broom and heading up to sit in the stands and watch the senior students set up for the tryouts. While Pucey, Montague, and the Beaters lay out a box of tiny yellow-painted balls, a series of rings that look a lot like hula hoops, and other such items, Flint ducks out of the pitch to retrieve the lockbox which contains the actual Quidditch balls, as well as an armload of school brooms for anyone trying out who doesn’t have their own. The older Slytherins don’t seem bothered by Harry watching them prepare; they don’t even seem surprised. Harry decides to take that as a good sign, and waves a greeting to Higgs when he arrives a few minutes later, accompanied by Bletchley, last year’s Keeper. Higgs waves back and then gets to work helping his teammates; they seem to work well together, and Harry hopes that that doesn’t mean that he’s got no chance at all at taking Higgs’s place. Higgs hadn’t seemed overly concerned about giving it up on the train, but his experience might be enough to get him the spot on the team even if he doesn’t want it as much as Harry or Malfoy. Only time will tell, Harry tells himself, and settles in to watch.

Other Slytherins begin to arrive about ten minutes before the actual start of the tryouts, by which time last year’s Quidditch team have finished their setup and are standing around in a clump on the field, talking. Making plans, maybe. None of them wave for Harry to join them, so he stays where he is until he sees Millicent and Theo arrive, and then he goes down to say hello to them.

“I didn’t think you two were going to try out,” he says, after they’ve said their hellos.

Both of his friends shake their heads. “No,” Millicent says. “Maybe in a few years. We just wanted to watch.”

“Honestly, you couldn’t pay me to get out there and do that,” Theo says. “I’ll stick with watching, thanks.”

Harry snorts. “Sure, Theo. Well, I had a good view from up there,” he says, and points up to where he’d been sitting in the stands. “Have fun. Don’t cheer for Malfoy.”

“Would I do that?” Theo asks innocently.

“Yes,” Harry says, “if you thought it’d get you somewhere.”

Both Millicent and Theo laugh. “You’re not wrong,” Millicent says, pats Harry’s arm, and then accompanies Theo up into the stands. Blaise, Harry notes, is absent—but then, he’s not half as Quidditch-crazy as those two. He’ll come to the games if Harry makes the team.

Gemma, Hussain, and Warrington come down as well; Gemma and Hussain seat themselves a few rows above Millicent and Theo in the stands, and Warrington picks himself a spot on the field to start stretching his shoulders. He’s got a broom with him that Harry thinks he recognizes as being a few years old, but of good quality and in good condition. There are also a number of other older Slytherins who Harry doesn’t really know, some of whom head up into the stands, others lining up on the field to try out. Then Malfoy and his gang arrive; he’s flanked as usual by Crabbe and Goyle, and Pansy Parkinson is trailing after them, lacking the company of Greengrass and Davis for once. The four of them stand in a group on the field, Malfoy preening in what looks like new Quidditch gear—he has a broom, too, a Nimbus 2001 to match Harry’s. Harry sighs, seeing that, and meanders over toward the old Quidditch team. They’re getting close to starting time, and he wants to be ready.

Sure enough, it’s only a few minutes after Malfoy’s arrival that Flint nods decisively to something one of the other players says and then turns to shout across the field, “Gather up, anyone trying out! Everyone else, up in the stands!”

Harry comes over, joined by Malfoy and four older Slytherins, including Warrington. Once they’re all gathered, Flint says brusquely, “This won’t take long. Positions? Warrington?”

He looks at each player in turn as he says their names, staring with Warrington, who says, “Chaser.” Another of the older Slytherins, Ricker, is also trying out for Chaser, and the other two, Bode and Ambrus, are trying out as a pair for the Beater positions. Then comes Malfoy, who of course says, “Seeker,” as does Harry himself, who Flint comes to last. Harry tries not to take that as a bad sign, and tightens his grip on his broom.

“Good,” says Flint, once they’re all done. “So, Bletchley, you keep your job. You others—I know how my team flies, I don’t need to see them. So we’ll see what you can do. Chasers first. Warrington, Ricker, mount up.”

The two named nod and step away to do as they were told. Harry and the remaining crowd of those trying out gather a ways away at Flint’s gesture and watch as he too mounts and rises into the air to speak to Warrington and Ricker. After a moment, he waves to the players below, and Pucey opens the Quidditch chest to pull out the Quaffle and toss it up.

Flint puts the potential Chasers through a series of straightforward agility exercizes first, both with and without the Quaffle under their arms, and then flies with them through some passing drills. After a while, Harry sees Ricker fumble the Quaffle on a pass, and without hesitation Warrington dives for it—when he manages to catch it, he gets a nod from Flint. They continue a little longer, but finally Flint seems satisfied and heads for the ground, Ricker and Warrington on his heels.

He doesn’t say anything to them when they land, just shouts, “Beaters next!”

Warrington and Ricker come over to join the group, and Bode and Ambrus mount and join Flint in the air.

“How’d you think you did?” Harry asks Warrington in an undertone, when he comes to stand next to Harry.

Warrington shrugs. “Fine,” he says. “Not sure I’ll make the team; the current Chaser trio clicks well, and they’ve got no reason to change it up.”

“You seemed like you performed well, at least,” Harry offers.

Warrington glances down at him. “Thanks.”

“Does Flint take reserve players?”

“Not sure,” Warrington says. “He hasn’t before, but we haven’t had much talent in the last few years.”

“Have you tried out before?”

“No.” Warrington shrugs again. “Not much time for it.”

“Right,” Harry says, and glances up at where the Beaters are trying out. Flint seems to have enchanted a series of brown balls the size of regular Bludgers to fly at them, and they’re trying to hit them through the rings Harry had seen earlier, which are being levitated by those members of the team still on the ground. Neither seems to be doing very well.

Fortunately, Flint doesn’t seem inclined to let them flounder for long, and seem enough he’s directing them to the ground as well. Which, Harry realizes, swallowing hard, means it’s time for the Seeker trial. As with the Chasers, Flint doesn’t say anything to the Beaters, just calls for Harry and Malfoy.

Harry mounts up, trying to ignore Malfoy doing the same thing next to him, and kicks off, zipping up to join Flint. Once they’re both at his height and close enough to be heard, Flint glances between them and says, “First, no funny business.”

Harry nods immediately, but Malfoy scoffs and says, “Don’t look at me.”

Both of you,” Flint says. “Speed first. Potter—round the arena as fast as you can. Weave through the goal posts, otherwise stick as close to the wall as you can.”

Harry nods and goes without comment. He lays as close to his broom as he can and lays on the speed, so close to the wall that he’s almost brushing the fabric, and he can hear it rippling behind him in the wind his passing generates. When he hits the goalposts, he dekes out from the wall, weaving through as fast as he can, taking the turns so tight he almost hits the middle post with his shoulder, and then makes the second half of the run. The posts go a little smoother the second time, and he whips around the remaining section of the arena before turning on a dime and racing back to the centre to meet Flint and Malfoy. Flint has a stopwatch in his hand and clicks it as Harry reaches them, then nods to Malfoy, who zips off with a final sneer at Harry.

Harry isn’t sure how fast he’d done it, more focused on not hitting a goalpost or drifting away from the wall, but Malfoy is quick. It feels like less than a minute before Malfoy is back at the centre, though Harry is sure it was longer than that—but it’s hard to judge time right now.

Once Malfoy is back, Flint nods at them both, then says, “Alright. Dives; start at the height of the goal posts, dive as steeply as you can, pull up as late as you can. One at a time, again. Malfoy first.”

They both nod and head for the goal posts. Malfoy shoots Harry another of those obnoxious superior smirks before he goals, diving toward the ground at speed. He dives steeply, but, Harry thinks, not as fast as he’d been racing at full speed; he’s holding back. And he pulls up pretty far shy of the ground, bleeding off speed as he shoots across the pitch until he can fly back up again to join Flint at the centre. Flint waves to tell Harry to go, and Harry immediately flattens himself, turns the point of his broomstick to the ground, and lets himself drop. Pushes his broom, in fact, racing for the ground as fast as he can. In his mind, he marks the distance as the ground grows closer and closer, confident in his ability to pull up at the absolute last moment, unlike Malfoy. His heart is racing, the wind loud in his ears, and then the ground is right there and he whips upward, blazing across the pitch so close that his boots would be brushing the ground if he didn’t have his toes tucked up on his broom’s footrests. He keeps his speed, too, determined to show Flint what he’s made of, only slowing when he reaches the centre of the pitch and has to rise to rejoin them.

From the stands, Harry can hear someone cheering and shouting, and he resists the urge to turn and give a wave. No reason to be cocky; it’s not over yet. But Flint’s stony expression does seem to have softened a little, and he gives Harry a more serious once-over once he pulls his broom to a stop, hovering in front of him.

“Reflexes,” Flint says next. In brusque terms, he describes what he wants. Similar to the Beaters, he has foam balls painted yellow, and he’s going to enchant them to pelt toward Harry and Malfoy. They’re to catch as many as they can and let them drop; they’re not to move their brooms doing it.

Once again, they’re going one at a time, Harry first this time. He sets himself up where Flint directs him and flexes his right hand, getting ready. Flint doesn’t give any signal before the first ball comes flying toward Harry, but Harry’s reflexes are sharp, and he’s able to snap his hand out to snag the ball. And then the next, and the next. He misses a few, among them one that flies low, and another far to the left that he doesn’t lean fast enough to snag, but he manages to catch one that’s about to hit him directly in the face, and he manages another narrow catch so high above his head that he has to let go with his left hand and extend his whole body upward, reaching. He hits a sort of rhythm, watching for the flash of yellow and snapping his hand outward. All in all, he thinks he catches most of them, unless there were some in his peripheral vision that he didn’t even see. Malfoy, at least, is no longer smirking when Harry flies back over—he’s looking rather sour, in fact.

Harry is pleased to realize why shortly after, as he watches Malfoy take his own turn. His reflexes are good enough for the balls that fly fairly close, but he’s not as good at predicting the path of the more distant ones and misses more of those than Harry knows he did himself. He makes the low catch, but doesn’t dare make the reach for the high ball, which comes at a different time than it did for Harry. Provided they had the same number of balls thrown at them, Harry knows he caught more than Malfoy did, and from the frustrated look on Malfoy’s face when he comes back, he knows it too.

Flint still looks very neutral. He continues to look neutral when he says, “One last thing. Can you take a hit?”

Malfoy looks taken aback. Harry’s not sure how he looks; probably grim.

What?” Malfoy demands, a moment later.

“Quidditch is a contact sport,” Flint says. “The Seeker is a major target. Can you take a hit, Malfoy?”

“I should hope the rest of the team would protect me!” Malfoy protests. “The Seeker is the most valuable player, after all!”

Harry rolls his eyes. “A Seeker wouldn’t be much good without a Keeper,” he says. “And even a good Seeker is nothing to a better team of Chasers.”

Truthfully, Harry knows that from watching Slytherin’s games last year. Higgs was a decent Seeker, but substantially worse than Ravenclaw’s Cho Chang and Hufflepuff’s Cedric Diggory, and though he was better than Gryffindor’s Seeker, it wasn’t enough to out-score the Gryffindor Chasers.

“Then they’d better not pick you,” Malfoy says spitefully.

Harry ignores him. “I can take a hit,” he says to Flint.

“Willing to test that, Potter?” Flint asks.

Harry shrugs. “If you need to.” He can take whatever Flint dishes out, he’s pretty sure.

Flint eyes him, then says, “No.” Then he looks over at Malfoy and says, “Not you, either. Let’s go.”

He starts back down toward the ground without another word. Malfoy races to catch up with him, and Harry can hear just the faint drift of words back up toward him. So, Malfoy’s taking the chance to make his pitch, probably offering a bribe. Fine. Harry darts down past them, racing in a dive toward the ground again, allowing himself to enjoy it before he has to land again. He’s not sure that what he’s showed was enough, but he’s sure he did better than Malfoy. It comes down to Flint’s integrity now, his priorities. Which connection will he want more?

Harry lands and dismounts before Flint and Malfoy, then jogs over to join the group. Last year’s team has formed a clump with those trying out, watching the final trial, and as Harry comes over both Warrington and Higgs nod at Harry.

Harry takes a deep breath as he waits for Flint to arrive and deliver his verdicts. He’s surprised at his own nerves—he wants it more than he’d originally expected. But he suspects Flint will deliver the other decisions first, and is proved right.

When Flint arrives he nods at all of them, then says, “Alright. Chasers first. Ricker, you’re still a bit rough, I don’t have a place for you.” Ricker scowls but shrugs, doesn’t voice any objection. “Warrington, you’re solid, but not enough for me to break up my team. If you’re willing to come to some practices, I’ll let you play reserve.”

“Sure,” Warrington says easily.

“Try out again next year,” Flint instructs, to a nod from Warrington, then he moves on. “Beaters, neither of you is up to scratch.”

Bode and Ambrus exchange a look, both a little downcast, but neither seems surprised. “Alright,” Bode says, after a moment. “Thanks, captain.”

Flint nods at them both, then turns to the Harry and Malfoy. Harry’s gut feels tight, and he takes another deep breath.

“Seekers, you both did well in the trial. You’re both faster than Higgs, and with some polish either of you could surpass him, so, Higgs—”

“Oh, don’t worry about me,” Higgs says. He sounds amused. “Go on, captain.”

Flint grunts. “Malfoy,” he says. “I appreciate your offer; generous of you.”

Malfoy smiles. “Of course,” he says. “It’s my pleasure.”

“I’m sure it is,” Flint says. “I’ll keep it in mind if Potter fails to perform, but I’m giving the position to him.”

There’s a beat. Then Harry starts to grin, at the same time as Malfoy shouts, “What!?”

“Potter’s our Seeker,” Flint says. “He’s better than you.”

“But—”

“I want to win, Malfoy.” Flint narrows his eyes. “If you try to change my mind, I’ll be pleased to take it as an insult.”

Malfoy’s mouth snaps shut. Then, after a moment, he grits out, “Fine,” and storms off, his hand white-knuckled around the handle of his broom.

Harry tries to tone down his grin, but doesn’t have much success. “Thank you, captain,” he says, once Malfoy’s gone. “I won’t disappoint.”

“You’d better not,” Flint says. “Welcome to the team, Potter. First practice is Thursday evening.”

Harry nods. Then, when Flint waves them all off as a dismissal, he bolts for the stands to tell Theo and Millicent the good news. He’s made the Quidditch team; stage one of his plan to take down Draco Malfoy is complete.


Harry spends the remainder of the day of the tryouts being celebrated by his friends in Slytherin. Theo and Blaise are both openly happy for him, Theo slapping him on the back multiple times as they walk back to the castle, and Millicent stops him in the common room and shakes his hand once they all get back. So does Higgs, publicly conceding his position with a wry smile. Other members of the House are playing close attention, Harry knows, and tries not to be too visibly nervous. He only hopes he’ll be able to live up to this tryout—he knows he’d done well, and he knows Flint will help him train, but still. Now it’s really going to be time to put his money where his mouth is.

In the dorm that night, Harry allows himself a brief moment to crow about the look on Malfoy’s face; Theo, up in the stands, hadn’t seen exactly what had happened, but he’d seen Malfoy storm away and he’s eager for the description. Blaise is more quiet about his enjoyment but seems to relish Harry’s recounting of events all the same, and Harry goes to bed with a buzz of triumph.

The next day is Monday and Harry nearly bounces through class, unable to entirely contain himself. After Defence in the morning Harry lingers for a moment after class to give Sirius a huge hug and tell him, “I made the team!”

Sirius ruffles his hair, grinning wide, and says, “Never doubted you, pup. Now run along, I’ve got another class coming in.”

Harry nods and dashes off—the class coming in is the sixth-years, and Harry waves at Gemma and Hussain when he spots them waiting in the hall on his way out the door. Gemma laughs and waves back, and then Harry continues on. He’s got a free hour before lunch and he wants to use it to finish his homework, so that he can spend his free block in the afternoon with his Gryffindor friends.

Sure enough, in the last hour of the day Harry’s able to track down Hermione, Neville, and Ron in one of the study halls and plops down into a seat next to Ron, his satchel thumping onto the bench next to him.

“You look pleased,” Hermione says.

“No kidding,” Ron adds. “What’s happening?”

“I made the Quidditch team!” Harry declares proudly.

Ron immediately lights up and reaches over to slap Harry on the back. “That’s incredible, mate! Seeker, right? How many people did you try out against? Was it much competition? What did Flint make you do? Was it difficult? Is he as scary as he seems? Do you—”

“Give him a moment to answer, Ron,” Neville interjects, laughing. He turns his smile on Harry and says, “Congrats, Harry.”

“Thanks,” Harry says, grinning back. “It wasn’t easy, but he made us do dives and things, and do a sort of speed test, and catch fake Snitches. Nothing I couldn’t do.”

“Who were you trying out against?” Hermione asks.

“Just Malfoy,” Harry says. “Well, technically Higgs too, but Flint said he already knew what Higgs could do and didn’t make him do the exercises. And Higgs didn’t seem very surprised that I beat him.”

“You are a natural on a broom,” Ron says. “And with that Nimbus… wow. Well, I can’t say I’m looking forward to Gryffindor having to face you on the field, but I guess I’m happy for you anyway.”

“Thanks, Ron,” Harry says, feeling warmed. He knows Ron is still no fan of Slytherin, and it must’ve taken a lot for him to say that. “I’m just glad I beat Malfoy, honestly.”

“Bloody right!” Ron declares. Hermione immediately sighs at his language, but doesn’t say anything. “That prat doesn’t deserve the spot.”

“No,” Harry says. “Plus he was bragging about it so much—he looks like a real berk now. Especially since he tried to bribe Flint, and even that didn’t work.”

“Huh,” says Neville. “Can’t say I’m surprised he tried a bribe, but I’m a little surprised Flint didn’t take it.”

Harry shrugs. “Flint’s not nice, but he… he has principles, I think. Rules, like. I don’t know what Malfoy offered him, but it wasn’t enough to get past that. And I definitely did better in the trial, so.”

“Well, good,” Neville says. “Flint doesn’t exactly play fair in games, from what I can tell, but…”

“That’s because—” Harry pauses, considers. “Well, Slytherin wants to win.”

It’s more than that, of course. It’s that Flint can afford to be fair and principled within Slytherin but there’s no real profit in being that way outside of it, or toward those who place themselves on the outside. Last year, when Harry had lost all those points, he’d put himself on the outside and gotten a punishment for it. But when the time came, it stopped, because while Slytherin kept its own in line, it never showed that to anyone else. Snape had talked about that at the start of Harry’s first year, that they were on their own against the rest of the school most of the time, and that meant that they needed to look out for themselves first.

It made sense in a way that Harry doesn’t really like. Of course he wants to try to be fair to everyone. That’s one of the things he’s hoping to push the rest of Slytherin toward with this new influence he’s gaining—they’ll be the outsiders less if they don’t make themselves like that. But for now, that’s how it is, and Harry has to work within Slytherin House instead of trying to change it just yet. Joining the Quidditch team is his way of showing that he is part of Slytherin, no matter that he has Gryffindor friends, and that he’s willing to play by the rules of people like Flint. Now that he’s proven that, he can start to do other things, to show the ways that he actually is different.

And Harry has a plan for that, so he turns to Ron and he adds, “I wanted ask you something, too.”

“Sure, mate, shoot,” Ron says.

“Could you introduce me to your brothers?”

There’s a pause.

“You mean Percy?” Ron asks, confused. Hermione and Neville are also both giving Harry quizzical looks.

Harry shakes his head. “The twins, actually. I want to talk to them about something.”

“Don’t know why you’d ask for it like that,” Ron says, skeptical. “But okay. I’ll tell them you want to talk to them, they’ll turn up.”

“Like a bad penny,” Hermione mutters. “I hope you’re not planning a prank, Harry.”

“Oh no,” Harry says. “I’m not going to be planning any pranks at all, don’t worry.”

“Right,” Hermione says, not sounding much like she believes him. That’s fine; he’s planning on using her as an alibi at least a few times in the weeks to come, because no one would believe that Hermione Granger would ever cover for trouble-making. She’s perfect, really.

Neville has an eyebrow raised like he’s suspicious too, but he doesn’t say anything at all, and Harry just smiles at him innocently. Neville shakes his head, then says, “So, how are you going to deal with Malfoy? He’s sure to be mad.”

“I’m not really worried about him, to be honest,” Harry says. “He can’t do anything, especially not with Sirius here. And the more he tries to threaten me without being able to follow through the dumber he looks.”

“I s’pose that’s true,” Neville says. “Well, good luck, Harry.”

“Thanks, Neville.”

They exchange a quick smile, and then Hermione interjects to remind Ron and Neville and they’re supposed to be working on homework right now, and both of them sigh long-sufferingly but obligingly pull out their books. Harry does too, though he has a novel, since he’d finished his Charms essay earlier. They spend a companionable hour and a half, occasionally taking breaks from reading or working to chat, then part ways to drop off their things in their common rooms before dinner. Ron promises again to tell the twins that Harry wants to talk to them, and so Harry settles in to wait.

Harry doesn’t know the Weasley twins very well, but if they’re anything like Sirius and Remus, they’ll be curious enough not to wait very long before approaching him. Sure enough, it’s only Wednesday afternoon when Harry, on his way back to the common room after Transfiguration, finds himself and the other Slytherins joined by two tall, lanky redheads who seem to appear out of nowhere. They slide in on either side of Harry, nudging Theo, who was walking on his right, out of the way.

“Hello, little snake,” says the one on Harry’s left.

“Heard you were looking for us,” says the one on Harry’s right.

Startled, Harry stops walking, as do Theo and Blaise. The rest of the Slytherins have fortunately dispersed, so there’s not really anyone else around right now. “Er,” says Harry. “I suppose Ron told you.”

“Right—”

“—indeed!” they declare. The one on the left continues. “Gred—

“—and Forge—”

“—at your service.”

They whirl so they they’re facing Harry and both make showy bows, in perfect unison. Telling them apart is going to be a problem, Harry can already tell, so he tries to mark any differences he can between them—it’s not easy. They really are identical, right down to the way their hair falls and the slightly rumpled way they wear their robes; Harry’s sure those things will be different every time, just as much as their faces will always be the same. But they aren’t the same person, no matter how much they’re a unit, so he’s sure he’ll figure it out eventually.

“Thanks,” Harry says. “Maybe we should go somewhere else to talk?”

“Certainly!” one of the twins declares. “Where shall we take our young friend, Fred?”

“Oh, I don’t know, George,” says the other. “We can decide on the way!”

With that, they sweep forward again, each taking one of Harry’s arms like gentlemen at a ball and beginning to escort him firmly away.

“See you later!” Harry calls over his shoulder to Blaise and Theo. “If I don’t show up to dinner, get help!”

“Er—” says Theo, and then the twins turn a corner and then, swiftly, another, sliding smoothly into a dim passage hidden behind a tapestry. Well hidden, in fact; Harry would never have guessed it was there. Once they’re out of view, the twins release Harry, but they stay framing him—stepping so that now they’re one in front and one behind—as they make their way through the passage. It doesn’t rise or descend as far as Harry can tell, but it takes them a few minutes of walking before they emerge out from behind a different tapestry. Harry looks around, and realizes that despite his feeling when he’d been in the passage of walking on a flat floor, they’re now on the fourth floor, when before they’d been on the first.

“Wicked,” Harry says.

One of them twins—Fred?—turns around to grin at Harry over his shoulder, and taps his temple. “All sorts of things to know about this castle—”

“—if you care to learn,” finishes George(?) behind him.

“How’d you even find it?” Harry asks. Fred and George show him into an empty classroom off a less-travelled corridor. To Harry’s surprise, it’s not very dusty, despite being clearly abandoned, and there appear to be three chairs set up around a round desk. They’d prepared for this.

“We’ll show you ours when you show us yours,” says Fred.

“Fair enough,” Harry admits. “Thanks for meeting with me.”

“How could we turn down the illustrious Heir Black—”

“—when he desires to meet with us peasants?”

“And with widdle Ronniekins looking so very confused, too!”

“We simply couldn’t resist.”

Then they both bow again, gesturing toward the table, and say in unison, “My lord.”

“Ugh,” says Harry, which makes both of them crack up. He takes a seat while they finish laughing and they join him at the table, then fix him with startlingly intent looks after their earlier joking around.

“So,” says… George, Harry thinks? He’d lost track when he turned away from them to sit down. But he’s determined not to ask—he suspects he won’t get any respect from them like that.

“What can we do for you?” asks Fred.

“I’m trying to take Draco Malfoy down a peg,” Harry says. “Or a few.”

“Oooh,” say the twins together.

“And you think we can help with that?” says Fred.

“Yes,” Harry says firmly. “You’re pranksters, I know that, and I know how smart pranksters can be. I think you’re good allies to have.”

Smart,” George says.

“That’s a new one on us,” Fred says.

“Most people prefer silly—”

“—frivolous—”

“—outrageous—”

“—insane—”

“—obnoxious—”

“—petty—”

“—we could go on!” George grins, sharklike, and leans in a little. “Why smart, o Prince Potter?”

Harry shrugs, deciding not to argue with the nickname lest he get something worse. That had happened sometimes with school bullies in primary school. “Can you keep a secret?”

“Of course,” they declare in unison.

“Well,” Harry says. “I know stories get passed down sometimes—have you two heard of the Marauders? They were a group—”

“We know,” Fred says, leaning in to match George. “There are definitely still some stories about their bigger pranks—

“—floating around among us Hogwarts troublemakers.”

“They’re legends!”

“Icons!”

“Heroes!” the twins finish together.

“What I want to know,” Fred says, “is how you know about them.”

“Not the sort of thing it seems like the snakes downstairs would be talking about,” George adds.

“No,” Harry agrees. “The Slytherins aren’t much for pranks. Not the kind anyone puts their name on, anyway.”

“We imagine not,” George says. “So?”

“It just so happens,” Harry says, “that I know who the Marauders were.”

Both of the twins looks a bit stunned, which Harry had been counting on. Sirius and Remus had told him over the summer that while they knew, from McGonagall complaining to them about it when they saw her, that Hogwarts pranksters and mischief-makers had continued to pass down stories about the Marauders over the years and take inspiration from them, no one actually knew anymore who they were. Even when they’d been at school, while the four of them had been suspects almost by default, they’d make sure that it was rare for all four of them to be involved in the same prank, and that made it hard for anyone to be sure. McGonagall, who’d usually been the one to catch them the few times they had been caught, had known, but she’d never shared that information with other students lest the addition to their reputation make them even more bold. So the identities of the Marauders was privileged information, and Harry had been counting on it being valuable to the twins, which it seems to be, fortunately.

There’s a pause, and then the twins exchange a long look, clearly passing something between them. They’re better at it than anyone Harry has ever seen, maybe because they’ve known each other since birth, maybe because they have the same face, or maybe because of some sort of other unknowable twin thing. Either way, after a long minute, they turn back to Harry in unison and say together, “Tell us.”

Harry smiles. “Prongs was my father, James Potter. Padfoot was—is—Sirius Black. Moony is Remus Lupin. And Wormtail was Peter Pettigrew.”

The twins fall back in their seats and both slap their foreheads. “Brilliant,” says Fred.

“Genius,” says George. Then he sits up and says, “So how do we know it’s true?”

Harry shrugs. “I knew the nicknames without you telling me, though I suppose I could have found out elsewhere. But the timeframe is right, you know it. It wouldn’t be hard to verify that they were friends. It’s also public information that Peter Pettigrew is a rat animagus.”

Among the other things Sirius and Remus had told Harry about over the summer was how his parents had gotten the way they are. He’d deserved to know, Sirius had said, and explained that their once-friend Pettigrew had betrayed Harry’s mum and dad to Voldemort. Sirius had almost lost his mind with grief when he arrived only a little too late to save their sanities, though he had saved their lives; he’d been just in time to stop the Lestranges from killing them, their sadism satisfied. But he hadn’t had the opportunity to fly off the handle—he’d had to handle arresting the Lestranges, and then, at first, he’d had hope that Lily and James might be cured. Not so, but it had kept him from the manhunt for Peter. Later on he’d done what he could, as had Remus, the both of them sharing whatever information they had, including Pettigrew’s animagus form. Unfortunately, he’d completely vanished off the grid; it was impossible to find a single rat in all of London, never mind all of Britain, and that wasn’t taking into account that Pettigrew could have easily fled the country in the confusion immediately following Voldemort’s fall. Sirius’s own animagus form was now registered with the Ministry as well, as was Remus’s lycanthropy, though both of those were somewhat less well-known; Sirius’s records are sealed because he was an Auror and now he’s Lord Black, and Remus, well. He’s tried to keep it quiet, for obvious reasons.

The twins are both nodding, clearly mulling this over. Then George says, “So, Wormtail was a rat animagus. Does that mean—?”

Harry puts a finger up to his lips in a shushing gesture, and, impulsively, winks. The twins will probably check, but he trusts their discretion. They know a thing or two about not getting caught.

Well then,” says Fred. “Valuable information you’ve offered us, little prince. What do you want for it?”

“I want to humiliate Malfoy,” Harry says. “I don’t even really need you to do it. I just want you to pull some pranks on him and make it look like I was responsible, but at times when it’s provable that it wasn’t me.”

“Aha,” say the twins, in unison.

“So you’re trying to provoke—”

“—a public accusation.”

“Yes,” Harry says, nodding. “Exactly. I want him to be so frustrated that he can’t resist trying to call me out in public; even better if he tries to threaten me over it. And I want to be able to pull out the list of pranks and show him, point by point, that none of it could have been me.”

“He’ll look petty—”

“—and foolish.”

“That’s the plan,” Harry says.

“You know—” says Fred.

“—o snakely highness—”

“—you could’ve just asked.”

“Didn’t need to buy our help.”

Harry shrugs. “Better to be sure, isn’t it? And anyway, Sirius is impressed enough with you two that he said he’d be okay with you knowing in any case.”

That’s enough to put stars in both of their eyes. “With us?” they ask.

“Sure,” Harry says. “Not that I know you that well but your pranks are mostly pretty funny, and Ron’s told me some stories. Sirius liked hearing about it; said he was glad there were heirs to the legacy, since I’m not much for pranks myself.”

“Fabulous,” Fred breathes.

“Stupendous,” George agrees.

They exchange another of those speaking glances, and then nod at one another. “Harry,” they say together, “we’ve got something to show you.”

Harry raises an eyebrow, and Fred reaches down into his bookbag to withdraw a folded piece of parchment. He spreads it partway out on the table between them, places his wand in the centre of it, and says, “I solemnly swear I am up to no good.”

Ink unfurls across the parchment, bleeding sepia colour across the folded pages, transforming before Harry’s eyes into a map. First comes the layout of Hogwarts’ fourth floor, on which they currently sit, and then more and more, spilling out across the parchment. Then footprints begin to appear, each pair labelled with a name. In the room directly under Fred’s wand, three pairs of footprints are close together, tagged with their own three names.

“Wicked,” Harry whispers. “What is it?”

Fred smiles. He taps his wand, and says, “Introduce yourselves, lads.”

An empty spot appears in the middle of the page which begins to fill with writing. First an elegant hand that writes, in clear cursive: Messers Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs are proud to present The Marauder’s Map. Then other writing appears below, more casual, the first line of which is very familiar:

Messer Moony, at your service, stranger. It’s definitely Remus’s handwriting, a little sloppier and more cramped but still recognizable.

So polite, Moons, comes another line, this time unfamiliar. The writing is an open slanting cursive, elegant enough that Harry thinks this writer was responsible for the calligraphy above, though his regular hand is simpler. Messer Prongs greets you! Harry stares at that line. His father’s handwriting.

Messer Wormtail would like to be introduced! says the next line, this untidy printing also unfamiliar; this, too, draws an intent stare.

Messer Wormtail can introduce his bloody self, comes the last new hand, this one a significantly messier version of Sirius’s half-cursive. As Messer Padfoot is currently doing. Hello, stranger!

“Wow,” Harry says. His voice comes in a whisper, and he clears his throat. “This is… amazing.”

The twins are watching him with a careful compassion clear on their faces. “We’ll need it for the prank campaign,” says Fred.

“And it’d be nice to have another month or so to finish memorizing all the passages,” adds George.

“But after that—“

“It’s yours.”

Harry looks up sharply, tries to gauge the sincerity on their faces. Both of them have open features, their noses covered in freckles and blue eyes wide and calm; he doesn’t think they’re lying to him. Still, “Why?”

“If your dad—“

“—and Lord Black—“

“—made this, it should be with you.”

“It’s your inheritance.”

Harry swallows hard. Gryffindor sentimentality, he tells himself. But he’s not going to argue with it, or with the generosity. “Thank you,” he says, his voice a bit rough. He clears his throat. “You can keep it as long as you need it, of course, but… I will consider myself in your debt if you give this to me when you’re done. Substantially in your debt.”

The twins exchange a glance, and then offer him a nod as one. They’re smart enough not to decline his offer—a favour from him is a valuable thing now, he’s figured that much out. He thinks they’ll consider carefully what to ask of him.

Harry clears his throat, then says, “Well, I’ll leave the prank planning to you. You’re the experts, after all. But… I could get one of you into the Slytherin common room, if you needed, and if you can get a message to me I’ll be where ever I need to be when certain things happen, to make sure I have an alibi.”

“Perfect,” the twins say. Smiles appear again on their faces, wicked and clever, and then they rise in unison and hold out their hands.

Harry stands too and shakes each of their hands, and says, “Thank you.”

“Nice doing business with you,” says Fred.

“You’ll be hearing from us,” says George.

Then they make those theatrical bows again and make their way out of the room, whistling cheerfully. Harry laughs a little, then sits down to wait a few minutes before he leaves, so that they don’t raise too much suspicion.

Chapter Text

Harry Potter is turning out even more interesting than Gemma had imagined, and she’s pleased with herself. She had known that approaching him on the train was a good idea, or at the least that it wouldn’t hurt, but she had never expected how much he would accomplish in so little time. By the end of September, he’s secured a place on the Quidditch team—after performing very well in the tryouts—and, on the first of October, Draco Malfoy’s hair turns pumpkin orange in the middle of a second-year Charms class and he fails to reverse it for a full two days. No one had seen Harry draw a wand, and when Zabini openly questions him about how he’d done it at dinner, he just smiles, shrugs, and says, “Who says I did it?”

