Actions

Work Header

face death in the hope

Chapter Text

 Kreacher – loyal, devoted Kreacher-servant-helper – vanishes with an easy pop! Taking the bad-wrong-wicked locket with him. Good, he… it… needs to be away-gone-not-here.

 The disappearance – the Disapparition, the escape, the swirling space that cannot touch him here – echoes through the cave. Through the lake. Through this temple to the Dark Lord’s monstrosity.

 … pop! … pop! … pop!

 Then the pops disappear too and Regulus is left with nothing but all the regrets of his life.

 His life wasn’t very long - wasn’t very full either, not of life-living-fulfilling-things, at least – but he has so very many regrets, mistakes, and painful memories anyway. They shriek at him. They hammer at his head and make his thoughts overflow.

 He could live with the noise-torture-pain, he thinks – it’s nothing that he hasn’t really had to live with before, for all his short, empty life – but it’s the whispers that are driving him mad. The murmurs, the staring, the knowingness trickle out of every dark spot in his mind. Just as they have throughout his hated service – his proud, great, terrifying service; his sickening submission; his eager, devoted, exhilarated sacrifice – but now they are finally undammed as he damns himself.

 Now they are collecting deep enough to drown him.

 His fingers scrape over the dry rock, dusty pebbles, and hard ground. He gains cuts and slices and raw skin, but the hurt as he crawls is nothing against the regrets-hate-remorse swimming in his dizzy vision. He crawls forward like a wretch – pitiful, hateful, shameful – and jarred bruises from his collapse to the floor earlier echo-groan-scream as he stretches and drags.

 But these are nothing too.

 The only physical pain that can compete with the memories-mistakes-shame threatening to crush him is the agonizing dryness of his throat-mouth-lips-face. Trapped in his throat is a desert-sand-salt-thirst that claws at him, that catches every regret as he tries to swallow them and chokes him. His lungs threaten to burst as the images flash by.

  He recalls… he remembers… he relives every dark-curse-bloodshed-evil that he hadn’t truly wanted to cast, but had been coerced into. Along with every dark-curse-revenge-release that he wanted… needed… most desperately desired to cast far too much. He’d known it was wrong-unreasonable-wicked, sometimes, but everyone around him said, ‘good-perfect-well-done’, and sometimes it felt so right-easy-good, and he was such a fool.

 In his head-mind-overflowing-breaking-place is every horror he committed and regretted, and every horror he enjoyed or couldn’t dredge anything past the apathy-defence-emptiness for. In his throat is every cry-for-mercy that left his lips too early or too late or not at all, because he was too afraid, too lost, too uncertain.

 Stand up for the mother – ‘she’s right, you’re too wild’ – and lose the brother.

 (Too early.)

 Stand for the brother – ‘stop it, he doesn’t deserve this’ – and lose the mother.

 (Too late.)

 Stand up against the father – ‘do something, please, just stop scowling and intervene for once, please’ – and lose the name-family-honour-heritage.

 (Not at all.)

 Lose everything, what little there was left to lose.

 They’re both right, both wrong, both raging and blind, and in the end, he’s lost them all-both-everyone. He can’t please Father – dead, disappeared, vanished now, suddenly too soon gone. He can’t please Mother – angry, sick, leaving slowly now, finally too soon fading. He can’t please Brother – gone, abandoned them, gone now-long-ago-ages-back.

 He can’t please the family-overbearing-watchers either. He’s just not enough – never enough – he’s the spare, the extra, the back-up who just can’t live up to the rebellious-ungrateful-wild heir.

 He’s not as clever. (“You can’t even match your brother’s mark when we need you to best him, useless child.”) Not as charismatic. (“For Morgana’s sake, speak above a mumble if you’re going to blather on for once.”) Not as fierce-decisive-steadfast. (“You’re a Black, appearances are everything; act superior and don’t you dare let them see the softness of you.”) Not as capable. (“Would have liked the full set, eh, my boy?”) He’s not even as bearable to look at. He's not the one anyone wants. 

 They’re so proud of him… sometimes. Bragging to everyone, anyone, especially the brother, but he’s not enough, not really, and he couldn’t even be the heir-perfect-doll-thing they wanted either. They just couldn’t let the wild-child-abandoning-heir know that he’s left them with a spare-extra-back-up who wasn’t nearly as good. Average, barely acceptable, but not as everything-something-anything as they wanted-needed-demanded him to be. The House cracks… but its pride endures.

 But the Death Eaters know the truth, the black-cloaks-snake-arms see the cracks and the blood-lovers-haters don’t bother to pretend he’s what they wanted or expected. He’s not-much-at-all like his cousins – not a berserker, can’t even be a breeder – and they’d take the runaway brother in an instant over him, if the lost heir wasn’t a bloodtraitor-lion-rebel. He’s too soft, too quiet, with too weak a stomach. He’s not Dark enough to be a true Black – not hateful enough, not mad enough.

 He can’t please the Dark Lord either. He’s not as fierce-talented-admirable as his brother. (“How terribly disappointing.”) Nor as ferocious-devoted-bloodthirsty as his cousin. (“Dear, destructive Bella”) He can’t please the Dark Lord and… and… he doesn’t want to.

 Because under the handsome-face-charismatic-lies, past the newspaper-clippings-pureblood-gossip, beyond the bait of brotherhood-ideals-glory, there is a great and terrible monster. He has served-allowed-admired a man who will ruin them all.

 There are so much-many blood-bodies-life on the ground that the mud-Muggles’ can’t be told from the pure – the magical and supposedly worthy. How will they remake-return-to-glory the world when everyone is dead-sick-gone? When was their world ever glorious? The monster is tricking them into losing their traditions and their culture and their people. Soon the pure-toujours-pur will be nothing more than monsters-murderers-evil and their world will collapse-be-revealed under the war. It will not end.

 And to think that he had once been so proud, so happy, so delighted to serve… to be used… to be different and be better. To think he had believed any of it at all.

 Death-that-flies has made himself immortal. He can’t be killed; he can’t be stopped. The man-monster-god is a dead-eater, a murderer, a soul-breaker, and he must be stopped before he ruins them-all-family-everything.

 It can’t be him, the crawling wretch, who does it, but someone-anyone-someone has to. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t even destroy the whispering locket, and had to give it to helper-creature-servant in the hope that the devoted thing could find a way. It can’t be him, too consumed with dragging himself to the water for water-death-relief. He couldn’t have fought the monster-immortal-man – he’s too Dark, too Black, while too not good enough in too-many-so-many ways. There’s no way out for him; it has to be someone good-better-good.

 Brother, maybe? But why would he help? He’s gone-hates-him-not-here.

 It can’t be him. He couldn’t stop Brother from leaving-abandoning-escaping. He couldn’t stop the cousins from breaking apart. He couldn’t stop Father from fading. He couldn’t stop Mother from getting sick-twisted-embittered, burning stray leaves from the wall without mercy. Couldn’t, should’ve but couldn’t. He can’t do anything; he couldn’t do it; it can’t be him.

 He can think of no one suitable-worthy-able. But there must be someone out there to match the Dark Lord. He’s useless, not enough, pathetic, and he deserves nothing more than this crawling-dying-disappearing that he knew he most likely wouldn’t beat, that he knew he was due to finally meet. It’s incredible that he even tried-bothered-attempted to survive.

 There’s no point in leaving-escaping-continuing, even if he could. He’s committed so many mistakes, regrets, horrors. He can’t stop-fight-destroy the monster-lord-master, and can only do this little that he can in the useless-pathetic-helpless hope that when the flying-death-ruin meets a match, a hero, a good person… He can only hope that the immortal-cannibal-god will be mortal… killable… touchable once more through this sacrifice, when some brave, competent, heroic someone-else takes up the fight.

 The Dark Lord must be matched.

 He reaches for the black water – his end, his relief, his due – which seems so far away. He should stand, pull away, try to resist the temptation, but he’s so thirsty-tired-pained-aching and he desires nothing more than a stop to this agony-despair-everything. He can’t fight anymore, he can barely crawl, and he can’t quite reach the water yet.

 All Regulus can do is face his death, his end, his last breath, and hope.

 

~

 

 A hand appears from the darkness and reaches out – reaches down – to take his reaching fingers in a warm-careful-gentle-firm grasp. He can’t help but gasp and look up desperately at his saviour-friend-foe, breathless and agonized and helpless.

 All he wants-needs is some water-relief-ending and he’s already begging for it when he sees their face. When he’s seen them, he still can’t place them in the memories-regrets-mistakes swirling before his eyes and scratching at his throat. Let him go. Let him go, go, go. Let him drink before he drowns.

 A part of him thinks that he’d recall-remember-know eyes that green-bright-lovely. But the rest of him – so much more of him; all there is of him is regret and thirst now – is lost in agony, desperation, and adamant despair. It can’t be him. Let him give what he can and go.

 “Please… please,” he says to the stranger.

 They either don’t reply or he can’t hear their response. With warm-firm hands and gentle-strong arms they pull him up and away from the water-death-relief he needs-craves-wants, ignoring his feeble struggles and desperate begging. They settle him down near the bowl again, so cruel-kind, away from the black water that he keeps straining towards.

 He thinks he begs them some more, tells them he hates them, pleads and bargains like some wretched-pathetic-pitiful addict that his mother-father-family always scorned. His enemy-saviour-stranger ignores him though, easily holding him down and casting a spell that blissfully warms him up from head to toe.

 This… sweet-blissful warmth distracts him long enough for the stranger to rummage away with something for a moment. There are a series of unfamiliar-odd-alien crinkles and crackles, and suddenly sweet-blessed-merciful water is lapping against his dry-parched-pained lips.

 He forgets things like dignity, pride, and shame almost immediately, and they were of little mind to him before. It’s only the gentle-forceful-firm hands of the stranger that keep him from spilling all the wonderful water in his desperation for it. Even held down and with the stranger holding the container, half the water still seems to spill-splash-dribble over half his face and his clothes instead of stopping the burning agony in his throat.

 It’s something, but it doesn’t quench-relieve-stop the pain. It almost feels worse, now that he’s had a taste of what he’s been needing-wanting-craving. He whimpers at the stranger, almost crying out in tortured longing as they yank the empty container away and make it crinkle out of sight.

 But then the container is back and it’s full of relieving-curing-saving water again. He drains it just as desperately and quickly as the last one, drenching himself and definitely losing whatever dignity he still had. Not that he cared about anything besides stopping the thirst-agony-pain right now.

 He and the stranger repeat the process two more times before his thoughts align themselves into a semblance of real consciousness and coherence. He becomes less dizzy and less desperate; he stops spilling water everywhere and becomes capable of sitting up and drinking on his own. After the fourth container of water, his throat feels well-enough (not entirely like death warmed over) to refuse the fifth, at least for a moment. 

It takes longer than it feels, he thinks, but time isn't with him here. His reactions are slow. His thoughts are crawling. 

 Eventually, the stranger sits back without protest, removing their warm hands and arms. He almost protests, but... he shouldn't, he thinks. It takes him... time... sitting here in the dark... to pull himself into order. He's cold. Why shouldn't he protest? 

He’s embarrassingly soaked and must make for an utterly pathetic picture right now. How long has he been sitting like this?

He was reliant and helpless and wretched, and that’s unacceptable for a Black.

 He nearly…

 That’s even more unacceptable for a Black.

 Distantly, he watched the stranger reach for a strange white cap, which they screwed back onto the clear bottle of water so they could set it down next to four capless, empty ones and one other capped, full one sitting in a torn package that looks as distinctly Muggle as the bottles themselves. 

Now, it makes him wonder (worry, panic) if he’s just been poisoned somehow, on top of the Dark Lord’s Drink of Despair.

 But the stranger, who has been helping him drink (which could not have gone as quickly as the haze suggests) and then watching him carefully for... a not inconsiderable amount of time, now picks up a familiar stick and offers it to him freely. As though the stranger was waiting for him to ask for it back. 

He wants to snatch it back immediately, but instead accepts his wand back carefully and silently very gratefully. Something settles in him to hold it again.

 (“Fourteen inches, holly and unicorn hair. This is a most loyal wand. Go on and give it a wave.”)

 “Who are you?” Regulus demands hoarsely of his…

 Saviour? Friend? Foe?

 The dark island in the cavern is illuminated by the stranger’s wand shining on the ground – a long, pale, and elegant thing that looks vaguely familiar somehow – and he’s able-minded enough to study the stranger now. His thoughts still churn, disordered, but he can rise above them now. 

 At first glance, Regulus’ stranger-saviour is an almost exact reflection of his brother’s best friend. But upon further inspection, they’re very obviously not.

 It’s a young man, clearly a Potter, but younger than the one that Regulus knows – about his own age if not younger, he thinks, despite the exhaustion that makes him look older. This strange youth sitting on his heels wouldn’t at all be out of place in the halls of Hogwarts, which Regulus himself left not even six months ago. At least, the stranger wouldn’t be out of place if not for his baggy, Muggle clothing – a long-sleeved shirt, trousers, and beaten shoes that fit ill at best.

 This Potter is slightly shorter and much thinner than his relative, than Regulus himself, but he also has a hard, wiry muscle to him that Regulus’ softer leanness doesn’t. Lean, but not weak. It’s a different kind of build, more Seeker-like than the other Potter’s solid, more Chaser-like frame. And though Regulus is not an expert on his brother’s friend, this Potter seems much softer in face, though his glasses are round and hideous and do him no favours. Also, despite him having that inky black and wildly uncooperative hair, green eyes are not a Potter trait.

 Regulus is sure he’d remember eyes as green as the ones watching him – judging him – right now. (Has he seen them before? He thinks he might have, actually.)

 “I’m Harry,” the stranger says finally, much more softly than the loud tones Regulus remembers.

 Regulus considers him for a moment, warily, debating on what to push and how. Though his thoughts are… somewhat… coherent again, his head is splitting with pain and his stomach sloshing with all the water he managed to actually drink. His clothes are wet, his hands are bleeding, and there isn’t a bone in his body that doesn’t ache fiercely. His heart is still pounding in his chest, his lungs stuttering alongside it.

 He has so many questions – at least, he thinks he does – and asking questions can be so very dangerous.

 But… the stranger (Harry) has returned his wand… and probably (definitely, oh so definitely) saved his life (stopped his sacrifice)… and hasn’t made any effort to reach for the elegant-pale-strangely-familiar wand glowing softly on the ground next to them. Regulus doesn’t know where to go from here; he has to take what little he knows and apply it as best he can.

 It wasn’t supposed to go like this.

 “…Potter?” Regulus asks, hoarsely, gripping his wand tightly with numb fingers.

 Harry only snorts and rocks off his heels, sitting properly down on the rocky floor. “What gave it away?” he asks dryly, carelessly waving a hand over his face. “Was it something specific or just the general everything?”

 Regulus’ lips twitch before he can help it. He ignores all the regrets threatening to surface again. That’s something he knows well. It’s a mix of family pride and annoyance whenever anyone takes one look at him and immediately pronounces him a Black. It always happened at family events and Slug Club parties, and sometimes he thought his initials might as well have been stamped on his forehead.

 And speaking of foreheads… Regulus now notices a strange scar on Harry’s. It’s a faint, red line almost hidden by his hair, and it’s shaped like a lightning bolt. It’s a magical scar if he’s ever seen one. It might be from a rune, one of several, or… well… it could be something impossible.

 “Why are you here? How did you find this place?” Regulus asks, on the subject of impossible things. This stranger’s sudden appearance makes no sense, none that he can see, and he needs answers. “And why… did you…” Stop me. “…save me?”

 Now Harry finally looks vaguely nervous, scratching the back of his neck. “It’s a really long story,” he says finally, almost apologetically, “and it’s really hard to explain.”

 That’s… not an acceptable answer.

 Regulus would have never found this place without Kreacher, who was brought here by the Dark Lord himself. How did this stranger find this place? And what are the odds that they’d be here at the exact time to rescue Regulus from the fate that, unlike his house elf, he wouldn’t have been able to escape from? How did this stranger know what Regulus planned to risk? To do? To give?

 “Try me,” Regulus says, more than a little daringly.

 Harry just gives him this look, somewhere between amused and slightly disbelieving, apparently not at all offended. Regulus stares back, surprised, then tries to project as much sureness and certainty as possible. As though holding his wet, scraped chin high will stop his hands from shaking, his heart from pounding at his head, and the whispers still in the back of his head finally shut up.

 Maybe if he focuses on something else… on anything else… his chest and bones and everything else will stop aching like open wounds while he sits here. While he sits here, barely, terribly, and unexpectedly alive. When he really, really shouldn’t be.

 “Okay then,” Harry says easily, “I was born on July 31st in 1980. My parents are Lily and James Potter. Three days ago, I died in 1998 and woke up here.” He looks off into space, lips pursed unhappily. “I’m still not sure how or why… exactly.”

 Regulus stares, stops thinking entirely, and the only reason he doesn’t gape is because he’s a Black. (“Blacks don’t gape like rabble, Regulus.”) He just freezes, forcibly learned habits taking over to keep his face as blank as he can manage. He’s not sure he succeeds.

 Harry just watches him patiently, crossing his legs and putting his chin in one hand. “Yeah that was basically my reaction when I realized this was really happening. At least you get to have this moment with your pants on. I arrived without anything.”

 Regulus may be many things, but that’s… very strange.

 “Anything?” he manages, trying desperately not to imagine the… oddness of that.

 If he’s not all that successful, he attributes his moment of weakness to the fact that he just almost died and then didn’t and he’s still a little bit in shock from that. As well as the general everything of Harry and his very frank statements of strange pictures. Frankly, Regulus’ head hurts too much for this. It’s all absurd.

 Harry tugs at the collar of his ugly, oversized, long-sleeved Muggle t-shirt and releases it. “Anything,” he confirms with a grimace, his face looking only slightly flushed.

 Or maybe that’s just Regulus projecting because his face feels like it’s burning. All the water sloshed on his face and the front of his clothes is just going to boil off at this rate. As a distraction from the fact that his saviour’s just claimed to have come back from the dead and travelled through time, this is one that works remarkably and disturbingly well.

 Regulus wants to immediately dismiss the idea of Harry being from the future as ridiculous. This entire situation wasn’t even remotely in his plans for today. Whoever heard of travelling more than a decade through time? Whoever heard of coming back from the dead?

 But… time travel isn’t unheard of… and is largely unknown at the same time. The possibilities in such an inherently impossible field of magic are endless.

 Also, Harry looks very, very much like James Potter. Scarily so. Regulus remembers the Head Girl from last year too – she was in the Slug Club with him, Lily Evans, even if they never spoke – and he now remembers her vivid green eyes. He can see the family resemblance. He can’t not see it, really.

 There’s also the fact that Harry saved him (stopped him), hasn’t to his knowledge cast anything but a Warming Charm on him, doesn’t seem to have poisoned him or fed him any potions, and has yet to reach for the lit wand on the ground while Regulus remains armed. Regulus can curse him in any way he pleases at the moment, but Harry Potter seems perfectly confident and apparently relaxed, though his eyes are very sharp underneath both those things.

He has stayed throughout the worst of Regulus' pain and suffering. He has tended him through the worst of the madness. Regulus has no idea how long they've been here in this place in which no one should linger. 

 Regulus owes Harry his life.

 After a lifetime as a Black, seven years in Slytherin, and his service as a Death Eater, Regulus would really like to think that he’s good at recognizing lies and threats by now. By all appearances, Harry is either a very, very good liar or… he’s telling the truth. 

 

Chapter Text

“Can you prove it?” Regulus asks carefully, gripping his wand in a way so that he can easily turn it on his saviour. Only if it proves necessary, of course, when or if Harry can’t prove anything.

 Harry looks him up and down, expression unreadable.

 “I could tell you something that nobody in this time should know?” Harry offers finally. “It’s part of how I knew you were here and what you were doing.”

 That sounds… very agreeable, actually.

 “Fine.”

 “Okay, so you joined the Death Eaters at sixteen, right?” Harry begins. “Your family liked the Dark Lord and were very proud. You have a bunch of articles about him stuck to your bedroom wall at Grimmauld Place.”

 Regulus’ grip goes white-knuckled. “Yes,” he confirms, somewhat uneased but attributing it to the shakiness of the emerald potion and all the water he drank.

 That’s not… deeply secret information, but the possible sources - people who not only have been inside the ancestral and fortress-like home of the Blacks, but people who have been inside Regulus’ bedroom - aren’t the sort of people who’d easily give up information to Potters. Even the people Regulus has loosely considered friends haven't seen the inside of his bedroom. 

 “I dunno much about you besides that, really,” Harry says, either assuringly or apologetically. Maybe both. “Most of what I know is about the locket.”

 Harry eyes Regulus’ wand sharply at this, staying admirably relaxed still. When Regulus very carefully doesn’t react, Harry very carefully continues.

 “Sometime recently, Vol… Hold on, is his name Taboo right now?”

 The Dark Lord doesn’t tell many of his Death Eaters much, especially not those not in favour. Regulus shamefully has no idea what the Dark Lord’s current whims are in regards to his name. He doesn’t think so, but he really doesn’t know.

 “I’m unaware if it’s enacted at the moment,” Regulus says, forcing himself to keep his face neutral and trying to keep the flush off his cheeks.

 “Erm, best not to risk it then, eh?” Harry says awkwardly.

 “Best not.”

 Harry nods, then says, “Okay, so… some time recently, old snake-face-”

 Regulus chokes on absolutely nothing immediately, because old what? But even though Harry notices, his saviour just looks amused while Regulus’ heart and lungs try to escape up his throat.

 “Pardon?”

 “Well, it suits him, right?” Harry says, waving a hand over his face in an incomprehensible gesture, as though trying to wordlessly describe the Dark Lord. Then he adds defensively, “Because he’s got that scaly look and the flat nose and the red eyes? He looks like a snake. Sounds like one too, sometimes.”

 Regulus manages to stop choking without magic and just stares at his saviour, plain disbelief and recent events winning over the need for a blank expression. He wonders, now, if Harry is insane. The Dark Lord has a terrible, inhuman edge to his otherwise regal appearance from decades of the Dark Arts – the foul ritual magic of his journey towards immortality may be only a part of it – but… snake-face?

 “Uh… I can call him something else?” Harry offers, after the silence draws out too long.

 For the sake of Regulus’ sanity at the moment: “Please.”

 “I’ll call him Tom, then. It’s his name, after all,” Harry decides easily.

 Regulus wonders now if his saviour actually intends to be the death of him.

 “Fine, so sometime recently, Tom needed a house elf for some unspecified task,” Harry continues, apparently ignorant of the way Regulus’ heart just seems to stop. “You volunteer Kreacher for the task and tell him it’s an honour to be chosen, and you tell him to attend to Tom’s task and then come straight home.”

 One of the biggest regrets of Regulus’ short life: forcing Kreacher to go through the Dark Lord’s mad plans because it was an “honour to be proud of”. Because he was put on the spot and desperate for relief of any kind in the midst of madness. A relent from the relentless. His only saving grace was his reflexive order for Kreacher to come right back home afterwards. He was frightened that his loyal servant might not come back – sometimes even Death Eaters didn’t come back from the Death Lord’s tasks, so a house elf’s chances seemed appallingly slim – but not enough to refuse the Dark Lord.

 “So Kreacher comes to this cave and is forced to drink that awful potion. Tom just laughs at him, drops the locket in the basin, refills the potion, and leaves. Needing water, Kreacher is almost drowned by the inferi in the lake, but recalls your order to come home and tells you everything.”

 Kreacher surviving and the Dark Lord’s ignorance of such is the only reason Regulus was able to find the locket at all. He never would have found the locket otherwise. And if the Dark Lord knew of Kreacher’s survival, Regulus is sure the both of them would be dead now. What Harry is revealing is information deeply secret and dangerous, things that only three beings should know partly and two should know entirely, and yet Harry says it easily, like Regulus hasn’t been living in fear for his life and his family’s safety ever since it happened.

 “I dunno what happens between, but eventually you come to Kreacher and tell him to take you back to the cave – and order him not to tell anyone in the family where you’ve gone or what you’ve done to keep them safe. You drink the potion, switch the horcrux -”

 Regulus almost jumps out of his skin at the casual mention of the Darkest Arts that he knows of, but Harry goes on undaunted, like a split soul and near irreparable evil is old news. It might be, to him.

 “- for the fake locket with the note, to try and destroy the real one and can’t, and then send Kreacher off with orders to destroy it. Then -” Harry’s already serious expression becomes somewhat grim here. “- you’re drowned by the inferi and no one knows where you disappeared to. Kreacher tries to destroy the real locket but can’t, can’t tell the family what happened, and no one realizes anything until they try to steal the locket and find out it’s a fake.

 Harry clears his throat and quotes: “‘I face death in the hope that when you meet your match, you will be mortal once more. R.A.B.” He trails off, at the end of this, awkwardly. 

 A silence falls between them, and stays there for a long while.

 Regulus suddenly feels as though his heart and lungs have shrunk several sizes in his chest. He just… he knew, but… he actually just came very, very close to death today, didn’t he? And for that? That’s not… that’s not the future he would have hoped for, with him dead – vanished, forgotten, which was expected but not painless – and the Dark Lord alive for years longer. He’s been entirely certain that the magical world couldn’t survive years more of the Dark Lord, not with how absolutely every part of their world seems to be fracturing and falling apart at an alarming, exponential rate.

 But then he remembers that Harry, if he really is from the future, is solid proof that the world survived. And if no one realized anything for years, does that include the Dark Lord along with his family? He’s almost surprised at how much the thought of their safety relieves him. And the locket was found eventually. His death… wouldn’t have been a total loss.

 But that does beg the question… When was it realized? How? And how does Harry – a Potter of all people – know these things?

 “Kreacher told you this story,” Regulus says finally, breaking the silence. There’s no one else the information could have come from, if he really did… die. “I ordered him not to tell the family, but…” Oh, Morgana. “…you’re not family.”

 Harry’s eyes widen slightly, but then he looks impressed. “Yeah.”

 Regulus knows his family’s loyal servant better than anyone, and because of and despite that he feels he should have anticipated that. House elves and their loopholes! Regulus was just taking the sheer-luck advantage of the Dark Lord overlooking a simple elf, wasn’t he? But… Kreacher would never willingly betray Regulus or the Black Family… right?

 “Why would he tell you family secrets?” Regulus demands, maybe a touch too harshly.

 Harry eyes him warily again, but still stays apparently relaxed. “I inherited him from Sirius,” he answers carefully. “Sirius was my godfather. He made me his heir.”

 Sirius was my godfather.

 “…Sirius died?” Regulus says.

 A brief flash of pain crosses Harry’s face. “Yeah,” he replies softly. “In my fifth year.”

 Regulus closes his eyes as he assimilates that information, but not for long with this stranger in front of him saying such dangerous things. Not for at least nearly sixteen years then, almost Regulus’ whole lifetime. Nothing urgent then; no more danger than his brother is in every day already being a bloodtraitor to the Blacks.

 How? He wants to ask, so he can know how his selfish, perfect, wild lion of an elder brother died, but he also doesn’t. He’s still shaken to the core on the inside hearing of his own death, which might have been happening this very second if not for Harry. He doesn’t think he can handle Sirius’ too.

 The pain on Harry’s face doesn’t suggest it was a pleasant death, if there is such a thing. Regulus doesn’t know any ways for anyone to die pleasantly at thirty-six years old.

 He nearly just died horribly at eighteen, and if Harry can prevent Regulus’ death, he can prevent Sirius’ too. As the son of James Potter, it makes more sense for Harry to give a damn about his godfather rather than a terrible, traitorous Death Eater who died before he was born.

 (And at least Sirius probably didn’t walk to his own death knowingly, so… that should be an easier job.)

 And this means that it was over sixteen years before anyone found out how Regulus died, an unknown number of years before his fake locket was discovered, and likely over sixteen years before the real locket was found.

 “Was it eventually destroyed?” Regulus asks quietly.

 “The locket?” Harry asks, then nods. “We found a way.”

 At those words, Regulus breathes out a sigh of relief he didn’t know he was holding in. He hangs his head into the comfort of his free hand for a moment. He’s exhausted and shaky, his throat is still parched, he’s still damp, and he just found out that he really, actually was about to die. He was supposed to die. (Just as expected, but without the results he hoped for.) And his brother may die sixteen years from now in a war that apparently will never end. Regulus’ grip on his wand has his knuckles white and his shoulders are trembling uncontrollably, and he feels horribly, shamefully humbled.

 Did he know? Regulus nearly asks. Did he know it was me?

 He spots movement out of the corner of his eye and has his wand pointed at Harry before he knows what he’s doing. Harry freezes in the middle of getting to his feet, a hand hovering above his glowing wand, and sharply eyes Regulus’ trembling arm.

 “I’m all for continuing the chat, but I don’t fancy being in this cave any longer,” Harry says. “It’s not particularly safe here, and it’s… honestly, it’s just really creepy here.” Then a concerned look crosses his face. “And besides Kreacher, everyone I know who drank that potion died soon after, so I’d rather not push my luck any more than usual.”

 That’s a… that’s a fairly decent point.

 “Can I pick up my wand now?” Harry asks, still holding himself perfectly still despite his half-risen position that cannot be comfortable.

 It’s kind of irritating. Regulus is sitting down and he can’t even stop his outstretched arm from shaking like a Muggleborn firstie in front of a ghost.

 “‘May I’,” Regulus corrects.

 Harry stares blankly at him, then says, “What?”

 Regulus doesn’t even know, really, but he’s already half on the broomstick, so…

 “It’s ‘may I pick up my wand now’, not ‘can I pick up my wand now’,” he says, lowering his wand because his arm’s starting to ache. He tries not to let his face flash as Harry just stares at him for a moment, then grins slightly.

 “May I pick up my wand now?” Harry says, looking incredibly good-humoured about it, wiggling his fingers questioning over the falling stick even though Regulus has already lowered his wand.

 Regulus arches an eyebrow at him, ignoring the warmth in his face. “I suppose you may.”

 It’s supposed to be an attempt at good wry humour, but to Regulus’ own ears it comes out a touch too haughty and a brush too biting. As it usually does. Soft remarks and teasing without thorns aren’t exactly things that the Black Family is known for – even Sirius didn’t manage to fully escape that one.

 But Harry doesn’t seem to mind, even rolling his eyes as he scoops up his glowing wand and brings himself fully upright. He shakes out his head and his limbs, wand held with the casual but firm grip of someone ready to defend themselves at any moment. Regulus feels more than a little hazy, but he can still tell someone with combat experience from someone without, and he catches the way Harry keeps a vivid eye on the black water all around them.

 There really is something familiar about that wand. Regulus knows he’s seen it somewhere before – it’s oddly long and has a dated, unique design – but he just can’t place it at the moment. He wants to ask, but it’s a bit of a faux-pas to just come out and ask someone about their wand. Regulus was raised better than that, and sharing wand details with a stranger is asking to get your throat slit.

 Harry starts putting the water bottles back into their packaging and Regulus starts working on trying to stand up. Moving forward is quick to tell him, by leaving spots dancing in his eyes and a vicious pain cutting into his side, that trying to stand up without support will see his face planting into the rock. Regulus clutches his middle, makes a pathetic sound, and leans against the basin’s rock just so he doesn’t snap like a house of cards.

 Then Harry’s warm hands and arms are there again, supporting him and pushing his loosely-held wand back into his hand before he can drop it.

 “Easy,” Harry says, somewhere between gentle and anxious. “You’re going to feel weak right now. Don’t worry, I’ll get us back. Lean on me.” He pulls Regulus up, a joint effort between them, and pulls Regulus’ non-wand arm around his shoulders. “Just lean on me.”

 Regulus does, blinking blearily towards his brother’s best friend’s son from the future. Hunched over slightly, he and Harry are the same height. If Regulus could stand properly, he’d be taller.

 “You’ve done this before,” he says, dizzy from his journey from sitting to standing, his mind whirling to figure out what he can from the hints Harry’s given up so far. “You stole my locket. My letter.”

 “Worst surprise of my life, Mister R.A.B.,” Harry answers, pulling him towards the boat. “Come on, move your legs. Walking usually has one foot going out in front of the other, you know. I’m not a broomstick.”

 “No, brooms don’t talk as much,” Regulus mutters irritably, head pounding and limbs aching as he tries to walk. He’s trying, really trying – and doesn’t need useless, nagging encouragement right in his ear when it’s his legs that aren’t cooperating.

 He hates being reliant. He hates being reliant and useless and weak, but he doesn’t exactly have any other options at the moment. (He failed.) Thankfully, Harry doesn’t seem to be annoyed or disappointed, or worse: pitying. Not like any of Regulus' most recent acquaintances would be. Regulus’ saviour is just a touch anxious and concerned at their general situation, and still incredibly good-humoured.

 Harry snorts. “If your legs were as fit as your mouth, we’d have left already,” he says… teasingly? That sounds almost like teasing, only without the bite and thorns Regulus is familiar with.

 “Says the person having a chat,” Regulus replies, more awkwardly than he’d like, but Harry snorts.

 “Alright, so this can only carry one adult wizard at a time,” Harry says, once they’re stopped in front of the eerie boat dawdling in the black waters of the island’s shore. “We can’t both go across at the same time. Any proposals?”

 Regulus frowns slightly in confusion. “How did you get over here in the first place?”

 “Found the chain, pulled, came over, all while you were out of it,” Harry answers. Then adds, a little more quietly, “Almost thought I wouldn’t reach you in time.”

 Regulus feels a shiver down his spine at the thought of how close he’d been to reaching into the black water. His head aches and side splits with the reminder at how willing he was to finally have relief.

 Thank Morgana that you did, he doesn’t say. 

 

Chapter Text

“D’you think you can get yourself across?” Harry asks.

 Not really, but…

 “I can try,” Regulus says, making an attempt to step forward.

 He immediately nearly falls on his face into the black water – a lancing pain through his lower abdomen crippling him the moment he moves – but Harry catches him before he can and pulls Regulus back into his arms. Regulus can feel his face flushing wish embarrassment, as he’s forced to lean against Harry, head hanging over his saviour’s shoulder.

 Regulus opens his mouth to make some witty, angry comment to distract from how pathetic and useless he is at the moment, but… he’s also in the middle of getting a good look at the shapes beneath the water. There’s movement in the water over Harry’s shoulder. Regulus’ biting comment dies in his throat and he can almost feel his flushed face paling immediately.

 Inferi.

 There are bodies everywhere beneath the dark surface, milling about his clear agitation, crawling over one another in an underwater horde – some full-bodied, some breaking into pieces. They form an undead swarm of powerful, awe-inspiring necromancy, a display of magic that still surprises Regulus even after two years of being Marked. He’s seen the Dark Lord perform great and terrible acts of magic, but this is… this is… there must be over a hundred of them at least.

 “They’re definitely coming up towards the surface,” Harry says grimly.

 When Regulus pulls back slightly, he sees Harry watching the milling bodies slowly but surely coming to surround their boat. The realization that they are truly surrounded by the dead stuns him more than it should. Harry, however, looks at least as annoyed as he does anxious.

 “Maybe splitting up isn’t the great idea at the moment… unless you think you can take them.”

 Not all that far away, a shrunken hand breaks the surface of the water and then disappears again, as though tossing and turning in sleep.

 “No, I… I thought I’d subdued their awakening… somewhat,” Regulus says weakly, rather than admit aloud how he’d known what was potentially waiting for him. How close he’d been humbles him. “But apparently not.” He catches a glimpses of several empty eyes turned their direction, between the ripples of the water. “They’re focused on us now.”

 Regulus unthinkingly tightens the grip he has on Harry and pulls his hands in on himself. Intrusive thoughts are trying to break the surface of his mind, much like the inferi stirring in the lake, reaching out for him with pale hands. In the nightmarish, unbidden thoughts, he keeps reaching back. It’s harder than he’d like it to be to ignore the thought of his fingers brushing over pale, gruesome skin.

 Harry sighs heavily, which is thankfully distracting. Harry sighs like this is annoying but to be expected, which is at odds to the frantic racing of his heartbeat that Regulus can feel through his neck. When Regulus looks at him, Harry’s slightly paled, but he looks incredibly resolute instead of terrified. Like he just doesn’t have the time to be scared of the largest collection of inferi and necromancy that Regulus has ever seen.

 “Just once, I’d like to leave a place without having to fight my way out,” Harry comments dryly, twirling his strange wand in his hand as an elbow breaks the surface this time. “No dragons, no Fiendfyre, no inferi, no dementors… you know?”

 Regulus stares at Harry and only doesn’t gape because Blacks don’t.

 “No,” he says flatly.

 “I can’t remember the last time we had anything that went according to plan,” Harry says wistfully, then looks apologetically at Regulus as another eerie splash echoes through the dark cave. “There’s an army of restless inferi coming for us, but they’re absolutely terrified of fire and won’t go near it. That boat will only carry one of us at a time and you probably can’t sit up on your own. Any bright ideas?”

 Regulus leans away from the water slightly as the inferi draw nearer – away from the approaching hands. “I don’t think we’re going to avoid getting attacked,” he answers, hazy mind racing to adjust to the new situation. He knew he’d get attacked; he didn’t really think he’d have to put this much effort into a survival attempt. He hadn’t really planned on it.

 “Yeah, no,” Harry agrees.

 “If… you think you can fight them off, we could transfigure our own boat.”

 “…That might work,” Harry agrees again, after a second’s thought. “But we don’t exactly have anything to transfigure. I was in a bit of a hurry and all I brought were the water bottles and a knife.”

 “Those will have to do,” Regulus says, urgent, as a head finally breaks the water’s surface.

 Harry, also staring in horror at the head, just says, “Right, then stand best you can and get ready to fire. Accio water bottles!”

 Harry removes one arm – his non-wand one – from around Regulus to catch the package, which he immediately tosses into the black water. It lands with a small splash that seems impossibly large and loud, as the underwater inferi surge up towards it and them. Before it’s even landed, though, Harry is pointing his strange wand at it, and says an incantation with such ferocious concentration that it’s not at all surprising when the Muggle packaging erupts into a fully-fledged, translucent boat, as large as the eerie vessel beside it.

 The transfiguration is immediately following by a fierce blast of fire, and the wretched, reaching dead quail back from the inferno pouring from Harry’s wand tip. Harry turns his wand over the water’s agitated surface in a steady stream of flames, forcing back the heads and hands attempting to rise from its depths. He supports a half-standing Regulus all the while, and turns his wand all around them, until they’re surrounded by a viciously hot, swirling wall of fire that sends many of the cursed dead fleeing for the bottom of the lake.

 Regulus focuses mainly on standing, but also manages to turn his own wand on the few inferi slipping through or trying to sink the transfigured boat. He curses them as viciously as he can, painful flames slicing into their shrunken skin and burning the rotted flesh away. Harry keeps the horde at large away, but Regulus rips the stragglers apart and away from their escape.

 Harry was right, the necromantic things are absolutely terrified of fire.

 Once Harry deems their buffer decent, he pulls Regulus forward into the transfigured boat and they clamber in. Regulus’ limbs are embarrassingly clumsy. He falls inelegantly into the vessel and Harry shoves them out onto the lake and forward. Determined to do his part, Regulus ignores his shaking limbs and pulls himself up, then pours more cursed fire into the water to keep the undead away, to divest himself of his anger and fear. To deny what nearly happened.

 And then Harry revives his dwindling, spinning inferno. The flames are inelegant and seem wild, but they are effective at destroying the dead and… massively, unexpectedly powerful. If Harry had a spark less control, they’d be dead. The fire lights up the cave and burns away the black opaqueness of the water. The heat is incredible. The inferi don’t seem to dare to breach the surface at all anymore.

 In fact, most of them are moving down and away. Regulus doesn’t know if the undead – the animated dead, whatever the specifics are – can feel fear, but it looks it. It’s… very satisfying.

 The curse flames that Regulus is sending down into the water to encourage them… may help the matter. Regulus sees little issue in painful warning and retribution. If Regulus’ cursed fire reaching into the depths seems like the effect of Harry’s massive, warding flames to them… well, then. So be it.

 There’s a painful slosh to Regulus’ stomach and a deep ache in his limbs, but he ignores them both. He forces himself to do his unlikely part in the unexpected. Spellcasting worsens the shaking in his hands and leaves a sensation almost like burning in his lungs, but he ignores that too. The spotting of his vision could be the emerald potion, or too much magic, but neither of those things are going to matter much if he’s dead when the impossible has apparently conspired to see him live today.

 Somehow, watching the inferi get torn apart by his own spell only seems to make Regulus angrier. Like every possessed corpse is an offensive reminder, a demand to know where he thinks he’s going, a call to their arms and a fate as a martyr, at the bottom of a lake. A reminder of how he’s weak and tired and damp, of how he has to live with all these consequences, and of how he remains at the will and whimsy of someone else. A complete stranger, at that.

 They’re across the lake in a time that Regulus’ head says was short, but his supporting arms say was far too long. When they hit the shore, his limbs aren’t at all cooperative, and Harry must half-carry him from the boat. They collapse hard on the stone shore, and the flames over the waters die out as they scramble to untangle themselves.

 It’s difficult, largely because Regulus can’t stand without swaying like he’s stolen all his mother’s sherry, like at any moment he could flop into the water like Walburga Black onto a sofa. Harry must help him up and keep him there. In the time it takes them to right themselves, to put Regulus’ arm around Harry’s shoulders and Harry’s around his waist, several dark shapes are floating up towards them.

 Regulus raises his shaking wand to curse them back, to see if the puppets can feel pain as well as fear, but Harry interrupts by dragging him away. Regulus can only stumble along, down the narrow rim of rock surrounding the black lake. Several inferi swarm around their boat, rocking it violently, trying to drag it under. Regulus wants little more than to burn them to pieces, but he recognizes that flight is a far more intelligent option now than fight.

 Harry again intones for fire, and sweeps his wand over the surface of the lake, back and forth. The misshapen corpses in the waters cower away again, the press of bodies slipping back into the depths almost gratefully, and do not try to rise again. Harry’s warning flames, spewed almost casually, let them pass unbothered. Their transfigured boat, not nearly so fortunate, sinks behind them.

 Harry guides them, seemingly focused on supporting Regulus and keeping the inferi back. Regulus focuses on walking and breathing, and not falling on his face. His face is burning from within, from the sickness, from the shame.

 “Almost there,” Harry murmurs softly, with a note that Regulus would hazily place as concern. “Save your energy… We’ll soon be out of here.” Harry repeats this litany of assurances, over and over, in a way that makes Regulus suspect they are not purely for his benefit. “We’re nearly there… It’s going to be all right.”

 Regulus nods, or at least tries, and stumbles along. Some way or another, they reach the exit, the resealed archway opens for them, and they cross the outer cave. The heat of the cave falls away immediately. Regulus sees Harry fumble with something, and knows he’s being dragged, but he’s not really paying attention. He’s too busy trying to shake the images of inferi creeping towards him, of his own hand reaching back. He doesn’t return to proper consciousness until Harry practically dumps them both into the icy seawater that fills the cliff crevice.

 “Sugar Quills!”

 “…What?” says Harry, sounding bewildered.

 Regulus, now very much awake as Harry pulls them towards open sky, realizes what he’s just said and feels his face burn further, despite the freezing water. There’s no way to explain that phrase that isn’t horribly embarrassing. The only way forward – the only way forward for any of this – is to act as though everything is entirely normal and expected and that he’s not at all in the wrong.

 “It’s cold,” Regulus hisses, angrily.

 He awkwardly tries to help swim, but he’s infuriatingly not quite capable. He likely hinders Harry’s motions more than anything. It’s all awful. He has a headache, every part of him hurts, his robes are soaked, and it’s a miracle he still has his wand. Regulus feels like a half-drowned, half-frozen cat being tugged along by the scruff of his neck. It’s unbearable.

 “Well, you let old Tom know to put his next horcrux somewhere in the tropics, then, yeah?” Harry says bemusedly. Holding Regulus up with one arm, he slaps the other down onto the boulder they’ve reached, and starts to heave them up.

 Regulus attempts to assist, but he’s physically pathetic at the moment, and Harry has just rendered his mental state useless as well. The Dark Lord’s “next” horcrux? Multiple horcruxes? It must be some sort of terrible joke. Surely the result of being raised by Sirius’ awful friends and their tasteless humour. That was clearly a joke, and yet… the concept of there being multiple horcruxes.

 Harry pulls them onto the rock, away from the cold sea, and pulls them both to their feet with a tired groan. They sway and nearly overbalance, but they manage in the end. Harry and Regulus stand there for a moment, sodden and shivering under the night sky.

 Regulus’ face is against Harry’s neck, and he can’t bring himself to care about the embarrassment of being useless and reliant, because warmth. Before Regulus can demand it, Harry raises his wand, and suddenly they’re both dry and blissfully warm. It’s such a relief that Regulus nearly cries like a child, but he doesn’t, because Blacks don’t.

 It’s such a relief that Regulus nearly passes out where he stands, leaning against Harry. Falling asleep shouldn’t sound so appealing an option given their situation, but he’s in such pain, and giving in to unconsciousness just seems like the next step. The weight of what’s just happened is settling into his bones, and it’s so heavy that even his mind, racing with all the possibilities and potential of tomorrow, might give in.

 Harry knows enough for his claims of time travel to… give anyone pause, Regulus thinks, even though he’s never heard of anyone travelling nearly twenty years before. Harry knows too much, and Regulus can’t figure out why anyone might lie about this. If it is true, then the information that Harry has will be priceless. Even if the only useful thing Harry knows is how to destroy that terrible locket, that’s still dragging the Dark Lord back down from his “path towards immortality” and priceless in itself.

 Oh, the things that Harry might know. Must know.

 If this is a hoax… Regulus doesn’t know what he’ll do. He owes this Harry a Life Debt now. Having a Life Debt to someone is annoying and shameful, but, although Regulus is easily a thief and a liar and a coward, he’s not dishonourable. At least, he likes to think he isn’t. He’s a Black of the Ancient and Most Noble House of Black, bound of the traditions of true magical society that are being destroyed day by day, and he can’t back out of paying his debt. If this stranger’s… if this Harry’s actions were enough to invoke a Life Debt, of course.

 Harry jostles them, and Regulus’ eyes are snapping open before he’s even realized they were closed.

 “I can Apparate us both somewhere safe now,” Harry says.

 “Somewhere unimportant and unpopulated first,” Regulus insists, pulling back to try and retain some dignity. He only succeeds in nearly falling backwards, before Harry catches him.

 Morgana, today is… today is not going well for him and dignity, or him and his plans. At this rate, between everything, Regulus’ mother is going to somehow sniff out the disgrace he’s being and try to disown him on principle. At least, until she remembers he’s the only spare they have.

 “We can’t leave a direct trail to follow,” Regulus says, once he’s mostly righted himself. This is humiliating. “Multiple Apparitions and random movement will make us more difficult to trace.”

 Regulus has met witches and wizards twice his age who haven’t learned this lesson yet. One would think the current times would encourage a healthy sense of paranoia and caution. If Regulus is to live after all, then he’s at least not getting caught. Not after all that.

 Harry raises his eyebrows, but says agreeably, “Alright, then. Hold on.”

 Even only having known Harry for less than an hour – James Potter and Lily Evans’ son, Sirius’ godson, wearer of horrible glasses and terrible Muggle clothes, possessor of good-humour and many comebacks, destroyer of inferi, concerned saviour and dispenser of Warming Charms – Regulus thinks there are worse strangers to whom to owe a Life Debt. There are certainly worse friends to whom to owe a Life Debt. Perhaps, despite the original course of today, there are worse things than owing a Life Debt at all.

 Regulus’ luck could have been far different today. Time will tell whether for better or worse.

Chapter Text

Harry obliges and takes them to the Forest of Dean. It’s in the middle of nowhere, unpopulated, and random to everyone except… well… just Harry, now, so it seems.

 He cheers himself up with the secret significance of the place he’d chosen. It’s the muddy bank of a chilly pond, dark and deserted, yes, but also where he and Ron finally destroyed the real locket together. It feels almost as though Harry is taking Regulus here to assure him, to show him, that the locket was destroyed after all. Except… apparently… that’s been undone.

 Harry misses Ron. So badly that it feels like a stomach ache, like physical pain, worse than any cut he's picked up in this mess, if he thinks about it for too long. He misses Hermione too, just as badly, even though it’s only been three days since he’d last seen them. Since he walked off to die.

 He can’t help but think that everything would somehow be better – less confusing, less impossible – if they were here by his side now, or if he were still by theirs.

Hermione would know at least something about all this, and started finding and following trails immediately, and Ron would be able to come up with a plan for them in the meanwhile. At the very least, Ron would be able to lighten the mood and keep company – a balance to Harry’s tendency to be lonesome and Hermione’s to be stressed – while they worked together to figure out the impossible again.

 But they aren’t here, and it makes Harry’s insides twist to think he might not see them again. He made his choice, and… apparently… he has to live with it. He wasn’t expecting to live at all.

 The only person that Harry has now is someone who he’s never met before, should probably be dead, and has the Dark Mark on his left arm. None of which are terribly comforting thoughts. But nothing about this impossible situation is comfortable.

 Regulus yanks away from Harry, looking around the forest with either a vaguely sick expression or a disdainful one. Then Regulus stumbles towards a tree and… oh… sick expression. Regulus begins to throw up behind the tree, the Side-Along too much for him after the potion, and Harry politely, awkwardly, averts his eyes as Regulus vomits.

 Harry saw the pictures of Regulus, before, but he was still unprepared for someone who looks his own age. Someone who looks like they should be in their seventh year of Hogwarts – Slytherin, definitely, with that calculating look and unconscious sneer – instead of a Death Eater. Somehow, Harry had always pictured Regulus Black as… older than the photographs… even knowing that Sirius’ brother had only been eighteen when he died.

 Regulus Arcturus Black is a couple inches taller than Harry, and leaner than his black robes make him look. Harry still thinks him less handsome than Sirius, but he’s still a good-looking enough bloke, even ill and being sick behind a tree. In a haughty sort of way that gives Harry an unfortunate view up Regulus’ nose sometimes, and reminds him of several unpleasant people. Regulus is definitely Sirius’ brother, and definitely a Black.

 Regulus has the same complexion, similarly scattered moles, and grey eyes as Sirius, but his eyes are more watchful than striking, more wary than bright. Regulus doesn’t have any of that casual elegance that Harry remembers either, at least… especially not now. Regulus’ long black hair is tightly pulled back in a ponytail at his neck and down his back, oddly neat for a bloke who just nearly died. It’s very different to Sirius’ wild, sometimes haggard, curls. Harry thinks it must be charmed somehow.

 It’s a bit like comparing Percy to Bill, almost.

 “We should walk some before we Apparate again,” Regulus says hoarsely. Like someone took Sirius’ voice and made him a lot quieter.

 Harry turns around again, just as Sirius’ brother tries to step away from the tree, along the bank, and nearly falls on his face again. Regulus is saved by Harry, again, who was prepared for it.

 Harry doesn’t know why the guy keeps trying to walk on his own when he clearly can’t, but he doubts that much good will come of pointing that out. Regulus seems smart – in that mind-works-scarily-quick way that Hermione is, or maybe that leaps-of-common-knowledge-and-logic way Ron is – by his intuitive guesses so far. Harry knows that pointing out a limit to a perfectly intelligent person, who is trying to pass that limit by ignoring it, isn’t a great idea.

 Regulus might not have a sleek hair out of place, but Harry has a feeling like the one a person gets from slowly watching Hermione’s hair get wilder from a mix of competitive determination and unreasonable stress, or from seeing any Weasley’s ears slowly turn red while trying to complete an uncooperative task.

 So, Harry just slings Regulus’ arm over his shoulders again and offers the poor guy a good out.

 “Sorry about that,” Harry lies easily. “Sometimes my Side-Along’s a little wobbly.” Harry is actually pretty great at Apparition after so long on the run, but that doesn’t matter. “Are you all right, there?”

 “M’fine,” Regulus says, shifting their weight.

 “Right then!” Harry says, slightly awkwardly, and then immediately runs out of things to say.

 He just shuts up entirely and, by unspoken agreement, they begin to stagger around the edges of the pond’s bank. The Forest of Dean is eerily quiet in the night, lacking the sharp reek and crash of seawater, and the howl of wind against cliffs. The forest has only the faint rustle of tree leaves, and the occasional animal sound off in the distance.

 But the quiet is nothing; it’s the water and the darkness that are the worst. Harry can’t look anywhere without seeing flashes of corpses crawling out from behind the trees of beneath the pond surface. Dark shapes move in the corner of Harry’s eyes. In the corners of his mind, Harry thinks about hands reaching towards his ankle while he’s not looking.

 He had this the last time too. At least he knows it’ll pass now.

 Harry stops walking, pulling Regulus to a stop. “Is here fine?”

 Ahead of them is the tree that Severus Snape stood behind, to summon to doe Patronus and deliver the Sword of Gryffindor. The man is dead, now, three days ago too. Harry has yet to figure out how he feels about that. About it all. About all the silvery memories swimming in his head and in front of his eyes.

 (“Everything was supposed to keep Lily Potter’s son safe. … Now… now you tell me you have been raising him like a pig for slaughter…”)

 “Here’s fine,” Regulus agrees, and looks at him consideringly.

 Harry wonders if this… man? Boy? Teenager doesn’t sound quite right, but man isn’t exactly true for either of them, and “boy” seems too sad and unfitting. Teenagers after all, Harry guesses - the people between places. Whatever they are, Harry wonders if Regulus can feel his heart pounding in his chest, see the memories running behind his eyes, or hear the words that Harry hasn’t been able to get out of his head since he heard them.

 (“You have kept him alive so that he can die at the right moment?”)

 It was supposed to be painless. It was supposed to have been quicker and easier than falling asleep. Harry’s job was to walk calmly into Death’s welcoming arms, disposing of one of Voldemort’s remaining links to life, and he had done it. He had done it with his parents by his side, eyes up and unflinching, terror in his throat, full of so many if-onlys and realizations, and with a gallows drum pounding away inside his chest.

 It was supposed to be the last sacrifice, all his life and future and opportunities given up freely, as had apparently always been intended. As had been done for him by too many. As was necessary.

 (-and Harry thought inexplicably of Ginny, and her blazing look, and the feel of her lips on his-)

 So why did he wake up?

 “Hold on,” Harry says grimly, looking at that damn tree one last time.

 Harry looks at that tree, and feels as though he’s looking back at himself at the same time.

 Then he mentally reaches out, to swirl them away, away from all the memories that make this place feel like a too-real dream. Maybe it’s this place that makes his memories feel like a too-real dream; maybe it was a mistake to come here.

 He… he did wake up… right?

 

~

 

 Harry takes them out to the countryside again, through the dizzying compression of Apparition. This time, they stumble out of the air on the top of Stoatshead Hill. Regulus makes a muted groaning sound, between relief and pain, and Harry quickly sits them both down before Regulus doesn’t give them a choice. Regulus isn’t that heavy, but he’s awkward and not exactly light either.

 “We need to Apparate at least once more,” Regulus immediately insists, even though he looks about a second away from vomiting slugs, and five seconds away from the effects of a Fainting Fancy.

 “Be sick in that direction, please,” Harry says. “And sorry again.”

 Regulus glares at him, but then makes the beginning of a retching motion that he cuts off himself by ducking his head between his knees. Harry cuts the guy a break and stands up to stretch. Also, to get out of range. Those Skiving Snackboxes left Harry with experiences he’s not keen to repeat.

 Eventually Regulus’ head comes back up, and he looks around the hilltop.

 “This cannot be your ‘safe place’,” he says. 

 Harry stretches arms and back, because carrying another person is giving him a crick in them, and nearly snorts at Regulus’ disdainful look towards the empty, peaceful countryside around them. He’s finally figured out who Regulus is reminding him of slightly. Regulus looks like Draco, except also with Sirius’ features, which inspires a lot of off thoughts of what Malfoy would do if given the truth and chance to betray Voldemort as badly as Regulus. Malfoy was always a coward, though.

 “I know, but I’m still not a broomstick,” Harry replies as he looks around.

 He almost expects to see an old boot sitting on the same rock as before, ready to whisk people away to the Quidditch World Cup. It’s not there, of course. Ridiculous to expect, but still somehow disappointing.

 “Give a minute, would you?” Harry says.

 Harry thinks he hears a tsk sort of sound as he looks away, but there’s no arguing. Apparition is awful, even if Harry’s decent at it, and there’s that potion mess besides, so Regulus is probably glad for a short break from the stumbling. Harry really does need a minute to stretch, and he doesn’t want Regulus pass out before they’ve gotten to Harry’s little hide-out.

 This place, despite Regulus’ obvious disdain, is pretty close to “safe place” in Harry’s mind.

 There are good memories here, happy ones, and he can even see the lights of Ottery St. Catchpole in the distance while atop this steep hill. Not too far a walk away from here is the Burrow, which is one of the several places Harry’s been considering going to over the past few days.

 The thought and closeness to the Weasleys doesn’t help the ache in Harry’s stomach and chest at all, though. Because they won’t know him, and he doesn’t have a clue what he might say to them. The truth would be best, but the truth is something like, “I’m your unborn son’s best friend and unborn daughter’s ex-boyfriend from the future. You’re the closest thing I’ve ever had to parents and a family.”

 Somehow, Harry can’t see that turning out well.

 He did the math. The date wasn’t hard to find. It’s November of 1979 right now. The sixth of November, 1979, and a Tuesday, if he wants to be precise about it. Ron was born on the first of March in 1980, which means Mrs. Weasley is pregnant with Harry’s best friend right now.

 It’s almost as strange a thought as the idea that there is a two-month-old Hermione Granger somewhere out there at this very moment.

 Harry knows all the Weasley birthdays and ages by sheer proximity to the family for so long. The twins aren’t even two, and Fred is alive. Percy is three, Charlie is turning seven soon, and Bill is turning nine. Harry can’t picture the eldest two Weasleys as anything but adults, and it’s difficult separating Bill from Fleur, who must be… about two or three right now? Mr. and Mrs. Weasley are only… twenty-nine and thirty years old respectively, he thinks. And Ginny hasn’t been… well, anything yet.

 It’s all weird enough that Harry is extremely uncomfortable going anywhere near them, especially with Regulus Black in tow. Harry’s keeping them as an option, though, in case he gets desperate or courageous enough to face them. The Weasleys are a route straight to the Order of the Phoenix, after all – and Dumbledore, whom Harry can’t decide if he wants to face or now – so he’ll keep the Burrow in mind.

 This place, Stoatshead Hill on the edges of Ottery St. Catchpole, is enough to soothe some of Harry’s inferi fears, just by watching the lights of the houses glow safely in the rolling hills.

 There are probably Lovegoods out there too, he realizes, although without Luna, who would be his main reason to see them. The memories of this hilltop remind him that the Diggories are out there somewhere too. Cedric Diggory is alive out there, probably about two years old, when to Harry’s he’s about three years dead at seventeen.

 Harry’s parents are out there somewhere too.

 As soon as Harry had realized that if he’d actually somehow come back in time to 1979, his parents would be alive, he went immediately to Godric’s Hollow. It was thoughtless and desperate, but Harry couldn’t resist the possibility of seeing Lily and James Potter alive and young and alive.

 They weren’t there, which was disappointing, but the monument to the Potters wasn’t there either. The cottage was empty and perfectly intact, without anyone living there but without anyone having died there either, simply warded and without any scratches on the gate to the Boy-Who-Lived. Standing in the graveyard of Godric’s Hollow, looking at the places where his parents’ graves should be, had really hammered in his current situation. Harry had mostly been stumbling around in a daze before then.

 Sirius is alive out there too. So is Remus. So are a lot of people, but his parents and their best friends are the important ones to him. The main problem with that is that he doesn’t know where to find any of them.

 Discovering how little he knew about his parents’ and godfather’s lives was a little shocking, actually. He only really knows they’d been members of the Order of the Phoenix after school, and he knows he won’t find the headquarters to that at Grimmauld Place right now.

 Most paths that Harry can see to finding the Order of the Phoenix and therefore his parents, such as walking up or sneaking into Hogwarts, lead to Dumbledore in some way or another. Harry isn’t sure he wants to see the old man at the moment. Not after walking to his death on Dumbledore’s grand plan and somehow not dying. Especially not a Dumbledore who can’t give him any apologies… any answers as to why he’d done any of the things he’d done over Harry’s lifetime.

 (“We have protected him because it has been essential to teach him, to raise him, to let him try his strength. Meanwhile, the connection between them grows ever stronger, a parasitic growth. … Sometimes I have thought he suspects it himself.”)

 Harry’s grip around his wand tightens at the memory. The shock. The feelings of betrayal.

 The unfamiliar texture of the wand reminds him of another reason he’s uncertain about seeing Dumbledore right now. The problem has turned out again to be not just horcruxes, but Hallows as well.

 He looks down at the wand in his hand, the Elder Wand, which he lasts remembers being in Voldemort’s hand killing him. His current possession of it is something he still can’t really explain to himself. Did he somehow steal it from Voldemort there? Or from Dumbledore now? He’s glad he has it, because he really needed a wand, but… how does he have it?

 Dumbledore might be able to explain how. Along with how Harry’s being here seems to be somehow connected to the Hallows, or so Harry suspects, given that he may be the “Master of Death” if he’s worked the wand’s path out rightly. But the old headmaster might not know at all, and… Harry just can’t face the man right now. At least… not yet.

 (“If I know him, he will have arranged matters so that when he does set out to meet his death, it will truly mean the end of Voldemort.”)

 But Harry didn’t see to the end of Voldemort. He failed to get rid of all the horcruxes. He left the responsibilities that Dumbledore gave him in the hands of Neville, of Ron and Hermione, of people who needed him and were expecting things of him, and walked to his death. He left them – left everyone -behind, and now he’s in a world where they either don’t exist or don’t even know him, and when he really should just be dead at that.

 Harry turns away from the little village of Ottery St. Catchpole and walks back over to Regulus, who looks slightly better now. The guy still looks pale and definitely ill, but he doesn’t look a second away from a Skiving Snackbox effect.

 “Ready to move?” Harry asks, holding out his hand for Regulus to take.

 Regulus looks up at him, and Harry still can’t get over how much he both does and doesn’t look like Sirius. Regulus looks like a lot of people, honestly, being a Black. It’s just strange meeting an eighteen-year-old Death Eater who would have died earlier today, stealing that locket. Saving Regulus was a very last-minute sort of thing, and Harry doesn’t really know what they’re going to do now.

 It changes things, to say the least. 

 

Chapter Text

“Ready to move?” Harry asks, holding out his hand. 

“Yes,” Regulus replies, reaching up with his non-wand hand and taking Harry’s.

 Harry pulls the bloke up and throws Regulus’ arm over his shoulder again, and they begin a slow trek down Stoatshead Hill. Slow because Regulus is still stumbling, because Harry is tired, and it’s quite dark out. Harry doesn’t want to trip over a tuft of grass and go tumbling down the hill, or get pulled along if Regulus is the one to go down.

 It’d be pretty depressing if they both survived certain death only to break their necks while trying to walk down a hill. It’d be sad, as in pathetic, like a pair of tipsy upper-years trying to navigate the moving staircases after a Hogsmeade visit or Quidditch afterparty, and sad as in tragic as well.

 Once they’re at the bottom of the hill, Harry gives a brief warning and whisks them away to another familiar, empty place. This should probably be the last time before Harry’s safe place, because Harry doesn’t think either of them have the energy to do this all night. Even twice seems to be pushing the paranoia in Harry’s books, although old Mad-Eye, who’s alive and probably at the height of his Auror days right now, would probably tell them they’re not being paranoid enough.

 Regulus raises his head and fixates on the very recognizable building in front of them.

 “The Shrieking Shack,” he says dully, sounding more unimpressed than anyone has ever sounded unimpressed. Harry’s almost ironically impressed, as Regulus demands further: “Is there some part of ‘unimportant and unpopulated’ that’s difficult to understand?”

 “No,” Harry answers, sharper than he means to, “but there’s no one here. We can walk into Hogsmeade and Apparate out without being seen, because it’s bloody hard to find a Bowtruckle in a bunch of twigs. I’m not doing this all night.”

 Regulus stares at them, then grudgingly relents. “Fine,” he says, regally enough that it’s tempting to dump him on his arse. “Apparating from an area with frequent traffic will confuse the trail, but we still can’t be seen.”

 Harry’s temper, which had risen immediately at Regulus’ first sentence, cools as he notices the panic that crosses Regulus’ face. Regulus doesn’t have to be an arse about it, but it’s understandable considering the bloke’s situation. After various interactions with the public as the Boy-Who-Lived, the Boy-Who-Lied, and then Undesirable Number One, Harry gets the not wanting to be seen thing.

 It’s a little – a lot – weird to think that Harry won’t be immediately recognized everywhere he goes as Harry Potter – Boy-Who-Lived, Chosen One, and Undesirable Number One. He’ll probably be mistaken for his dad, actually. Especially in Hogsmeade, which probably saw a lot of James Potter if Madam Rosmerta remembered him and Sirius so well. Another weird thought is that since Harry’s got Regulus with him, they’ll probably be together mistaken for “quite the double act”: James Potter and Sirius Black.

 Hmm, maybe Harry can hit up Hogsmeade later for information on his parents or their friends. Not Pettigrew, though; Harry doesn’t know what he’ll do if he sees that rat. Nothing merciful, probably.

 The Hog’s Head and Aberforth Dumbledore are a decent possibility. Aberforth is a member of the Order, after all, at least peripherally. The barkeep would probably call him crazy for his story, but might at least give him a place to stay and might contact the Potters for him if Harry was convincing enough to beat the man’s innate suspicion. The main downside of this, though, is that Harry’s pretty sure he’ll most likely end up in front of the Dumbledore he doesn’t want to see, no matter how persuasive he is.

 Right now, he’s… actually hoping that Regulus might know where to find his brother. He doesn’t know what the bloke he’s half-carrying will want to do after they get somewhere safe – and probably sleep off their mutual near-death – but he’s hoping that Regulus will be an ally of sorts here. The bloke wants to see Voldemort dead, after all, and actually tried to do it. Kreacher likes him, which isn’t exactly a glowing recommendation but is better than nothing, and Regulus is kind of funny. He can’t be all that bad.

 There’s also the possibility that saving Regulus Black will get Harry some answers as to how he ended up in 1979 instead of dead. Harry hadn’t remembered Regulus Black – hadn’t known that Regulus Black was still alive and about to die – until he’d heard something like a whisper warning him.

 It had seemed to come from nowhere, and had sounded important – something he was meant to do and had to do – and… well… Harry hadn’t had anything better to do. Harry’s hoping that cooperation will get him a third appearance from this uncooperative, mysterious, possibly invisible, whispering voice who refuses to appear on demand and won’t bloody speak when bloody spoken to. Though, at this point, between his memories and the madness of his life, Harry’s not entirely sure he wasn’t just hearing things.

 Harry and Regulus stumble all the way to the outskirts of Hogsmeade, keeping behind the buildings and out of sight, instead of going down the familiar, well-lit main street. It’s not as easy as Harry thought it might be. The village isn’t darkened even in the night, not deathly quiet, and not half closed-down and abandoned. Hogsmeade is still relatively lively instead of forcibly subdued.

 Harry aches to step into some of those shops again, almost as much as he wants to follow the road down to the home – his home – that was only days ago under attack. To see Hogwarts again, whole and unharmed, is tempting. But Harry can hear people still wandering about the village, even at this time of night, especially drunks talking too loudly or cussing at the autumn chill as they stumble out of the Three Broomsticks or shuffle out of the Hog’s Head. It’s so very different from the Caterwauling Charms and dementors and Death Eaters enforcing curfew, and Harry’s heart soars as it hurts to see it.

 Regulus, on the other hand, goes uncomfortably tense at the first signs of other people, almost like he got hit with a Full Body-Bind. Harry has to drag the bloke along the wall of houses on the outskirts, and then into the actual village. Harry only pulls them into an alley between two building, barely wide enough for a single person, but Regulus demands in a hiss that they Apparate out, just a couple steps in.

 Harry agrees, because there’s no point in risking being seen by going farther. Also, Regulus seems about five seconds from choking him or keeling over from stress if Harry so much as tries to take another step.

 Harry again pulls them away into the compressed space of Apparition, and they finally stumble out of the air to their final destination. From fresh air and evening village sounds, they’re greeted by the muted blare of city traffic and the homely cigarette-stink of a rented room. It’s a tiny, dark space with little more than a window, a dresser, a table and lamp, and a bed.

 It’s not clear if Harry pushes or Regulus pulls away on his own, but Regulus immediately drops down on the bed. Flop might be the better word for it, honestly. Harry finds himself looking down, mildly bemused, at Regulus Black lying face-down on the bed, and nudges Regulus to make some room. Regulus rolls over to the other side, onto his back, and Harry plops down on the freed side, puts the Elder Wand on the bedside table, and starts unlacing his trainers.

 “What is this place?” Regulus demands, wand clutched to his chest, nose wrinkled in disgust at whatever he’s seeing on the ceiling. Probably damp, unless it’s somehow moved since this morning.

 “Motel, edge of London,” Harry answers.

 He tosses his beaten shoes into a corner and starts stretching his crick-filled arms and back again. Regulus is heavy for a skinny bloke. Lots of elbows and edges too. And Harry’s beginning to feel all those aches and bruises that were swept away in the moment, like when he banged his shins and knees against the boat, and the exertion of it all.

 This little sanctuary that Harry’s found for himself is close to Diagon Alley, close to the Ministry, close to Grimmauld Place, or close enough. And any city’s crowded enough that no one noticed a homeless-looking teenager joining the fray. Harry knew how to get about. The most anyone probably thought of him was: recent runaway or bloke who needs a roof over his head until he finds another place.

 No money? No problem. Not with a Confundus Charm and other magic at the wand tip, and the rationalization that it was either this, steal, confront people he wasn’t ready to confront, or sleep on a park bench somewhere. All Harry needs is a roof, just until he sorts his own head out.

 “Is this place a Muggle establishment,” Regulus demands, sounding utterly disgusted.

 Harry is suddenly reminded that Regulus is a) a pureblood, b) a Black, c) a Slytherin, and d) a Death Eater. It’s not that bad, but to Regulus Arcturus Black…

 “Yes,” Harry answers forcefully, reaching for the Elder Wand again and glaring over his shoulder. “I didn’t exactly appear with a pocket full of galleons and a plan to have company. D’you have a five-star hotel to live it up in while everybody thinks you’re dead?”

 Regulus was glaring back, but his expression turns stricken. Briefly. Like when Harry revealed that Regulus should have died back in that cave and the locket wasn’t destroyed for years, or when Harry revealed that Sirius had been killed and left everything the Blacks owned to his godson. The expression is gone quickly, replaced with a nothing mask.

 Harry immediately feels slightly guilty for snapping, because this hasn’t exactly been a great day for Regulus. For all Harry knows, he’s projecting the Malfoy-like sneer onto Regulus’ words. It was just a question, and this place is pretty filthy.

 “...No,” Regulus answers, and stares unseeingly at the ceiling.

 Yeah, now Harry feels like a bit of a git.

 “Sorry, it’s just… this place is temporary,” he explains, “until I figure some stuff out.”

 Find his parents, face Dumbledore, figure out what happened to him and why he’s here instead of dead. He doesn’t even know if the… part of him… that’s been tethering Voldemort to life is gone, or how that even works into his current situation. Because it’s not like this Voldemort has had that accident, the one that made the Boy-Who-Lived, so are they still connected?

 (“In the case of Harry and Lord Voldemort, to speak of one is to speak of the other.”)

 Harry’s a bit of a mess at the moment. Considering everything, personally, he feels that it’s actually fairly impressive that he managed to save Regulus at all. Especially with such a sudden, last-minute reminder, too. They should both be dead at the moment. Harry twice over. Thrice over, if he counted the beginning of all that Boy-Who-Lived rubbish.

 “You said that you were all for continuing the conversation from earlier,” Regulus said, very carefully casual. “So, now that we’re… out of that cave…”

 “Yeah,” Harry agrees immediately, because he could use the distraction. Maybe a little too quickly, by Regulus’ curious look. “Um… where were we?”

 Regulus tries to sit up, but can’t quite manage, and ends up pretending that he didn’t even try. “The locket,” he says finally, keeping his eyes fixed on the ceiling. “It was eventually destroyed. When? And how?”

 “Uh… around Christmas,” Harry answers, taking a moment to think about it. With all those months camping and on the run, exact dates tended to get lost. “1997,” he specifies, which is still terribly strange. “Using the Sword of Godric Gryffindor.”

 Regulus stops staring at the ceiling and stares at him, looking very bewildered. “The Sword… of Godric Gryffindor.”

 “Yeah.”

 “…The Sword of Godric Gryffindor?”

 “It’s goblin-made,” Harry explains, shifting so that he’s leaning against the headboard instead of sitting precariously on the edge of the bed. “Goblin-made items only take in what makes them stronger, and basilisk venom destroy horcruxes. So when the sword was used to kill the basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets, it gained the ability to destroy horcruxes too.”

 Regulus just keeps staring at him. “The basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets… that’s true?”

 “Yeah, but the sword won’t work now, since it hasn’t happened yet,” Harry realizes, and groans. “There goes the safest and most convenient way of destroying horcruxes, unless someone wants to head down to the Chamber and try basilisk-slaying.” He grimaces. “Personally, I wouldn’t recommend it.”

 There’s a brief silence, long enough that Harry looks down at Regulus next to him, instead of continuing to stare at the wall. Regulus sort of looks like someone slipped a prank into his pumpkin juice, somewhere between stunned and ill.

 “Fiendfyre will also do it,” Harry continues, watching Regulus curiously, “but I personally wouldn’t recommend that either … Are you alright?”

 “…Fine.”

 “You sure?”

 Harry doesn’t want to be in the way if Regulus is going to be sick again.

 Regulus waves his non-wand hand, which consists of weakly flopping it about. “Oh, just attempting to reconcile the fact that the Chamber of Secrets is real, contains a basilisk, and that you apparently killed it with the Sword of Godric Gryffindor.”

 “…I never said it was me,” Harry protests awkwardly.

 Now that it’s been said all at once like that, it does seem somewhat ridiculous. It made perfect sense at the time, though. It was bloody terrifying at the time, but now it sounds ridiculous.

 “Not directly,” Regulus answers. He looks more bemused now, than bewildered, as he eyes Harry.

 Harry is suddenly reminded of how Regulus immediately locked on to the fact that Harry could have only heard the full story of the locket’s theft from Kreacher, and how Harry had carried someone from that horrible cave once before. At the moment, Regulus looks… similar to Sirius… instead of looking different. Sirius at his best, not the tired, gaunt worst of an Azkaban escapee – all knowingness and amusement and sharp grey eyes.

 Harry has the inexplicable urge to grinningly tell Regulus to shut it. Unfortunately, he also remembers just how bloody terrifying it was, now that he’s thought about it like that.

 “Yeah, well… personally wouldn’t recommend it,” Harry repeats.

 Filthy, wet stone… and cold, dark tunnels. His lungs heaving desperately and his heart pumping wildly, and a gleaming, ruby-hilted blade that was too big for small, dirty hands. Against a massive, starving monster that was narrating its hunger and desire to kill while it hunted him. Its mouth enough to swallow him whole, fangs almost as long as his thin arms, and bleeding wounds for eyes were better than instant death but hell to look into still.

 Harry remembers a tiny, pale girl with fiery hair… dying slowly… and an unreal boy’s ruthless urging and mocking laughter. Harry remembers the black, burning agony of his body being destroyed from the inside out. The pain of the fang, and how it creeped out. The hateful determination he felt, in that moment, to do something in his last moments – to finish the fight, to win, to save Ginny.

 It’s horrifying to think that all that’s waiting again, out there, for someone to face. Harry doesn’t want to face that again. Someone will probably need to re-imbue the sword with basilisk venom, but… he’s not sure it can be him again.

 “The locket needs to be destroyed beyond all repair,” Harry says, rubbing at his sleeve and at the faint, circular scar underneath that even phoenix tears couldn’t wash entirely away. “Basilisk venom will do it. So will Fiendfyre. I don’t know any other ways to destroy horcruxes.” Harry corrects himself: “I think the Killing Curse does it for living ones. I’m not sure, though.”

 “Living ones?”

 Harry looks at Regulus, who sounds disbelieving and disgusted and just… horrified. He looks it too. Regulus’ eyes are wide and he’s paler than before, and he’s staring at Harry with all the same expression in his voice. No, not Harry… He’s staring at Harry’s forehead. At the scar.

 Regulus quickly looks at Harry again, so maybe Harry’s seeing things.

 “How many horcruxes are there?” Regulus demands. His eyes flick up to Harry’s scar again, before back to his face, and Harry decides that he isn’t seeing things. “He made more than one? Great Morgana, why?”

 Harry wants to demand what Regulus is thinking in regards to his scar, because the staring somehow hits too damn close to the mark for someone who doesn’t have all that much information. But maybe Regulus just hasn’t gotten a good look at the scar yet. And Harry doesn’t really want to talk about it all yet – he never even told Ron and Hermione, before he walked off to die – and he’s still trying to figure out the living horcrux thing himself. He doesn't want to even think about the scars. 

 “He was trying to make seven,” Harry explains, “because-”

 “Seven is the most magical number,” Regulus interrupts, still wide-eyed. “He made seven?”

 Harry frowns. “Yeah, eventually, but right now he only has five.” Harry lists them on his fingers with the Elder Wand to keep track. “The locket is one. Then there’s Hufflepuff’s cup, Ravenclaw’s lost diadem, the Gaunt family’s ring, and the diary.”

 Then, Harry asks, because he’s been wondering for a while, “Is seven really the most magical number?”

 Regulus is in the middle of demanding, with no smell amount of horror and confusion, “Diary?” Then he frowns and answers, “…It really depends on the numerical system being used … What diary? Do you know where to find each horcrux? And in this current time?”

 Harry almost snorts, because Regulus definitely doesn’t have a problem asking questions. “Tom Riddle’s Diary,” he explains. “He kept a diary at Hogwarts and turned it into a horcrux when he was sixteen. Using Myrtle’s death, I think.”

 “…Moaning Myrtle?”

 “Yeah.”

 “…His diary from when he was sixteen?”

 Harry bites his lip to keep from laughing at the expression on Regulus’ face right now. When he was twelve, it was very magical and terrifying, but Regulus’ tone really just makes it all sound ridiculous. It is kind of ridiculous, the diary among so many meaningful artefacts.

 “Yeah.”

 Regulus glares tiredly at him. “You’re messing with me.”

 Harry laughs. “No! No, I swear I’m not! It’s true.”

 “Says the laughing broomstick,” Regulus deadpans.

 That just makes Harry laugh even harder, though he’s trying to stop. It’s really not that funny, but it’s probably either laugh or cry right now. “No! I’m not lying, it’s true!” he insists. “He’s really just that egotistical… Here, look.”

 Harry raises the Elder Wand and recreates the trick that was so very terrifying and shocking when he was twelve years old. In flaming letters, he writes the name Tom Marvolo Riddle into the air. Regulus has to shift to get a good look, which doesn’t seem easy for him considering how exhausted he looks. He seems more interested than sceptical, though.

 “His real name,” Harry says, then waves his wand.

 The letters rearrange themselves into the anagram that horrified a twelve-year-old boy:

 I am Lord Voldemort

 Harry then looks expectantly towards Regulus, who has his non-wand arm thrown over his eyes in the perfect picture of utter despair.

 “…I can’t believe I didn’t see that.” 

 

Chapter Text

 Harry laughs, shrugs, and banishes the fiery letters. “I didn’t see it either, not ‘til I was shown.”

 Regulus makes another tsk sound, but is otherwise silent. He’s either thinking something over or still despairing over how he didn’t notice Voldemort’s teenage anagram, and Harry leaves him be for the moment. Harry has enough to think over by himself, including what he’s doing now, what he’s going to do next, and how Regulus fits into his haphazard picture of tomorrow’s actions.

 “So, uh, what are you gonna do now?” Harry asks.

 Because if Regulus managed to steal the locket, even if he didn’t know how to destroy it, then he probably had some plan for afterwards. Granted, that note seemed to be written by a stuffy bloke certain that he was going to die, but Harry’s open to any idea here.

 The idea that they might part ways now is… possible… if somewhat strange.

 Regulus removes his arm from his face, his expression bland and his eyes sharp again. “I think most of my plans have become rather obsolete,” he says dryly. “You… you said that no one knew where I disappeared to? Even Kreacher thinks I’m dead?”

 Harry nods, slightly awkwardly, because now that he thinks about it again… no one knows. Walburga Black died without knowing what happened to her younger son. Sirius thought that his younger brother had just gotten himself killed trying to pull back after getting in too deep. Even Voldemort had never learned of Regulus’ betrayal, Harry thinks, not since Harry and Dumbledore had taken the fake locket from the cave and therefore the incriminating note as well.

 Harry doesn’t mention any of that, though, because Regulus looks stricken again.

 “What do you plan to do?” Regulus asks. “With your knowledge? … With this… chance?”

 (Now he saw that his life span had always been determined by how long it took to eliminate all the horcruxes. Dumbledore had passed the job of destroying them to him, and obediently he had continued to chip away at the bonds tying not only Voldemort, but himself, to life!)

 Harry leans back against the headboard. “…I don’t know,” he answers honestly.

 (How neat, how elegant, not to waste any more lives, but to give the dangerous task to the boy who had already been marked for slaughter, and whose death would not be calamity, but another blow against Voldemort.)

 Regulus blinks, clearly taken aback. “You… don’t know.”

 (Like rain on a cold window, these thoughts pattered against the hard surface of the incontrovertible truth, which was that he must do.)

 Harry draws his knees closer to his chest, tapping the Elder Wand against the bedspread, keeping his eyes on it instead of looking to the fellow dead man beside him.

 (I must die.)

 “No,” he says simply. Because he doesn’t know what he’s going to do next.

 Oh, he knows what he wants to do – he wants to find his parents, find Sirius, find Remus, and all the people who died for him who shouldn’t have had to. But Harry doesn’t know what he should do. No… that’s a lie, he knows what he should do. He should continue his task of making Voldemort mortal, and prevent so many terrible things from happening. He should continue the fight that he tried to die for.

 (It must end.)

 He just doesn’t want to.

 People aren’t meant to survive the Killing Curse. People are meant to meddle with time either. Harry seems to be the exception, even if he doesn't escape unscathed, and he doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t really have any plans. He just wants an explanation for once. A real one.

 But that’s never happening.

 Harry looks at Regulus again, and finds an interesting mix of expressions crossing Regulus’ face. Confusion and frustration, but more consideration than anything else. It turns to expectation pretty quickly, and Regulus stares back at him, waiting.

 “Before… before I was… reminded about you,” Harry volunteers awkwardly, “I was trying to find my parents… or Sirius. I don’t know where they are… right now. I know they’re a part of the Order, but I’m kinda trying to avoid… someone who’s a part of it.”

 “A traitor?” Regulus asks quietly.

 Harry shakes his head. “No,” he answers, because Dumbledore was never a traitor. Not to the Order, at least; not to his “greater good”. Then Harry remembers Peter Pettigrew, a bad person to encounter for a number of reasons. “Well, there’s a traitor I should probably avoid, too.”

 “…May I ask who?”

 Well… it probably won’t hurt. “Um, Peter Pettigrew, for the traitor thing.”

 Regulus startles. “Pettigrew?”

 Harry scowls at the reminder that no one suspected the rat – too weak, too cowardly – until it was far too late. Harry doesn’t think he’ll be able to keep himself from cursing Pettigrew. He catches himself reaching for his neck, where Pettigrew tried to choke him in Malfoy Manor, and has to lower his hand and swallow against the memory of pain. Who knew how many secrets the rat had betrayed to Voldemort before he betrayed Harry’s parents too?

 “Yeah.”

 “…Pettigrew,” Regulus repeats disbelievingly, before pulling himself together again. “And the other?”

 Harry takes a deep breath. “Albus Dumbledore, but… for personal reasons.”

 Regulus studies him for several seconds. “Fine,” he says, then comments after a brief pause, “It’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to make contact with any members of his Order without eventually attracting his interest.”

 “I know.”

 “And when you’ve found your parents, what then?”

 Harry shrugs, partly to try and rid himself of the tension in his shoulders. “Tell the truth, I guess. Tell them about the future, things that’re gonna happen, about Horcruxes. Figure things out from there.”

 He’s making this all up as he goes along, really. At first he just wanted to see them, but… he could actually meet them, couldn’t he? It’s an oddly terrifying though. Exciting, of course, but terrifying. Everything he’s ever wanted; or, at least, everything he ever wanted when he was eleven.

 “I was actually hoping that you might know where to find Sirius,” Harry says, trying not to sound horribly hopeful.

 It probably doesn’t work, because Regulus flips from watchful to vaguely panicked and bewildered.

 “Why would I know where to find Sirius?”

 “Because you’re his brother?” Harry supplies, feeling somewhat confused himself. The connection seems fairly obvious to him.

 Regulus only gets that quickly pained expression again and says, “We haven’t had an actual conversation in over four years.”

 “Oh,” Harry says.

 “He’s a member of Dumbledore’s special ‘Order’ and I’m a Death Eater,” Regulus says hoarsely, staring blankly up at the ceiling. “Sirius isn’t sentimental or stupid enough to care about blood over common sense.” Regulus sighs tiredly. “He’d curse me on the spot if I showed up on his doorstep, if I even knew where it was.”

 Well… there goes that sort-of plan. That’s actually pretty sad, honestly, but not unexpected, especially recalling the only time Sirius ever mentioned his younger brother.

 (“...my idiot brother, soft enough to believe them…”)

 And just… Sirius in general. Scornful of his family, doubtful of his own brother’s importance, but… there might have been something wistful in there too. Harry could swear.

 There had always been something wistful about Sirius in general. Harry has no doubt that the Sirius he knew probably would have been overjoyed to reconcile with his traitorous brother, especially knowing the truth. But, then again, the Sirius that Harry knew had lost some of his dearest friends and his freedom, and spent twelve years in Azkaban.

 Still, Sirius was the one person Harry could tell anything to. His godfather was protective and understanding, loyal and caring at the core of him, and wouldn’t turn Regulus away, Harry’s certain. Definitely not after he heard the full story.

 “I’ll make sure that he hears you out,” Harry offers. “You should… you should talk to him again. I think you can still make up.”

 Sirius cared more deeply about his loved ones than anyone Harry had ever met, and when he died, the hole he left felt like Harry would bleed to the death with the pain of it. There has to be room in Sirius’ heart for his younger brother, if Regulus isn’t in there already, just… deep down and forcibly repressed for obvious reasons. There has to have been a reason for that wistfulness.

 Regulus looks at him, painful again, but maybe somewhat hopeful too.

 “You do?” Regulus says.

 Harry smiles, over the painful memories. “Well… you’re not a very good Death Eater, for one.”

 Regulus chokes on nothing and stares disbelievingly at Harry again, then appears to actually consider this.

 “No, I suppose I’m not,” he says hoarsely.

 His face breaks out into a small smile that might be the first one Harry’s seen of him. It transforms his whole face, and it’s a rather good look on him.

 “Actually pretty terrible at it,” Harry continues, and nudges at Regulus’ ribs with a socked foot. “Doing pretty much the exact opposite of what Vol- Tom would want. Might want to try something else besides being a Death Eater.”

 “Like what?” Regulus asks, brows raised questioningly.

 

~

 

 Harry shrugs, rather unhelpfully, in Regulus’ opinion.

 “Dunno,” Harry says, stretching as he settles down into the pillows. “What did you want to do when you were choosing your classes at the start of sixth year?”

 Regulus blinks at the change in direction and tries to recall that meeting. He’d been marked the summer before - on his birthday, in fact - and most of Slytherin had known it, or guessed at least. Regulus had been terribly pleased at making his parents and family so very, very proud of him. He’d been proud, to be so unlike his brother, to dedicate himself to something important alongside all the right sort of people.

 In hindsight, he’d also been terrified, but he was a Black and could never really have shown that. At the time, he hadn’t really known what terror was, anyway; he had only really known in theory then that it was a lifetime of service or death.

 That meeting? As a Death Eater and the new Black heir, any career he managed to have for himself would always be more of a disposable hobby than anything else. So, in that private meeting, he’d made his course selections without much thought to careers. His Head of House had agreed, and when the time came to discuss his future career…

 Slughorn just said, “I’m sorry, my boy.”

 For someone who walked an admirable, practically masterful balancing act between sides, who had never seemed to look at Regulus without seeing the Black brother he’d actually wanted, that had been a touching risk for the old professor to take. Even if it confused and angered Regulus at the time… and hurt, though Regulus couldn’t put words as to why at the time.

 “Nothing much,” Regulus deflects, then his manners kick in. “Yourself?”

 Harry sighs and sinks deeper into the pillows, which Regulus eyes enviously. He wants to move up the bed to have one of those violently floral cushions for himself, but he’s also incredibly tired, and too comfortable to move despite this… place… hardly being up to standard. It’s just temporary, thankfully, and right now, between his roiling stomach and aching head, Regulus will take what he can get. The bed will do.

 “An Auror,” Harry answers, a little bitterly. “But I ended up ditching my seventh year at Hogwarts to go horcrux hunting instead. Now I don’t even have my OWLs. What a pain.”

 Now that’s interesting. Regulus is having trouble picturing what kind of situation would lead to this younger Potter ditching his schooling to fight the Dark Lord, specifically hunting some of the Darkest magic imaginable. That doesn’t seem the sort of thing that James Potter and Lily Evans would allow, especially the witch that Regulus remembers from the Slug Club.

 It’s just as intriguing as the idea of a son of James Potter who has some sort of issue with Albus Dumbledore, enough to want to avoid the old wizard even being in a fairly desperate situation, all for “personal reasons.”

 Regulus opens his mouth to comment on that somehow - maybe on how Harry’s brilliant mother with the unfortunate bloodline is going to ground him for life, or how Harry is following in his equally brilliant father’s footsteps by fighting Dark wizards - but he ends up yawning instead. Too slow to get his hand up, his yawn is wide and rude and exactly the sort of thing that his mother might send a Stinging Hex at him for.

 Harry just looks sympathetic and ends up yawning too. “We - ah - can keep talking tomorrow,” he says, rubbing his eyes behind his hideous glasses. “Figure things out in the morning. You should probably get some sleep, after all that.”

 Regulus tsks, but his eyelids have been drooping ever since he flopped onto this awful bed in his best impression of his mother. Now that he’s had many of his questions answered, he has so many more, but as soon as Harry suggests sleep, Regulus finds himself having to repeatedly force his eyes to stay open. He can’t fall asleep like this.

 “You good to share a bed?” Harry asks.

 “...Hmm? Yes, fine.”

 Regulus doesn’t remember what happens next.

 Harry probably asks something else about preparing for bed or moving under the blankets instead of sprawling on top of them. The important thing is that Regulus’ head ends up on one of those hideous floral pillows, someone drops a blanket over top of him, he doesn’t have to be awake anymore, and he’s not dead.

Regulus’ aching head is full of odd thoughts (diary? Living horcruxes? How? And that scar-!) and impossible possibilities (Sirius, oh, please) and he has no idea what in the world he’s going to do tomorrow (tomorrow barely feels real), and yet… he sleeps.

 

~

 

 Harry wakes up to the sound of Regulus puking in the dingy washroom attached to this awful room, which sounds not unlike how Harry feels. Harry groans, all aches and blindness, and struggles out of the blankets and gropes for the bedside table. For his glasses, which are the only remarkable and most important thing he managed to Conjure for himself, so he can see.

 The room in the weak morning light and in focus looks… about as expected. At least there’s no inferi or Dark Lords or Death Eaters, besides the one in the other room.

 “You all right?” Harry calls, pulling himself up to sit on the edge of the bed.

 He gets a retching sound in answer, before Regulus calls back, “Fine!”

 This is promptly followed by more retching sounds, and the half-open washroom door is slammed shut as further punctuation. As though Harry really wanted to get in there and watch Regulus throw up this time.

 “Alright,” Harry says.

 He sits on the bed for a little while, until he feels human again. Then he goes about performing the regular routine he’s developed over his months on the run. Hygienic charms feel strange and aren’t perfect, but tent washrooms and laundry are touch-and-go sometimes, so it’s either spells or feeling gross.

 Harry grimaces at the inevitable hunger pangs of having skipped supper to save Regulus. Food’s been a little hard to come by, save the complimentary, basically stolen breakfast that comes with his Confunded accommodation. Not particularly different fare from his months on the run, and he’s gone for longer on worse, but it’s at times like these that Harry really misses Hogwarts feasts and Mrs. Weasley’s cooking.

 Harry ends up making the bed out of boredom and then sits on its edge, waiting for Regulus to come out of the washroom.

 Regulus still hasn’t said what he plans to do next. He’s pretty much gotten Harry’s plans, but Harry has no idea what Regulus is going to do now with all the information that Harry’s dropped on him. Regulus clearly wants to destroy the horcruxes, though, which he needs Harry for (doesn’t everyone), and he seemed… hopeful… about Sirius.

 Harry waits for Regulus to come out of the washroom, thinking over his options for finding Lily and James Potter. He knows the Weasleys best, of course, and might be able to talk them into calling up his parents without contacting Dumbledore, but he’s still really uncomfortable at the idea of going near the Burrow. He doesn’t really know these Weasleys and… they don’t know him at all. Harry’s never know Weasleys who didn’t already know him.

 He’s lost his Weasleys… maybe forever. Probably forever.

 Harry pushes those thoughts out of his head. Forcefully. He’s already had one breakdown since landing in 1979, over Ron and Hermione and Hogwarts and nothing at all ever making any damn sense, and he doesn’t need to have another. He kind of wants to have another, because nothing about this makes sense and he’s supposed to be dead, but he doubts Regulus will be all that impressed if Harry just collapses onto the floor in a crying, angry wreck.

 It’s either be calm or face the facts, and the last time that Harry faced the facts… he ended up walking off to die. So… anyway…

 As for Hogwarts, Aberforth still has extremely high chances of Dumbledore. Madam Rosmerta isn’t an Order member, but she knows a lot of people, so she might be able to help. Though, on the other hand, Madam Rosmerta’s a gossip and Dumbledore will probably find them before the Potters. Heck, Zonko’s could be a better path if Harry’s father and his friends inspired the Weasley twins so much.

 But Hogsmeade is still pretty much Dumbledore’s backyard. Dumbledore isn’t dead. That’s probably the reason why Hogsmeade was still relatively lively, even in the face of the war.

 Harry doesn’t really know where to find all that many Order members, honestly. He could walk right into the Ministry to see Alastor Moody, of course, but there’s no way he’d get past the man’s paranoia. Harry’s not really keen on going to the Ministry at all after his last visit, anyway. This time, he hasn’t the foggiest what he’d be walking into; Voldemort’s spies could be everywhere, for all Harry knows.

 The only Order homes that Harry really knows are the Burrow (too uncomfortable), Grimmauld Place (not even remotely an option), and Mrs. Figg’s place. But Harry’s pretty sure that Mrs. Figg doesn’t even live on Privet Drive yet, so knocking on her door isn’t an option, but… oh.

 Oh, that’s certainly… a possibility.

 Harry shakes his head and checks the time again. He’s heard the rusty shower turn on and off, after a lavishly long time between, the sink turn on and off a few times, and he honestly cannot wait any longer or he’s going to go mad. This is getting ridiculous. He has to use the washroom himself and they’re going to miss breakfast at this rate.

 Thankfully, Regulus finally opens the door before Harry can blow it off its hinges, looking far too collected and styled for someone who nearly died less than a day ago. Regulus’ long hair is somehow pulled even more tightly back into a ponytail, not a hair out of place, and his black robes look like they’ve been pressed inside of slept-in. Exemplary pureblood Slytherin style.

 He still looks pale and ill, but only in a slightly tired way instead of half-dead.

 Harry slips into the washroom to use the toilet, wash his hands, and splash some actual water on his face. It’s a quick five minutes, since they need to get down to breakfast and it’d be some kind of miracle if there’s anything but ice in the pipes by now.

 But when Harry steps out of the washroom, Regulus looks at him like he’s got blood on his hands. Except at his head. The scar again? No, Regulus is staring in horror above that this time, and Harry self-consciously runs a hand through his bedhead. It’s more or less the exact same as his untidy usual, unless it turned bright orange or something in his sleep.

 “You’re not going to do something about that?” Regulus demands, then looks him up and down with the sort of horror that belonged on a stage somewhere. “Anything?”

 “Uh, no,” Harry replies, glancing down. Yep, baggy jeans and shirt, a little ratty but with all the cave dirt and salt charmed away. Could be worse. “C’mon, there’s food downstairs.”

 Instead of the tsk sound that Harry’s coming to expect, Regulus makes a sound like a strangled cat as Harry passes him. Merlin only knows why and Harry doesn’t care to investigate when he could eat and get on with it. For all he knows, any longer in the room and Regulus will try to take a second shower that lasts approximately an eternity.

 

~

 

 “This is not food,” Regulus insists later, holding a paper plate that Harry stacks with stale muffins and squishy pasties from the complimentary breakfast.

 Regulus looks only mildly horrified now, but occasionally eyes Harry’s hair like it’s going to attack him at any moment.

 Harry just rolls his eyes and pulls them both to a table at the edge of the dining room, away from the other, vaguely shifty looking residents getting their free meal. Harry’s learned now that really no one gives a damn about much here, not the busy guests or the rarely-seen staff. It’s a deeply welcome change from Privet Drive.

 Regulus’ stylish robes have gotten them a few odd looks, but Harry plans to tell anyone who comments that Regulus is just getting his money’s worth out of his Hallowe’en vampire costume.

 “I’ve had worse,” Harry says with a shrug, about the food.

 He would trade this stuff for Weasley cooking or a Hogwarts feast in a second, but this is still better than nothing or half a grapefruit.

 Regulus watches Harry dig in with more mild horror and disbelief. He eyes the food in front of him like he can’t quite believe worse exists, turns slightly green, actually turns up his nose, and pushes the plate away. Next to Ron, who’ll eat almost anything, this is hilarious.

 Harry snorts. “To each, their own.”

 “I just happen to prefer that my food be edible,” Regulus says calmly, sitting back against his chair and putting one hand defensively over his mouth and nose.

 Harry is almost tempted to hold out his fork and see if Regulus shies away farther, but the guy did drink a horrible potion not long ago, so Harry can show some mercy. He cleans his plate quickly while Regulus studies the few guests and staff straggling in and out.

 “So what’re you going to do?” Harry asks.

 “I beg your pardon?” Regulus asks, looking back to Harry and drawing his hand away from the sleeve holding his wand.

 Harry insisted that their wands be put away. Regulus relented but hadn’t been happy about it.

 “What are you going to do now?” Harry repeats slowly, fairly certain that Regulus heard him the first time. 

 

Chapter Text

 Regulus isn’t sure why he bothers pretending to have been focused entirely elsewhere. It’s not as though he needs to buy time, having had so long to think already this morning. He knows he’s not being magically influenced or being threatened somehow, having checked himself over for outside influence repeatedly while Harry was still sleeping.

 Besides, it isn’t as though there’s much point in wasting the appearance of disinterest on Harry Potter, who’s perfectly at ease in this filthy place, in hideous Muggle clothing, among Muggles, and with hair that Regulus is almost physically itching to do something about. Oh, Morgana, his magic for a hairbrush right now. If Regulus wasn’t already inclined to believe that Harry was the son of James Potter, the ridiculous nest that his saviour is perfectly comfortable having on his head in public is proof enough. 

 The people Regulus knows? The people Regulus doesn't want to know anymore? They wouldn't be caught dead here. 

 “Oh, hang on a mo’,” Harry says, reaching for his pocketed wand.

 Regulus stiffens, but Harry only flicks it under the table with a whisper of, “Muffliato,” and then pockets the wand again as a faint buzz of magic swirls up around them.

 “Keeps conversations from being overheard,” Harry explains. “Just in case.”

 “That’s… incredibly useful.”

 Regulus is all for every bit of information that Harry has to give, but if his saviour could stop being so terribly, casually… useful, it would be so much better for Regulus’ poor peace of mind. It’s so useful and fantastic and Regulus is going to use every last bit of it, but sometimes he just wants to flop onto the nearest piece of furniture and scream into a throw pillow.

 Oh, Morgana.

 He’s becoming his mother.

 Anyway… in Harry’s untidy head are priceless secrets, such as those to the Dark Lord’s mortality. Regulus can hardly let someone with information like that just go on his merry way, and hope that Harry finds someone capable of doing something with it. There’s too much at stake - Regulus’ family, Regulus’ life, and the future of their world come to mind - to just wish this poorly-dressed Potter good luck and hope for the best.

 Regulus can’t simply entrust something this dangerous and important to Harry alone, as grateful as he is to his thus-far fairly competent saviour. The Dark Lord - who apparently made a horcrux of his diary at sixteen, using Moaning Myrtle, Regulus’ entire worldview is permanently changed by knowing that and he almost wishes that he didn’t know - must die. Harry may have the secrets to making the Dark Lord mortal once more, but Regulus doubts - at the same time that some small part of him hopes disbelievingly - that Harry is truly a match for him.

 Cooperating with Harry gets Regulus… a chance. It’s already given him a second chance at life, but it gives him more than that. Cooperating with Harry gets Regulus a lot of information and brings up a lot of interesting questions.

 The curse scar on the forehead? The two horcruxes that have yet to be made? The mere idea of living horcruxes? And why seven horcruxes? Doesn’t that divide the soul into eight? Regulus is fairly certain that the Dark Lord can, in fact, count, so why seven plus one pieces? Sticking by Harry’s side gives Regulus ample opportunities to ferret out more information about the future and Harry’s intriguing life - dragons, inferi, basilisk, Fiendfyre, goblin-made swords, and so on.

 It also gives the chance to repay the Life Debt that Regulus now owes him.

 It also, perhaps more importantly, gives Regulus the opportunity to reconnect with his brother - to make Sirius understand - which he can’t honest say he doesn’t want near-desperately. If there’s anyone who could get Sirius to even look at Regulus again, James Potter’s son (Sirius’ godson) from the future appears to Regulus’ most likely - and only willing - candidate.

 Even if Sirius rejects him, how can Regulus pass up the opportunity to try?

 At the very least, Regulus can warn Sirius of his approaching death and deal with that traitorous friend Pettigrew.

 If it’s not a question of what chances that Harry can offer him, then Regulus has to ask himself what his other options are. Regulus’ main other option is… returning to a life he very deeply didn’t enjoy, if not hated wholeheartedly, and very likely die sooner or later. Cooperating with Harry offers Regulus both some of the relief and some of the revenge that he had craved so desperately.