Gemma is fairly sure he hadn’t. Colour-changing charms of that power and longevity are third-year level, and Harry has never shown any strong aptitude for Charms. From what she was able to gather about him from her observations last year and her quiet investigation this year, he’s very strong in Defence, skilled in Transfiguration (though fairly average in his grasp of theory), deft but not talented in Potions and Herbology, and decent but nothing to write home about in the other subjects. His talents seem to lie in practical, will-based magics, and while he certainly has the mind to excel at theory as well, he hadn’t applied himself especially closely last year, only enough to achieve decent grades. This year he seems to have been studying harder, for which Gemma doesn’t blame him at all—if her guardian were at school with her, especially if he was as intimidating as Lord Black, she’d study too.

Not that she doesn’t. Indeed, she’s been making a bit more effort in Defence herself. Something about Lord Black is very compelling, for all that she’s not inclined to swoon over him like many of the other sixth-year girls (and some boys) are. He himself is half the reason she’s so sure she’d made a good decision in allying with Harry; he’d pulled her aside after class a few weeks into term and expressed his appreciation, and she knows exactly how valuable that is. She’s no fool.

Harry is well on his way to overthrowing Draco Malfoy as the up-and-coming Prince of Slytherin, and she wants it to be well clear to everyone, especially Harry, that she’d been behind him the entire time. Because she has been, since the very first day that a tiny, scruffy first-year with mussed hair and wary eyes behind round glasses had taken his seat at the Slytherin table. She doesn’t know as much as she might like to know about Harry’s history—he’s as close-mouthed as a bloody clam about his home life, even his life with Lord Black—but she knows that there’s something lurking there, had seen it right from the start, and she’s always wanted to help him. Maybe that makes her soft, but better soft than the alternative. It’s exciting to have the chance to finally step up and support him openly.

It’s not even hard to do. She and her group of friends—Ayesha, Terrence, and Cassius—make a point to spend some time in the common room with Harry and his friends—Zabini and Nott, of course, but also increasingly Bulstrode, which is interesting. They help them out with homework, and Cassius starts teaching Harry how to play wizards’ chess. Terrence makes social introductions for Harry with the rest of the Quidditch team as publicly as possible, and Harry starts spending time with them as well. Gemma and Ayesha stop restraining the urge to roll their eyes when Malfoy mouths off in their hearing, and while Gemma and Terrence both have duties as prefects, they finally allow themselves to ignore Malfoy’s pettier tattling and complaints, which previously it had been politic at least to entertain. Tides within Slytherin House shift slowly, subtly, but it begins to happen even within the first two weeks of October, not least because Malfoy continues to be the subject of small-scale practical jokes. Each time, Harry is implicated, but from what Gemma can tell he’s not actually responsible for any of it, and certainly not responsible in a way that allows any of the teachers to punish him. She thinks Professor Snape is probably keeping an eye on the situation, he always does, but he doesn’t step in. Content to watch Malfoy get humiliated, maybe? On Harry’s side? Waiting for him to make a mistake so that he can swoop in and deliver a brutal rebuke? Or just playing neutral? She can’t quite tell. She never really can, with Professor Snape, for all that she’s usually good with reading people.

At the end of the second week of October, things escalate. Malfoy is obviously on-edge, having spent the last two weeks with his hair or robes stained strange colours, or with all of his ties mysteriously missing, or off to the infirmary for treatment for the itching powder in his clothes. Once he spends a day where he’s entirely normal, but everything he touches turns a bright colour, including other people’s skin; everyone treats him like a leper until he’s able to prove that it’s not happening any more. He loses a number of points for uniform infractions, though the professors are obviously going easy on him, since it’s clearly not his fault. It not being his fault doesn’t make him any more popular within Slytherin for losing the points at all, though. And then, on the third Saturday of the month, Malfoy storms out of his dorm into the common room and shouts “Potter!”

Harry, who is playing chess with Cassius—where he has been all morning, while Malfoy had headed out a while ago to send letters at the Owlery, as he does every Saturday—looks up. “What, Malfoy?” he asks.

“What did you do to my dorm!”

Harry blinks, tilts his head. Gemma is sitting in an armchair by the fire and can see this all happening quite clearly, and she smirks.

“I didn’t do anything,” Harry says. “What’s happened? Is something wrong?”

“Of course something’s wrong! You’ve moved everything, or made the house elves do it!”

“House elves?” Harry asks, sounding genuinely bewildered. “Malfoy, what are you on about?”

“The Hogwarts house elves,” Cassius cuts in, interrupting Malfoy, who is clearly building up a head of steam. “They do our laundry and such—they keep out of sight, usually.”

Harry frowns, but he nods. “Well, I’ve never spoken to one, and I wasn’t in your dorm, Malfoy.”

“You can’t prove that!” Malfoy shouts. He’s attracting attention; everyone in the common room is now watching, Gemma confirms with a sweep of her eyes, though some more subtly than others. And a few people have trickled down out of the dorms, curious about the commotion. It’s not especially busy in Slytherin today, but there are plenty of eyes and ears about.

“I can’t prove I’ve never spoken to a house elf,” Harry admits. “But I’ve been here in the common room all day; ask Warrington. Or Gemma, over there, she’s been reading all morning.”

“It’s true,” Gemma offers. “He came down to the common room around the time I did, did his homework, and has since been playing chess with Cassius. And honestly, Malfoy, the Hogwarts elves wouldn’t help a student with some sort of prank even if you could summon them—which you can’t.”

Malfoy makes a noise that would perhaps be an intimidating growl on an older man, but on him it’s fairly embarrassing. “Well, everything in my dorm is—is wrong, and someone did it! It has to have been him!”

“You’ve no grounds for that accusation,” Harry says calmly. “So if you don’t mind, I’ll be going back to my game.”

“But you—”

“Goodbye, Malfoy,” Harry says. The blithe dismissal drags snorts of laughter from several of the spectators, including Gemma, and Malfoy’s face goes even whiter than usual. He looks around, as if only just realizing how much of a scene he’s made, then storms off again.

Gemma carefully sets her bookmark into the crease of her book, sets it aside, and gets up to drift over to the table where Harry and Cassius are going back to their game of chess as if nothing’d happened.

Did you do something?” she asks, trying to make her tone stern, at least for form. She is a prefect, after all.

Harry glances up and her and shakes his head. “I didn’t actually know Hogwarts had house elves,” he says. “And anyway, why would I ask them to do something to Malfoy? I’ve never done anything to Malfoy in my life.”

He looks so perfectly innocent. Gemma smirks; so does Cassius. “Of course,” she says. “I see. Well, hopefully Terrence is sorting Malfoy out right now.”

“Definitely,” Harry agrees. “He sure did sound like he needed help. Lots of it.”

Gemma snorts before she can stop herself, and then waves him away. “You’ve got some attitude, Harry.”

“Only as much as I’ve earned,” he replies, and then turns back to the chessboard. Gemma goes back to her book, but she spends a while dwelling on what he’d said. Something about his tone, the emphasis he’d placed on earned… she gives up after a while, unable to put a finger on what bothers her about it, but it’s certainly something. There are shadows lurking behind Harry Potter’s eyes, and Gemma knows it’ll take more than cunning to find out where they come from. But maybe one day.

For now, she just keeps an eye on him, curious as to what he’ll do after this latest outburst from Malfoy. He finishes his game with Cassius, and after thanking him he stands and stretches and heads out of the common room. Gemma waits a moment, and then she follows, catching Cassius’s eye and receiving a wink as she goes.

Harry doesn’t seem to be headed anywhere in particular. He has his satchel with him, as usual, but he doesn’t go toward the library. Instead he takes a somewhat meandering path through the dungeons, then cuts up a little-used staircase and heads for the second floor. Gemma isn’t sure if he can tell she’s following him—he’s never been easily surprised, but he also hasn’t looked over his shoulder even once.

Eventually, he arrives at what is apparently his destination, because he slips into an empty classroom off the second floor corridor. While he’s inside, Gemma parks up against the wall next to the door, waiting to catch him as he comes out. But he isn’t the first to emerge—instead, she finds herself met with the smirking visage of one of the Weasley twins. The redhead shoots her a wink, and then swaggers off down the hallway, whistling as he goes. Gemma narrows her eyes, and decides she’s done waiting; she steps into the room he’d just left.

Harry is there, carefully tucking something away into his satchel. She can’t quite catch a glimpse of it, but he looks up as she steps into the room and smiles at her.

“Hullo, Gemma,” he says. “How’re you?”

She gives him a narrow look. “I’m well, Harry. It’s funny, I could have sworn I saw one of the Weasley twins come out of this room a moment ago. Did you see him?”

Harry shrugs, still smiling. “I might’ve. Why, is something wrong?”

“Well, you see,” she says, “someone’s been playing pranks on Draco Malfoy recently, and I wondered if the twin might’ve said something to suggest it was them.”

“No, he didn’t say anything like that,” Harry says, and then he pats his bag. “He was just returning a book I’d lent him. Sirius has some interesting things in his collection, after all, and those Weasley twins have surprisingly wide interests.”

“I see,” Gemma says. “As a prefect, I’m always happy to encourage other students in their academic curiosities—even if they’re extracurricular.”

“Of course,” Harry says, and bows his head in a little nod. “Well, perhaps you’d like to walk back to the common room with me, Gemma?”

“Certainly,” she says. They walk back together in silence, and Harry’s hand rests on his satchel the entire time. Just before they arrive, Harry opens the bag and pulls out a slim volume without any text on its cover, and glances up at Gemma out of the corner of his eye. She nods, and when they enter the common room together she says, at a volume clearly meant to be conversational between the two of them but loud enough for some of the others in the room to overhear, “There, safe and sound, Harry.”

“Thanks for coming with me, Gemma,” he says, smiling. “Malfoy’s really been getting the brunt of it lately—I honestly didn’t want to get anywhere near the Weasley twins without some company even if they did have my book.”

“For your sake I’m just glad they didn’t jinx it,” she says, and ruffles his hair, which draws a scowl. He ducks out from under her hand and darts away, leaving her laughing at him. He’s a shrewd little bugger, honestly.

Cassius is still sitting at the chess table, and she goes over to join him. He tilts his head and gestures at the board, but she waves him off.

“Successful escort?” he asks.

“He probably could have taken care of it himself,” she says, smiling. “But it’s nice to know the young ones trust us prefects to keep them safe. And that they know when to be cautious.”

“Those twins really are menaces,” Cassius sighs. Then he reaches out to reset the board, and says, “If you’re not going to play, fetch me someone who will, won’t you?”

“Fetch someone yourself,” Gemma says, rolls her eyes, and takes her leave. Back in the dorm, to her pleasure, Ayesha is sitting cross-legged on her own bed playing solitaire, and no one else is around. She looks up when Gemma comes in and then offers her one of her usual small smiles, and turns her face up to receive the kiss Gemma presses to her cheek.

“Hey,” she says.

“Hey yourself,” Gemma says, and then kisses her lips for good measure. “Harry Potter is a snake, have I mentioned?”

Ayesha rolls her eyes. “Only a thousand times in the past two weeks. What’s that brat done now?”

Gemma flops down onto the bed next to Ayesha, sending her cards flying everywhere, and laughs when Ayesha swats at her for it. “Oh, he’s almost certainly colluding with the Weasley twins to make Malfoy look like a fool. I can’t wait to see what they do next.”

“I thought I heard shouting coming from outside earlier—Malfoy starting to crack?”

Gemma hums an affirmative, and then rolls over onto her side so that her belly is pressed against Ayesha’s folded knees. It means she has to crane her neck a bit to look up into her girlfriend’s face and meet her warm brown eyes, but it’s worth it. “Yeah. I doubt he’ll make it past Halloween.”

“Of course not,” Ayesha says. “He’s got no patience.” Then she shifts, kneeling up and throwing one leg over Gemma’s belly. Gemma rolls onto her back, content to be trapped, and smiles up at Ayesha.

“Speaking of no patience,” she says, teasing.

“Shush. The others have gone out to the library and won’t be back for an hour, and I’m going to kiss you while I’ve got the chance.” Then, before Gemma can reply, she does just that.


As the end of October draws nearer and nearer, the prank war being waged against Malfoy intensifies further. Gemma manages to remain unscathed, but she’s one of the few—the pranks cease to be single target after the weekend where, according to Terrence, someone had snuck into Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle’s dorm and moved everything about five centimetres to the left. It became twice as hard to believe that Harry was the one pulling the pranks when he was getting caught in the blast zone of thorough dung-bombings and when the entire second year Astronomy class found the umbrella charm keeping the rain off their heads failing abruptly in the middle of class. All of them got drenched, of course; the Slytherins had trooped back into the dorm looking like drowned rats, because Sinistra had no pity and had made them finish out the hour despite her inability to restore the charm. And then, in the last week, the pranking spread to the whole House—one day at dinner, for example, the Slytherin table had received not their normal desert, but nothing but cream pies… which had promptly risen from the table and slapped every single student in the face, or at least those too slow to dodge. Gemma had managed to duck, realizing the moment she saw the pies that something was happening, but Cassius hadn’t been so lucky. On another day, every single Slytherin had found the crest on their robes transfigured as they left the dungeons, so that the snake had googly eyes and an overly long tongue that drooped ridiculously. The snake on the banner in the Great Hall had been transformed similarly, and the whole House spent the day a laughingstock; Snape had looked thunderous.

Gemma can feel the tension in the House rising, the muttering in the common room increasing until it’s actually noticeable. Malfoy is receiving a lot of dark looks. Gemma keeps an eye on it, of course. He is being targeted, but it isn’t his fault, and she isn’t going to let anyone within the House come after him just because of this particular bit of annoyance. Brat or no, he’s still a second year and under her protection.

But no one tries anything. It’s generally agreed in the sixth year girls’ dorm that Malfoy has it coming, and that there’s probably worse coming down the pipe for him. The other girls in Gemma’s year, Aloysia and Marianna, are both fairly convinced that Harry is responsible, even if he is getting caught in the pranks now as well—it isn’t like the animosity between him and Malfoy is any sort of secret. Gemma doesn’t say much to disabuse the notion, knowing that Harry probably has plans. His being a suspect would have been impossible to avoid. She just keeps her head down a little more than she has been, knowing that now is not quite the moment to fully come out about her support for him. Of course she knows she hadn’t been subtle, and most of the upperclassmen are well aware by now of where she stands, but some of the lower years are surely still ignorant. She’s watching Malfoy, she can see the growing temper in his face with each day that passes and each prank that gets pulled. She can also see the fear building there, no matter how much he tries to hide it—he’s still only twelve, and having the ire of House of the Serpent directed toward him is no small matter; he’s intimidated, and he’s sure to act soon, if only to try to shift the attention off of himself.

Gemma remembers last year, when Harry had lost all those points in the spring—he’d borne up much better under the pressure than Malfoy is now. She remembers, even, hearing Flint talk about tripping Harry down a set of stairs, and the way that Harry had just taken it. Harry had taken everything the House had dished out, every bit of ostracism and cruelty and spite, and he hadn’t flinched. He’s not going to flinch now—but Malfoy will. Malfoy is, because he’s a coward.

The last week of October speeds past. Gemma is busy, of course; she’s in sixth year now and no longer stressed about preparation for her OWLs, but she’s found that now that all of her classes are technically elective, and based on her demonstrated ability to acquire decent grades in the subject, the professors really take no prisoners. She’d taken Professor Snape’s advice at the end of last year, fortunately, to drop several of her subjects, even though she’d attained Es or better on all of her OWL exams. Even with the classes she does have, the workload is considerable, and between that and Prefect duties… well. She has time to pay attention to what’s going on with Malfoy, and to be irritated about those pranks that do manage to snag her, but otherwise she studies with Ayesha and their friend group, she does her patrols and makes sure that the Quidditch team make it back from practice on time, and she keeps an eye out for anyone else trying to pull any pranks or crueler tricks on the Slytherins, especially the first years. The Gryffindor-Slytherin Quidditch match is the first Saturday of November, and inter-House tensions always ramp up around the time of the games, so she has plenty to be on guard for.

Which is why, despite her having anticipated it, she’s a bit surprised by the fact that Malfoy snaps on Halloween morning. She’s not even there, at first; she arrives to breakfast a few minutes late, having been hung up with a first year who’d lost a shoe somewhere in the common room, of all bloody things. She arrives in the Great Hall in time to see Malfoy surge forward, right up into Harry’s face—Malfoy’s pasty mug is bright red and twisted with fury; Harry looks impassive.

“—know it’s you,” Malfoy is snarling, as she gets closer. There are other Slytherins all around, of course, though giving the argument a strangely wide radius, and though she thinks that Malfoy and Harry are out of earshot, members of the other Houses are watching. So are the staff. Professor Snape has risen halfway from his seat, but when she glances up and meets his eyes, he sits again. Gemma files that away to be proud about later; for now, she may well have a duel to diffuse. Or a fistfight.

“You don’t know anything,” Harry says calmly. “I don’t understand why you’re accusing me of this, Malfoy.”

“Because you’re trying to make a fool of me, Potter, but I won’t allow it! You won’t get away with it!” Malfoy’s voice is steadily rising in volume, and he’s clearly not aware of it, or he would’ve chosen to make this scene somewhere else.

Finally, Gemma is close enough to discover what must have been the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. Something—presumably Malfoy himself—stinks. He doesn’t seem bothered by it, but this close Gemma can see that Harry’s nose is wrinkled, and all of the rest of the House seem to have chosen seats well away from where she can see Malfoy’s bookbag set down on the bench. He might have woken up like that, or been Charmed coming into the Hall—she isn’t sure. It doesn’t matter. It’s an effective prank, one that really sums up the treatment Malfoy has been increasingly getting: everyone is avoiding him, and will continue to do so until he puts an end to this.

“I don’t know what you did to me, but—” Malfoy continues, heedless of those observing.

Harry cuts in. “You can’t smell that?”

“Smell what?”

Gemma has to stifle a laugh. Even better: he smells like a sewer but can’t tell; he just thinks he’s a pariah for no reason.

“You smell like… you smell terrible, Malfoy,” Harry says, and doesn’t bother to stifle his own snicker. “If you wanted to take a few steps back, I’d appreciate it.”

“No,” Malfoy says. “No! I smell fine!” As if to demonstrate, he sniffs himself; a few of the Slytherins around him cringe, and one or two laugh, which only makes him flinch. “I showered this morning!”

“Sure,” Harry says agreeably. “But you smell like you showered in toilet water. Too bad, Malfoy.”

Too—no, you don’t get to be blithe, Potter, you did this!”

“I didn’t, actually,” Harry says. “And it’s really quite insulting that you keep insisting that I did. Why on earth would I have done any of this?”

“Because you hate me!” Malfoy shouts. Across the Hall, heads are turning their way; there’s nothing subtle about this now. Professor Snape begins to rise again.

“I don’t hate you,” Harry says, calmly, but in a clear voice that carries well enough to match Malfoy’s shout. “I don’t like you much, because you insist on insulting me and my mum and people like her, and because you’re a spoiled prat who thinks he can buy anything he wants and doesn’t have to earn it. Money isn’t everything, Malfoy. Money isn’t power.”

“You don’t know the first thing about money,” Malfoy spits back. “Because you haven’t got any!”

Harry bursts out laughing. Malfoy looks taken aback for a moment, and then resumes his scowl. “What?” he demands.

“Malfoy,” Harry says, through his laughter. He gestures up at the staff table, where all of the professors are watching. Professor Snape is standing. Lord Black is leaning back in his chair, looking like the cat that got the canary. “I’m Heir Black. I’ve plenty of money. I just know that I’m better for who I am as myself than any amount of money could buy. And I know people who have twice your quality and less than half the gold. And anyway, what I said wasn’t really about haves and have-nots; it was about things you’ve earned. And I reckon you’ve earned this.”

“Which is why you did it to me!”

Harry shakes his head. “I didn’t want to have this out in public, you know. But no, Malfoy. I didn’t do this. I came to breakfast after you, and even if I’d been in a position to set up a Charm like this, I wouldn’t know how to. Nor could I have set up any of the other pranks—and honestly, why would I want to? All it’s done is make the whole of Slytherin House into a laughingstock as this whole mess went down. I’m trying not to get my arse kicked by the upper years for making them look like idiots.”

“Which is exactly why you did this,” Malfoy insists. “If you make me look like a fool and the cause of all this, you’ll have the whole House under your thumb!”

“And who says I want that?”

“You!”

Harry shakes his head. “I’ve got friends in Gryffindor, Malfoy. I’m never going to be Slytherin’s darling. I just want to have the friends and allies I have, and to be left alone by everyone else. Doing this to you isn’t a good way to go about it—this has gotten me more attention than I want as it is, and I really haven’t been the one doing it.”

“Liar!” Malfoy shouts. “You are doing this! I can prove it!”

Harry smiles. Smug. Malfoy doesn’t seem to notice. “Can you?” Harry says.

“Of course!” And then Malfoy… flounders. Because, for all his surety, he doesn’t have any actual evidence and he knows it.

Harry just continues smiling. He lets Malfoy hang for a few long moments, and then softly, he says, “You can’t, actually, prove anything. Even if you thought you could, you can’t, because I haven’t been responsible for any of this. I did not pull a single one of these pranks—most I couldn’t have, even if I wanted to, for plain lack of ability or opportunity. If I’d been doing any of this, if there were any proof, the professors would have had me on at least one of these by now, and you know it. You tried to confront me because you’re used to bluster getting you everything you want, Malfoy, but really all you’ve done is prove that you’re impatient and you can’t control your temper—you’ve made yourself look foolish not just in front of the House, but in front of the whole school. So why don’t you sit down? I’d like to eat my breakfast.”

There’s a ringing silence. Anyone who was laughing before isn’t, any more, though Gemma can still see cruel amusement on the faces of several of the older Slytherins around her. Malfoy won’t be allowed to forget any of this, she doesn’t think. But for now, it’s well enough. So she steps in.

“Malfoy, Harry,” she says, coming to stand at Harry’s shoulder. She peers down her nose at Malfoy, who suddenly seems excruciatingly aware of all of the eyes on him in that moment. “What’s going on?”

“Just a small disagreement,” Harry says. “I think Malfoy was just about to go back to his seat, and I was going to sit down with Blaise, Theo, and Millicent here,” he gestures at the table beside him, where his friends are all sitting, watching, “and have some food.”

Gemma smiles. “Excellent.” She waits a moment, just long enough for Malfoy to turn away, and then adds, “Oh, and Malfoy? You might want to see Pomfrey if you need stronger deodorant—whatever you’re using clearly isn’t working.”

That’s enough. A wave of laughter breaks at the Slytherin table, spreading over to Ravenclaw where some students were close enough to hear what she said. The other students, those out of earshot, seem to realize that the confrontation is over. Most would have missed the details, but Gemma is sure the story will be all over the school even before the feast tonight; it’s a Saturday, and no one has class—all the better for gossip. Malfoy’s reputation is in shreds by now; as Harry had surely guessed, he’d made a fool of himself. The clear ostracism is only a bonus; no one is sitting within three seats of Malfoy.

Gemma goes to sit with her own friends, but they’re not far from Harry and his group, and she can see the sly satisfaction on Harry’s face as he talks quietly with them over breakfast. There’s a Quidditch practice for the Slytherin team this afternoon, and Gemma is sure that Harry will take that opportunity to shore up the impact he’d just made. Everything seems to be going well for him, truly; he might not want to be king in Slytherin, and he doesn’t have to be, not now—no one could deny his potential even if they wanted to, and potential is enough in the House of the Ambitious.

Chapter Text

Harry spends Halloween riding high on his victory over Malfoy; he knows that this is enough. He could continue, of course, but in truth he doesn’t want to truly humiliate Malfoy; he doesn’t want to make him miserable. He just wants him to know that he doesn’t have any sort of right to bother Harry any more, and that Harry is well willing to act in order to keep him in line. He thinks his point has been proven, and he intends to pass that on to the Weasley twins as soon as he next has a chance to speak with them. He considers trying to catch his Gryffindor friends, or even the Twins themselves, that afternoon, but he decides instead that he can leave it off for the next day—he takes the time instead to enjoy Quidditch practice and spend time with the team. A little bit to his surprise, he really does like the Quidditch team, flying with them and making jokes. Flint is still taciturn and abrupt, but he’s also very good at spotting weaknesses in their flying and pointing them out and giving advice on how to improve. Pucey is close with Flint—really more like a follower than a friend, but it doesn’t matter; he doesn’t talk much with Harry. Montague, the third Chaser, spends most of his time with them. That make sense well enough to Harry—it isn’t especially surprising how much friendships in Slytherin can fall along political lines, and the Pucey Family is vassal to Flint. Montague isn’t, but they are vassal to Nott, and Lords Nott and Flint get along pretty well; Theo had mentioned Flint by name once or twice, as they’d met several times growing up.

The other three members of the team are all more openly friendly to Harry. Lucian Bole seems fairly neutral on Harry himself, but he’s friends with Peregrine Derrick, who’s friends with Higgs, so after practice he often joins Harry in walking back to the castle, especially if Higgs or Warrington or both have come to watch. And then there’s Miles Bletchley, who’s a strange fellow at best; he’s in the same year as Gemma, Higgs, and the rest of them, but he’s not really in their group of friends. And, Harry remembers, Bletchley is one of the strange stubborn Houses whose vassalage is holding the House of Prince in its Ancient and Noble status. He’d offered to help tutor Harry if he’s ever having trouble in Potions after the first Quidditch practice, to Harry’s surprise; it was rare that anyone in Slytherin was ever openly nice. But Bletchley—Miles—is, sort of. Just weird.

They all love to fly and play Quidditch, of course, and they play other flying games and they josh each other gently and they, even just over the course of October, have welcomed Harry into their fold. He loves to fly too, and he likes flying with them in particular, not least because all of them are fairly impressed with some of the tricks he can pull on his Nimbus, even if they sometimes seem shocked by his daring. Miles had called him their “Gryffindor in green” after a particularly risky dive to catch a practice Snitch once, and it had sort of stuck. Now, whenever Harry does something especially flashy, it comes up again.

It feels good to spend an afternoon flying and enjoying his sense of triumph. The team doesn’t say anything about the morning’s standoff with Malfoy, but he receives more shoulder-pats and “Good work, Potter”s from his teammates as they head to the locker room after practice than usual. It makes him smile, and the smile is enough to last him through to the Halloween Feast that evening. He eats roasted pumpkin and spaghetti and afterwards gorges himself on treacle tart and chocolate and apple slices dipped in caramel, and flings candy corn at Theo across the table. He and his friends laugh openly and make merry and ignore Malfoy, who’s stopped stinking but is definitely sulking, with Parkinson fawning over him partway down the table from them. The hall is bright and filled with joy and joking, and this time no one bursts in to announce the arrival of a troll, though halfway through the meal the floating jack-o-lanterns do start spitting pumpkin seeds at everyone, causing brief pandemonium before the teachers and prefects are able to whip out their wands and put a stop to it. Everyone who’d ducked for cover emerges, and laughter reigns. It’s wonderful.

It’s not quite enough that Harry doesn’t remember on the walk back to the common room that on this night, 11 years ago, his parents had been tortured into insanity. He sobers abruptly, and Theo pauses in telling a story in order to say, “Harry?”

Harry tries a smile. “Sorry. Keep on, Theo, I’m fine.”

“Clearly not,” Theo says.

“Share with the class,” Blaise drawls from Harry’s other side. “Come along, Potter.”

Harry sighs. “Just… remembered my parents, all of a sudden.”

Both of his friends go solemn too. “Sorry, Harry,” Theo murmurs.

“No, it’s really fine. But… don’t mind me if I’m up late tonight, is all.”

“Not at all,” Blaise says, and reaches out to touch Harry’s shoulder very briefly. “Let us know if there’s anything we can do, hm?”

Harry nods, and this time musters a more genuine smile. He’s got good friends, really. “Sure thing,” he says. “Now come on, finish that story, Theo—I want to know what your aunt did with the giant head.”

“Right,” Theo says. His cheer as he launches back into the story is somewhat forced at first, but eventually he relaxes, and

Harry relaxes with him. Not entirely, because now that he’s remembered, he can’t forget again so easily. Once they get back to the dorm, he considers sneaking out under the Cloak to go see Sirius, but decides that that would probably be bad idea. Even aside from the rulebreaking, he isn’t sure that he’d be welcome. He doesn’t know what rituals Sirius has for his lingering grief, and Harry doesn’t want to intrude where he hasn’t been invited. So he stays down in his dorm, lying awake well past midnight, and thinks of his parents.

They hadn’t visited during the summer, though Harry had considered asking to go. As with tonight, however, he hadn’t wanted to inflict his own feelings about his parents onto Sirius and Remus. They’d had a long time to get used to the fact that James and Lily Potter as they’d known them were gone, and since they didn’t seem to visit often, Harry reckons they’d decided to try to let go a little. It hadn’t felt like his place to ask to go, if that were the case. And anyway… they’re his parents, yes, but he doesn’t really remember them. The most he remembers, if it is a real memory at all and not just his mind making nightmares, is the screaming that he sometimes dreams of, and that he can deal with on his own—Sirius and Remus don’t need to know, and don’t need to have his problems put on them.

Eventually, Harry gets fed up with tossing and turning and tries to meditate instead, attempting to quiet his mind in the way Sirius had taught him. The first steps to Occlumency, he knows. And Occlumency is supposed to help control dreams, prevent nightmares. He can’t wait to get to that stage, and is thinking wistfully of being able to sleep entirely without fear of what his dreams might hold even as he finally drifts off, sometime in the early hours of the morning.

He wakes in the morning feeling exhausted, having slept past when he’d usually get up to run, but at least he’d done something right with his meditation last night—he’d expected nightmares of his parents, but had none. It’s a relief, honestly, and though it’s clear that both Theo and Blaise notice the dark bags under Harry’s eyes from his late night, he’s also able to offer both of them a genuine and reassuring smile. They all get ready together and head for breakfast, and when they arrive, Harry wonders for a moment if they’d woken earlier than he expected and come down early by accident, because half the staff table is empty, and there are large gaps at the Gryffindor table; all of his friends in that House are absent. But, no. The other House tables are as full as they usually are at his hour, and Professor Babbling, who’s usually one of the last to arrive to breakfast, is already up at the staff table. It’s just McGonagall, Snape, Dumbledore, and Sirius who are missing.

Harry frowns. Something is obviously wrong—something must have happened in Gryffindor last night, but he doesn’t know what it could have been. He glances over at Theo and Blaise, and both of them are frowning as well. They find seats at the Slytherin table, but before Harry fills a plate, he heads further up the table to where Gemma is sitting.

“Gemma?” he says, and she glances over her shoulder, then turns slightly to look at him, her knees bumping against Hussain’s, who’s sitting close by her side.

“Harry,” she says. “Yes, something’s going on—I don’t know what yet, exactly. Professor Snape just said we should try to avoid speculation until Dumbledore speaks to the school tonight.”

Harry scowls. “Those are my friends who’re missing from Gryffindor. You really don’t know anything?”

She shakes her head, looking sorry about it. “Have breakfast, and go to class. I’ll let you know as soon as I know anything, I promise.”

“Fine.” Harry sighs. “Sorry for being rude about it.”

“I get it,” she says. “They’re your friends, as you said. Try not to worry.”

Harry rolls his eyes, because that’s not likely, but he does as she says. No point arguing—she wouldn’t lie to him about not knowing anything, he trusts that much. He passes on what little he knows to Blaise and Theo when he’s back at his place, and repeats it to Millicent when she joins them a little while later. He can only hope that Dumbledore will say something soon, because if not, he’s going to go looking for his friends himself.

His worry only intensifies when he and his yearmates head to Defence after Charms that morning and find a note pinned to the classroom door: Class is cancelled today. Go play tag, or read over Chapter 4 of your text, or something. I couldn’t care less; just don’t wreck the place. —Prof. Black

“What the bloody hell is going on?” Harry mutters, staring at the note. Sirius’s handwriting is more slanted than usual, looking rushed. Something had definitely happened, either last night or early this morning, and he wants to know what. “I’m going to go check the Hospital Wing.”

“The Hospital Wing?” Blaise says, catching up with Harry as he turns and starts to walk away. “Wouldn’t it be better to start with, I don’t know, Professor Snape’s office or some such?”

Harry shakes his head. “If it’s as bad as cancelling class,” he says, and jerks his thumb over his shoulder toward the door and its note, “then someone’s probably been hurt. And it was my friends missing from the Gryffindor table this morning, and my godfather dealing with it, obviously. I’m not going to let the Headmaster keep me in the dark if someone I care about’s been injured.” Or killed. But he doesn’t say that; doesn’t want to say it and somehow make it true.

It’s not far from the Defence classroom to the Hospital Wing, which Harry suspects might have been by design; the only other class with as much potential for injury is Potions—and perhaps Flying, but Flying classes have to take place outdoors. Of course last year their Defence classes mostly involved theory, but there have already been a few minor mishaps this year—bruises and twisted ankles and such. Sirius has had them play hide-and-go-seek out in the halls, and practice the Knockback Jinx, and so on; any practical magic directed toward another person has the potential to harm them. It’s something Sirius had drilled in beginning right at the start of term: any time you point your wand at someone, you should be prepared for something bad to happen to them.

Harry can only wonder what might have happened to his friends. Had the twins gone for a last-hurrah prank before they gave up the Map, and something had gone wrong? That doesn’t seem possible. Only last night, after all, there had been that thing with the pumpkins; he’s sure that was them. It must have been after the Feast, whatever happened, and Harry doesn’t think they’d do anything truly dangerous inside of the Gryffindor common room. But then what? He wracks his brain for any potential answers as he strides toward the Hospital Wing, sure that his stormy thoughts must be showing on his face but not caring. His friends are behind him—Blaise and Theo, and Millicent had tagged along too—and he knows they won’t judge him for his concern.

The double doors that lead to the Hospital Wing are shut when they arrive, and when Harry tries to open them, he finds them locked.

“The Hospital Wing is never locked,” Blaise says, disbelieving, and tries one of the doors himself—but it still doesn’t budge.

Harry is just drawing his wand to attempt an Unlocking Charm, which he’d never performed but Sirius had taught him the incantation for, when there’s a click, and the door slides open a few inches to reveal Madame Pomphrey, peering out at them. When she sees them, she sighs. “Is one of you injured, dears?”