 Running off with Harry and faking his death would be… a convenient and blessed escape from the brand on his forearm and the responsibilities of being a true Black, though… probably only a temporary one, unless Regulus really can manage to believably fake his death... which is... more in doubt than he's currently prepared to admit. Extreme measures may have to be taken... but when aren't they these days? True freedom is difficult and unlikely, and this unexpected path to landing blows against the Dark Lord likely ends in certain death, but… so had the other one. Regulus feels prepared to try. He faced death just the day before with less hope than he has now.

 He’s going to take this opportunity and wring everything he can from it.

 “I hoped to… join you and find my brother,” Regulus admits finally, far more awkwardly than he’d like.

 Appearing genuine, which Regulus is although his motivations are varied, is sensible considering Harry’s character so far. But it’s difficult here, somehow, and Regulus can feel his face burning slightly.

 This opportunity is golden and he needs to grasp it however he can, but parts of all this feel far too good to be true. What if Regulus has read all the signals wrong and Harry has actually been hoping to get rid of him quickly? What if Harry thinks of Regulus as only a gateway to Sirius? 

 (So many do. Whether they admit it or not.)

 Harry looks surprise, then pleased. “Oh,” he says “That’s… good.”

 It’s comforting to know, at least, that Regulus isn’t alone in his awkwardness. Although most of the comfort comes from the fact that Harry clearly doesn’t care about appearances, and there are no witnesses so far except some few gawking Muggles. These aren't the crowds Regulus usually moves in. No one will be yet reporting this to the Ancient and Noble House of Black, or to worse people still. 

 “What about the locket?” Harry asks.

 Regulus makes a dismissive motion with his hands, the acceptable version of a shrug. “It’s not in any immediate danger, is it? Our elf’s mourning will make my apparent death more believable for the moment, and I can summon him and the locket at any time.”

 A neat piece of bargaining, held out of reach if or until he needs it. Though he is sorry to leave Kreacher to grieve.

 “Huh, I guess so,” Harry says. “Anyway, I, um, thought of a way to maybe contact my parents, by the way. Which is… pretty much the same as finding Sirius, right? To fine one is to find the other, and all that stuff.”

 Regulus nods and forcibly quells the automatic bitterness. His brother and James Potter are rarely not attached at the hip. Brothers in all but blood. Jealousy may be unbecoming of a Black, who should only be the subjects of envy, but it’s still there.

 “My mum’s got a sister,” Harry explains, looking oddly uncomfortable. “Aunt Petunia might have a phone number… or an address… or something. I figure it’s worth a try, since there’s no chance of running into Dumbledore talking to her.”

 “You know where to find your aunt at this point in time?”

 Harry nods, still looking so strangely uneasy. Perhaps about introducing his Muggle aunt to Regulus? Or introducing Regulus to his Muggle aunt?

 “Yeah. Number Four, Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey. Moved in the autumn of 1977.”

 Regulus wants to ask why Harry knows where to find a Muggle woman but not his own mother at this point in time. He wants to ask why Harry knows when his aunt moved into her home in the middle of Muggle nowhere, yet not where to find his own godfather. And why does Harry rattle off the address with everyday, long-memorized ease?

 Instead, Regulus asks, “What’s the first residence of your parents of which you’re aware?”

 Harry blinks, clearly taken aback. “Uhm… Godric’s Hollow village. It’s empty, I already checked. Why?”

 “Just trying to get a picture of things. Do you know of any other residences?”

 Harry eyes him with something that might be suspicion. “No.”

 “Hm,” Regulus answers blandly.

 A full address for his aunt, but only a vague village for his parents? And only one residence? It doesn’t seem to be a reluctance to share on Harry’s part. Something’s wrong about this.

 “Your mother’s sister is a good lead.”

 Regulus didn’t even know that Lily Evans had a sister.

 A married, Muggle sister would be incredibly difficult for any wizard to track down, and something like a… telephone number? Regulus is fairly certain that’s like a Floo line and has no idea how to begin to go about using it or using it to track someone down.

 Leaving that kind of connection would be a safety risk on Evans’ part, of course, but a very, very small one. Regulus remembers the Head Girl being a friendly, sentimental, kind person. She seemed like the type to stay in contact with her Muggle family even in wartime, despite the very minimal risk. Most people are, much to the Dark Lord’s benefit.

 Besides, a Muggle woman will be child’s play to extract information from and, true to Harry’s point, unlikely to attract any magical attention at all, much less consequences. Targeting Muggle family is a clever and surprisingly, but admirably, underhanded move for a Potter.

 Regulus approves. Lily Evans may be initially upset, of course, but the revelations that Harry brings will quickly excuse them.

 “Is she married?” Regulus asks, trying to establish a fuller picture. He assumes so.

 Harry’s face immediately darkens, which is a pitfall that Regulus wasn’t expecting. Oh, Morgana, the Muggle woman’s marriage is something that clearly brings up bad memories for his saviour. What a stupid, senseless mistake.

 Regulus has to regain his footing in Harry’s good graces quickly, as Regulus can see him closing off. Suddenly and completely and unfortunately for Regulus’ plans.

 Everyone has always said, if he lets himself go, that Regulus asks too many questions.

 “Yeah,” Harry says coldly.

 The appearance of regret and humility should do it, and it helps that Regulus really doesn’t mean or want to upset his confusing, mystery-keeping saviour. Seeing a new side, this sudden anger, is actually… somewhat upsetting and uncomfortable. Inducing it further would also make for a poor repayment on Regulus’ behalf.

 

~

 

 “My apologies, I didn’t mean to pry,” Regulus says quietly.

 Harry looks at him, really looks at him and his muted apology, and wants to scoff. That’s a blatant lie, he thinks.

 Regulus has basically been doing nothing but pry since they started their ongoing conversation. Nothing but questions and more questions, and Harry has gotten mostly vagueness and deflections in return. Talking about Sirius was the closest they go to Regulus opening up. Harry’s getting sick of being the only one sharing.

 “Whatever,” he says.

 The reminder of Vernon Dursley’s existence doesn’t help the temper being held under various feelings of loss and being lost. Things have been going well so far - better than anything’s gone for Harry in far too long a time - and it was starting to feel vaguely suspicious, before the mere thought of his horrible uncle shoved him back down into a foul mood.

 Vernon Dursley leaves a rotted feeling in Harry’s chest, oddly familiar to those surrounding Peter Pettigrew, and Harry can’t tell exactly if he’s hoping to actually see the man or to never lay eyes on him again.

 So far, Harry has been trusting in Regulus’ desire to destroy Voldemort and, well, his own memory of his beloved godfather. But it’s becoming increasingly apparent that Regulus is very much his own person - restrained and sly are two traits that come readily to mind - and this prolonged introduction is very one-sided.

 Enough about Harry’s awful relations. What about Regulus’ awful relations?

 “So you’re really just gonna let your family think you’re dead, then?”

 Harry can understand ditching loved ones for their own safety, and he regrets and rationalizes making that choice in turns. He knows it’s hard. But here, if Regulus starts feeling homesick, that home has Death Eaters. If not Death Eaters exactly, then the next best thing.

 Regulus’ eyes widen briefly.

 “Yes, it’s the best way to assure their safety,” he says, taking the subject change so in stride that it bugs Harry slightly. “Having any knowledge of my… mission to see the Dark Lord mortal once more will endanger them all. If I’m thought dead, no one will be watching my actions or be accused of aiding me.”

 “What about your tattoo?” Harry asks, tapping his left forearm pointedly.

 He’s always been passingly curious about how exactly the Dark Mark worked. He assumed that Voldemort could use it to summon his Death Eaters and track them at will. That was how Karkaroff died, more or less, right? Voldemort is exactly the sort of bastard who’d put tracking tags on his followers, after all, and might not even tell them.

 “Is that gonna be a problem?”

 Regulus has been running a hand over the wand up his sleeve, which just so happens to be his left one, and now he grips the black fabric defensively. “The Dark Lord will not notice my absence for a few more days at least. There are ways to counteract any attempts at Divining my location.”

 “Like there are ways to subdue a cave full of inferi?” Harry says, before he can help himself.

 Harry wants to help Regulus, to help the original horcrux hunter, to give Sirius his brother back, to repay Kreacher, but… Harry will pretty much be bringing a snake straight into the lions’ den, won’t he?

 Regulus shoots him a bewildered glare, which disappears into blandness almost infuriating quickly. But there’s a pinkness to his cheeks, that doesn’t fade nearly as quickly.

 “I may have overestimated my abilities there,” Regulus says calmly, “with… admittedly nearly fatal consequences, but I have considered this idea for… a significant amount of time. I believe it can be done.

 Right, sure, Harry thinks, but instead asks, “How did you find out about his horcruxes?”

 Harry’s wondered about this too. Regulus didn’t have Albus bloody Dumbledore revealing Voldemort’s secrets to him at an embarrassingly slow pace - raising him like a pig to slaughter - so how did he connect the clues? Regulus looks and seems so… young. Younger than Harry expected: very barely older than him.

 Why is it that they seem to be the only ones capable of dragging Voldemort to his death?

 And yet… Harry would, honestly, in this moment, take seeing both Vernon Dursley and Peter Pettigrew instead of having to face Albus Dumbledore again. From that man came so much silence, avoidance, and isolation. So many implied promises, warm smiles, and leading statements. So many lies. WIthholding the truth is a lie.

 Harry died as he was supposed to, it didn’t work, and now the betrayal is settling comfortably into his bones as he wonders if Dumbledore really knew what he was doing at all. Supposedly ultimate plans are looking more and more like a patchwork string of holes, barely holding together, and Harry’s been barely holding it together too.

 Harry concentrates on Regulus, hoping for distraction, angry at the sudden disappearance of the comfortable morning they’d started with. It might be his own fault, though, bringing up Aunt Petunia as a possible lead. He likes the Dursleys not at all, but so much more when he can’t see them, can’t hear them, and can gladly pretend that they don’t exist and never did.

 Regulus seems somewhat off-balance by all this too, but answers with poise. Harry actually kind of admires that about him; Regulus acted with poise even half-dead in that cave. Harry isn’t great about poise, proven by the faint writing carved into the back of his hand.

 “The Dark Lord has a tendency to… extol his own virtues, at great length and frequency, especially in regards to his forays towards immortality,” Regulus says finally. “There aren’t many ways to escape death, and it was obvious which method the Dark Lord had chosen when he made the great mistake of leaving our house elf for dead.”

 Harry almost cracks a smile at that, despite himself, because, Merlin, is that true. Even although it’s life or death, always absolutely terrifying and never humourous, it’s kind of funny how Voldemort can’t seem to shut up. In front of the Mirror of Erised, in the Chamber of Secrets, and then that was that great, dramatic, winding speech to his Death Eaters in the Hangleton graveyard.

 However, Voldemort did seem to learn his lesson… by the very end there… in the forest again.

 “And you got horcruxes from boasting?” Harry asks, out of need for distraction rather than disbelief. Regulus seems bright enough to manage it, between his background and Kreacher.

 “From his borrowing of our elf,” Regulus corrects. “Before that, there were several possible theories… each less likely than the last.”

 “Huh.”

 Regulus clears his throat. “As you’re finished with your… meal, we could now proceed to your lead. Unless, of course, you have any other pressing matters in this place.”

 Not particularly. There’s no point in Obliviating the people here, and Harry doesn’t exactly have a bill to pay for a room he Confunded his way into. Harry just doesn’t want to get up because he doesn’t really want to follow his own lead and, deep down, kind of wants to punch something at the idea of returning to Privet Drive after thinking he’d left it behind forever.

 It’s a weekday, though, so Uncle Vernon won’t be home, at least. It’s a bit of a toss-up with Vernon Dursley, but without him, Harry would rather face Aunt Petunia than anyone else right now. Though the thing he likes most about her is that she doesn’t have any way of contacting the old man and will probably cooperate with them to get rid of them faster. It’s better face her while he’s still feeling pity for her rather than resentment.

 He doesn’t know how to begin to apologize to the Weasleys for everything they’ll lose fighting for him, for one. Or how to explain why he left without saying goodbye. Especially when they don’t even know him and none of that’s relevant anymore.

 “No, we can go,” Harry says, sliding to his feet. “You good to Side-Along again?”

 Regulus stands slowly. “I’m unfamiliar with our destination, so I must be.”

 “Yeah. Sure you don’t want to eat something?”

 

~

 

 “Absolutely positive,” Regulus answers immediately, inwardly shuddering at the mere thought of the food offered in this filthy place.

 At the very least, no one will ever suspect a Black of hiding in a Muggle establishment such as this one. At least, no one will suspect Regulus of doing so, though… Regulus supposes he counts as one of the Black family runaways now, so it’s within the realm of suspicion if Regulus’ new choices ever come to light. Regulus’ image is the least of his problems here.

 The sooner he sees the last of this place, the better off he’ll be. He can’t understand how Harry can stand any of this: the clothes, the building, the Muggles side-eyeing them. No self-respecting and talented - if the cave and Harry’s parentage are any indication - wizard should be able to find these sub-par conditions bearable for any length of time.

 Perhaps Regulus was too tired to notice something was off yesterday, or perhaps Harry had yet to reveal anything incriminating, but something is wrong here.

 Oh, Regulus believes Harry’s story - for the most part - but Regulus knows now that he’s missing several keys to this tale. What they are, he’s not yet certain, but he is certain they are there and being withheld.

 Why does Harry only know of one Potter residence? Or is it that he simply doesn’t trust Regulus when he’s already shared much more sensitive information, and if so, why? Does he think Regulus will harm his parents somehow? What is Harry’s relation to his Muggle aunt? How can Harry Potter act mostly unbothered by some of the most malevolent magic out there, but go so very stiff at the mere mention of a Muggle woman’s marriage?

 Why would Lily Evans and James Potter, of all people, let their barely adult son ditch his seventh year to hunt horcruxes? Were things that bad? What kind of personal issues could Harry have then with the great Albus Dumbledore? What clues did Harry follow that gave him so much knowledge about the Dark Lord’s horcruxes when Regulus only found one by chance?

 Why seven horcruxes? What were the remaining two? Why would anyone create a living horcrux? Surely that defeats the purpose of them. And just thinking of the Killing Curse and other malevolent magic, what… what is that mark on Harry’s forehead?

 Harry said that he had died in 1998 and ended up here, in 1979. Before, Regulus had mostly just been glad and grateful not to be dead himself, but now… how did Harry Potter die? And why is he so… resigned and accepting of it? So very unbothered by it?

 Regulus has no many questions. It’s been occasionally stated by various family members that he’s too inquisitive, or worse: that his curiosity would do him in someday. Thinking back to that nightmarish cave, it’s clear that they may have been partially right, and that he clearly doesn’t learn. Which is vaguely distressing, of course, because that’s usually Sirius’ thing.

 “Alright then,” Harry says, sticking his hands in his pockets. “C’mon.”

 Regulus represses a shiver at the coldness that has yet to leave Harry’s voice. Perhaps not all that unexpected in hindsight, by how quiet Harry had been about his head, but still… unnerving. It had been a strange turn-around to be the one being questioned. Regulus is fairly certain that he didn’t give anything incriminating away, but he’s not sure. He intensely dislikes being the focus of examination, and he tends to slowly crack under pressure.

 He likes the friendly, empathetic, joking version of Harry Potter much better. That fit in more comfortably with what, admittedly little, he knew of James Potter and Lily Evans.

 Heading to see the Muggle sister of Lily Evans, Regulus is now concerned for Harry and for himself. Her marriage is what seems to have caused the sudden switch and now they’re headed to her home? What are they facing?

 Perhaps this aunt married a wizard? She’s a Muggle, of course, but the preservation of blood and culture doesn’t matter to some wizards out there. One Evans sister managed it, and if the Muggle was anything like her sister… well, as fellow members of the Slug Club, even Regulus could admit that Lily Evans was remarkable.

 Hopefully, they’ll be able to slip around any obstacles and take what they need as quickly as possible. Harry knows the terrain, so Regulus just has to keep him on track and balanced, perhaps… do a little damage control if necessary. That coldness… that icy temper and mercurial mood… well, it has Sirius written all over it, and Regulus has never known this sort of thing to end any way but explosively. 

 Admittedly, Regulus never really managed to rein Sirius in from embarrassing their family or creating some massive disaster, but not trying was always worse. Appearances had to be upheld and every member of the family gave Regulus the sour and disappointed looks for not being able to tame his elder brother - loud, wild, and naturally more gifted than him in every which way.

 Harry seems much more civil than Regulus’ brother, but equally unpredictable in an inexplicably different way. Regulus will have to be on the edge of his broomstick for this one. Like dealing with particularly difficult acquaintances and so-called friends. 

 Maybe Regulus is just worrying too much, as he knows he tends towards. Extracting information from a mere Muggle woman can hardly be too difficult.

Chapter Text

 Harry thinks he could step through space to this street from halfway across the world.

 It’s been years since he spent a late morning in November on Privet Drive, but the small street in Little Whinging has clearly been resisting change for longer than Harry remembers. Save for the chill in the air, it’s almost exactly the same as when he left, from the neat lawns to the shiny cars.

 Except the cars are much more… rectangular than Harry remembers. That’s different.

 “I think I must be dead after all,” Regulus comments dryly.

 He’s got a haughty look on his face again, slightly repressed out of what might be a rich man’s attempt at politeness. He looks exactly as hypocritically unimpressed as Harry has always imagined snobbish wizards would be by snobbish Muggles.

 “Why’s that?” Harry asks.

 Regulus casts him a dry look. “Because this is clearly some form of hell.”

 Harry snorts, because yeah, it’s pretty much that.

 At the least, he’s glad to have someone keeping him from remembering how he left. Such a stupid, wasteful, and pointless plan that was… with the Polyjuice and the flying. Harry should have just called a cab the day before or hopped on a Muggle bus.

 It’s another one of those behind-the-scenes workings that’s starting to make less sense the more than Harry thinks about it. In the moment, sure, whatever, but now? What were they all thinking? Except that Harry doesn’t actually want to think about it, because then Hedwig and Moody will have died for nothing.

 Even more than they did because it was always intended that Harry die, just at the right bloody moment.

 It was, dare Harry say it, a holey plan.

 And that vaguely humourous thought and Regulus’ joke is just enough to keep Harry from smashing the nearest pristine mailbox onto the pavement. Just because he feels like wrecking something nice. Just because he can. Just like the delinquent these perfectly normal people in their perfectly normal houses always so readily, careless, and cruelly believed him to be.

 Merlin, Harry has so many feelings of pain and anger and injustice for this place. So many years of misery, so many years of hoping that someone would take him away, or that next year would somehow, almost magically, be better. It went from sleeping under a staircase while darling Duddikins got increasingly spoiled, to missing Ron and Hermione and Hogwarts and Sirius with every fibre of his being, to raging and mourning because Cedric and Sirius and Dumbledore were dead and Harry had been so sure that it was all his fault.

 It could have been worse, Harry knows. His time in Privet Drive isn’t at all comparable to, say, Sirius’ twelve years in Azkaban. If not for the blood protections - the validity of which Harry isn’t thinking about at the moment - he probably would have been killed or kidnapped, he knows. He was safe and fed and sheltered here, mostly.

 Maybe he’s being an ungrateful brat for not being grateful for this not-sanctuary, because it could have been so much worse, but…

 (“You heard me - OUT! OUT! OUT! I should have done it years ago! You’re not bringing trouble down on us, if you’re going the same way as your useless parents, I’ve had it! OUT!”)

 Harry hates this place. So bloody much it burns him.

 (“I’m going. I’ve had enough.”)

 “C’mon, let’s get this over with,” Harry says, nodding Regulus in the direction of their destination:

 Number Four, Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey.

 They walk down the street side by side, with Regulus looking with disdainful curiosity at everything around them and Harry trying not to shiver at the breeze or glare at Mrs. Number Seven peering out from behind her curtains.

 The residents here are as unchanging as the street itself, apparently, every the nosy gatekeepers of dullness. Harry’s willing to bet that there’ll be stories tomorrow about the odd pair of boys - in a Hallowe’en costume and ragged, second-hand clothes - who came to visit the Dursleys. Harry can’t deny that it pleases some part of him to think that he’s dirtying the Dursleys’ precious reputation, just by being here, and that there’s nothing they can do about it.

 “Is there some purpose to all the houses looking exactly the same?” Regulus asks with edged casualness, sounding so remarkably like Sirius that Harry almost does a double-take. “Or is it some Muggle superstition that the appearance of individuality will bring about bad luck?”

 Harry snorts, leading them up the walk to the Dursleys’ front door. “Probably, but they’d all keel over before admitting it.”

 The front garden looks decidedly more barren and less perfectly-tended than he remembers, even for the season. In his eyes, it doesn’t appear to be missing a green thumb as much as it’s missing his thumbs. Merlin, how many hours did he have to put into that dirt?

 “It’s almost unnerving, really,” Regulus continues, and pokes cautiously at the WELCOME doormat with the toe of his dragon-hide boot.

 “Hmm,” Harry answers, considering his own shabby trainers.

 It’s not as though he’s not used to being disgustingly out-of-place in these perfect rows.

 Harry raises a hand to the doorbell, grits his teeth, grabs a tight hold of the wand in his pocket, and pushes the button before Regulus can ask him what he’s waiting for or he can decide he’d actually rather not do this. The sooner they get this done with, the sooner he can find his parents and never see this place again.

 But that still doesn't mean he wants to do this. Harry’s excited but angry but terrified, here. He feels like he’s going to jump out of his own skin, like there’s a monster in his chest going to rip its way out. If he didn’t have Regulus just behind him, he’d probably Apparate away and go back to hiding and being an indecisive mess. Unwilling to approach anything and waiting furious for an explanation that would never come to him.

 The door opens and Harry’s breath catches.

 Suddenly there’s a familiar stranger in front of him, primping her hair and running a smoothing hand down a flowery apron. She answers the door with the curious, smiling tilt of the head that Harry knows she uses for unexpected callings, instead of the welcoming beam she’d use for esteemed and expected dinner guests. Both fake, of course.

 Petunia Dursley is unmistakable, but the woman in front of him is so much younger than the aunt Harry remembers leaving Privet Drive. Her styled blonde hair is brighter than he remembers, her face completely free of wrinkles, and she’s just… young. So much so that her blue eyes seem brighter too. She can’t be much older than him, really. Petunia Dursley is less pinched, less stressed, less worn, and is actually and honestly pretty.

 This young - Merlin, so young - woman could without a doubt be the sister to the woman Harry knows from the Mirror of Erised.

 Then she frowns, face pinching, as she takes in the mismatched, definitely unrespectable appearances of the two teenage boys on her doorstep. Yeah, there’s the Aunt Petunia that Harry knows. Especially with the disgusted look at Harry’s shabbiness, her mouth opening probably with a threat to call the police, and how that’s interrupted by wide-eyed horror as Regulus moves out from behind Harry slightly and she gets a better look at the obvious wizard past the delinquent.

 Petunia immediately tries to slam the door on them. Without a word, without any warning, the front door is slamming shut like a guillotine’s snap. With enough force to hurt the hand that reflexively reaches out to stop it. Petunia shrieks at this.

 (“Up! Get up! Now!”)

 Harry opens his mouth to say something, he’s not surely what exactly, but the words get caught in his throat, he chokes on them, and them Petunia is already gone.

 Regulus pushes them both inside as Petunia’s blonde curls disappear down the hall. Harry’s aunt screaming all the while at the top of her lungs. Regulus shoves past Harry, darting left into the parlour, and is pointing his wand at the back door before Petunia can reach it or Harry can move.

 “Colloportus,” Regulus snaps. Then he turns to Harry with much less urgency and says, “Well? Don’t loiter on the doorstep. Close the door and lock it behind you.”

 Harry watches this happen distantly, with the faint sense that he’s back at the Ministry for the locket or back in Gringotts for the cup again… and it’s just started to go wrong. He turns around and notices Mrs. Number Seven’s stunned face gaping at them through her window. She disappears into her house as soon as Harry catches her eye. Harry has the horrible feeling she’s running for her telephone.

 It’s a feeling somewhere between ‘oh no, I have the worst possible mistake’ and ‘bloody hell, not this again’. Their plans always seem so uncomplicated and adequate until he tries them and all hell breaks loose.

 Harry closes the door and locks it without magic, pulling out the Elder Wand and opening his mouth to say something else - call out a warning, probably, or complaining - but he notices the heavy, metallic crash of someone rifling desperately through pots and pans in the kitchen. Which is immediately followed by a terrified scream, a startled yelp, and a heavy, metallic thunk in the next room.

 Harry remembers, then, that there are lots of very sharp things in the kitchen, which is pretty close to the back door Regulus just locked. He sprints for the parlour doorway.

 Regulus is ducked down behind the sofa like it’s a barricade, wand readied in one hand, expression incredulous. Not too far away, the coffee table has a massive dent in it and there’s a familiar piece of kitchenware by the fireplace. It’s not very difficult to deduce what happened from this scene, but Harry is both completely unsurprised and can barely believe his eyes.

 Aunt Petunia threw the frying pan at Regulus.

 Fucking hell.

 “Do something!” Regulus hisses, peering cautiously over the sofa in the direction of the kitchen.

 Harry figures that bursting into hysterical laughter isn’t what Regulus means by that, so he very carefully doesn’t do that. Even though he really, really wants to. Instead, he looks towards the kitchen from the parlour door, then leans back and stares down the front hall to the kitchen door.

 He can see the cupboard under the stairs out of the corner of his eyes, which… somehow looks even smaller than when he left, and he fiercely ignores it. Just knowing it’s there makes something bubble and burn inside his chest. It’s probably being used for storage at the moment, and it aches to think that no one ever considered making anyone, much less a boy, sleep there.

 (“Go - cupboard - stay - no meals!”)

 But that’s not important. Not at the moment. Not at all, really. Not at all, really. Not in the grand scheme of things.

 (“There is no such thing as magic!”)

 Harry can’t see Aunt Petunia, but she’s got to be in there. With the back door locked, there’s no other way out but the front door - not unless Petunia wants to try shimmying out the kitchen window, which she’d need to break because it doesn’t open. Harry wouldn’t put it put her, but he hasn’t heard that sort of crash yet.

 They’re at a standstill, because Petunia’s probably not leaving the kitchen and Harry’s not going in there to get his own pan at his head. Or worse. There are lots of very sharp and heavy things in there.

 Regulus peers further over the sofa and warily gets to his feet again, raising his wand.

 “Stop just standing there and do something,” he hisses.

 There might be police showing up soon if Mrs. Number Seven went for her telephone. Harry quickly considers Regulus’ amusingly wild-eyed look and takes a deep breath. He has no idea what to say, where to begin, but things’ll probably somehow get worse if he doesn’t speak up.

 “Au- Petunia?” he calls. “Petunia Dursley? We’re not here to hurt you, we just want to talk, okay? … You don’t have to come out, and we won’t come in, all right?”

 He doesn’t get an answer. Frankly, he’d be surprised if he did.

 From his half-crouched position behind the sofa, Regulus nods approvingly and rises fully. He makes to move towards the kitchen, very much not doing what Harry just said they would do. Harry has to make a panicky, what-the-hell, stop-doing-that motion until Regulus stops.

 Regulus stares back at him with obvious confusion, and bewilderedly but silently moves back towards Harry in the parlour door. He stops far enough away to still keep an eye on the back door.

 “What?” Regulus says quietly.

 “What were you doing?” Harry whispers.

 “...Moving to subdue her? Extract information,” Regulus answers, obviously confused. “What are you doing?”

 Subdue? Extract? It takes Harry a few seconds to work out what that means, but he doesn’t like the answers he comes to. Did Regulus think they were going to use the Imperius Curse or something?

 It would be… very easy. It would get them any information they wanted without any trouble. It wouldn’t involve any real confrontation or conversation with Aunt Petunia. It’s so tempting an option that it sends a disturbing shiver down Harry’s spine. He’s not that desperate yet.

 ...Is he?

 “Asking!” Harry answers, a little angrily, though he doesn’t know at whom. “With words!”

 Regulus stares at him, gives him a considering once over, then lowers his wand.

 “Fine,” he says.

 

 ~

 

 Regulus should have figured Lily Evans and James Potter’s son for a Muggle-lover. How couldn’t he be with his mother? The comfort in Muggle clothing and the easy in Muggle spaces… it’s so obvious that Regulus wants to drag his hand down his face for having temporarily forgotten what was right in front of his face. He was misled by the way Harry stared with such obvious hatred at this obviously Muggle neighbourhood.

 Or is this reluctance only family loyalty? This less attractive, banally dressed Muggle woman is Lily Evans’ sister, after all, and even if she’s high-strung and… Actually, Regulus can see the resemblance there.

 The point, however, is that this protectiveness could just be loyalty to family. Regulus can respect loyalty to family - Family First, after all - and would actually respect Harry for that loyalty. One can’t help their family, however mundane this particular side of the family may be, which is likely less mundane than average, given Lily Evans and her son.

 “Fine,” Regulus says, backing away.

 He can let his saviour handle this. This Muggle woman is Harry’s aunt, after all, and so Harry should know this territory better than Regulus. Regulus will simply take over again if asking politely goes wrong - which, given Regulus just had a cooking pan thrown at his head, seems incredibly likely - or Harry freezes up again like he did on the doorstep.

 Regulus found that unhelpful of Harry, but understandable.

 So… stand back. Observe. Wait. Watch. Regulus is good at those, if nothing else.

 Harry nods, watching him again with that same shrewd wariness as earlier. Harry looks a little angry, a little mistrustful, and Regulus would give a lot to know what’s going on behind those Lily-Evans-green eyes. He has no idea what Harry’s thinking and he’s missing too much information to guess - he’s never met such an apparently simple but disturbingly complicated person before.

 Harry glances at one of the hideously floral chairs, points at it, and says, “Sit.”

 Regulus stares incredulously at him.

 Blacks don’t gape. Blacks do not gape.

 “Sit,” Harry repeats firmly.

 Feeling very much like he’d fall over if he doesn’t, Regulus goes over to the nearest ugly chair and sits. It’s not the distraught flop he refuses to do, but it’s fairly close. Harry wants him to sit and cooperating is important, so Regulus does, crosses his arms, and regrets every decision in his life that has led him to this point.

 It could be worse, certainly, but preferable is hardly the same as acceptable.

 “Au- Petunia?” Harry calls again. “We’re just looking to contact your sister… Lily Potter. Just to talk to her. All we want is an address or a phone number, then we’ll be going. … Petunia?”

 The Muggle woman in the kitchen unsurprisingly doesn’t answer, and Regulus quickly gets bored with watching for movement farther into the house. Watching Harry is much more interesting. (And it helps that Regulus isn’t happy with him at the moment.)

 Harry looks anxious, like he’s… what’s the Muggle expression? Seen a ghost? Harry’s trying to keep his eyes fixed at the back of the house, but he keeps glancing about, especially back towards the stairs. He looks fascinatingly uncomfortable.

 Regulus generously supposes he himself might be equally uncomfortable if he were meeting one of his aunts or uncles at a younger age. Aunt Cassiopeia, for one, is impossible to imagine as anything less than ancient.

 There isn’t a chance that this Muggle woman’s husband is a wizard. This is the most Muggle residence that Regulus has ever seen, though he admittedly hasn’t seen very many. Actually, this is the first one he’s ever been inside, but that’s not the point. It’s Muggle in here. What self-respecting wizard would stoop so low?

 Wondering as to this hated husband’s identity, Regulus notices several picture frames on the mantle. He glances at Harry and slides out of the chair as sneakily as he can.

 Harry catches sight of him immediately, of course, and frowns back at him. Regulus raises his palms in a gesture of peace and starts pointedly poking about at various tasteless items of décor, not immediately going for the photographs. Harry scowls at him some more, but neither tells him to stop nor makes any flailing motions, and soon looks away again.

 “Au- Petunia,” he calls. “All we need is a phone number or address to find Lily and James Potter.”

 Regulus goes straight for the photographs and grimaces before he can help it. Not a wizard. Lily Evans’ sister has, according to this wedding photograph, married a plump, moustached man in a black and white suit. The unattractive nature of frozen Muggle photography does him no favors. Not the sort of person Regulus imagined would inspire such cold anger.

 Regulus continues investigating.

 The Muggles are very boring people, is what he discovers. He also finds that there are no pictures containing or items that remind him even remotely of Lily Evans. Either the mantle is themed specifically on cheap, Muggle nonsense or the Muggle woman doesn’t want a hint of her magical sister’s presence in her parlour.

  Regulus could be wrong, of course, but he’s seen the mess his mother’s made of that awful, faulty tapestry. He watched her burn Sirius off it. He remembers the smell of it-

 Harry sighs. “This isn’t working.” He points his wand down the hall and says, “Colloportus.”

 Something down the hall clicks, the hall-kitchen door presumably, and Harry stops leaning on the parlour door frame and moves into the parlour itself. He walks past Regulus, moving cautiously into the dining room to get a better view of the kitchen. Wand raised, of course, presumably to fend off whatever the mad Muggle woman throws at him. Harry stops just on the edge of the dining room and parlour border.

 “Petunia, I just want to find Lily and James Potter,” Harry assures the unseen woman. “...Do you have any idea - any at all - where to find Lily and James Potter?”

 Harry’s voice breaks, slightly, on that last sentence and Regulus, who had been watching interestedly, has to immediately look away and focus on absolutely anything else. A part of Regulus suddenly doesn’t want to be witnessing this anymore, because his great saviour has stopped sounding like a saviour and instead sounds like a tired teenager who just wants to go home already.

 Regulus throws himself into filtering through the Muggles’ belongings. Hideous knick-knacks have never been so very interesting. Except that they were actually incredibly dull and in no way distracting enough to keep Regulus from overhearing another tired sigh.

 Regulus moves away from the mantle, pokes at a strange piece of machinery sitting on an end table, and starts going through its drawer. Inside is only a notebook of dull reminders and uninteresting messages, some Muggle writing utensils, and a small black book that’s likely more of the same nonsense.

 Regulus has already flipped through a few pages of the small black book before he realizes that it’s not more useless messages. It’s a book of contacts. Regulus straightens, finally fully distracted, and starts flipping through the pages more carefully.

 It’s mostly Muggle business associates, it seems, going by the male names and the “work number”, “work address”, and “company” being the only information filled out, as opposed to “home number” and “home address”. There are some couples and female names too, with the opposite. It’s all organized alphabetically, how useful.

 Regulus flips to E first and finds no Evanses. Then to P and finds no Potters either.

 Becoming angry and frustrated, Regulus scans through the entire stupid book of Muggles and finds absolutely no mention of Lily Evans or James Potter. Regulus almost throws the book at the wall, before he remembers that they could be under a false name, which would be the intelligent thing to do.

 He flips through the book again, more carefully, to see if any names stand out. None do, but Regulus notices after he turns the last page that the insides of the leather cover have pockets. Regulus checks them both and, to his recently much-changed fortune, finds a slip of parchment paper. Familiar and yellowed, unlike this flimsy Muggle stuff, with a note that’s clearly been written with a quill. Regulus doesn’t need three guesses to know who it’s from.

 It reads: I’m sorry, Tuney. Please call me if you ever want to try again. Love, Lily.

 And then there’s a string of digits underneath it, which Regulus assumes to be a Muggle telephone number. It’s organized in an odd pattern with dashes. Regulus holds the parchment out in front of himself to frown at the unknown code.

 Then he again notices the heavy Muggle device sitting on the end table which the ransacked drawer. It has twelve buttons on the front of it, ten of which have single digit numbers engraved, and a handle-like thing on top, which is revealed to have ends with holes poked through when Regulus cautiously picks it up and turns it over. How odd.

 Regulus assumes this is a Muggle telephone. He’s heard of them before. Unfortunately, no proper Black has ever deigned or been allowed to take a Muggle Studies class, so he doesn’t know how to use it or make use of what is most likely Lily’s Evans’ “telephone number”.

 Regulus glances over at Harry, who’s still trying to speak to the Muggle woman hiding in the kitchen, and immediately decides he doesn’t want to intrude. He was perfectly happy not paying any attention to that conversation, and the awkward attempts at bargaining and the long silences have become no less uncomfortable. Besides, Harry didn’t want his help.

 Let Harry keep trying the difficult method of extracting information from an uncooperative Muggle. Regulus will simply entertain himself whilst information any and all thoughts of family and blood. He will entertain no thoughts of lost family.

 Regulus can figure out this Muggle device on his own. He doesn’t need assistance for anything. It can’t possibly be that complicated if Muggles use them. There’s a code of numbers on the parchment and numbered buttons on the device, which seems straightforward enough. He’d like an illustrated guide, of course, but that seems unlikely.

 Digit by digit, Regulus enters the code on the parchment. He’s momentarily confused, because there are dashes between groups of digits, but no dash button. He decides to skip them. If there’s something missing, it simply won’t work and that will be that. After entering the last number, Regulus waits, and is oddly both disappointed and gratified when nothing seems to happen. The fault presumably lies in the dashes.

 Then the handle part in his handle makes a faint ringing sound and Regulus startles, almost dropping it. Perhaps the handle piece was meant to be attached to the telephone and not removed?

 Before he replaces the handle to try again, Regulus raises the handle to his ear to hear the ringing sound better. It’s fascinating. It’s almost like a Sneak-o-scope or some other device going off. Regulus is only mildly dismayed when the interesting ringing sound is suddenly interrupted by a sharp click.

 Only mildly, because Regulus is distracted by the pair of Muggle vehicles, with a flashing blue light on the top and a crest he doesn’t recognize on the side, that pull to a stop in front of the house. Several Muggle men in blue uniforms get out in a hurry. Where are Muggles always in such a rush to get places?

 “Oh, hell,” Harry groans. “The police. Fantastic.”

 And a friendly, familiar, female voice suddenly says into Regulus’ ear, “Lily speaking. Who’s this?”

 

 

Chapter Text

 Harry is torn.

 He needs to get an address or phone number from his aunt, but he doesn’t really want to go near Aunt Petunia. Outside of using magic or threatening to use magic, Harry doesn’t really know how to get Petunia to talk. She’s clearly not going to cooperate.

 No surprise there, really. Petunia Dursley hates magic and hated him. The form Harry and his aunt’s relationship has ever taken is basically ignoring each other’s existence. Aunt Petunia at her worst, on the other hand, is… something between barely bearable and torturously unpleasant and infuriating, if there’s a word for that.

 (“That’s where you’re going. A special school for freaks. You and that Snape boy… weirdos, that’s what you two are. It’s good you’re being separated from normal people. It’s for own safety.”)

 Trying to coax anything about Lily Potter out of Petunia Dursley sounds like it ought to be immediately be written off as a lost cause. She never told Harry anything about his mother even knowing he was her nephew. Attempting it now is just like every other time: awkwardly stilted, achingly terrible, and quietly infuriating.

 Just being in Number Four, Privet Drive, again is bad enough. Harry hates this place and everyone in it - his hands keep trembling if he doesn’t hold them still - and it’s so damn frustrating to find that facing all this could have been for nothing.

 (“Apparently wizards poke their noses in everywhere! Freak!”)

 Regulus’ plan of using magic to get what they want is sounding increasing appealing, and Harry finds that’s the worst part. Harry still remembers how much easier the Imperius Curse made breaking into Gringotts. The quick, quiet, desperate necessary theft of another being’s free will.

 The spell had been far too easy to cast for something Unforgivable.

 There had only been time to shake off a self-disgusted shiver, before hurrying on to steal Hufflepuff’s Cup. No real time for contemplation. No real time for some remorse for something he still doesn’t really regret, because it had been so necessary.

 Harry still remembers Ravenclaw Tower, too, which happened… less than a week ago, even though it feels like forever ago now.

 (“You shouldn’t have done that. … Crucio!”)

 Amycus Carrow was yanked into the air like a puppet, like a man drowning on dry land, thrashing and howling in agony. It was with a flick of the wrist that glass shattered and the man smashed into a bookcase before crumpling - strings cut - to the floor.

 It was so easy. So practiced. So careless and simple, like he’d successfully cast the spells dozens of times before and couldn’t imagine failing. The worst pain imaginable, falling so naturally off the tip of his wand, as great and terrible as any Cruciatus that the Dark Lord himself had ever cast. It was almost as though Harry hadn’t been the one casting it, except he had, because his blood had been thundering with exhilaration and even now Harry can’t bring himself to regret cursing Amycus Carrow insensible with agony.

 (“I see what Bellatrix meant… you need to really mean it.”)

 Harry has no intention, none whatsoever, of casting the Cruciatus Curse on Aunt Petunia, of course. But the Imperius Curse is terribly, terribly tempting. It would be so quick, so easy. All the answers without having to face his aunt’s sharp tongue and hateful scowl.

 Regulus is a Death Eater and probably wouldn’t care. Definitely wouldn’t care. Having all but suggested it explicitly. It immediately seems so ultimately harmless, too, and Harry has already crossed the line before. Does another step back over really matter in the long run?

 But is does. Because it matters to him… and it’ll matter to Petunia.

 And does Harry really want to listen to the advice of a guy who was reportedly so bloody proud and happy to become a Death Eater? Harry doesn’t know how far Regulus’ senses go.

 Harry remembers the graveyard, the class with Barty-as-Moody, and how the effects echoed restlessly afterwards. Even after he’d successfully resisted. He remembers the nightmares and the sleepless nights, terrified that Voldemort would manage to possess or control him.

 (Just answer no…

 “I WON’T!”)

 Harry will fight - maybe a little hypocritically - to his very end for free will. Even if it didn’t matter much in the end. For all “necessary” things he’s done, he doesn’t really need to do anything here. There are other ways, if Harry wasn’t so cowardly. He’d be desecrating the memory of everyone he’s ever cared about, or who cared about him, if he just stopped caring about snatching free will from living beings for his own gains.

 (Here lies Dobby, a Free Elf.)

 And even though he can no longer feel Voldemort’s thoughts and rage and endless malice in the back of his head, Harry can’t help but feel that Tom Riddle is still there. Quietly waiting and always watching for that one… weak… moment.

 In the back of his mind, Harry knows he’ll never truly be free of Voldemort. Scars fade, but they don’t heal. He knows that he won’t be able to live with himself, to like himself at all, if he starts throwing around Unforgiveables simply because he doesn’t want to face his fears, work slightly harder for his goals, all with the justification that his actions are simply necessary. Necessary for the damned greater good.

 Maybe. Just maybe if this was a life-or-death situation with Death Eaters.

 But it’s not. As much as Harry hates Petunia Dursley, for every hard rap of her fingers and every pursed sneer of her lips, she hasn’t really done anything to deserve this. Making Aunt Petunia afraid now doesn’t leave him with any satisfaction, just an upset, rotted feeling.

 Harry’s putting too much thought into this.

 Harry knows he’s overthinking this and that this should be far simpler, but between Regulus’ suggestion of extracting information forcefully and the years of unhappy memories that Privet Drive brings… between walking to his death and being stranded in time… Harry would like to think that he’s allowed to overthink things some.

 If only he could put that thinking into figuring out how to enter the kitchen without having a frying pan thrown at his head. Then they’d really be in business.

 Harry then notices the flashing lights and sounds just outside the window, which he’d before only heard in the distance or more commonly seen on some of Dudley’s more violent television programs. If Harry not being surprised by the Muggle police showing up isn’t an indication of how terribly their plans usually go, then Harry’s not sure what would be.

 “Oh, hell,” he groans. “The police. Fantastic.”

 Thank you, Missus Number Seven.

 Then Harry notices that Regulus has the phone to his ear and looks politely sceptical of either its existence or his own. Harry wouldn’t have thought Regulus capable of using a phone. Harry’s surprised Regulus actually tried to use one. Well, he’d be surprised if not for how, in the past day or so of knowing him, Harry’s figured out just fine that Regulus is a bit of prying, overly-curious, sly git.

 Watching the policemen rush towards the front door, Harry remembers that he never locked it with magic. All of Dudley’s television programs had the police and other action heroes kicking down doors. Harry doesn’t have clue if that’s realistic or not, since his experience with breaking down doors consists of pointing a stick at them, but he’s not going to risk it.

 Harry rushes through the parlour, into the front hall, and casts a Colloportus on the front door just in time for something heavy to bang into it.

 Regulus watches him, still looking slightly baffled, and waves his wand at the parlour curtains almost absentmindedly. Aunt Petunia’s precious, furniture-matching curtains immediately swish shut and darken, becoming opaque, blocking the window view and dimming the room.

 “What are you doing?” Harry demands.

 Regulus listens to the phone for a few seconds more, then says in far too loud a volume, “Please excuse me for just a moment!”

 Not a yell, but not an indoor-voice or phone-volume voice either. Harry is reminded very strongly of Ron’s disastrously poor attempts at using a phone.

 Regulus listens to the phone again, then holds it away from himself somewhat gingerly.

 “I’ve managed to reach Lily Evans through a telephone number I found in a book of contacts,” Regulus says, with a smug little grin, pleased as punch with himself while Harry’s stomach gets punched out the bottom.

 Several shouts and other distressingly loud sounds come from outside.

 Regulus tilts his head slightly. “Police?”

 “Muggle D.M.L.E.,” Harry manages to push past his strangled throat.

 Regulus’ eyes widen slightly. “Oh,” he says, somewhat lamely. “Well… that’s a respectable response time for Muggles. Very impressive.” He refocuses on Harry. “We’ll want to avoid interacting with them entirely, won’t we?”

 “Yeah.”

 “Then you come and take this,” Regulus says decisively, carefully holding out the phone for Harry to take. “You organize a meeting and I’ll secure the building.”

 Harry takes the phone automatically, a fearful feeling rising in his chest, while Regulus, with a non-expression, dumps the phone on Harry like it’s a Blast-Ended Skrewt. With another nod, almost confirming his own confidence, Regulus steps off to make Number Four, Privet Drive, worthy of withstanding a siege by the police.

 Harry almost reminds Regulus of Petunia in the kitchen, but catches it, because having a frying pan thrown at his head doesn’t seem like something Regulus will easily forget. It’s easily caught partly because today is not going at all how Harry imagined it might.

 On the other hand, though, Harry didn’t bother to imagine very far. The mere thought of talking to Aunt Petunia was enough to make him freeze up on a doorstep. The thought of talking to his not-dead, not-yet-parents parents is infinitely more terrifying.

 He raises the phone to his ear. He takes a deep breath. Then another. Then…

 “Hello?” he says.

 “...Hello,” a woman’s voice replies, slightly tinny and uncertainly bemused.

 Her voice is nonetheless recognizable, even if Harry has only heard that voice a bare handful of times in fragmented memories. Those fragments have haunted him for years.

 (“Not Harry, not Harry, please not Harry!”

 “Stand aside, you silly girl… stand aside, now…”

 “Not Harry, please no, take me, kill me instead-”)

 “...Who is this?” Lily Potter asks.

 “...Harry,” he barely manages to answer. “My name is Harry Potter.”

 (“Not Harry! Please… have mercy… have mercy…”)

 “Potter?” Lily says, audibly surprised.

 Harry takes another deep breath. It doesn’t help.

 “Yes,” he says.

 There’s a brief muffling sound on the other end, a few beats, and then Lily Potter comes back. “Well…” she says brightly. “What can I do for you, Mister Potter?”

 (“Your father’s coming… Hold on for your father… it will be all right… hold on.”)

 “I’d like… if we could… meet,” Harry says awkwardly.

 He’s biting back so many “maybes” and “pleases”. He doesn’t know how to do this. He wants to call Regulus back, just so he can ask someone what the hell you say to your mother who you’re never met alive before.

 “Oh?” Lily says. “What about?”

 (“Not Harry! Not Harry! Please - I’ll do anything!”)

 Harry tries not to choke on his own breath. “It’s… it’s not very believable,” he says. “I don’t… I don’t know how to explain it… not… not in person.” At the dead silence on the other end of the line, he panics slightly. “I’m… It’s about…”

 Everything.

 Then the phone is deftly snatched from Harry’s grip and Regulus is there, pushing Harry down into the armchair. Harry’s legs give out beneath him like a snapped broomstick. He lands hard enough to make the cushions hurt, and it’s all he can do to hold on to his wand and look startled up at Regulus.

 He can recall his own voice, telling himself this exact thing was impossible.

 (“They’re dead. … They’re dead and listening to echoes of them won’t bring them back.”)

 Regulus looks down at him, expression neither angry nor disappointed, holding the phone far from himself.

 “You’re going to make me do absolutely everything myself, aren’t you?” Regulus asks softly, mocking without any actual bite. He raises his eyebrows. “Lazy Potters.”

 Harry puts his aching head in his hands and mutters, “Fuck off.”

 “No, thank you. Don’t be crude,” Regulus says mildly, before pointing at the armchair that Harry’s already sitting in. Then he says, with a widest damn smirk that Harry’s ever seen, “Sit.”

 Harry lets out a huffy breath that could maybe be considered a laugh, because that’s pretty funny, and obediently sits back. He can’t handle this. He mostly just wanted to see his parents, not in a mirror or a photo album. He doesn’t have a clue how to begin to go about talking to them, not without blurting out the stupidest things which they’ll never believe.

 It’s a bloody miracle that he managed to convince Regulus of anything.

 Regulus raises the phone to his ear again, nearly holding it upside-down but managing to flip it before he starts speaking. “Lily Evans?” he says politely, like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, at a more appropriate volume this time.

 “Hello,” Regulus says firmly, after a pause. “...No, I’m afraid I’m someone else. … My partner and I are in possession of valuable information and want a meeting with you and your husband. … Beneficial to the Order of the Phoenix’s cause, of course.”

 He pauses again, then continues smoothly, “No, how we got this number isn’t important.”

 Like he would never even dream of breaking into Lily’s Muggle sister’s house to forcibly get a telephone number. Not in a million years, he wouldn’t; how dare you, sir.

 “Rest assured that it’s not commonly known and we won’t be spreading it. … It’s a very special set of circumstances, Miss Evans. … Oh, Mrs. Potter, then. My apologies.”

 How old are his parents right now, anyway? Harry hasn’t really been thinking about it, but by the end, in the forest again, his parents had looked somewhere between Bill and Fleur’s ages, hadn’t they? So old in the Mirror of Erised, in the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy, and yet so terribly young by the walk in the forest. Counting back - they were born in 1960, he remembers that from the gravestones that aren’t there anymore - LIly and James Potter are… nineteen.

 Merlin, nineteen years old. That’s only… that’s only two years older than him. And they were supposed to die in two more years.

 How is he even supposed to talk to them?

 

~

 

 Well, Harry’s frozen up again. Regulus would probably be much more irritated if it were anyone else, but it’s a fairly understandable situation when one takes a sensible step back. It must be shocking to come into contact with beloved family members (and not-so-beloved, in the case of the Muggle aunt and uncle), who not only don’t know you, but don’t know you because you haven’t come to exist yet.

 If Regulus was stranded years back in time and had to face a younger Walburga Black, then… well, that would be a very distressing situation. Distressing is likely an understatement, really. It would almost certainly go terribly, if not worse, as his grandparents were not especially tolerant people inclined to listen to young nobodies. Regulus would be very lucky if he wasn’t cursed horribly for being an obvious impersonator or an impertinent bastard trying to make some gold.

 Besides… Regulus isn’t certain how well his poise would hold up if he were to see a younger Orion Black, especially when his father passed away earlier this year. That being a distressing situation may be to say the absolute least.

 This squeezing feeling of empathy in his chest is… extremely uncomfortable, and Regulus doesn’t like having it. Even if it’s over someone who saved his life and seems otherwise quite admirable in dire situations, when not emotionally compromised. For saving his life, Regulus can ignore that bright, glimmering look in his saviour’s distant eyes.