Harry shakes his head. “I want to know what’s happened to my friends.”

“I thought as much.” She sighs again, then says. “A moment. I’ll ask the Headmaster if you’re to be allowed in.”

“Wait—“ But the door is already closing, and Harry fails the catch the handle before it’s shut and locked once more. “Bugger.”

“I’m sure the Headmaster will let you in,” Theo says. “I don’t really see why they’re being so secretive about it.”

Harry scowls. “The Headmaster likes being secretive. And… and if it’s anything to do with…”

Blaise and Theo exchange a startled glance. “Oh,” Theo says.

“Sirius is in there too,” Harry says. “He was helping with, uh, the whole thing.” Then he glances over at Millicent, who’s giving him a surly look; she doesn’t know, he remembers, and he doesn’t want to drag her into this.

Millicent reaches over and punches Harry in the shoulder.

“Ouch!” Harry says, his hand flying up to rub at the spot. “Bloody hell, Millicent.”

“Don’t keep secrets,” she insists. “Either tell me or don’t, but don’t be obtuse right in front of me, you prat.”

“Sorry,” Harry says. He glances around; there’s no one else in the halls around them right this moment, but this really isn’t a good place. “Look… if I tell you much more, you’re not going to be able to stay properly neutral. Even if you play it that way—“

“I’ll have to choose a side.” Millicent sighs. “Fine. No, you’re right—for now I don’t want to know. But you’ll tell me the second I need to know, got it, Potter?”

“Of course.” Harry makes a shallow bow. “Maybe you should go back to the common room, for now. If the sixth-years don’t have class, find Gemma or Higgs and let them know what’s going on?”

“Alright.” Millicent looks one more time at the doors of the Hospital Wing, and then says, “Good luck with your friends, Harry. For what it’s worth, I hope no one’s seriously hurt.”

“Me too,” he says, and waves to her as she leaves. Then he turns back to the doors and waits.

It feels like ages before something happens, and Harry has started considering the Unlocking Charm again when finally the door swings open properly. It’s not Madame Pomphrey on the other side this time, however; it’s Sirius. He looks grim.

“What happened?” Harry demands immediately.

“Come inside,” Sirius says, which isn’t an answer, but at least he lets Harry in. He gives Theo and Blaise both a narrow look, and then just shakes his head and allows them in as well when they seem determined to follow.

Sirius pauses just inside the doors to the Hospital Wing and closes them again, and then turns to Harry. “How did you guess?” he asks.

“You, Dumbledore, Snape, and McGonagall were all missing at breakfast,” Harry says. “And all of my friends. It wasn’t exactly subtle that something had happened, Sirius. Is everyone okay?”

“No,” Sirius says bluntly. “Several of your friends have been injured. One of them, very badly.”

“Who?”

“Ron Weasley.”

Harry looks down, relieved and ashamed of his relief. He couldn’t help but be glad that it hadn’t been Neville or Hermione, who were both better friends than Ron, but… Ron had gotten a lot better since the beginning of first year, and he was still Harry’s friend too, even if he was a more distant friend. “What happened?” Harry asks his shoes.

“Harry,” Sirius says. Harry looks up, and Sirius places a hand on his shoulder. “He’ll be alright, in time. He and your other friends were attacked last night by a servant of Voldemort.”

“What?” Theo says, at the same time as Blaise demands, “How did he get into the castle?”
Harry would very much like to know the same. He gives Sirius a steely look, and Sirius twists his lips wryly.

“He was already here,” Sirius says, and then sighs. “It’s complicated. Look, come in, see your friends. I’ll explain it all to you in a little while.”

“Alright,” Harry says quietly. “But you will tell me, right?”

Sirius nods. “I think Dumbledore would prefer that you all be kept in the dark about the whole mess as long as possible, but frankly I think that’s a fabulous way to get you all killed, if things keep going the way they have been. And of course you’ll be welcome to pass the information on to your friends—I trust your discretion.” He looks up at Blaise and Theo then, and he says, “As for the two of you, I hope you both are clear on the fact that this means I am trusting your discretion, as well. For now, I will ask that you not come the rest of the way into the Hospital Wing—these are not your friends, unless I am very mistaken about the state of affairs, and Dumbledore was uncertain enough about just letting Harry in. But I know he will fill you in later, and I believe that you will be wise in the way you treat the information. Mr. Zabini, I know your mother is a perfect neutral, and if you are smart you will follow in her footsteps. And Mr. Nott… well, Harry’s spoken to me about you and your deal with him. Perhaps, once things have settled down a little, you might come visit me in my office and we can have a chat of our own.”

Harry looks over his shoulder in time to see Theo swallow visibly, and then he says, “Yes, sir.”

Sirius smiles. “Good. Now, you two, head back to Slytherin, yes? Try not to gossip too much before you know the official line. And Harry, with me. Friends to see, boo-boos to kiss, etcetera.” He waits until Blaise and Theo are gone, with a flick of his wand re-locks the Wing, and then waves Harry after him along the line of beds in the Hospital Wing until they reach the end of the row, where three beds have been curtained off from view of the rest of the Wing. Sirius sweeps aside the curtains on the first to reveal that sitting on the nearer bed is one of the Weasley twins. He’s sitting up, but under the sheets, and his face is pale beneath his freckles. He’s involved in a quiet conversation with his twin, who’s sitting on a chair next to the bed; also present is the youngest Weasley, the girl, whose name Harry thinks is Ginny. All three of them look up when Sirius parts the curtain, and upon seeing Harry both of the twins brighten somewhat.

“Harry!” they say together, and then the one in the bed cringes a little. Ginny immediately turns to him and fusses with his pillow, while his twin makes a makeshift bow from his sitting position and continues, “So good to see you, old chap. Nice of you to visit, and all.”

“Yeah,” Harry says. “Good to see you too, erm. Fred?”

“That one’s George,” Ginny says, pointing to the one in the chair. “The idiot is Fred.”

“Oy,” says Fred.

“Rude,” says George.

Harry tries on a smile for them. “Are you two alright?”

"Well enough,” they say in unison.

“Fred is an idiot,” George says. “Nearly bloody well got himself killed, all for that stupid Map.”

“The Map?” Harry asks, flicking a look up at Sirius. He doesn’t seem surprised by the mention, but then he surely knows more of the story of whatever’s been going on than Harry does. “What about it?”

“S’pose you haven’t heard the whole tale just yet,” George says. “It’s a doozy. Maybe… maybe we’ll let Professor Black tell you, yeah? Go see Ron and Neville first—sure they’d appreciate it.”

“Okay,” Harry says cautiously. “But… did something happen to the Map?”

Fred shakes his head. “Took an Incendio straight to the chest for it,” he says, gesturing at himself, “but it’s fine.”

“And so is he,” George adds, “thank Merlin.”

Harry bites his lip. An Incendio? Whoever the agent of Voldemort was, he’d been trying to destroy the Map? That made sense, but only if the person knew what it was on sight, and if the twins had been telling the truth about it, it’d been locked in a drawer in Filch’s office since Sirius and Harry’s dad and Remus had been at school themselves, not long after it’d been made. And Fred had, what, jumped in the way of the spell? Bloody hell.

But he’d ask them more questions later, he reassures himself. They are fine; there’d be time. So he follows his Sirius over to the next set of curtains. These, once drawn back, reveal Neville. He’s by himself, unlike Fred, and he jerks himself up to sitting when the curtains draw back, only to relax when he sees it’s Harry and Sirius, though he remains upright. There’s a bandage wrapped around his forehead, and another stuck to his cheek.

“Is it stupid to be very glad to see you?” Neville asks, as Harry steps into the enclosure of curtains to sit down in a chair by Neville’s bedside.

“No,” Harry says. Awkwardly, he reaches out and pats Neville’s arm. “Glad you’re okay, mate.”

“Me too,” Neville says. “I think… I really think it was a close one.”

“What happened? Sirius hasn’t told me anything yet,” Harry says.

Neville looks down at his lap. “Ron’s rat was Peter Pettigrew.”

Harry’s mouth drops open, and then he hisses, “What?” so harshly that for a moment he wonders if he’s slipped into Parseltongue—but no, the language of snakes just sounds like English, not like the painful dragging syllable that just escaped him.

Sirius comes up beside Harry and places a hand on his shoulder again, and says gently, “You don’t need to tell the story, Neville; I’ll tell him.”

“No,” Neville says. “It’s okay—I mean, unless you want to, or—“

“It might be easier coming from you,” Sirius murmurs. “I’ll give you two a moment.”

“Thanks,” Neville says. Sirius leaves, closing the curtain behind himself, and Neville clears his throat, looking at Harry nervously. Harry isn’t sure what’s on his face, but all of his guts feel like they’ve been turned inside out all of a sudden, the bile that was in his stomach now on the outside, an acid burn in his belly. “Harry…”

“What happened, Neville?”

Neville takes a deep, slow breath, and he twists the sheets in his lap between his fingers for a long minute before he says, “Well, after we got back from the Feast last night, me and Ron and Seamus and Dean all decided to go back to our dorm and play cards. We, um, we wanted to stay up until midnight—you know, Halloween, witching hour, whatnot. Seamus and Dean wanted to tell scary stories, but I asked them not to, because… because you know.”

Harry nods. He does know. Neville had probably been feeling the same way he himself had last night.

“Right,” Neville says. He twists the sheets again, clears his throat. “Well, we were playing cards, like I said. And then all of a sudden, Ron’s brothers sort of… showed up. They didn’t really burst in, they just… came in. And they asked if they could see Scabbers—Ron’s rat, you know.

“Ron said no, of course.” Neville shrugs. “It’s the twins. I’d’ve said no too. But then… there we were—they wouldn’t give up on it. Insisted that they needed him, and they said Ron could come with them and everything. Eventually, Ron said fine, whatever—he’d let them take Scabbers, but he was going to come too. And I said I’d go along.”

“Okay,” says Harry. “So… then what?”

“I… I don’t really know,” Neville says. “Well, I know. Ron went and got Scabbers out from under the bed. And then he… the rat, I mean, he took one look at the twins, and he just… he turned into a man. A person.”

Harry swallows, familiar with the suddenness of the Animagus transformation from having seen Sirius do it many times. “Pettigrew,” he says hoarsely.

“Yeah. Though we didn’t really know that at the time. He just… he was suddenly just there, in the middle of the dorm. He looked sort of rat-ish still, y’know? Like, scraggly sideburns a bit like whiskers, big front teeth. Maybe because he was a rat for so long… but that doesn’t matter. He—he grabbed Ron’s wand off his bedside table and he pointed it at George—no, at… something George was holding, like a scrap of parchment? And he cast an Incendio. Fred was… he got in the way, and all his robes and everything caught fire, and he was—he was shouting, screaming. I…”

Harry reaches out and places his hand over Neville’s hands, which are gripping the sheets so hard that his knuckles have gone white. “It’s okay,” Harry says softly. “I mean. It’s not, but I’m here.”

“Thanks,” Neville whispers. “Anyway. Then… Pettigrew, he pointed his wand at me. And Ron moved, came to stand between me and him. I… Pettigrew told him to get out of the way. But he wouldn’t. He said ‘You’ll have to go through me if you want to hurt Neville’ and… and he did.”

Harry swallows. “What happened?”

“He cast some sort of curse. Ron screamed, and then he just collapsed. And I think Pettigrew was going to curse me too, but then… Percy burst in, probably because of all the shouting, and a bunch of other people were right behind him. Pettigrew, I think he decided to cut his losses. He threw a blasting curse at the door, and it exploded—I was standing right next to it, and some pieces hit me, and I fell and hit my head… But I’m okay now! Still, it was enough of a distraction—Pettigrew was just gone. He… we think he turned back into a rat and ran. Everyone was too worried about Fred and Ron and me to go look for him right then, and by the time all the professors showed up, and Dumbledore and Professor Snape cast some sort of thing on Ron, and Sirius was done making sure Fred wasn’t on fire and George had him… it was too late.”

“So he got away,” Harry says. He feels… he doesn’t know what he feels. A lot, and also nothing.

“Yeah,” Neville says. “Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize. It isn’t your fault.”

“I know. But I’m still sorry.”

Harry realizes that he’s still got his hand over Neville’s, that their hands are clasped together now, and he’s holding on so tightly that he must be crushing Neville’s fingers. “Sorry,” he says, and with conscious effort manages to relax his grip. Neville doesn’t let him go entirely, though, so Harry sits there for a while longer, trying to draw some comfort from the contact. It’s not enough—not enough against the fact that the man who betrayed his parents to Lord Voldemort, who was once their friend and became responsible for their torture and insanity, was in the school. Was so close—Harry had touched Scabbers, seen him a number of times. For a brief moment, Harry thinks he’s going to be sick, but a deep breath and the nausea passes, leaving him… hollow. And furious.

“Right,” he says, and pulls away from Neville. “Well. Don’t worry about it too much, Neville—Pettigrew isn’t going to get away with hurting you and Fred and Ron, because if I ever see him, I’m going to kill him.”
Neville looks at Harry, his face pale, and says, “I… I believe you. And I’ll help you if I can. Just don’t get hurt.”

“I won’t,” Harry says, his tone fierce. “I’ll get strong enough that no one could hurt me, especially not some half-baked betrayer like Pettigrew, and then I’ll bloody well kill him.”

“Harry,” says Sirius, from the edge of the curtain enclosure. Harry hadn’t noticed him drawing back the curtains once more, and when he looks up, Sirius looks even grimmer than before. “Harry—”

“You’ll help me, right?” Harry says. “Because I swear, Sirius—”

“I’ll help you,” Sirius says. There are deep lines around his eyes, his mouth; he looks older than he ever has before. “But first, come see the last of your friends, hm? You can sit with Neville a while longer later.”

“Okay,” Harry says, and rises. He glances at Neville once more, and says, “I’ll be back.”

“Okay, Harry,” Neville says. He’s returned to twisting the sheets. “See you later.”

“Later, Neville.” Harry follows Sirius out of Neville’s cubicle, and Sirius draws the curtains shut again, then turns and wraps Harry in a hard hug, almost too tight.

“Sirius?” Harry asks, his voice muffled by Sirius’s chest. He returns the hug, baffled.

“I didn’t want this to happen to you,” Sirius says. He sounds choked up, on the verge of tears almost. “I didn’t want any of this for you. I wanted to protect you from it.”

“Sirius,” Harry says, squeezes his godfather tight, and then pulls away so that he can look up into Sirius’s stricken face. “It’s okay.”

“It’s not,” Sirius says. “You’re a kid. You shouldn’t be swearing yourself to a fucking revenge quest.”

Harry blinks at the profanity. “You can’t expect me to be okay with this,” he says.

“Of course not. Of course not. But I expect you to be able to rely on me and the other adults who are around you, who care for you, to protect you. You shouldn’t be taking the weight of the war on your shoulders.”

“The weight of the war is on all of our shoulders,” Harry says, as firmly as he can, although Sirius’s emotion has shaken him. He doesn’t know what to say, how to make it better, because what Sirius wants is something Harry just can’t give him. He can’t not promise to put an end to the rat-bastard who betrayed his parents and has now reappeared to harm his friends. He wants, even though he knows it’s a wrong thing to wish for, to see Peter Pettigrew die. He wants Pettigrew to be gone, so that he can’t ever hurt anyone Harry cares about ever again.

Sirius just looks down at him with this… expression, like he’s overwhelmed. He looks so sad. “You’re right,” Sirius says. “You are right. But leave the killing to us adults for now, alright, pup? Let yourself be a kid a while longer, before you have to be a warrior.”

“But you’ll still teach me,” Harry says. “Right?”

Sirius sighs. “Yes. I’ll still teach you. You at least need to be able to protect yourself, and it’s clear that what you’ve learned so far isn’t going to be enough.”

“Neville, too?”

At that, Sirius makes a more thoughtful face, and hums a little. “I’ll speak to Dumbledore—it’s not a bad idea. And might make him feel a little more secure, after the scare he’s had.” Sirius reaches out and ruffles Harry’s hair. “You’re a good kid, you know.”

“Whatever,” Harry replies, and swats the hand away before it can make any more of a mess of him. “Love you, Sirius.”

Sirius smiles. Small, still tainted by the sadness of before, but real. “Love you too, Harry. Now, let’s go see the other Mr. Weasley.”

Harry nods and follows Sirius to the last set of curtains. These part to reveal Ron, lying pale and still in a hospital bed, and Hermione, her face tearstained and her hair frazzled, falling out of the ponytail she’d tried to contain it to. She leaps from her chair when she sees Harry and launches herself at him; he manages to catch her in a hug with a huff, and holds her tight as she bursts into tears.

“Oh, Harry!” she cries, and he pats her back a little awkwardly. “Harry, it’s so awful.”

“I guess you heard what happened,” Harry says. He ends up with a bit of her hair in his mouth, but he gamely spits it out and lets her continue to cry into his shoulder.

“It’s so terrible,” she says. “That man! And—and look what he did to Ron! And, did you already see Neville? And the twins? Oh, Harry.”

Harry pats her again, and says, “I know, Hermione, I saw them. It’s okay, uh. I mean, it’ll be okay.”

“I know,” she says, with a great sniffle. She pulls away, still clutching his arms, and then lets him go entirely to wipe the tears from her cheeks with the backs of her hands, the gesture unexpectedly childish. “I know, but…”

“Yeah,” Harry says. He scrounges around in his pocket and after a moment produces a handkerchief, which he hands over. Hermione uses it to wipe her face and blow her nose, and then pulls out her wand to clean it with a muttered spell before handing it back.

“Cheers,” she says, still sounding tearful, but at least no longer weeping. “Come on, come sit with Ron a minute. I… well, muggles think people in comas can hear when you talk to them. I’m sure he’d appreciate it.”

“Er, okay,” Harry says. “Sure.” He follows Hermione over to the bed and waves for her to retake the seat, then hovers beside the bed and says, “Hullo, Ron. Sorry about… all this. I know it’s not my fault, but it still sucks that you got hit with…”

“Some sort of curse,” Hermione offers. “No one would say what, exactly, but I don’t think it’s anything easy, or he’d surely be awake by now.”

Harry nods. “I reckon he’ll be better soon, Hermione,” he says, and places a hand on her shoulder. She sniffles a little and leans into his touch, her eyes fixed on Ron, whose skin is pasty beneath his freckles. It’s strange to see him so still—he has an animated face, an easy smile (or scowl, depending on the circumstances), and it bothers Harry to watch him lie there, breathing shallowly. After a while, he looks away.

“I think… maybe I should go,” Harry says. “D’you want me to bring you a book?”

“Oh, I have one,” Hermione says.

“Right,” Harry says. That’s good. At least something is right in the world, if Hermione has a book. “I’ll try to come back and visit soon.”

“Okay.” Hermione pats the hand that Harry still has resting on her shoulder, and he lets go and steps away, headed back to where Sirius is standing.

Sirius closes the curtains again behind them, and says to Harry, “What do you want to do?”

Harry shrugs. “I… maybe I’ll go sit with Neville. He seemed lonely.”

“Alright,” Sirius says. “I’ll have you excused from the rest of your classes today. And tomorrow… come to my office after dinner, alright? We’re going to get you started on learning the next steps to Occlumency; you can’t wait any longer.”

Harry hugs Sirius then, allows himself to cling for a minute like a little kid, and then lets go and says, “Thanks, Sirius.”

“Don’t thank me, Harry,” Sirius says. He bends to kiss Harry’s forehead, brushing his messy hair out of the way to do it, and then shoes Harry past the pale blue hospital curtains and into Neville’s cubicle, so that he can spend the remainder of the afternoon sitting with his friend.

They spend the day mostly making small talk, trying to distract each other. Harry talks about Quidditch practice and the Slytherin team, and they talk about the novel Neville’s been reading, and then Harry reads some passages from their textbooks to Neville and talks about the homework assignment from Charms. Then, offhand, he mentions that Sirius is planning to step up his Occlumency training.

At that, Neville swallows hard. “How’s that been going?” he asks, tentative.

“I don’t really know,” Harry says. “Sirius has really only had me meditating, still. For Occlumency and the Animagus transformation, you know.”

“Yeah,” Neville says. He looks nervous. “Look, Harry… Over the summer, we did some learning together, but… if Dumbledore doesn’t agree to train me more, will you… will you help me?”

Harry blinks a little. “Of course,” he says, surprised Neville had even needed to ask. “Anything you need. And… I mean, I don’t know for sure, but I reckon Sirius would teach you on the down-low even if Dumbledore says no. We need to be able to protect ourselves, especially you—this whole thing only proves it.”

Neville lets out a sigh of relief, slumping back into his pillows a bit. “Thanks, Harry,” he says. “I mean… I knew you’d say yes—you’re a good friend.”

“You, too, Neville,” Harry says. “I want both of us to survive what’s coming.”

“Me too.” Neville looks down at his hands, and impulsively Harry reaches out and grabs one of them again, holding it tight when Neville looks up again, startled. “Harry?”

“I promise,” Harry says. “I don’t know why Voldemort wants to kill you so bad, but I’m not going to let him if there’s anything I can do to stop it.”

“I don’t want you getting yourself killed to help me, either,” Neville says. There’s a hint of that hidden spine of his in his statement, and he fixes Harry with a stare, iron in his brown eyes. “I don’t want you doing what Ron did—it’s not worth it to me, okay? I’m not worth that.”

“You are,” Harry says, “but okay. I’m a Slytherin; I’m not going to get myself killed doing something stupid.”

“But you might get yourself killed if you think it’s worth it, and please, it’s not,” Neville says. “Really. Just… I think both of us have lost enough already to stupid Voldemort and his stupid war, okay? Okay?”

“Okay,” Harry says, and puts up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “I won’t, I won’t. Anyway, I reckon the thing to do is to get good enough at magic that even doing something stupid wouldn’t get us killed, right? Then we can do as many stupid things as we want.”

Neville snorts. “I’m not sure that’s how it works, but I’m with you on getting better at things. Wandless magic, right?”

“Yeah.” Their pact from the summer stands: both of them intend to master at least one wandless spell before the end of the school year. They’d been talking about it on occasion, but they were rarely alone, and they’d tacitly decided to keep this little project to themselves. Ron would probably be weird and jealous about it, them having their own thing, and of course Hermione would insist on helping, which might be worse—both Harry and Neville want to do this themselves. They haven’t had much time to work on it anyway; the beginning of term was always weirdly busy, as if the professors had forgotten over the summer how much work was reasonable, or perhaps as if the student had forgotten how long it took to write an essay.
They had at least managed to choose which spell they would work on. Neville had decided that he wants to be able to put out or light a candle, which would hopefully let him work up to a proper wandless Incendio or Lumos. Harry, of course, had been somewhat more ambitious in his choice: he’d picked Finite Incantatem. Useful in basically any situation, he’d decided, and maybe not as hard as it seemed—from what Sirius had said over the summer about wandless magic, it was difficult because of the amount of control it took to cast most spells, not the amount of power. Finite Incantatem could be cast without very much control at all, if you didn’t mind cancelling every minor magical effect in the room. But if Harry were desperate enough to be casting a wandless Finite, he reckons it wouldn’t matter much how controlled it is.

“Wandless magic and Occlumency,” Neville sighs. “Bloody hell. We sound mad—half of grown wixen can’t do this stuff! And we’re twelve!”

“Because they don’t bother trying to learn,” Harry says. “And they don’t have the motivation we have. We’re trying not to die, Neville; I reckon we’ve got the motivation to do what it takes.”

“No kidding.” Neville rubs his forehead, his fingers brushing over the lightning bolt scar there—it’s never covered by his fringe, and at this point Harry has really stopped seeing it. But sometimes, like now, he’s all too aware of the lingering mark of Voldemort’s attack on his friend.

“We’re going to get this,” Harry says, determined. “And we’re going to survive this war.”

Neville looks up, and then he offers his hand to shake. “We’re going to survive.”

Harry takes Neville’s hand, solemn, and they shake. Neville’s fingers are trembling slightly, and Harry knows he’s gripping too hard, but that’s something to worry about later: they’ve made one another a promise, and no matter what Sirius says, Harry doesn’t care what he has to do to keep it. Neville is his friend, and they are going to get through this, even if Harry has to kill Voldemort himself.

Chapter Text

Occlumency training sucks. Well, everything about November sucks, as far as Harry is concerned, except perhaps for the Quidditch match on the first weekend. It’s an incredible thrill to launch off the ground in front of the whole school, to go head-to-head with Gryffindor’s Seeker, dodging Bludgers and keeping clear of the Chasers as he watches for the Snitch. The Gryffindor Chasers are good, and are seventy points up on Slytherin when Harry spots a flicker of gold in his peripheral vision. He takes a moment, circles, and realizes that the Gryffindor Seeker hasn’t seen it; he’s closer and he knows he’s faster, so he goes for it. It’s a chase, a race against time and his own ability to keep the Snitch in his sights and the Gryffindor Seeker in his dust, but in the end he comes out victorious, swooping skyward with a whoop and the Snitch clutched in his fist. It’s a high point—really the only high point for the month, unfortunately.

But Occlumency training is the number one reason that everything else is terrible. Dumbledore had at least agreed that Neville could practice as well, so twice a week Harry and Neville meet with Sirius after dinner in his classroom, and Sirius tries to teach them how to put up strong walls in their minds by invading them over and over again until they get better at kicking him out. It just takes practice, is what he promises; it takes getting used to using the tools available in the mindscape to evict an invader. But it’s hard, and it gives Harry terrible headaches.

At the beginning of the month, during their first lesson, Sirius gives them some suggestions for structures to use to organize their minds that would make it easier for them to protect themselves: a library, a castle, a labyrinth. Harry and Neville talk about it together, trying to decide what to use. Eventually, Neville settles on a greenhouse; by the end of November Harry is still trying to decide, focusing for now on his ability to react in the moment, because that seems easier than building something inside his own mind. They also finally read Hermione in on the whole thing, both the Occlumency and their quest to learn wandless magic. Without Ron, who’s still unconscious in the Hospital Wing, she’s alone if Neville and Harry are going off on their own all the time, and they’re not going to do that to her. Unfortunately, her research prowess isn’t much help with the wandless magic or the Occlumency—both are just matters of will… and practice. Not that that stops her from reading, but the research seems to quell her anxiety about Ron.

She is also very good about reminding them that they have actual homework to do, too. Between an Occlumency lesson a week, Harry’s meetings with Neville to practice their wandless spells, and the fact that Sirius had insisted Harry run with him every morning that he doesn’t have an early Quidditch practice as well as their usual meetings on Saturdays—which now include less chatting and more spell practice—Harry has very little time. If not for Hermione’s nagging and Blaise and Theo’s insistence that Harry still spend at least some time with them, Harry is sure he’d be falling behind terribly in his classes. Having Gemma and the other sixth years around helps a lot, too, when they’re in a mood to actually be helpful, instead of saying things like “What do you think it means?” when Harry asks them the meaning of the word abnegation. Stupid History of Magic.

Somehow, he finds time for it all, and by the end of November he can fairly reliably kick Sirius out of his head inside of five minutes without resorting to a Stinging Hex, keep up a decent pace on a full half-hour run, and cast a strong Expelliarmus. The latter he knows because in a spar against Sirius on the Saturday of November, he actually manages to get Sirius’s wand out of his hand. Sirius laughs, picks up his wand, and says, “I guess I should stop going quite so easy on you, pup.”

Harry groans, because although he’s pleased with his progress, he’s also tired. He’s not getting anywhere with his wandless Finite, and he still hasn’t picked his organization structure for his Occlumency, and Snape assigned two full feet on the function of dragonfly thoraxes in Girding Solution and what would happen if you didn’t toast them first. Hopefully Millicent will be willing to help him with it tonight, is all he can think, because if his grade in Potions slips he’s going to end up back on Snape’s bad side, which he’d somehow avoided—his Head of House never had said anything about his war against Malfoy, maybe because peace had restored itself in the House without his intervention, and after all, the conflict had always been mostly personal, and only about reputation as an added bonus.

He flops down to sit on the floor, then decides to just go for it, and lies down, too, flat on his back against the cool stone of Sirius’s classroom floor. He stares blankly at the grey stone of the ceiling and lets himself not think about anything at all for a moment, until he’s interrupted by the soft shuffling sound of Sirius’s robes. Then a huff, as Sirius levers himself down to sit on the floor beside him.

“You okay, kiddo?” Sirius asks, his voice soft and concerned.

“Just tired,” Harry sighs at the ceiling. “I’ve been so busy.”

“You have,” Sirius says. “Well, just a few more weeks before term is over, and you’ll get a bit of a break.”

Harry hums and rolls over, so that he can prop himself up on his elbows and look at Sirius. “Are we going home for Christmas?”

“I’m not sure yet,” Sirius says very carefully. There’s something in his voice…

Oh no, Harry thinks. “What do you mean?”

“You could go home if you wanted,” Sirius says. “Remus would stay with you, of course. But… I think I’m going to need to go hunting for Peter.”

“Oh,” Harry says. His heart sinks a little, and he frowns at the floor. “But… I could go back to the Doghouse? Stay with Remus?”

“If you wanted,” Sirius says. “For now, at least, I trust the wards there. Hogwarts… might be safer, but we’ve already learned that it’s not entirely safe. There might be nowhere not under a Fidelius that’s entirely safe—though I’m not willing to resort to that just yet.”

“Okay,” Harry says. “Can… can I think about it?”

“Of course, pup,” Sirius says. He pats Harry’s shoulder, and Harry flops down again to press his cheek to the floor, ignore the way it makes his glasses dig into the side of the face. It hurts a bit that he won’t get to spend Christmas with Sirius; he’d been looking forward to it. And… maybe also to getting to go see his parents again. But he doesn’t want to ask about that now.

“I should go,” Harry says after a moment. He pushes himself up, and Sirius rises next to him and then offers him a hand to help him get the rest of the way up to his feet. He wavers a little once he’s up, exhausted from the spar and from everything, and Sirius steadies him. “I’ve got a Potions essay.”

“I could probably get you an extension,” Sirius offers. “Snape knows about the lessons I’ve been giving you and Neville—I think he grudgingly approves.”

“Yeah,” Harry says, who still remembers Snape’s offer to help him with his Occlumency if he needed it. “I’m okay, I think. I probably shouldn’t let myself slack off, or I’ll get in the habit.”

“Good thinking. You’re smarter than I was at your age, that’s for sure,” Sirius says. He tugs Harry into a brief hug, and then with a wave of his wand banishes the dirt from Harry’s robe and neatens its folds. “Alright then, off with you. I’ll see you and Neville on Tuesday, alright?”

“Mhm.” Harry gathers his satchel, waves goodbye, and heads off back to the Slytherin dorms. As he walks, he observes the hallways and statues and suits of armour, the portraits napping or gossiping or making themselves busy in their frames, the familiar scents and sounds of Hogwarts. In truth, it wouldn’t be so very bad to spend Christmas here again; when mostly deserted and covered in snow over Christmas last year, the castle had taken on a truly magical quality, even beyond all its normal magical qualities. And perhaps one or another of his friends might be staying this year, or none of them, which would be its own sort of reward. It would be nice to have an entire day where he didn’t have to speak to anyone if he didn’t want to; right now, if he vanished for a day, or even for an hour, people would start getting worried. The Dursleys had been awful, but they also had never cared much where he went when he didn’t have chores so long as he was out of their way, and there had been a certain freedom in that.

Harry sighs, realizing that he’s nearly reached the common room, and perhaps he should put a calm, quiet face back on before he enters. No one in Slytherin needs to know what’s going on in his head, especially when it’s stupid and maudlin, brought on by tiredness and the lingering frustration and sorrow of knowing that Peter Pettigrew had at one point literally been in his hands, and instead of Harry being able to do anything about it, Pettigrew had nearly blown up most of Harry’s Gryffindor’s friends and gotten away with it.

“Ugh,” Harry says to himself, wishes vaguely that he could scream instead, and then goes to let himself into the common room. He has a bloody Potions essay to write, and that’s not going to wait for him to hunt down Pettigrew, much as he might like it to.

So Harry goes into the common room and writes his bloody essay—Millicent is there and joins him, and Hussain is lounging in one of the armchairs, waiting for Gemma to return from her Prefect’s rounds, and offers a bit of advice on where in the textbook to look for some extra information, which helps. Then Harry retires to his dorm. Blaise and Theo are both already there, playing a game of cards, and both shoot him smiles when he arrives and shuffles about putting away his things. It’s still fairly early in the evening, so he joins them for a while, chatting and playing another few rounds of cards. Then Harry retires to meditate and clear his mind before bed, and work on his Occlumency shields. He’s got a basic wall now—not enough to keep out a master Legilimens even for a second, but enough hopefully to stymie an amateur, and enough of a barrier between his deepest thoughts and memories and everything else that he’s been able to stop himself having any nightmares for the last week; clearing his mind has gotten a lot easier, too. Now, in order to strengthen that barrier, he needs to start building the structure of it up, as Neville has been doing with his greenhouse. But what to make it into?

And then, lying in the darkness, Harry thinks back to earlier that very day, walking to halls of Hogwarts and musing on their familiarity. He knows the castle like the back of his hand by now, after all his wandering last year and the new areas he’s seen of it this year. And he’s got the Marauder’s Map, to bolster his memory and add unfamiliar rooms and passages, ones that almost no one knows about.

(Harry still doesn’t know how Sirius had gotten Dumbledore to agree to let Harry keep the Map. It had ended up in the Headmaster’s hands after the mess with Pettigrew—it was why the Weasley twins had gone after the rat in the first place. They’d seen his name on it, and tried to catch him out and get him to Dumbledore, but he’d spotted the Map in their hands and attacked before they could even get him out of the dorm. Harry knows, from the way that Sirius had made him swear solemnly—more solemnly—that he’d use it wisely and ensure that no one knew what it was, or even that he had it. The twins had been sworn to secrecy as well, not that they weren’t already close-mouthed about it; they’d had it three years, after all, and never told a soul before Harry.