 So, Regulus will take over from here, they’ll get this over and done with, Harry can pull himself together again, and they can both pretend that neither of them ever experienced or witnessed any emotions from each other. Or so Regulus is foolishly hoping, despite knowing that emotional encounters are very much not over and done with.

 Regulus has yet to reunite with his brother, after all, which will hopefully be easy but definitely be extremely difficult. Because Sirius is never not difficult.

 And if Harry cannot properly interact with his parents over a voice-only system of communication, then a face-to-face meeting will likely see a resurgence of Harry freezing up or being embarrassingly awkward.

 But the faster they deal with this, the less chance the Muggle D.M.L.E. has of making it into the building and creating a situation that might bring the attention of the Ministry. The chance is extremely low, of course, because Regulus knows what he’s doing and they’re Muggles, but the chance technically exists nevertheless.

 At least they don’t have to worry about the Muggle aunt anymore, safely sleeping away in the kitchen and missing this entire conversation. Harry may have objected to using magic to extract information from his relative, which is reasonable enough, but he surely won’t object to Regulus simply putting the putting to temporary sleep and out of their way. It’s really just sensible self-defence, Regulus will argue, after that frying pan incident.

 “We would like to meet as soon as possible - alone, of course; today, most preferably - just the two of us and you and your husband,” Regulus informs Lily Evans.

 He doesn’t care if she did get married to that loud-mouthed, brother-stealing Potter, Regulus listened to Professor Slughorn sing her praises long enough to forever think of her with the phrase, “Lily Evans, such a charming girl!”

 “Uh huh,” Lily Evans says, sounding impressively unimpressed. “And why us?”

 “Because the information we possess is pertinent to you and your husband, of course. The name of my partner should have made that evident enough,” Regulus answers, beginning to enjoy himself probably far more than he should.

 Harry looks ill and that’s unpleasant to see, but this conversation with Lily Evans is the best game of words and wits that Regulus has played in ages. Especially because this is at a distance and she’s no Death Eater or purist. He doesn’t risk dying or being cursed by this - not from her, at least - for being mouthy and opinionated and too smart. Even with his so-called friends, when he could be smart, any sort of exchange of wits was still part of that larger, stressful, incredibly, endlessly cutthroat competition. 

 This is almost thrilling.

 “It makes it evident you know your way around a lie,” Lily says. “How do we know we’re not walking into an ambush? Or being handed false information by… whoever you are.”

 Regulus thinks about it. He doesn’t want to give them the advantage of the time and place, because they could bring several Order members and might just Stun before listening. Of course, they might do that either way, but giving up any advantage grates against his instincts. His best hope of catching them is to give them a shred of information as bait, not ultimately important or terribly useful, but enough to have them hooked.

 “I’d swear you a vow, but there’s a device in the way,” Regulus says, thinking quickly.

 He could, of course, sabotage this and see if he and Harry could continue alone. However, he can’t, really, because seeing Lily Evans and James Potter is the path that his saviour has chosen for them, and so Regulus is honour-bound of sorts to help see it happen. Besides, Regulus does want to reunite with his brother, even knowing that it will be difficult, and the Potter, especially this newest one, are the best path to that Regulus can see.

 If Sirius can see the work that Regulus has been doing, the efforts he’s been making to help, the quest he’s chosen… then maybe… maybe things won’t be so difficult between them. Maybe Sirius, despite never having been not difficult in his life, will see him and… understand… for once.

 “Where do you want to meet and when?” Lily says.

 If that’s actual agreement instead of the opening of negotiations, Regulus may just swoon from surprise onto the sofa. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know what to say that will successfully bait Lily Evans and James Potter into actual agreement.

 Peter Pettigrew is a traitor?

 Unlikely to go over well.

 I’m Sirius’ hated younger brother and a defecting Death Eater?

 Very trustworthy.

 My partner is your son from the future and seems to be keeping an admirable amount of secrets for someone who may or may not be on the verge of some sort of breakdown?

 Best not.

 “Please excuse me for just a moment,” Regulus says, as though he lives a very busy life and something’s just come up.

 Instead of revealing that he ultimately doesn’t know what he’s doing and lives in a constant state of secretly suspecting that nearly everything he does will go terribly, terribly wrong.

 Regulus pulls the telephone handle away from his ear and covers the holes of the speaking part. He then asks Harry, “Do you have a place for a meeting picked out?”

 It’s only polite to ask, and Regulus doesn’t exactly know or hang out around many places where members of the Order of the Phoenix would be comfortable. Or alive for very long, either.

 Harry blinks up at him, then visibly thinks about it. “...The Shrieking Shack?” he suggests, with a very sorry-looking shrug.

 Regulus resolves to get Harry out of this draining place as soon as possible and to give his saviour time to recover before any meeting. If Harry isn’t at his best, at his most convincing, when he reunites with his parents in person, then they will soon have problems. Perhaps Regulus can interrogate Harry and coach his saviour on what to say beforehand.

 “That’s very close to Hogwarts,” Regulus observes slowly.

 And to Albus Dumbledore, he doesn’t say, but Harry clearly hears it. Or something like it, at least, if his immediate grimace is anything to do by.

 The Shrieking Shack is too close to both Hogwarts and Hogsmeade for Regulus’ comfort, too close to the reach of the powerful Headmaster and the possibility of watchful eyes working for either side. The Shrieking Shack is also too much of a haunted hovel for Regulus’ comfort. Surely they can do better.

 Harry stays quiet, still thinking, and eventually suggests, “The graveyard in Godric’s Hollow?”

 That’s… very grim, and Regulus doesn’t know enough about the location to comment much beyond that. He knows that Godric’s Hollow is a small village home to both Muggles and wizards, as it’s housed several notable, if not very noble or pureblooded, wizarding families over the years. Including the Potters, apparently, who have or will have some sort of residence there if Harry is to be believed.

 Still, a graveyard is not a terrible suggestion. Actually… it’s a very, very good suggestion. Fantastic, almost, and Regulus can’t quite believe that he didn’t come up with something similar himself.

 Graveyards are not typically very crowded, yet they’re still a public space, and best of all: graveyards are considered to be sacred ground, by the older traditions, at least. It’s a sign of extremely distasteful disrespect to duel or even exchange threats in a place where the dead are laid to rest. They’re not neutral ground exactly, being so personal by their very nature, but violence is unwelcome in places of mourning.

 There are ghosts who don’t appreciate duels, for one thing, and severe magical accidents for another. The lines between life and death in graveyards is popularly said to be thin.

 That doesn’t stop the occasional argument or attempts to get rid of unwanted visitors at funerals, of course, but people like Lily Evans and James Potter will likely be disinclined to duel in a graveyard, by their nature if not wizarding traditions they may or may not know.

 Godric’s Hollow’s graveyard is certainly not a place the average Death Eater would pick.

 Regulus returns the telephone handle to his ear, checks the hideous clock on the mantle, and takes a leap of faith. “The graveyard of Godric’s Hollow. One o’clock this afternoon. Alone.”

 Lily Evans hums in consideration, but doesn’t answer immediately.While waiting, Regulus puts a hand over the speaking end of the telephone handle again, this time keeping the listening end next to his ear as he consults Harry.

 “Harry, do you have any statement or unimportant secret that would make them immediately inclined to trust you? Or at least take the risk of a meeting?”

 It can’t hurt to inquire. Harry seems to be continuing his pattern of being distressing baffling and uncomfortably useful, and Regulus sees nothing better to do than prod the pattern along.

 While Harry seems to think the question over with another grimace, Lily Evans’ voice comes back.

 “That’s a very interesting place, Mister ‘Someone Else’. But this is still all very… out of nowhere.”

 Understandable. If Regulus got a Floo Call like this out of nowhere, he’d never trust it.

 Harry finally comes to a conclusion, looks up at Regulus, and says very seriously, “‘I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.’ Tell them that.”

 Regulus doesn’t gape, because Blacks don’t, but he does stare a bit.

 ...What?

 That’s… that’s not…

 What?

 Ths speaking piece is still covered, so Regulus can hiss, “How is that trustworthy at all?”

 Harry’s lips quick into a smile, which is better than hazy moping, but very annoying nonetheless. That’s not a trust-inducing statement at all. That is literally the opposite of a trust-inducing statement. Not just in Regulus’ opinion, but literally so! Literally!

 Harry’s small smile widens into a grin. “Trust me,” he says.

 Regulus scowls, but relents. “Fine.”

 Because if anyone knows Lily Evans and James Potter, then it would surely be their son. And if ever there was a pair of people with such terrible sense of humour as to think that a declaration of being up to terrible things was somehow trustworthy, it’s James Potter and Sirius Black.

 “Mrs. Potter? I solemnly swear that I am up to no good,” he recites into the speaking piece, his cheeks burning slightly, and feeling very much the fool.

 Especially as Harry’s grin gets even wider, and the listening piece has nothing but silence for Regulus several beats after saying it. Then several more. It’s far more embarrassing and uncomfortable than it should be, and if this is some poor joke due to Harry being emotionally compromised or just having a sense of humour that terrible, Regulus will not be pleased.

 He waits for Lily Evans to come back, pointedly ignoring Harry and the very “James Potter” smile on his saviour’s face all the while. Regulus is honour-bound not to curse or hex or jinx or cast any sort of vengeful magic on Harry just for grinning annoyingly at him. He’s honour-bound and he will not. He has more control and dignity than that, even though it is very, very temping.

 It feels almost like a blessing when Lily Evans does return.

 “Godric’s Hollow graveyard at one o’clock, you said?”

 

 

Chapter Text

 Well, they have their meeting. Regulus still doesn’t understand what part of “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good” inspires trust, but Sirius’ friend group always did consist of like-minded idiots and an absurd number of inside jokes that weren’t actually funny. Regulus wouldn’t really know about these things, never having been “in” on anything after his brother went away to Hogwarts and essentially stopped looking at him.

 “You’re not going to be able to freeze up like that at one o’clock,” Regulus tells Harry softly.

 “Yeah,” Harry says, head in his hands again. “I know.”

 Even though Harry seeing his parents once more will likely have the greatest emotional impact yet, Harry can’t freeze up again. They need to make a strong impression on Lily Evans and James Potter - a positive impression - which Regulus doubts an emotional breakdown will bring.

 However, Regulus wouldn’t really know about that either, never having had an emotional breakdown, or even having had a truly significant emotional outbreak in front of another person. At least, besides the potion-influenced one he had in front of Harry in the cave which seems to be working out quite well. Harry seems to be general outlier, though.

 Regulus’ mother and Father never really approved of emotion. Not the weak kinds, at least.

 Mother is fond of outrage and other forms of vexation, Father was a master of disappointment and disdain, and they always seemed to approve of every kind of hatred from the subtle to the violent. Like dear Cousin Bella’s bloodlust. They liked their pride and their pleasure - sometimes Walburga was soft and warm and delighted with Regulus, which always made the rest of the time feel so much colder - but things like sadness and anxiety and fear weren’t commonly welcome in the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black.

 Showing vulnerability is for other people. Lesser people. They’ve never been shy about that.

 Regulus and Harry haven’t known each other for a full day yet, but they’ve somehow both managed to break those rules for appearances. Regulus might have thought lesser of Harry for this, if he wasn’t painfully aware that Harry has seen him at his worst - incoherent, out of his mind, nearly dead due to his own arrogance and cowardice - and miraculously doesn’t seem to judge him poorly by it or any of the debatably worse decisions Regulus has made in his life, which he now owes to Harry. Harry doesn’t even seem to recall Regulus’ moments of weakness and Regulus is pathetically grateful.

 Besides, being emotionally compromised really is understandable. Considering the matter, Regulus would be exceedingly concerned for the sanity of his saviour and the truthfulness of Harry’s story if Harry was still as flippant and unaffected as he’d been in the cave.

 At least Harry is having this struggle now and not in a truly inconvenient and urgent situation. Regulus doesn’t consider the Muggle D.M.L.E. to be a pressing concern, not when they can’t break through the most elementary and least time-consuming of magical protections. They’re barely a nuisance.

 As Harry doesn’t seem to be removing his head from his hands anytime soon, Regulus awkward crouches down next to his saviour’s chair. He runs through things to say; Regulus doesn’t know how to comfort people, when he’s never truly been given the opportunity before now. Even his closest acquaintances, his supposed "friends", were not the sort of people who allowed themselves to be vulnerable. He can’t see the turmoil surely happening in Harry’s head.

 “You’re my curse shield,” Regulus reminds Harry, because sarcastic humour is of course the correct course of action in an emotionally turbulent situation. “I need you to talk to the evil and fearsome Lily Evans and James Potter, and keep them from cursing my poor, helpless self.”

 It works. Harry takes his head out of his hands and looks bemusedly towards Regulus. There’s a bright twinkle in them, presumably and hopefully of humour.

 “Poor and helpless?” Harry repeats knowingly.

 “Like a flobberworm,” Regulus says flatly, because the idea of a Black ever being so pathetic is so ridiculous that he can’t find any sort of reality in it. Well, mostly.

 Harry lips twitch up into a smile. “Can I quote you on that?”

 “Over my broken wand,” Regulus answers, rising smoothly to his feet. He gestures towards the clock on the mantle. “We have approximately two and a half hours to prepare, so we’ll be ablt to come up with a strategy. If you have any more…” Regulus shoves as much disdain as he can into the next two words. “... extremely trustworthy phrases…”

 Success! Harry laughs, lightly, and looks less on the edge of an emotional disaster. Either the phrase that Harry gave has personal significance that Regulus is entirely unaware of or Harry has the same terrible sense of humour as his father. Both scenarios are equally likely, and are far from mutually exclusive.

 “Do if you have more trustworthy phrases and pieces of information,” Regulus continues, “I will be able to take over the conversation if necessary. Your story is… objectively unbelievable, due to the lack of precedence if nothing else, so we need strong pieces of proof to hook them in immediately.”

 Harry leans back in his chair, eyes still twinkling. “...How did I get you to believe me, then?”

 “Saving my life helped,” Regulus answers, which makes Harry snort, and starts to make a list to help himself think. “You look the part, you act the part, you know too much about extremely sensitive subjects, and Kreacher would never share information outside of the family. The combination made…” Regulus waves a hand in the air, searching for a suitable word. “...a striking impact.”

Regulus hasn’t entirely dismissed the possibility that Harry isn’t the time-travelling son of Lily Evans and James Potter, because it’s simple caution to remember that nothing is fully trustworthy, but Harry really did make a strong impression. His story seems unlikely, but he’s so reasonable and likeable and generally believable. Regulus know he really shouldn’t believe Harry, but he does.

 Because Regulus just hasn’t been able to come up with another story that makes nearly as much sense. Harry doesn’t seem insane and knows too much for a simple madman. If Harry worked for the Dark Lord, then Regulus would be dead already. This is too elaborate and serious for a trick, and Regulus can’t fathom what the goal would be here if this is a lie. The Black Family wealth or influence doesn’t seem the goal, and Harry clearly doesn’t really need Regulus to find Sirius or his parents.

 “We need a way to make a similar impact on Lily Evans and James Potter,” Regulus says, frustrated by the lack of immediate solutions. He can’t think clearly here and feels like he’s repeating himself, and redundancy is frequently uselessness in the eyes of a Black. “Shall we leave? ...Unless you have other business here?”

 This house hasn’t seemed a good place for Harry. The sooner that Regulus can get his saviour into a better mood and stronger mental state, the happier they both will be. Regulus doesn’t want to be cursed and he needs Harry to give him a good position for any negotiation.

 Harry nods and rises from the hideous chair. “Yeah, let’s… let’s go.”

 “Do you have a destination in mind? Or shall I choose?” Regulus asks, holding out his arm for Harry to take. It unnerves him some that he trusts and has trusted Harry with his person so many times already.

 “No, you can pick. Just no Death Eaters.”

 Regulus raises his brows. “Oh, my apologies. Am I bothering you?”

 Harry snorts, then corrects himself. “No other Death Eaters.”

 Fine, be finicky,” Regulus says haughtily, lifting his chin. He gets that warm, squeezing feeling in his chest again when Harry actually laughs aloud.

 Harry reaches out to take Regulus’ arm, but then draws back at the last moment. “What about Aunt Petunia?” His face screws up in concern. “And the police?”

 “Sleep spell and the protections will wear off quickly,” Regulus summarizes, watching Harry’s face closely for any signs of an outburst.

 He’s not sure what about putting the Muggle woman to sleep might offend Harry, but Harry is confusing, and Regulus still doesn’t know if Harry is just familiarly loyal or one of the Muggle-lover types.

 Harry stares at him, then just sighs. “Alright, then.” Harry glances around the home one more time, then focuses on the hallway behind Regulus. “Give me… one more moment.”

 “Fine,” Regulus agrees easily.

 He watches curiously as Harry moves past him into the hallway, wondering what business Harry still has here. Wanting to see the upstairs? Picking up a Muggle family heirloom? Defacing the Muggles’ home somehow? Harry clearly doesn’t like at least one of them much and Regulus, though he isn’t his brother, can somewhat appreciate vengeful petty vandalism. If it improves Harry’s mood, fine.

 But Harry doesn’t go upstairs. Harry stops in the middle of the hall and, with a deep breath, leans down to unlock the latch of a small door built into the staircase. After several seconds pause, Harry swings the door open and Regulus peers over Harry’s shoulder to get a glimpse of… boxes.

 Regulus’ brow furrows slightly. It’s a storage space. Is Harry really looking for an object?

 Yet Harry doesn’t touch any of the boxes, of which there aren’t many, or any of the Muggle cleaning supplies. Harry just… stares at the inside of the cupboard, full of darkness and a couple cobwebs, and Regulus quickly begins to itch for a better view of Harry’s face. What’s missing in this cupboard that should be there? Because the space itself isn’t interesting, only being fit for boxes and house elves.

 “It’s a cupboard,” Regulus observes intelligently, when Harry still doesn’t do anything. “...Should something be inside the cupboard?”

 Harry lets out a shuddering sigh, then rises to his full height again. He looks over his shoulder at Regulus, a bit morose - good Morgana, again already - and very wry.

 “Not really, it’s just… smaller than I remember,” Harry says, then after a pause adds quietly, “I u… never mind.” Harry’s knuckles are pale on the small door as he hastily shuts it, and he winces as it closes with a sharp snap.

 Regulus would very much like it if Harry could stop being surprisingly complicated and mysterious, because he seems like an incredibly simple and generally open person until he very suddenly isn’t. Regulus has always known that his saviour has been hiding things from him, but never so much as now has Regulus been certain of it.

 “Let’s get going,” Harry says, raising his arm for Regulus to take.

 “Yes,” Regulus agrees, threading his arm through Harry’s once more. “Let’s.”

 

~

 

 Regulus whisks them away to a deserted patch of dirt road in a part of mildly sunny countryside. Despite the surface appearance of randomness, Regulus wouldn’t dare take anyone else here if he was trying to hide his identity, given that this road eventually leads to one of his family’s favourite summer houses. It’s hardly the most pleasant and comfortable of spaces, but it is private and… well, the location has its meanings. Regulus once contemplated running away from home on this road. 

 They spend their time, ticking steadily by them, rehearsing opening statements and coming up with ways to immediately endear Harry to his parents. Regulus soon finds himself inwardly wishing several times that they could create a scenario where Harry saves the lives of Lily Evans and James Potter, because it worked on Regulus, but that would be incredibly difficult and go disastrously wrong without a doubt.

 He wishes this because Harry knows or reveals appallingly little about his parents, and Regulus can’t decide to be concerned over that amount of obliviousness or annoyed at Harry’s reluctance to share information. Regulus has no idea what possible evil could be committed by relating a person’s favourite foods or the like.

 Well, truthfully, Regulus can come up with several ways to harm a person by knowing their favourite food, but that’s not the point. The point is that Harry should know by now that Regulus isn’t going to hurt Lily Evans and James Potter, or at least realize that they’re about to meet and Regulus could do far more direct harm when they do, so favourite foods are entirely immaterial.

 And yet Harry just shrugs and claims that he doesn’t know about most innocuous things, looking very embarrassed about the whole affair, and Regulus is left to wonder if his saviour really is just that oblivious. Regulus is contemplating imbibing an unreasonable amount of sherry and swooning onto the nearest piece of furniture, but then Harry points out that favourites can change greatly in twenty years and Regulus must admit that this is true.

 The collection of stories that Harry does offer bits and pieces of is slightly haphazard and full of odd choices, but Regulus thinks they’ll do. Harry recounts every meager slice of information on his parents with great sincerity and if, by some incredibly unlikely star, Harry isn’t believed, then at least he looks exactly the part. Harry is obviously, strikingly the son of Lily Evans and James Potter. As long as Harry can keep half his wits about him, Regulus is certain they’ll manage to prevail, with Regulus’ own wits to make up for him.

 Certainty aside, after watching Harry haltingly test out opening statements in the beginning, Regulus also begins planning what they’ll do if this doesn’t work out. Just in the back of his mind. Everything will depend on how exactly this doesn’t work out, but there’s potential harm in not thinking ahead while there’s time for it.

 Regulus doesn’t blame Harry, though. People change greatly over the years, and the Lily Evans and James Potter whom Harry knows are about twenty years older than they are now. That is greater than either of their lifespans. Regulus himself, considering the matter in passing, can’t immediately come up with a way to gain the trust of a younger Walburga or Orion Black, nor easily list what he knows of his young parents.

 Regulus can’t even come up a way to regain the trust of his elder brother in the present. He’s trying very hard, of course, because he wants to reconnect with Sirius and Harry intends to help him do so, but he still doesn’t know how to articulate anything that will keep Sirius from immediately hexing him over their past. Although this may, perhaps, have something to do with how Regulus’ feelings most easily articulate into immediately hexing Sirius over their past.

 He’s still sure that Harry is hiding something, something big and potentially extremely important, but Regulus holds back on pushing for it. He’s not sure why he doesn’t push. It may be because he has quite a lot of clues already and feels as though he’s on the edge of all the answers.

 Or it might be because he can’t think of a way to cajole answers out of Harry - he is trying, but Harry isn’t cooperating - in a short time frame without resorting to something underhanded or cruel, and he doesn’t want to be those things to Harry. It would probably go disastrously wrong and ruin everything from their meeting with the Potters to the working relationship that he and Harry are developing. Regulus can’t lose this opportunity just because he’s too curious for his own good. He just can’t.

 Too quickly do Regulus and Harry run out of time to prepare. Regulus decided the time of their meeting on an unfathomable whim. Because they’d been moving fairly fast and were pressured for time by going after the Muggle woman; because Regulus was desperate for this to happen; because he didn’t want to sleep on it and give him or Harry time to back down; because he was hungry and didn’t want to spend another night in a filthy Muggle hotel; and because Regulus foolishly overestimated his and Harry’s abilities to prepare themselves.

 Nevertheless, Regulus is still certain they will prevail. Harry is charismatic and Regulus is clever, and they both very much need and want this to work. They’ve made for a fairly effective team so far and can face any complications that arise.

 Regulus needs this to work because he doesn’t know what he’ll do with the swelling feeling in his chest if it doesn’t. This tiny thing he rarely dared to nurture because hope is a terrible thing and it hurt when it grew too big and went hungry from unfulfillment. Regulus’ hopes exist to be dashed or to turn on him. If Regulus fails… if this falls completely apart on them… it’s too terrible to contemplate.

 The only time that Regulus can truly name where he hoped for anything and things turned out better than he hoped for is… when he went to go switch the locket and destroy it and… well… known that it might not end well for him. That it most likely wouldn’t end well for him. Yet instead of everything terrible that could have happened, Harry showed up.

 Ten minutes before one o’clock, Regulus tells Harry to take them a street away from the graveyard of Godric’s Hollow. Harry complies, looking horribly nervous but holding his head high anyway, which Regulus, who feels similarly behind a face that doesn’t show it, can admire.

 Regulus can’t decide whether it is a more Gryffindor or Slytherin-like thing to do, to put on a face of confidence and face something despite fear. Is that what bravery is? Regulus thinks almost whimsically. Is it in the act or the purpose? Or both?

 Regulus had generally thought courage to be a foolish thing or something much more unattainable. Foolish and unattainable, after all, described Sirius, who has always made an exemplary Gryffindor, painfully well.

 They won’t fail, whatever secrets Harry is hiding, because they can’t.

 Regulus has faced worse with less hope than he has now.

 

 ~

 

 Godric’s Hollow isn’t as Regulus was expecting. It’s… quiet… and quaint.

 At first glance, it appears to be a Muggle place, but there are touches here and there that mark it as a magical place as well. There are runes carved into some window frames and doorways and fences, and even an ironwork warning over one doorway. Regulus spots a few familiar plants resisting the faint chill, charms hanging in windows to protect a building from misfortunate or magical pests, and the shimmer and signs of warding surrounding several homey houses.

 The Black Family would never deign to live here and would need powerful incentive to even visit, but Regulus finds nothing truly displeasing about the peaceful village. It’s certainly nothing like the Muggle place where they stopped this morning. There’s no one on the street at the moment, but there are the background sounds of life all around them, and Regulus finds it quite like Hogsmeade, only more residential.

 Some part of him thinks very quietly that it mustn’t be hard to be happy here.

 “Come on,” Harry says, jerking his head down the street. “This way.”

 Harry tugs him in the direction of the graveyard and Regulus disentangles their arms to follow, carefully not worrying about how Harry’s Muggle clothing is too thin for the November chill. He’s seen ample evidence that Harry knows how to make use of charms.

 The graveyard is much like the rest of Godric’s Hollow, quiet and quaint and with magical touches here and there, but it also has the layer of lingering that all other graveyards do. There is a solemness to places where the dead rest, the feeling of a space between spaces, a presence of ghosts without consciousness in between the rows upon rows of stones. The only other signs of people are occasional, wilting bouquets, and a small, haunted-looking church off to one side.

 Regulus, who performed a handful of unresponsive charms to reveal presences before they entered, tries to keep a sharp eye out for the arrival of Lily Evans and James Potter, but graveyards always give him the sensation of being watched. Besides, there is something incredibly distracting about how Harry leads him through the graveyard. Harry is moving through the graves as though he has a destination already in mind - a purpose already in mind - and while Regulus approves of the idea of heading towards a strategic location, he doesn’t quite think that’s the case here.

 To Regulus’ surprise, Harry doesn’t stop in front of any graves, but in an area made mostly of empty plots. Harry stops at a space where there are not yet tombstones and stares at the grass as blankly as though they were there.

 “...I don’t think I’m ready for this,” Harry announces quietly.

 “I don’t think anyone would be,” Regulus answers, trying to discern the emotions of Harry’s stare and frustratingly failing. “But it won’t be done unless we do it.”

 Regulus is well-used to the idea of sacrifice, but… something about that sole comfort sits uneasy in his stomach. The memory of yesterday still lurks, like wet and cold hands going up the back of his mind, and so Regulus continues against his nature:

 “If it… helps… at all, I will be right beside you.”

 Harry looks up from the grass, his blank expression melting into something more familiar and comfortable again. “Thanks,” he says, smiling faintly. “It does.”

 Regulus ignores the fleeting, painful twitch inside his chest. “You’re welcome.”

 How dull a response. How ordinary a reply. There must be topic or a task that can distract them until Lily Evans and James Potter arrive, if they ever do.

 Regulus’ eyes fall on the ground in front of them, more than enough space for a pair of graves, and an unexpected, intrusive thought flits through his brain. Ordinarily, he’d dismiss such a thought out of hand, but nothing about this current situation is ordinary.

 Regulus’ chest tightens painfully for an entirely different reason as, for the first time, he dares to wonder something terrible. 

 

Chapter Text

“Harry,” Regulus says urgently, mind racing.

 Because the idea that Lily Evans or James Potter died suddenly makes too much sense. Why else would Harry be so upset at seeing them again? So emotional? Why else would Harry walk seemingly on memory to this place in the Godric Hollow graveyard, if not to someone’s grave?

 Much can happen in twenty years, and if Sirius can… can die… then so can Lily Evans and James Potter. Regulus feels like a fool for not considering such a possibility before.

 But why wouldn’t Harry have told him? Harry would have told him if one of his parents died, right? It makes no sense for Harry not to have told him so monumentally relevant!

 Regulus is on the verge of an overdue panic at this idea, and yet… he almost hopes that it is true and that they really are standing over the future graves of Lily Evans and/or James Potter. It’s a terrible thing to wish, especially if it is true, but the next unbidden thought Regulus has is even worse. Harry has told him of someone’s death.

 If Regulus is unknowingly standing over the future grave of his brother, he doesn’t think he will ever be able to forgive Harry for it. He couldn’t bear that. It’s hard enough to bear the thought.

 Harry lifts his head to look curiously at Regulus and several questions catch in Regulus’ throat all at once. However, Regulus doesn’t have time to unravel all his panicked fears, because Harry’s open expression quickly shutters at something over Regulus’ shoulder. Harry’s grip goes tight on his wand.

 “There’s someone under an invisibility cloak fifteen paces behind you,” Harry says, quietly enough that Regulus barely catches it. At Regulus’ widening eyes, because how in the world did Harry catch that, Harry continues under his breath, “They’re making an indent in the grass.”

Regulus flicks his gaze over Harry’s shoulders and catches a faint haze that he has become intimately, fearfully aware of recently.

 “Sugar Quills,” Regulus hisses, before he can help it, furious at having been distracted. “There is someone under a Disillusionment Charm several paces farther behind you.”

 It’s unlikely that these watchers are anyone but the very people they’re trying to meet, but Regulus will take no chances in this war and it thankfully seems that Harry is back on that sharp guard from the cave.

 Regulus doesn’t like the idea of being cursed before they have a chance to speak, because he has no doubts that he won’t be treated well if neither he nor Harry are allowed to make their case and negotiate some trust. He’s not in the good books of these people. Regulus will not be disarmed and left vulnerable.

 “Switch positions, wands raises on unknown on three?” Regulus suggests.

 Harry looks uncertain for a moment, but then he makes a barely noticeable nod. They both have their wands ready at their sides, and Harry shifts slightly so that they can better pass one another and come out with their wands up.

 “One…” Regulus mouths. “Two…”

 They switch. Harry and Regulus slide past each other in an instant, trading places so that they’re almost back-to-back with their wands raised at the invisible strangers. Regulus doesn’t know the full extent of Harry’s fighting abilities, but everything from that cave argues that Harry is more than capable in dire situations. Regulus can only hope that Harry remains just as dangerous if spells be thrown - and please, let spells not be thrown, Regulus doesn’t want to cast violence in a graveyard, he wants this to go well - but so far… that switch was seamless… and Regulus feels a bubbly pride and confidence in that.

 It’s good to have someone at his back.

 Of course, this doesn’t help the unanswered questions still racing in his mind and the sudden appearance of unknown individuals, but the successful switch was… well… it was cool.

 If there is any justice in this world, Regulus was simply overthinking things. Is simply overthinking things. However, Regulus doubts it. He always does.

 “Show yourselves,” Regulus demands with all the seriousness he can muster, proud of how his voice doesn’t crack or shake. Harry won’t speak first, so it has to be him.

 The haze in the air, the Disillusionment Charm hovering between the gravestones, pauses ever-so-slightly. It’s a masterful casting of the charm, barely discernible even in the bright light of day, a simple blur of the background instead of the usual faint glint to the air. It spoke of practice with the charm and Regulus never would have caught it if he hadn’t been looking.

 A breath, a heartbeat, and then a young woman steps out of the hazy air with her wand raised in answer. Gone are the school robes that Regulus last saw her in, exchanged for slacks, an old jumper, and worn, dirt-crusted boots, and her dark red hair is pulled back into a long braid instead of left loose. The change makes her look older - more experienced, more adventured - than the Hogwarts Head Girl and fellow Slug Club member of last year.

 Seeing her is an expected shock, and Regulus can’t help but immediately compare the features between the mother and the son. Harry looks very much like his father, but there are many pieces of his mother in him too, if one is looking. Soft touches around the face, and a striking theft of the eyes entirely - almond-shaped and bright green, watchful and wary - like son, like mother.

 “Mister Black,” Lily Evans says, as politely as any fellow partygoer.

 Regulus doesn’t lower his wand an inch, even as he hears Harry take in a sharp gasp. He doesn’t look back, though the temptation is great. While his heart pounds in his chest, his free hand subtly wanders to Harry’s side, pressing against his saviour’s arm, steady and reassuring as he can manage without feeling either, likely taking more comfort than he’s giving.

 “Miss Evans,” he returns. “I trust it is your husband behind me with the cloak?”

 Lily Evans’ expression, cool and cautious, doesn’t shift. “Yes. Is this Harry Potter beside you?”

 “Yes,” Regulus answers, pressing his hand more solidly against his saviour.

 Harry releases a quiet, shuddering breath. One of them is trembling, but Regulus can’t tell who. It could be either of them. It’s probably both.

 Regulus swallows an anxious shift, an irregular heartbeat, and asks his own question. “Miss Evans, are the four of us alone? … The information we have to share is extremely sensitive, and may endanger lives if anyone uninvited is listening.”

 “We’re alone,” Lily Evans says, before commenting with untrusting thoughtfulness. “I thought I recognized your voice, but I wouldn’t have expected a Death Eater to have my phone number and be desperate to share ‘information pertinent to me and my husband’.”

 The forearm he has pressed against Harry burns and Regulus stifles as much of his terror as will go down. Oh, Morgana, he’s really doing this, isn’t he? He’s betraying the Dark Lord and switching his allegiances to the Potters of all people, with little to no plan for the fallout. How stupid, how idiotic, how utterly foolish is this? This will most likely be the death of him, it already nearly was, and it will be the fall of his entirely family as well, trusting himself to these Light-minded sorcerers who don’t and won’t fight for him.

 He’s betraying the Dark Lord, he’s betraying almost everything his family stands for, and he was supposed to die yesterday. If Regulus continues on this path, he’ll be risking death every moment of every day until an impossibly powerful man who’s made himself immortal is dead.

 Regulus doesn’t realize he’s stopped breathing until Harry’s arm presses back against his side in response, warm and steady and human. No, Regulus tells himself, he isn’t facing certain death now. Being a Death Eater in itself risked death every moment of every day, especially being a soft and treacherous one. A bad one, as Harry had put it.

 This here, this now… this will ultimately save his family. It has saved him already. It’ll regain him his freedom and his brother. He has a second chance at life here, a Life Debt owed to the lost saviour at his side, and more hope to end the Dark Lord than he ever could have imagined. This is dangerous and difficult, but it’s what Harry wants… this is what Regulus wants.

 Regulus regathers himself. Oh, and he was worried about Harry falling apart. (He still is. Very much. Hopefully he is giving as much comfort from this touch as he’s taking.)

 “Well, to be honest,” Regulus says, without any shaking but with a note of high, faintly nervous breathlessness that he hates, “I’m not a very good Death Eater.”

 Beside him, Harry makes a noise that might be a snort or choking on thin air. Lily Evans, while she still looks untrusting, raises her eyebrows at them. Regulus would name the expression “questioning disbelief”. He’s certain that he’s been wearing it often himself of late, ever since Harry entered his life and saved it and then turned it upside down. He never would have dared say anything like this with anyone else. 

 Yesterday and today have been very busy days.

 “Actually pretty terrible at it,” Regulus continues on borrowed sureness. He channels every lesson of posture and dignity he ever had, straightens himself and says, “Would you mind if we could have this discussion without needing eyes in the back of our heads to see both you and your husband at once? I'm not particularly partial to being surrounded and held at wandpoint… It tends to stifle conversational progress.”

 There’s a pause - the quiet sounds of the graveyard stretch under the afternoon sunlight - and then Lily Evans inclines her head in agreement.

 “Jim,” she calls.

 Regulus feels Harry’s flinch all through his arm. Lily Evans jerks her head for her husband to join her. Regulus then feels the beginning of James Potter’s movement through Harry’s stiff shifting in position as the man circles around to join his wife.

 As James Potter comes into view, Regulus is frankly appalled, because the man looks to be on the edge of a saunter, with his shimmering cloak over one arm and his wand loose at his side. He appears insultingly casual about this entire situation. Entirely unbothered.

 Then Regulus notices that James Potter’s expression doesn’t look very casual. No, James Potter is staring rather fixedly at Harry, sharp and serious, like he’s trying to see through or memorize every angle and curved on Harry’s face. It must, Regulus supposes, be somewhat akin to looking into a very slightly inaccurate mirror.

 The similarity is striking, after all, and James Potter certainly looks struck by it.

 Regulus very dearly hopes that Harry is similarly struck, instead of struck hard enough to momentarily break again. Harry’s wand is already lowered as his father joins his mother, leaving Regulus and Lily Evans as the only ones with their wands raised. Regulus isn’t really surprised - he didn’t really expect Harry to be able, much less inclined, to be hostile to his parents - and it’s probably better to appear non-hostile if they want this to go well.

 Lily Evans looks surprised as Harry turns around, his brows furrowing as she frowns slightly, but she doesn’t look angry. She doesn’t object or immediately demand answers for a deception.

 This is… going well, then, Regulus would argue. It could certainly be worse. They could have been handed over to the Ministry, or sent back to the Dark Lord, or Lily Evans could have followed her sister’s example and thrown a frying pan at his head.

 Or dead. Regulus could be dead right now.

 “Do you mind if I check for eavesdroppers?” Regulus asks politely, feeling marginally better now that he can see both Lily Evans and her husband at once. He didn’t like having James Potter at his back, though he’d prefer not having to look at his lost brother’s best friend at all.

 Lily’s eyes turn back to him from Harry and she nods again, before slowly lowering her wand as Regulus raises his. After Regulus has finished casting his spells - which quickly reveal they’re the only four people in the graveyard - he lowers his wand as well.

 There’s a tension still in the air. Regulus watches Lily Evans, who dangerously watches him back, and Regulus notes out of the corner of his eye that the Potters are still watching each other.

 Now that they’re alone and their wands are lowered… Regulus is at a bit of a loss what to do now. He came up with a great many things to say, but… is he just supposed to begin saying them now? This is much harder than he thought it would be.

 Regulus said he would manage this is Harry can’t rise to the challenge – even though Regulus is still greatly confused by someone who is so clearly a powerful wizard to be incapable of this – but running away is suddenly a much more appealing option. Regulus isn’t about to, but he can’t say that whilst facing down Lily Evans and her husband - his brother’s friends, both dearer to Sirius than Regulus ever was - the option isn’t very, very tempting.

 But… Regulus wants to live. He wants to win. He wants to see Sirius again.

 

 ~

 

 The mirror is missing. Just like the graves.

 Somehow, the world has combined two of the simultaneously best and worst moments of Harry’s life. He’s back again, in front of the Mirror of Erised, the first time he stepped into that darkened room and up to that silvery mirror with a heart of a curiosity that ended up aching.

 And he’s back again, on that snowy night he first stepped into Godric’s Hollow’s graveyard, in the village where his parents lived and loved, to see where they lay dead with a curiosity that was much less innocent and ignorant, but with a heart that was no less fragile and no less aching with everything he had ever wanted. Still holding on to its deepest and more desperate desire.

 (The Patronus turned.)

 But the graves are gone, they were never here, and the mirror is missing, and Harry can still see his heart’s deepest and most desperate desire reflected back at him. Only… living… alive… in full colour and just… real. There’s no glass to press his hands against here. Should he press forward, there would be no barrier between them, and Harry could reach out and touch his father for the first time in his life.

 (It was cantering back toward Harry across the surface of the water… It wasn’t a horse… It wasn’t a unicorn, either… It was a stag. It was shining brightly as the moon above… it was coming back to him.)

 James Potter doesn’t look old enough to be a father, though. He’s taller and broader than Harry, sharper in face and with different eyes, but exactly as similar to Harry as all the people and pictures and reflections and shades always said and showed. But he doesn’t look much older than Harry. He has none of the wistfulness, none of the faded longing or matured sacrifice of Harry’s dead father.

 (It stopped on the bank. Its hooves made no mark on the soft ground as it stared at Harry with its large, silver eyes.)

  James Potter is young and stunned, obviously as surprised by Harry as Harry’s racing heart is startled by him, and with a wary squint behind his rectangular glasses as he studies Harry. Suspicious and uncertain and too stunned to really hide it.

 He looks no older than Fred and George. He looks younger than even Percy and Bill and Fleur. He doesn’t look like much of an adult at all, not a real one, much less a father.

 (Slowly, it bowed its antlered head.)

 And he’s decades younger than his friends, the ones that Harry had been allowed to know. Decades younger than the Sirius and Remus that Harry knows… knew and lead to their dea-

 James Potter is closer in age to Regulus now, than to the Sirius whom Harry last remembers… whom Harry last saw falling through the-

 James Potter is nineteen years old.

 (“Lily, take Harry and go! It’s him!”)

 And in two years…

 (“Go! Run! I’ll hold him off!”)

 He would have been dead.

 The Elder Wand shakes in Harry’s grip, violently, and it’s all Harry can do to hold onto it in the face of the man who died wandless to buy his wife and son as long as he could.

 Regulus is talking to Lily Potter behind him - his mother, his mother - but Harry can barely pay attention, even though it’s something out of a dream for Harry to hear an adult Lily Potter when she’s not… screaming for mercy… dying… or comforting him right before he walked to his own death at Voldemort’s hand.

 All he can do is stare at his father, alive and well and young and alive.

 (“You’ll… stay with me?”

 “Until the very end.”)

 James Potter - his father, his father - is staring at him with a surprised mixture of suspicion and concern. Harry’s knuckles are aching around a wand that isn’t his and he can feel the beginning of something pricking at his eyes. Maybe he is concerning, but he can’t quite bring himself to care. He can’t stop himself.

 How do you begin to start a conversation with someone who doesn’t know you, but would have loved you enough to die for you? How can Harry possibly explain… possibly express how much someone who is practically a stranger means to him? How many times the silvery guard of Prongs watched over him and kept him safe? Even when Harry hadn’t even known what the stag really meant.

 (And he realized… “Prongs.”

 But as his trembling fingertips stretched towards the creature, it vanished.)

 How will James Potter react to the son he never had? This person doesn’t know Harry and looks at him with bewilderment and wariness, instead of which a kind smile towards a beloved smile, silently and ghostly behind enchanted glass. How will this James Potter - this real, this alive James Potter, who can’t even be twenty years old - react to Harry’s ridiculous and impossible story?

 (The green light filled the cramped hallway, it lit the pram pushed against the wall, it made the banisters glow like lightning rods.)

 This is James Potter, a person who doesn’t know Harry as Harry doesn’t really know him. They’re strangers. And yet Harry’s heart is so full of love for this man he’s never met that he thinks he could die of it. This is James Potter, a nineteen-year-old stranger whom Harry loves more than anything except maybe the woman at his back, and Harry wants to cry.

 He wants Ron to find him and pull him back from this, sensible and trusting in long-learned bad feelings. To again lead him away from living the rest of his life in front of something he can never have.

 And he wants Hermione here to remind him of logic, to tell him that this isn’t really his father he’s seeing. That he must be mistaken somehow, just like he was at the lake. This is at best a shade, at best a reflection, at best an echo a man long gone.

 Harry wants Ron and Hermione close again, his closest friends. He’s so lost here and he wants nothing more in this moment than the familiarity of the small family he managed to find for himself. People who know him, people he knows. Who will tell him they can’t hear the whispers behind the mysterious, haunting Veil and pull him back, take him back into the world of solid things he’s left behind.

 (...and James Potter fell like a marionette whose strings were cut…)

 Harry lowers his wand before he drops it. His fingers are trembling too hard to cast anything and he can’t point a wand at this person. He can’t. It hurts him worse than just looking at his father, which is terribly, even though Harry stares wide-eyed and desperate.

 He can’t look away. The mirror may be missing, but some part of Harry, deep down, is afraid - hungry and terrified - that he’ll reach out and touch that enchanted glass. A wall. A dream. No matter how real and confused and guarded this complete stranger looks.

 (“...Stay close to me.”)

 Harry unconsciously moves and brushes against Regulus. It startles him, inwardly, to be among people he’s seen only as shades and ghosts, and suddenly be touching another living person. It was always ghostly hands, just hovering over his shaking shoulders as he duelled for his life and prepared to run. It was always Harry reaching out towards the shade of a red-haired woman with his eyes, his hand falling through hers as though her gentle, loving smile wasn’t there.

 Brushing against Regulus, Harry now notices that Regulus is painfully stiff, and that his new companion seems to have stopped breathing entirely. Harry doesn’t know what to do about that. He doesn’t feel as though he’ll ever be able to take in enough air to breathe regularly again.

 Harry… Harry doesn’t really know what happens. Either he intentionally presses his arm back against Regulus’ - for what, he doesn’t know - or he can’t quite manage to keep his balance with James Potter in front of him, looking at Harry the way he is.

 If it’s the first, maybe it’s Harry trying to reassure himself that he’s still in the world of the living. That by touching a warm hand and solid arm, Harry can reassure himself that he’s not in front of the Mirror of Erised again - that he’s not back in the forest again - that he’s not just dreaming. Maybe it’s that by knowing Regulus is alive, solid and warm, Harry can know for certain that he’s alive too.

 He’s alive and this is real.

 Regulus takes in a sharp breath and the rigid tension in his arm lessens, and Harry suddenly, belatedly realizes that Regulus is almost as… lost? Uncertain? Anxious? Regulus is as frightened by this as he is. He has to be. Regulus has been pulling and pushing Harry forward but… Harry remembers Regulus’ panic.

 “Well, to be honest,” Regulus says, his voice slightly higher and tighter than usual, “I’m not a very good Death Eater.”

 Harry chokes on a disbelieving laugh. Partly because Regulus just borrowed Harry’s terrible attempt at comfort and partly because James Potter is visibly taken-aback.

 James lowered in wand, in response to Harry’s lowering of his. James’ wand is resting loosely at one side, while the shimmering fabric of the Invisibility Cloak is folded over his arm. (Use it well. Harry still can't quite believe he spotted James invisible under it, but it also feels like he'd know that Invisibility Cloak anywhere.) Once he gets over being surprised, he looks almost amused. 

 “Actually pretty terrible at it,” Regulus continues, straightening at Harry’s side before asking, “Would you mind if we could have this discussion without needing eyes in the back of our heads to see both you and your husband at once? I’m not particularly partial to being surrounded and held at wandpoint… It tends to stifle conversational progress.”

 James looks past Harry for a moment, lifting his chin to peer at the woman on the other side. Harry can’t help but stare at every tilt of James’ head and shift of expressions, at everything from the familiar curves on his face to the untidy tidy that Harry has never been able to make lie flat a day in his life. James’ hazel eyes flit back to Harry, before he gives a decisive nod.

 “Jim,” Lily Potter calls.

 A shiver runs through Harry at that. He knows that voice; he recognizes that voice from silvery memories, dementor chills, dreams and nightmares, and an impossible telephone conversation that he sort of botched completely.

 Lily Potter is standing behind him. Lily Potter is standing behind him and Harry wants nothing more than to turn around and drink his fill of her - to step up to the glass of the mirror and stay there forever. There were times he felt prepared to step up to a nightmarish creature, just to hear her voice again, even if she was dying and he couldn’t bear it. Harry doesn’t feel ready for what’s behind him; he can only remember reflections.

 (He reached out a hand and felt the air behind him. If she was really there, he’d touch her, their reflections were so close together, but he felt only air - she and the others existed only in the mirror.)

 Harry focuses on the fresh air of a November afternoon, cool against his face and in his lungs. The colours around him; the ground beneath him; and James Potter’s horrifying youth, as the man that would have been his father starts to walk around them, to join Lily.

 Harry focuses on Regulus’ arm and takes a breath. He’s alive. This is real.

 (“You’ve been so brave.”)

 Harry turns and lays eyes on Lily Potter.

 Like James, Lily looks like all the photographs and reflections and shades, but she’s also so much more than those. She looks too young to be a mother, too young to soon be dead. She’s nineteen years old and pretty, unlike the breathtakingly beautiful yet sad ghost Harry knows. Between the woman Harry knows and the girl from those final memories.

 Lily’s hair is a dark, vibrant red, braided tightly back, and it’s nothing like the paled strands that sat perfectly or floated around a ghostly face. Her brows are furrowed with confusion, her bright green eyes (Harry’s eyes) are wide with surprise at seeing him (her eyes are just like mine, he thought, edging a little close to the glass), and her lips aren’t tilted up in a gentle smile. Her lips are pinched, in a tight frown, just like Aunt Petunia.

 “Do you mind if I check for eavesdroppers?” Regulus asks, politely in a way that doesn’t really sound polite. Permission doesn’t sound like it’ll have any bearing on what he does.

 Lily’s eyes leave Harry’s and she nods at Regulus. She watches carefully as Regulus casts around for spies, but as soon as Regulus’ wand has lowered, her eyes flicker back to Harry’s, like she was forcing herself not to look.

 Curious and suspicious. Harry wants to imagine wonder, but his hopefulness might have been fooling him there. It’s been so long since he’s wanted this.

 (He could not speak. His eyes feasted on her, and he thought that he would like to stand and look at her forever, and that would be enough.)

 “Well… we’re alone, then,” Regulus observes, mostly calm.

 Lily and James both look at Regulus, but then back to Harry again, like they can’t keep their eyes off him. Harry understands that. The feeling’s mutual. Even when Regulus starts talking, it’s hard to focus. Harry has no idea whether or not he’s breathing.

 “Harry,” Regulus says.

 Right, he can’t freeze up. He told Regulus he wouldn’t do that, for the both of them. Harry needs to stop getting lost in memories, so he can meet and save his parents, so Regulus can reunite with Sirius, and so Voldemort can die.

 Move on. Swallow the fear. Step forward.

 (They seemed as scared as Harry, whose heart was now throwing itself against his ribs as though determined to escape the body he was about to cast aside.)

 This isn’t the end. This isn’t his end.

 (“I was, it seems… mistaken.”

 “You weren’t.”)

 This isn’t stepping forward into nothingness, but into everything and more. Harry had never expected to set off through the forest - the shades of his lost loved ones at his side, expecting silence and darkness and nonexistence, placated by the idea that he was simply joining them, desperate for everyone else to live no matter the cost - and find himself face to face with… this. Harry was prepared and willing to die, but he wasn’t ready for it. He definitely wasn’t ready for this. Whatever this is.

 The next great adventure, he might suppose, if he didn’t feel sick and silvery from head to heart Green and hazel eyes are staring at him, with no mirror between them now.

 (He looked back into red eyes, and wanted it to happen now, quickly, while he could still stand, before he lost control, before he betrayed fear-)

 “My name is Harry… Harry Potter,” he says.

 (He saw the mouth move and a flash of green light, and everything was gone.)

 “I’m your son.”

 This isn’t the end. The end has passed him by and, somehow, he’s alive and this is real.

 

Chapter Text

 “Well, I would have been,” Harry amends quietly.

 This amendment is so quiet that Regulus could doubt that Lily Evans and James Potter heard it through the hoarseness. Regulus really is going to hex his savior at this rate.

 They had an opening statement for this. It was quite decent. Regulus had been relatively proud of their opening statement, even. Now, apparently, Harry has spontaneously decided that he knows better - or perhaps just forgot what words were in the middle of meeting his parents, which Regulus should have expected. This is why he planned for this.

 Secondary plans or not, it’s all Regulus can do not to hide his face in his hands. Best laid plans always fall astray somehow, when he tries to do the things that matter. At best, the fallout has always left Regulus feeling like he’s eleven years old again, specifically when Sirius had said the worst possible and most embarrassing thing at a family gathering. On purpose, of course, because Sirius found it amusing to send Uncle Cygnus into choking fits.

 Blunt and awful opening statements are something that Regulus has decidedly not missed about Sirius, especially since somehow they had become Regulus’ responsibility. Regulus hadn’t thought these things could pass between godfather and godson. Morgana help him.

 Regulus focuses on his frustration - for the love of all magic, this was going fairly well - and how to salvage this. He works better when he’s stressed and angry, he thinks, or at least he’s got more motivation to actually do things when he’s stressed and angry. If all the stress and anger in his life hasn’t been useful to him, he might channel his mother and scream. Working with Harry is somehow both less and incredibly more stressful than working with certain acquaintances of his past. 

 Regulus can’t focus on how quiet and ragged Harry sounded, like his admission hurt him. Like the admission was the breaking of something Taboo. Regulus doesn’t know what to do about that. Dear Morgana, he really doesn’t know what to do with Harry in general, it seems.

 Neither Lily Evans nor James Potter has anything to immediately say to Harry’s statement.

 Both of their eyes widen slightly, of course, and they both stare harder at Harry than they were before. They look disbelieving, on the edge of stunned, and Regulus assumes they’re doing what he’s been doing since their arrival: cataloguing the obvious and remarkable similarities between Harry and his parents. Only consciously, this time.

 Or perhaps now just cataloguing the similarities between Harry and Lily Evans. Lily Evans and James Potter were already aware that Harry is a Potter, which is obvious at first glance - Regulus guessed it at first glance. The Evans parts, however, take a little more observation. They’re obvious once one knows how to look, Regulus thinks, which is what convinced him that Harry wasn’t some bastard of Great-Aunt Dorea’s Potter husband’s line.

 For lack of better options, Regulus jams his elbow into Harry’s side, to break his savior’s frozen state and hopefully prompt him to fix this. It’s hardly as subtle as he’d like - both Lily and James visibly notice him doing it - but it was either that or stomping on Harry’s foot.

 Idiotic, impulsive, cursed, emotional Gryffindors.

 Harry ducks his head, obviously realizing his hideously clumsy mistake and being suitably ashamed of it - good - but he doesn’t speak. Harry doesn’t launch into an explanation that will save their credibility. Too overwhelmed, apparently, to find the path again. His eyes are bright again.

 Understandable, yet infuriating.

 “...Time magic?” James Potter guesses, before Regulus can come up with saving grace of any kind. The man is squinting behind his glasses, narrowed with calculation of a kind that Regulus usually prefers not to attribute to his brother’s best friend.

 Lily Evans looks deeply suspicious of them, which is… not good. Far better than Regulus’ worst-case scenarios, at least, but that doesn’t say much when Regulus’ worst imaginings easily reach terrible heights of imprisonment and vengeance. There is also a small yet significant part of Regulus that is still recovering from the fact that he’s not dead, because he really should have been dead.

 “Time magic is illegal, difficult, and dangerous,” James Potter continues, frowning.

 Neither he nor Lily Evans have raised their wands again yet. That’s something. It’s all Regulus can do not to scoff at them. Dangerous as opposed to what, exactly?

 Harry still hasn’t said anything, trying and failing to recollect himself apparently.

 It’s up to Regulus then. As always.

 “I know that this is hard to believe,” Regulus says, projecting as much steadiness and sureness into his voice as he can, “but we have proof and -” Well, he may as well start paying that Life Debt back, since it wasn’t going anywhere. “- I vouch for him… entirely. Hear us out with an open mind, if you will. This… is important.”

 Neither Lily Evans nor James Potter look impressed. Regulus supposes that the words of a Death Eater likely hold little to no value in their eyes, about as much as some unknown Light wizard’s might mean to Regulus, but Regulus is hoping that having Sirius as a brother and Harry as a companion will buy him some paltry grace with them. It should, unless Sirius has spent the past decade or so… well… blackening Regulus’ name irreparably, which… would be entirely within the realm of Sirius’ character, unfortunately.

 This is important. They need to listen.

 “I’m not sure I want to open my mind to the words of someone admitting to time-meddling,” James Potter says mildly. His expression is still largely closed-off, but his eyes keep going back to Harry, like he can’t look away for too long. “No offense meant, but my mother warned me about that sort of thing. Some things are best left alone.”

 Regulus tells himself that he’s imagining the slight stress on the “my” of “my mother”. He will not be hostile to James Potter. Not only is it inappropriate and beneath him, but should if come to a one-on-one fight, Regulus has weighed the odds and is fairly certain he’d lose.

 “It was an accident.”

 Regulus squashes the urge to startle at Harry finally speaking up. Harry doesn’t look well, or at all at ease, but he’s managing to look steadily at James Potter with bright eyes. He even somehow managed to make a common excuse sound more like a helpless statement of fact.

 “I don’t know how it happened… and I don’t think it’s fixable.”

 Neither Lily Evans nor James Potter look impressed, but Harry’s speaking up does some good. Lily Evans looks more considering than suspicious and James Potter’s expression softens. Regulus brushes his arm against Harry’s again, in approval and support.

 It isn’t that Regulus hasn’t considered the dangers of meddling in time, but… well… he was supposed to die yesterday. Personally, he rather hopes there’s no way of “fixing” anything. He could resign himself to it, maybe. He had before. But… could he?

 Wet, rotting, grasping hands… reaching out to drag him into dark, cold waters. Having seen it closely, could he resign himself again to a horrifying, mindless, undignified, secret death?

 All Harry has really said of the accident that brought him here is that he died and woke up nearly twenty years in the past. Regulus suspects, from Harry’s wording, that it wasn’t a death entirely unexpected. However, he still doesn’t know how Harry died or why, and can’t really understand how Harry is so… unbothered by his own death.

 If Regulus thinks too long upon the cave, he feels like he’s dying very quietly inside. Again and again and again. At the mere thought. He doesn’t know how Harry can stand it.

 Or is Harry just dismissing the horror for later as well?

 Regulus very carefully watches Harry try to summon up more words, silently urging Harry to continue his recollection of himself… of the saviour that appeared in the cave. And perhaps Regulus watches because he hopes that, if he stares long enough, he’ll get answers.

 What happened to Lily and James Potter? Did the Potters die? Are they standing over Sirius’ future grave at the moment? Whose graves are they standing over? Why isn’t Harry bothered by his own death? Why isn’t Harry bothered by the possibility of meddling with time and changing everything? Why seven Horcruxes? Why living Hocruxes? Why and how does Harry have a curse scar shaped like that?

 “What kind of proof do you have?” Lily Evans asks. She doesn’t sound unfriendly, exactly, but she’s not exactly smiling.

 Harry, by the feel of his arm, is essentially petrified. Regulus takes a deep breath.

 He doesn’t know what plan he’s following anymore. He doesn’t really know what he’s doing. It seems now that he made too many plans and doesn’t know how to apply any of them. He needs something urgent, something attention-grabbing, something that stresses exactly how important Harry and his information are.

 “I have defected from the Death Eaters,” Regulus says.

 His voice wavers under the weight of saying that aloud, buckles under the terrifying truth, but… it probably had to be said. Oh, this is such a terrible choice, going against the Dark Lord and trying to take advantage of a time traveller, but… it’s better than dying for his family… it’s better than a life underfoot a madman, always a step away from the wrong end of an Unforgiveable. It is a choice that will demand extreme measures soon enough, to stay free, but... 

 It’s the sort of choice Sirius might make. Regulus, although he will never say as much aloud, wants to be like Sirius. He has always wanted to be like Sirius.

 Lily Evans and James Potter’s eyes widen, proving that Regulus did, in fact, just say that incredibly stupid statement aloud for all to hear. They look appropriately surprised and Regulus can only hope he looks composed, instead of similarly surprised.

 People don’t defect from the Death Eaters, or from the Dark Lord’s service in general. They just don’t. They don’t just hand in their resignation to the Dark Lord. When the Dark Lord makes a person swear a lifetime of service, it’s a life of service or no life at all. The Dark Lord and his more ferocious followers make terrible examples of those who try to run.

 Regulus attempt acknowledged this. He would be dead if not for Harry.

 “Defected?” James Potter repeats disbelievingly.

 “Yes,” Regulus says.

 Perhaps another waver snuck into Regulus’ voice, because James Potter squints at him.

 “And does your boss know that you’ve quit?”

 There’s a burning feeling trying to worm its way into Regulus’ face. In this very moment, it feels as though he hates his brother’s best friend more than he has ever hated anyone. It would be impressive if he wasn’t humiliating.

 “No,” Regulus admits.

 If the Dark Lord knew that Regulus had betrayed him, Regulus wouldn’t be alive right now. If Regulus had defected by doing something stupidly Gryffindorish, like saying it to the Dark Lord’s face in a crowded room of Death Eaters, he’d be resting in pieces.

 Regulus doesn’t give a damn about James Potter’s opinion, whatever that opinion may be. The Dark Lord not knowing where Regulus is and what he’s doing is nothing less than a very, very good thing. That Regulus’ original plan of defection ended in a Life Debt isn’t the point.

 “That’s…” Lily Evans looks for a word, can’t seem to find anything appropriate, and settles on: “...interesting. But that’s not exactly the sort of proof I was expecting.”

 “It’s related.”

 It’s difficult staying collected when reminded of his own treachery, but Regulus manages. He clears his throat, leaning slightly against Harry, and says the horror that’s been sitting on the edge of his tongue since he confirmed his suspicions. The secret he hadn’t dared speak aloud; the secret which writing in a note had left him trembling.

 “The Dark Lord has made himself effectively immortal.”

 Then he opens his eyes, which apparently closed, and takes another breath. Then another, because Lily Evans and James Potter are staring at him like he announced the sky had turned itself orange.

 “...Excuse me?” Lily Evans says flatly.

 “Have you ever heard of the term ‘horcrux’?” Regulus asks.

 Lily Evans purses her lips and James Potter makes that hideous squinting expression again. Honestly, the man should either get a pair of spectacles that work or cease and desist with the discomforting staring. Then they exchange a look that Regulus unfairly cannot read.

 “...No,” James Potter says slowly. “I’m afraid we haven’t.”

 Regulus isn’t surprised. Horcruxes are hardly common knowledge, even in the circles Regulus and his family moves in - unless one has a stubborn interest in immortality and a tolerance for the Dark and access to particularly grim libraries. The Dark Lord did, Regulus did, but… a Potter and Lily Evans? This is why leaving everything to Light wizards would have been a disaster.

 “It’s extremely Dark magic,” Regulus says, searching for a way to word this that is not quite so horrifying as the ritual described in his family’s worst grimoires. “Wherein a wizard uses an act of pure evil - such as murder - to fuel a ritual that will split their soul and hide that soul piece in an object. This object binds their soul to the land of the living… making them effectively immortal… and it is known as a ‘horcrux’.”

 Regulus isn’t exactly sure how the object keeps a person alive, though, especially if their body is destroyed. Is it similar to Inferi? Or the regenerative healing of a Philosopher’s Stone? The books didn’t say, but perhaps Harry might know something, with his casual and apparently extensive knowledge on the Dark Lord.

 Regulus makes a mental note to ask Harry about when he gets the chance. It’s getting to be an annoyingly long list of notes. Regulus will have to schedule a regular interrogation.

 Much to Regulus’ somewhat delirious sense of amusement, James Potter now looks like someone has Stunned him. Lily Evans has turned faintly green. Regulus fully understands their horror - perhaps somewhat smugly - but hopefully they’re not so easily overwhelmed. As Regulus has recently learned, to equal if not greater horror, there’s more.

 “The Dark Lord has made five of these objects.”

 In the back of his mind, Regulus wonders what Harry will think if either of his parents vomit.

 “Five?” James Potter demands, incredulous.

 “He’s terrified of death,” Harry answers, before Regulus can get a sound out.

 Regulus closes his mouth, momentarily caught by the strange idea that the Dark Lord might be terrified of anything. It makes sense, but it’s difficult to imagine. Fear is the Dark Lord’s horrifying efficient tool, not a weakness.

 But… how many times did Regulus question what sort of madman would make a Horcrux? Not only is the ritual foul magic of the worst sort, but splitting a soul is absurd. That the Dark Lord has made five horcruxes… soul-splitting is largely unpracticed and largely uncertain, but rarely did the lore Regulus found have decent endings for anyone. An act of madness, certainly, but… perhaps also an act of fear? Foolish terror underneath monstrous selfishness?

 He can’t see it. Not really.

 “Horcruxes can be anything,” Regulus says, to begin persuading the Potters. Living things included, apparently, Regulus remembers, noticing Harry shiver. “And can be hidden anywhere. And are almost impossible to destroy.”

 It’s somewhat satisfying to see a hint of panic on James Potter and Lily Evans’ faces, as they exchange another look. Regulus understands exactly what they must be thinking here. If this is true, how will they know what the horcruxes are? How will they find them? How will they destroy them? All this at once, with only a number to work from, how can one possibly proceed and succeed?

 This, Regulus is pleased to think, is where their saviour comes in.

 “I only recently learned of these objects - one of them - and made an attempt at it. My attempt would have failed, if I hadn’t been unexpectedly assisted by Harry, here,” Regulus summarizes.

 The Potters need not know about his months of stress, panic, and research culminating in a very good attempt at getting very, very dead.

 “Though you may doubt his origins and think what you will of the idea, he has knowledge of all five objects, including their histories and locations, and how to destroy them.”

 Harry seems tense, over the course of this introduction - an introduction that wasn’t precisely desirable, Regulus would argue, but was without doubt far better than Harry’s. Just the thought of Harry’s introduction makes Regulus want to hex something. He can’t hex Harry because his incredibly tense, uncomfortable saviour wouldn’t actually deserve it.

 “With his invaluable information, we can kill the Dark Lord,” Regulus finishes daringly.

 The words leave a buzzing in Regulus’ head and a thrum in his chest, because Harry has given them the key to ending the war. The key to ending the pointless destruction and death and chaos. It’s so very exciting to have an end revealing itself. A solution come to hand.

 An… odd tremor goes through Harry. Regulus looks at him and finds Harry staring, not wide-eyed but still… somewhat disbelieving? There’s a strange glimmer in his saviour’s eyes. Great Morgana, what now? Did Harry think Regulus wasn’t going to take this information and fly with it? It absolutely cannot be that Harry has some moral objection to the extremely necessary death of the Dark Lord.

 That would be ridiculous, unjust, and a waste of everything. Absolutely absurd.

 Regulus adds it to the list of things he will pry out of Harry later. 

 

Chapter Text

 James Potter looks between them. “Well,” he finally says, after a brief round of silence through the graveyard. “That’s… horrifying. You can… also prove this, somehow, I assume?”

 Wands cross inside Regulus’ head and he ends up turning to Harry. Their proof will best come from Harry, whether speaking of the horcruxes themselves or proving his identity. So long as Harry can actually manage it. Harry looks… relatively better now, if still lost.

 Regulus lets his fingers close slightly around Harry’s, just for a moment, in mutual reassurance.

 “...There’s a horcrux hidden at Hogwarts,” Harry says.

 Blacks don’t gape but Regulus would very much like to be allowed. Regulus thought Harry was going to attempt to endear himself to the Potters. If they’re just going to let Light wizards get their hands on a horcrux, Regulus would have just summoned Kreacher and tossed over the locket.

 “At Hogwarts?” Lily Evans repeats.

 Yes, that surprised Regulus too, when Harry gave him a quick overview of the horcrux locations. Regulus found it interestingly ironic that the “lost” diadem of Ravenclaw had been secretly returned to become a horcrux, though he wasn’t surprised the Dark Lord had managed to find another such prestigious object to host a part of his soul.

 Anything can be a horcrux, it’s true, but Regulus would have just given up if the Dark Lord had hidden part of his soul in a nice, random rock. That could never have been done.

 But, more importantly, what is Harry doing?”

 “Yes,” Harry answers his parents. “Ravenclaw’s diadem.”

 This has to be Sirius’ fault somehow. Sirius and James Potter’s fault entirely.

 “Ravenclaw’s lost diadem?” James Potter says, gesturing vaguely over his untidy hair as though wordlessly describing it. He sounds very tiredly incredulous.

 “Yes,” Regulus answers for Harry.

 It isn’t as though there’s more than one. There have been fakes, but Rowena Ravenclaw never owned more than one diadem, as far as Regulus knows. Yes, he too would like to hear the full story on how the Dark Lord found an artefact lost for a thousand years, if Harry even knows the story, but they don’t need to dwell on the comparably unimportant yes.

 James Potter just squints at Regulus again, while Lily Evans’ lips purse. Regulus regrets speaking, though he thinks he’s right to be more focused on the Dark Lord turning an artefact into a horcrux rather than that the artefact has been found.

 “It’s in the Room of Hidden Things,” Harry says.

 Regulus stops scowling at James Potter and blinks. The what?

 “...I’m afraid I’m unfamiliar with that room,” Lily Evans says, while her husband looks confused.

 “It’s a form of the Room of Requirement,” Harry says. When the air of confusion doesn’t abate, he adds, “The Come and Go Room? In the seventh floor left corridor? … Opposite that tapestry of Barnabas the Barmy trying to teach trolls ballet?”

 Harry still doesn’t get a reaction. He even has the gall to look bewildered, as though he didn’t just say trolls and ballet in the same sentence. He looks to Regulus for help and Regulus can only stare blankly back at him. The what? Opposite the tapestry of what?

 “You walk past it three times while thinking of the room you need and a door appears?” Harry prompts Regulus. “And it fills whatever your requirements are?”

 Regulus shakes his head. That sounds incredibly useful, but he’s never heard of it.

 Harry’s shoulders slump slightly, but he doesn’t look genuinely defeated. Harry looks back towards his parents, still anxious, but more casual and comfortable with them than he’s been thus far. More like the Harry who saved Regulus’ life without batting an eye.

 “Well… that’s where it is,” Harry says. “Volde- Tom hid all his horcuxes places that were significant to him or with his followers.”

 Regulus tries to imagine how that cave is significant beyond being a hiding place for a horcrux. His thoughts immediately fall to the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Inferi hidden in the black waters. Regulus decides that, whether or not he wants to know, he doesn’t want to think about it. Not yet.

 Nor does he want to get into Harry calling the Dark Lord by “Tom”. Harry needs to stop.

 “And if we go to this Room of Hidden Things,” Lily Evans say slowly, “...We’ll find this lost diadem of Ravenclaw. And how will we know it’s a… horcrux?”

 Harry opens his mouth to answer and, after a couple seconds, shuts it. He looks strangely panicked. Not just anxious, but actually panicked, and Regulus can’t fathom why.

 Dark magic reeks. If one goes looking with the right tools and is familiar with the low thrum of it, it’s unmistakable. Does Harry think that Light wizards like James Potter and Lily Evans wouldn’t be able to discern it for themselves? Or are horcruxes on another level entirely? Regulus hadn’t the chance to study the locket properly.

 “Dark magic is detectable,” Regulus answers for Harry, squeezing Harry’s hand again in reassurance and don’t you dare have another breakdown on me right now. “Horcruxes are also very difficult to destroy.” He lets go of Harry’s hand. “Right, Harry?”

 “...Yes,” Harry answers slowly, his panic fading. “Basilisk venom will do it… and Fiendfyre… and…” Harry trails off, then says. “Basilisk venom and Fiendfyre are the known methods. The container has to be… damaged beyond repair.”

 Regulus chest squeezes unpleasantly. He tells himself it’s at the thought of priceless, historical, magical artefacts being completely ruined to make the Dark Lord mortal again.

 “It’ll probably be cursed somehow,” Harry says, growing steadier with every word. “His horcruxes are usually cursed to the touch… or if you wear them… or just… stay around them for prolonged periods of time. It’s… not good.”

 “Cursed how?” Regulus demands immediately.

 Oh, Morgana, please no. He’s sent his house elf off to his home with a cursed and extremely malevolent magical object. Will it harm Kreacher? Will it harm Mother? Harry has confirmed that Kreacher survives for the next sixteen years or so, but how has Regulus risked his family by sending the locket to Grimmauld Place to apparently not be destroyed?

 “Uh, possession,” Harry says, giving Regulus a concerned look. “Possession is one of them… over a prolonged period of time - at least for the diary. Mood and personality changes for the worse, also over a while, if worn, for the locket. One of them, the ring, has some sort of fatal degradation curse if worn.”

 Regulus relaxes minutely, his mind still racing. He’ll have to remove the locket from Grimmauld Place soon. Harry would have said something if the locket harmed Kreacher, right? That can’t be one of the many secrets Harry is keeping.

 Regulus looks up to see James Potter and Lily Evans exchanging another unreadable look, before James Potter steps forward. “So, say we believe you… about these horcruxes,” the other Potter says. “Say this proof checks out… where do you think we should go from here?”

 Regulus chest squeezes again, this time with the slightly unfamiliar and relieving feeling of triumph. That’s an in if he’s ever heard one. That’s the beginnings of a bridge, one that they can build on if they don’t accidentally burn it.

 “We need shelter, support, and our identities kept secret,” Regulus says. “Harry’s identity and circumstances obviously cannot be known and… my disappearance will have my family and the Dark Lord under the impression that I am dead. Which is… for the best, I believe.”

 “...Dead,” James Potter repeats flatly.

 “In the performance of my service or by accident,” Regulus agrees, and glares.

 Surely James Potter is not unaware of the realities of the war and the casualties among the Dark Lord’s forces. Regulus will simply be one of many dead fools. He was never very important or significant, especially in the shadow of his dear cousin.

 “It will not be a surprise.”

 It hurts to say aloud, but that’s the fault of the truth of it. It doesn’t hurt anymore than the reminder that Regulus’ death would have been very real, if not for Harry’s interference. Appearing dead will have consequences, but the price is not much compared to the price that Regulus was paying before. 

 “There are conditions, however,” Regulus continues. “As I’m sure you have as well.”

 James Potter’s expression hardens, but he nods.

 “Firstly, we would prefer that Albus Dumbledore is not informed of any of this,” Regulus says flatly. “If he must be, then he won’t be involved. We will not work with him and we will not work for him; whatever you opinions of him are, I do not trust the man. I do not trust him to have my best interests or Harry’s best interests in mind.”

 James Potter looks surprised, but also… not. Perhaps surprised at the vehemence, but not at the content. Lily Evans looks the same. They don’t look like they’ll argue this. This is good, because Regulus has a poor opinion of Albus Dumbledore - a very, very poor opinion, one that has been developing for years without being exorcised; Regulus can’t really even begin to describe his resentment - and Regulus will not exchange one sworn service for another if he can help it.

 It helps that he’s not fighting solely for himself, here. He’s… never been particularly good at standing up for himself… but… for someone else… Suddenly, Regulus can manage.

 Harry looks surprised too. Did Harry really think that Regulus wouldn’t take him seriously? Regulus would take any excuse to avoid Albus Dumbledore, even if he didn’t consider himself a man of his word.

 Regulus lifts his chin at James Potter. “You can be our go-between with Albus Dumbledore, if you decide to involve the man. You will keep him out of our business.” There’s an old rage stirring in his stomach, as he continues, “And if you are absolutely incapable of telling the old man to busy himself with the war he has failed to prevent, then I will see him, but he will not go near Harry.”

 Now James Potter and Lily Evans look properly surprised. So does Harry, at a quick glance. Regulus can really see the resemblance now, honestly, with all three Potters wearing the same expression, more or less. Gaping exactly like Blacks don’t.

 “This is not negotiable,” Regulus insists. “I’ll work with you, but I will not work with him.”

 Even James Potter is preferable over Albus Dumbledore.

 “...Your other conditions?” Lily Evans asks, the first to recover herself.

 Regulus takes a deep breath. “You have a traitor in your Order,” he informs them. “Deal with him how you will, but deal with him. He must not be informed of my presence or Harry’s existence, much less anything more.”

 “Who?” Lily Evans demands.

 Regulus tears his eyes off her and looks James Potter dead in the eye.

 “Peter Pettigrew.”

 James Potter’s expression, which has circled between curious and amused and confused and suspicious, goes instantly cold. It’s an expression that Regulus has never seen on his brother’s best friend before. The closest reference Regulus has for it is Harry’s suddenly dark expression at the mere mention of Petunia Evans’ husband, but… this is worse.

 “What proof do you have of that?” James Potter demands.

 “...I don’t,” Regulus answers, and looks towards Harry with something that is not desperation.

 It’s not that Regulus is scared. It’s just that they need James Potter’s support in this, as much as Regulus hates it, and he knows who’s the better dueler between them, as much as he hates that too. And, in hindsight, accusing one of James Potter’s friends is… a neat way to incite a duel and ruin everything.

 Harry’s expression has also gone cold. Whatever anxiety was plaguing him before has been replaced with whatever a person might call the expression he was wearing in that place called Privet Drive. It’s rather… reflective… at the moment.

 “He betrayed you to Vold- to You-Know-Who,” Harry says. “The both of you. You hid under the Fidelius and made him Secret Keeper, and that rat gave you up. October thirty-first, 1981.”

 Oh, Regulus thinks, running over the possibilities.

 Oh, he thinks, because the possibilities opening are terrible at best. Nothing good could have befallen Lily Evans and James Potter that night… only just under two years from now. It’s an unusual and unlikely feeling, but Regulus doesn’t actually want to be right about his earlier wonderings.

 Harry doesn’t tell him anything, apparently.

 James Potter just stares at Harry and says, “...Rat?”

 Harry takes a deep, steady breath. “Your best friends are Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, and Peter Pettigrew,” he says, and his voice wavers only slightly on that last name. “The Whomping Willow was planted the year you came to Hogwarts because Remus is a werewolf; touching a knot on the tree freezes it and at its base is a tunnel that leads to the Shrieking Shack, where Remus spent the full moon.”

 It would be a dent to Regulus’ pride to look as surprised as he feels, especially because Lily Evans and James Potter do look surprised. Their eyes both widen, and while Lily Evans’ eyes quickly narrow, James Potter has gone stiff and slightly paled. Regulus refuses to look even half that stupid at his own companion’s words.

 Regulus had his suspicions about Lupin’s chronic illness, of course, but it’s another thing entirely for Harry to come outright and say that the older boy - the other young man - is a werewolf. Regulus didn’t know that was the Willow’s purpose; he thought it was a Herbology project that the Headmaster was happy to let endanger students. Suddenly, all those screams rumoured to come from the Shrieking Shack make sense, and Regulus admires the cleverness as much as he cannot quite believe that a werewolf was let into Hogwarts at all.

 Beauxbatons is far more famed for accommodating nonhumans, and even they might draw the line at something as dangerous and disliked as a werewolf.

 Trying to reconcile that gangly prefect who shadowed his brother everywhere with… one of most infamous and feared Dark creatures is a terribly difficult mental exercise. Regulus can’t wholly bring himself to commit to it, too busy keeping his surprise off his face, still trying to understand the possibilities in the Dark Lord attacking the Potters. He doesn’t want to suddenly have to reevaluate his view of that shabby Lupin boy; he doesn’t even know if it really changes anything.

 “Remus tried to keep it a secret, but you found out, and decided to become Animagi to help him through his transformations,” Harry continues, more confident now that he’s speaking… or maybe just edged on by anger. “You succeeded in your fifth year.”

 Regulus has only just decided that attempting to cast Mastery-level Transfiguration on himself is exactly the sort of thing Sirius would think is a fantastic idea, when he has to swallow an actual exclamation. Succeeded? Regulus has always known his brother is brilliant, has had his own lack of equal brilliance shoved in his face at every moment, but an Animagus at sixteen?

 “You’re a stag,” Harry says to his father. “Sirius is a large, black dog; he looks like a Grim. ...Pettigrew is a rat.”

 It’s likely inappropriately amusing, but suddenly, Kreacher’s insistence that Sirius had been hiding a pet in his room because of the massive amounts of black fur mysteriously being shed… It all makes an annoying amount of sense. If their situation weren’t so tense, Regulus might wish to imitate his mother and do what she did then: yell at Sirius and then collapse onto the parlour sofa, ordering Kreacher to bring her the sherry.

 Why is Regulus’ annoyingly brilliant brother exactly the sort of idiot to become an illegal Animagus?

 Harry takes another deep breath, the anger practically seething off him, then says like he’s repeating something laid into his heart, “Messurs Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs are proud to present the Marauder’s Map.” After a brief pause, in which no one speaks or really dares to breathe, Harry quietly adds, “The Map is locked in a drawer in Filch’s office at the moment, I think.”

 Better question: why is Regulus the sort of idiot not to notice that his brother became an illegal Animagus? Beyond, of course, how Sirius ran away when he was sixteen and the two of them haven’t been even on antagonistic speaking terms for years. Regulus feels like the thickest fool ever to walk the earth, to have immediately dismissed those absurd nicknames as nothing.

 Padfoot and Prongs! Oh, for the love of…

 James Potter is still staring at Harry, now looking like he’s had the floor knocked out from underneath him. He looks almost enchanted, staring at Regulus’ impossible saviour. Shocked and bewildered, suspicious and uncertain, too many flickering thoughts to name. It’s a terrible look on him, those wide eyes and open mouth, and Regulus absolutely isn’t taking any joy out of it.

 Lily Evans, on the other hand, is looking between her husband and time-travelling son. Her eyes are still narrowed, her lips are still pursed, and she seems to be thinking just as quickly. Her wand is twitching at her side.

 “As I said,” Regulus says in intervention, running through counterspells in his head. “Deal with him how you will. Whether he is a traitor or not, I would prefer to keep our involvement to a select few - the two of you and Siirus, preferably. He is not to be involved.”

 “You… want to involve Sirius?” James Potter says slowly.

 Regulus has to resist rolling his eyes… or scoffing… or hexing the previous Head Boy. Of course he wants to involve Sirius. Beyond his Life Debt to Harry and general need for Harry’s cooperation and happiness, Sirius is Regulus’ only reason for being here. Admittedly, help with hunting horcruxes wouldn’t be entirely amiss, but they don’t need help from Light wizards to do what they never even noticed.

 He was my brother before he was yours, Regulus doesn’t say, trying his utmost not to glare at James Potter and probably failing terribly. And that still means something to me even if it doesn’t mean much to him.

 “Yes,” Regulus says shortly.

 James Potter doesn’t seem to know what to say to that, just raising his brows, but Lily Evans steps forward. Her eyes are not narrowed, his lips are not pursed, but rather… she’s smiling… in a very faint sort of way. However, she’s not smiling in that “what a kind and charming girl Lily Evans” way… or a gentle, welcoming sort of way.

 It’s more like the expression Harry was wearing when he told Regulus to sit.

 Regulus is… Regulus hopes that’s a good sign.

 

 

Chapter Text

 “You’ll understand, of course, that we’ll have to verify everything you’ve told us,” Lily Evans says, very politely. “And we’ll have to be talking a lot of this over, but… I think we can… cooperate with each other until..” Her lips purse slightly, as she searches for a phrase. “...all parties have figured out what the h- exactly is going on.”

 Well, that seems entirely reasonable to Regulus. He allows himself a visible sigh of relief, because he’s been holding so much back. Oh, he’s was so worri- concerned, not worried, concerned that these Light wizards were going to be aggressively mistrusting or misplacingly vengeful… or worse. Regulus' family and so-called friends are generally not to be trusted when it comes to not being petty and destructive. 

 It’s a terribly strange feeling, having hope be fulfilled trickle by trickle here. Regulus thinks it’s a nice feeling, but it’s also uncomfortable. There’s a catch here somewhere. There always is. Unless… for once… there’s just… not? The thought is strange.

 “I don’t think that last bit’s ever going to happen,” Harry says awkwardly. “I mean… I don’t…” He looks at Regulus for assistance, raising his brows. “Everyone and exactly is sort of pushing it, don’t you think?”

 Regulus laughs, surprised, before he can choke it down. At the exact same time that - just across from them, much to Regulus’ displeasure - James Potter lets out an entirely unattractive snort of laughter.

 “Alright. Until everyone on average mostly knows what’s going on,” Lily Evans corrects, making several so-so hand motions and looking fairly amused herself. “That, we can agree on, right?”

 “That seems reasonable,” Regulus agrees.

 “So, you wouldn’t mind, Mister Black, if we took a moment to talk, would you?”

 Well, Regulus doesn’t particularly like the idea of leaving Light wizards to deliberate amongst themselves, but it is necessary. He will admit that Lily Evans has always seemed like a sensible witch. Regulus has many doubts about James Potter, but the man did put himself up against the wrath of the House of Black for the sake of his friend, and then up against the Dark Lord, and now he’s looking at Harry with a sympathetic sort of expression.

 They can all be civil, sensible individuals here until things are sorted and verified.

 “Not at all,” Regulus says diplomatically.

 He could certainly use the time to ascertain Harry’s mindset and redirect it. At the very least, he and Harry can work out some sort of signal between them. For example, Regulus’ elbow in Harry’s gut meaning: please shut up right now, you’ve deviated from your lines and you’re scaring the people we need to like us with your future talk and emotional intensity.

 “Thank you,” Lily Evans says politely. “And, by the way, I’m sorry about lying to you.”

 ...What?

 “It’s just that this has been a very strange situation and it doesn’t hurt to be careful these days,” she continues, not looking sorry in the slightest. She looks almost smug. “You understand, don’t you? It’s all right, isn’t it, since you’re all right with him being involved? Thanks a bunch.”

 Beside her, James Potter looks vaguely uncertain and simultaneously smug.

 “I beg your pardon,” Regulus says.

 Beside Regulus, Harry is presumably wide-eyed and gaping like the non-Black that he is, but then he tenses and turns. Regulus, seeing the movement in the corner of his eye, sees Harry go rigid before Harry breathes in sharply. Like Harry’s forgotten how breathing works again.

 Then, from behind them, a familiar voice says with cheerful bite, “Hello, Reggie.

 Regulus forgets entirely about Lily Evans and James Potter. His feet turn of their own accord, it seems, and he finds himself looking into the face of his long lost brother.

 

~

 

 Harry felt the prickle of a presence behind him, as his mother plainly and unapologetically and smilingly admitted to lying to the both of them. It was so blunt and unexpected that it jarred Harry out of staring helplessly at his parents, trying to see as much of them as he could all at once. Trying to figure out how to tell them everything without telling them everything.

 Trying to keep from falling back into memories, or clawing back out of them when he can’t. Looking at Lily Evans and James Potter sends so many parts of him reeling wildly.

 As soon as Lily started speaking and Harry registered the words, he got that familiar feeling of something… almost… like horror. The lesser kind. The one that isn’t quite so terrible or deathly.

 No, it’s not the feeling that came with a monstrous snake misshapenly wearing an old woman’s skin and bones, or the feeling that came with an ethereal cat suddenly prowling among flowers and weddings guests. Not like conspiring voices creeping in the Astronomy Tower. Not like skeletal masks drifting out of shadowy shelves to surround them. Not like a lurching rat in an overgrown, unfamiliar graveyard.

 Not the kind that came with the untimely loom of the full moon over a frozen tree. Not like stone grating against stone, as a great mouth opened for a rush of water and a hiss of scales. Not like thick purple cloth pulling away, wrap by wrap, to reveal an ill-fitting possession on the back of a puppet’s head. Not that kind of horror.

 Shit. Memories again. He has to stop.

 The feeling that Harry gets is like… like… it’s such a hard feeling to name. It’s a hard feeling to find similarities for, because there are too few… or perhaps too many memories? The sort of memories that Harry, usually, very carefully doesn’t allow himself to remember, because whatever they are can linger even on the sunniest of days, if he lets them back in.

 It’s the feeling like… Professor McGonagall, listening but not listening, apologetic but unhelpful. Like Professor Lupin, Remus, friendly but distant, caring but absent, there but never there. Like Mrs. Figg down the street, kindly but dull, wise but empty. Like Mrs. Weasley even, protective but stifling, always trying to prod him around into a shape, trying to shield him from things he has already and always seen and felt and fought.

 Like… like… Professor Dumbledore. Good, kind, wise. Grandfatherly. Rescuer and protector. The only man He ever feared. Mentor. Friend. Liar.

 (“So Dumbledore’s… been having… me followed?”

 “Of course he has! Did you expect him to let you wander around on your own after what happened in June? Good Lord, boy, they told me you were intelligent…”)

 Harry blinks the rush of memories back out of his eyes and turns, because of course someone was behind them. Of course, of course, of course.

 Even if he didn’t see it in the flicker of James Potter’s stare or the tilt of Lily Potter’s posture, he can feel it in the prickle of a presence running down the back of his neck. Of course the Potters didn’t come alone. Of course not. That would have been stupid.

 He doesn’t know what he’s expecting to see. He doesn’t know who he’s expecting.

 When Harry looks around, he immediately lays eyes on a man standing behind them. It’s a young man, just like Harry’s parents. The man is between them in height and broader in shoulder, with black hair and a striking grey stare. Just like Harry’s parents, the sight of him inspires a bit of déjà vu, but not the unbidden rush of shaking memories.

 No, it’s a simpler sort of déjà vu, that comes because of Regulus standing right beside him. With having spent the day with Regulus Black. Regulus and this young man are obviously different people, but for a moment, it feels like Harry is seeing two variations on the same individual.

 Oh, he thinks with some relief. It’s just Sirius.

 After a couple calming heartbeats, Harry’s whole being stutters and that relief washes out of his spine. The breath leaves his chest. Oh… oh… it’s Sirius.

 Sirius Black looks better than Harry has ever seen him. This isn’t the godfather Harry knew for a scarce two years, but the handsome young man who grinned up from Harry’s collection of photographs - the best friend, the best man, lost to time and a terrible betrayal.

 He’s here. He’s real.

 The nearly unrecognizable, devastatingly vibrant young man smiling for the camera has stepped off the page and into real life. Harry needs a moment to reconcile this young man with Sirius Black. They look like entirely different people.

 There are no lines on Sirius’ face, no wrinkles, and there is nothing gaunt or ragged about him. He barely has a shadow of stubble, a familiar scattering of moles, but his hair is short for him. A clearly stunning youth, instead of a tiredly once-handsome man wearing twelve years of hell. Sirius looks healthy, well-fed, and even slightly tanned. His clothes - brown slacks and a thick, brown leather jacket overtop what looks like a band shirt - are newish, along the lines of comfortably worn, and they fit.

 Sirius looks like he’s only a year or two out of Hogwarts. He’s never come close to Azkaban in his life and probably hasn’t ever considered the idea. He probably still thinks that he has a whole future ahead of him.

 Instead of traitors and prison and an untimely death over a stupid mistake.

 “Hello, Reggie,” Sirius says, with a smirk, with an edged grin that’s so familiar that Harry’s heart aches. Sirius’ eyes flicker over Harry, curious but dismissive, choosing instead to focus intensely on his younger brother. That hurts too.

 Beside Harry, Regulus spins around immediately. The tension that only just dissipated returns in full force, as Regulus’ thinner shoulders and spine go stiff with surprise. Uncertainty flickers over Regulus’ face for a second, before he turns very, very cold.

 “Sirius.”

 “Don’t look so happy to see me.”

 That edged grin is… even sharper than Harry expected. There’s something in Sirius’ stare that’s hard and cold and ruthless and… well… maybe even mean. There’s no lost love on Sirius’ face, or in his words, for his cold, blank younger brother right now.

 Another memory slips past Harry’s blinking, unbidden but pushing forward all the same.

 (“Because I hated the whole lot of them; my parents, with their pure-blood mania, convinced that to be a Black made you practically royal.”)

 And Harry is forced to wonder if this Sirius - young and free and not yet betrayed or alone - actually won’t accept Regulus. He doesn’t know this Sirius, he realizes with a jolt of pain, just like he doesn’t know these Potters and they don’t know him.

 For all that Harry remembers a brief wistfulness, maybe some regret, as his godfather traced the family tapestry and recounted a sad summary of Regulus Black…

 (“He was younger than me… and a much better son, as I was constantly reminded.”

 “But he died.”

 “Yeah. Stupid idiot… he joined the Death Eaters.”)

 ...that was a man who had lost nearly everything. A man who had had twelve years in the worst place in the world to think on things. That man might forgive his mysteriously deceased younger brother, especially given what Sirius had related on how Regulus had died.

 (“Oh no. No, he was murdered by Voldemort. Or on Voldemort’s orders, more likely., I doubt Regulus was ever important enough to be killed by Voldemort in person. From what I found out after he died, he got in so far, then panicked about what he was being asked to do and tried to back out.”)

 Harry blinks those memories rapidly back. This… this could be a problem.

 “I’m sorry if I thought I could take Lily Evans at her word,” Regulus says icily, head tilting as though he’s barely refraining from glaring behind him. “I thought eavesdropping supposed to be for ‘creepy little snakes’, but hypocrisy always was one of your specialities. How much did you hear?”

 Sirius’ eyes flicker over Harry again before he answers.

 “All of it.”

 (The laughter had not quite died from his face, but his eyes widened in shock.)

 Harry tries to remember everything’s been said, to stay in the present, but he can’t quite focus. What’s been said? What did he reveal? He screwed up and admitted his parentage early, but did he mention this man would have been his beloved godfather? Did he mention Azkaban?

 Sirius’ death?

 This is all so unreal. Harry thought calming down and accepting his parents being here wa hard, but looking at Sirius and having Sirius look at him and not known him is… is… it’s not worse, but it might be.

 (It seemed to take Sirius an age to fall.)

 Harry can’t focus on that. On any of that. Because if he does, he’ll break. He’s over this. He broke over this already. He can’t break over this again now.

 Regulus shifts impatiently.

 “Well?”

 “Well, what?”

 “Do you have an opinion on any of this?”

 (His body curved in a graceful arc as he sank backward into the-)  

 “Oh, you mean that worthless thing I should never share lest I embarrass the family again?”

 Regulus makes the strangled cat sound again, like he’s dying of pure frustration. It actually knocks Harry’s horror-filled memories back for a moment. This is kind of like watching a horrible Quidditch accident in progress and it’s distracting enough, so long as he doesn’t think too hard about the past or stare too much at Sirius.

 “Stop being difficult.”

 “Pardon me, I was just attempting to clarify. I’m still reeling from that whole ‘never speak to me again’ thing. It’s confusing, Reggie. You’re really calling me difficult?”

 “Yes! And stop calling me that.”

 Harry, feeling out of his depth, glances over his shoulder. Neither of the Potters have their wands raised or anything, despite Sirius’ wand being in mockingly plain view. Honestly, Lily Potter just looks fantastically unimpressed and James Potter looks tiredly embarrassed. Harry can empathize with both those things.

 “Why not? It’s cute. You didn’t mind at all before.”

 James meets Harry’s eyes and gives him a commiserating smile.

 “You didn’t say it like that before!”

 Harry shrugs, because it’s not like the Black he brought is behaving either.

 “And how am I saying it?”

 Lily Evans clears her throat, loudly. Regulus and Sirius both go still at the sound, rather looking like they’ve just remembered where they are and what’s happening.

 Regulus looks at Harry, vaguely anxiously, and Harry raises his brows at him.

 “We were just about to talk a few things over, but we can wait for you, if you’re not finished,” Lily says, with devastatingly casual politeness. “Are you finished?”

 “Seems like a really meaningful and important conversation, though,” James says. “Philosophy for the ages. Would be a real shame to interrupt, especially since we’ve got absolutely nothing better to do but listen to our betters debate the great questions of our time.”

 “Oh, you’re absolutely right. Pardon me. I’ll just start taking notes, shall I?”

 Next to Harry, Regulus’ carefully blank expression is turning slightly pink. Meanwhile, Sirius looks torn between a hangdog expression and annoyance.

 “Sirius, come on,” James says.

 Sirius sighs, but he steps forward to join Lily and James on the other side even so. Unlike James, he doesn’t bother to give them a wide and circular berth. Sirius comes uncomfortably close - which is to say that he gives them plenty of space, but Harry feels himself stiffen with unspoken horrors and Regulus’ aura of tension thickens - and stops just a few feet from his brother. He’s no longer wearing any sort of humour.

 “You’re defecting from the Death Eaters,” Sirius says.

 “Yes,” Regulus answers stiffly.

 “And you’re trying to destroy horcruxes.”

 “Yes.”

 “Which is how you met James and Lily’s son, here.”

 Regulus lifts his chin. “Yes.”

 Sirius raises his brows in answer, disbelievingly bemused. “You always were so damned gullible,” he says, ignoring the way that Regulus straightens indignantly and James’ disapproving sound. Sirius instead looks directly at Harry and says, “Harry, is it?”

 (“We’ll see each other again. You are… truly your father’s son, Harry…”)

 “Yeah,” Harry says. “Hello.”

 Sirius smiles, slightly forced. “Well, I don’t know if I believe you, but… you look the part.”

 “Like dad, with mum’s eyes,” Harry says hoarsely. “I know.”

 Sirius stares at him for several seconds - he doesn’t look any older than Fred and George, he’s younger than Percy - then he nods and looks at his brother again. “Honestly, Reggie, the messes you get yourself into,” he says, snorting, before he saunters off over to the Potters, who look rather done with him… and maybe a little thoughtful.

 Regulus makes another strangled noise, best summed up as “the only reason I haven’t punched you yet is that you just walked out of my reach”.

 Once Sirius is with the Potters, the three of them move off a ways to talk. Lily and James both give them friendly-ish smiles as they go. Harry returns the gesture as best he can, while feeling like his heart is going to either burst out of his chest or break.

 The last time he saw these three people in the same place was… well… never. He never saw them together alive, but… for a make-believe moment in the forest again…

 Harry turns away. He won’t think of those last moments. He can’t. 

 

Chapter Text

 Regulus takes him gently by the arm and tugs him in the opposite direction of his young parents and godfather. Harry goes easily, hoping for respite from his horror-tinged mess of memories, from having to simultaneously navigate such one-sided relationships. Regulus will help him sort things out and Harry can reassure Regulus that Sirius is a decent person and a good man, and maybe this won’t end in disaster because Harry’s lost his ability to dam.

 They find a decent place, near several trees, almost across the graveyard from the Potter and Sirius, who are standing next to the small church. Regulus releases Harry and looks like he dearly wants to start pacing, but refrains. Instead, Regulus raises his wand and ensures that they won’t have eavesdroppers.

 After two whole minutes of spells, Regulus finishes and some of the tension finally leaves his shoulders as he lowers his wand. After several seconds, Regulus raises his non-wand hand to his face and rubs his fingers against his temple.

 “I don’t understand how Sirius got past my detection spells.”

 Harry shrugs. “Maybe he came after those?”

 “No, they would have caught that.”

 It takes Harry only a second, and he asks, “Would your spells have caught an Animagus?”

 Regulus goes still, then raises his wand hand and hides his face with a soft moan.

 “It’s alright,” Harry says, probably more amused than he ought to be at that. “You didn’t know.”

 “You didn’t tell me.

 Regulus lifts his head and turns on Harry. “Look, Harry, I realize that this is impossibly difficult for you and I cannot possibly imagine what you’re going through at the moment,” he says, sounding barely restrained, “but I need you to tell me things like that. I need you to tell me everything - everything that you can manage - or else this is never going to work.”

 “Sorry,” Harry says, a miserable feeling stirring under the ache in his chest. “I know. I know that. It’s just… there’s so much.”

 Harry understands but… there’s an angry buzz in his stomach. A dryness in his throat. A throbbing in his head. There’s just so much that Regulus can’t know, that Harry can’t share, because it’s horrifying and awful and it’s pointless to spread the burden of a terrifying future. Is Harry supposed to vomit out all the secrets and scandal? All the deathly shame and deadly sacrifices?

 There are some thing that Regulus has no right to know.

 (“What request could a Death Eater make of me?”

 “The- the prophecy… the prediction… Trelawney…”)

 Harry is trying.

 He’s trying to survive, trying to live, trying to figure out what he can do, who he can save, and what kind of place he can possibly have in this time and space. But, as easy as it is to trust a stranger as familiar as Regulus, there are some thing that just can’t be spoken aloud.

 They aren’t Harry’s secrets to tell. Or they are and he doesn’t want to tell them, because they aren’t things that he’ll let live if he can help it. There are things that he could even manage to think about when he was alive back in his real life, even when, deep down, he had known them to be true. There are some secrets he feels he should never have known. That he wishes he had never taken into himself, as necessary as that had turned out to be. 

 (“I have- I have asked him-”

 “You disgust me.”)

 There are some things that must stay in the grave where Harry tried to take them and the horcrux in him. He survived, but he can’t bear to let them survive too.

 And if… if… if more survived than just himself and his secrets… if his sacrifice has been in vain… then he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to bear that secret again. For his sake, if he really is to have a second chance at life without drowning in silver, then some secrets must stay dead.

 “Harry,” Regulus interrupts softly, solemnly, uncertainly. “I… I needed to know this. I need you to concentrate and remember these things. I…” Regulus lets out a frustrated sigh and says roughly, “Harry… what if it had been Pettigrew?”

 Unbidden, the fingers of Harry’s non-wand hand fly to his throat, at the reminder of the traitor. His control slips again. He swallows against the memory of a silver vice around his neck.

 (“You’re going… to… kill me? After I saved… your life? You owe me, Wormtail!”)

 Beyond informing others of the betrayal, beyond the thought that he might not have mercy if he were to meet Wormtail again, Harry hasn’t been thinking about the man. He’s been too distracted to consider the presence… the possibility of the rat.

 What if it had been Pettigrew?

 “Oh, Merlin,” Harry says, wavering slightly. “Oh, fuck.”

 “Don’t be coarse,” Regulus snaps, before reigning himself in and signing once more. “Oh, where do I have room to chastise?” he mutters, his wand hand pressed against his forehead and the bridge of his nose. “I can’t account for an Animagus. I can’t even hold my tongue at the sight of the very person I wanted to find.”

 “You’ve still got a better record for saying on track than I do.”

 Harry can’t imagine doing this without Regulus anymore. Could he even speak without Regulus’ pushing and prodding? He couldn’t negotiate about seeing Dumbledore, probably, not without breaking. He couldn’t even remember the traitor, even when talking about him.

 “That’s because you’re an emotional disaster, Harry,” Regulus answers, almost absentmindedly. “Rightfully, of course, given everything that’s apparently happened to you. I, on the other hand, should know better!” He looks absolutely disgusted with himself. “I shouldn’t let him make me so angry! I apologize for that. I should have better control over myself.”

 Harry is too busy being stuck on Pettigrew to spare his full attention. What if it had been Pettigrew? The memories of that night with the creaking tree and looming moon, rush through his mind, and Harry remembers the despair in watching his chance at a family disappear into the night along that worm-like tail.

 “I… sometimes, I just…” Regulus takes a deep breath, then… sounds even angrier. “Once he starts speaking, I can’t think of anything but hexing him. Do you know the feeling? I’d forgotten that. I should have remembered that he seems to ask that he be cursed all the time. He doesn’t even need to do so aloud, even, by speaking. His face says, ‘hex me’, all on its own.”

 Harry swallows against silver hands and silver memories, and makes an effort to actually look at Regulus and listen properly. He might panic or break otherwise. He needs to be here, in this moment, not lost in repressed nightmares.

 Besides, there’s something different about Regulus in this moment. He’s… louder? More talkative? He seems brighter and quicker and… younger.

 “Are you… glad to see him again?” Harry says.

 Because he’s not sure how to say: “You’re kind of ranting and I think you just dropped at least five years in maturity. I think I’ve heard my girlfriend say this entire speech, word for word, before. Is this a sibling thing?”

 Regulus pauses, then turns to look at Harry and says, “...Yes?”

 Harry blinks. “Was that a question?”