Whatever it had taken to get the Map back, Harry is grateful. It’s a useful tool, of course, but more than that it’s the last remnant of the real James Potter. His personality at age seventeen is preserved forever in the enchantment. Since getting the Map back, Harry has had multiple whispered midnight conversations with the text imprints, mostly about pranks, but also about what Harry’s dad had enjoyed in school, what his mum had been like, what Sirius and Remus had been like… It’s amazing. The imprint never remembered things well between conversations, which Sirius had told Harry to expect when Harry had asked him about how they’d made the Map. It’s a learning enchantment, so it would begin to remember with repetition; it would also pick up an echo of Harry’s own personality if he ever made additions to or annotations on the Map. It just took time, and exposure. Harry doesn’t know what he might ever be able to add to the Map, but he does interact with it whenever he can, determined to have as much of his father as is possible.)

Between the Map and his own exploration—which he resolves to continue; maybe it really would be good to stay over the break—he has a very good chance of building a Hogwarts safe enough, enhanced with enough magical tricks and traps and switchabouts, to confuse any Legilimens, even one who knows Hogwarts well themself. It’ll take time and effort, but… Harry thinks he can do it. He can start tonight; he knows the theory.

So he closes his eyes and he visualizes passages and doors and suits of armour with bared blades until he drifts off into dreaming.

 


 

November ends and December begins. Harry to study and train, trying to cram as much knowledge about defensive magic and Occlumency into his head as he possibly can so that he has plenty of things to practice during the break, when he has no teacher. He also starts making notes for himself of where he wants to do his exploring over the break. He doesn’t have time during term, when he’s so busy with extra lessons with Sirius, studying or hanging out with Neville and Hermione or with his Slytherin friends, Quidditch practice, and also the normal hours of work for class. But he can’t wait for when the castle is empty and quiet and he’ll have free reign to explore all its nooks and crannies, accompanied by his Cloak and the Map.

He tells Sirius his plans and receives a hair ruffle and the news that while Remus will surely miss his company over the break, they can perhaps arrange to all spend Christmas itself together, as they did last year. It’s enough to finally salve the lingering hurt that had been born in Harry’s heart when he’d first heard that Sirius was not going to bring him home for the break.

It helps that Neville will also be staying at Hogwarts. He tells Harry in an undertone one evening not long before the break starts that Dumbledore had finally filled in his gran on everything that had been happening, and while she had been less than pleased to have been kept in the dark, she’d at least agreed that Hogwarts was probably the safest place for him. The wards on Longbottom Manor are robust, but not nearly so ancient as those on the school. And it gives Neville the opportunity to stay with Harry and continue to practice their wandless magic and their Occlumency together.

Tentatively, Harry tells Neville about Snape’s offer of assistance. With Sirius gone over the break, they won’t be able to judge if their Occlumency is actually improving or if they’re merely retreading the same paths. Two weeks, of course, isn’t so long; they can go that long without a teacher if needed. But also… Harry increasingly thinks as December wears on that Sirius is perhaps going a little easy on them. He doesn’t want to hurt them, even as he tries to break into their minds, and while Harry knows he’s improving, he could be improving faster under a bit more pressure. When he brings this up with Neville, however, he gets little more than a nervous agreement that Snape might be an option, if they need it. Fine, Harry decides—if he feels ready for the challenge, he’ll go to Snape alone. He wants to do this with Neville, but he doesn’t have to; he’s fully capable of taking the next steps by himself, if Neville doesn’t feel ready.

Then, finally, the break arrives. As with last year, all the other Slytherins in Harry’s year leave. So does almost everyone else he knows in Slytherin; the only exception is Hussain, who tells him at the first dinner after everyone has left that her family doesn’t celebrate Christmas, and that while she has once gone to visit with Gemma’s family over the break, it hadn’t worked out this year. In the other Houses, too, most everyone is gone; even the Weasleys go, and Ron is transferred out of the Hogwarts infirmary to Saint Mungo’s, where he can receive different, if not necessarily better, care. Sirius goes, too, leaving on the train to keep an eye on it during its journey; a hopefully-unnecessary precaution, he declares before he goes, and kisses Harry’s forehead, and promises that they’ll be seeing one another on Christmas Eve.

And then at last Harry has free reign over the whole of the castle, or nearly. He and Neville do some exploring together, poking around in abandoned classrooms, and one night Neville sneaks him into the Gryffindor common room under his Cloak; it’s red and gold all over, much brighter than Harry is used to, but… warm, welcoming. If he’d been even a little different, he thinks, he might have ended up here. It’s not like he can’t fit in with Gryffindors, and he knows that while he’s learned to be a good Slytherin, he has his bull-headed tendencies at times. After that, Harry makes it something of a sub-goal to one day get into all of the common rooms, just to see what they’re like. He knows where the entrances are, thanks to the Marauder’s Map—Ravenclaw is on the fifth floor, same as Gryffindor, and Hufflepuff is on the ground floor near the entrance to the kitchens—but he doesn’t have the passwords.

Then, a few days before Christmas, while wandering the halls on the sixth floor, looking for any particularly interesting abandoned classrooms, he bumps into someone else. Literally, in fact: he turns a corner and collides with a figure even slighter than himself, who promptly topples to the ground.

“I’m sorry!” Harry says, and reaches to offer her—it’s a girl, with long, somewhat messy white-blond hair and a Ravenclaw crest on her robes—a hand up.

She looks up at him with wide, pale blue eyes, and then smiles and takes his hand. There’s a dreamy quality to her expression, and to her voice when she says, “Oh, thank you very much.”

“Er,” says Harry. “I am sorry for knocking you over. And…” It’s about then that he registers that she’s not wearing any shoes. “Did you… forget your shoes?”

“Oh, no,” she says. “They went for a walk. Shoes do.”

“… Right,” says Harry. He’s familiar, from ten years living with and going to school with Dudley, with his belongings ‘going for a walk.’ That’s not actually what happened. “Well, er, maybe I could help you look for them. Or walk you to Flitwick’s office; he does know an awful lot of Charms, and might know one for shoes gone walking.”

She just continues to smile, and swings her arms a bit, and then says, “I suspect they would only go walking again once the holidays are over. I can do without. Thank you though. You’re Harry Potter.”

“Er.” Harry blinks. “Yeah, that’s me. I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are.” Other than a very strange Ravenclaw.

“I’m Luna Lovegood,” she says. “I heard some Slytherins talking about you when I was in the library the other day.”

“Oh?”

“Oh yes, you’re quite strange,” Luna says. “People seem to have very mixed opinions about you.”

“How did you even hear that?” Harry asks. “Slytherins are usually pretty careful about, y’know, talking about stuff in public.”

“Well, I’m quite strange as well, and also quite small, and so people don’t always notice me—or if they do, they think I’m a bit mad, and don’t care much what I hear,” she says. She’s swinging her arms again. “But, you know, crazy does not mean stupid.”

“I don’t think you’re crazy,” Harry says firmly, because he doesn’t. She’s definitely strange, but he doubts she’s anything less than sane.

“Thank you,” she says. “Well, perhaps I would like some company to walk back to Ravenclaw Tower.”

“Sure,” Harry says. He lets her lead the way—no need to show off his knowledge, though it’s not exactly a secret where the Ravenclaw and Gryffindor common room entrances are.

After a while, she looks up at him with her wide, round eyes and says, “You know, there are probably a lot of Nargles in Slytherin.”

“Nargles?” Harry asks, frowning. “What’s that?”

“Oh, a magical creature,” Luna says. She makes a vague gesture with her hands. “They’re very small, and they live in mistletoe, and they like to steal things—they’ve taken my shoes a few times, as well.”

“I see,” Harry says. He doesn’t, but that’s okay. Maybe he’ll learn about Nargles in Care of Magical Creatures, if he decides to take it next year. “Is there any way to stop them from stealing your things?”

“Oh, this,” Luna says, and reaches a little awkwardly into the neck of her shirt. After a moment she gets ahold of the necklace she’s wearing and pulls it out to show Harry—it’s made of bottle corks that he thinks might come from Butterbeer, though he’s only had one Butterbeer and doesn’t entirely remember what the cork looked like. Certainly the necklace doesn’t look to be made from muggle bottle caps or corks. “It keeps them away. Once I started wearing it, well, the Nargles can’t have been stealing my shoes, so they must have just gone walking.”

“Right, okay,” Harry says, feeling now somewhat more skeptical about the existence of Nargles—or at least the existence of them in Ravenclaw tower, stealing one odd first-year’s shoes. “Why do you say there must be a lot in Slytherin?”

“They like drama,” Luna says, and smiles up at Harry. “You folks down in the dungeons do seem to have a lot of it.”

“No kidding,” Harry sighs. “You’re pretty smart.”

“Well, I am in Ravenclaw,” she says.

“Ravenclaws like knowing things. Doesn’t mean they’re good at it.”

She laughs. “I suppose you’re right! Just like Slytherins want to be powerful, but not all of them are good at it.”

“And Gryffindors want to be brave.”

“And Hufflepuffs want to work hard!”

Both of them laugh, and Harry grins down at her. “I think you’ve got this school figured out better than some of the seventh years.”

“I don’t have many friends, and none in Ravenclaw,” Luna says matter-of-factly. “It leaves lots of time for watching.”

Harry thinks back to last year, when he’d only sort of been friends with Blaise and Theo, and only sort of been friends with Ron and Neville, and Hermione had been as much of an outcast as himself—and in a different house, too, so that even when he had gotten closer with the Gryffindors he hadn’t been able to spend much time with them, being in different Houses. He’d had lots of time for watching then, too. “Yeah,” he says. “I remember.”

“You do, don’t you,” she says, and gives him a look like she can see right through him. It’s unnerving. Then she smiles, and the feeling fades, and Harry is able to smile back.

“Well,” he says, “if you ever need a study buddy, come find me. I’m usually in the study halls.”

“With your Gryffindors,” she says, with a knowing nod. “Okay. Thank you, Harry. You’re very nice.”

“You might be the only one who thinks that,” he says, “but thanks, I guess.”

She just turns her smile his way once more, and then they walk in silence the rest of the way back to the Ravenclaw common room’s entrance. He says goodbye to her, suggests that she ask the house elves for help in finding her shoes, and heads off to find Neville. He wants to get a little bit more practice in before Christmas arrives, so that he can show something to Sirius.

They get a little further that day; Neville surprised himself at the beginning of the break by getting a handle on lighting or snuffing a candle almost right away. To test it, Harry had taken some time out of practicing his Finite to try to same trick, and found it equally easy; he and Neville had laughed about it, and Neville had said that he’d clearly shot too low. “Maybe you should try some Slytherin ambition,” Harry had told him. So now Neville is working on a hand-held Lumos, which is proving to be much trickier, for whatever reason.

Harry has variable success with his Finite. He has a scrap of fabric from an old shirt that he charms first, to have a spell to end, so he’s getting plenty of Charms practice, but he’s only able to actually get the spell to end about a third of the time, and even then only with a lot of focus. What the trick might be for getting it to happen without him having to spend five minutes centering his mind and his intent first, he’s not sure; really he first just wants to get the effect to actually happen all the time. It’s really bloody hard. Still, Harry manages to get a Colour Change Charm to undo itself twice on the day before Christmas, which is enough of a victory that he and Neville spend a while whooping about it and then decide that they’ve done well enough work and that they can go get some lunch and have done with it for the day.

At dinner that night, Harry receives a note from Sirius saying that he’ll be coming in the morning to pick Harry up, and that he should pack an overnight bag. He’s cheered by that, and that night before parting to their separate common rooms, he lets Neville knows what’s happening and says goodbye. Neville smiles and, shyly, says that perhaps they can have a small Christmas gift-exchange on Boxing Day. Harry agrees that that sounds good; he’d ordered gifts by owl-post some weeks ago and looks forward to seeing Neville open the Herbology-themed magical planner he’d bought. It includes moon phases, information about planting seasons, and is enchanted to check the weather each day; the magic is meant to last three to five years, so Neville will hopefully get good use out of it.

Harry goes up to the Owlery to make sure Hedwig gets some owl treats before he leaves, then back to the Slytherin dorms and to pack his overnight bag, finishes his Charms reading. He Occludes his mind before sleeping so that he doesn’t dream, and he wakes on time, feeling fresh and excited for a day with Sirius and Remus. He dresses, grabs his bag, and heads for the Great Hall to have breakfast—Neville isn’t up yet, but Hussain is, and they talk quietly about the Charms theory Harry had read last night until Harry is startled out of the conversation by a hand landing on his head and ruffling his hair.

He jerks around and finds that Sirius has snuck up on him and is grinning down; he jumps up then from his seat and throws his arms around his godfather in a huge hug.

“Hullo, pup,” Sirius says, hugging him back. “Happy almost-Christmas. Shall we? Had breakfast already?”

Harry nods and pulls back to say goodbye to Hussain and grab his bag. As he does, Sirius waves to Dumbledore and receives a nod in return, which is apparently enough acknowledgement that they leave the Hall without another word to anyone. As they walk through the halls, Sirius asks, “So, Miss Hussain stayed for the break as well?”

“Mhm.” Harry shifts his bag a little further up his shoulder, taking note that they seem to be headed for the main doors. “She said her family doesn’t celebrate Christmas.”

“That makes sense,” Sirius says, and gestures to his head. “They must be Muslim.”

“Muslim?” Harry frowns; the word is vaguely familiar, but not from the magical world—a muggle term?

“It’s a religion. Well, Islam is the religion; Muslim people are its followers, I suppose,” Sirius says, glancing down at him. “You don’t know? There are a lot more religious folk in the muggle world.”

“I know,” Harry says. “The Dursleys didn’t talk much about anything like that though, and when they did it wasn’t… nice, usually. So I ignored a lot of it. I only really remember what I learned in school.”

“Hm,” Sirius says. “Well. I’ll admit I don’t know much either, just that it’s a religion, monotheistic like Christianity or Judaism, and her being Muslim explains the headscarf.”

“Oh,” Harry says. He’d wondered about the scarf Hussain wore a little—she didn’t always wear the same one, she had them in a bunch of different colours and patterns, but she always wore it and never took it off. “Okay.”

“You seem unbothered.”

Harry shrugs. “S’not really my business, is it?”

“No, indeed,” Sirius says with a bit of a chuckle. “You’re a good kid. How’s your break been?”

Harry launches into a recap, telling Sirius about his adventures exploring the school, his studies with Neville, and his meeting with the mysterious Luna Lovegood. The gist, really, is that his break has been good. The account takes the two of them out of the castle and down the road all the way to the front gates, and then beyond. Once they’re partway down the path to Hogsmeade, Sirius stops and says, “Alright, grab on. We’ll Apparate into London.”

“Ugh,” says Harry, which makes Sirius laugh, but he does grab onto Sirius’s arm as instructed. After the usual intense, nauseating squeeze of Side-along Apparition, they rematerialize in a London alleyway, the Apparition point near the Doghouse. They wait a moment for Harry to steady his spinning head and catch his breath, and then Sirius says that they’ve got to stop and pick up something for a dinner; Remus had requested ham.

The shop is a bit of a zoo, it being Christmas Eve morning, which Harry could have predicted, but they do manage to snag a small ham and some brussels sprouts, and then they stroll back to the Doghouse. It’s cold outside and overcast, but bright and not raining, and Harry can’t wait to have another warm Christmas with Sirius and Remus. When they arrive at the flat, Harry finds that they’ve made the same effort toward decorating that they made last year, which is to say not much. But the small Christmas tree is again set up by the window, with its ornaments and some gold tinsel, and the fairy in a cage atop its highest branch. The soft ticking of the grandfather clock and the sound of Remus puttering in the kitchen is familiar now after a summer here, and with the addition of cool winter’s light and a fire in the fireplace, stepping into the den feels very much like coming home. Harry had never once felt this way arriving at the Dursleys’, and while Hogwarts was home too, in its own way, the Doghouse was just much more Harry’s own; he fits here, and he loves it, and he flops onto the yellow couch happily while Sirius takes the groceries into the kitchen and greets Remus. After a moment, Remus comes out and smiles over the back of the couch at Harry, who is grinning at the ceiling.

“Hullo, Remus,” Harry says.

“Hello, you,” Remus says. “Glad to have you back.”

“Thanks.” Harry beams up at him, and then sits up so that Remus can join him on the couch; Sirius has taken up the kitchen puttering, and Remus asks him to recount again the events of the break, but also to tell him about how term has been going. Harry’s stories of the prank offensive against Draco Malfoy are greeted with laughter, and his story about the Quidditch tryouts—he’d written Remus after he’d made the team, but not included many details, knowing he’d be home for Christmas. And he is, if perhaps in a different fashion than he’d expected. Remus gently drills him on what he’s been learning in his classes, and when Sirius comes into the den to sit in his ugly armchair Remus asks teasing questions about what Harry thinks of the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. Harry shares a few of the more outlandish stories that he can think of—hide and go seek in the halls, for one—and then tells Remus about everything they’ve been doing in their private sessions. Sirius looks on with pride, and when Harry mentions his Occlumency, says, “He’s been doing great, Remus, you wouldn’t believe.”

“I’ve no doubt,” Remus says, leaning over to give Harry a half-hug. “You’ve quite a talent for Defence, Harry.”

“Well…” Harry says, bashful. “I just practice a lot.”

“Have you started building your structure?” Sirius asks, leaning in slightly.

“Oh, yes,” Harry says. “Maybe we could practice a little tonight, and I could show you?”

“Sure thing,” Sirius says. “I look forward to it. And how have you and Neville been doing with your wandless spells?”

“He managed the thing with the candle,” Harry says. “It was too easy, really; I told him he ought to be more ambitious, because I tried it too and got it pretty quickly as well. So he’s working on Lumos now.”

“You would say that, my little Slytherin,” Sirius says, amused. “But good on you both; even that much really isn’t as easy as you may feel it is, having accomplished it. And what about you? The Finite?”

Harry sighs, put-upon, drawing chuckles from both Remus and Sirius. “It’s hard!” Harry says defensively. “It’s really hard, ugh. I can make it work sometimes, but I have to concentrate for a long time first. I hope I’ll get faster, or it won’t be any good.”

“You will,” Sirius says confidently. “Even aside from your talent, which is evident in all our lessons together, you’ll get faster with your wandless spells as you practice them. Regular spells are similar, really, it’s just that—well, okay.” He almost visibly settles into Professor Mode, which makes Harry and Remus both smile. “When you cast a spell for the first time, it carves a sort of… pathway. Each spell’s pathway, the shape it makes in your magic, is different. A wand assists spellcasting in two ways: it creates a pre-existing path for your magic to get from your magical core into the world, and it remembers the shapes of the pathways that spells create when you cast them. That’s how a Priori Incantatem works, of course, but it also means that your magic doesn’t have to do the work of remembering the pathway—your wand does it for you. When you cast wandlessly, however, you have to both create the path from your core to the outside on your own, which is why it takes so much will and focus, and your magic has to remember the pathway every time, until eventually it gets into your long-term magical memory, much like learning something with your mind.”

Harry nods thoughtfully. “Right, okay. So, with repetition, my magic will remember the pathway, and it’ll get easier.”

“Yes, exactly,” Sirius says. “The more complicated the spell, the more complicated the pathway, and the harder to learn wandless. It’ll also be harder with spells you don’t cast often even with your wand; your practice might be served by practicing the spell with your wand, as well.”

“Okay,” Harry says. He pauses for a moment, thinks that over, and then nods again. “How do you even know this stuff?”

Remus makes an agreeing noise. “I hadn’t realized you were a scholar of esoteric magical theory, Sirius.”

Sirius looks embarrassed. “I’m not,” he says. “But, well… admittedly, I’m wasn’t much of an expert in wandless magic—I’d never thought it achievable, so I never really looked into it beyond the barest basics. But when you and Neville get so interested,” he says, with a nod toward Harry, “I decided that I ought to brush up so that I could actually teach you effectively. Turns out it’s interesting stuff.”

Harry flushes with pleasure, and grins at Sirius. “Thanks, Sirius,” he says. “It is interesting, and you have been a good teacher.”

“Well,” Sirius says, and waves a hand, though his cheeks are flushed as well. “I’m glad you think so.”

Harry does think so, and goes back to telling Remus stories about things they’ve done in Defence this term. It really has been amazing; Sirius is a much better teacher than Quirrell was, even aside from not being possessed by Voldemort.

They pass the morning like that, talking and catching up. It’s nice to catch up with Remus properly, of course, but also to spend time with Sirius in a less formal circumstance. Harry loves having him as Defence teacher, of course, but he’d missed having his godfather, with his often-irreverent sense of humour, and his loud barking laugh, and his easy flirtation toward Remus and affection toward them both. More than the comfy couch and warm fire of the Doghouse, Harry has missed this. He’d gotten used to having people who care about him shockingly fast over the summer; he’d missed the ease of it at Hogwarts, when he had to be on his guard all the time.

They have lunch and then Harry reads for a while, curled up on one end of the couch, while Sirius sits in his armchair with a paper and Remus goes out to have a smoke. They talk now and then, Harry making a comment on something in his book or Sirius sharing a page of the paper with an interesting story. Harry is still enthralled by magical photographs; he just can’t get over the fact that they move. The afternoon wears on comfortably, until it’s time to put in the ham, which Remus does, and then after a while to begin preparing the rest of dinner. The kitchen is hot from the oven being on and Harry sheds his jumper and then decides that it’s pleasant, so he sits at the kitchen table for a while to work on his last bit of homework for the break. Remus sits down with him between cooking tasks, offering help if he needs, but Harry ends up muddling through alright until it’s time for dinner. Sirius breaks out the Christmas crackers, magical like those they’d had at Hogwarts the year before, and they pull them over their empty plates. Harry’s cracker produces a tiara, Remus’s a fetching dark grey newsboy’s cap, and Sirius’s a ginormous Chinese rice paddy hat; Harry insists that Sirius wear the tiara to match his long wavy hair, steals the cap from Remus, and sets the Chinese hat aside for the moment so that it doesn’t get any anyone’s way while trying to eat dinner. It’s a wonderful meal, topped off with an icebox pudding pie that Remus had made earlier and glasses of eggnog—with rum for Remus and Sirius; they allow Harry a taste, but he decides he doesn’t like it—for everyone.

The evening passes much the same way the morning had, talking and laughing; Sirius and Harry play a game of cards before Harry has to go to bed. Just before he heads off to get ready for sleeping, Sirius turns to him during a gentle lull in conversation and says, “Harry, I wanted to ask…”

Harry turns to look at him inquisitively, which he takes as the invitation to continue that it is. “Last year, we went to see your parents at Christmas. Would you… like to go again tomorrow?”

Harry swallows, feeling a little like someone has thrown cold water on him. “Yeah,” he says, and when his voice breaks a little, he clears his throat and says, again, “Yes. I mean, yeah, I’d like that.”

“Alright,” Sirius says, and lets out a breath. “Remus and I… we haven’t wanted to push you on it. I know it can be… a challenge, to see them like that.”

“I guess,” Harry says, and looks down. “I know it’s probably harder on you than on me. I didn’t want to bring it up, since you didn’t want to talk about it.”

He doesn’t see the alarmed look that Sirius and Remus exchange, but he does glance up when the silence stretches too long and sees both of them looking at him, furrows of worry in their brows. “What?” he says.

“Harry,” Remus says carefully. “I’m sorry. We’d thought we were doing you a service in not forcing you to discuss your parents; you were very close-mouthed about your feelings on the topic, and you’re very independent, and…” He pauses and rubs his face. “I’m buggering this up, I’m afraid.”

“What Remus is trying to say,” Sirius says, “is that we weren’t talking about your parents because we didn’t think you wanted to talk about them—we had no idea you weren’t talking about them because you thought the same.”

“That we didn’t want to visit or discuss them, that is,” Remus adds.

Harry stares and them both, and then bites his lip and looks down again, because he’s not sure, really, how to deal with that. Maybe they could have gone to see his parents over the summer, if he’d asked. But… “Sorry,” he says. “I just… I didn’t really want to talk about it, you’re right.”

“Well,” Sirius says. A hand lands on Harry’s shoulder and he startles a little; he hadn’t heard Sirius get up. But when he looks, he finds it’s Remus who has shifted closer to touch him.

“You know now,” Remus says quietly. “You can talk to us about anything, Harry. Either of us, too—you don’t need to get us both if you need something. Neither of us minds you having feelings, or only being able to process them in front of one person at a time.”

“We’ll go see James and Lily tomorrow,” Sirius says. He’s got that definite tone of his in his voice, the one he often gets when he’s made a decision. “I’m sorry we waited this long, though I know it makes little difference to them.”

“Yeah,” Harry says. “Okay.”

Remus rubs Harry’s arm briefly and then lets him go and sits back. “Why don’t you scurry off to get ready for bed, Harry. Tomorrow’s Christmas, so we’ll have gifts and a nice lazy morning, then the hospital, then back to Hogwarts with you.”

Harry nods, and then impulsively he leans forward to hug Remus hard. When he gets up he does to same to Sirius before he darts out of the den to go brush his teeth and get into pajamas. He’s determined that tomorrow will be a good day.

 

Chapter Text

Christmas morning is as brilliant as it had been last year. Harry receives an equal pile of gifts, though several are fairly impersonal gifts given by his allies in Slytherin—candy from Warrington and Hussain, a bottle of Seeker’s eyedrops from Higgs meant to keep his eyes from watering due to wind and altitude. Millicent gets him a book on Potions, which surprises him a little; he struggles enough with Snape that he wouldn’t have imagined… but then, he does find the subject interesting, even if he’s a bit pants at it. Theo and Blaise have both signed a letter wishing him a happy Christmas, and its envelope also contains a gift certificate of significant value for Gladrags and a handmade coupon promising an afternoon’s worth of Blaise’s substantial fashion expertise sometime over the summer. Harry also finds himself the recipient of a package of home-made cookies from Molly Weasley, and the note that comes with them says that she’s sure Ron wouldn’t have wanted to neglect sending his friends some sort of gift, despite his continuing unconsciousness.

Hermione sends a package of books, of course, though they’re novels and not non-fiction for once; a series of magical novels that she’d read and very much liked when she first arrived in the magical world. Sirius has bought Harry a set of enchanted wand holsters, one for his wrist and one for a concealed carry at his thigh, which allow him to summon his wand from the holster to his hand or banish it back with a gesture. Harry immediately straps them on, getting Sirius to help him adjust the fit on the wrist holster, and then practices with the summoning gesture a few times until it feels smooth; it’s an amazing gift. He’ll finally be able to carry the secondary wand that he retrieved from the Potter vault; until now the rowan wand has lived in a compartment in his trunk. Remus also goes practical, gifting Harry a beautiful stationery set. He’s the Heir of an Ancient and Noble House now, and needs to be able to write formal letters when necessary. The whole thing packs into a lap writing slope which has a miniaturization charm on it, activated with a tap of a wand.

Harry thanks them both, and presents his return gifts. For Remus, after hearing him complain a few times about the overly-strong scent of most air freshening products, a scent-neutralizing potion developed for people with pets, meant to keep homes from getting smelly without bothering sensitive noses (like the one Remus himself possesses). For Sirius, he’d found a few smaller, more miscellaneous items: a neat wooden hair slide for his long hair, carved with a barklike pattern, and a set of cufflinks set with garnets so dark they seemed black until held to light, at which point they flared like fire. All of the gifts Harry is giving are from owl order catalogues that Blaise and Theo had shared with him, and not the sort of catalogues that Sirius or Remus might shop in; they both seem surprised and pleased by the quality of their gifts, and he smiles back, accepts and returns hugs, and then all three of them proceed to the kitchen for a bit of breakfast.

After eating, Harry packs up his things—briefly regretting having left his dad’s necklace in its safe hiding spot in his trunk, as he might have liked to wear it—and grabs his cloak. They decide this year to Floo to Saint Mungo’s, and after the usual dizzying whirl through the fireplace, Harry stumbles out into the lobby of the hospital and is caught and steadied by Remus, who’d gone through first. Sirius comes through a moment later, and they greet the Welcome Wix briefly on the way up to the fourth floor. In the elevator, Harry says to Sirius, “Do you think we could try to go visit Ron, while we’re here?”

Sirius makes a considering noise. “Certainly. I’m not sure exactly where he is, but all spell damage is treated on the fourth floor—we can ask a Healer once we’re up there.”

Harry nods, and once the elevator doors open, they do just that, grabbing one of the Healers in their lime green robes to ask about Ron Weasley. The wizard nods politely at them when Sirius asks, and says, “Friends, are you? Some of the family is there visiting now—just that way, and to the left.” He gestures down the hallway, where a series of doors allow access to patient rooms, presumably.

“Is, um, do you know if he’s going to be okay?” Harry asks tentatively. “He was in the infirmary at Hogwarts for a long time…”

The Healer nods again. “He’ll be fine, lad; Madame Pomphrey is an accomplished Mediwitch to be sure, but we’ve resources at the hospital that she simply didn’t have access to. He’s not my patient directly, but what I’ve heard says he’s on the upswing—might even be awake. Have a good visit.”

Then he strides off with the air of someone who has somewhere to be—or at least is pretending that he does.

“Would you like to go there first?” Sirius asks. “It’d be no trouble; Lily and James will wait. And then you might be able to say hello to the rest of the family.”

Harry doesn’t really know the rest of the family, but that’s alright—they might know more about Ron’s treatment, and maybe when he’ll be back at school. So he nods and lets Sirius lead the way down the hall, looking for a nameplate that they eventually find, Ron Weasley etched into the bronze. The door is shut, but opens with a push, not locked—Harry pokes his head inside and finds himself greeted with a veritable crowd of Weasleys. He’d known, of course, that they were plentiful and very redheaded, but the effect of them all (well, maybe; Harry still doesn’t actually know exactly how many brothers Ron has) crammed into one room is really quite something. More so when he’s spotted and there’s a great clamour of greeting.

The twins leap up from where they’d been seated against one wall and immediately seize his arms on either side and steer him into the room.

“Mr. Snake!” cries the one on the left—George, Harry thinks; after two months’ worth of fairly regular contact (as they’d refused to leave him entirely alone even after the end of the prank gambit), he’s begun to be more able to tell them apart.

“Mr. Prince!” echoes Fred.

“Mr. Snake Prince!” they say together.

“Don’t be rude,” scolds an older woman, sitting beside the bed; this, Harry assumes, must be Mrs. Molly Weasley, though he’s never met her before. “Honestly, you two.”

“We’re just greeting him!” protests Fred. “He knows—”

“—that we mean well by it,” says George. “Don’t you, Harry?”

Harry nods, somewhat longsuffering. “And it’s not like anything will stop you.”

“No way!” the twins say together, laughing, and finally release him when he’s come to stand beside the bed, in the midst of the Weasley crowd. All of those Harry has met are there—Fred and George, of course, but also Ginny and Percy—as well as Mrs. Weasley, an older, slightly balding man with smile lines around his eyes who Harry assumes must be Mr. Arthur Weasley, and another man who looks to be a few years older than Percy, with his red hair finger-combed into a somewhat rakish mess and wearing what looks like a leather jacket and black muggle jeans, a stark contrast to the comfortable, if worn, day-robes of the rest of the family.

Harry blinks at the stranger slightly, and he winks, then waggles his fingers and says, “Hello there, Mr. Potter. I’m Charlie—Ron’s probably mentioned me.”

Right, Charlie; the one at the dragon preserve, whose friends had come to rescue Norbert last year. Harry nods back politely and says, “Hello,” and then he turns his attention to the bed.

Ron looks… better. Well, mostly the same, in that he’s still lying very still, sleeping, but there’s more colour in his face, and his eyes flick beneath his eyelids, like he actually is just sleeping, dreaming instead of deeply unconscious. Harry finds himself smiling a little, relieved, and pats Ron’s hand, which is lying limp above the blankets.

“He looks better,” he says.

Across the bed from him, Mr. Weasley nods. “The Healer says he’s on the upswing—they finally managed to work out the countercurse and he’s recovering properly. Very nice of you to visit, Harry.”

Harry shrugs. “Sirius, Remus, and I were going to visit my parents.” He glances over at the door, where Sirius and Remus are waiting politely just outside.

This sets off another minor outcry as Molly jumps up from her seat and takes her own turn at towing someone into the room—this time Sirius, with and amused Remus trailing after. Clearly the twins had gotten their tendency toward manhandling from somewhere. There’s another round of greetings, particularly warm from Mr. and Mrs. Weasley toward Sirius and Remus, and then Mrs. Weasley says, “Really so glad you could visit, dears; I’m sure you’re eager to get to Lily and James. I admit, to my shame, I’d forgotten they were on this very same floor—perhaps I’ll drop by there myself, a little later.”

Sirius smiles gently. “You’ve had plenty else to worry about since the attack, Molly, though it’s very generous of you to say you’ll visit when you’ve your son in a hospital bed. But you did say he’s getting better?”

“Yes,” Mrs. Weasley says. “Quickly, even—he should be out of bed before the end of the break, and back to school not long after. Perhaps not quite in time with the other students, as we won’t know what shape he’s in until he wakes, but…”

Sirius ruffles Harry’s hair and grins at his scowl, then says, “That’s truly wonderful to hear. Though catching up will be a bit of a daunting task; six weeks of school is nothing to sneeze at, even in second year.”

“No, but we wouldn’t want him to be held back,” Molly says. She sounds confident, but her hands twist anxiously in her lap.

“I’m sure Hermione will help,” Harry volunteers. “She’s brilliant, and very good at study schedules and tutoring and such. And between her, Neville, me, and—” he hesitates, and then decides that in such a crowd of Gryffindors, it’s best not to mention his Slytherin friends by name— “some other folks we know at school, we’ll be able to put together notes from all the classes, and so on.”

“That’s wonderful,” Mrs. Weasley says, smiling brightly at him. Then she gets up out of her seat once more and gives him a hug, warm and encompassing. It might be the best hug Harry’s ever had; for all that he hadn’t been expecting it, he’s a bit sad when it’s over.

“Yeah, well,” Harry says awkwardly, and rubs the back of his head. “We’ll do our best.”

“Thank you so much, dear.” Mrs. Weasley sits down once more and grabs Ron’s hand.

“I think we won’t linger,” Sirius says, his own hand coming to rest on Harry’s shoulder. “But Harry wanted to say hello to Ron briefly. Very nice to see you all, especially you two, Molly, Arthur—we’ll have to catch up.”

“Certainly,” Mr. Weasley says. He rises and waves Percy, who’d been standing back, into his seat. “Perhaps I’ll walk you down the hall—I’d like a quick word, Sirius, if you don’t mind.”