 “No, it’s just-” Regulus takes another deep breath, then another, before finally looking at Harry and saying very seriously, “Are you absolutely certain that… Sirius wants to know me again? Because, while that may have actually been the most successful conversation that we’ve had in five years or so, I’m afraid that I don’t have much faith in his- in our ability to ‘make up’, as you put it.”

 Harry is really not the best person to ask on the subject of siblings, or family in general, but he considers the question nevertheless, because Regulus looks like he honestly expects an answers.

 So, Harry thinks over the sharp edges in Sirius’ expressions and words, and then, carefully shallow, he thinks over his godfather in Grimmauld Place, where he and Regulus grew up. He thinks about his godfather and the screaming portrait, about Regulus’ empty room, and about Sirius’ wistful bitterness in front of his family tree. And then he thinks over the equally sharp edges in Regulus’ expression and…

 “I know that he’ll regret it if you don’t,” Harry says, making the statement as firm and inarguable as he can. “And I know that you’ll regret it if you don’t. So whether or not either of you want to, or whether or not it’s difficult, I think you’re both going to have to try.”

 Now it appears as though it’s Regulus’ turn to blink at him, faintly surprised.

 “What?” Harry says.

 “That was quite…” Regulus pauses, then appears to switch tracks. “Well-put.”

 “As opposed to everything else I say?” Harry asks, amused by the reaction and unimpressed with himself. At Regulus’ blank expression, he adds, somewhere between good-humoured and slightly pissed off, “I know. I’m a ‘rightfully emotional disaster’.”

 Regulus clears his throat and looks away. “My apologies. I didn’t mean that.”

 Like hell you didn’t, Harry doesn’t say, but like Regulus’ prodding, he lets it go. He is a bit of an emotional disaster, isn’t it? He’s messed up pretty much everything they planned to say, forgot about an Animagus possibly listening in, and can’t keep his own head straight.

 Regulus isn’t wrong.

 “It’s just,” Regulus begins, waving his wand-hand about without direction, “as much as one can hope to reunite with a sibling without issue, it has… rather immediately come to my attention that we actually have a great deal between us.”

 Harry looks at Regulus, really looks, and considers again the thought that Regulus and Sirius first appeared to be two variations on the same person. It’s not true, obviously, but… Regulus certainly looks much more… Slytherin, with his tied hair long past his shoulders and his black robes. Neat and proper and thoroughly pureblooded. Completely different to his elder brother.

 Nearly cut wizarding newspaper articles against magazine pictures of motorcycles and models.

 “Our home life was rather competitive and… well… largely unpleasant, if we’re being honest, which Sirius will without doubt brutally be. There’s a great deal that I never said to him and a great deal that I… really should not have said to him. Too much, really, to take back now… or to say now.”

 Another memory slips out, but this one is quiet and painless and fleeting.

 (“I don’t think you’re a waste of space.”)

 “And then there are our choices. I don’t think Sirius will ever truly be able to forgive me for being a Death Eater,” Regulus says, staring off in the vague direction of his brother and the Potters. “As terrible a one as I might be. He… he isn’t particularly forgiving, you know. I have made some extraordinary mistakes - some annoying recently - which…. Now that I have reunited with him, it is clear that… there will not be any going back, actually. To be realistic.”

 Another memory, more recent, slips under Harry’s guard.

 (Harry saw Draco’s face up close now, right beside his father’s. They were extraordinarily alike, except that while his father looked beside himself with excitement, Draco’s expression was full of reluctance, even fear.

 “I don’t know,” he said.)

 “Regulus,” Harry finds himself interrupting.

 The young man in question stops pacing and looks at him. And Harry finds himself struck, for a moment, at how alike he looks to Draco. He looks more like Sirius, of course, but the family resemblance is there. In his anxious speech, honestly, he even bears a vague resemblance to Tonks, which is a strange comparison no matter how one stops to consider it.

 “Are you nervous?” Harry asks.

 Regulus stares at him for several seconds, before saying, “Pardon me?”

 “You sound-” Harry clears his throat. “You sound like you’re trying to talk yourself out of this?”

 Paused where he stands, Regulus seems to look inward for a moment.

 “Am I?”

 “Er… well, it sounds like it.”

 “I am,” Regulus realizes, sounding positively scandalized with himself. “I’m trying to talk myself out of this whole thing because of Sirius.” No one has ever sounded so aghast, except perhaps Hermione passionate ranting about something, which is another strange comparison. “His stupid face is making me irrational.”

 “Yes… that sounds, um- That does sound rather irrational, actually.”

 “Again!”

 Harry watches Regulus acting very outraged, and he feels a curious sort of settling in his chest. He’s still not, by any means, fine. He’s still not, in any real meaning of the term, all right. But the turmoil of anxiety and fear is settling into something manageable - perhaps paused for when he can get around to sorting out his head, through the mess of old betrayals, past nightmares, and recently shared secrets.

 There’s so much to worry about. There’s Dumbledore and Pettigrew and horcruxes. There’s Voldemort and Death Eaters and a whole war just outside. There’s how Harry got here, whether his sacrifice worked, and what he left behind when he walked off to die. There’s Lily and James Potter, people Harry has never really known, and Sirius Black, who doesn’t know him either.

 But, then again, there’s also Regulus Black doing an unintentionally perfect impression of Ginny that one time Ron used up the last of her shampoo last year.

 Something bubbles in Harry’s chest, warm and light, and then he laughs.

 Because it’s funny.

 Regulus looks at him like he’s turned into a canary, confused, and scowls like Hermione at her most academically righteous. “I hardly see what’s so funny about this.”

 Which, of course, just makes Harry laugh harder.

 “Stop laughing. It’s rude.”

 “Sorry! Sorry!”

 “No, you’re not,” Regulus says, eyes narrowed, and crosses his arms.

 Harry claps a hand over his mouth and manages to muffle the sound, trying desperately not to think of how very serious and offended Regulus sounds, else he’ll lose it again. It’s terribly difficult, but he manages anyway.

 “Well, I hope you’re happy now,” Regulus says snidely, “because they’re coming back over towards us and we haven’t accomplished anything.” He pinches the bridge of his nose, then rubs his forehead like he wants to put his face in his hands again. “I can’t think properly. This is all his fault.”

 Harry would snort again, but he looks over and yes, his parents and Sirius are walking towards them. Lily Potter is walking in the middle, rather short between her husband and her husband’s best friend, and her expression still looks very polite - which Harry is starting to be a bit wary of, honestly. James also looks like he’s trying for casual. Sirius is…

 Well… Sirius is flat-out glaring at the person standing next to Harry.

 Harry looks beside him and yes, Regulus is glaring back.

 “Just try not to reveal anything important or horrible or traumatizing,” Regulus mutters quickly, “and let me do the talking and decision-making. And don’t panic or become nervous again, for the love of Morgana, they’re just James Potter and Lily Evans.”

 But they’ve never been that to him. Never just anything.

 “If you are their son,” Regulus continues, quicker and lower, while Harry’s breath is caught in his chest as the trio approaches, “they’re hardly going to throw you out on your ear. Worry about Sirius hexing me, actually.”

 Then, even lower, Regulus finishes, “Or me him.”

 And, with that, Regulus raises his wand and dismisses the spells surrounding them. The magic dissipates into the cool afternoon air, as Harry’s parents and godfather stop less than a dozen feet away from them.

 “...So?” Regulus prompts.

 “We’ve decided that the likelihood of this being a very strange trap is low,” James Potter announces, with the beginnings of a smile. “This is all very confusing, mind you, but probably important to get to the bottom of… what with the… time travel and horcruxes and whatnot.”

 “Whatnot,” Regulus repeats flatly.

 James nods grandly, while Lily makes what might be a sound of amusement.

 “So we’ve decided, if you don’t mind, to first…” James flicks up the pointer finger of his wand-hand, since the Invisibility Cloak is still hanging on his arm. “...make sure that there isn’t any horribly strict and nasty time magic hanging around this mess.” A second finger pops up. “And if there isn’t, to move on from there. With the important whatnot… and whatnot.”

 That sounds… pretty alright to Harry, but Regulus is frowning.

 “And if there is ‘horribly strict and nasty time magic hanging around’?” Regulus demands.

 James pauses and looks at Sirius, who at the same time looked at him. They have a silent and unreadable exchange between them for a second, and then they both look down at Lily, who has a thoughtful hand on her chin. She looks up at her husband.

 “Try to prevent horrible time catastrophes?” Lily suggests.

 James brightens, then looks back at them. “Yeah, that.”

 “Hm,” Regulus says, as though he would object if he could come up with anything to counter that. “And how, exactly, do you intend to make sure of such a thing?”

 “By getting a seer worth their salt to check,” Sirius answers.

 The phrase “I didn’t ask you” is on the tip of Regulus’ tongue. Harry can see it. It’s kind of hilarious and anxiety-inducing, but despite Regulus’ glare, he obviously swallows the urge.

 Harry, meanwhile, is trying to think of a seer to do the job. Unfortunately, he only knows about three or four people who actually really bothered with Divination, and the fourth person is Firenze and centaurs probably aren’t an option. Parvati Patil apparently got pretty good by sixth year, but she hasn’t actually been born yet. There’s also Lavender Brown, but there’s the same problem as Parvati there.

 Which, by and large, more or less, whether he likes it or not, just leaves…

 “It’s not Sybill Trelawney, is it?”

 Everyone looks at him.

 “Who?” James says curiously.

 “No,” Lily says, at the same time. “It’s not.”

 “Oh, good,” Harry says numbly.

 “Any relation to Cassandra Trelawney?” James asks.

 Everyone now looks at James.

 “Yeah,” Harry says, reluctantly. He heard mention of the “legendary” Cassandra Trelawney a time or ten in Divination class, but he’s fairly certain that the whole “Inner Eye” business skipped the most recent generation.

 Honestly, someone with only two real prophecies to their name probably shouldn’t have been teaching, although maybe Harry’s biased because he was kind of terrible at Divination. Also, of those prophecies, one of them actually ruined his life and killed his parents - and may have had a hand in screwing up Neville’s life too, actually - and the other just predicted more of Harry’s life being awful.

 “Any good?”

 Harry looks the young man who would have been his father dead in the eye. “No,” he says, because whether or not Trelawney actually had any talent or skill, Harry’s not going near her.

 Merlin knows what horrible, life-destroying prophecy would leave her mouth now if he went to her for help.

 James raises his eyebrows. “Alright.”

 “It’s McKinnon, isn’t it?”

 Harry looks at Regulus beside him and furrows his brows, trying to think of where he’s heard that name before.

 “Why would you think that?” Lily asks.

 Harry’s definitely heard that name before, but he just can’t place it.

 It’s now Regulus’ turn to raise his brows, as he says, “Because the McKinnons are well known for their Divination abilities? Because everyone knows that Professor Palmsee is retiring and she wants one of the McKinnon sisters to replace her, if possible? Because she’s your best friend? Pick a reason.”

 For a few seconds, there’s stunned silence.

 “Merlin, you’re still an unbearable little creep,” Sirius says.

 Regulus looks surprised, before his eyes narrow.

 Harry has not been a Gryffindor, an honorary Weasley, and Ron Weasley’s best friend for seven years - and then Ginny Weasley’s boyfriend for several months - without having learned to recognized when someone is about to get punched. Or hexed, but a spell isn’t half so satisfying. Harry and Ron were the only thing keeping each other from walloping Draco Malfoy in the face every other day for years, and they still occasionally failed.

 Their most notable failure is that time it took them until the end of third year to realize that Hermione felt the urge too, and also had to be held back from delivering that mean right hook and other forms of terrifying wrath on complete gits.

 Harry may not know Regulus Black very well, and Regulus doesn’t exactly look like someone who actually knows how to or has ever thrown a punch in his entire life, but Harry’s got a sense for these things now. And Harry would bet most of what little he has that Sirius Black is about to get a black eye from his little brother.

 James Potter reaches behind his wife and swats his best friend upside the head.

 “Stop it,” he says.

 Regulus looks too surprised to react anymore, which is a good thing because Harry is definitely way too surprised to react anymore. Especially because Lily Potter doesn’t look surprised at all; her lips are pursed like she can’t believe she puts up with anyone here.

 Sirius shoots James a scathing look. “Yes, Mum,” he says sarcastically.

 Lily Potter sighs, loudly.

 “Look at that,” James says. “You’ve upset your father.”

 Harry has… Harry has sort of lost track of what’s happening. And, by the rather incredulous and mildly horrified expression trying to force its way onto Regulus’ face, he’s not the only one.

 “Not to ruin the fun or anything, but Marlene is actually waiting on us,” Lily says. “So can we actually go or does Dad have to walk out for another woman?”

 “You’re leaving me?”

 “Yep,” Lily says, lips popping with the sound. “She’s sexier and funnier.” Completely ignoring her husband’s mimed blow to the heart and Sirius’ snort, Lily focuses on Harry and Regulus. “Either of you have a problem with Side-Along?”

 “No,” Harry says.

 It takes Regulus several considering seconds to answer. Harry knows that Regulus wants to keep this whole thing as tightly knit as possible, but, in the end, Regulus says, “...As long as it’s not him.”

 Regulus is glaring at Sirius, of course, who glares back.

 “Excellent,” Lily says, then holds out a hand. “Wands, please.”

 “...I beg your pardon?”

 Lily fixes Regulus with that very polite, not-quite-friendly look again - which, yeah, Harry’s wary of that look now. “You don’t look like much of a threat, Mister Black,” she says, “but I’m not about to take an armed Dark wizard into my best friend’s home. Wands, please.”

 Regulus doesn’t look especially cooperative.

 “Reggie,” Sirius says warningly.

 “Don’t call me that,” Regulus snaps, not taking his eyes off Lily. “Miss Evans, I mean no harm to your friend, but I’m not about to walk disarmed into a gaggle of Light wizards who might have serious grievances against me, my family, or some random Dark wizard off the street.”

 James gives Regulus a careful look and says, “No one’s going to hex you.”

 “I doubt that,” Regulus says, glancing at his brother.

 Harry can feel the tension rising and moves closer to Regulus, close enough that their arms are nearly pressed against one another again. He wants to tell Regulus that it’ll be all right, that he has nothing to fear, but… yeah, Harry probably wouldn’t go unarmed to meet with Albus Dumbledore now, if he was being forced to meet with the man.

 “Can he keep his if he sheathes it?” Harry asks. “I’ll give up mine.”

 To prove it, he turns the Elder Wand at his side so he’s holding it the wrong way around, then holds it out for someone to take. He doesn’t want to be without it a wand, but he’s not about to use one either. He misses his wand. He never really wanted this one. 

 James and Lily exchange another look, then they both look at Siris, who looks about as cooperative as Regulus. Sirius stares back at them, scowling, then his shoulders drop their tension.

 “You’re gonna have to put up with us not giving you an inch of space, Reggie,” Sirius says, as he moves forward to take Harry’s wand from his hand.

 There’s… an odd tingling as it leaves his hand, perhaps from the tight grip he’s kept on it for most of the afternoon and how his finger aren’t used to being empty. There’s a wistful sough, a slight chill, a needling prickle, all in the palm of Harry’s sweaty hand as he drops his arm back to his side. He still doesn’t know how he got that thing.

 Regulus glares back at his brother and sheaths his wand up his sleeve. “So long as it’s not you, fine.”

 “Fine,” Sirius agrees. “James?”

 “Yeah, yeah.”

 James Potter moves forward too, holding his arm out to Regulus, who doesn’t immediately take it, because it’s obviously more important to glare at Sirius some more. Sirius glares back at his brother, as he holds his arm out for Harry, who stares at it blankly for a couple seconds before he realizes that he’s meant to take the arm so Sirius can Side-Along him somewhere.

 Harry looks over to where Lily Potter is still standing, watching them carefully, with her lips pursed suspiciously. When she notices Harry looking at him, her expression changes back to the polite one from before, this time with the tight sort of smile of an Aunt Petunia when Marge had been visiting for too long.

 When their eyes meet, green to green, Harry can almost taste the silver on the back of his tongue.

 “See you on the other side, boys,” she says.

 And with a turn of the heel and a whirl of red braid, along with a loud crack, Lily Potter vanishes into thin air. 

 

Chapter Text

 With the disappearance of Lily Potter, the four young men are left uncomfortably alone.

 Harry is trying to look from where she was, but finds himself half-lost in the suspicion of her final look, fraught by the unexpected similarities between the Evans sisters and the rush of memories summoned by those eyes. Sirius still has his arm out towards him, not even bothering to pretend that he wants to be here, and looks impatient. Regulus is still glaring distrustfully at James Potter’s offered arm, while James is looking as harmless as he can manage.

 “I won’t bite if you don’t,” James offers, finally breaking the silence.

 Harry, finally drawn once more out of his spiralling thoughts, thinks that Regulus rather looks like he now wants to bite James Potter on sheer principle, but is graciously restraining himself. Regulus then swallows that expression and, with a face like he’s swallowed something foul, takes James Potter’s arm. Regulus doesn’t look at James, but rather lifts his chin and stays stubbornly silent, glancing briefly towards Harry before he continues glaring coldly at Sirius.

 James doesn’t seem to take any sort of offense. Instead, he rolls his eyes and shoots an amusedly commiserating look towards Sirius, who is too busy glaring back at his brother. No offense is taken at this either, clearly, and James accidentally catches Harry’s eye in place of his best friend’s.

 They both pause. Harry has no idea what to do and it doesn’t look like James knows either. But then, with only a beat of visible hesitance, James Potter winks in a mischievously conspiring manner.

 The wink hits Harry like a punch to the lungs, but before he can figure out how to react to James Potter, the young man who could have been his father has firmly grasped Regulus’ given arm and turned on his heel. James Potter and Regulus Black are whisked away into thin air with another startling crack.

 Harry exhales. His heartbeat settling in his creaking chest, his thoughts whirling in his leaking head. He’s so painfully confused and thoroughly wrung through by this day, and it’s a frightening and exhilarating and exhausting thing to know that they’re probably only halfway through it.

 Now it’s him and Sirius, alone in Godric’s Hollow’s graveyard. Two young men, alone among the gravestones and neat grass and quietly rustling trees, on a cool and sunny November afternoon, apparently and miraculously alive against everything. Harry is wearing too many years for his age and Sirius too few, compare to the godfather Harry knew.

 They’re complete strangers, Harry realizes yet again, to each other.

 He doesn’t think he can stop realizing these things, over and over again. There aren’t the sort of things, he thinks, that a person can be immediately over. His beloved parents don’t know him and he doesn’t know anything about this lively, funny, distrustful young couple. Harry doesn’t know this bloke beside him, handsome and vibrant and cold, who doesn’t know him.

 Harry’s chest throbs with all those unfinished things, still raw, that will still never come to an end. All the questions that can only be asked of people still beyond his reach.

 (He closed his eyes and turned the stone over in his hand three times.)

 Besides him, Sirius Black is still staring at the place where his younger brother stood. His expression is unimpressed and impatient and distinctly unhappy. His attention is elsewhere - not with Harry, a stranger, of course not. His caring is elsewhere too.

 (They were neither ghost nor truly flesh, he could see that. They resembled most closely-)

 Harry’s Sirius vanished into the Veil years ago.

 (-memory made nearly solid. Less substantial than living bodies, but much more than ghosts. They moved towards him -)

 And it is here that Harry realizes - perhaps again, or perhaps for the first time - that he won’t… he won’t ever have the chance to meet his parents and see his godfather again. Not his ones. These ones are close, but they aren’t the ones he was looking for - the ones who never once failed to look at him with overwhelming love in their eyes.

 (- and on each face, there was the same loving smile.)

 Harry swallows against a sandpaper throat, then clears it. His eyes sting, no matter how he tries to resist tears, and for a startlingly clear moment, he hates this whole thing more than he has ever hated anything in his life. He can’t break, he won’t, but… he didn’t ask for this.

 He never asked for any of what happened to him.

 The Sirius beside him looks at him and Harry looks back. They stare at each other for a moment, Harry stifling the edges of tears and Sirius mistrusting, impatient, and maybe even mildly alarmed.

 “Are we going or not?” Sirius asks finally.

 “...Yeah,” Harry says.

 His voice is a little hoarse and he’s still blinking the overwhelming everything out of his eyes, or back behind them, but he’s probably the most together he’s been for at least a week. He doesn’t want to revisit the confusion of those first few days. He reaches out and warily takes Sirius’ arm, and another memory, this one older and disjointed, slips out:

 (Sirius must be just behind the curtain, he, Harry, would pull him back out again…)

 Harry isn’t given any warning before Sirius turns and reflexively redoubles his grip as they twist. Harry has only time for a searing gasp before everything goes black and he’s being compressed from all directions. His chest and lungs and eyes and eardrums squeezing and seizing with that unfamiliar between spaces second of Side-Along Apparition.

 

~

 

 Once they hit the other side, Harry takes in another searing gasp and is glad that, at the least, he can blame the sting of tears on an uncomfortably Apparition.

 He looks up. He and Sirius have rejoined the others in a place that Harry hasn’t seen before.

 They are standing on a paved country road, surrounded by long rows of comfortable, sprawling houses, all with small parks worth of plot around them, filled with great green lawns and large gardens and autumn-coloured trees. All steady and solid and peaceful. Beyond the country homes and their gardens seem to be proper fields and farmland, with what look to be barns and livestock, and beyond that seems to be a large forest.

 The well-lived-in homes along this road remind Harry of the Burrow, of Ottery St. Catchpole, if the Weasleys had next-door neighbours and a sturdier, less towering house.

 Lily and James are standing side-by-side next to a bright red mailbox, upon which somebody has lovingly painted “The Meadowes” in curling white. Regulus is standing a little off to the side, torn between frowning at the mailbox and warily watching the couple watching him back.

 Regulus is subtly but visibly relieved when he lays eyes on Harry and Sirius, immediately detaching himself completely from the Potters. Sirius drops Harry’s arm and does the opposite: detaching himself from Harry to rejoin the Potters. The tension as the brothers pass is uncomfortable but brief, as Regulus shoots his elder brother a tight scowl and Sirius flounces pointedly uncaringly past his younger brother.

 James and Lily look amused and unimpressed, but Harry is rather glad to have Regulus beside him again. There are some things, after all, that two people can’t go through together without having some amount of trust and companionship between them. The unnatural and unlikely avoidance of death, Harry thinks, is one of them.

 At least he mostly knows where he stands with Regulus. Regulus is… a very twisty person, Harry understood this from Regulus making all those plans and all his poking, but it seems like the sort of twisting that popped right out the other side into very straightforward.

 He misses his wand a bit, in that he feels very vulnerable without one. After years of danger, it’s uncomfortable to be without one. He’s not much of a wizard without his wand. Oh, how he fiercely misses his holly wand again at this reminder - so much - like missing a limb.

 Regulus still has his wand, of course, but Harry hopes he doesn’t feel the need to use it.

 “Shall we?” James Potter asks of Lily.

 “Mmm, might as well,” Lily says.

 Lily Potter turns towards the property nearest to them, the one belonging to the bright red mailbox of “The Meadowes”, and leads the way to the latched iron gate in the tallish hedge bordering most of the plot. She goes through first, followed by James, and Harry and Regulus go next so that Sirius can bring up the rear and lose the groaning rusty gate behind them.

 Regulus seems on edge, as he leans in towards Harry and whispers, “Are you alright?”

 “Fine,” Harry answers quietly, having been trying to ignore the lingering wetness around his eyes. He focuses instead on the brush of Regulus’ arm against his arm, on the gravel path beneath his feet, and this new place.

 There isn’t much lawn left on this property, unlike all the other homes surrounding it, and what there is is untended and being used to hold a large leaf pile. Along the gravel path are rows and rows of carefully tended and colourful garden, with vibrant flowers and plump vegetables, like a smaller version of the Hogwarts’ gardens just before harvest. Harry can recognize many a plant from either Herbology or Potions; they seem to be mostly magical, actually, especially by how the plants squirm and shiver and appear to roll over in sleep as they pass.

 There even looks to be a greenhouse attached to the solid, two-story house ahead.

 Lily is the one who steps up to the bright green door and rings the doorbell. They all wait in painful, forcefully patient silence for the door to be answered. It’s only just when it really does seem like no one’s home that there’s the click of a lock, the clunk of a stubborn doorknob, and the sturdy door finally swings open.

 The young woman standing in the doorway is… unlike whoever Harry was expecting.He doesn’t know her, not at all - she has long and limp brown hair, a lot of freckles, and a plain face - and he probably would have identified her as a potential Hogwarts student who stayed behind to fight if he was really pressed. She’s very short and looks young.

 She’s a girl, Harry thinks, before he remembers that he’s seventeen and that no one in their group is older than twenty at most. Sirius might be the oldest person here, actually.

 This young woman is also… surprisingly normal-looking. She’s wearing heavy boots, dirty overalls, a thick turtleneck, and a wide-brimmed hat, like she was just back in from tending to the garden outside. She’s also inexplicably and outrageously angry. She’s scowling.

 “The radishes aren’t ready yet,” she says to Lily.

 “I know. We’re not here for the radishes,” Lily says, without missing a beat.

 This is when the young woman visibly notices that Lily isn’t alone, her widening eyes flickering first to James, then Harry, Regulus, and Sirius lingering behind the Potters. Her mouth opens a little, either in surprise or in a failing attempt to form words. After several seconds of staring, her brow furrows back into a scowl and she leans forward to hiss at Lily, unfortunately not quietly enough not to be overheard.

 “Why are there two of them?”

 Whatever Lily whispers back is much quieter and Harry fails to catch it even as he strains. Whatever Lily said either wasn’t very complimentary or this young woman really likes scowling, because she looks them all over again with the same deep frown.

 “We’re here to see Marl,” Lily adds clearly. “She should be expecting us.”

 “She didn’t tell me anything.”

 “It’s very last minute. Can we come in?”

 The young woman stares at Lily for a few seconds, then over the four young men behind Lily, obviously thinking this request over very seriously and unhappily. “Yeah,” she says finally. “I’ll put the kettle on. Come on in.”

 Without another word, the young woman stomps back into the house and Lily follows as though this is perfectly normal. James turns around long enough to give Harry and Regulus a reassuring smile before turning around to follow his wife. Regulus immediately steps after them, which urges Harry to follow into this strange young woman’s house.

 The inside of the house is just as steady as the outside, warm-toned and homey, clearly magical and well-lived in, again much like the Burrow. The truly stunning thing, however, is that the house is somehow even more cluttered and disorganized than the Burrow was at its worst. The complete opposite of the neatly tended garden outside. Just the front hallway is a small disaster of strewn shoes and boots, bicycles and broomsticks, purses and bags, and a front table with a stack of books and keys, and also the coats that won’t fit on the overcrowded wall hooks or in the closet with the straining door.

 Lily and the young woman are the only ones to navigate the house wholly unscathed, leaving the rest of them to fend for themselves on the way to the kitchen, stumbling through baskets and wayward rakes and cricket bats. James and Harry fare all right; James clever keeps a hand on the wall and Harry’s quick reflexes manage to keep Regulus from falling into a small pile of half-unpacked boxes and gardening buckets. Regulus’ robes snagged on a watering can that Harry could swear had reached out and grabbed for them.

 Harry doesn’t know how Sirius does, but there’s a small crash and a muffled sound of frustration behind them. Harry doesn’t look back.

 “You really need to do something about that hallway,” Lily says, as Harry and Regulus stumble through the door of the kitchen.

 Lily is leaning against a counter that probably has a surface under all those dishes and cereal boxes and pots. Her lips are pursed in mild disgust and disapproval, her wand twitching slightly in her hands like she’s barely keeping herself from doing something about the mess. The young woman just snorts from where she’s manually putting on a kettle.

 “You should see what it does to people we really don’t like,” she says, with sly humour. Then she explains more seriously, “It’s not usually this bad. Marlene’s spent the past few days running new tests for enchantments and impressions on every piece of junk she’s ever dragged through the door of this house.”

 Lily looks over the food-crusted pots and pans stacked in the sink. “Right,” she says flatly, before flicking her wand at the six-seater dining table in what would otherwise be a lovely kitchen. With intense focus, the many bowls and books leap off it and find somewhere else to sit, either in piles near the sink or on the edge of an already crowded side table.

 Once the table has been cleared, Lily turns to look at Harry and Regulus, who take the hint and take seats on the far side of the table, backs to the wall. They’re the only ones who sit. Lily stays where she is, hips resting against the counter, and the young woman does the same after the kettle is on. James, meanwhile, stands freely close to Lily, and Sirius leans heavily against the frame of the kitchen’s doorway and stays there.

 After an awkward eternity of about half a minute, listening to the quiet tick of a wall clock, the scowling young woman finally says, “So, are we waiting for Marlene, then?”

 “Yes,” Lily answers. “If you don’t mind.”

 And that’s that. Silence falls again, leaving Harry to awkwardly wonder who this person is, where he’s heard the name Marlene McKinnon before, and how bad of a decision this might turn out to be. It’s got a bit of a feeling like visiting Aunt Petunia had this morning, only less knowingly painful and more painfully unknown.

 Why are they here again? Something about making sure that there isn’t any “horribly strict and nasty time magic hanging around”? Harry isn’t sure how that’s going to happen, nor is he sure how he wants this to turn out, or what he wants this seer to tell him.

 Some absolutely tiny yet faithfully stubborn part of him is hoping that this will give him all the answers to the impossible questions surrounding him. Yet, at the same time, he has so many secrets to keep. And what will he do if there is some problem with him being here? He’s meddled badly with time. Aren’t terrible things supposed to happen to wizards who meddle with time? Can he go back? Can he even go back when he somehow got here by dying?

 Wasn’t saving Regulus supposed to do something? Did he just imagine that whispering voice in the back of his mind, tickling behind his ears, barely more than a breath?

 Harry’s trying not to think about it too hard, because thinking about that mess is tempting everything that messed him up in the graveyard. Lingering thoughts and shadowed memories about puppets and promises. He almost wishes that someone would say something to distract him, but everyone seems to be waiting for someone else to say something, and Harry’s worried that if he meets Lily Potter’s eyes again, he’ll fall in. Everything will close in again.

 Regulus is sitting very stiffly beside him, pointedly not looking at Sirius, who is staring at the both of them but particularly Regulus. Lily is looking over the room’s mess, unimpressed, while James is eyeing it all with wariness. The young woman, one of the clutter’s owners, is ignoring just about everything in favor of frowning into the distance.

 The relief is instant when the awkward quiet is broken by the heavy thumps and creaks of someone suddenly moving about upstairs. Moving about quickly and loudly, too, with the footsteps going back and forth like the stranger upstairs is wearing thick boots and has just remembered they need to pack for something. Then the footsteps are hurrying down the stairs, telegraphing their position in the house to everyone within range of the noise.

 “That’d be her,” the young woman says disinterestedly.

 A new woman appears in the doorway behind Sirius, who moves to let her and her arms full of dishes and house décor through immediately - no, wait, that’s Divination equipment, a lot of it - and she stomps her way over to the cluttered sink. Without further ado, the new woman sumps the mess in her arms on top of the rest of the dishes over the sink and counter, caring only to put several large silver candlesticks to the side and carefully place a crystal ball in a strainer. These things clink and clack precariously in her sink, but she unconcernedly turns on Lily with a pink hand towel.

 “So, I don’t know what the hell you were trying without me, but as far as I can tell, time is fine,” she says, looking slyly sideways, using the towel to carelessly clean the chalk dust absolutely covering her hands and forearms. She’s doing a terrible job, there’s already dust all over her jeans. “So… whatcha do, Lils?”

 Marlene McKinnon is tall and fair and gangly, no older than anyone else in the room, with a chin-length mass of very frizzy blonde ringlets and a sharp, long face that lends itself very well to the sly look she’s turning on Lily Potter. Her posture is relaxed, her expression is bemused, and she has eyes for no one else in the room, like she hasn’t even realized they’re here.

 Lily raises her eyebrows, lips twitching. “What makes you think I did something?”

 “Between my sixth and eighth senses, I have a seventh purely for Evanses’ antics, of course,” Marlene says mildly. “But seriously, what’s going on and who have you brought into my house with no warning? No, wait, let me try and guess first.”

 Lily’s lips twitch again. “Be my guest.”

 Smiling back, Marlene then rounds on Harry and Regulus at the dining and her expression is suddenly solemn. Her dark brown eyes are strikingly deep at she searches over them. She focuses first on Regulus, who looks very unhappy about this sudden guessing game, and very quickly looks towards Sirius.

 “The brother you don’t talk about?”

 “Yup,” Sirius says flatly.

 Marlene nods in satisfaction, then looks between Harry and James… several times.

 “And the brother that no one has talked about?” she says jokingly. The look on her face suggests she knows she’s guessing wrong, raising her dark eyebrows at James.

 “No,” James says.

 “Hmm… Well then…” Marlene turns her gaze back to Harry to watch him properly, and Harry suddenly understands why Regulus didn’t like having that stare turned on him. It’s very intense and uncomfortable, made all the worse by how it encourages everyone else in the room to stare too.

 He may be used to it - being stare at, being judged, having strangers form thoughts on him without his permission - but he’s never liked it. He’s never liked being the Boy-Who-Lived, being that strange, impossible celebrity child under the constant scrutiny of a hungry and fickle crowd. There are enough people in this room that he’s feeling crowded and he doesn’t have good recent experience with crowds.

 Harry tries to focus on Marlene, but there’s something in the way she’s tilted her head a little to the side, considering the boy sitting before her like a curious child, and her sly smile is rather mirthless. Something about it feels like it’ll pick him to pieces and leave nothing but bones.

 Finally… finally… the intense stare lightens, slipping casually off and away from him as though it had never been there, and Marlene turns towards the Potters.

 “Well, don’t you two make pretty babies,” she says.

 Harry sighs in relief.

 (The illusion was gone as soon as it had come. The giants roared as the Death Eaters rose together, and there were many cries… gasps… even laughter.)

 Lily and James, however, just sort of stare back at her. Since the only other option is letting a disbelieving silence hang around forever, James eventually manages to smile tightly back.

 “Thanks,” he says.

 Behind Marlene, the other woman is staring at Harry with a nearly hilarious look of surprise and outrage. It’s sort of distracting, like the kettle softly screaming behind her. Harry wishes that he knew her name.

 “Now it’s time for that ultimate question: who’ve you brought into my house and what’s going on?” Marlene says. “Introductions, please. Then someone explain to me why I have a time-travelling baby Potter and the Death Eater baby Black in my house. I’m all divined out at the moment.”

 Regulus makes the strangled cat sound again, muffled, at those titles, but neither Marlene nor the Potters pay him any mind. Harry might’ve looked at Sirius for a reaction, but he’s distracted again by the unnamed woman behind Marlene. Her look of surprised outrage turned on Regulus and, for a second, she stared at him with nothing less than unadulterated hatred before she stuffed the emotion back behind the disinterested frown she’s wearing now. 

 

 

Chapter Text

 “This is Harry,” James says to the two women, still wearing that tense smile that is nothing like the innate adoration of the man Harry saw in mirrors. This James Potter is nineteen and looks towards Harry with painful politeness. “Harry, do you know…?”

 Harry swallows the rawness in his throat. “Ah… no.”

 There’s sharp surprise around the room at this, that Harry doesn’t know these women. Lily, James, and Sirius are all visibly taken aback, and Regulus looks at him like Harry’s just said something very, very wrong. Marlene is the only one who doesn’t look surprised, instead having another sly smile curling around the corners of her mouth as she continues to stare at Harry, idly playing with the towel in her long fingers.

 “My name is Marlene,” she introduces, when it looks like no one else is going to do it. “McKinnon.” She nods back to the short, unnamed woman behind her. “That’s Dorcas Meadowes.”

  “Hello,” Harry says awkwardly.

 Dorcas nods in greeting, still frowning, and busies herself with the kettle.

 “So, Harry,” Marlene says calmly, her smile broadening. “I’ve never met a time-traveller before, much less one who’s managed not to twist time as he does it. How’d that happen?”

 Harry stares at her, then slowly admits, “I’m… not sure. It was an accident. I don’t know how it happened or how to undo it.” Then, after that confession, he asks, “Twist time?”

 Marlene tilts her head again in consideration, still smiling broadly. “You know time-turners?”

 “Yes.”

 “Used one before?”

 “Once,” Harry admits. “Years ago.”

 Beside him, Regulus’ expression looks strained. Harry can’t see Sirius, but Lily and James look surprised. Dorcas is busy failing to find clean cups.

 “That’s interesting,” Marlene McKinnon says, pocketing the towel. “Well, if you all wanted an expert in time magic, you really should have gone to a Palmsee or the like, but since this is obviously personal, I’ll do my best. If you’ve used a time-turner, I’m sure you heard a spiel on the dangers of meddling with the past.”

 Harry remembers Hermione saying something about that. He’s forgotten what exactly she said, but he’s pretty sure it was strongly implied they’d die… or worse… and “worse” didn’t just mean “expelled” in that context. He didn’t remember what “worse” was, just that it was bad.

 “Yeah,” he says simply.

 “Well, that’s because time-turners bend time,” Marlene says pleasantly, raising one hand and turning her wrist until it can’t turn any farther without breaking. “They twist it. They’re very… local… devices. Limited. When their influence runs out, time…” Her hand flipped out of its awkward twist. “...snaps back. If things don’t more or less line up, you get paradox problems. If there’s a way to permanently change the past without consequences, it hasn’t been invented yet. At least, so far as I know.”

 Marlene’s eyes glint as she goes on, “So, even if you ended up here accidentally, it’s more than a little curious and, as far as the magical community knows, impossible for you to be sitting there without more than a few twisted and tangled forces around you. ...How long have you been here?”

 “Four days or so.”

 All the time she spoke, Marlene’s eyes never left Harry’s face, and Harry thought there was something very hungry about her expression even as she kept smiling. “Yeah. You should definitely be a walking twist waiting to lash out at any moment. Besides walking up to your own parents before you’ve even been born, would you say you’ve changed anything significant?”

 Harry doesn’t look at the eighteen-year-old should-be-dead bloke beside him.

 “Yeah,” he says.

 “How significant? Like, ‘can be reasonably and quietly corrected’ significant? Or ‘everything is completely changed and nothing will be the same’ significant? Take a moment to think about it.”

 Harry takes that moment. Saving Regulus Black is… pretty damn significant he’d say. Maybe it could be quietly “fixed” - a thought that makes him sour briefly - but Harry’s probably been doing some decent damage in terms of useful information. Even if the paradoxical problem of Regulus Black needed to be “fixed” now - that’s such a horrible term - Harry spilling his guts to Lily and James Potter is probably equally an influential change.

 A defecting Death Eater who knows a lot about the Horcruxes, alive, determined to destroy them nearly twenty years before Harry started hunting them. Lily and James Potter, the parents of the Boy-Who-Lived, now know not to trust Peter Pettigrew.

 “Yeah,” he says again, hoarsely. “The last one. Definitely.”

 Marlene is still smiling, but tightly, and she doesn’t look very convinced. “You’re sure about that?” she says, friendly but sceptical. “Personal significant isn’t the same as ‘important’ significant, you know. When I say ‘everything is completely changed and nothing will be the same’, now, I mean…”

 (Now he saw that his life span had always been determined by how long it took to eliminate all the horcruxes.)

 Harry shakes his head.

 “He knows how to kill the Dark Lord,” Regulus interrupts with a snap. “Which would not be otherwise pursued until nearly twenty years from now. Believe me, the definition of ‘significant’ here is well understood.”

 Marlene’s stare switches to Regulus, sitting straight-backed and unhappy beside Harry, and something about her continuing smile made the hairs stand up on the back of Harry’s neck.

 “Believe me, baby Black, when you know as much Divination as I do, you learn that the definition of ‘significant’ is very rarely understood,” she says. “The world is very big, people are very selfish, and… besides… I tend not to immediately take the word of your sort. Don’t tempt me into an argument; I actually have something to stand on.”

 Regulus maintains his proud posture, but the stiff and threatened edge he’s been wearing today shows through. He doesn’t have an answer to that, Harry sees. No easy quip. No rejoinder. Or maybe he does have one and, eyes flickering around the room, has swallowed it down in the face of their company. From the doorway, Sirius gives a low whistle and Regulus twitches.

 “No offense meant, Harry,” Marlene says, looking back to him. “It’s not that I doubt you - though I don’t know you - it’s more that it sounds a lot like you should be a walking twist. If I say so myself, Harry, you should be a large one, if you’ve got information as desperately needed as that - or even just a small one, given your contact with Lils and Jim here. That you’re sitting here, fine and unobtrusive as if you belong here, goes against everything I know about past… present… and future. It’s just very… impossible.”

 “I’ve… always been good at impossible,” Harry says, for lack of any other answer.

 Marlene laughs, a high and almost familiar laugh that’s only a little strained. “Well, considering your parentage, I’m not all that surprised at that,” she says, then looks at him consideringly again. “Honestly, what sort of ‘accident’ sends you nearly twenty years back in time and lets you change things without so much as a ripple, much less catastrophe?”

 (Voldemort’s head was tilted to one side, like a curious child, wondering what would happen if he proceeded.)

 “I don’t know,” Harry says, again, his tongue feeling heavy and fingers numb in the rush of memories pushing at him again. “I’d… it shouldn’t have happened. I’d rather not talk about it, if that’s alright.”

 “I’d rather you did,” Marlene says with unapologetic pleasantness. “A potential problem with time isn’t something you leave just because it doesn’t seem like a threat to anyone now.”

 Harry tries to look her in the eyes, but ends up looking around the room instead.

 (Harry looked back into the red eyes-)

 Lily and James Potter are both staring at him, with their own intense curiosity. Sirius, too, is looking at him expectantly, from his place in the doorway. They aren’t intimidating or threatening, but they still look very… expectant. Like it’s not all up to him to decide things.

 (-and wanted it to happen now, quickly-)

 Regulus is the only one who doesn’t look at him like that. His muted expression is concerned, maybe a little angry, but Harry doesn’t think it’s at him. He looks like he wants to say something, like he’s on the edge of saying something, but doesn’t quite know how.

 (-while he could still stand-)

 Is it so bad if he admits what little he knows? He’s already said it before, to Regulus, and it didn’t matter then, one dead man to another. Is it so bad if he says it now? This is apprently important.

 (-before he lost control-)

 There’s no need for Regulus to look like that. It’s not such a big deal.

 (-before he betrayed fear-)

 Except how it is, kind of, a big deal. At least, it is from Harry’s perspective, taking up so much bloody space in his head. Maybe if he just says it - just gets it out there - it’ll stay out there. Maybe all these repeating memories will get out of his head already.

 (He saw the mouth move and a flash of green light-)

 “I died,” Harry says, staring at the dining table, because he can’t… he can’t quite meet anyone’s eyes at the moment. “It was the Killing Curse. I shouldn’t be…”

 Here, he should say, but it’s beyond places, really. He just shouldn’t be, anymore.

 “I don’t know how this happened,” he says honestly. 

 (-and everything was gone.)

 Harry pushes back on the memories and looks up at Regulus first, beside him, whose expression is unsurprised and grim. Admitting that he died is more or less one of the first things Harry said to Regulus - it was kind of a bonding moment, actually, sitting in that cave with the knowledge that they were both supposed to be dead.

 Did he tell Regulus it was the Killing Curse? He can’t remember. He just remembers not wanting to talk about the scars. 

 Regulus’ accepting expression gives Harry the strength to look around the room again, but he quickly finds that Regulus’ solemn understanding isn’t shared by all. Marlene McKinnon is finally no longer smiling, but has the fingers of one chalky hand pressing against her lips and lower face like she can force the question back down if she presses hard enough.

 Behind her, Dorcas Meadowes, though her back is turned, has frozen in the middle of trying to wash dishes. She’s staring at him apparently having forgotten she was scrubbing a mug.

 But it’s James and Lily’s expressions that really take Harry aback. James Potter looks stunned beyond words, his tense smile given way to a plain and genuine horror. Beside him, Lily Potter is wide-eyed with a supporting hand now pressed hard against the counter behind her.

 They look absolutely nothing like the shades that came to him in the forest, Harry finds himself thinking distantly. Nothing at all.

 He looks over at Sirius, pushed by a morbid sense of curiosity, and finds that yes, Sirius too looks rather stunned. Like he expected any other answer than that.

 Was it really so surprising? Regulus was supposed to die too… although, Harry remembered, Sirius didn’t know that yet either. Regulus was making a sincere effort earlier not to imply that either of them should be dead, and maybe Regulus had been right, if these expressions of horror and pity are what Harry’s getting for sharing.

 He looks at his would-be parents again, who are still staring at him.

 “It didn’t hurt,” Harry says, before he can think about it. His godfather’s shade’s words come to him, unbidden, too true and fitting not to fall off his tongue. “Quicker and easier than falling asleep.”

 The conscious walk towards death had been infinitely worse than dying, honestly.

 (A swarm of dementors was gliding through the trees; he could feel their chill, and he was not sure he would be able to pass safely through it. He had no strength left for a Patronus. He could no longer control his own trembling. It was not, after all, so easy to die.)

 Yeah, it was that time to think that killed him.

 If anything, however, this poor attempt at reassurance just makes everyone looked even more horrified. Lily’s knuckles are white where they’re gripping the counter behind her. James wavers a little where he stands.

 Regulus makes a sound of disgust. Harry looks at him and finds the younger Black brother is now glaring at Marlene McKinnon, like Harry’s inevitable and necessary death was somehow her fault.

 “Unless you’d like Harry to relive every detail of his death for you, perhaps we could move on to more important matters? Since I’m the sort that I am and have actually bothered to speak with Harry about significant things, I think I have plenty to stand on when I say that things have very significantly been changed already.”

 Harry can’t decide what having supposed to have died does for Regulus’ opinion. Does it make Regulus’ opinion irrelevant or relevant?

 “Unless you can actually find a ‘twist’ in time,” Regulus says sharply, “I suggest that we act as though the world intends to continue as it is now and do something to prevent any future deaths from happening.”

 Regulus and Marlene stare at each other for a long moment, so intensely that Harry wonders if there’s a silent conversation going on. The silence goes beyond awkward right into painful.

 “Excuse me for giving a damn about the consequences of my actions,” Marlene says finally, softly. There’s not even a trace of a smile, as she seems torn between staring pityingly at Harry and glaring at his companion.

 “I’m sure, McKinnon, the fact that Lily Evans’ son didn’t know your name or your face isn’t lost on you,” Regulus says coldly. Then he sneers, “Are you really so eager to roll over and die?”

 Oh, Harry thinks.

 Dorcas Meadowes turns at this, tap switching off, to stare incredulously and angrily at Regulus. And looking at her and Marlene McKinnon, side by side, Harry has some memory of an old photograph in Alastor Moody’s gnarled hand. Two strange women he didn’t know, blurred and smiling, unimportant among so many others who didn’t survive.

 Now that he’s placed them, another memory drifts up, of the McKinnons being used time and time again as an example of casualty in the first war. A whole family, among many others, that Voldemort wiped out entirely. Harry didn’t know how many McKinnons this was, but it was sobering no matter the number. He’d forgotten about them in the face of all the new families dying the second time around.

 Oh, that was mean, though.

 “Reggie, for the love of magic, shut up.”

 “Oh, like you didn’t notice the strangeness there either,” Regulus snaps, whirling on his brother in the doorway. “All I want to know is if we’re going to focus on nonsense or actually get something accomplished. We’ve established that there isn’t any ‘horribly strict and nasty time magic or whatnot hanging around’, now let’s move on to things that matter. Horcruxes, perhaps?”

 “Horcruxes?” Marlene repeats quickly, hungrily. “Who’s been stupid enough to make a horcrux?”

 “Volde- Tom. You-Know-Who,” Harry answers, barely catching himself on the name. He understands a lot better now why people didn’t like to say the name.

 The name of Voldemort’s “filthy Muggle father” was hardly widespread and the Taboo had been terrifying in practice.

 “Horcruxes,” Regulus corrects unhappily. “He made more than one.”

 Marlene eyes rove over the both of them disbelievingly. “But that’s stupid.”

 “Well… yeah,” Harry says. Then he realizes, “Hang on. How do you know what a horcrux is?”

 Harry hadn’t found out what a horcrux was until nearly four years after he’d already destroyed one on accident. They weren’t exactly common knowledge. Of all the people to recognize the Dark magic immediately by name, a young woman who couldn’t have been more than twenty wasn’t one of them.

 “My family specializes in the enchantment of objects and some soul-based magic, among other things,” Marlene says carelessly, still looking stunned.

 Oh, Harry doesn’t say. That’s probably why you were all killed, then.

 Another moment of silence falls on the kitchen again, as no one appears to know what to say next. Marlene and Harry stare at each other for this long moment - each occasionally glancing away to look at someone else in the room, or to blink intruding memories back in Harry’s case - but they ultimately keep coming back to each other.

 “I’m sorry,” Marlene says finally.

 That’s surprising enough to let Harry blink back intrusive thoughts. “For what?”

 “Pushing you to talk about… something you didn’t want to.”

 Dying, she doesn’t say.

 “Oh,” Harry says in understanding. “It’s fine.”

 It’s not, really.

 But it is, really, because it has to be, and Harry has far, far worse secrets that he doesn’t want to come back to life. One of which, at the mention of horcruxes, is stirring in the back of his head now, bubbling up for his consideration in the face of this new information about the McKinnons, and crawling in to eavesdrop for answers to one of the problems he’s been ignoring ever since he woke up. Harry keeps ignoring it, but… this doesn’t stifle it.

 “May we move on now to the ‘important whatnot’?” Regulus says impatiently. “The Dark Lord has five horcruxes that aren’t going to destroy themselves.”

 Marlene laughs her high laugh again. “And you’re going to do the job? That’s a bit surprising… considering…”

 “Well, it’s not like you were getting the job done,” Regulus says, his expression wintry.

 Harry looks at Regulus, then to Sirius who looks ready to snarl back at his brother’s bite, and then back to Regulus with the feeling that they’ve done this before. They’ve definitely done this arguing thing before and it wasn’t constructive then either. Harry nudges Regulus’ knee, immediately recapturing Regulus’ attention, and Harry meets that sharp concern with a tired expression that he hopes conveys how Regulus is shedding years of maturity again.

 “So, just to be clear, we’re certain that there aren’t any twists in time or paradox-related consequences to… all of this?” James interrupts, making a sweeping gesture to encapsulate all of Harry’s… many, many problems.

 Marlene looks at him, nods grimly, then she just shrugs. “As certain as anything can be in this field, as far as I can tell,” she says. “I’d still like to know exactly how and why something like this might happen, which would require a closer look and probably a few letters to people who know more about this sort of thing than I do, but… sure.”

 James raises his brows and repeats, “Sure.”

 “Sure,” Marlene says again, with her very pleasant smile. “That’s my professional opinion: why not? There are no twists attached here. There’s no evidence of time travel at all. Sure. Why not? The impossible has happened.”

 “I personally find another conclusion far more probable.”

 They all look to Dorcas Meadowes, who had spoken up for the first time in what felt like ages, who has her arms crossed and is scowling even deeper than before.

 “How certain are you that any time travel took place in the first place?” Dorcas Meadowes demands. “Impossible? Maybe you’re overlooking what is possible: that it didn’t. My first guess would be imposter.”

 Harry isn’t as surprised as he wishes he was at this sort of accusation.

 “He’s not an imposter!” Regulus snaps, before Harry can even think to defend himself. “He knows far too much about things he should have no way of knowing. I have examined Harry’s every action and word, and as anyone or anything else but the person he presents himself to be, he makes no sense whatsoever.”

 “Yeah, well, your judgement means shit to me,” Dorcas says flatly.