Sirius raises an eyebrow, but says, “Not a problem, of course.”

Harry says his goodbyes to all the Weasleys that he knows and a “nice to meet you” to Charlie and a “see you soon” to Ron, who may or may not be able to hear him, and then he, Sirius, and Remus leave the room with Mr. Weasley. They walk a distance down the hall, well out of earshot of the rest of the Weasleys, and then Mr. Weasley stops and turns to Sirius with a very serious look on his face.

“Lord Black,” he begins, and Sirius straightens, his shoulders going back. It’s a startling transformation, to see Sirius go from being just Sirius to being Lord Black, upright and stern and firm in his power. “I wish to make a formal apology on behalf of myself and my Family.”

“Go on,” Sirius says. Harry steps forward a little, trying to adopt some of Sirius’s same stately posture. Mr. Weasley’s eyes flick toward him briefly, almost startled, before looking back at Sirius.

“My Family has long harboured an enemy of your House,” Mr. Weasley says. “I would apologize to you, for I consider my Family an ally to your House and that we did not know what we did is no excuse for betrayal.”

“Arthur—” Sirius begins, sounding somewhat startled, and then he seems to remember himself and draws himself up again. “Arthur Weasley, Head of the Weasley Family, I acknowledge and accept your apology for harbouring an enemy of my House. As you said, you did not know what you did, and I trust in the bonds of friendship and allyship that exist between us enough to know that had you discovered that enemy, you would have done all you could to see him imprisoned or dead. Indeed, it was the actions of your sons which led to his discovery this past Halloween, and I would ask you pass on my thanks and my praise for their swift action to remedy the wrong inadvertently committed by your Family.”

Mr. Weasley nods, bows, and then, once he’s straightened again, lets out a breath. “Thank you, Sirius. I… I know there’s never been much ceremony between us, but I wanted to convey how seriously I took what happened. I had originally intended to send a letter with that apology, but I thought I’d be better to do it in person.”

“Of course, Arthur,” Sirius says, and offers his hand. Instead of shaking, they clasp arms as Harry has seen wixen do in the past. “I really hope you will pass my thanks on to the twins—they put themselves in the way of considerable harm to try to be rid of that rat. And say the same to Ron, when he wakes up. You’ve raised some true Gryffindors.”

“Foolish, self-sacrificing idiots, you mean?” Mr. Weasley says, laughs, and then sighs. “They’re good boys. I’ll tell them, Sirius. Thank you. And…” He looks down at Harry and smiles. “You’re raising a good lad yourself, Sirius. You’ve only had him a little while and I can already see your influence. Now, get on with yourselves—James and Lily will be glad of your company, I’m sure.”

“Of course,” Sirius says. “And I’ll let the wix at the door know you and Molly are cleared to visit them, and to bring any of your brood, if you’d like.”

“That would be wonderful,” Arthur says. “I… suspect it won’t be easy to see them. I’ve never gone, you know, but it’s a shame on me that I haven’t; I really ought to be less of a coward myself, for their sakes.”

“Don’t force yourself,” Sirius says quietly. “They won’t know the difference.”

Arthur shakes his head. “No, no, my mind’s made up. You tell that wix at the door to expect us; I’ve some lost time to make up with several dear friends, don’t I?”

Harry glances up in time to see the briefest twist of sorrow in Sirius’s face, before it turns to a wry look, and he says, “I suppose so. Good day, Arthur.”

“And to you, Sirius.” And then Mr. Weasley takes himself off back to the rest of his family, after bidding a polite goodbye to Harry and Remus.

“Well,” says Sirius, and shakes himself, dog-like. “Off we trot, I suppose.”

“Indeed,” Remus says, and he comes forward to tangle his fingers briefly with Sirius’s in a rare public show of affection before they start off down the hallway toward the Janus Thickey Ward. As with before, Sirius has to unlock the doors with magic before they’re able to go in, and he pauses briefly to speak with the Healer on duty at the front desk before they proceed. It’s the same Healer as last year, a round woman with a kind smile, and she nods and makes a note when Sirius tells her about the Weasleys being “cleared”.

“What do you mean about them being cleared?” Harry asks, once Sirius has stepped away and they’re making their way down the ward toward the curtained cubicles near the end that contain Harry’s parents. Anything to distract him from the smothering quiet of the ward, disturbed only now and then by the murmurings of patients or Healers.

“Not just anyone can waltz into the Janus Thickey ward,” Sirius explains. “For one, it’s locked so no one can go a-wandering, but for another… well, many of the patients here are… vulnerable. And your parents are still somewhat high-profile from the war. Folk have to have clearance in order to come in and visit any patient, and the first few times usually have to be accompanied while visiting; it’s only that Remus and I have visited so many times that we get free rein.”

“Right,” Harry says. It makes sense. Most of the wixen here wouldn’t be able to defend themselves if anyone tried to harm them, and many wouldn’t even be able to tell someone if they’d been harmed—including his parents. Suddenly he’s very glad for the security, even if it means he won’t be able to visit on his own for some time.

They arrive then at his parents’ beds. This year, a little bit to Harry’s surprise, the outer curtains to their small… apartment, he supposes, are open. Harry’s dad is lying in his own bed, almost as if he hasn’t moved at all, for all that a year has passed, but this time Harry’s mum is sitting on the side of his dad’s bed instead of her own. She’s staring at her hands, her curtain of grey-streaked red hair hanging down to hide her face, but she’s sitting up. Harry can’t remember well enough to say if she’s sitting up any straighter than last year; he tries not to read anything into the differences.

“Lils,” Sirius says, coming to stand in front of her. “Happy Christmas. We’ve come to visit, Remus and I, and we’ve brought Harry back again.”

After a moment, she looks up. Her gaze is hazy, distracted, but she does look at them briefly, and then away.

“Harry, why don’t you tell Lily about your school term?” Sirius suggests softly. “I’m going to go say hello to James.”

“Alright,” Harry says. His voice is choked, and he clears his throat. He’d forgotten how it felt to see her like this. It makes him remember again the vision he’d seen in the Mirror of Erised last year: life in her eyes, in her face; colour in her cheeks; laughter on her lips as she smiled at him and touched her husband’s shoulder fondly. He misses her, even though he’s never really met her.

But this is what he gets to have: this empty shell instead of a mum. It’s all he gets, and he knows he should take it. So he does as Sirius suggested, telling her all about Sirius having become the Defence professor, and his feud with Draco Malfoy. He leaves out Halloween and Peter Pettigrew, because if he tries to talk about the rat while looking at the evidence of his betrayal, the damage he did, Harry is going to start screaming. Even just thinking about it makes him want to break something. Eventually, he runs out of things to talk about, things he’s willing to talk about. Maybe if it were just him and his mum, he thinks, he’d be willing to tell her more, more about what he’s feeling about everything that’s happened, because she’s his mum and if he could talk to anyone about his feelings it’d be her. But Sirius and Remus are nearby, Sirius talking softly to James, Remus holding his hand, and Harry doesn’t want to put any of it to voice right now. It’s too much.

He trails off and watches his mum fidget briefly, and then jumps when she rises suddenly from the bed. Her movements are at once jerky and hesitant, like she’s not sure how she should be moving and not quite in control of the motions once she chooses where to go; it’s a little like watching a marionette walk. She goes over to her own bed and rummages around in the blankets and under the pillow, and Harry stands dumbly in the middle of his parents’ little curtain apartment and watches her, feeling unmoored. When she turns around again, she just looks at him, and he hesitates. Then he realizes she’s holding something in her hands, her fingers curled into fists, so he comes a little closer and, after a moment, reaches out and touches her hands. She doesn’t blink, even, just stares at him and then looks away, down, but her knuckles press against his palms and then she opens her hands against his, pressing something into his hands. He grasps it—them—carefully, his fingertips trailing against her palms. The feeling of her skin is the same, papery and cool, but so very soft. And then she pulls her hands away and turns her back on him, her shoulders slumped. He doesn’t know what to make of it, can’t process it, and instead looks down to see what she’s given him: three crumpled candy wrappers, just like the one from last year. One is another of those golden toffee wrappers, and two are silver on one side and patterned a bit like a strawberry on the other. Uncomprehending, he stares at the tiny treasure, and then his vision goes blurry as tears fill his eyes.

Only by sheer will does he prevent himself from breaking down completely, and he’s not able to prevent a few tears from falling, which he wipes stubbornly from his face with his shirtsleeves and then he sniffs back the rest. He sits down in the chair next to his mum’s bed, which is opposite where she’s still standing, now staring at her shoes, and he carefully smooths the candy wrappers and then runs them between his fingers again and again until they’re completely without wrinkles.

“What’ve you—oh,” says Sirius’s voice from beside Harry, and Harry startles and looks up.

“Nothing,” he says, and he tucks the wrappers into his pockets, feeling suddenly embarrassed by the care he’s taken with what he knows, intellectually, is just garbage. Never mind that he still has the one his mum had given him last year, tucked carefully into the pages of the book on Animagi.

“Did Lily give you those?” Sirius asks quietly.

“Yeah,” Harry says. He swallows, trying to breathe past the lump in his throat. “Like last year.”

“Harry…” Sirius says. “It’s—she’s never given us anything like that. I can’t know what’s going on in her head, not really, but it must be more than any of us thought, because… Well. She clearly loves you.”

Harry bites his lip hard enough that it hurts, hard enough to hold back the threatening tears again, and once he has himself under control again he says, “Okay. I… I love her too. I hope she knows.”

“She knows,” Sirius says, and lays his hand so gently on Harry’s shoulder that it almost seems to hurt. “She knows. Do you want to say hello to James?”

“Okay.” Harry gets up and goes over to see his dad, but his dad… it’s just not the same. He’s even more empty than his mum; he just lies there, blinking slowly at nothing. Harry can’t decide if it’s better or worse, because he feels sick and almost as empty as his parents, trying to talk to his dad. But it’s also easier to push it down than it is with his mum, who knows him, somehow, so deep she can’t forget it, even though she’s forgotten everything else about herself to the point where her love for him doesn’t matter anymore.

Still, Harry does his best to tell his dad about his term, as he had his mum. He has less to say, as if telling his mum all of this had drained the words out of him, and he runs out of things to say much fast this time, and just sits there, looking at his dad. Looking at the body that used to be his dad, still breathing but not any sort of person any more. Finally, he sighs and looks up—Sirius and Remus are both over with Harry’s mum. He catches Remus’s eye, and tries to convey with his expression that he’s really done.

Remus seems to get the drift and touches Sirius’s arm, who looks over as well, sees Harry looking at them, and nods. He says something softly to Lily, touches her shoulder with the same painful gentleness he’d touched Harry earlier, and then both of them turn and come over to Harry.

“You look tired,” Remus says, when they’re in easy earshot for a soft-spoken word. “Ready to go?”

Harry nods. “Back to Hogwarts, right?”

“Right,” Sirius says. “We’ll both escort you back, and then we’re off to do a little more searching for that rat before term resumes.”

“Oh, okay,” Harry says. That’s where Sirius has been for the whole break so far; it makes sense that Remus would join him now. Honestly, Harry is a little surprised he hadn’t been along the whole time, but maybe he hadn’t been able to get off work—especially with the full moon having been earlier this month. Hopefully the two of them together will have more luck than Sirius has been having on his own.

Harry gets up out of his chair and is received immediately into a hug from Sirius. He hugs back, slumping a little against Sirius’s chest, and Sirius squeezes him.

“It’ll be okay,” Sirius says. “Come on, let’s get you back to school.”

“‘Kay,” Harry mutters. He allows Sirius to release him and then he follows out of his parents’ curtain apartment. He wants to look back, to get one more glimpse, but doesn’t let himself. He’ll come back soon, he promises himself. And he’ll be less of a crybaby about it.

They make their way back down to the lobby and then to the Apparition point. Sirius takes Harry with him side-along, and they reappear in a side-street of what Harry assumes is Hogsmeade. He’s never actually been into the village before, of course; only third years and older are allowed to go on the weekends. But they emerge out onto the main street once Remus has popped in beside them and Harry can see shops around them that he’s heard the older students talk about, and in the distance, up the road, the silhouette of the castle against the late afternoon sky. Later than he’d realized, in fact; they must have spent longer in the hospital than he’d thought. It takes about 15 minutes to walk from the village up to the castle, and Harry observes the walk as they go: it’s pretty, the road edged with trees and well-maintained while also well-trodden. Everything is covered in snow, pristine and glimmering where it hasn’t been broken by footprints, and it shines even in the patchy light of a mostly-overcast sky. He smiles, thinking about walking down this way with his friends to visit the shops in the village next year; it’s an exciting possibility, enough to distract at least a little from the lingering miasma of sadness that visiting his parents had cast over his mood.

Sirius and Remus walk with Harry all the way up to the castle’s doors. Both of them give him huge hugs, and when Sirius pulls away, he grasps Harry’s shoulders and says, “Happy Christmas, Harry. Have fun until term starts, alright?”

Harry smiles back, nods, and says, “Of course, Sirius. I, um, I love you.”

Sirius beams, hugs him once more, and says, “Love you too, pup.”

“Bye,” Harry says, and then waves at them as they begin their walk back down to the gates to Apparate away once more. He wishes they could have had the whole break together, but he’s looking forward to seeing Neville and doing their gift exchange, and he focuses on that; better than dwelling, he tells himself.

He heads into the castle and down to the dungeons first, to drop off his things, and then he checks the Marauder’s Map—Neville is in Gryffindor Tower. So he grabs his gift for Neville, already wrapped in silver paper, and heads for the tower; it’s a bit of a walk from the dungeons, of course, and Harry takes the opportunity to pause in an alcove and Occlude. He’s still getting used to making it a reflex, and right now, still feeling the lingering grief and frustration of being with his parents… well, he doesn’t want any of that getting in the way of being with his friend, so he sorts the emotion away, packages it up to deal with later. In his mental construct of Hogwarts, his feelings about his parents lurk like a dark fog in the mental room where once Harry found the Mirror of Erised, and Harry closes the door on them firmly. Then he finishes his trek up to the Fat Lady’s portrait and politely requests she let Neville know he’s here, if he’s in the common room.

The portrait swings open only a few moments later, so Neville must have been nearby. He smiles when he sees Harry, but something is… wrong. His face is pale and there are dark circles under his eyes, like he hasn’t slept; he didn’t look half this tired when Harry had seen him only the morning before, and Harry frowns immediately, concerned.

“Neville?” he asks. “Has something happened?”

Neville nods. “Let’s go somewhere else to talk. I’d invite you in, but I don’t want anyone overhearing.”

“Okay,” Harry says. If Neville is concerned for secrecy, something serious must have happened while Harry was away.

The two of them trek down a few floors and find themselves an empty classroom. This one has a stained glass window depicting black roses twining around an obelisk depicted in clear glass, and there are no tables or chairs to be seen; Harry and Neville sit on the floor in the middle of the room, both cross-legged, so close that their knees touch.

“Alright,” Harry says. “What’s going on?”

Neville sighs. “I… had a dream last night. Or maybe a vision.”

“Like a prophetic vision?” Harry asks. He doesn’t know much about Divination—it’s a third year class—but he knows it’s possible for wixen to see the future, and that some have a real gift.

Neville shakes his head. A bit of brown hair falls into his face, and he brushes it away absently, his eyes haunted and distant. “I don’t think so. I think…”

Harry waits, patient. Neville takes his time about things, sometimes, but he always gets there eventually.

“I think I saw Voldemort,” Neville says finally, his voice nearly a whisper. “Not a nightmare—Voldemort now.”

That isn’t what Harry had been expecting, and yet it almost is. After last year’s events, and with Sirius and Remus gone hunting, it’s not like Harry doesn’t know Voldemort is alive and seeking resurrection. He thinks about it often, in fact. And he knows that for some reason, Voldemort had gone after Neville when Neville was a baby, had tried to murder an infant in his crib.

“Okay,” Harry says, when he’s sure he can speak without his voice shaking. “What happened in the dream?”

“You believe me?” Neville asks, sounding relieved. “I… I almost thought I was going crazy. I can’t decide if it’s better that I’m not.”

Harry shrugs. “Six of one, half a dozen of the other.”

Neville snorts a laugh, and then seems shocked at himself. “Merlin, I shouldn’t be laughing. It’s Voldemort.”

“Well, not laughing isn’t going to make him go away,” Harry points out. If he’s learned anything from Sirius and Remus, and from the twins, it’s that a laugh helps more often than it hurts. “Better to laugh and then strategize. So. Dream?”

Neville shakes his head fondly. “I’m glad we’re friends, Harry. Anyway, yeah, so… I saw this… woman. She… I don’t even really know what she looked like, it was like, to me, her features were sort of… blurred. And she had this dark shroud around her, all around her body, and when she spoke her voice was sort of doubled. And she was pregnant. She was talking to some people—I couldn’t see them, but she was saying how she was awake now, and to continue their good work in preventing discovery, because the ‘time was drawing near’.

“Then she sort of… snapped at someone else, said they’d been ‘reckless and cowardly’, and she cast Crucio.” Neville looks down, swallows. “I felt… I can’t even describe it. It felt bad, though. And then she said that he would be responsible for gathering the final ingredients, and…”

Harry leans forward and he grasps Neville’s arms, firm enough to make Neville look back up. “Neville,” he says. “It’s okay.”

“It’s not,” Neville whispers. And, no, it’s not. None of this is okay, and Harry’s mind is already spinning, trying to figure out what to do. He can’t imagine how Neville must have been feeling these past few days, with no one to tell, nothing to do at all. What a mess.

“Keep going, then,” Harry says, and he lets his hands slide down so that he’s grasping Neville’s wrists instead, but he doesn’t let go. Whatever comfort the presence of his slim hands might offer, he’ll offer it.

“Okay.” Neville looks at Harry for a moment more, studying his face, then finally says, “And then she said, Fail me again, Wormtail, and you will pay the price.”

Harry closes his eyes. He feels, almost like a dam breaking, the boundary his Occlumency placed between his emotions and his thinking fall apart, and he bows his head, trembling. He can feel Neville turning his wrists in Harry’s grasp to grip back, so that they’re holding tight to one another. Harry doesn’t cry, but he feels his eyes burn, and he holds them tightly shut until he’s able to take a few deep breaths and patch up his inner rooms again, shutting the door on the Mirror room. Then he has to shift to another part of his consciousness and build a new room, this one large and blank, because the rage he feels is too much, too specific, to put anywhere else, and too toxic to keep with his grief and his loneliness in the Mirror room. He slams that door hard, knowing that it’s only a temporary measure, that he’ll have to sort it better soon, but it’s enough: he’s calm again. He opens his eyes to find Neville looking at him helplessly, his brown eyes wide and scared.

“Are you okay?” Neville asks.

Harry shakes his head. “But Occlumency’s enough to keep me from cracking.”

“That’s a good idea,” Neville says, and closes his eyes for a moment as well. It doesn’t take as long as Harry had thought his own reorganization had taken, but buried in his own focus as he had been, he can’t be sure. When Neville emerges, he too looks more composed, and he sighs. “I’m not as good at Occlumency as you, I don’t think—at least not for dealing with my emotions. I saw your face just then, Harry, and then it all just… went away. I don’t think I could do that.”

Harry shrugs. It’s what he has to do, because he needs to be calm right now. If he had his way, he’d be calm all the time. Much as he wants to shout and rage and break things and hunt down Peter Pettigrew and tear him apart, he can’t do that right now, and he’s a Slytherin. He needs to keep it together—especially when Neville is here, and so clearly upset. He has to be here for his friend. “You can learn,” Harry says.

“I’m not sure I want to,” Neville murmurs, and then shakes his head hard, as if shaking away a fly. “What should we do?”

“Was there anything else you saw? Anything we could use?”

“Not really.” Neville glances to the side as he does when he’s wracking his memory for some detail while studying; it’s such a familiar expression that even in this context it makes Harry smile a little. “Everything was sort of fuzzy around the edges, like radio with a bad connection—I could see the woman, I knew she was… indoors somewhere, maybe a house? And there were… I think three other people. But I couldn’t see any of them, I just sort of knew they were there.”

“Okay,” Harry says. “Okay.” He rubs his face briefly, nearly knocking off his glasses; that doesn’t really matter. He rights them absently on his face, and then says, “We have to tell someone, but… I don’t know who.”

“The Headmaster?” Neville suggests. “I know he’s in the castle.”

“Yeah,” Harry says. He’s still not sure he entirely trusts Dumbledore, but he knows he’s probably the most capable wix in the castle. “I guess so.”

Neville sighs. “I just… if I am seeing visions of Voldemort, do I try to make them stop? But… what if I saw something important? Something useful?”

That’s a hard question. Harry’s impulses war with each other as he considers how to answer: the growing Slytherin impulse, the one that says to take whatever advantage you can get, to take shameless advantage; and the protective impulse in him, maybe a Gryffindor one, maybe more like a Hufflepuff one if he’s being honest, the impulse that tells him to preserve his friend’s safety even if it means giving up an advantage. If Neville is seeing Voldemort, that might mean Voldemort can get into Neville’s head, and that’s bad. Harry doesn’t want to see Neville get hurt.

“I don’t know,” Harry says finally. “I don’t know what the risks are. Hopefully Dumbledore will tell us.”

“Of course,” Neville says. He takes a long, deep breath, nearly a sigh, and then says, “What if he doesn’t?”

Frowning, Harry says, “I wondered the same thing, but… I thought you trusted him.”

“I do,” Neville says with a shrug. “I mean, I trust him to want the best possible outcome for everyone. But he doesn’t always… share information. My gran has talked about that a bunch—Dumbledore likes to hold all the cards, she says, and doesn’t like to show his hand to anyone, even his allies.”

Harry, who has gotten the same impression even with much less experience of the Headmaster, nods. “So if he doesn’t tell us, we’ll have to ask someone else. I don’t think this is the sort of thing we can look up in the library. Or we try to handle it ourselves.”

At that, Neville immediately shakes his head firmly. “No, this is too big—even if no one will help me, I still at least have to share the information I might get from these visions, right? If they continue? So we have to tell someone.”

“Dumbledore first,” Harry says. “Then we could try Sirius. Or… or Snape.”

“Snape?”

“Yeah,” Harry says. “Remember, he offered me some extra lessons in Occlumency. He said he was a master too, like Sirius or Dumbledore, but differently from them. Maybe he’ll have some advice.”

“I don’t want to ask him,” Neville says, sounding nervous. “I don’t know if I could learn from him like I can from Sirius.”

“Alright,” Harry says reluctantly. “But I could talk to him, at least. Even if you don’t take lessons from him, maybe I could pass on whatever he says.”

“Sure.” Neville lets out a short breath. “Yeah, that would be better.”

“Okay.” Harry sits back then again lets go of Neville’s wrists, finally, and he stretches. They’ve been sitting on the hard stone floor long enough that it’s started to get a bit uncomfortable, and he scoots back to uncross his legs, then decides to stand up all the way. He offers a hand to Neville to help him get up, which his friend takes. “We should go now.”

Neville agrees, and the two of them set off, trotting along the corridors toward the entrance to Dumbledore’s office. Harry, as he has gotten into the habit of doing, catalogues the hallways and doors they pass as they go; his mental map of Hogwarts is larger and more complex all the time, and if his earlier experiment with locking away his anger—still seething behind its shut door—is anything to go by, he’ll soon need many more mental rooms to successfully hide his thoughts and feelings so deep that no one will ever find them. Hogwarts is complex and maze-like even in real life, but he’s determined that his mental version of it will be truly labyrinthine. The Mirror room and the library are already there, of course—the former for his grief, the latter for school knowledge—and the rage room, but he wants soon to have all his thoughts and memories and emotions divided up and squirrelled away into hidden corners and behind locked doors. And, he thinks, behind passworded areas: this occurs to him when they arrive at Dumbledore’s gargoyle and both he and Neville realize as one that they don’t have the password.

They stand there a moment, exchanging an uncertain glance, and then the rumble of shifting stone alerts them to the fact that the gargoyle is moving. It bends its long neck to look at them, and then steps aside, opening the way to the rising spiral staircase. Harry and Neville both hurry to climb onto the steps before they can get too high, and ride the staircase up; it’s only a few seconds more before they’re arriving at the simple wooden door that hides Dumbledore’s office from view. From within, a voice calls, “Come in, Mr. Longbottom, Mr. Potter.”

Neville presses the latch on the door and opens it, and the two of them step side-by-side into Dumbledore’s office. Harry is struck all over again by the quantity of knick-knacks and thingamabobs sitting in a clutter on every surface, many of them gleaming gold or silver, others moving or projecting light. It’s dazzling, even in the fading afternoon light that shines in through the tall windows to the left. And, of course, Dumbledore himself, sitting behind his broad dark wood desk in a high-backed chair; his robes today are a rich dark purple with swirling silver patterns like smoke. It’s impossible to tell if they move on their own, or if it’s an illusion created by the way his robes shift when he moves his arms. And behind him, the towering wall of portraits of past headmasters, rising above a built-in bookshelf; many curious faces peer down at them from on high as they approach the desk.

Dumbledore has his hands folded on top of his disk and a patiently inquiring look on his face, but he doesn’t wait for them to speak before he says, “What can I help you boys with on this fine Christmas afternoon?”

Harry and Neville trade a look, and then Harry shrugs to indicate that Neville should go ahead and speak, which he does.

“I… I think I had a vision,” he says.

There’s a shift in Dumbledore’s expression—something subtle moving under the surface of the frown that appears. “What sort of vision?” he asks.

“I think I saw Voldemort,” Neville says. He sounds more nervous that he did earlier, and he sounded very nervous then, but he recounts what he told to Harry earlier, including all of the details that he can remember. Dumbledore listens carefully to the whole thing, his frown growing as he does until his brow is furrowed. His eyes, though, are still sharp behind his half-moon spectacles, right up until Neville finishes; then Dumbledore closes his eyes briefly and sits back in his chair, his hands coming to rest on its arms, and he sighs.

“I had hoped…” he murmurs to himself, and then he shakes his head and opens his eyes again to fix them both with his bright gaze. “Alas, for we live in dark times indeed. I had hoped to protect you—you both—from this more effectively, or at least for longer.”

Harry and Neville exchange another glance. “It’s war,” Harry says, after a moment. “No one’s safe. We just need to know what to do now.”

Dumbledore nods. “Indeed; you are a very practical young man, Mr. Potter. I wonder, if you would—what would you do in this situation?”

Harry blinks, taken aback. “I… I don’t know, sir. I mean, if Neville can find something out about where Voldemort is and what he’s doing, maybe we can stop all this before it starts. But Sirius warned us about how dangerous Legilimency can be, if that’s what this is, or if it’s something worse… well, we learned Occlumency because we know how bad it can be to have someone else get into your head. So I don’t want anything bad to happen to Neville, even if it means losing the information.”

Dumbledore gives him a long look. Almost, Harry wants to squirm, but he restrains himself. He knows he’s being evaluated, that what he was just asked was probably a test, but he doesn’t know what he was being tested for. He hopes he passed.

“Well reasoned,” Dumbledore says, finally. “Indeed, it is a difficult balance—but I will insist that we protect Mr. Longbottom’s safety first and foremost.” He looks over at Neville and offers him a gentle smile. “Although I am confident in your ability to provide useful information, I would much prefer that you not be at risk. If indeed Voldemort does have some manner of link to your mind, we must take all measures that we can to prevent him from becoming aware of it and attempting to use it against you.

“For now,” he continues, “go on in your lessons with Professor Black. He seems to have been a good teacher for you. However, I will ask that your progress be assessed from time to time by a third party, either myself or Professor Snape—Severus is a highly proficient Legilimens and more familiar with Voldemort’s methods than I, so perhaps would be the better choice.”

Neville looks a bit crestfallen, but nods. “Okay, though… I don’t think Professor Snape likes me much.”

Dumbledore’s smile widens. “Unfortunately, your professor does not like very many people at all. However, I am confident in your ability to work with him on this topic—it is, after all, of vital importance. I will impress that much upon him, as well.”

“What about me, then?” Harry cuts in, and then realizes he’s been rude and says, “Sorry, sir.”

“Not a problem, my dear boy,” Dumbledore says. “You should continue your Occlumency training as well. It is not so vital for you, but still a very useful skill to have. Sirius is an adequate teacher, certainly, though of course you may also seek tutelage from Professor Snape if you believe he would grant it.”

Harry shrugs, unwilling to admit that Snape had already offered his help. “I’ll ask,” he says.

“Excellent,” Dumbledore says, still smiling. It’s a little unnerving, given the seriousness of the conversation, though Neville seems to find Dumbledore’s unperturbed manner soothing; he’s relaxed considerably as the conversation has gone on. “I wish the two of you the best of luck. Please, feel free to contact me again if there is any further information, or anything that you believe I might be able to assist with—for now, I find myself needing to reach out to the teams searching for Voldemort, including Sirius and Remus,” he says, with a nod of his head toward Harry, “thanks to your information, Neville. Anything helps, of course; now, however, you must worry about safeguarding your thoughts, and the rest of us will concern ourselves with the information game.”

Harry and Neville both nod, and, as the implied dismissal was fairly clear, make their way out of Dumbledore’s office. They ride the spiral staircase back down and the gargoyle shuffles back into place behind them, and then Neville rubs fiercely at his face with his hands until his cheeks are pink from it.

“I… I need to go outside,” he says. “I need some air.”

Harry nods. “D’you need company?”

“If you want.”

Harry considers it for a moment, and then decides, “If it’s alright, I’m going to go back down to the dungeons. I think I’d better talk to Snape now, rather than later.”

“Good idea.” Neville turns to Harry and, out of the blue, throws his arms around him. The hugs is over as quickly as it began, before Harry can marshal himself to hug back, and he blinks at his friend.

“What was that for?”

“Just… thanks, for all this, Harry. I was scared, but I feel a lot better now.”

I don’t, Harry thinks, but decides not to say it. If anything, he feels more scared than ever. But he understands well enough where Neville is coming from, and he doesn’t want to put his anxieties on his friend’s shoulders; Neville has plenty to worry about already. “Of course,” he says, instead. “Enjoy your walk, okay?”

“Yeah. Good luck with Snape.”

Harry snorts. “Thanks. I’ll need it.”


Snape’s office door is closed when Harry arrives, which is the usual state of affairs and to be expected, but a minute after he knocks a voice, already sounding irritated, calls from within for him to enter. He pushes open the heavy door and makes his way down into the office proper, finding that it’s as dimly-lit and crowded as ever, though still filled with interesting things—if he dared to take his attention away from the professor enough to stare at them. However, Snape is already looking up from whatever he had been working on when Harry steps into his line of sight, and is immediately caught by his glare.

“What, Potter?” he demands, as Harry approaches the desk. “Is it not enough for you to waste my time during the school term?”

He’s in an awful mood. Wonderful. Harry restrains a sigh and says, “I apologize, sir, but I thought you might appreciate a head’s up before the Headmaster ambushes you with the news later on today.”

“What news?”

“Neville had a vision,” Harry says, then clarifies, “of Voldemort. Dumbledore wants him to step up his Occlumency, and have his progress verified by someone else—yourself, sir.”

“Oh, brilliant,” Snape sneers, leaning back in his chair to look down his long nose at Harry. “Yet more time pandering to the Boy-Who-Lived and his inability to master basic concepts.”

“Occlumency isn’t basic,” Harry points out. “And Neville’s doing pretty well, or at least Sirius says so. Dumbledore just wants you to check.”

“You will find I am a harsher judge of progress than your precious mongrel,” Snape says. He rises abruptly from behind his desk, and even with the physical barrier between them, he looms effectively enough to make Harry shrink back a little. “And what does Black have to say about your progress, Potter?”

Harry shrugs, trying for nonchalance. He can feel the tension in his shoulders, though, and knows he probably falls short of ‘unconcerned’. “Mostly the same,” he says. “It took me longer to choose a shielding construct, but I’ve got one now. I’m pretty good at using it to shut up my feelings.”

Snape gives him a dirty look, then says, “We’ll see about that.” In the next moment, his wand is in his hand; he summons it with such a swift, deft motion that Harry barely catches it, and has no time to call his own wand from its new sheath before Snape’s wand is pointed at his face. “Legilimens.”

Something stabs into Harry’s mind, brushing past the net of loose shielding Sirius had taught him and Neville to build first, a sort of early-warning system meant mostly to inform him of an intrusion more than keep anyone out. And then Snape is plunging into the halls of Harry’s internal Hogwarts, his presence blooming into Harry’s mind. There are a few seconds where he’s trapped, stuck wandering the halls, and then it feels almost as if he reaches through the walls of the construct and pulls out the first memory that comes to his grasp: Aunt Petunia looming over a younger, smaller Harry much the way Snape is now, brandishing a frying pan.

“Stop!” Harry shouts, but he doesn’t have the focus to kick Snape out using his Occlumency, he can’t slam a door that doesn’t even exist. Instead, he flicks his hand, his wand falling easily into his hand, and at the same moment raises it and cries, “Flipendo!”

The connection between them breaks, Snape forced back far enough that the backs of his knees strike his chair, and he falls into it. He shakes himself and rises again, which gives Harry just enough time to lower his wand and avert his gaze, ready for a reprimand—or a hex.

Neither comes, to his surprise. “You are clearly unpolished,” Snape says, “but you have potential. Continue refining your construct, and come to me again in two weeks. If you have not, by then, figured out for yourself how to firm the walls of your protections, we will begin work there.”

Harry risks a glance up, and finds that Snape is studying him with a much calmer look on his face than he’d had earlier. His fit of temper had been worked out, apparently, and now he just looks cool and considering.

“Your caution is warranted,” Snape says, catching Harry’s careful look. “But I will not attack you again. Not without warning, at least; I wanted to see how you did when unprepared.”

“Better than you expected, I take it,” Harry says, and then mutters, “Not that that would be hard.”

“Quite,” Snape says, to his surprise. “But from now on I will cease underestimating you, Mr. Potter.”

Harry will believe it when he sees it, but at least Snape seems to be taking him seriously now. “Thank you, sir,” he says. “I do think that Sirius is a good teacher for me, but… respectfully, he’s neither vicious nor subtle, and you’re both.”