 “Dory,” Lily says.

 “Don’t ‘Dory’ her,” Marlene says. “She’s right.”

 Regulus sits up straighter, prouder, and somehow manages to stare down his nose at everyone from his seat. “No, she isn’t. I defected before I met Harry. I made the decision to kill the Dark Lord on my own, and sought out one of his horcruxes when Harry appeared to help me. If he’s here to kill anyone, it’s me, and he’s done a terrible job of it.”

 Well, yeah, if Harry was supposed to let Regulus Black die, he’s done a very bad job of it. However, since Regulus doesn’t seem to want people knowing that, Harry doesn’t know what to say to interrupt this next bout of silence.

 Marlene’s smile is pleasantly tense, Dorcas looks mutinous, and Lily and James Potter are looking thoughtful but undecided.

 “Reggie,” Sirius says.

 Harry and Regulus both turn to look at him, still leaning in the doorway. Sirius isn’t exactly glaring anymore, but he’s not smiling either. He looks very grim. Very… serious.

 “You can shout and insult us all you want,” Sirius says. “But it’s not going to do anything to help you. We can’t take your word for it straight off… for any of this… the time travel or your quitting. Your word’s just not good enough on its own, Reggie.”

 Regulus’ expression is painfully unaffected, like he knew that already and is faintly annoyed by having it repeated for the hundredth time. Or, like he just closed himself off entirely.

 Proof, proof, proof! They seem to be doing all right here, the people here are listening to them, but what’s good, solid proof? Harry wracks his mind to come up with more substance for their story. He knows a few more sensitive things about his parents, but what’s proof that he and Regulus definitely, completely, absolutely aren’t working for Voldemort right now?

 What’s proof to someone who isn’t the Potters…?

 “...How about a horcrux?” Harry says.

 “...What about a horcrux?” Lily asks, after a couple seconds.

 “Would a horcrux be proof that I’m at least not working for Vol- You-Know-Who? And neither is Regulus? Would giving you one of the horcruxes prove that?”

 Lily stares at him. So does the rest of the room.

 “You must admit that the Dark Lord would never allow a piece of his soul to be held or threatened by your Order,” Regulus intervenes, having immediately caught on and pushing the point. “He’d never allow that. Not for you and not for me. We would all be killed if he knew we knew about them. If McKinnon can confirm the existence of a horcrux, would you take that as proof of my word?”

 “...I’d take it as a point in your favour,” Marlene says, before Lily can answer. When everyone in the room looks at her, she defends herself with a smile and by saying, “My mother would kill me herself if I passed up the chance to get my hands on a horcux.”

 “I’d call it proof,” James agrees.

 “I’d call it a trap,” Dorcas Meadowes says flatly.

 “Ravenclaw’s lost diadem is at Hogwarts in the Room of Hidden Things,” Harry says. He told them this before as potential proof, but it’s more relevant now. “The Hogwarts house elves can show you where the room is: they call it the Come and Go Room. They use it all the time.”

 Hogwarts wasn’t exactly at its best when Harry went after the diadem, but since there isn’t massive battle going on, the diadem is by leagues the easiest and safest horcrux to get their hands on. Besides the locket, of course, which… Regulus isn’t volunteering.

 Harry thinks that Regulus said something about holding the locket in reserve unless absolutely necessary, which Harry doesn’t totally understand, but Regulus is the only one who can summon Kreacher and hasn’t done so yet. It’s probably best that Regulus doesn’t immediately summon Kreacher, because that would probably be an enormous mess.

 “Ravenclaw’s… lost… diadem,” Marlene repeats carefully, her smile frozen on her face. “Ravenclaw’s lost diadem, which has been lost for a thousand years, is at Hogwarts and it’s a horcrux?”

 “Yes,” Regulus says shortly, his tone drowning in unhelpfulness.

 “How?!”

 “The Grey Lady,” Harry answers. “She’s Helena Ravenclaw, Rowena’s daughter. She was envious of her mother and stole it, then she ran away to Albania. Her mom sent the Bloody Baron after her, but, um, he was in love with her? And she didn’t want to go back. So she hid the diadem and the Bloody Baron killed her, then he killed himself out of remorse or something? And the diadem just sort of stayed there until Tom Riddle talked the story out of the Grey Lady.”

 Harry looks around the kitchen at the various faces of disbelief. It’s all he can do right now to hold back memories of the Grey Lady and the Battle of Hogwarts and the Room of Hidden Things. Not to fall right into them.

 “You can ask her yourself if you like,” he says defensively. “She doesn’t like the questions much… or people, I think… but she cares about Hogwarts and she definitely wants Tom dead.”

 It takes a few more beats of silence before Marlene finally says, “Who’s Tom?”

 Harry meets her stare with a disbelieving one of his own. He can’t remember whether this was said already or not, and it really feels like someone ought to tell people the story of Tom Riddle instead of leeting him use his stupid anagram.

 “V- You-Know-Who,” Harry says. “That’s his name. Tom Marvolo Riddle… Junior.”

 “...Junior,” James repeats.

 Harry looks at him. “Yeah.”

 “There’s a You-Know-Who Senior?”

 “Uh, no. Tom Riddle Sr. is dead, You-Know-Who killed him ages ago,” Harry says. Dear Merlin, that’s a horrifying thought: Voldemort Senior and Junior. “And he was a Muggle.”

 “You-Know-Who’s father was a-” James stares, incredulous.

 “Yeah, and his mother was basically a Squib.”

 “What?” Regulus says.

 Harry turns to his companion beside him, who is somehow managing to look more disbelieving and shocked than everyone else in the room combined. Even though James’ jaw is hanging open, Lily’s eyes look like they’re about to bulge out of her face, and Dorcas Meadowes just broke a cup.

 “Did I not mention that?”

 “No,” Regulus says, very strongly. So strongly, in fact, that this singular word is so full of opinion that it probably has sentience just to have opinions of its own.

 “Oh, well, they were. Tom Riddle Sr. and Merope Gaunt.”

 Regulus stares at him for a very long, very awkward moment, before he whirls on his brother.

 “Is this sort of thing not proof enough for you?” Regulus demands. “Because he’s been doing this ever since I met him and I’m not sure that the Dark Lord can kill me enough for knowing this sort of thing.”

 “He’ll definitely try,” Harry mutters, a little offended and not entirely sure why. “He killed all his living family, more or less. He even framed his uncle for the murder of his father.”

 “Constantly,” Regulus complains to Siirus.

 Sirius just stares back at him, looking between like brother and Harry, looking like he’s having difficulty remembering what words are. He looks a bit like he’d like to go and try his luck with the hallway again, but Regulus is looking at him very unhappily and very expectantly.

 “That’s… troubling,” Sirius says finally.

 Regulus nods, posture finally slackening as he leans back in his seat, so very relieved that his brother agrees with him that Harry is definitely offended, even if he still doesn’t know why.

 “Isn’t it?” Regulus says.

 Surprisingly, someone pipes up to agree with him willingly.

 “Very,” Marlene McKinnon says, flicking her wand at the broken cup on the floor. It comes together with sure clicks and settle wholly in the strainer with the crystal ball. “I have never in my life felt so fantastically outdone,” she complains. “How very dare you, Harry Potter.” 

 

Chapter Text

“You can’t just break into Hogwarts,” Dorcas says, scowling again, but this time at Marlene.

 “Why not? Who said we even had to break in? Why can’t we just Floo ol’ McGonagall or Beery and tell them I’m looking for a family artefact in this ‘Come and Go Room’?”

 “You’re not going hunting for these horcrux things on your own.”

 Marlene McKinnon rolls her eyes, apparently not at all concerned for her personal safety here. She and Dorcas Meadowes are sitting on a sofa together, one of two in the massive, extremely messy living room where Marlene moved the conversation.

 “So you come with,” Marlene says. “You could probably just waltz into Hogwarts anytime.”

 Dorcas crosses her arms. “I don’t count.”

 Marlene’s pleasant smile is looking very tight. “I’ll take Black, then. The first one, not the baby.”

 “He doesn’t count either.”

 Sirius is sitting in the armchair to Marlene’s left, stirring sugar lumps into his tea. He looks bored rather than offended. It’s only the tension in his shoulders and the wand on his thigh that reveal he’s actually paying attention, most likely to his brother to his left, who is sitting with stiff, perfect posture on the second sofa with Harry.

 “We could break in, though, if we had to,” James says, from his armchair to Dorcas’ right, across from Sirius. “It’s not that hard.”

 “They probably have your secret passageways marked, dear,” Lily says, from her perch on James’ armrest. She’s directly to Harry’s left and the striking red hair in his peripheral isn’t helping Harry’s head. “Do you really think the Headmaster doesn’t know about them?”

 “Well… no,” James admits. “But…”

 “He might leave them open anyway,” Sirius says. “To Order members, at the least.”

 “Exactly!”

 Lily looks down at her husband’s triumphant face like she very much wants to argue that point. Dorcas looks similarly. But neither of them seems to have the words to argue that the Hogwarts Headmaster wouldn’t do something like that.

 “I still don’t see why we can’t walk through the front door,” Marlene says. “Dorcas could wander in just fine. I could probably go do the same thing right now.”

 “You’re blind as a bat, that’s why not,” Dorcas snaps.

 Marlene raises her eyebrows and then says in an almost offended sort of voice, “Bats aren’t blind.”

 “Reggie and his friend want to leave the Headmaster out of this, for some reason,” Sirius says, taking a sip of tea and giving the two of them a sidelong look. “Reggie doesn’t want to even tell him what’s happening at all. It was one of his ‘conditions’.”

 “And we’re listening to that?” Dorcas demands.

 Regulus, already stiff like a statue, glares at her, and all Harry can do is sip his cooling cup of tea and try not to lose himself in feelings of guilt and shame and fear. To lose himself in that rush of unwanted memories. He wants to speak up, to explain, but at the same time, he doesn’t even know if he has the words to describe why seeing Dumbledore might finally make him break into a million pieces. He just… can’t.

 “Yes, because it’s not negotiable,” Regulus says loftily. “I’ll work with you, but not with him and not for him. I don’t trust the man. I don’t trust him to have my or Harry’s best interests in mind.”

 “I don’t care what you think,” Dorcas says flatly.

 Regulus makes his strangled noise.

 “Dory,” Lily says.

 “...What?”

 “You don’t even like the Headmaster,” Lily points out, chidingly.

 “Mmm,” Marlene says agreeably. “Yes, don’t you kind of hate him? I know you hate pretty much everyone, of course, but I remember a very special sort of-”

 Dorcas scowls. “Shut up.”

 Marlene takes a deep breath, still smiling pleasantly, and says very seriously, “No.”

 Harry comes back into the conversation, pulling himself back out of dangerous memories, to look curiously at Dorcas Meadowes. She’s clearly no Death Eater and he doubts she’s a purist, so what reason does she have to hate Albus Dumbledore? He doubts it’s anything like the reasons he could use to back hatred, if he decided to lean that way, but he wonders.

 “We’re not telling Professor Dumbledore anything… yet,” James says firmly. “He’s a busy man and, working by the assumption that this isn’t some elaborate setup or dream, then we’re going to have to compromise on some of this stuff.”

 “And the less people who know Reggie’s defected, the better,” Sirius adds.

 “Stop calling me Reggie.”

 “No,” Sirius says easily, and continues, “The less people who know Reggie’s alive, the better.”

 “Do you think Dumbledore can’t keep a secret?” Marlene asks, with a mocking edge to her voice. “With all those long years behind him, he must have more than a few.”

 “I think the Order’s already feeling the pressure of our limited spies,” Sirius says mildly.

 Regulus immediately takes in a sharp breath, but it takes Harry a few seconds longer. Spies? If this is before Trelawney’s prophecy, that means… the Order doesn’t have Snape playing double agent yet. There’s been no eavesdropping. No bargaining. No promises.

 No meeting on a hilltop, forlorn and cold in the darkness, the wind whistling through the branches of a few leafless trees. He had been panting, turning on the spot, his wand gripped tightly in hand, waiting for something or someone… His fear infected Harry too, even through he knew that he could not be harmed, and he looked over his shoulder, wondering what it was that Snape was waiting for-

 (“Don’t kill me!”

 “That was not my intention.”)

 “I thought you told them you weren’t going to do that,” Lily says, interrupting Harry’s memories, frowning fiercely towards Sirius. Beside her, James looks furious beyond words. “Are they still asking? You told us they stopped.”

 Sirius takes a swig of tea like it’s hard liquor and says, “They did. Mostly.”

 “Sirius,” James says, scowling.

 “James,” Sirius mimics, before he sighs and then shrugs with unfair grace. “Well, if Remus gave in, then I’m eventually going to stop telling them to go fuck themselves, right?”

 James Potter looks… like he wants to murder someone, or rather like he wants to and he’s rather determined to have a go at it. Harry has to wonder if that’s what he looks like when he’s really angry, because if he looked anything like that, it’s no wonder that people can think he’s a little scary when he’s mad.

 It’s strange, being on the other end of another version of his face.

 “I’m going to have a word with-”

 “I can handle myself, thanks, Mum,” Sirius drawls, then scowls back. “I’m not exactly going to run out of ‘fuck, no’s, James. I’ve an unlimited supply.”

 James doesn’t look convinced. “That’s not the point-!”

 “It kind of is,” Marlene interjects casually. “After all, if they can’t get the first Black to go with it, then a turncoat, pre-made Death Eater, baby Black… maybe that’s the better and easier option. One that excuses us from anything like a guilty conscience if it goes badly, even.”

 Regulus’ breathing stops, for a moment, and Harry doesn’t doubt that he’d be able to feel Regulus’ frigid tension and racing heart if they were still touching. This isn’t good. Harry reaches out to take Regulus’ hand again, to ground them both, and he’s both a little surprised and not when Regulus seizes his hand like it’s a lifeline.

 “You don’t think they’d give him the same right of refusal,” Lily says, forthright. The frankness with which she says it is nearly as terrible as the next words, “You think they’d want him to give them something more in return.”

 Harry has made the mistake of looking at her, so when she glances at him, their eyes meet. The green eyes find the green, and everything else seems to vanish, leaving them the only people in the world. And then Lily looks away, easily, with all the suddenness of a hand suddenly thudding to the floor.

 (“And what will you give me in return, Severus?”

 “In- in return? ...Anything.”)

 Harry blinks quickly, he shakes his head lightly, and he tries to focus on how Sirius gives Lily a wan smile. She doesn’t return it, her hand on her husband shoulder because James Potter still looks angry and a bit ill. On the other couch, Dorcas Meadowes is looking carefully at Sirius and Marlene McKinnon is staring consideringly at Harry.

 When their eyes meet, she smiles pleasantly, but Harry thinks it looks slightly empty. 

 With one memory pushed away, another half dozen seem to rush forward to take its place.. Same people, different places, secrets scattered like the pieces of a puzzle, but all belonging to one, terrible tale.

 (“My word, Severus, that I shall never reveal the best of you?”)

 “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” Sirius says loftily, raising his teacup in a mock toast, before he sighs disgustedly. “It’ll only get worse, after…” He trails off, looking towards Regulus suspiciously. 

 (“I prefer not to put all my secrets in one basket, particularly not in a basket that spends so much time dangling on the arm of Lord Voldemort.”)

 Regulus’ grip on Harry’s hand is strangling.

 “Some of us don’t have the luxury of a Light family’s good reputation to protect us from being put to use,” Sirius says. Not bitterly, oddly enough, but in a matter-of-fact sort of manner. Like he was commenting indifferently on the weather.

 (“How many men and women have you watched die?”

 “Lately, only those whom I could not save.”)

 “Sirius,” James says again, looking pained.

 “It’s not… It’s just the price of being the Blacks’ black sheep.”

 (“You have used me.”)

 “...How long has this been going on? Really?”

 Sirius sighs. “Nothing’s been going on. I’m just making a point.”

 “And doing it poorly,” Lily says.

 (“Meaning?”)

 Sirius rolls his eyes at her, fond. “My family and I mutually disowned each other when I was sixteen, after years of fighting, and they still manage to make me untrustworthy. Blood will tell and all that? Not so much only a belief of the ‘other side’ in all this.”

 “Well, you don’t have to tell me that,” Lily says, brows raised.

 “You’re not your family, Sirius,” James says.

 “Yeah, I know that and you know that, but it’s a bad reputation for good reason,” Sirius says, and makes a dismissive gesture towards his younger brother. “Reggie won’t stand a chance.”

 (“I have spied for you and lied for you, put myself in mortal danger for you.”)

 “The less people who know he’s alive, the better,” Sirius repeats.

 (“Everything was supposed to be to keep Lily Potter’s son safe. Now you tell me-”)

 Regulus breathes in and says, strained, “I can handle myself.”

 Sirius snorts again. “No, you can’t.”

 (“-you have been raising him like a pig for slaughter-!”)

 “Should we really be having this conversation in front of him?” Dorcas demands.

 (“...But this is touching, Severus.”)

 “Why not?” Sirius says, with another graceful shrug. “Whether he’s lying or not-”

 “I’m not lying.”

 “-we can’t jolly well send him skipping back.”

 (“Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?”)

 “I can handle myself,” Regulus repeats, a little more forcefully.

 Sirius turns on his younger brother, eyebrows raised, and says, “Do you want to?”

 “...I could.”

 “Sure,” Sirius says, then looks back at everyone else. “Look, it’s just not happening. They can argue ‘greater good’s until they’re blue in the face, but I’m not tossing Reggie back to our loving family. It’ll end terribly. He’s soft as butter, look at him, he’ll spill everything… or they’ll kill him.”

 Regulus flinches, but stays silent.

 (“For him?! Expecto Patronum!”)

 “So…” Lily says. “You’re really against bringing the Headmaster into this too.”

 “Yeah… turns out,” Sirius agrees. “If it works out, he’s doesn’t ever need to know, does he?”

 “...That sounds like an argument from school.”

 “Harry.”

 (“...After all this time?”)

 “Harry.”

 (“...Always.”)

 Something pokes Harry in the side hard and his head snaps up. “What?”

 “Harry,” Marlene McKinnon says for the third time. “Are you all right, there?”

 Harry takes a moment to blink the silvery glow out of his eyes and then to look around the room, realizing that everyone is looking at him again and that Regulus just poked him in the side. He’d been paying attention to the conversation, he swears, but…

 At the same time… he can’t quite blink the image of tears behind half-moon glasses out of his eyes. His eyes feel like they’re burning a little.

 “Yeah,” he says, reaching up with his free hand to rub at his eyes. “Fine.”

 “Where’s ‘fine’ on a scale of most people’s one to ten?” Marlene asks, putting her elbow on an armrest and her chin in her hand. “Most people being those who haven’t had actual death and impossible time travel experiences.”

 “Fine,” Harry repeats, more tired than frustrated. He’s exhausted, actually, it’s been a long day. “If we’re going to get the diadem now, can we just go?”

 “Well, that’s what I’ve been saying, but-”

 “No,” Dorcas says.

 “-that keeps happening,” Marlene finishes.

 Harry finds himself sighing and he looks to Regulus. “How about that locket then?”

 “Locket?” Marlene repeats eagerly.

 Regulus frowns and doesn’t meet Harry’s eyes. “I don’t think now is the right time for the locket,” he says firmly, and Harry only barely resists the urge to groan loudly.

 Regulus will have to give the locket up and stop holding it as “leverage” eventually, or actually get rid of it eventually. Handing the Potters and Sirius a horcrux now would work just fine, Harry thinks, and refusing to do it isn’t making Regulus less shifty. Although, admittedly, calling Kreacher here now would probably go as well as that time Harry called Kreacher to Privet Drive in front of the Dursleys, if not worse.

 “A locket belonging to Salazar Slytherin is one of the horcruxes,” Harry explains to the rest of them, instead of pressing Regulus. The guy is going to be pretending to be dead, after all.

 “Where is it?” Marlene asks.

 “A cave filled with hundreds of inferi.”

 There’s a moment of silence, before James gives a low whistle.

 “You’re not lying about that, are you?” he says, looking exasperated with this whole situation.

 Harry shrugs. “Haven’t yet.”

 Except he just has, at least about the locket, and has probably lied a bit already - there’s no counting all the lies he’s telling by omission. He’s basically a bunch of lies in robes at this point, actually, except for how he’s not wearing robes. More lie than person. There’s very little about him that feels real anymore.

 “Okay, I’m taking Harry to Hogwarts to get this horcrux,” Lily says. “If we’re doing this, let’s get on with it already.”

 “Alright,” James agrees, before he says, “Wait, what?”

 “You can come with,” Lily allows generously. “Everyone else can stay here.”

 “Oh, come on, Lils!” Marlene says, throwing up her hands.

 “No!” Regulus snaps.

 “A whole room of secret things, Lils, you’ll want a McKinnon for that if I’ve-”

 “Not if I want to get out of there before dying of old age. You can have the horcrux once we’ve got it,” Lily says to Marlene. Then, to Regulus, she says, “And yes. You’re not coming to Hogwarts just yet, we’re not going to go anywhere near the Headmaster or tell him anything, and we’re all coming straight back here afterwards, all right?”

 “Not all right. I’m not letting you take-”

 “Reggie,” Sirius interrupts bemusedly. “You were going to have to let go of his hand eventually.”

 Harry can feel heat burning up his neck and over his skin, but it’s Regulus who lets go of Harry’s hand as though it’s actually on fire. Regulus folds his hands in his lap and sits in a posture so stuff and proper that it looks physically painful to hold. He glares at Sirius, while Harry looks helplessly towards James and Lily, who mostly just look awkward.

 Marlene’s pleasant smile had taken an edge again, while Dorcas still looks unimpressed.

 “It’s fine,” Harry says to Regulus, pulling himself to his feet. “This sounds good.”

 Regulus gives him a look that could be interpreted a lot of different ways. This isn’t good at all, what are you, an idiot, is definitely one of them. Don’t you dare leave me alone with my brother, I might try to murder him if he talks again, is another. Frustrated indignance, maybe?

 Harry would rather just get this over with.

 “...Fine,” Regulus says, settling back into his seat.

 “Alright, then, if that’s done,” Lily says, and puts her teacup on top of a stack of board games that’s balanced precariously on a hamper. A flick of her wand banishes the cup and saucer back towards the kitchen, and another does the same with James and Harry’s tea. “Let’s go.”

 Finally. Harry is grateful to be doing something again, even if he’s tired and about to be alone with two people he can barely talk to. Anything’s better than this endless roundabout. He doesn’t waste any time in following Lily towards the disastrous hallway, leaving James to hurriedly stand and snatch up the Invisibility Cloak to follow.

 “We’ll be back soon,” James promises the room behind.

 “I’ll wait with baited breath,” Sirius says boredly. “Please hurry.”

 “Bye,” Harry calls back, to be polite.

 Regulus just nods stiffly at him, Sirius does something similar, Dorcas ignores him, but Marlene smiles widely and wriggles her free fingers in a wave.

 “Don’t let the watering can trip you on the way out,” she says.

 Harry doesn’t know how to answer that, and can’t, struggling through the mess. James can’t either. Making sure they don’t trip and skewer themselves on something is an intensive business, but luckily, Lily is already through and answers for them.

 “Clean your house!” she shouts back. “We’ll be back for dinner!”

 Harry and James manage to stumble out of the mess, out of the house, and out onto the front path, and Lily slams the front door shut behind them. There’s the clunk of the doorknob and click of the lock, and they’re all left on the doorstep again. Outside, alone, with no company except the plants and the path.

 They start walking down the path, towards the gate and the road.

 “What’ll we do if they all kill each other?” James says.

 “They won’t do that,” Lily replies. “Slightly maimed with slaughtered egos, at worst.”

 “That’s not reassuring.”

 “Marl will supervise.”

 “That’s really not reassuring,” James says.

 “I dunno,” Harry says without thinking. “I kinda like her.”

 She’s sort of unnerving, of course, and he doesn’t really know much about her. However, Marlene McKinnon is kind of funny and she’s got a sharp and quick way about her words even without that. She’s pretty straightforward too. She kind of reminds him of Ginny.

 James and Lily both turn to look at him, as he’s walking slightly behind them. James is taller than him and Lily is shorter, so he can’t really meet both their eyes at once, but it doesn’t matter because they quickly exchange a look. James looks sort of aghast, but Lily looks smug.

 “Hah,” Lily says, as she opens the gate in the hedge.

 “And what exactly does that prove?” James demands.

 “Everything.”

 “That’s not an argument.”

 “Is too.”

 “Is not.”

 Harry debates pinching his arm, to make sure this is really happening. “Uh… are we going or not?”

 “You have terrible taste in witches,” James says, with dramatic pronunciation. Then he looks back at his wife. “Wait in the alley behind Honeydukes.”

 Harry blinks at him. What?

 “Sore loser,” Lily says teasingly, taking Harry’s arm in hers. “See you in Hogsmeade.”

 Whatever argument James is about to make is cut off by a sudden twist.

 As the world yanks away, Harry wonders if Regulus’ world is spinning too.

 

Chapter Text

 The last time that Harry was in Hogsmeade was… last night, actually. He and Regulus popped by the Shrieking Shack while confusing their Apparition trail and walked into town before Apparating away again.

 And yet… some part of Harry still thinks back to about five days ago, to Caterwauling Charms and dementors and Death Eaters enforcing curfews, right before the fighting started at Hogwarts.

 It’s a little strange to see the village in daylight again. He keeps expecting the worst and it’s strange to be proven wrong again and again - to see so many places whole. Harry looks up, towards the castle on the horizon, and can barely believe his eyes at the sight of Hogwarts castle sitting whole. It’s essentially untouched by war and flame and death.

 It’s breaking his heart. Quietly. Just a bit.

 Lily and Harry appear not on the outskirts of the village, but directly behind Honeydukes. Once they appear, Lily wastes no time in pushing him closer to the wall, behind the safety of the bins. Hogwarts disappears behind rooftops and chimneys, and Harry tries not to think about… anything, more or less.

 Especially not about how he was here not even a week ago and now he’s here again. Only now he’s in the past, with his not-mother, trying to do the exact same thing.

 “D’you mind if I Disillusion you?” Lily says.

 “Not at all,” Harry answers, and winces at the tap on his head. It’s still like having an egg broken over his head and letting it drip all over his skin. He minds the feeling a little, but he understands the reasoning.

 Lily quickly Disillusions herself as well, and they wait.

 “So, Harry,” she says, after a minute, when nobody’s come by. Even the main street of the village sounds fairly quiet. “What’s your favourite school subject?”

 “Defence Against the Dark Arts,” Harry says. “Yours?”

 “Charms, definitely, but I’ve always liked Potions too. Why Defence?”

 “It’s… interesting,” Harry settles on, after a moment of thought. “And really useful. It was my best subject… whenever we had a competent teacher.”

 “Ugh, that was still happening?”

 “Yeah.”

 “Any actually interesting teachers over the years?”

 “...Yeah,” Harry settles on, after a pause. “They were all pretty interesting.”

 “That’s nice.”

 “Uh, not so much, actually.”

 “Oh,” Lily says. “That sort of interesting. Eccentric?”

 Harry doesn’t know where to begin. “Sure.”

 There’s another pause, made difficult to understand by Harry’s inability to see Lily’s face. Harry would elaborate, but he doesn’t know how to explain that every single one of their Defence teachers nearly killed him at least once, and that four of them even actively intended to do it. It wasn’t all bad, really, but it definitely sounds bad when he tries to find the words for it.

 “One of them was secretly a Death Eater,” Harry tries to explain, but… wait, that’s not right. “Actually, two of them were secretly Death Eaters, but only one of them was actually working for Volde- You-Know-Who.”

 And that’s not even counting the Carrows, which Harry doesn’t, and whatever Quirrell was.

 Lily is quiet for several seconds, before she says, “I have to be frank with you, Harry. I want to believe you most of the time, except when you say things like that. I don’t disbelieve you, it’s just that… and I can’t believe I’m saying this, given the inherent ridiculousness that magic gives anyone’s life… you seem to have had the strangest life of anyone I’ve ever met.”

 “That’s all right,” Harry says. “I’ve had the strangest life of anyone I’ve ever met too.”

 “...That’s… How old are you again?”

 “Seventeen. I was supposed to be eighteen in three months.”

 Lily sighs, a shimmer against the brick wall they’re standing against. “You’re about two years younger than me, then,” she says, in an amused sort of voice that Harry finds more infectious than disheartening. “I’m far too young to have a teenage son.”

 “I’m far too old to have a teenage mother,” Harry replies.

 “Hah.”

 “...I’m glad to have met you, though, no matter how strange this is,” Harry tells her.

 There’s another pause, a last one, before Lily says, “I think I’m glad to have met you too.”

 Harry can feel something light and bubbly under his heart, against his lungs, like he swallowed a Cheering Charm. He knows that he doesn’t really know this girl, who’s nearly a complete stranger to him as he is to her. Those few, off-hand words, however, still matter to him - to something deep and desperate in his chest - maybe more than they should.

 Why Charms?” Harry says.

 “What?”

 “You said Charms was your favourite subject.”

 “Oh,” Lily says. “Well… I guess because it’s so… everything at once? It’s practical, of course, and very useful, and when it gets complex, it can get really interesting, you know. Charms opens up into every field and it can do anything… but it can also be simple and silly and… fun.”

 Harry thinks back to Charms class, to Flitwick, and to assignments that involved dancing fruit and floating feathers, loud noises and bright lights, and things that were so brilliantly and undeniably magic. Charms was definitely his favourite subject before third year came along, and it was up there for most of his Hogwarts experience, actually.

 “Yeah,” Harry agrees. “Charms is pretty great. Flitwick’s brilliant.”

 “The best. Almost made me wish I’d been a Ravenclaw.”

 “Eh, I wouldn’t go that far.”

 Lily makes an amused sound. “You were a Gryffindor, weren’t you?”

 “How’d you guess? Was it something I said, or, you know, the general everything?”

 “The general everything, really,” Lily answers. “And a really lucky guess.”

 Harry laughs, lightly. It’s so odd to be standing here behind some bins, making small talk with the girl who might’ve been his mother. He could do without the dribbling yolk feeling of Disillusionment and the November chill, but this is… it’s not bad at all.

 It certainly could be worse.

 “So, what are we waiting for exactly?” Harry asks.

 “Exactly’s a little much to ask,” Lily answers, “but in general: James.”

 And with that perfect introduction, there’s a knock on the back door of Honeydukes Sweet Shop - a knock with a distinct pattern to it, from someone on the inside. Harry tenses, but Lily’s shimmering form steps up and he thinks he sees her raise an arm. Lily knocks back, nearly identical but maybe on tap different, and then she steps back out of the way.

 There’s a click, a squeak, and the back door swings open.

 “Come on,” Lily whispers.

 Disillusionments don’t work all that well in broad daylight and at close range, and that’s probably why Harry can see Lily’s haze in the air disappear through the open door. With this and how well she disguised herself in the graveyard, she really hadn’t been kidding when she said Charms was her favourite subject.

 Harry follows Lily inside and, by an invisible hand, the door closes behind them with another faint squeak and click. They’re standing in a busy kitchen now, only… there’s no people. Several mixing bowls the size of bathtubs are hard at work with their contents, a couple pots are bubbling away on a stove, and other tools and molds are hard at work peeling and chopping and churning out lemon drops in great clattering rows.

 It’s like the Burrow, with the same unsupervised magic and heavenly smells, only it’s ten times as much because it’s a professional kitchen. Harry’s never seen this part of Honeydukes before.

 “Wow,” he says.

 “Don’t lick anything or the spoons’ll scream,” says the disembodied voice of James Potter.

 “...Really,” says Lily’s voice.

 “Hey, I was twelve and I’ve learned my lesson.”

 Lily makes her amused sound. “Where to now?”

 “The cellar,” Harry answers, because there’s no other reason for them to break into Honeydukes. Well, at least, no good reason. “Right?”

 “Lead the way,” James says.

 Harry ducks under a mixer and leads the way towards the storeroom, passing the sounds of customers and sales from the front of the shop, and then down the staircase into the Honeydukes cellar. Lily lights the way with a soundless spell, sending a half-dozen blue wisps ahead that give them just enough light to see by, with the ones at the back quickly swimming ahead of them as they go.

 “I can’t believe there’s a secret passageway out of the castle that leads to Honeydukes,” Lily says, once they’ve reached the bottom. She cancels the charms on herself and Harry, both of them slipping out of thin air around the floor tile that Harry is moving aside. “Of all places! How long has this been here?”

 “Since the 1930s, thereabouts,” James answers, still invisible. “I’ve told you this before.”

 “...It’s still ridiculous. How did you even find it?”

 Harry looks up at the space where his father’s voice is coming from, curious to know the answer to that as well. The Marauder’s Map never failed to awe him, especially as he grew older and realized exactly how much work an enchanted item like that would take, and there are little hints and notes throughout the map that regularly made him wonder how anyone even stumbled across them, much less figured out their tricks.

 Ridiculous is definitely a word for it.

 “We went looking for it,” James answers. “I knew it was there already.”

 “Yes, but how?”

 “Ladies first,” James says instead, gesturing towards the passage Harry’s undercovered.

 Lily frowns at him, then rolls her eyes, and clambers down into the floor. “There aren’t any ladies here and you know it,” she mutters as she disappears through the passageway, guided by her blue wisps, which seem to flicker anxiously around the entrance when her vibrant red hair disappears entirely from view.

 This leaves Harry standing awkwardly by the entrance with an invisible man. He assumes that his father - who isn’t really his father, he must realize time and time again - is wearing the Invisibility Cloak again. Harry is starting to realize why exactly Ron and Hermione didn’t like interacting with him while he was wearing the cloak, because he has no idea where he should be looking or whether trying to go down the tunnel will result in heads knocking together.

 Thankfully, James says, “After you.”

 Harry nods and slips down into the passageway, like he has a dozen times before, jumping the last few rungs of the ladder and landing softly next to Lily. He moves aside to stand next to her, as she calls up to her husband.

 “Waiting on you, dear.”

 There’s footsteps and a thump, and the floor tile closes over the entrance again. The only company are Lily’s lights. The way ahead is dusty but not filthy, about two people wide, and stretches out far ahead of them.

 “Take off the cloak,” Lily says, at the exact same time that James does just that.

 “Yes, love,” James says, grinning, as he throws the cloak over his arm again. Then he sets off down the passageway without further ado, leading Harry and Lily while the lights lead him. “This way, everyone.”

 After a few seconds, Harry dares ask, “So, how did you know about this passageway?”

 “My parents knew Mr. and Mrs. Flume,” James answers. “Mum and Mrs. Flume were good friends, and they told me… In hindsight, they probably meant emergencies only, but, you know, I was eleven.”

 “Mr. and Mrs. Flume being… the shop owners?” Lily asks.

 “That’s them.”

 “They know about this passageway?” Harry demands.

 “Well, of course,” James says, as though that’s not horrifyingly new information that Harry never even thought about. “They’re the ones that helped to built it back during the war. Dad said that people would do anything to get away when Grindelwald came knocking. Between all the Muggle fighting and Grindelwald’s movement, the Flumes probably thought it was a good idea to have another potential evacuation route in case the war ever came to the castle.”

 That makes Harry’s breath catch in his throat.

 “So this is an official secret passageway,” Lily says.

 “Sort of, but I’m pretty sure almost only the Headmaster and the Flumes know about it. I, uh, was kinda eavesdropping on my mum and I’m pretty sure that’s the only reason they told me. After Grindelwald was defeated, evacuation routes and other wartime measures meant less. Even now, my guess is that Professor Dumbledore is keeping this passageway up his sleeve for some day when the school really needs it.”

 Harry focuses on the now, on being entirely present in this moment. His feet ache, there’s a knot of stress behind his spine, and his shoes scuff against the floor as he walks forward. He doesn’t need to think about Hogwarts under attack.

 “Alright, so what are we going to do if your guess is wrong and going down this passageway sets off some sort of alarm?” Lily asks. It could have been a no-nonsense demand, but Lily looks more amused than anything else. “Besides throwing your cloak over Harry and pretending that we were sneaking back to snog in a broom closet for the sake of missed opportunities?”

 James laughs, then admits, “That’s pretty good, actually. I was coming up with nothing.” He looks over his shoulder with a grin and asks, “Harry? You got anything?”

 “Yeah, I really didn’t need to hear that.”

 James laughs even louder and Lily makes her amused noise yet.

 And yet, despite the realness of this moment, Harry feels several other moments pass him by. He was here, not long ago, in another passageway with different people, off to do the same thing, only with war looming behind them and battle snapping at their heels.

 Harry doesn’t lose himself again, his nails are pressing into his palm, and yet… and yet… he can still hear the hurried scrap of benches and the stampede of evacuation. He can hear the stomp and crackle and screams of the fight. He remembers the clouds of dust, the flash of curses, and the rumble of breaking stone and giant roars. As whole as Hogwarts looked, as much as everything has changed, some part of him can’t forget the shadow and rage of Voldemort always only a step or two behind him.

 Some part of him expects to step into the castle and to never have left.

 The emptiness in the back of his head unnerves him and relieves him in equal measure, a balance made of missing pressure that’s barely keeping him afloat. If he thinks on it too long, he’s afraid that these thoughts will stir that secret out of the back of his head. Then everything will have been for nothing after all, so… he ignores it.

 Thoughts of Ron and Hermione rise as well, but he ignores those too.

 “I’m not coming up with any alarms,” James says, waving his wand as they walk. “There might be some over the entrance on the school’s end, if anywhere, but there’s none here. If we can’t disarm the alarms, we’ll try the other passageways. If that doesn’t work… I have no idea.”

 “We improvise,” Lily says. “Okay.”

 Harry thinks about it for a moment, then says, “If you can slip onto school grounds in Animagus form and make it up to the Room of Requirement, the room can make new secret passageways.” He doesn’t know how exactly Neville did it - he’s not even sure that Neville knew how - but desperation seems to do the trick with that room.

 “Really?” Lily says - maybe disbelieving, maybe horrified.

 “I dunno how, since I didn’t do it, but a friend of mine really needed an out of the school and the room gave him a secret passageway to the Hog’s Head,” Harry supplies.

 He hopes that the Room of Requirement can do more places than the Hog’s Head, if necessary, because he doesn’t much fancy getting caught by Aberforth Dumbledore. The man hadn’t seemed at all bad, but… Harry can’t handle that right now.

 “You used that passageway?” James asks, squinting at him a little.

 “Yeah,” Harry says, considering whether he should mention that he was also breaking into Hogwarts at the time. He decides that maybe he should quit while he’s ahead with dropping surprising information, at least for right now. “Straight from the pub to the school.”

 “...I can’t believe we never found this room,” James says. He sounds a little heartbroken. “How did we even miss it? We scoured the school. We could have done twice as much with a room like that.”

 “Twice nothing is still nothing,” Lily says.

 Harry snorts, while James makes a dismayed aww sound and protests, “Hey, we did a lot in school!”

 “You did,” Lily admits. “I wasn’t paying attention.”

 James gasps dramatically and mimes a blow to the heart. He makes such a mournful, wounded noise that Harry can’t manage to repress a laugh. By the pursing of Lily’s lips, she’s repressing her own enormous grin.

 They continue along and, before Harry can really understand it or pull himself out of his own muddlesome thoughts, they reach the end of the passageway. Harry’s heartbeat stutters, looking at the door that’s part of the One-Eyed Witch statue.

 Hogwarts is on the other side.

 “I’m not seeing any alarms,” James says, after a handful of spells.

 “Neither am I,” Lily agrees, lowering her wand.

 “So, this seems to be working. That’s amazing. How are we doing this?”

 Lily thinks it over, then says, “Your cloak over Harry. Disillusionment Charms for us. Your cloak is more impenetrable than any charms and he’s the one who really can’t be seen.”

 “And if anyone catches us,” James continues, “we’re here for a nostalgic snog. Sorry, Harry.”

 “‘S’alright,” Harry says.

 “Seventh floor, was it? In case we get separated.”

 “Opposite the tapestry of Barnabus the Barmy teaching trolls ballet, yeah.”

 James nods and pulls the shimmering Invisibility Cloak from his arm, where it whispers to the floor as he holds it out in one hand. “That’s definitely barmy. Here. Don’t lose it. No eating, no drinking, and please keep all arms and legs inside the cloak at all times.”

 Harry tries to give his father a reassuring smile. “I know how it works.”

 “I still reserve the right to give you the same rundown my father gave me.”

 “That’s a pretty poor rundown,” Lily says.

 Harry has to swallow his heart and restart his breathing, because he sort of breaks for a moment. Neither James nor Lily seems to notice, thankfully.

 “I’m kind of making it up,” James admits. “I can’t remember all of what Dad said, honestly. I was too excited and Dad talked a lot. But basically he just said, ‘Don’t lose it. Have fun.’”

 I did, Harry doesn’t say.

 “Thanks,” he says instead, a little hoarsely.

 “If I come up with something better, we’ll have to do this again properly at some point,” James goes on, as Harry swings on the cloak with the ease of practice. “I mean, third time’s the charm, right? Lily, that’s the saying, right?”

 “That’s the one,” Lily agrees, reaching up with her wand to tap him on the had. “Hold still, Jim, dear.”

 “Thanks, love.”

 James Potter melts into the pattern of the walls and Lily Potter quickly follows. The wisps of light that have been guiding them flicker out and Harry loses sight of his parents entirely. He almost panics, or at least feels like he’s beginning to panic, between the thunder of his heart and the shortness of his breath. Oh, his poor, tired heart.

 This feels like some sort of dream. It’s been like something out of a dream. Something so real that even the Mirror of Erised couldn’t have managed to bring it to life. The momentary pitch black and losing sight of them reminds Harry that… well, of too much. Most of it terrible. 

 (The castle was empty. He felt ghostly striding through it alone, as if he had already died.)

 He’s going back to Hogwarts, his home, a battlefield last he saw it, with his parents at his side.

 The Invisibility Cloak, an old and precious thing, has been given to him by his father’s own hand. His face is burning, his chest hurts, and his eyes are watering threatening, but the cloak settles around him like an old and protective friend. The smooth fabric is a familiar comfort and everything outside could break him if he let it.

 He remembers the last time he went somewhere wearing his cloak, with his parents at his side. It wasn’t all that long ago and he doubts that he’ll ever manage to forget.

 (“I thought he would come.”)

 “All right, all good?” says Lily’s voice through the darkness.

 (“I expected him to come.”)

 “Yes, all good, love,” James answers. “Harry?”

 (“I was, it seems… mistaken.”)

 “Yeah,” Harry says.

 (“You weren’t.”)

 He says it perhaps a little too loudly, with all the force he can muster, as though he’ll be all good if he says it strongly enough. He doesn’t want to sound afraid. He can almost feel a smooth stone, slipping out from his fingers, onto the forest floor.

 Harry takes a deep breath and clings to the cloak.

 “Great,” James says, “then let’s get going.”

Chapter Text

The front door clicks shut and Regulus is made acutely aware that he hasn’t had a civil conversation with his brother in years. Their last interaction was either frosty dismissals or a screaming row, one or the other. Unless, of course, Regulus is mistaken and it was actually the both of them pointedly pretending that the other didn’t even exist.

 He can’t, for the life of him, now that he’s sitting across from his elder brother, remember why he thought this was a good idea. Any of this.

 Except he can, actually, remember why he thought this was a good idea. Much to his horror, he still thinks this is a good idea. The problem, it seems, is that goodness is a term that arises in opposition to options that aren’t so much bad as they are incredibly awful. Next to many of Regulus’ other options, nearly anything would look like a good idea by comparison.

 But how does he proceed with the course of action he’s chosen?

 Where does Regulus even begin to explain himself? Why should he even have to explain himself? How can he demand that Sirius explain himself in turn? How can he and Sirius again? Did they ever really properly end in the first place?

 ...And do they really have to do this with McKinnon and Meadowes here?

 McKinnon is still staring, rudely, as she’s been doing ever since she first laid eyes on Regulus and Harry. Regulus is forced to wonder if McKinnons are ever taught that staring is rude. He’s going to go out on a limb here and guess no.

 And Meadowes… Dorcas Meadowes is another matter entirely.

 If Regulus was in the habit of embarrassing himself, he would be forced to admit that he has no earthly idea who in the world Dorcas Meadowes is. He’s never seen this girl before in his life. Not once! He’s never even heard her name or her family name before. And yet here she is: glaring at him like he’s the personification of the mud crusted onto her boots. It’s all Regulus can do not to demand that this complete unknown either explain herself or go away.

 The most embarrassing part about this is that Dorcas Meadowes looks around their age, is acquainted with both McKinnon and Lily Evans, and seems to know him. She’s obviously a respectable herbologist, if the impressive garden outside is anything to go by, and she hasn’t sounded like a foreigner while insulting him. If Dorcas Meadowes attended Hogwarts during his time there, Regulus would at least have some reference for her face, but he doesn’t.

 Regulus glares at the tea he was served, untouched and cold on the side table, and weighs his options for obtaining answers. Again, the definition of “a good idea” has been skewed.

 Meadowes herself looks like she’d rather hex him than tell him anything, much less anything about herself. Getting anything except mockery and misinformation out of Sirius is like regrowing bones on a good day. Last but not least, McKinnon seems like she might be an unnerving combination of both. Regulus doesn’t like his chances with any of them.

 The Potters need to come back so he can use them as shielding and as a source of information again, instead of sitting here unhappily without a decent icebreaker for a terrible conversation he doesn’t actually want to have. It will happen, he knows, so he’d prefer to control it.

 “If you wouldn’t mind, could I see your Dark Mark?”

 Regulus’ head snaps towards McKinnon, whose pleasant expression couldn’t have been interpreted as ashamed by the blind. Sirius and Meadowes are also looking towards McKinnon, with all the surprise and disbelief that Regulus refuses to let show.

 “I’ve always wanted to get my hands on one,” McKinnon explains. “Just to have a look.” Her smile broadens and she says mischievously, “Give me a hand, won’t you?”

 “...Merlin, fuck, Marlene,” Sirius says.

 “Oh, did I forget the magic word? Please, may I?”

 Regulus puts his right hand over his left forearm, as though his sleeve might Vanish if he doesn’t hold on. While he’s at it, he presses his right elbow against his stomach to try and suppress the dull pain growing in his lower abdomen. Stress, he thinks, and entirely unhelpful in his mission to turn his mind towards more constructive things than petty hexes.

 “I do mind,” Regulus says sharply. “No, you may not.”

 “Oh, well, worth a try,” McKinnon says, apparently unbothered by the room’s disbelief. “If you change your mind, let me know, hm?”

 Regulus’ hands feel numb, his gut aches, and he’s never disliked anyone so much as he dislikes McKinnon in this moment. Eavesdropping on Lily Evans and her friends is a very different experience to interacting with them.

 “I’m not going to change my mind,” he says, cold even to his own ears.

 “How very Black of you,” Sirius says, still fiddling with his tea, not looking at Regulus.

 “What’s that supposed to mean?” Regulus demands.

 Sirius laughs, humourlessly, and says again to the opposite wall, “What do you think it means, Reggie?”

 “I think it means you’re being childish about the fact that I’ve changed, or perhaps that you’re envious because you haven’t managed to mature past twelve,” Regulus says snidely. He’s not at all in the mood for this nonsense, even if he knew it was inevitable.

 Regulus’ brother laughs again. It might be genuine amusement, but it grates nonetheless.

 “Envious,” Sirius repeats, finally casting a look towards his younger brother. His eyes are dancing, his lips are curled in a smirk. “Sure.”

 And that burns more than nearly anything else Sirius could have thrown at him. There is no sharper insult than this bemused, self-satisfied tolerance - this reminder of the paths they each were offered and chose to walk. It’s a casual reminder that of the positions in life, at the moment, Sirius has the superior and more enviable situation by far. Sirius had friends that cared. Sirius had an out. Sirius didn't want the things that Regulus was stupid enough to want. 

 Regulus falls pathetically short, by comparison, and it makes him want to snarl even before Sirius glances pointedly at Regulus’ left forearm. Sirius has no right to look so smug.

 “Hey, now,” McKinnon says, raising her palms like they’re spooked hippogriffs. “I was only looking to break the silence. I mean, I was being serious - no pun intended - but let’s not make my house even more a mess, mm?”

  “Clean it, then,” Regulus snaps. “What sort of a witch are you?”

 She needs to stop poking her nose into his business and this house is a wreck. He can’t put a foot down without potentially breaking something and earning years of bad luck. No one needs a precariously balanced pile of used ritual candelabras.

 Meadowes scowl deepens, and McKinnon’s smile drops for a moment.

 “Witch enough to finish the fight you’re trying to start,” McKinnon says evenly.

 “It’s not our fault if you’re touchy about being stuck with your mistakes,” Meadowes adds.

 McKinnon sighs. “Dory.”

 “Is this my house too, or not?” Meadowes demands flatly.

 For the first time since Harry admitted that he arrived here by dying, something vulnerable crosses McKinnon’s face. This time, it’s panic that McKinnon pushes down nearly as masterfully and quickly a Black. Not bad for a bloodtraitor, probably.

 “It is,” McKinnon assures Meadowes.

 Meadowes, however, isn’t looking at McKinnon. She’s glaring at Regulus, who glares right back, because he doesn’t know and doesn’t care who she is. He aches all over, he wants the Potters back, and he’s not about to be shove out of something so important by someone so irrelevant.

 “Believe me, if I could give this over to you, I would,” Regulus tells both women. “However, seeing as it’s attached to my arm, I’m not about to hand over my person to your tender care for a ‘look’. I’m attached to my arm and would rather it remain attached to me.”

 For as long as possible, at least. He would rather the arm remain attached to him. 

 But perhaps history proves that it's better that Regulus doesn't he what he wants. As Regulus is no longer dying, he will likely have to pay a different price to defect, and it will come to collect sooner than he would like. 

 McKinnon blinks at him, then appears to consider this. Meadowes keeps glaring. Sirius is watching all of them, finger tapping restlessly against his teacup, and it’s all Regulus can do not to tell him to quit fidgeting.

 Then, McKinnon laughs, her high laughter that immediately sets Regulus on edge.

 “You’re funny,” McKinnon says, like she’s surprised, smiling at him. “I can actually see the brotherly resemblance now.”

 Regulus doesn’t gape because Blacks don’t, but if he did, he imagines he’d look at least as offended as Sirius looks at that remark. Then he’d look further offended because did Sirius have to look so offended at the prospect of their personalities having similarities?

 “Marl, that’s a bit odd coming from you,” Sirius says.

 “I didn’t expect the brother you don’t talk about to be like this,” she says, unconcerned. “I have to admit that I was expecting some odd mix between Bellatrix Black and Snape, if I’d been expecting anything.”

 Regulus thinks he’s even more offended now.

 While dear cousin Bella has everything to make her one of the Dark Lord’s favourites, there are certain… very distinct things that make Bella Bella - things that Regulus has never wanted to emulate. His failure to be like Bella has been made very clear in his family’s disappointment.

 Severus Snape is… something else. Regulus isn’t close with the half-blood that Narcissa’s husband brought into the fold, though they have stayed perfectly civil to each other. They had seemed to come to an unspoken agreement to ignore each other.

 As a younger wizard, Regulus hadn’t known what to do with the ragged half-blood who so deeply despised Sirius, had once been friends with Lily Evans and yet served the Dark Lord with eager willingness, and was both terribly brilliant and starving to prove himself. And then Severus Snape drew the strange, clear favour of the Dark Lord, while Regulus slinked around the edges, already scared before he started plotting. It hadn’t been any sort of recipe for friendship.