Snape’s smile is narrow, almost cruel, but to Harry’s eye seems genuine. “Indeed,” he says. “Black can certainly teach you the basics, how to organize your mind and manage your emotions—certainly the latter is a skill he has needed in order to become Lord Black; in school he was vicious—a vicious brat with an overflowing temper. He may even be able to teach you to withstand an assault, even of the caliber the Dark Lord himself could muster. But he cannot teach you how to make an intruder believe that they have grasped your true self, when your real thoughts are still hidden.”

“And you can, sir?”

“Yes,” Snape says. “I can. You will have to earn the privilege, however.”

Harry nods. “I’ll work hard.” He knows the skill Snape is offering is of incredible value, and he’ll do whatever he needs to to learn it. The only question is… “Why are you offering this to me?”

Snape gives him another of those considering looks. His eyes are black as obsidian and gleaming, impossible to read, even more than Dumbledore; his expression is neutral. Harry’s good at reading people—he learned how to be, with the Dursleys, and honed the skill in Slytherin—but Snape is a real challenge. What might be going on in his head, what he might see when he looks at Harry, Harry can only guess.

“You are a growing power,” Snape says finally. “Do not think my silence on the topic means I am ignorant of what occurred between yourself and Draco Malfoy in the fall, and what it means for your standing in my House. It is in my best interest to keep my eye on you, Mr. Potter, Heir Black, and I intend to do so.”

“So these lessons are a way to have me under your thumb,” Harry says. It’s more than that, he knows, but Snape isn’t being so blatant about it, so Harry won’t either. “Fine, sir. Keep tabs on me if you have to.”

Snape gives him another of those thin smiles. The expression transforms his face—certainly it’s nothing like joy, which would transform him even further, Harry thinks, but a cruel or calculating smile makes something entirely different of Severus Snape than a sneer or a scowl.

“I shall,” Snape says. “And be warned now, Potter: if you use the knowledge I now offer you for ill, you will pay for it.”

Harry bows his head briefly in acknowledgement, and says, “Of course, sir; I would expect nothing less.”

“Get out. You will hear from me about when you are to return for a second assessment, and we will begin our lessons from there.” There’s a pause, and then Snape adds, “And tell Longbottom that he need not worry—I am confident that I will not be conducting the Headmaster’s little checkups. If he is so worried about the dog’s ability to teach, he can verify your mediocrity for himself.”

Harry nods. Implicit, he thinks, is to make sure that no one else knows that Snape will be providing lessons on the side. He’s not even sure if it’s a good idea to tell Sirius—he’d flip, of course, and probably forbid Harry from receiving any sort of extra tutelage from Snape, which would only mean Harry would have to be twice as careful about sneaking around as if Sirius never knew about it in the first place.

He slips out of Snape’s office and heads back to his dorm. Neville is outside, having a moment to himself; Harry wants the same, but instead of going out into the cold sun and shining snow, he goes straight to his dorm room and, impulsively, lies down on the floor, flat on his back, and watches the dancing patterns of light cast through the lake to reach their dorm room window. He has two weeks to refine his Occlumency enough to impress Professor Snape. He has a good mental construct, with a structure that he knows he can use, but he needs to make it strong, and he needs to make it complicated and deceptive—the latter will come with time and practice, he thinks, but the former…

Well. No time like the present. Harry closes his eyes and sinks into his mind, and sets himself to wander the halls of Hogwarts, determined that what he builds inside his head will be as real and as solid as the stone his back is pressed against.

Chapter Text

Term resumes on January 4th without much fanfare. Harry’s friends return, and he has cheerful reunions with Blaise and Theo, then a more relaxed greeting from Millicent. Flint snags him on the first night back and informs him that practices will be on Saturday and Thursday evenings and Tuesday mornings, which suits Harry well enough. He’ll still have time to run with Sirius most mornings, and plenty of time to play Quidditch—Slytherin’s game against Ravenclaw will be February 13th, and while the success against Gryffindor in November gives Harry confidence in their chances, there’s definitely strategy to refine. Plus, he’s happy for any time in the air.

Hermione also returns, and they manage to spend some time hanging out the day after term resumes. With Ron gone, she seems a little despondent—other than Ron and Neville and Harry himself, Hermione still doesn’t really have any friends, and Harry resolves to spend extra time with her until Ron is back. He had gotten a letter shortly before the new year saying that Ron was awake but would indeed be two or three weeks finishing his recovery before he was able to return to classes. Quietly, Harry proposes to Hermione that they sit down together to make a study plan to help Ron get back on track, which seems to cheer her up immensely.

Sirius returns as well—he looks tired and slightly haggard at dinner on the first night back, but recovers quickly and by the end of the first week is back to his usual energy in Defence class. One of their first classes back involves Sirius taking them all outside and having a massive snowball fight, practically a pitched battle, where Sirius insists that they take time to build proper fortifications and develop strategies; the class after is spend debriefing how it went and discussing what had worked and what hadn’t. It’s immensely fun and exhilarating, though the class sobers somewhat when Sirius tells them that they should all keep in mind that a real battle moves just as fast, but it would be curses, not snowballs, hitting them.

All of Harry’s other various lessons with Sirius resume, as well. Occlumency with Neville continues much as it had, but Harry has been practicing so much in his spare time and over the break in hopes of being ready for Snape that he finds the exercises Sirius sets and his testing of their shields significantly less taxing, which is something of a relief. It’s still exhausting to be fitting extra duelling practice and Occlumency and meditation and running and extra reading and whatever else Harry can think of that might be useful into every spare moment that he has. Fortunately, he does have a lot of spare minutes; the second year class schedule is fairly empty, as they don’t have many classes, and homework only takes up so much time.

It seems a little crazy to think of it that way, of course; Harry remembers September, and how much work it felt like the professors were piling onto them, but he supposes he’s adjusted. It does help that in the first two weeks of term, he spends almost every empty period with Hermione, rather than Blaise and Theo, and she’s very inclined to insist on studying; his homework gets done quickly and without much trouble, with Hermione and her brain as an available resource.

Spending time with Hermione also provides the opportunity for Neville and Harry to drag her off to an empty classroom, the same one they’d sat in last time, on the Monday of the second week, and finally fill her in on everything that had happened over the break.

She’d known, of course, about their Occlumency lessons, and congratulates them both on their achievements with their wandless magic over the break. But then Neville comes to Christmas Eve night, and his vision, and she sits solemn and still as he recounts the dream and the aftermath, including Dumbledore’s insistence on stepping up his Occlumency.

“Oh, Neville,” Hermione says, when he’s done speaking. “Are you okay?”

Neville shrugs. “I’m fine, I ‘spose. It’s not great.”

“No,” she says, and then leans forward to hug him tightly. When she sits back again, she says, “Well… I hope you’ll let me help you. I know you said there’s not much research to be done on Occlumency, and you’re right—I looked in the library because I was curious, and there’s really not much; it’s considered advanced magic, too advanced for students. But if there’s anything else…”

Abruptly, Harry has a thought, and says, “Actually, there is something.”

“Oh?” Hermione says, leaning forward.

“Yeah. First, please, do some extra practice for Defence. If we know you can take care of yourself, we can just worry about ourselves.” Harry smiles, a bit rueful. “Not that I’m not still going to worry about you a bit, but it would make me feel better to know you were able to at least fend a Death Eater off long enough for help to arrive.”

Hermione blows out a breath, her hand drifting to her pocket, where Harry knows she keeps her wand, then after a moment says, “Alright, that does make sense. Do you think Professor Black would let me join his extra lessons with you and Neville?”

“Maybe,” Harry says, shrugging. “You could ask. The other thing is… it would be good if we had some way to communicate that was subtle. If we had some way to set a meeting place and time…”

Hermione nods thoughtfully. “I can do some research. Anything that sophisticated might be beyond me right now, but if not during term, maybe over the summer… We’re still only second-years, after all; I don’t think anyone really suspects us of much.”

“No,” Harry says in agreement. “No one knows how wrapped up we are in all this Voldemort stuff except for us. Some people might assume about Neville, but… the longer no one thinks we’re prepared for war, the better off we’re going to be.”

“And it will be war,” Hermione says, a faint tremble in her voice. “You’re sure now.”

Harry and Neville both nod, trading a brief look. “I think my vision confirmed it,” Neville says. He sounds as regretful as Harry feels—he hates this, they both do. “Voldemort’s coming back, or trying. And I know Sirius is good, but with him back at Hogwarts now… I just don’t think anyone’s going to find him before he does… whatever he’s doing.”

“Something to do with the pregnant woman you saw,” Harry says, recalling suddenly the conversation he’d had with Sirius in September. “Sirius told me that a woman had gone missing, and that if she were pregnant, it meant something about what Voldemort was trying to do. Some sort of dark ritual.”

Hermione frowns. “Did he say anything else?”

“No,” Harry says, shaking his head. “Not much, anyway. Just that if they had this woman, and she was pregnant, they were probably trying a particular ritual.”

Hermione has a research sort of look on her face, and is clearly lost in thought for a moment before she says, “I’ll get a pass for the Restricted Section from Flitwick—I’ll figure out something to tell him about why I want it, and see if I can find anything.”

“If it came from one of the Black library books, you probably won’t find anything,” Harry warns. “And maybe you won’t anyway—it’s got to be really Dark, really dangerous.”

“I know,” she says. She’s got that stubborn tone in her voice, and her dark brows are drawn together. “I’ll look anyway. A pregnant woman… hm, could be something to do with birth, life… and he has the Philosopher’s Stone…”

Harry and Neville share another glance, this one commiserating, as Hermione is lost to academic mumbling. At least some things never change.


Harry spends most of the next two weeks after his conversation with Hermione trying to decide who else, if anyone, he should tell about Neville’s vision. He won’t tell Theo, even though Theo might appreciate the update, because Theo is too close to a Death Eater and doesn’t know Occlumency; the information wouldn’t be secure with him. That Harry needs to keep the information from anyone not able to protect their minds becomes doubly clear after he begins his extra Occlumency lessons with Snape. Every other week he goes down to Snape’s office, telling his friends that he’s having extra Potions tutoring, and Snape invades his mind over and over again until he’s either so exhausted and his headache is so bad that he feels like he’s about to begin bleeding from his nose or his eyes, or until he proves to Snape that he can keep out an invader even under duress. Snape also begins teaching him how to lay false tracks, to pretend that what is being seen by a Legilimens who has broken past his first level of shields is all there is to see, or how to create a fake memory that will convince like a real one, or place memories out of order to give a false impression. Harry doesn’t know how or why Snape learned any of this, and hopes he’ll never need to know it himself, but he refuses to turn down any knowledge that might help him protect himself and those he cares about. So he perseveres, even though it’s a thousand times worse than that first month of Occlumency with Sirius—and he thought his headaches had been bad then.

It’s difficult at times to force himself to continue to think that way, to set aside his own discomfort and to ignore how much he loves his friends and just… calculate everything. But Snape has taught him that, too: that when push comes to shove, the only way to keep someone out of your head is to be able to categorize, and put up walls so strong, so sturdy, that nothing can break through, not even his own feelings. That means thinking about his own memories coldly, thinking about everything coldly. He hates it, but it allows him to decide who he should and should not tell about Voldemort.

He makes the same calculation he’d made about Theo about Blaise and Millicent, but the two of them are easier: Blaise knows what’s going on, and he’s Harry friend, but he doesn’t seem to want to be involved. Millicent, too, is a neutral, and while she’s friendly, Harry isn’t sure they’re actually friends. So while dismissing them feels just as callous, it’s easier than with Theo, who Harry knows is in danger. If Voldemort really does return, and Theo’s dad goes back to being a Death Eater, and Theo doesn’t play along… or even if he does, anything could happen. Harry knows he’s afraid. They’re all afraid.

Finally, he decides there’s one person he can and even should tell. He checks with Sirius first, at one of their Saturday evening talks, but Sirius agrees: Harry needs to talk to Gemma. He doesn’t know how much, if anything, she knows about the state of the war, whether she even knows if there’s a war for there to be a state of, but she’s the leader of the upper-year faction within Slytherin that’s aligned itself with him. Although her closest circle of friends is Warrington, Higgs, and Hussain, Harry knows that she has influence with others personally and through her inner circle. She’ll be better positioned to feel out the currents in Slytherin, she’ll know who Harry should be keeping an eye on if Voldemort does return, and he doesn’t think she’s a supporter of the Dark Lord or likely to become one, which means she’s safe. Hopefully.

So, the following Wednesday, Harry snags her about a half hour before his Occlumency lesson with Sirius and asks her, “Farley? Would you mind walking me up to the Defence classroom? I’ve a meeting with Professor Black.”

“Sure,” Gemma says, and rises from the couch where she’d been reading, curled against Hussain. She knows full well, of course, that Harry knows how to get to the Defence classroom and that he doesn’t need an escort, but if either of them gets asked about it they’ll make up an excuse and inform the other. “Now?”

He nods. “Thank you.”

They set out through the hidden entrance together and head for the stairs, and then, once they’ve reached the first floor, Harry glances around to check if anyone followed them. No one seems to have, but he waits until they’ve turned a corner before he grabs Gemma’s sleeve and tugs her behind a tapestry of a forest in winter into a hidden passage that will get them up to the third floor.

Startled, she yanks her arm away from his grasp, but relaxes when she realizes where he’s brought her. “Fascinating,” she says. “How did you find this, Harry?”

He throws a smile over his shoulder, leading the way up the narrow stone steps of the passage. “I’ve got to have some secrets,” he says. “But not too many—which is what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Alright,” she says, bland in the way that’s he’s learned means she’s feeling cautious. He comes to the end of the passage and peers out carefully from behind the tapestry, this one of an ocean, that guards the other end, and when he sees that the coast is clear, he darts out, Gemma on his heels. They’ve come out quite close to the Defence classroom, but he pulls her into an empty room nearby instead and closes and locks the door behind them. This room is fairly dust-free, a few tables and chairs set up; Neville and Harry have used it as study space before or after one of Sirius’s lessons in the past, and Harry knows from experience that other students use it sometimes as well. He doesn’t want to be interrupted.

“Allow me,” Gemma says, and draws her wand. She points it at the door, and mutters, “Muffliato.”

A faint buzzing noise begins, fairly loud near the door but quieter further away, and she frowns at it a little, then shrugs. “It’ll do,” she sighs.

“Better than anything I know,” Harry offers. “Is that so we won’t be overheard?”

“Yes,” she says. “You mentioned secrets; I thought it was prudent.”

“Yeah.” He swallows and goes over to one of the tables, but doesn’t sit down; he leans against it, tries to brace for her reaction, and says, “It’s about Voldemort.”

What?” Gemma says, turning to give him an incredulous look.

“I know I sound mad,” Harry says. “Please, just hear me out a moment. I don’t know what you know or don’t know about what’s going on—”

“You-Know-Who is dead, Harry,” Gemma says. “Longbottom killed him, remember? He’s your bloody friend, I’d hope you do.”

Harry shakes his head. “He’s not. I mean, Voldemort’s not dead, not Neville’s not my friend—Neville is definitely my friend, which is why this is partly my problem. And it’s my problem Voldemort sent Bellatrix Lestrange after my parents; he’s the reason they’re stuck rotting in Saint Mungo’s.”

“He was killed,” Gemma whispers. “He was destroyed, blasted to ash. There wasn’t even a body.”

Harry gives her a solemn look, and says, “If the mess with Peter Pettigrew at Halloween was anything to go by, it’s ‘never assume they’re dead unless you see the body’.”

“Peter—hells.” Gemma buries her face in her hands for a moment. Then she looks up, composed once more. “Why should I believe any of this, Potter?”

“Why would I lie?” he refutes.

She looks slightly stymied by that, and then scowled. “Fine, points to you I suppose. If you just wanted a panic you’d be shouting about this in the common room, not sneaking off with me.”

“Exactly,” Harry says. “Actually, a panic is the last thing I want. Well, no—the last thing I want is the children of Death Eaters who I know are in our House to write home telling their parents that Voldemort is on the cusp of rising again, maybe, and that Harry Potter knows about it. That would get me killed.”

“You’re not wrong,” Gemma says. She strides over to the table and slumps down into one of the chairs, rests her elbows on the surface, and cradles her head in her hands for a moment. “Bloody hell, Harry.”

“I’m sorry, Gemma,” he says. He goes to sit down across from her then, and when she raises her head, he meets her eyes. He knows that to her he must look like a child. He is a child. “I’m… I knew I had to tell someone, because I can’t manage the politics among the upper years, and I can’t monitor what’s going on, what people are whispering about. But you can, and if there’s any hint that anyone is connected to someone who knows where Voldemort is…”

“You need to know,” she says. “I take it you’re reporting to Professor Black?”

Harry nods. “Whatever I can find out, which hasn’t been much. If not for Neville, we wouldn’t even know for sure what Voldemort is doing; he’s lying low, and even hunting all summer and during the break, Sirius can’t find a hint of him.”

“Alright,” Gemma says. She brings her hands down to lie flat on the table, but she traces patterns with twitches of her fingertips as she speaks. “So, you know that Voldemort isn’t dead, and that he’s… what, seeking to rise again? How literally are you talking?”

Harry shrugs. “Well, we know a few things. First, he’s got to be some sort of spirit thing right now,” he says, and puts up one finger. “We know that because he was possessing Quirrell last year. Second, we know that he’s got resources: he managed to steal an artifact from Dumbledore via said possession, and we think he’s going to use it to bring himself back to a real body of some sort,” he puts up another finger. “Third, we know that he’s using some sort of Dark ritual involving a pregnant woman. Sirius won’t tell me anything, but Hermione’s basically got an open pass to the Restricted Section, and she said she’d look. But even if we don’t find it, we at least know that Voldemort has this woman captive and we think he’s possessing her,” he puts up a third finger. “And fourth, and last I guess, he’s got at least one follower—like I said, Peter Pettigrew—but we’re reasonably sure there are at least two other unknowns.”

“How do we know?”

Harry nod toward her and puts down his fingers. “Neville had a vision over Christmas. Dumbledore thinks he and Voldemort are connected somehow, so Neville’s learning Occlumency—please don’t tell anyone that. But before he got his shields properly set up, he saw Voldemort in the form of this woman speaking to some followers that Neville couldn’t see, and one he could say for sure was Pettigrew.”

Gemma seems to digest that for a moment, and then she says, “Well.” Then she stops again, thinks some more, and finally continues, “Well then. I… alright. I believe you; I’m not sure anyone would make this sort of thing up. Quirrell? Honestly. Mad. So… what would you have me do, exactly?”

Harry hesitates a moment, and then waggles his hand in the air in an uncertain motion. “Sort of up to you, I s’pose. This is one of the things I wanted to talk to you about. You know the older Slytherins much better than me, so how’s best to keep an eye on things is more something you’d know.”

“Right,” Gemma says. “I assume you want to know if anyone starts talking like some sort of baby Death Eater.”

“That, or if they say anything about their parents acting weird,” Harry says. “I… I don’t want to assume that everyone in our House is okay with Voldemort. Or that just because their parents are Death Eaters, they will be.”

Gemma gives him a compassionate look. He hadn’t been implying anything specific, and he’d meant what he’d said, so he wonders for a moment what she might be imagining. But then she says, “Theo?”

“You know about his dad?” Harry asks, startled. He hadn’t thought, from things both Sirius and Theo had said, that it was public knowledge.

Gemma makes a sort of half-shrug-half-nod motion. “My family runs in certain circles where some things were known. That Theodore Nott Senior is a real piece of work is one of them.”

“That’s the impression I got,” Harry admits. “I’m… trying to help Theo. But for his safety, I probably shouldn’t say much about it.”

“Fair enough.” Gemma rubs her fingers against the tabletop, as if distracting herself with the texture. “What else? Just watching?”

“For the moment, I guess,” Harry says. “And… I thought you should know. Your discretion if you tell anyone else, but probably best to keep this… mostly quiet for now, right?”

“I’d imagine so,” she says. “That’s fine by me. I’ll tell Ayesha, but… well, I love Cassius, but his family is very traditional, and I don’t know where they fell in the last war. Terence isn’t much safer—he’s a nice guy, but he’s a bit of a blabbermouth if he thinks he can trust people, and besides, his Family is vassal to Greengrass. They might be Grey, but they definitely fell closer to the Death Eater crowd.”

That’s not something Harry had observed, really, but he supposes that Gemma is Higgs’s friend much more than he is. The political tidbits he files away, to discuss with Sirius at their next Saturday meeting. “Okay,” he says. “If that’s what you think is best.” When she nods, he continues, “I’m not sure… that there’s anything else right now, really. But if you have any questions…”

She shakes her head. “I’ll come to bother you if I have any, or send a note with a school owl, or some such. Plenty of excuses when I’m a Prefect and you’re a troublemaker,” Gemma says, and winks. It’s a little less cheerful than her usual sly expression, but she’s trying; Harry gets it. “Thank you for telling me, Harry.”

“I want to keep as many people safe as I can,” he replies, “and that means telling some of them, and not telling others, and… a lot of decisions that I don’t want to make, but I sort of have to. I think we’re not going to be able to stop him. I think Voldemort’s going to come back. So we’re going to war.”

“Some people will die,” Gemma says softly. “Or be terribly hurt. You’re not responsible for that. Even less so for having done what you could.”

“I know,” Harry says, nodding. “Thanks, Gemma.”

“Thank you.” She gets up out of her chair then and comes around to table, then stoops to hug him briefly around the shoulders. He hugs her back, clinging to his older friend for only a few moments before they draw apart again, and she offers him a wry twist of lips in place of a smile. “I’d better get you to Professor Black, hm? Keep up the ruse, and all.”

He agrees, and the two of them slip out of the classroom once Gemma has undone her muffling enchantment. Sirius’s classroom is only a few doors down, and Gemma leaves him there with a wave and a wan smile, then trots back toward the dungeons—probably, Harry thinks, she wants to be back with Hussain as soon as possible. He can sort of relate, wanting to be with the people one cares about and all; he slips into the classroom and makes a beeline for Sirius’s office, determined to have a hug before their lesson.


The week leading up to the Slytherin-Ravenclaw Quidditch match is a bit mad, not so much because of the Quidditch, but because that same weekend is Valentine’s Day. Everyone above third year is all in a twitter about dating—or so it seems, anyway. Some people manage to keep their heads: everyone Harry’s age, at least, though there’s certainly some excitement among Harry’s friends because Ron returns on the last day of January. The pleasure of having him back, not to mention Hermione’s academic fervour for getting him caught up, lingers for the whole two weeks leading up to the game. Other than them, though, it feels like everyone except those in the upper years either totally disinterested in dating (Higgs, Flint), or who are already in committed relationships (Gemma, Hussain) loses their bloody minds. Even the Weasley twins, though they’re mostly just having a riot of a time making fun of everyone else.

Harry doesn’t remember it being this bad last year, but then last year he’d been a bit of a social outcast and focused on worrying about himself and his own place at Hogwarts and starting to learn magic and the possibility of going to live with Sirius and… well, a lot of things; he thinks he can be forgiven for not having noticed. At least Quidditch practices are going on as normal, and Harry feels like the Slytherin team has begun to gel quite nicely by now. As the Seeker, he doesn’t play as closely in tandem with the rest of the team, but his awareness of all of them has gotten a lot better, and they’ve grown used to his search patterns and the way he flies when in a chase that there’s no risk at all of any crashes any more, and indeed, Flint has designed a few plays that involve opening a corridor on the field for Harry to make a dive, should anyone, on their team or the other, be in between him and the Snitch at a crucial moment.

With all that in mind, Harry’s rather excited for the game. He doesn’t feel nervous, as perhaps he should—this is only their second game, after all. But he knows the team is good and that he’s good, and from what Flint has said, Harry’s fairly confident that he can manage to outfly Ravenclaw’s third year Seeker, Cho Chang, and that the rest of the team can keep Ravenclaw from outscoring them.

The day of the game dawns cold and clear. A Saturday, of course, but Harry doesn’t sleep in—he never really sleeps in. He gets up and brushes his teeth and gets dressed, and then trots up out of the dungeons to snag a fast breakfast of eggs on toast and some slices of apple before heading out to the entrance hall. A familiar shaggy black dog is already waiting for him, sitting patiently by the door, and Padfoot’s tail begins wagging when Harry approaches and bends over to give him a hug.

“Morning, Pads,” he says, and then the two of them set out into the cool morning for a brief run. Harry takes it at a slower pace than usual, not wanting to strain himself right before a game, but feels pleasantly warmed up and ready for anything when they leave off their run just outside the Quidditch pitch. He waves Padfoot off, but is not allowed to go join his teammates in the locker room for prep before Padfoot jumps up to land his paws on Harry’s shoulder and thoroughly lick his face. Harry, laughing, pushes him away and wipes his face off on his robe sleeve before bidding Padfoot goodbye and heading for the locker rooms.

It’s still early when he arrives, but Flint is already there, sitting on the floor of the locker room and stretching. Harry goes to join him quietly, and the two of them sit in silence until the rest of the team arrives after having grabbed breakfast at a somewhat more normal hour. A few players shower before they all get up and change, and then finish their warm ups together. Finally, once everyone is ready and the sounds of chatter are beginning to filter in from the stands above them as students file out to the pitch, Flint waves to gather them all in.

“We’re ready,” he says. “We had no problems with the Gryffs in November, keep that in your heads. The Ravenclaws are less aggressive, we’ve prepped for them, and I’m sure Potter can handle Chang. Don’t fuck up and we’ll be fine.”

There are a number of rolled eyes at this typically taciturn speech, but when Flint puts his hand in, no one hesitates to do the same. He bobs his hand three times, and then together they all throw up their hands and shout, “Slytherin!”

And then they turn and prepare to file out when called: Flint first as Captain, then the other Chasers, the Beaters, their Keeper, and finally Harry at the end. The level of chatter and noise from above increases until Harry is sure that the whole school must be out there, waiting for them, and then the blow of a whistle summons them out onto the field. They stride out in single-file, all holding their brooms and dressed proudly in green and silver, and meet the Ravenclaws in their blue and bronze in the middle of the field, Madame Hooch standing between them with the Quidditch chest at her feet.

“Alright,” she says, once they’ve all come to a stop and the captains have shaken hands; somewhere high above, in the staff box, Lee Jordan is announcing the names of the players and commenting on the clear flying conditions. “No funny business up there today. Best of luck to you both. Mount up, Ravenclaw, Slytherin.”

The players all step back and mount, and at the sound of the whistle launch into the air, settling into formation—Flint and one of the Ravenclaw Chasers hover just a little lower than the rest, ready to catch the Quaffle when Madame Hooch lofts it, though clear of the release of the Bludgers. Which, indeed, she sets free shortly after, the black balls hurtling into the air; the next moment, she picks up the Quaffle and tosses it. And then she raises her other hand and releases the shining gold speck that is the Golden Snitch; it’s gone in a moment, darting away to hide until it decides the game has gone on long enough, or however the enchantment works. Harry rises high and sets himself into his search pattern, letting the screaming of the crowd and Lee’s commentary fade into the background, fixing his attention on the green below, the colour and movement of the players, and Chang’s position.

There are the Bludgers to watch out for too, of course, but Harry does his best to make sure he’s within relatively close range of one of the Beaters at all times, and to keep an eye out for the black balls if Bole and Derrick are otherwise occupied; he’s swift enough to dodge well, at least, and he has no qualms about throwing his weight around on his broom to get clear in a pinch. Fortunately, this time around the Bludgers aren’t much of a threat. In the game against Gryffindor, Harry had needed to be quite careful—the Weasley twins were a formidable Beater team and had had no compunctions about aiming directly for him. The Ravenclaws are either less effective or less vicious; Harry only really has to contend with the Bludgers rocketing by unaimed, on their own power, which is much easier to dodge than a shot aimed straight for his head.

The game goes on close to two hours, and the score is over two hundred each (well over, in the case of the Ravenclaws; their Chaser team is better co-ordinated than they had been in previous games, from what Harry can tell) when Harry spots a distant glint of gold. It’s almost directly below Chang, who’s a few dozen feet below Harry himself; if he hadn’t glanced down to check on her position, he wouldn’t have spotted it. As it is, she has a significant advantage on location… but she doesn’t seem to see it hovering, and she’s not watching him at the moment, her attention focused over by the Slytherin goalposts. It’ll be a risky maneuver, but Harry’s willingness to take a risk is why Flint had picked him over Malfoy, so he adjusts his grip and leans close to his broom, pulls his feet up, trying to make the move look casual, as if he’s only readjusting his position, so no one notices before he’s completely set—and then, as abruptly as he can, he tucks the nose of his broom and dives.

“And there goes Potter!” shouts Lee, his voice magnified to booming, as Harry races downward; within seconds he’s close enough to touch Chang, blazing past so close that her robes flap in the wind generated by his passing. She jerks her broom to the side with a startled cry, but he doesn’t need the space; he’s already gone. “Looks like he’s diving for the Snitch—I don’t see the thing at all! Look at him go!”

Lee doesn’t need to see it, Harry thinks. He can see it, hovering below. He gets close before it seems to detect his approach and darts into its own dive. He glances back as quickly as he can; yes, Chang is on his tail, though a little ways distant. Then he looks back, and watches the Snitch. He’s getting closer and closer, but so is the ground. Forty feet away, and then thirty, twenty… if it doesn’t pull up, Harry’s going to end up catching it at the same moment he slams headfirst into the ground at full speed.

“Potter!” he hears Chang shout above him, and thinks she must have stopped, levelled out, but no. He can do this.

Less than ten feet from the ground, the Snitch darts suddenly to the left. Harry barely manages to pull up in time, his knees brushing the grass as he turns and reaches for it—almost, almost. He pulls his body forward and stretches, feels himself lose his balance at the same time as his fingers close around the Snitch. He tumbles forward off his broom, feels his legs get tangled in it. Then he hits the ground hard, still close to full speed; he tucks his arms close, hunches his head to protect it, and tries to roll, but his legs are still tangled—for a moment. Then the tip of his broom strikes the ground, gets caught, and the broomstick is wrenched away. He feels a sharp pain in one of his ankles, goes rolling across the ground in a way he knows will leave bruises, and finally comes to a stop.

There’s a breathless half-second where Harry lies curled on his side, trying to figure out if all of his body parts are still attached, and then he rolls painfully onto his back and thrusts his fist into the air, still clutching the Snitch.

“He’s got the Snitch!” Lee is nearly screaming from the box on high. Harry’s vision is a bit blurry from shock and the increasing awareness of pain in his ankle, but he can hear that loud and clear. “Harry Potter has caught the Snitch, and took a real tumble doing it! The absolute madman! Slytherin wins the game, 380 to 290, thanks to that incredible catch! I repeat, Harry Potter, Slytherin Seeker, has caught the bloody Snitch!”

“Lee!” comes McGonagall’s voice. “Language!”

“You know I’m right, Professor!” Lee shouts back. The audience is screaming too. Harry can’t see, but he can imagine them on their feet. “The crowd goes wild! An amazing end to the game, after that death-defying dive—and here comes Madame Hooch to check on our completely cuckoo snake Seeker!”

Sure enough, Madame Hooch appears in Harry’s field of vision a moment later, and she says, “Mr. Potter? Are you conscious?”

“Yes, Madame Hooch,” he says. “Though I think I’d better not sit up.”

“Sure enough,” she says, and gently pries the Snitch out of his fingers—he has trouble forcing his hand to let it go, but after a moment she manages to take it back and pocket it. “Where does it hurt, lad?”

“Sort of everywhere,” Harry says, a bit muzzy. “But mostly my ankle.”

“Alright then,” she says. She prods gently at his ankle, and when he hisses, she makes a sympathetic tutting noise and shouts, “Mr. Flint, we’ll be needing to carry your Seeker off the field!”

“Yes, Madame Hooch,” Flint’s voice calls back, as loud as Harry has ever heard him. “The others are fetching a stretcher.”

Above, Lee is continuing his monologue: “And now Slytherin Chasers Montague and Pucey are coming onto the field with a stretcher to carry off Potter! He and Madame Hooch seem to be chatting down there—Madame! Is Potter alright?”

Harry watches Madame Hooch briefly turn away from him to offer a thumbs up toward the box, eliciting another cheer from the audience, and Lee comments, “And he’s alright! Wonderful, just fabulous that, good to know he’ll live to pull wild broomstick acrobatics another day—never seen anything like that from a Slytherin before, that’s for sure! Usually they leave that madness to the lions!”

“He’s right,” says Flint, appearing next to Madame Hooch. “Don’t try to break your neck next time, Potter. But good job.”

Harry grins up at him. “Thanks, Flint,” he says. “Think ‘m gonna pass out now.”

Flint snorts. “You go right ahead.”

Harry takes the permission and lets the encroaching dizziness carry him away, numbing him—for a while, anyway. He feels like it’s been only a few seconds when he blinks his eyes open again to find himself staring at the ceiling of the infirmary, and he makes a muffled noise of complaint when he registers the radiating ache in his ankle.

“Harry!” someone cries, and he turns his head to find Hermione, Neville, and Ron sitting on one side of his bed; when he glances the other way, he discovers Theo and Blaise there. It was Hermione who had spoken; he’d recognize her worried voice anywhere. “You’re awake!”

“Yeah,” Harry says, then groans. “Would much rather still be asleep, to be honest.”

“You’d deserve it,” Theo says sardonically. “You can have anything you want, Harry—that was some dive.”

The events of the end of the game come rushing back, and Harry breaks out in a grin. “Wasn’t it?”

“It was brilliant!” Ron crows, at the same time as Hermione says, “Oh, it was terrifying.” When Harry glances back her way, he finds Neville nodding along.

“Aren’t you supposed to be a Gryffindor?” he asks, and then rolls his eyes at her indignant look; Ron laughs. “Come on—I’m fine, aren’t I?”

“You did break your ankle,” Blaise points out.

“Indeed, Mr. Potter,” says Madame Pomphrey’s voice; Harry looks up to find her standing at the foot of his bed, having approached from elsewhere in the Hospital Wing while he was talking with his friends. “A very thorough fracture, thanks to tangling your legs with your broom. And plenty of bumps and bruises, though nothing that won’t heal right up with a bit of bruise balm and rest.”

Harry nods. “Do I have to wait for my ankle to heal?”

“Oh, no,” she says, shaking her head, and brushes past Blaise and Theo to stand at his bedside. She pulls a vial out of her pocket and places it on his bedside. “A bit of Bone Knitting Serum will do you up rightly—take it with food when your dinner arrives else you’ll sick it right back up in an hour or so. And don’t be surprised if you get a few more visitors before the afternoon’s done—you’re a bit of a celebrity at the moment, Mr. Potter.”

He nods again, grinning. He can handle being a bit of a celebrity, even if he’s got to lie here and take it and can’t join the surely excellent victory party happening in the Slytherin common room right about now. Someone will bring him a slice of treacle tart if he asks, he’d bet.

Sure enough, all of his various friends and allies from Slytherin cycle through over the course of the afternoon. After the first batch, Neville and Hermione leave, promising to return later if Harry hasn’t yet been sprung from the infirmary. Gemma brings Harry a slice of treacle tart without his even needing to ask. With her comes Hussain, and a little later Warrington and Higgs (“You’d better bloody well call me Terence after that madness, Potter!” “Only if you call me Harry, Terence.”) come up as well. Then, piecemeal, the whole Slytherin Quidditch team, and finally Millicent, who claims to have gotten tired of the carrying on in the common room and sits by his bedside for about an hour with a book. She brings him the novel he’d been in the middle of, as well, and he decides not to ask how she’d gotten into his dorm—maybe she’d asked Blaise and Theo, but somehow he suspects she has ways and means other than the obvious. She finally leaves just before dinner, waving a silent goodbye and vanishing out of the infirmary with surprisingly little sound—she always walks more quietly than he imagines given her size.

His dinner arrives at the same time as Sirius, who, grinning, settles into a chair by his bedside. “Well, you’ve sure done it,” he says, rescuing from the tray an extra plate. He must have asked the house elves to send his dinner up here with Harry’s. “That was quite the move—nearly scared the life out of me, you brat.”

“You don’t seem so scared,” Harry replies, laughing, and sits up further so that he can set the tray in his lap. His ankle twinges a little, but Madame Pomphrey had immobilized it with a spell and he doesn’t jostle it badly.

“Not now,” Sirius says. “But at the time—well. Now I know why Lily got so shirty about James making casual jokes about Quidditch injuries in sixth and seventh year, after they started dating. She never did like it, thought we didn’t take it seriously enough.”

Harry shrugs and finishes chewing his mouthful of roast beef before he says, “Well, it’s not that big a deal, right? Just a broken ankle.”

“It could have easily been a broken neck,” Sirius says, “or a fractured skull, or you could have broken both your legs, tangled with your broom like that. Scary to watch, especially for someone who cares about you.”

Harry sobers a little, considering that, and takes another bite of food to delay answering. Once he’s swallowed that, he says, “I suppose. I knew I could do it, at the time, so I didn’t… really think about it.”

“Of course not,” Sirius says, and waves a hand. “I don’t want to scare you—you know your limits, I think. I was just pointing out that it’s scary for me, not that it ought to be daunting to you.” When Harry nods and continues with his dinner, Sirius adds, “It does look like your parents did leave a little Gryffindor in you after all though, I must say. That was quite the daring trick.”

“Like I said,” Harry says, “I knew I could do it. And I wanted to win.”

“Slytherin after all.” Sirius reaches out and ruffles Harry’s hair, taking advantage of his inability to duck away, stuck under the precarious dinner tray as he is, to really muss it up. “Good on you, honestly. It was impressive, when I was done being terrified.”

“Thanks, Sirius,” Harry says, grinning once more. “I won’t promise not to do something like that again, but…”

“It’s alright,” Sirius says, leaning back a little in his chair. “I’ll just have to get used to having my heart in my throat, watching you do your thing. I trust you, kiddo.”

“Love you, Sirius.”

“Love you too.”

The two of them chat casually about the game and how the Quidditch season is going overall (Slytherin is now in the lead, and unless Hufflepuff really crushes Gryffindor in their March game and Slytherin in May, Slytherin will have the Cup for sure) as they finish their dinner, and then Sirius supervises Harry drinking down the Bone Knitting Serum before he kisses his forehead and wishes him a good night. Harry sets himself up to do a bit of homework, and about an hour after dinner, Neville and Hermione reappear, this time without Ron, and join him in studying, and then in chatting for a while before curfew draws near. Eventually, Madame Pomphrey shows up and ushers them away, double checks that Harry has drunk his potion, and then tells him that unless something odd happens, he should be alright to return to Slytherin tomorrow. He settles into the narrow hospital bed, and though it’s nothing like he’s used to, he finds himself drifting off quickly. An exciting day, to be sure; he can’t wait to get back to Slytherin tomorrow, and talk more with his friends about what fun it had been.

Chapter Text

Spring term proceeds at breakneck pace. Harry thinks it has something to do with being so busy: he feels like he has some sort of lesson or Quidditch practice or a study session every evening, as well as class every day, and homework, and plenty of social time on the weekends, now that he has what feels like a large number of friends. Of course he knows that his social circle, which is largely limited to Blaise, Theo, Hermione, Neville, Ron, and Millicent (and the lattermost only sometimes), is smaller than many others, but it’s more friends than he’d ever imagined having. And that doesn’t even include the Quidditch team, with whom he is increasingly friendly, and Gemma and her friends, who are more and more like his friends and not just his allies; he knows he’ll be sad to see them graduate in another year, or two in the case of Warrington.

Harry’s lessons proceed apace. His lessons with Snape stay as brutal, but he becomes more able to bear up under the assaults on his mind, until, at the end of March, he actually manages to redirect Snape properly, showing him a curated collection of memories rather than whatever it was Snape had been grasping for. Snape hadn’t praised him, of course, but the glint in his eye when he’d nodded his head had been praise enough. Harry has no idea how he’d stand up to a stronger or differently talented Legilimens—if there even is a stronger Legilimens than Snape, who’s really a very terrifying force to have sweeping into your mind—but he’s confident he could withstand someone of Snape’s caliber at least long enough to… try something else. Maybe. He hopes.

Easter break arrives early in April, and Sirius once again quietly informs Harry in the week before that he’ll be gone over the break, continuing the hunt for Voldemort. As with Christmas, Harry forces himself to understand, to not be disappointed; it’s easier now than it was then, with experience of this particular disappointment and with the looming knowledge that Voldemort must be getting closer and closer to restoring himself. So Harry stays at Hogwarts, and so does Neville. More people stay over Easter break than over Christmas, so the castle isn’t nearly as quiet, but the mood is studious rather than celebratory. Most of the fifth and seventh years stay to study for their upcoming exams, and Harry finds himself wandering under his Invisibility Cloak more than one evening after curfew for a little bit of solitude, often playing with his dad’s lily necklace where it hangs around his neck; he’s taken to wearing it on the nights he feels most unsettled. Hermione has been insistent about beginning exam preparations of their own, and though Harry loves her and knows she’s doing it for good reason, he doesn’t need it half as much as Ron does—not that that means he can get any peace. So he puts up with her hounding during daylight hours, spending time with her and Ron and Neville, and the mornings and evenings he spends with Blaise and Theo, catching up on chatter and gossip from Slytherin House and the political realm, and after the sun sets he goes for walks in the moonlit corridors. It helps to reinforce his Occlumency, he tells himself, and it does do that; he has a mid-week lesson with Snape that proves it, once again successfully sliding Snape’s attention to the memories Harry wants him to see, and keeps him from breaching any of the solid stone walls of his interior Hogwarts. Mostly, however, his wandering salves the restlessness he feels, knowing that Sirius is out there, hunting their shared enemy, and he’s stuck here because he’s just a kid.

Harry finds himself out later than usual on the last night of the break. It’s near eleven, and he’s wandering the seventh floor, examining the tall windows and the moon hiding behind cloud visible through them. Waning crescent, approaching half, he thinks; he’s gotten a lot better at knowing the moon phases after nearly a year of knowing Remus. A few more weeks to the full moon—but something about tonight has energy crawling along his skin anyway, twice as much as previous nights of the week. Maybe it’s that tomorrow, Easter Monday, everyone who left for the break will be returning on the train, and the school will again be noisy and filled with life; classes will resume Tuesday, and whatever peace and quiet Harry has managed to find over the break will be fully gone. Truthfully, he’s not ready to face it, and the restlessness his anxiety inspires makes him feel equally unready to face going to bed just yet. So he lets his feet carry him onward.

Eventually, he manages to get himself a bit turned around in the corridors on the fifth floor—his knowledge of Hogwarts is good, but it might be impossible to actually have perfect knowledge; he’s half convinced that the doors change sometimes, and the suits of armour definitely trade places on an irregular schedule. It’s enough to confuse even him despite his year and more of wandering, so he pulls out the Marauder’s Map, which he carries at almost all times nowadays, and tries to figure out where he is. He locates himself quickly enough—but also, to his surprise, finds the footprints labelled Neville Longbottom placed in an alcove a little ways outside the entrance to the Gryffindor common room, not tucked up in his dorm. Harry debates with himself a moment, then decides he might as well make sure his friend is okay. He wasn’t planning to go back to Slytherin quite yet, after all, so he heads that direction.

He pauses in the hallway around the corner from where Neville is and pulls off the Invisibility Cloak, and tucks it and the Map into his satchel before scuffing his feet as he approaches. Neville is tucked into the alcove, sitting on a bench in front of a curtained window, barely visible from down the hall, but Harry can tell he goes stiff at the noise. His face appears around the edge of the wall, pale in the darkness, and he lets out a sigh of relief when he sees it’s Harry approaching.

“Hey,” he says softly, once Harry is within earshot.

“Hey,” Harry replies. “Couldn’t sleep?”

Neville gives a bit of a shrug. He’s in his pyjamas, not wearing a cloak or anything. “Had a nightmare, decided I needed to get out of Gryffindor for a minute. Ron snores.”

Harry nods, understanding—he’d needed some space tonight himself, after all. “Want to talk about it?”

“Not really.”

“Yeah.” Harry glances down at the stone floor, scuffing his foot against it gently, not sure what to say.

“Want to come into the common room?” Neville asks, after a moment of silence. “It’s getting a bit chilly.”

That’s true, probably more for Neville than for Harry, who still has his shirt and trousers on from the day, and had been wrapped in a cloak only a few minutes ago. Still, the offer is a little surprising. “You sure?” he asks. “That’s definitely against the rules.”

Neville shrugs. “No one else was awake when I came down. It’ll be fine, especially if you’re with me.”

“Oho,” Harry says, a little amused, as Neville gets up out of the alcove and waves him after him toward the Fat Lady’s portrait which allows access to Gryffindor Tower. “The mighty Boy-Who-Lived going to use his clout to get his Slytherin friend into the common room?”

“That wasn’t really what I meant,” Neville says, turning his head so that Harry can see him rolling his eyes. “And you know it, you prat. Whatever, just come on, I don’t want to be caught by Snape.”

“He’s not on patrol tonight,” Harry says. “And anyway, it’s half eleven, the professors will be headed for bed themselves soon.”

“True,” Neville says, but doesn’t slow down as he walks toward Gryffindor. Harry notes that Neville isn’t wearing shoes, and smiles a little when it reminds him of his encounter with Luna Lovegood over the Christmas break—he hasn’t spoken to her since, but he’s seen her and exchanged smiles or nods a few times in the halls or at meals. He hasn’t seen her wandering barefoot again, at least.

It’s only a few minutes’ walk back to the Fat Lady, and Neville offers the password in an undertone, ignoring the portrait’s arch look at Harry—Harry suspects she might tattle on them even if they don’t get caught immediately, but decides the loss of points is worth it. Then again, she hadn’t ratted them out when Neville had snuck him in the one previous time, so maybe they’ll be fine.

Inside, everything is as red and gold as he remembered it. The fire is burning low, lending an orange light that casts everything in even warmer tones, and Harry and Neville go to sit together on the red-and-burgundy striped couch in front of the smouldering logs. Harry slides his satchel strap over his head and lets it come to rest on the floor next to him, and crosses his legs; Neville tucks his feet up under himself, probably to warm them up after going walking on the cold stone floors outside.

“Everyone’ll be back tomorrow,” Neville says, after a moment. “It seems mad that we’re so close to end of term.”

“Yeah,” Harry sighs. “It doesn’t feel real.”

“No.” There’s another brief pause, and Harry turns to stare into the fire, watching for shapes formed in the few remaining flickers of flame that flare up and dance. “D’you think Sirius will have found anything?”

Harry shrugs, still staring into the fire. “I hope so.”

“But probably not.”

“No,” Harry says, and looks back to meet Neville’s eyes, deep brown and ringed with dark circles. He’s been having worse nights than usual, Harry supposes. Then again, it’s not like Harry’s gotten much sleep this week either. “No, I don’t think he’ll have found anything. Voldemort’s been too wily for that.”

“What are we going to do?”

“If he comes back?” Harry shakes his head, looks down, and then back up. “What we have to, I guess.”

“Right.”

In Harry’s peripheral vision, the fire flickers up brighter, and he glances over—then it flares, tall and bright and green. A shadow appears even as Harry leaps to his feet; Neville does the same but stumbles briefly, his feet still caught under himself. And then the shadow materialized into a man. Narrow-faced, foxlike, haunted and hungry; Harry recognizes him immediately from a photo Sirius had shown him: Bartemius Crouch Junior, one of the Death Eaters responsible for the torture of his parents… a man supposedly imprisoned for life in Azkaban.

“Hello, boys,” Crouch says, grinning. His wand is already in his hand. Harry flicks his wrist, feels his holly wand fall into his palm, but he can’t raise it before Crouch aims and hisses, “Stupefy.

There’s a flash of red, then nothing.


Harry wakes with a headache clawing at the inside of his skull very much like the ones he gets after being stunned in a practice duel with Sirius, though much, much worse. He groans quietly, shifting, and finds that he can’t move much: there’s some force binding him tightly, keeping his arms to his sides and his legs tied together. A body bind of some sort, he guesses, though not a regular Incarcerous; he doesn’t know what it is. He’s lying on his front on a hard floor, probably stone if the chill is anything to go by—but somewhere to his left is a source of heat, radiating through him. He can hear the subdued crackle and hiss of a fire, more like the magical flames used in Potions class than that of a normal fireplace, and turns his face that direction before opening his eyes.

Directly in front of his face is a sumptuous rug, brightly coloured at one time but clearly stained with ash; perhaps he’s lying on the stone in front of a fireplace. The rest of the room is small and without windows, maybe a sitting room or a den at one time, but clearly it’s not in any normal use any more. There are no chairs or coffee tables or settees; instead, a fire is burning in the middle of the room. There are also, he thinks, a few people standing around—well, at least one, a backlit figure in front of the fire—but his glasses are askew on his face and he can’t move to adjust them.

Suddenly, a woman’s harsh cackling laugh issues from somewhere near his feet, and a pair of legs enter his field of vision. “Number two’s awake!” the woman cries in a scratchy voice, and a foot draws back and then lands hard in the middle of his ribs. Harry coughs, the wind knocked out of him, and tries to roll away; it’s difficult with his arms bound. “Wiggle wiggle, little worm!”

When he doesn’t move any further, she kicks him again, harder this time; he winces and twists his face against the floor. It’s humiliating to grind his own nose into the dirt, but it lets him get his glasses back on properly, and he writhes around until he’s on his back and can glare up at the woman standing above him. She’s got high cheekbones and a broad face, which would lend a kindly look to any other person, but paired with the nasty grin on her lips only makes her look sadistic. She draws back her foot to kick him again, but is interrupted by another voice.

“Enough,” the person commands—they sound like a woman… almost. But their voice is doubled, echoing, as if a man and a woman were speaking together. “Do not force me to remind you of your priorities, Alecto.”

“No, my Lord,” the woman says, immediately turning to bow deeply. “At once.”

Then the woman moves out of the way, and Harry can finally see the room properly. The scratchy-voiced woman, Alecto, heads over toward one side of the room where a man with her same red hair and similar features is standing; twins, Harry decides. He can ignore them unless one of them comes over to start kicking him again.

What he cannot ignore is the figure standing in the centre of the room, in front of the fire Harry had identified earlier. That figure is backlit, and without his glasses he hadn’t been able to tell much about other than that there is someone there. But now he can see clearly that there’s a woman standing there, mussed blonde hair unbound and falling in waves around skeletally thin shoulders… and she’s heavily pregnant. The contrast of massive round belly to the thinness of the rest of her body makes her look distorted, warped; Harry’s seen pregnant women before and they seemed to glow with health, full of life. This woman looks like a bloated corpse.

“Bloody hell,” Harry whispers to himself.

Alecto cackles again—and so does another man on the other side of the room. Harry glances there briefly, and finds his attention arrested by not only Bartemius Crouch Jr., who had earlier stepped out of an impossible Floo connection into the Gryffindor common room, the one now laughing, but also by the round, whiskery face of a man Harry suspects must be Peter Pettigrew. No photos of him less than eleven years old exist, other than in his rat form, but while the years as Scabbers did not treat him kindly, he’s familiar. Harry narrows his eyes, and then remembers the pregnant woman and shifts his attention back there.

“We are nearly prepared,” the pregnant woman says, smiling to herself. “Midnight nears. And you, boy, will have the pleasure of witnessing my resurrection—as will Neville Longbottom. Wake him.”

This last was directed toward the twins. It’s the man this time who comes over, and Harry turns his head to watch as he bypasses Harry completely. He hadn’t realized, but on his other side, between him and an old fireplace with a fire still burning down, is Neville’s prone form. He’s clearly still unconscious from the Stunner, and he’s bleeding from a wound on his head—it looks like he’d struck his head, maybe on the floor when he fell, or maybe they’d smacked him. But he twitches when the male twin drives a foot hard into his ribs, like the female twin had with Harry.

“Lay off!” Harry shouts, when the man reels back to kick him again. His words are ineffective, of course; the man only lays into Neville harder for it. This time it’s enough to wake Harry’s friend, and he coughs and twitches, curling away from the blows unconsciously.

“Wh—“ Neville manages, and then a third kick lands. Harry wriggles around as much as he can and manages to fight his way through a sit up, shouting “I said lay off, you bastard!”

The man just laughs and goes to kick Neville again, but this time Neville sees it coming and rolls. The man, unprepared for Neville to not be there, stumbles. Harry manages to restrain a burst of hysterical laughter, and instead glances over his shoulder at the sound of an irritable hiss to see the pregnant woman wave a hand. The man is thrown away from Harry and Neville, landing with a thump against the wall; Harry feels the brush of force as it goes past above his head and ducks back down, slumping onto his back.

“Harry,” Neville whispers. “Is that—“

“Yeah,” Harry replies, just as quiet.

Neville’s face is white with fear and pain already; he can’t pale any further, but Harry suspects he would if he could. “Yeah,” Harry repeats, and then turns his head to watch. The pregnant woman has turned her back on them, unconcerned now that they’re both awake to act as witnesses. She gestures to either side of her, calling her followers together, and they come readily, even the twin who’d just been flung carelessly against a wall.

“The time is nigh,” she says, in that strange doubled voice of hers. Then she uses an imperious finger to direct the twins and Crouch and Pettigrew into places evenly spaced around the fire. Only seconds after they finds their places, a clock, somewhere, begins to chime midnight. “Begin,” she says, and then steps into the flames, which immediately blaze frighteningly high, consuming her figure. There’s a beat, and then magic flares too, so much that Harry can feel it, even never having trained that sense; the thrum is heavy and sick, and behind him, Neville whimpers. The four Death Eaters—that’s what they had to be—begin to chant; the woman in the fire screams, and keeps screaming, the sound pure agony and grating to the ear.

“Fuck,” Harry whispers, and hysterically thinks that even Remus wouldn’t scold him for swearing, given the context. None of the participants in the ritual notice, so he risks turning to Neville, who’s staring past the top of Harry’s head with a wide mouth. “Neville.”

Neville seems to snap out of his daze and focuses on Harry’s face. Good. “Harry…” he says, then shakes his head. “What do we do?”

Harry shrugs. “They took us here through the Floo, must’ve been.”

“Okay.” Neville seems to catch his hint, and turns to look up toward the mantlepiece. “There.”

Harry can see it too—there’s a pot on the mantel that might still have Floo powder in it, if they haven’t warded the fireplace. It’s a big if, but better than nothing, which is what they currently have. Neville hasn’t got his wand, and Harry’s holly wand is missing too, of course. Well—he tenses his thigh his leg, finds that he can feel that the hidden holster is still there, and the rowan wand is in it.  But he’s not sure it’s any use, not at the moment; getting a wand into his hand would only make it more obvious that they were trying something. So, for all intents and purposes, they’ve got nothing. Nothing and the agonized screams of a woman burning to death, and over that the chanting of four Death Eaters working in tandem to bring back their Lord.

“Can you move enough?” he asks, lowering his voice even further.

Neville tries, twisting around, then relaxes with a strained huff and shakes his head. “But we’ve got to get out of here. If they—“

“I know,” Harry says. “Alright. I’ve got a plan.” It comes into his head almost as he says the words, and he knows it’s insane—he knows he’ll probably die. But Neville is the Boy-Who-Lived; he needs to get out, because if he stays he’ll definitely die the moment that ritual is completed.

“Okay,” Neville replies. Both of their voices are so low that Harry feels almost that he’s reading Neville’s lips rather than actually hearing him, but it’s enough.

“When you’re free,” Harry whispers, as loud as he’s willing beneath the chanting, because he can’t risk Neville not understanding. “Go to the hospital. Get help.”

“Come with me,” Neville whispers back. “I’m not going to leave you here.”

Bloody Gryffindors! “You have to,” Harry hisses, so fierce that Neville flinches. Both of them freeze, and Harry turns to look over at the ritual again, but even in his vehemence he’d managed to stay quiet. “You need to get help, and you’ve got a head wound, you can’t help. You can’t focus, can you?”

Neville reluctantly shakes his head and looks past Harry’s shoulder fearfully once more. “I don’t know where we are.”

“It’s fine,” Harry says. It’s a lie, but he hopes Neville can’t tell that. “I’ll be okay. As soon as the spell loosens, go.”

Neville closes his eyes tightly for a moment, his whole face warped with misery and fear. Then he opens his eyes again, steady brown meeting Harry’s squarely, and he gives a tiny nod. Harry smiles grimly, and then he looks at Neville’s body, pictures ropes binding him for something to focus on, and centres his will. He Occludes, layering a hard shield of focus around his construct, the centre of his thoughts and emotions, and with that closes his mind as much as he can to any outside distractions: the heat and the chanting in the background, the fear churning in his gut, the ache in his shoulders and the faint lingering dizziness of the Stupefy. If he wants to get this right, none of that can matter, just for this one moment. He looks at Neville’s arms, bound tight to his sides, and he arrows his focus, and quietly, as intently as he dares, he whispers, “Finite Incantatem.”

There’s a split second where nothing happens. Neville remains bound, and with every passing moment they’re in more danger of that ritual being completed; once it’s done, Harry knows they’ll both shortly be dead. This has to work the first time, because he doesn’t have any guarantee of a second chance.

And then with a soft slithering sound, almost like the hiss of a snake, Harry can see Neville’s arms come loose, sliding away from his body as if the ropes Harry had imagined have been untied from around him. He shrugs and his arms come free entirely, and then as swiftly as he can he rolls, twists, rises; he grabs a handful of the Floo powder left carelessly in its small sack on the mantlepiece. A moment later, in a flash of green fire that sears itself into Harry’s eyes—will a green flash, just like that, be his own last sight in just a few moments?—and with a cry of “Saint Mungo’s!”, Neville is gone. And Harry is alone.

He has only a split second to feel the relief of knowing his friend his safe, and then a hard hand grabs the back of his shirt and hauls him up. His collar pulls tight around his throat, and he chokes, twisting in the grip of—the male twin, he realizes. “You wretch!” the man screams, unhinged. As he speaks spittle flies into Harry’s face, and he flinches away, trying to snag a breath. “You’ve cost my Lord his prize!”

“Amycus, get back here!” Alecto snaps from the fireside. “You idiot, the ritual isn’t stable!”

The male twin, Amycus, shakes Harry once more before dropping him and racing back to his place to resume the chant. Harry falls hard to the floor and lands poorly, one elbow cracking against the floor in a blinding flash of pain, and then a moment later his skull strikes the ground and bounces; the smack sets his head ringing and he lies there, stunned, for a small eternity. Finally, he manages to shake his head, and immediately has to swallow back nausea. Concussion, maybe, he thinks; he’d gotten one when Aunt Petunia took that swing at him with the frying pan that one time. The room is hot and loud and bright, the flame having flared white somewhere in that confusing second of forever where he’d been lost to pain. The woman is still screaming, but so hoarsely now that Harry thinks her voice is due to give out any moment—or maybe her whole body will simply turn to ash. He can’t see her any more, lost in the light of the white flames.

His mouth is dry, and he can’t tell whether it’s from the heat or from fear. The latter he shoves down as hard as he can, because he will not die afraid. Neville is free, he reminds himself. Neville is free. And then he hides that, too: he’s dizzy, but he’s practiced his Occlumency so much in the last six months that even distracted and concussed he can find the halls of Hogwarts in his head and make his deepest truths safe there. He can tell already that he won’t have the focus for another wandless Finite, but he can do this. He can fold away everything that really matters about himself and leave behind the cold, calculating Slytherin that he’s learned to become: the one who can choose his friends on the basis of their ability to keep secrets; the one who would do anything, learn anything, to survive; the one who knows the value of what he’s got because of how little he had before. Maybe that will be enough to keep him alive.

It takes longer than he means, though, and when he returns his focus to the real world, things have shifted, as if time had sped forward. The fire has turned even brighter, whiter, almost impossible to look at, but Harry can’t look away as the energy in the room coalesces. The chanting grows louder for a moment, and the light shifts, moulds to the invisible figure in the middle: no longer the shape of the woman, short and deathly thin, but a tall male silhouette with an athletic build. Then the chanting stops, and the light blinks out, and there’s a moment of absolute silence and darkness. Harry can’t even breathe to break the quiet, the weight of magic in the room is so heavy. A red light sparks and glows in the centre of the room, where the fire had burned before. It grows upward and spreads, filling the same human shape, until the silhouette is complete, and then the torches—Harry hadn’t even noticed them before, drowned out as they had been by the fire—relight. As air returns and Harry draws a desperate gasp of air into his lungs, he finds himself staring no longer at a figure of white fire or blood-red light, but at a man, naked, with perfect bone-pale skin covering long limbs, living flesh formed exquisitely from fire and pain; he glances around with a look of derision on aristocratic features that seem sculpted from inhuman marble. The Death Eaters are all slumped on the floor, unconscious, and so the reborn man steps over their bodies, uncaring, and retrieves a black robe for himself from a hook on the wall. He slides it over his arms slowly, clearly savouring the sensation and folds it closed with the same care, and then turns to look at Harry.

His eyes are red like blood, like the light that had filled him, brought him to life; they seem to glow with that same light as he steps closer on bare feet. Only earlier, Harry recalls hysterically, the sight of his friend’s bare feet had reminded him of happier times. Seeing this man tread barefoot across a dusty, ashy floor, his white skin slowly becoming sullied by blackness, is terrifying.

“Well, well, well,” says Voldemort. His voice is like silk and smoke, smooth and heady, rich and whispering at the edges. It’s like listening to Snape, who can command a room with a word, but more. “Who, then, are you? To have cost me my prize, as my loyal one said?”

Harry swallows hard, caught entirely by Voldemort’s gaze, and says nothing for a moment, until Voldemort has drawn close. With every step, the light in the room seems to grow dimmer, as if drawn into his skin; the Dark Lord is a black hole in the space, all the power in the world drawn in toward him. Then, Harry says, his voice hoarse, “I swear, my Lord, I did not set Longbottom free. I beg you—do not let me die before I’ve lived.”

Voldemort’s eyes narrow, and he raises a hand. As if grabbed by that same hand, Harry rises up into the air, manipulated into a kneeling position and then held there. “What is your name.”

It’s not a question; Harry doesn’t hesitate in answering. “Harry Potter, my Lord. M-my name is Harry James Potter, and I would join your service.”

Voldemort blinks, once, slowly. On another person, it would be an undignified reaction betraying surprise; on him, Harry… can’t even tell. Every part of this man is dignity and power, and Harry can’t read his face at all. “Interesting,” Voldemort says. There’s a faint sibilance to the word; Harry isn’t sure if it’s natural, affected, or if it came from the ritual in some way. “You would pledge yourself to me? After all my followers have cost you?”

Harry knows that his parents must be close to the top of his mind, and he can’t put them away. “Yes,” he says anyway. “Your followers weren’t the ones who abandoned me to a miserable childhood—that was Dumbledore. And though I can’t say I don’t hate Bellatrix Lestrange and that one,” he looks at the prone form of Crouch, would point if he weren’t still bound, “it’s not them I’m willing to follow. It’s you, my Lord.”

Voldemort tilts his head, and then he reaches into his sleeve and withdraws a wand, pale like bone and beautiful. He holds it in a half-open hand, almost careless, but Harry knows that that loosely-held wrist could snap to aim at any target in an instant; by all accounts, Lord Voldemort was a deadly duelist beyond measure. The wand comes around slowly, until it rests against Harry’s temple, and there’s a moment of stillness. Harry waits to die. Then Voldemort hisses, “Legilimens.”

He’s inside Harry’s mind in an instant. His surface level shields are torn away, and he cries out, tries to cringe away from the pain, but it’s inside him. Voldemort’s darkness races through the halls of Harry’s internal Hogwarts in a roil of blackness, burning like acid as it passes; doors are flung open, walls eroded, windows shattered outward to piece Harry’s mind. It hurts, more than anything Snape has ever done to him, but he endures, tucks love and fear ever deeper inside and shows the Dark Lord what he wants: hate. Memories of abuse by the Dursleys, the endless shouting and degradation, being worked like a house elf and beaten on day after day by Dudley; loneliness and isolation, as a child, even at Hogwarts; uncertainty and resentment of this strange new world, one that should have been his, that should have claimed him with open arms and welcomed its lost son and didn’t. His disdain for Draco Malfoy, a snivelling spoiled brat who thinks he can have anything he wants without having to stand up and claim it, who doesn’t know what power is for all he tries to pretend to it. His dislike of Dumbledore, who moved around the people and events in Harry’s life like they were pieces on a chessboard, whose mistrust of Slytherin is obvious every time he looks at Harry, who acts grandfatherly but doesn’t care who has to bleed for his aims.

He’s a wizard, a Slytherin, the Heir to a powerful line, and Harry knows that for a brief moment, lives in it, wraps himself up in the knowing and turns it outward so that Voldemort can see why Harry would offer this: he wants, not just to live, but to thrive. To be everything that he can be, to never be under anyone’s thumb ever again, even if it means throwing off all the chains of law and morality and taking the power he needs to be free.

It hurts. It hurts so much. Even as Voldemort withdraws, satisfied, it feels as though he’s raking claws against the walls of Harry’s mind, leaving bleeding wounds that Harry fears will never heal—but he has to heal. He’s not done getting stronger; he refuses to be weaker.

Harry blinks open his eyes, not even realizing he’d closed them, and finds himself staring into that pure, shining blood-red ruby colour of Voldemort’s gaze. Voldemort is smiling.

“And did you let Longbottom go?” he asks, smooth and calm.

“No,” Harry whispers. His voice is even more hoarse than before, and it hurts to speak, he can taste blood at the back of his throat; he must have screamed. “He’s been learning wandless magic. I didn’t think he was capable of a Finite Incantatem, but he might have managed it.”

Voldemort skims the surface of his mind again—Harry’s shields are in tatters, he can’t stop him. But what he’s said is enough the truth that he can disguise the lie, even so broken. Desperation is an excellent motivator. “Very well,” Voldemort says, after a moment. “If it turns out you lied to me, boy—“a vicious and pointed use of Vernon’s epithet, which the Dark Lord would have seen many memories of—“you will suffer for it before you die.”

“I know,” Harry replies, and smiles weakly. “I would expect nothing else, my Lord.”

“And what will you do, if I let you go? Scurry away and hide, I imagine. Better I kill you now.” The wand drifts down to rest against Harry’s throat, bared where he’s forced to crane his neck to look at the Dark Lord.

“No,” Harry whispers. “I swear. I’ll spread word of your return, your rise to power, so that all know to fear you, and when you call me I will come to your side. Dumbledore couldn’t stop you from taking Longbottom this time—you’ll have him again. He sees me as a friend, even; you can use me.”

“I can,” Voldemort says. That smile on thin, pale lips widens. “I could kill you now. But I will not. If you return when summoned, then I will know you are in earnest. If you do not, what your parents suffered will seem like mercy.”

Harry nods, and isn’t prepared for it, should have been, isn’t, when Voldemort twists his wand and whispers, “Crucio.

Agony, worse than before, blazes through every part of Harry’s body. The headache he’d already had turns splitting, until he feels like he must be bleeding from his eyes; fire burns him, his bones break and are broken again. He twists, falling to the ground; he’s still bound and can only writhe around snakelike against hard stone that he can barely feel through the pain. There’s nothing, nothing at all, except for pain; it goes on forever.

Then it stops, and he’s left panting harshly, his breath rasping in a throat torn from screaming. Voldemort is laughing, almost a fond sound, and then a wave of force sends Harry skidding across the floor to slam against the iron grate that holds the firewood; it’s hot and hard and burns him through his shirt, and he feels lucky not to feel his ribs break. To his relief, when he tries to roll away, his movements are arrested by nothing but lingering trembling caused by his earlier suffering; the binding is gone.

“Get out!” Voldemort commands. “Go after Longbottom, and tell that old fool in his high tower that I am coming for him and his little hero too, and that I am immortal, reborn and arisen; nothing he does can stop me now.”

Harry scrambles up to his feet as quickly as he can, nearly toppling again as blood rushes downward and he goes lightheaded, and manages a shaky bow. Before he passes out or Voldemort changes his mind, he grabs a fistful of Floo powder, throws it into the dying coals in the fireplace, and shouts, “Saint Mungo’s!”

The world turns, spins around him, and then he is gone.

Chapter Text

For about the thousandth time, Sirius turns to check on his godson, lying stone still in a hospital bed. Harry is deeply unconscious, put down by spellwork rather than sleeping naturally, and it’s obvious: his breathing is shallow and his hands lie limp. His usually warm brown complexion is nearly ashy, and he seems all the more washed out lying against white sheets. He looks like James, the James of now, especially with his eyes closed and Lily’s stunning emerald irises hidden. The whole thing seems brought to life right out of Sirius’s worst nightmares.

At least he’s no longer trembling. The way he’d been shaking right after he’d stumbled out of the Floo into the Saint Mungo’s lobby had conjured vicious memories of Lily and James in the early days of their treatment, before the Nerve Repair Potion had been developed. Both of them had shaken all the time, their whole bodies unsteady, unable to control their movements; Harry hadn’t been that bad, not by any means, but he had shivered all over, his hands trembling terribly.

Sirius had been waiting for him. Neville Longbottom had come through into the night-quiet lobby of Saint Mungo’s a little after midnight—fortunately, there’s always someone on duty in case of late-night emergencies; this, all of this, definitely qualified. It had been less than an hour before the staff at Hogwarts was awake and mobilizing. Dumbledore and Sirius had Flooed to the hospital themselves, and that’s when Sirius had gotten the news: Harry was still being held captive.

The hour that had followed might have been the most stressful hour of Sirius’s life. He’d been sure, especially after Neville said that they’d been captured by Death Eaters, and what seemed to be Voldemort himself, that there would be nothing but a cold corpse to find, if they ever found anything at all. Dumbledore had insisted that Sirius stay at the hospital, and though he’d raged at the time, in hindsight he knows that he’d have been useless, half-mad as he was. And he’s grateful—if he’d been out hunting fruitlessly for Voldemort again, he’d not have been there when Harry, dirty and a little bloodied and shaking like a leaf, had stumbled from the fireplace, dropped to his knees, and said breathlessly, “He’s back.”

Things had been a bit of a bustle after that, ending finally with Harry in a hospital bed and thoroughly dosed on painkillers, and then, before passing out, he’d told Sirius a horrifying story. Since then, Sirius had been sitting at his bedside, waiting. For what, he can’t decide: someone else to show up? Harry to wake? The world to go back to the way it had been a year ago, when everything was fine and Voldemort was not once again walking the earth?

“Bloody fucking hell,” Sirius mutters to himself, and leans back in the uncomfortable hospital chair. It creaks a little, and he curses at it too, just for good measure.

“I’m not sure your seat deserves such abuse,” says Dumbledore’s voice. Sirius jumps and twists himself over to look, and finds the Headmaster standing there, watching him with a compassionate look. “But I cannot say I do not understand the impulse. I’m so very sorry, Sirius.”

Sirius shakes his head and slumps back again. Dumbledore comes around with quiet footsteps and the soft brush of his violet robes to stand on the other side of the bed from Harry, and looks down at Sirius, then sits in the chair opposite him and folds his wrinkled hands in his lap.

“How is he?” Dumbledore asks solemnly.

“Fine,” Sirius says. “Well, fine as can be expected. Some bad bruises and a concussion, and it looks like he was held under the Cruciatus—between ten and thirty seconds, before you ask. No permanent damage.”

“No, but well enough to disturb,” Dumbledore says. “And what of his mental state? Is he alright?”

Sirius shrugs. “Hard to tell. He was in so much pain still…”

“I see.” Dumbledore sighs. “Well. I have heard the tale from Neville, and certainly would like to hear it from Harry, but I won’t force him to recount it again so soon—nor would I like to wake him. What did he tell you, Sirius?”

Sirius frowns at the Headmaster, unsure whether it’s his place, and then he decides that it’s probably better to spare Harry this, at least for now. Dumbledore does need to know some of what Harry told him as soon as possible; the rest, the whole of the story, can wait for when Harry is conscious and ready to talk about it. “It was definitely Voldemort,” Sirius says. “Harry says he got Neville out, and then watched the Death Eaters—he said he recognized Barty Crouch Junior and Pettigrew, and heard the names Amycus and Alecto, so it must’ve been the Carrows—finish the ritual that Neville mentioned.”

Dumbledore nods. “Did he catch any details?”

“Not much more than what Neville described, at least that he mentioned—you might ask him to tell you more later on. He was rattled.”

“And then what?”

“He says the ritual knocked the Death Eaters out, and then… Voldemort rose—out of the flames, Harry said.” Sirius scrubs a hand over his face. “For whatever reason, Voldemort didn’t kill him right away, and Harry… managed to talk his way out of it.”

Dumbledore sits forward, his expression intent; his eyes, as always, gleam behind his glasses, but with the fierce fire Sirius came to know in the last war rather than the benevolent twinkle that most people see. “Voldemort took an interest in him?”

“I don’t know,” Sirius says. “Harry—he wasn’t making much sense. Said he used his Occlumency to fool Voldemort into believing that Harry wanted to join him. I hadn’t realized he’d gotten that good, but… he must have. That wanker’s a master Legilimens.”

“Indeed,” Dumbledore murmurs. “Join him, you said?”

Sirius nods. “That’s what Harry said, that he told Voldemort he wanted to join him. I have no idea why the bastard bought it, but he did, I suppose—or he didn’t. Doesn’t matter. Harry said Voldemort told him that he was to come when summoned, and that if he didn’t, what happened to his parents would be nothing. Then Voldemort used the Cruciatus on him and sent him away after Neville.”

The lie Harry had chosen bothers Sirius, and seems to bother Dumbledore as well. Why say he wanted to join him? Why had that even come into Harry’s head as a possibility? But then, Sirius couldn’t imagine what other lie would have sufficed to save Harry’s life, so for all that it disturbs him to imagine his pup claiming allegiance to Voldemort, he knows it’s probably for the best that he did—at least in that moment. Because he’s here now, lying on the bed between them, still breathing. On the mend.

Dumbledore hums thoughtfully, and looks down at Harry. “It was difficult situation that Mr. Potter found himself in. But he acted in a remarkably resourceful manner. I will have to speak with him myself, of course, but not immediately.” He gets up then, out of his chair, and makes a small half-bow to Sirius. “Thank you, Sirius. I’ll leave you and Harry alone, and perhaps you will be able to get some rest as well—it has been a long few hours, and your sleep was interrupted. I think that your ward and Mr. Longbottom will be granted a leave of absence from returning to classes—call it a week? And we can revisit at the end of that time; if Harry is struggling, perhaps a longer time away. But I suspect a return to some semblance of normalcy will be welcome.”

“Normalcy.” Sirius snorts. “Less than six hours ago, Neville Longbottom fell through a fireplace bleeding from the head and shouting that Voldemort had returned. The papers alone…”

“Well,” Dumbledore says, and tilts his head to communicate his wry agreement, “we shall have to cross that bridge when we get to it.”

“Let’s hope we’ve got all the skill of the Three Brothers when the time comes,” Sirius sighs, rubs a hand over his face, and waves Dumbledore away. “I’m sure we’ll manage, Headmaster.”

Dumbledore makes his exit quietly, and Sirius watches his back as he goes. He’s wearing robes that Sirius had thought were purple, but actually shimmer and shift between violet and navy—even in a somber mood, Dumbledore can never resist a little flamboyance, Sirius supposes. But then, if the man ever dressed in black, Sirius would suspect the world were ending.

Not that it isn’t. Bloody fucking Voldemort is back. Everything is starting all over again, the deaths and the violence, the suffering and loss. Sirius didn’t want this, not for himself and not for Harry and his friends—his godson deserves to grow up without this. But no. The world isn’t fair; it’s not like Sirius doesn’t know that, hasn’t known it his whole life. There’s nothing he’s ever wanted that hasn’t been complicated, and he’s an adult, he understands it—but it’s hard. Hard to see his kid, his son, or good as, having to learn the same lesson.

Sirius will do all he can, at least, beginning with this week. Harry will need care and love to recover from this trauma and bounce back. He’s only twelve, still just a child really, and he’s already seen more blood and violence than some adult wixen ever see. Sirius will gladly take the boon of a few days to take Harry home, make sure he’s warm and safe and relaxed, and try to bleed out some of the poison of fear and pain. He wishes he’d had someone to do the same for him when he was Harry’s age, and even when he got older—the forced independence of an unhappy home could be brutal, and he’ll do anything he can to spare Harry that.

And then Harry will go back to school, to the embrace of the safety of Hogwarts and the warm presence of his friends, and hopefully be healed even further by that. Harry has found his place in Slytherin these past few months and Sirius is immensely proud of him; he’s an excellent Heir, even better than he could have imagined, and overall a great kid.

Speaking of Harry being his Heir, Sirius will have to make some sort of statement to the papers as Lord Black. It’ll be a pain, of course, but… when the House of Black speaks, people listen. Maybe this way they’ll be able to ensure the populace is better prepared for the violence that’s sure to begin shortly. It’s unlikely, after all, that anyone would doubt the combined voices of Albus Dumbledore, the House of Black, and the Boy-Who-Lived. They had lost their chance to end the war before it began, but perhaps they’ve gained one to arm the people and gather supporters before Voldemort gains the sort of traction he’d had toward the end of the last war. After all, no one remembers the bastard fondly, and news of his return will surely galvanize the magical world to action.

But for now, Sirius is determined to focus on Harry. For the next week, that’s his first priority. The rest can wait their bloody turns.


Potter and Longbottom return to Hogwarts a week after the usual end of Easter Break, Flooing into the Headmaster’s office past briefly lowered wards. Security has been significantly tightened, all the Heads of House working in tandem with the Headmaster to raise additional wards and ensure that there are no further breaches, like the one that had led to the initial abduction.

And what a ridiculous lapse that had been, in Severus’s opinion. A search of the Gryffindor common room had revealed a runestone probably planted there by Pettigrew during his flight at Halloween, one which poked a minuscule hole in wards that kept Hogwarts’s Floos closed. It must have been missed the chaos. And now things were all the worse. At least Potter and Longbottom had both (somehow) escaped scot-free from the Dark Lord’s clutches, but that did not change the fact that the Dark Lord had fully returned.

Severus’s Dark Mark had been growing darker steadily over the last several months, and began to spark and flare with pain at irregular intervals around Christmas—the same time that the Dark Lord had gained the strength necessary to send visions to Longbottom through their link, whatever it was. At least Longbottom’s Occlusion had become thorough enough that he no longer received dreams from the Dark Lord; it is a small mercy, but better than nothing by all means. As for Severus himself, he is only waiting to receive the first summons. It’s sure to come soon—the Dark Lord is surely interested in verifying the continued loyalty of his spy.

And Severus will go, of course. What choice does he have? Dumbledore will need the information that only Severus can provide, especially since the Dark Lord’s operations are still relatively small and subtle, and would therefore be difficult to detect. But that will change, and change rapidly; Severus suspects that the opening volley will be contact with all those Death Eaters left with their liberty after the last war, including himself and those with the influence to escape conviction, such as Lucius and Theodore Senior. For the time being, however, all he can do is bide his time, take stock of the situation at Hogwarts and decide what to report. He’s unsure what Dumbledore will want, as he has yet to be summoned by the other of his two masters. Instead, he is left to stew—and watch over the brats, as usual.

At least watching Potter provides some interest. He still looks pale and a little ill when he returns, but comes back to his schoolwork and his socializing with alacrity. For all that he is surely still struggling with the aftermath of the Cruciatus—particularly harsh on young bodies—he seems to have rallied during his week’s vacation with his dogfather and the wolf. A resilient child, he hides away whatever pain he might still be suffering and carries on, not betraying any difficulty or trauma. Severus is reminded a little of himself at the same age—he’d often returned from the breaks with bruises under his clothing, but God and Merlin forbid anyone be allowed to find out.

His main lingering question is not to do with how the boy is managing trauma, or how he is hiding his pain—well enough, is that answer to both of those questions. He has plenty of support from Black if he wants it, not to mention all his little friends and his less-little allies (Gemma Farley; a surprisingly prudent cultivation on the part of the brat). No, what Severus would very much like to know the most is how in the hell the boy escaped from Voldemort’s clutches without receiving an immediate Avada to the chest—or the back. Even aside from the Dark Lord himself, there had been Death Eaters present, presumably including Pettigrew, and no Death Eater Severus can remember would hesitate in cursing a fleeing child in the back. Potter should not have made it out… but he did. Somehow.

Damn Dumbledore’s reticence. He’d been keeping all the details close to his chest; Severus still only knows what’s been publicized from Longbottom’s account—that there had been four Death Eaters, they’d resurrected Voldemort, Longbottom had escaped first, and Potter was left behind to free himself. Not that the papers are printing the story in correct detail—a great deal of doubt has been stirred up by the Ministry in the immediate wake of the fiasco, claiming that Longbottom had perhaps been kidnapped by a lingering splinter of Voldemort’s forces, but that there was no way that Voldemort could have returned; he was dead, after all!

Fools. Idiots. Death would cure them.

As time goes on, Severus is increasingly convinced that he will shortly be meeting his own death as well; the Dark Lord has not summoned him, which he feels a vague foreboding about. But no time for worry. He has a castle-full of dunderheads to guide through the last five weeks of term without any of them blowing up his classroom and/or killing them all with toxic fumes. And he has a meddling Headmaster to wrangle; and speak of the devil, he thinks, looking up from preparing himself a nightcap at the sound of his fireplace chiming a request for someone to call through the Floo. No one else but Dumbledore would be calling on him at this hour. He grumbles as he strides across his quarters to tap at the arched mantle’s keystone with his wand; the next moment, Dumbledore’s face appears in the low fire in Severus’s grate.

“Severus,” he says. “I would appreciate the pleasure of your company for a brief conversation—is now convenient?”

No, which Dumbledore surely knows, but Severus hardly has a choice. “Of course,” he says through his teeth, and as soon as Dumbledore’s face is gone, he grabs up a fistful of Floo powder and steps through. The internal pathways are still open, at least; navigating the castle would be a nightmare otherwise.

Dumbledore’s office is as cluttered as always, and Severus resists the vague urge to cover his eyes against the flashing and blinking of coloured lights and gleaming metal. The constant movement of the Headmaster’s inane magical perpetual motion machines is enough to make him nauseous, especially after a long day of attempting to mind upwards of 20 children all engaged in the deadly pursuit of potions brewing all at once.

“Headmaster,” he says briskly, once he’s fully into the room and has spelled the soot from his robes—not that it would be visible, black against black as it is, but he refuses to be uncleanly even if he were the only one to know about it. “What do you need?”

Dumbledore is standing in front of his desk, facing away from Severus, with his fingers laced behind his back. Inauspicious. So is the fact that he does not immediately make some milquetoast protest about how he needs nothing, can he not simple desire conversation with his friend and ally? Hell.

“Severus,” Dumbledore says, “I would like for you to share with me your impressions of Harry Potter.”

Severus can feel the scowl that passes across his face, pinching his features into the expression of the Dreaded Dungeon Bat. “An arrogant princeling,” he says immediately. “A fitting heir for his father and his dratted dogfather, that’s to be certain—with the addition of being Slytherin to his core, and therefore lacking what few ethics they possessed, if they could be said to have possessed any at all.”

Dumbledore turns around to regard him with his steady gaze. Guarded as always, of course. “And is that all?”

Not remotely, but Severus has no intention of informing Dumbledore about the Occlumency lessons, or any other more intimate facts or deeper that he has gleaned about this one particular young Slytherin until he knows what this is about. “Quite,” he says sourly.

“Hm,” Dumbledore says. “I have gathered a rather different impression. Humour me a moment, Severus—picture for yourself a young boy, largely a stranger to magic for all that it is his birthright, who arrives at Hogwarts and is Sorted at once into the serpent House. He struggles to make friends—until suddenly he finds himself becoming rapidly integrated into very high society indeed, through a combination of his own buried charisma and a few allies who choose him for his potential. Talented, this boy. But damaged, as well, in a way that inclines him toward… utilitarianism at best. Perhaps a child you could call ‘at risk’.”

By the end of Dumbledore’s little speech, Severus is glaring outright. He recognizes, of course, the description of himself—but also of Potter. Never mind that their situations are entirely different. Potter’s ‘friends in high places’ are his own dogfather and Gemma Farley, both of whom are not bloody Death Eaters.

“So you fear that the Potter boy will be seduced to the Dark side?” Severus sneers. “That he would go willingly to join the monster who ordered his parents attacked, who led to their insanity, which persists to this day?”

“No,” Dumbledore says solemnly. “But I know that it could be seen that way from the outside, which is why I have taken such interest, especially of late. Tell me, Severus, has Mr. Potter confided in you as to the manner in which he engineered his escape from Voldemort?”

Severus shakes his head, then irritably brushes the strand of hair that has fallen into his eyes away. “Certainly not,” he says. “The boy has been somewhat withdrawn, but does not seem traumatized—certainly not to the point where he would choose to confide in me.”

“It is less unlikely than you would think,” Dumbledore says gently. “You are, after all, his Head of House. But it matters not. Severus, Mr. Potter escaped Voldemort by promising to join him.”

What?

“A lie, of course,” Dumbledore continues blithely. “One vouchsafed by advanced Occlumency technique that I suspect you must have taught him—but never mind that. It leaves him in something of a pickle, don’t you think? Voldemort will eventually attempt to summon him, perhaps even using you yourself as messenger, or perhaps Theodore Nott the younger. If Harry refuses, he will become… a target. If he goes, he will die instantly, unless he manages to continue the deception.”

Severus sees already where this is going. “I will not,” he hisses, as vicious and sibilant as the emblem of his House, “lure a child of my House into acting as your puppet, Albus Dumbledore.”

Dumbledore has the gall to look hurt. “I would never treat a child as a puppet, Severus. But you must admit that Mr. Potter is in a bad situation.”

“Of course he is!” Severus shouts, suddenly burning up from the inside with rage. Only years of practice keeps him from lashing out magically, as he had when he was himself a hormone-wracked idiot teenager. “And he is a child, Albus! Twelve years old! He should be protected, not used!”

“He must make his own decision,” Dumbledore says firmly. “I had only meant to say that you should speak to him about it. After all, you are the only one who can attest to the experience of living undercover in Voldemort’s service. You could make sure he makes the decision well informed, and if he chooses to pursue the path I am suggesting, you could guide him, keep him safe.”

“You don’t need him,” Severus says. “You have me, do you not? Do you so desperately need another spy? Do you believe I intend to betray you, or perhaps that I am on the edge of dropping dead? If the latter, please do have the courtesy to inform me!”

“I only want to offer him an option,” Dumbledore says. “You know I am right to do so, Severus, rather than attempting to make his choices for him.”

Severus shakes his head again, harder, and this time does not bother to brush the hair in front of his face away. His glare will have no greater or lesser effect for being through the curtain of his overlong fringe; he has always been impotent at best in the face of Dumbledore’s machinations. “I will not do this,” he declares. “Potter is a child under your—and my—protection, and it is a protection that is owed him. Not to mention what Black will do to you when he learns you tried to twist his precious brat into a miniature version of most-hated Snivellus. When you come to your senses, I will take great pleasure in telling you that I told you so.”

His piece said, Severus whirls on his heel and storms from the office, his robes flaring behind him as he goes. He will not hear another word out of the doddering fool’s mouth. Potter, turn spy? At age twelve? No. He will not have it. He certainly will not be the instrument of it—Albus Dumbledore can hang. No more Slytherin children will be sacrificed to the gaping, bloodied maw of this war, not if Severus can help it. Some, he knows, he will not be able to help, because for all that he would like to imagine that he is an adequate protector, many of them are already out of his reach, and will make their own choices. They will follow in the footsteps of their parents, or take the opposite paths, for good or for ill, and that is well enough danger present for his House without actively leading them into peril himself like a twisted Pied Piper. And for all he professes to hate the Potter boy, for all that he does still think him arrogant and reckless beyond the pale, he will not himself wield the blade used to sacrifice Potter on an altar to Dumbledore’s “greater good”.


The final few weeks of term don’t really feel real. Harry lets them pass him by in a daze. Oh, he does all his usual things, spends time with his friends and does his homework and has lessons with Sirius. He has no further lessons with Snape, which is good; his Occlumency is good enough to hide the damage done to his mind from Sirius, who still doesn’t press very hard in their lessons, but he knows that Snape would suss out in an instant the bleeding wounds that Voldemort left on the underside of Harry’s psyche. He has his moments of lucidity, where he can feel grateful for that, and for the warm embrace of his friendships, and for the normalcy of classwork and homework. He submits his choice of third-year electives to Professor Snape, and is able to be briefly excited for the prospect of Care of Magical Creatures and Arithmancy and Ancient Runes. A heavy courseload, yes, but nothing to Hermione, and after this year’s immense pile of extracurriculars he’s sure he’ll be fine. Everything has been fine, especially whenever anyone asks.

Slytherin loses the final Quidditch game of the season, which Harry of course notices, but he can’t bring himself to be very concerned. Instead, he’s concerned with not forgetting to put up a Silencing Charm on his bed curtains every night, so that his screaming nightmares don’t wake Blaise and Theo; and thank Merlin that hadn’t begun until he’d returned from the Doghouse. He’s also concerned with begging a little bit of magical concealer from Hussain, just enough to hide the dark circles under his eyes until end of term, when he’ll be back at the Doghouse and finally safe enough to sleep again; he hadn’t dreamed while he was there, and he hopes that will be the case again when he gets home. And, of course, he’s concerned with not letting on to anyone, anyone, that half the time he feels nothing at all, and most of the other half all he can think about is the agony of the Cruciatus and that that must have been all his parents had known in the small age before they had known nothing at all. If they aren’t still living in that hell now. How would he even know? How could anyone?

Most nights, he dreams of Voldemort. Voldemort reaching out a hand and passing it straight into his skull and ripping all of Harry’s secrets, dripping heart’s-blood, out of the deepest and most hidden places in his mind. Voldemort’s wand pressed to his throat, whispering Crucio again and again, until Harry knows nothing but pain. Voldemort extracting promises of service and soul in that smoke whisper, each time promising that if Harry agrees to just one more thing, to just give up this one last concession, he will get to live. At the end, he always asks Harry if he’ll kill Neville in the name of the Dark Lord, and when Harry says no, Voldemort kills him anyway, no matter how many promises Harry had made before.

He just wants to sleep.

He doesn’t get to, of course. Just before the end of term, a scrap of parchment appears on his pillow just after he wakes one morning, and on it is a summons to the Headmaster’s office during his free period that afternoon. The note also says, Tell no one. Harry has gotten very used to not telling people things of late; this is no problem. He tells Blaise and Theo that he’s going to study with Hermione, Neville, and Ron, and his Gryffindor friends that he’s going to study with Blaise and Theo, and if they talk to each other, he’ll tell them all that he got caught up in the library. And so he successfully slips away after History of Magic and heads for the Headmaster’s office.

When he arrives, the Headmaster isn’t there. However, his bird—a massive red-and-gold creature that Harry has noticed sitting on a perch a few times before, though never truly registered, lost as he was among all of the other oddities of the Headmaster’s office—is sitting more front and centre than usual, and is looking quite sick. Perhaps the Headmaster had moved his perch in order to keep a closer eye on him in his illness. He does look very poorly—many of his feathers have dropped off, and he makes the occasional pitiful coughing or crooning noise, as if moaning in pain. Harry approaches cautiously, feeling deeply sorry for the creature, and reaches out to offer it a gentle touch. He hopes it isn’t dying; it really was quite beautiful.

Just before he can touch him, however, there’s a spark and a flare of flame, and in an instant the bird is engulfed. It cries out once, a clear ringing note, and then there’s only the crackle of fire as the bird’s body is consumed. Harry stumbles back, wide-eyed with horror and shock. He can’t—he can’t look away, watching, waiting for the figure to form once more and come and—

A hand lands on his shoulder, and he whirls with a shout, falling backward. He loses his balance and topples to the ground, staring up, sure for a moment that he’s about to die. But he finds himself staring not at the black-robed figure of Voldemort, but at the Headmaster, who has appeared from nowhere and is now looking down at him with concern in those bright blue eyes. “Mr. Potter,” he says. “I apologize for startling you.”

“I—you—” Harry looks over again at the perch, not sure what he will see. But there’s nothing. Only a final flicker of dying flame. No shadow appears in the wake of the brightness, no red light, red eyes. Harry drags himself up from the ground, needing to see, to be sure, but there’s only a pile of ash where the bird had once been. “Sir,” he says. “Your bird…”

Dumbledore is smiling when Harry looks over, which seems an odd reaction for a number of reasons. “Fawkes is a phoenix, my boy,” he says. “It was his burning day; he is quite fine. You may go look, if you wish.”

Harry steps tentatively closer to the perch, and sees that, indeed, there is something moving within the pile of ash. A little flesh-coloured head appears, grey with soot, a moment later, and Harry flinches back from it. A phoenix, reborn from fire. “Oh,” he says, and looks away so that he doesn’t need to see it after all.

“Ah,” Dumbledore says after a moment, as if something had only just occurred to him. “I apologize, Harry. I had not remembered your description of the events of Easter until just now. Seeing Fawkes burn in such a way was surely disturbing for you.”

Harry, staring at the ground, nods. He wouldn’t admit to even that much, if not for that fact that he had just very obviously halfway lost his mind about it.

“Well. He is quite harmless, I assure you—in fact, phoenixes are creatures of pure light, whose powers are predominantly of healing and protection.” Harry looks up again to find that Dumbledore has come around to sit at his desk, and Harry can look past Fawkes’s perch without having to look at it any longer.

“Yes, sir,” Harry says. “I… I’m sorry, sir. Why did you call me?”

Dumbledore nods and strokes his beard thoughtfully. “Ah, yes. Straight to business, then. Lemon drop, Mr. Potter?”

Harry shakes his head. He isn’t really in the mood for sweets at the moment. He’s actually more in the mood to throw up, but that will have to wait until after he escapes the Headmaster’s presence.

“Alright then. More for me.” Dumbledore pops a sweet into his mouth from the apparently never-ending bowl on his desk, slides it into his cheek, and then says, “Mr. Potter, I wanted to speak to you about Easter. I do apologize for raising bad memories so soon after your trauma, but I wanted to catch you before you returned home for the summer.”

“It’s fine,” Harry mumbles. It’s not. Whatever. “What did you want to know?”

“Well, Sirius of course informed me of the details of what you told Lord Voldemort,” Dumbledore says. “And I wanted to discuss with you what path you hoped to take moving forward.”

“Path?” Harry frowns and looks up to meet Dumbledore’s eyes. Mistake, he realizes immediately—he can feel the faint brush of a Legilimency probe, and his shields aren’t properly raised. Before Easter, he thinks he wouldn’t have been sensitive enough to feel it even without his shields, gentle as it is, but his mind is still healing and recoils from even this lightest touch. Dumbledore clearly notices, frowns briefly, and then wipes the expression away; Harry raises his Occlumency shields as quickly as he can.

“Indeed,” Dumbledore says, as if the glancing mental exchange had not happened. “I mean, of course, your ploy in escaping Voldemort: your offer of service.”

“Right,” Harry says. “What… what about it, sir?”

Dumbledore takes a deep, slow breath, and laces his fingers together on his desk before himself. “Voldemort will not be pleased to learn you lied.”

“No.” That’s a no-brainer. “But Sirius said he’d keep me safe.”

“And I am sure he could,” Dumbledore says. “There is, however, another option. I will not ask you to make a choice now, but I wanted to raise with you the possibilities you have lying before you, and ensure that you understood the ramifications of each in full.”

“Sir,” Harry says, “I don’t understand. I… I can’t go back to Voldemort. He—the Death Eaters, they tortured my parents. And he wants to kill Neville, and…” He doesn’t understand what Dumbledore wants.

“It’s alright, my boy,” Dumbledore soothes. “May I explain my thoughts?”

“Yes, sir,” Harry says, feeling dazed. He doesn’t know what’s going on. No, somewhere deep down, he thinks he does, and he doesn’t like it.

“Your lie to Voldemort was clever,” Dumbledore says, “and that you pulled it off successfully is an impressive feat indeed. Few can lie to Voldemort without being caught and suffering terribly for it. Which is exactly what I fear in your case. When Voldemort discovers your lie, presumably when you refuse to answer his summons, he will be terribly angry, and I fear for your safety, Harry. Sirius will be able to protect you for a time, and I will do all I can to aid him; of course, you will be safe here at Hogwarts. But…” He pauses and sighs, looking for a moment deeply sorrowful and far away, and then his attention returns to Harry. “I have made assurances of protection from Voldemort’s wrath before and failed. Including, to my deep regret, to the parents of both yourself and Mr. Longbottom. I will do my utmost to support you and defend you on whatever path you choose in these coming dark days, Harry, but I will not make you any false assurances of certain safety.

“Instead, I would like you to consider the opportunity you now have to seize your own fate. It would not be any less dangerous—indeed, it might be more so, if you were to take on the role I would have you consider. You would be placing yourself in Voldemort’s direct line of spellfire, and a precarious and lonesome position at that. But you would also have the chance to do immense good.”

“You want me to be a spy,” Harry interrupts. He understands now, very well. Too well. He can see exactly what Dumbledore is angling for: that Harry respond to Voldemort’s summons, keep up the ruse that he’d begun to spin in that ash-covered sitting room a month ago, and play double agent. He’d look harmless to Voldemort—he’s only a child, after all. Only twelve. But a twelve-year-old with access to Neville Longbottom and to Hogwarts and to Dumbledore himself. And if he can manage the lie…

“If you believe yourself capable,” Dumbledore says. “I will not—I would never—force you.”

No, he wouldn’t. This decision is Harry’s. Hide, be protected—maybe? Mostly? Let himself be held safe by Sirius and Dumbledore, shielded by the rest of his friends and allies until he’s strong enough to keep himself alive in the face of Voldemort’s wrath? He could do that. He doesn’t have a terrible chance of surviving, doing it that way. He knows how strong his friends are, how strong his godfather and Remus are. It would probably be the Slytherin thing to do, to protect himself, wait until he was sure.

Or go back to Voldemort when the time comes, become a spy, try to make a difference in this war right from the beginning. He doesn’t, can’t, know how fast things are going to begin to happen. It could turn to bloodshed right away, over the summer even, or there could be a long period of waiting on both sides while Voldemort recovers his strength and Dumbledore tries to prevent exactly that from happening. Hogwarts might become a battleground, or it might remain safe and peaceful. Harry doesn’t know when or even if Voldemort actually will call him, or if he’ll decide in some intervening time that Harry was a liar after all and decide simply to hunt him down and kill him regardless. And if Voldemort does call, Harry doesn’t know if he’ll be able to hide himself away like he did on Easter, or if he’ll give up the game immediately and die for nothing.

One way or the other, he thinks, it probably all ends in his death. That much is obvious. Dumbledore is right: no one will be able to protect Harry forever, not the Headmaster and not Sirius and probably not Harry himself. And people will probably die trying. But he doesn’t think he can do it. Doesn’t know.

He doesn’t know what to do. He looks up and meets Dumbledore’s eyes again, searches his face for guidance, for help, and sees nothing. The Headmaster has no answers, or won’t give up whatever ones he might have. Harry is going to have to figure this out on his own.

“I… I don’t know,” Harry says, finally. “I can’t decide now, I need—“

“I would ask,” Dumbledore interrupts, “that you not speak to anyone about this. If you do choose the more dangerous path, you will only be made safer by as few people knowing as possible—perhaps even as few as only you and myself. And even the safer path, the protected path, will be easier to walk if few beyond those who already know about the sword hanging over you ever learn of it.”

No, Harry wants to shout. He wants to refuse that order, walk out of this office, and spill all to Sirius or to Neville and Hermione or to Gemma. Or even to bloody Snape. Anyone. This is too much, too heavy a secret to keep, too difficult a decision to make on his own. But he remembers his own thoughts not so very long ago about which of his friends he could trust to keep the secret of Voldemort’s potential return, and knows that this is a thousand times more important than that. This isn’t about the grander game: this is his life, and one false move will see him lose everything. Telling someone, even someone he thinks he can trust absolutely, might keep him from losing his mind trying to decide, but it also might ultimately kill him.

He’s gone this long without telling anyone other than Sirius about offering to join Voldemort. He can go a while longer. Just until he decides. Then he’ll figure out who he can trust.

“Fine,” Harry says. “Okay, fine. I—I won’t tell anyone.”

“I am sorry it has to be this way,” Dumbledore says, and sounds genuinely mournful. “Would that things were different, Harry. But it is a difficult world we live in. I wish you the best in making this choice—and know that no matter what you choose, I will respect it. You have the right to safety if you wish it.”

Harry nods. “Thank you, Headmaster.”

“Don’t thank me, Mr. Potter,” Dumbledore says, and looks down at his still-laced fingers. Then he looks up again and says, “It is nearly lunchtime, and you look a bit peaky. Perhaps a spot of food will help.”

“Yes, sir,” Harry says. He doesn’t want to think about food. He doesn’t want to think about anything. But he’ll go. Dumbledore dismisses him with a wave and a quiet, “Good afternoon, Mr. Potter,” and Harry leaves the Headmaster’s office, his head spinning.

The rest of the afternoon goes by. Harry eats lunch and manages not to be sick; eats dinner, manages the same. He goes to bed and sleeps and dreams the dream about promising Voldemort his whole soul if only he’ll get to live, except when he looks up before refusing the final promise, Voldemort has become Dumbledore. He wakes screaming, as usual. He falls back asleep, because there’s only so long that he can lie in the dark weeping quietly into his pillow before he gets tired again.

There’s a week left to term, and then exams, and Harry turns his focus entirely to those. Then his second year is done, and all he has left is a decision to make: a promise of safety, one that’s surely impossible to keep but a gentler, easier path? No one would blame him, he knows that, and he knows that this is objectively the smarter path. The Slytherin path. Or he could accept a part to play in the conflict to come, one which might very well see him dead before the summer’s out, but at least puts no one else in harm’s way.

Harry hates it, hates it, but he knows what he has to choose. His parents were tortured until they broke because of Voldemort and his Death Eaters. Sirius and Remus are old before their time from loss and the stresses of war. Harry’s best friend’s parents are dead, and Neville himself is sure to be a target in this war, and Harry can’t protect him if he’s too busy being protected himself.

The last day at school arrives, passes, and Harry sits down at his desk in the hour before the Leaving Feast and writes a short note, which he gives to Hedwig to deliver to the Headmaster just before everyone is called to dinner. He goes home tomorrow, and while he knows he could have delayed a little longer, he doesn’t want to write this particular letter under Sirius’s nose. It’s hard enough as it is.

Professor Dumbledore, it says. When the time comes, I’ll answer the call. I’ll do my best to help however I can.

Yours, Harry Potter.