 An ambitious man is a dangerous man, and Snape had proven to be clever as well. Regulus made it a point to avoid Snape even more so than usual these past months - Snape and Narcissa and his so-called friends, and essentially anyone who might be too sharp and too clever - lest the man see the truth of what Regulus was doing. Is there resemblance between Snape and Regulus?

 Regulus can’t see it.

 He also can’t believe he just lumped Snape and Cissy into the same category of people.

 “I didn’t get exactly what I expected, that’s for sure,” McKinnon says.

 “Aren’t you a seer?” Regulus demands, unimpressed.

 “I am, but the first thing any seer worth their salt will tell you is that everything’s subjective. No one’s going to see anything the exact same way. That you’re not what I’m expecting isn’t a bad thing, baby Black, especially since my expectations weren’t very high.”

 Regulus frowns at her. “Stop calling me that.”

 “Sure thing, Reggie,” McKinnon answers, her grin broadening again.

 Sirius snorts and Regulus can’t decide which of them to glare at. Of all the people he could have been left with, why these three? Meadowes may kill him, Sirius is being Sirius, and McKinnon is being even worse than Sirius.

 “Don’t call me that either.”

 “Don’t call you names. Don’t poke at your arm,” McKinnon lists. “I renounce the brotherly resemblance, you’re no fun.”

 “One of us had to be!”

 Sirius taps his fingers against his teacup annoyingly. “You really, really didn’t, Reggie.”

 Regulus felt like he could have hexed his elder brother through sheer will alone, when Sirius says that like it’s true. It infuriates him, these reminders that Sirius just doesn’t care to understand the concept of the Black Family heir and spare.

 “I did, actually, and I’ll thank you to stop talking about things you don’t understand because you didn’t listen and ran away,” Regulus snaps. “Could you at least pretend to have some concept of family responsibility?”

 “...Hm, maybe we should have waited for the Potters for this,” McKinnon says quietly to Meadowes, who is now slouching in her seat and has her arms crossed.

 “This is your fault,” Meadowes says flatly.

 “I’d rather have some concept of human decency, thanks,” Sirius says, ignoring the women to glare back at Regulus. “If the loving old folks back home hadn’t seen that and family responsibility as mutually exclusive opposites, maybe we could’ve had conversation instead of shouting matches. If you actually bought their claptrap, then I’m sorry that you’re so gullible, Reggie. My condolences.”

 Regulus has been wanting to hear quite a lot of apologies from Sirius, but that isn’t one of them. It hurts, especially since it’s true. Regulus did buy a lot of the family’s hateful worldview and traditions, which have since mostly been proven some degree of wrong. He’s gullible, it’s true, and it burns from his throat to his gut.

 Poor, poor, gullible Reggie.

 Much to what will without doubt be his future shame, Regulus doesn’t even think about what he does next. He takes the hand resting on his arm and moves it down to the cuff of his sleeve, then flips his arm over and out in front of him, yanking up his sleeve to bare the much-spoken-about Mark.

 “Here,” he snarls. “Have a look.”

 In response to his sudden, violent movement, Sirius and McKinnon both drew their wands. Sirius’ wand was pointed at Regulus’ chest before his sleeve had reached his elbow, McKinnon’s a few seconds behind, both looking startled. Meadowes hasn’t drawn a wand at all, when Regulus thought she would have been the first to take the excuse, and instead she’s wide-eyed like she’s ready to flee rather than fight.

 Regulus keeps his gaze on all of them, his heart pounding in his chest, because he can’t look at the brand on his arm. He’s been avoiding looking at it ever since he first started doubting the Dark Lord, especially since he decided to betray him. It won’t have changed. He knows exactly what it looks like, having traced it so many times it might as well be burned into his eyes too.

 The Dark Lord is a deep, bloody red. It looks like an open wound. It throbs with every beat of his heart sometimes and it does that now with familiar pain. A hideous colour and ugly weight are each a perfect match for the gruesome design of the deathly snake slipping from the jaw of a skull. There’s no part of it that’s pretty. No part of it that’s nice. It’s all just awful and ugly and Regulus can’t believe he used to bear this chain with awe and pride. To revel in it with his fellow and so-called friends, like it was something akin to brotherhood. 

 Sirius stares at it like the hideous brand it is, so does Meadowes, but McKinnon stares at it with something that might be hungry curiosity. Regulus assumes it looks as it always does.

 “One of us had to,” Regulus repeats, his voice wavering against his will. He needs to calm himself, but he can’t keep letting this not be said. “After you ran, it had… to… it had to be someone and I’ll thank you n-not to dare erase that.”

 Harry will understand this, won’t he? That was one of the reasons Regulus hadn’t run, besides the whole Life Debt thing and how Harry Potter is clearly a very powerful wizard, if a fragile one. Harry seemed to understand that if there had once been pride at having the mark - and there had been pride - it was shame now. Regulus wants Harry back here now, to reassure him once again that it’s the remorse that matters - that it’s today’s shame rather than yesterday’s pride - and that things can be changed, that things could be fixed and made better… though never undone.

 The things that Regulus has done can’t be undone, he knows. That’s why he made the… horrifying choices he did. That’s why he wrote the note and went to the cave, knowing that he might die, knowing what he was facing and hoping that something good would come of it.

 And then Harry came… and demanded satisfaction over sacrifice.

 Sirius still has his wand pointed at Regulus’ heart, but he looks… almost… uncertain. It makes Regulus’ heartbeat even louder in his ears, because Sirius has never been one for uncertainty. Slowly, Regulus rolls his sleeve back down and moves back from the edge of his seat. McKinnon is already lowering her wand and Meadowes cautiously settles back down on the sofa, the fight and the flight of the moment leaving them all.

 Sirius, however, still doesn’t move. Regulus wants to tell his elder brother to lower his wand unless he wants to duel - there’s some part of Regulus, inside under the calm and the posture and the manners, that very much wants to duel Sirius - but he stays silent. His heartbeat is too loud, his tongue too heavy, and his insides feel like they’re gnawing at him. Regulus looks down at the floor instead.

 “You were warning me,” Sirius says finally.

 Regulus’ head snaps back up. Sirius has lowered his wand and whatever thought was dawning on him is well into the sky now. Sirius is staring at him with wide-eyed realization that makes Regulus’ inner fury pause, afraid.

 “What in the world are you talking about?” Regulus demands.

 “‘I think Father wants to speak to you immediately,’” Sirius repeats. “‘I believe he’s in the kitchen.’ ...Only Father wasn’t in the kitchen, was he, Reggie? He was in his study and he didn’t want to speak to me at all.”

 Oh, no.

 “I made a mistake,” Regulus snaps.

 “That’s not what you said before, Reggie. You said you did it to steal my Arithmancy books.”

 “You wouldn’t have let me borrow them.”

 “Because you had your own copies!” Sirius snaps back. “It wasn’t ever about the book, you lying little creeper! It was because Mother was in the dining room with Aunt Cassiopeia having a conversation you sent me to go overhear because you knew!”

 “As usual, Sirius, you’ve put your keen and penetrating mind to the task and come to the wrong conclusion,” Regulus says. He tries to drawl it, but all aches make it come out unevenly, and he has the horrifying sense that he’s not fooling anyone.

 Why do they have to do this? Why does it even matter now?

 “Now there’s an insult I haven’t heard in a while,” Sirius says, unimpressed. “When are you going to pull your insults into the next century, Reggie?”

 “Insults develop with their target… or not.”

 “Developing… or not. I think we’ve found the new family motto,” Sirius says drolly. “At least your insults have the family politics to keep them company back there. Come on, Reggie. You warned me on purpose!”

 “I wanted your books,” Regulus says stubbornly.

 He had. It wasn’t that much of a lie. All of Sirius’ textbooks came home with the funniest and most fascinating things scrawled all up and down the margins. Regulus liked to read them.

 “I thought you made a mistake.”

 “Yes, apparently it was coming here to talk to you.”

 Sirius looks furious again, so Regulus prepares himself, but McKinnon raises her fingers to her lips and whistles loudly enough to send the windows and teacups quivering for seconds afterwards during the sudden silence.

 “Again, there won’t be any pointless fighting in my house,” McKinnon says. “Also: there will be an explanation as to what the hell you’re both talking about. The only person who gets to speak vaguely about pivotal moments in this house is me. ...And Dory, if she ever feels like it.”

 Meadowes, sitting with her arms crossed again, doesn’t look blessed by this permission.

 “Baby Black,” McKinnon says, turning her look on him. “Explain yourself. What did you do?”

 What haven’t I done?

 Regulus needs Harry back down. It was a mistake to let them be separated. It’s been no more than fifteen minutes and Regulus feels like he’s falling apart at the seams. He’s trembling with new pains and old memories, recent shame and anger that’s waited for years.

 Hopefully, Harry, who was on the brink of some breakdowns himself, is faring better. If they both survive this, Regulus will throw a fit before he lets them be separated again.

 “I didn’t do anything,” Regulus says icily, clamping a protective hand down on his sleeve again. “But apparently everything was actually my fault all along. It’s my fault Sirius ran away. Who knew?”

 “You’re really going to keep lying about this?” Sirius demands. “Is it just habit to you? You can’t help it?”

 “Well, you see, lying is actually defined as when someone isn’t telling the truth-”

 “Reggie, I know you’re an idiot, but stop playing the fool." 

 “I can’t help it,” Regulus says, refusing to even look at Sirius now. “It’s habit.”

 Sirius rubs at the side of his head, Regulus catches this out of the corner of his eye, and must immediately look away again. This is, of course, because he might hex Sirius at any moment, and not because Sirius was in that moment the spitting image of their late father.

 Sirius didn’t even go to Father’s funeral. Most likely because Mother would have killed him.

 “I’m waiting,” McKinnon says, with false pleasantry. “If I’m not told, I’m going to start guessing and I can promise that no one will like that option.”

 No one answers her. Regulus because he’s of the firm opinion that McKinnon should mind her own business and doesn’t deserve knowing private family matters. He doesn’t know why Sirius doesn’t answer her. Apparently, Sirius has chosen to stare at a wall instead.

 “Alright, so we’re going with the hard way, it seems,” McKinnon says mildly. “Here’s what I think: something was happening that the baby Black knew about, so he secretly squealed by setting up the bigger Black to overhear a conversation. Whatever was said may or mayn’t have inspired the infamous disappearing act. Am I right?”

 “...Yes,” Sirius says, clipped.

 “Now, baby Black won’t admit to it, but he’s shit at lying about it honestly, so I don’t particularly care. I’m curious to know what this conversation was about, that it was so terrible that it still matters now.”

 Again, neither of them answer. Regulus glances towards his brother. Sirius has a dark expression and his lips are firmly closed. McKinnon lets out a heavy sigh.

 “Sirius you’re the one who brought it up. I have an inkling of why you flew the coop early, so if you don’t want to get into it, fine, but then you and him have to drop it in my house.”

 “Hold on, do they really not know why you ran away?” Regulus says suddenly, overcome with revelation. That’s the explanation that McKinnon’s waiting for? “Does anyone? Did the Potters know? Does Potter know?”

 Sirius actually look at him, eyes wide, then hard. “Shut up, Reggie.”

 Regulus sits back, at once understanding and disbelieving. “Fine. Let’s just drop this entire conversation and call it a day, all agreed?”

 This is a conversation that should never have been started.

 “...James does know, actually.”

 Regulus can’t put a finger on why, but he doesn’t like his brother’s tone. He doesn’t like the thoughtful, angry look on Sirius’ face either.

 “But today seems as good a day as any to let the boggart out of the wardrobe,” Sirius continues. “It’ll come out sooner or later with you around, anyway.”

 Then, before Regulus can even think to protest, Sirius has turned to McKinnon and says conversationally, “I was supposed to be Marked the summer after my fifth year, did you know? That’s when it’s done: at sixteen, the summer before you have a chance of turning seventeen.”

 Regulus makes an unintentional sound of frustration. Of course Sirius is going to be contrary, because Sirius exists to be contrary. Regulus is too furious and pained to even enjoy the shock on McKinnon and Meadowes’ faces.

 “You were what?” McKinnon demands.

 “Yeah, that was more or less my reaction when I overheard dear Mother and Auntie Cass talking about it,” Sirius continues with sharp brightness. “Never mind that I’d have to be forced all the way - and would rather cut off my own arm and slap You-Know-Who in the face with it than live like that.”

 The part of Regulus’ mind that isn’t screaming makes a mental note: he absolutely cannot allow Harry to make use of the nickname “snake face” around Sirius. For the sake of Regulus’ dwindling sanity and overflowing stress, it just can’t happen.

 “So, I stopped overestimating my ability to last the rest of the summer in that house, packed my bags, and ran for it later that night,” Sirius says. “What’s happening here is that I just realized this idiot wasn’t just being annoying and was actually warning me about my parents’ plans for bringing me back into the fold. But you only wanted my Arithmancy books, eh, Reggie?”

 Regulus forces himself to meet his brother’s eyes.

 There’s an expression on Sirius’ face that Regulus can’t stand. It’s soft. It’s soft from the faint smirk on Sirius lips to the look in his eyes, the grey of them turned warm, and it’s unbearable. It’s foreign on Sirius’ face, at least to Regulus and especially directed towards him. It’s understanding and thoughtful and perhaps, just maybe, a little bit fond.

 It’s an expression that Regulus has been wanting to see for a long time… and he can’t stand it now.

 “Good read, Reggie?” Sirius asks.

 Regulus swallows, painfully, and says, “I didn’t do it for the books.” It comes out harsher and hoarser than he means, but maybe that’s all the better. “And I definitely didn’t do it for you.”

 A crease appears between Sirius’ brows and maybe this is where Regulus should stop. If he were truly clever - if he weren’t the fool and the moron and the idiot that Sirius says he is - he would let Sirius believe that he did it because he cared. That he warned Sirius out of love and the goodness of his heart. That Regulus made some sort of sacrifice because he, despite being a hateful fourteen-year-old brat, quietly loved his estranged brother despite how Sirius had dismissed him time and time again in favour of his new friends. That Regulus wasn't just a petty idiot desperate to impress his family and so-called friends. 

 If Regulus were more cunning and less angry, he might have let the lie stand.

 “I did it for me,” Regulus snaps. “I was jealous. You were already a bloodtraitor and you were still their first pick! You were getting what I wanted, so I got you out of my way.”

 Sirius looks stunned and Regulus wants the Potters back. The Potters to mediate and Harry, even half here and half wherever he’d come from, to share the understanding that there’d been pride in the past, because surely he would understand. Someone had to. It was shame now, but Regulus can’t pretend that there wasn’t pride too. They both matter, Regulus knows, although he doesn’t have the words for why.

 Or perhaps it’s that he doesn’t have the space for all of them. There certainly isn’t enough space in McKinnon’s house for more mess, the silence in the room now takes up too much space. Regulus can feel Sirius’ stare but can’t meet his brother’s eyes. He can barely muster the energy to care about McKinnon and Meadowes’ existence on the opposite sofa.

 “...We definitely should’ve waited for the Potters to get back,” McKinnon says quietly.

 Meadowes scoffs. “This is like being surprised at getting pus when you poke a Bubotuber. You should all just stop.”

 Regulus can’t help but glare at her. “Who are you?”

 Meadowes glares back. “Mind your own business. It’s enough of a mess.”

 Like most things today, it stings because it’s true.

 

~

 

 Unfortunately for the peace of the room, Regulus isn’t one to let some no one put him in any sort of place. He opens his mouth to answer - how, he doesn’t know, which probably means he should just stop talking - when he’s interrupted by a knock at the front door.

 They all pause.

 “Are we expecting more guests I didn’t know about?” Meadowes says acidly.

 “...No,” McKinnon says slowly. “We’re not.”

 “They can’t possibly be back from Hogwarts already,” Sirius says, checking his watch with a deep frown, his wand ready. “It’s not been long enough. They wouldn’t have even gotten past Hogsmeade.”

 “Something must have gone wrong,” Regulus says, getting to his feet and only barely managing to keep from tripping over a stack of knitting magazines.

 “You sit.”

 There’s something powerful enough in McKinnon’s voice that Regulus stops. McKinnon’s eyes have gone… distant. She’s looking straight at Regulus, but at the same time, she clearly isn’t.

 “Even if you weren’t apparently pretending to be dead, so Lils says, I wouldn’t let you answer my door,” McKinnon says. “I’ve allowed visitors, but no one should even know to come now, and I’m not expecting anyone who has a key-” Then her eyes fade back and widen. “Oh, no.”

 “Who is it?” Meadowes demands.

 “Not the Potters,” McKinnon says, actually looking panicked. She whirls on Sirius and Regulus, and says desperately, “You two need to hide now.”

 

Chapter Text

 The corridor is empty when they slide out from behind the statue of the One-Eyed Witch. Hogwarts is bright and whole and happily undisturbed, and Harry feels at once out of place and like he’s late for class. It’s unreal, the afternoon sun shining through the windows and glinting off the suits of armor. This is the Hogwarts from before his time, and yet it looks the same as it did when he was still attending classes, which feels like a forever ago now.

 “How long until classes let out?” Lily asks.

 The blur of James Potter checks his watch, then whispers, “About half-an-hour until the end of fourth period. D’you think we’ll be completely done by then?”

 Harry can’t connect the wartorn Hogwarts he left behind with the one he’s seeing here. He half expects a teacher to poke their head out of a classroom to ask what he’s doing in the halls, despite the cloak. Any moment now, Ron and Hermione will come around the corner, bickering between them and having been looking everywhere for him.

 Any moment now.

 Any moment.

 “Harry?”

 He tears himself away from daydreams and memories immediately. “I dunno. This should be quick, so maybe? Depends if anything’s changed in the Room.”

 “Hm. Seventh floor, right? Opposite some barmy tapestry.”

 “Yeah.”

 “Which corridor again?”

 “Left one.”

 “Alright, let’s head there now,” James whispers. “If we get separated, we meet there.”

 “I’d rather stick together,” Lily says. “Quick question: how are we not going to trip over each other the whole way? Because this sounds like how e all end up trying to explain ourselves in the Hospital Wing, a lot of broken bones between us. This was bad enough before, but now I can’t see Harry at all.”

 “I can sort of see the both of you, so I can walk at the back,” Harry volunteers. James did it, when they went down into the Honeydukes cellar.

 “Okay, that’ll work,” Lily says. “Jim, where’s your hand?”

 James snorts. “Definitely not there. Here, love.”

 “Ah. That’s better.”

 “Yeah. C’mon, this way is fastest.”

 James Potter leads them off down the corridor before they attract any painted eyes with their whisperings. Harry recognizes the route and trails back a bit, so that he doesn’t trip over the pair of hazy blurs ahead of him. He tries to focus on them, on keeping an exact distance between them.

 (The castle was unnaturally silent.)

 “Try” being the important word there. That silvery rush is always, always waiting.

 (There were no flashes of light now, no bangs or screams or shouts.)

 Harry’s sick of this. He’s sick to his stomach with these memories twisting all of his thoughts around. They intrude on every moment, even one so simple as walking down a corridor towards the staircases, dripping down the edges of every new yet familiar thing.

 How is it possible to be this sick of living in your own head?

 (The flagstones of the deserted entrance hall were stained with blood.)

 He can barely get a moment before these heavy memories fall down again. He doesn’t understand it. It wasn’t this bad before, in the few days immediately after he came here, before he rescued Regulus. Now that he’s sought out these familiar things, the swirling memories, silver white and strange, are getting worse and they won’t go away.

 (“Where is everyone?”)

 Harry’s shakes Hermione’s whisper out of his head. Lily and James are farther ahead of him than he’s trying to keep them and he speeds up accordingly.

 It hurts, a little, how grateful he is that they won’t be passing through or by the Great Hall. Though Harry would love to see it whole, he doesn’t think he could bear to cross through the door - to look at empty spaces of floor where bodies lay side by side, seemingly sleeping under the night sky. It hurts to remember even fleetingly.

 (To escape into someone else’s head would be a blessed relief…

 Nothing that even Snape had left him could be worse than his own thoughts.)

 But Snape’s memories had only made the inside of Harry’s head even more unbearable.

 He shouldn’t have come back to Hogwarts. He shouldn’t have sought out the Potters. At this rate, he won’t be about to think over the grief and regret and shame. This was a mistake.

 Sunlight from a window crosses the cool Invisibility Cloak and Harry takes a deep breath, dispelling the thoughts again. No, he’s had these thoughts and he’s done with them. He’s not having that reality-doubting conversation with himself again. He’s doing this now, changing things now, to make sure all his terrible memories never come to pass. There’s no point in dwelling on any of it.

 It’d be nice if that made not thinking about it easier, but it doesn’t.

 The rest of the walk up to the seventh floor is surprisingly boring. James knows exactly where he’s going, all the students and teachers are in class, and none of the paintings seem to notice them. There are a few twitchy moments at a door opening and closing far down a corridor, a stubborn staircase, or a suit of armor stretching with some creaking and clanking, but that’s it.

 Harry reminds himself to breathe and regrets giving up his wand to Sirius. He should’ve insisted on having it back. All he has is the tiny pocket knife he picked up in his first few days, which hasn’t left his pocket since rescuing Regulus. His hand flexes with the vulnerability.

 It’s probably the cloak keeping him from going mad. He’s got a deathly grip on it, because it’s the only thing between him the everything else.

 Before Harry really knows it - busy trying not to jump at shadows or fall into his own inconvenient head - they’re all standing in front of a tapestry of trolls doing ballet. It’s just as odd and barmy as Harry remembers it. Just… completely and utterly unchanged. It’s so strange.

 “Believe it or not, that’s not the weirdest piece of art I’ve seen in this place,” Lily says.

 “‘S’not even close, really,” James answers agreeably. “I think I like it.”

 “It’s cute,” Lily agrees.

 Harry squints and tries to reconcile trolls with cuteness. He can’t. He’s pretty sure he actually had a nightmare about trolls doing ballet once. Maybe it’s just because he’s not over fighting a mountain troll in his first year, but he doesn’t get what they’re talking about. That particular stink and near-death is hard to forget.

 ‘Well, alright then, Harry, where this room?” James says.

 “Right behind us,” Harry answers. “One moment and I’ll bring up the door.”

 He turns on the heel and makes the necessary triple pass, focusing on the room he requires, and it’s like falling onto a well-trekked path. I need the room where everything is hidden. Turn, walk. I need the room where everything is hidden. Turn, walk. I need the room where everything is hidden.

 Harry still sighs in relief when that familiar door melts out the stonework the same way it always does. Some paranoid part of him had been worried it might refuse. Edges and details rise out of the wall, panels sink into it, and stone surfaces melt away to reveal the wood and metal of an enormous, sturdy door which, with a bit of stretching, quickly settles onto and into the wall like it’s always been there.

 “Now that,” Lily says, awed, “is a serious secret door.”

 “...I kind of feel like that’s a blow at me and my mates somehow, but honestly, I’m not even mad we didn’t manage to find this,” James says, impressed. “There was nothing there, how’d you even find that?”

 Harry finds he’s grinning at little, under the cloak, because it is pretty cool having a room pull itself into existence. The other secret passageways and such are pretty neat, but the Room of Requirement reall is something else entirely.

 “I knew it was here alread. We needed a secret club room and a friend told me about it.”

 “The same friend who needed a passage out of the castle?”

 Harry’s heart does a quick drop to his stomach. “Ah, no,” he admits. “Different friend.”

 “Oh,” James says.

 Harry can’t see James or Lily’s looks, but there’s a lot clear in that voice.

 “Dobby,” Harry elaborates. “He was a h- a free elf.”

 “He sounds like a cool friend,” James says.

 “Yeah.”

 Harry doesn’t elaborate on that; he doesn’t know if he can.

 He’s just realized that he doesn’t know how old Dobby was. What year was he born? How long do elves live? Would Dobby be with the Malfoys now? Again?  Somethings about that idea grates at Harry, like nails down a chalkboard until they bleed inside his head - or worse, maybe, like teeth down a chalkboard.

 If he can change the ways things go, he’s changing that too. If he can save Regulus, if he can try to save this Lily and James Potter who don’t know him, if he can save the young man who will never be his godfather, if he can save complete strangers like Marlene McKinnon and Dorcas Meadowes… he can free Dobby.

 That’s not something that should’ve ever been undone.

 He can free Dobby and get Kreacher out of that awful house. Regulus would help, probably, since he seems to care about Kreacher.

 And something about this thought… finally lets Harry breathe easier. He can do these things. He has a measure of control here that he hadn’t really noticed he’d lost, but was as vital to him as his lungs and heart. There are still things he doesn’t know, but yet ahead might be a bridge where there was only an uncrossable river before.

 “Yeah, he was pretty cool,” Harry agrees.

 He can feel something fluttery in his chest again, his tangled thoughts thrown briefly aside for the funny memories of Dobby’s stack of tea cozies and purposefully mismatched socks. He can right that wrong. The struggle seems easier, somehow, with this determination.

 “He worked here,” Harry finds himself elaborating, though he’d thought he couldn’t. “Here at Hogwarts. Demanded a salary and everything, though he had to argue Dumbledore down because the first offer was too much money and too many days off for him. All the other house elves thought he was a bit nuts, but he didn’t care. He was proud to be free.”

 “...He sounds really brave,” Lily says.

 “Yeah, he was.”

 The conversation trails off, as Harry enjoys for a moment existing in good thoughts. Rooms of Requirement and Dumbledore’s Army and Dobby, before it all went wrong.

 He wonders how Winky’s doing. Hmm. Barty Crouch Jr. and Mrs. Crouch are both alive right now, and Barty is secretly a Death Eater, unbeknownst to Mr. Crouch, the current Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. At least, Harry thinks so? He should probably mention this to Regulus or someone later.

 “So, is there a special way in?” Lily asks.

 Harry looks towards the shorter blur, who seems to have a hazy hand against the door.

 “What?”

 “Is there a password?” Lily says, enthused. “Or a riddle? ‘Speak friend and enter’? How do you get in?”

 “...You pull the handle and go in.”

 James laughs, a loud snerk sound, and Harry thinks he sees a hazy limb of the shorter figure smack into the taller one.

 “Shut it, Jim.”

 “I didn’t say anything!”

 “Hmph.”

 And with that inarguable statement, Lily must reach forward, because the door handle moves and clicks open. The thick door swings cautiously, silently open for them. It swings inwards this time, although Harry has seen it swing both ways, because magical doors didn’t care to be predictable or limited like that.

 Lily goes in first, James follows, and Harry, after a deep breath and steeling of nerves, brings up the rear. He shuts the door behind them, then nearly bumps into Lily and James, who have stopped only a few steps in.

 “...I’ve made a mistake,” Lily says.

 “Yeah?” James asks.

 “I made a joke about the wrong mountain,” she says. “This is that other lost kingdom behind a secret door, because this sort of hoard is dragonous.”

 “That’s not a word,” James says bemusedly.

 “It should be.”

 “What’s wrong with ‘draconian’?”

 “Makes me think old rather than big,” Lily says dismissively, “and this is big.”

 “...It’d be a bit counter-productive for dragons to hoard loads of broken wooden furniture.”

 “Everything is flammable if the fire’s hot enough,” Lily tells her husband. “I’m pretty sure that there’s a dragon somewhere in here.”

 “...There might be,” Harry replies, trying very hard not to think flammable thoughts.

 He pulls off the cloak, focusing on the cool grip of shimmering fabric, rather than the massive roar of heat from the cursed flame that was devouring this very room when last he was here. It was only days ago for him. It helps that this Room of Hidden Things is still and silent, save for a bit of creaking, but Harry still remembers of room full of wild things made of fire and bloodthirst, a heat too solid to breathe, and black smoke so thick that he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face.

 He can see his hand now, feel the silvery cloak between his fingers, and breathe freely. This room is too open, his hands empty of a wand to wield, but he can breathe.

 Maybe dragonous should be a word. Harry can say that having faced both dragons and Fiendfyre. It sounds appropriately massive and deadly, and fully grown dragons can only really be best described as “like dragons”. They’re creatures unto themselves, really.

 Fiendfyre is something else altogether, but dragonous might be a good start on the nightmarish, all-consuming-

 (And then Harry heard a thin, piteous human scream from amidst the terrible commotion, the thunder of devouring flames.)

 He’s not thinking about it. Nope.

 “...Really?” Lily says, melting out of the air. “Is there a dragon in here?”

 James, melting out of the air just beside her, looks concerned.

 “There’s a stuffed mountain troll somewhere in here,” Harry says. He can’t spot it now, but it’s probably here and it wasn’t a pleasure to see. “Turns out mountain trolls smell terrible dead or alive. I’ve never seen a dragon in here, but anything’s possible, I suppose.”

 Lily looks intrigued. James still looks concerned.

 “Is anything in here dangerous?” James asks.

 Harry looks around the Room of Requirement… the Room of Hidden Things… no longer fire and death, but silent. Undestroyed. The ceiling reaches taller than the Great Hall and it’s comparable to being inside a mountain. They’re surrounded by towering walls of abandoned objects, not unlike a lost city or unnatural landscape.

 (Below them the cursed fire was consuming the contraband of generations of hunted students…)

 Desks, chairs, and other furniture stacked like towers. Bottles, hats, crates, books, weapons, broomsticks, bats… alongside marble busts, armor suits, globes, instruments, and unknown mechanical devices. Every random object that could exist and more besides, it seems, all hidden in a room that could lose an echo in the labyrinth. Mountains within a mountain.

 (...the guilty outcomes of a thousand banned experiments…)

 Harry never went deeply into this room of secrets. He avoided this place to avoid the temptation of the Prince’s book and his search for the Horcrux left no time for exploration.

 (...the secrets of the countless souls who had sought refuge in the room.)

 “About as dangerous as the rest of Hogwarts, I think,” Harry says finally, looking around the Room of Hidden Things with fresh eyes and new consideration. He never appreciated how huge and deep it was. “It’s a room of abandoned magical junk, so… yeah.”

 Not as dangerous as Fiendfyre, but as dangerous as to be expected.

 (Flaming serpents, chimaeras, and dragons rose and fell and rose again, and the detritus of centuries on which they were feeding was thrown up into the air-)

 “Be careful what you touch?” Lily suggests. “Jim isn’t great at that.”

 James scoffs, but playfully. “Cauldron? Kettle,” he says, concern melting away. “Alright, maybe it was good that we never found this place.” His voice turns fond. “We never would’ve gotten Sirius out of here, tinkering with all this.”

 “Hey, kettle? Cauldron?” Lily says.

 James laughs, loud and delighted, miming a blow to the heart again.

 Lily puts her hands on her hips and says, “To be fair, though, we already would’ve lost Marlene for good by now.”

 “Huh. Maybe we should’ve brought her after all,” James says, and grinningly weathers a light swap from his wife. “This is gonna go in circles if we keep this up. Harry, where can we find what we’re looking for?”

 Harry, who’d been watching the couple who could’ve been his parents with an intensity he hadn’t noticed, snaps out of it and looks ashamedly back to the towering walls of objects. Unfortunately, now that he’s looking… he can’t see the familiar path. He can see vaguely familiar objects, but as a whole…

 “I don’t know,” Harry admits. “I think I know where it could be, but I think the room’s rearranged itself. Before, it was sitting beside a stone warlock and a dusty old wig, all by a cupboard just off that way.”

 “Harry, you’re not making much tense.”

 Harry frowns and looks towards James, who is grinning unrepentantly at him. Lily isn’t trying very hard to muffle a smile. Harry’s confused at first, but then he realizes his mistake and the joke.

 “It will be sitting there,” Harry corrects, smiling back and shrugging. “Look it’s been nearly twenty years and the future’s sort of past for me right now. For all I know, Volde- Tom originally put his tiara on the stuffed troll and it’s still there.”

 James laughs again and Lily makes her amused noise.

 “Is that troll doing ballet too?” Lily asks, which makes James double over with his laughter.

 “I sort of need my eyes, so I hope not,” Harry answers. “Not last I saw.”

 “Then there’s hope yet,” James declares brightly. “Why don’t we look for where the diadem was before? Then look from there. The objects probably don’t shuffle around so much that it won’t have stuck close to something recognizable. Anything specifically entrusted with something tends to hold onto it.”

 Harry remembers having heard something like that in his classes, most often in Charms and Divination, but most frequently and confidently explained by Professor Sprout. Sprout would, at least once a year, tell her students that there was an enormous difference between putting a spade on a bench to get it out of the way and putting a spade on a bench to put it there.

 Trelawney’s lectures on object memories and sentience aren’t nearly as memorable, compared to Sprout’s anecdotes on the importance of where you’ve left your good knife, which could apparently be the difference between keeping and losing an eye to a nasty plant.

 Harry wonders if Sprout is teaching at Hogwarts yet. She appeared not too much older than McGonagall, much bubblier and young-at-heart if a little greyer. Merlin, she and McGonagall would still be in their forties or something.

 “Harry?” James says.

 Harry shakes his head. “Sorry. I just realized that McGonagall’s about twenty years younger. It’s a bit of a shocker to realize she wasn’t just born already nearly sixty.”

 Lily and James’ concerned expressions flip. Lily smiles, but James grins like he’s yet to be told that leprechaun gold doesn’t last the night.

 “McGonagall’s still at Hogwarts by the time you got there?”

 “McGonagall was still at Hogwarts by the time I left.”

 The state that Hogwarts was in doesn’t bear thinking about, but it’s nice to imagine that McGonagall would stay at Hogwarts forever. It’s nice to imagine that someone out there is infallible, even knowing it’s not true.

 Last Harry Potter saw Minerva McGonagall, she was sprinting down a hallway, shepherding a thundering herd of galloping desks towards the Death Eaters. Her hair had come down and there was a gash on her cheek, and she hadn’t a side-eye or scrap of notice for the three of them as she turned the corner while leading a great charge into the fray. They heard her scream, “CHARGE!”

 (“Harry, you get the cloak on. Never mind us-”

 But he threw it over all three of them; large though they were, he doubted anyone would see their disembodied feet through the dust that clogged the air… the falling stone… the shimmer of spells.)

 “Was she still doing the Animagus transformation trick on the first day?”

 Harry blinks back at James. “Yeah, she was.”

 “I loved that,” James says wistfully. He stretches his arms over his head, scratching his neck and ruffling his hair, lost in a good sort of memory. “No idea how she managed to leap off the desk, striding forward like that, without tripping over her robes. So neat. I’ve fallen on my arse while standing still, never mind jumping. Pads doesn’t either, the git, just me and-”

 “It’s the antlers,” Lily interrupts. She raises her own hands, fingers flared, and briefly flashes mock antlers sprouting from her head. “I keep telling you, it’s probably the loss of the antlers.”

 “You said that, and the next time, I punched a hole in the wall.”

 “You overcompensated, dear,” Lily says, and leans forward in what looks like a leer. “As usual.”

 James once again theatrically mimes a blow to the heart.

 Harry watches them with a warm feeling stirring in his chest, something quietly heart-mending. Their antics, their banter, even clearly slightly guarded while they try to treat him kindly, are familiar. It’s the answer to the question that’s been bothering Harry for years: did Lily and James Potter love each other?

 (“How come she married him? She hated him.”

 “Nah, she didn’t.”)

 They did love each other. They do. Harry can see it now, like he’s seen it so many times before. Different, of course, but still that same meeting of two people who knew each other and still want to know more. Like Bill and Fleur, and the touches and murmurs and soft laughter that filled Shell Cottage. Like Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, and a thoughtless peck on the cheek and twinke in the eye and conversations in small glances.

 Like Harry and Ginny almost were, all teasing and happiness before… well… yeah.

 In the midst of pushing aside thoughts of friends and love, which are good thoughts mostly…

 (“OI! There’s a war going on here!”)

 ...looking at Lily Potter, thinking about inside jokes, something occurs to Harry.

 “Hang on,” he says. “Is that a pun?”

 Lily and James both look at him in surprise.

 “What?” Lily says.

 “I mean, probably,” James replies.

 “Dear,” Harry repeats, looking specifically at Lily. “‘You overcompensated, dear.’” Then, because he’s been raised essentially an honorary Weasley, he says his accusation outright. “That’s a pun.”

 James’ grin is back immediately. Lily, after a glance at her husband, sighs.

 “I prefer to call it a term of endearment,” Lily says.

 Harry snorts before he can help it, because that’s terrible. It’s terrible in such a familiar, endearing way that he can’t help but grin back.

 “But we’re going to be stuck here all day if we get going on that track,” Lily continues. “So, let’s get going before we get terribly lost down the wrong labyrinth.”

 “You’re no pun,” James accuses cheerily.

 Lily swats him without even looking at him, but she’s smiling. “Lead the way, Harry.”

 “Right,” Harry says, looking down the maze proper of the Room of Hidden Things. It takes him a moment to remember which path through the heaps was taken before. “...This way, I think.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 The last time Harry was here, he was doing the exact same thing he’s doing now. Only, Harry’s memory might not be any help here, given how the aisles of junk have apparently shifted like sand dunes over nearly two decades.

 “Could we summon it?” James asks, less than a dozen steps into the maze.

 “No, tried that last time and it didn’t work,” Harry answers, waving a hand over the objects as he peers around for the discoloured diadem. “It’s inconvenient, just like Gringotts. Same enchantments, probably. It doesn’t yield whatever it’s hiding that easily to thieves. I’ve tried. Keep your eyes out for anything that looks like a tarnished tiara.”

 “...That… is inconvenient.”

 Harry notices the pause and turns around to look at James, who’s squinting at him. Not anything malicious, just curious.

 “What?”

 James shakes his head a little. “You sort of implied there that you’ve tried to rob Gringotts.”

 “Oh,” Harry says. “Uh, yeah. Yes.”

 James’ eyebrows go up and Lily makes her amused sound.

 “How’d that go?” Lily asks.

 It takes Harry a moment to come up with a suitably underwhelming statement.

 “It could’ve gone better,” he says.

 Should he mention the Polyjuice and the Gemini Curse and the breaking out through the ceiling while riding a dragon? It’s all just… it’s a lot.

 “I mean, we did it in the end,” Harry says finally. “It’s just… It’s not as though we don’t try and plan, it’s just that we get there and all hell breaks loose anyway.”

 “Probably not in your league of thing, by the sound of it, but yeah, that sounds familiar,” James says, now grinning while he skims their surroundings. “I think that’s a story I want to hear when you’re up for it. Congratulations on being the first person to successfully rob Gringotts!”

 Harry grins back, because that’s a funny way to remember an event that was mostly non stop anxiety and terror. He likes that contextualization of nearly drowning in gold and being burnt alive a lot better than the fear of it.

 “Second, actually, but thanks.”

 “Second?”

 “Someone got there before he did, Jim,” Lily says, also peering around at the aisles of lost things. “Although… it seems a bit odd to me that there would’ve only been two successful robberies of Gringotts. I mean, surely there’s been more than just two over centuries.”

 Harry thinks about this new idea, because it’s infinitely better than imagining the objects around them coming crashing down, multiplying infinitely, and drowning them in burning metal. He really didn’t need the reminder of the Lestrange Vault. Why does he keep bringing bad memories back into his head to ruin the moment? What’s wrong with him?

 “It’s a bit odd that both happened within ten years,” Harry agrees.

 “I think it’s more likely there’s been a lot more and it’s been hushed up or forgotten” Lily says, with a firm nod. Then she purses her lips and adds, “No offense to your thieving skills, Harry.”

 “That’s all right, I wasn’t all that great at it anyway. Plus we had inside help.”

 “This story is sounding better and better with every offhand detail,” James says delightedly. “Maybe there’s a whole hidden history of magical thieves who just never got caught. No one’s noticed or looked yet. Maybe because they made fake versions and replaced the real things with it. That’d be the neatest way, actually.”

 Harry turn quickly away, pretending to look for the diadem. On the subject of thieves and fakes, he really ought to figure out how to get Regulus to cough up the locket, he thinks, and-

 In looking away, Harry suddenly notices that they’ve gone farther than he meant to take them. He stops and has a proper look around for a familiar landmark, or even the faintest sense that they’re on the right track. Behind him, James and Lily stop too.

 “D’you see it?” James asks.

 “...No.”

 Harry looks for a sign that the diadem is near. Any sign at all would do, but the mounds of objects give away nothing. He recognizes nothing. He can’t be sure any appealing path isn’t an invention of wishful thinking. He remembers how he found it last time, but-

 A dissonant memory pulls up a manta, his own voice, as he stares around.

 (“Somewhere near here. Somewhere… somewhere…”)

 Deeper and deeper into the labyrinth they’ve gone, James and Lily following Harry as he desperately searches for a familiar path from two brief trips in another time. Harry’s been following his own past footsteps, trying to recreate the moment in which he finally found the diadem.

 (His breath was loud in his ears.)

 It’s an impossible situation to recreate: the heavy desperation of the Battle of Hogwarts.

 (..and then…)

 There are no shouts and spells and spilled blood outside. No Tonks running into the firefight with desperate fear transforming her face like nothing else. No looming threat of Death Eaters just outside the door. No lurking, constant fury of Voldemort at the back of his mind.

 That moment is inimitable, unfortunately.

 Thank Merlin.

 (...his very soul seemed to shiver.

 There it was…)

 But there the diadem isn’t.

 Right ahead isn’t a blistered old cupboard, but an upside-down bookshelf stacked with magazines and a scuffed-up Keeper’s helmet. There’s no pockmarked stone warlock wearing a dusty old wig, and no ancient, discoloured tiara perched clearly on top. Instead, there’s one blue galosh and pieces of a silver flute sticking out of it like a bouquet.

 And there’s no shiver in Harry’s soul.

 He realizes, suddenly, that he’s been waiting for that shiver. He’s been waiting for a skip in his heartbeat… a strangled pause in his lungs… some sort of icy tug from deep inside his chest and a silent, leading whisper, brushing at the back of his mind like the beginnings of a headache. There should be some great and terrible resonance, imperceptible nearly even to him.

 He should be pulling up now the evidence that he’d been ignoring for years, the feelings that he’d been using until the Pensieve had forced him to confront the truth. He should know where to look, where to reach, from deep down in that same place that had always known the incontrovertible truth that the Prince’s tale shared.

 (“Meanwhile, the connection between them grows ever stronger, a parasitic growth. Sometimes I have thought he suspects it himself…”)

 Albus Dumbledore’s voice echoes in his head, a touch sad, but forthright. As though there was never anything to be done. Tired, oh, so tired. As though, wishes and love aside, there was never going to be any other ending.

 (“Don’t be shocked, Severus.”)

 “-arry. Harry.”

 Harry comes back to himself and James Potter is standing in front of him now, staring at him with open concern. Lily is hovering just behind James, looking equally uncertain. As Harry registers them, James leans back a little.

 “Harry?”

 “Yeah, um, sorry.”

 “Your ghost just moved out for nearly a minute,” James says slowly.

 “...I got lost in thought.”

 James doesn’t look reassured by this and Lily purses her lips. Harry is now much more certain that Ron and Hermione were humouring him every time he said that and they didn’t pursue it. It doesn’t sound convincing at all, does it?

 “...Pretty far lost in thought,” Lily says.

 To the very bottom of the Pensieve, Harry almost replies. He catches the quip easily though, because he doesn’t want to mention he memories yet. He’s revealed so much, but not that. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

 “Sorry, it’s just…” Think of something distracting. Anything. “I can’t see anything that I recognize. I know the diadem has to be here, but everything’s been rearranged. I don’t know where it is.”

 It feels a relief to say it, though he feels surrounded by mountains of his own thoughts towering taller than the abandoned objects surrounding them. He can’t keep avoiding these thoughts forever, but he can’t confront them either. There’s got to be another way to find the diadem rather than listening to a cold tug on his heart and a soundless whisper in his head.

 “Al...right,” James says, unconvinced. He looks like he wants to say something, but can’t find the words, so they’ll all be forced to stand here forever trying to put questions together.

 “I guess we’ll have to find it the old-fashioned way,” Lily interrupts.

 James groans dramatically. “Ah… We’re going to have to send a note telling the kids we won’t be back in time for dinner. Sorry, busy treasure-hunting.”

 “We’ll make it if we try,” Lily says determinedly. “They’ll manage.”

 She looks at Harry then, and her expression is friendly enough. She smiles encouragingly at him, which is nice, but… all Harry can seem to notice is that her eyes are so very green.

 “Are we sure we can’t summon it?”

 “Tried before and it didn’t work,” Harry answers.

 James rubs at the back of his neck, then offers knowingly, “Mum always said summoning is how nice things get broken.”

 “It took Fiendfyre to break it last time.”

 It’s all Harry can do not to jump at the imaginary sparks in the corner of his eye and the brushes of warmth prickling at the back of his neck. He echoes James’ action and rubs the back of his neck too, trying not to think flammable thoughts.

 “Let’s… not do that,” Lily suggests. “Either of those things.”

 “I don’t even know how to make Fiendfyre,” James says agreeably.

 “Personally speaking, the more important one is knowing how to put it out,” Harry says, then shrugs when James and Lily give him another look. “I don’t know how to do either.”

 “Okay,” Lily says. “How about this? We’ll split up and look for the diadem the old-fashioned way. Jim can go that way. Harry, you and I can go this way together. If anyone finds the diadem, they put some sort of marker on it and give a shout for everyone else. No one, at any point, will light anything on fire without everyone first agreeing on it.”

 “Room for change in a changing room,” James says, nodding. “I like it. You sure you don’t wanna take on that path, love? I can take this one.”

 “No. Dibs on this one, dear.”

 “Fair enough. Sounds good to me. Harry, you all right with this?”

 “Yeah.”

 James nods and leans quickly down to kiss Lily on the edge of her mouth, a quick and well-practiced peck. Then he nods at Harry and saunters off back the way they came to look for the diadem on his own, too quickly for Harry to even think to offer back the cloak over his arm. Harry watches him go with a funny feeling, unable to entirely forget that the last time that James Potter left Lily and Harry Potter alone, he didn’t come back.

 What helps here is the skip in James’ calm saunter and the grin over his shoulder as he goes. He’s out of sight soon enough, turning around a bend of bathtubs and lamps with a wave. It lets Harry look back at Lily without feeling like this is the end.

 “Come on,” Lily says, nodding in the other direction.

 Harry obediently falls into step beside her, though he can’t help but feel slightly confused. “Aren’t we going to split up too?”

 “Well, we could, but you don’t have a wand still and I wanted to keep talking.

 “Oh, um, what about?”

 “Anything goes,” Lily answers. “How about… hmm…”

 Harry scans the objects around them, high and low, trying not to panic at Lily’s attention. He’d love to keep talking with him mum - well, with the girl who could have been his mum. But there’s so much he hasn’t shared. What if she asks something where she’ll hate him for the answer?

 What if she just doesn’t like who he is in the end?

 “You keep saying ‘we’ when you’re talking about the things you’ve done,” Lily says finally, friendly and curious. “Is that royal?”

 “No,” Harry answers, relieved. “My friends were there for most of it.”

 “What are they like?”

 “They…”

 (“Don’t listen to him.”

 “It’ll be all right. Let’s - let’s get back to the castle, if he’s gone to the forest we’ll need to think of a new plan-”)

 Harry swallows, looking out towards the carefully balanced furniture, and all the knick-knacks stacked between and on top in loud defiance of gravity. A landscape of lost things surrounds them, twisted and pulled by time and magic into unlikely canyons. A touch might send them teetering, a breath might send the whole mountain crashing down, and yet they stand.

 “They’re the best people in the world,” Harry says honestly.

 (“You have permitted your friends to die for you rather than face me yourself.”)

 “The best friends always are,” Lily interrupts, not seeming to have noticed the precariousness of the hidden things around them. “If you don’t want to talk about them right now, that’s alright. I’m sorry, it was insensitive of me to ask, probably. If you do want to talk about them, I’d like to hear about the best people in the world. They sound rather nice.”

 Harry manages to smile at Lily’s teasing tone. “Thanks.”

 “You’ve met most of my friends already,” Lily continues. “Well, Dorcas is more of a friend-of-a-friend. She’s really nice once you get to know her. So’s Marlene. They’re a bit strange at first, but they grow on you, like Dorcas’ plants. Not like Jim’s friends. They’re more like leeches. Good leeches, though, except I don’t like leeches, but I like them, so maybe not like leeches after all.”

 Harry laughs. “Maybe not.”

 “Did you know Jim accidentally got a bunch of leeches attached to my face once?”

 “Oh, Merlin, no. Ouch.”

 “Yeah, ouch. He laughed first; I think it was surprise, because then he was so sorry I thought he was going to stick leeches to his own face to make it up to me. I almost let him, I was so mad, but Professor McGonagall intervened before I could make up my mind about it.”

 (“You have permitted your friends to die for you rather than face-”)

 “Ron once accidentally dropped a bar of Unslippable Soap into my glass of water and forgot to tell me or dump the water,” Harry volunteers. “I hiccupped bubbles for a week. He laughed at me more than he was sorry.”

 Lily laughs at him too, then claps a hand over her mouth when Harry looks at her.

 “Bubbles out of my mouth every time I talked,” he says. “They tickled.”

 This only makes Lily laugh again and her eyes shine brighter with humour. 

 “Oh, I’m sorry, but that’s… terribly funny” she says, quashing her laughter. “Something like that happened to my friend Mary once. Madam Pomfrey just told her to wait it out and not put Bubbling Tea in a Pepper-Up Potion ever again. She had the hiccups for a whole day - a whole twenty-four hours - she could barely sleep, she was so jittery, and she jumped a foot in the air every time she hiccuped. Poor Mary.”

 Harry sympathizes, but also… “Is that why Madam Pomfrey hands out pamphlets warning people not to mix Pepper-Up Potions? Bubbling Tea was top of the list of things not to mix them with. After Firewhiskey, of course.”

 Not that that stopped certain upperclassmen, of course, but she’d tried.

 “Of course,” Lily says, amused. “I don’t know. Maybe? That’s a funny thought.”

 It is a funny thought: the possibility that something one of Lily’s friends did inspired Madam Pomfrey to hand out pamphlets to Harry and all his friends on the dangers of that thing. If only students actually too this poor Mary’s experience to heart when exams came around.

 “It is,” Harry agrees, and turns to look over the stacks of objects again.

 (“You have permitted your friends to die for you-”)  

 This memory keeps echoing, though, and it apparently won’t go down for anything.

 “So! You didn’t know Marlene and Dorcas when you met them, but you knew Sirius,” Lily says thoughtfully. “I’m curious which of our friends you know and which of them you don’t. You must know Remus, I’m sure.”

 (“You have permitted your friends to die-”)

 “Yeah,” Harry says hoarsely. “I know him.”

 “Remus is a wonderful person to know, so that’s good! I couldn’t remember if you’d said that you had or not, but I’m glad. Hmm, if you didn’t know Marlene, then you probably don’t know Caradoc.”

 “‘Fraid not,” Harry says, trying to remember if that’s one of the dead people in the photograph of the first Order of the Phoenix. He thinks so. One of the smiling blokes behind Marlene and Dorcas, maybe?

 “Well, he’s… memorable, I’ll give him that, so you’ll know him when you meet him. Speaking of, how about Benjy? Have you met Benjy?”

 “Sorry.”

 “Emmeline?”

 “In passing,” Harry answers. “Never really had a conversation.”

 She was part of his advance guard, when he met her, but she was murdered by Death Eaters less than a year later. He liked her well enough, he supposes. She had looked grim at first, but she was always smiling at Tonks or laughing at people’s jokes later.

 (“You have permitted your friends-”)

 “That’s a shame, she’s lovely.”

 “Yeah, she seemed nice. Always laughing.”

 “That’s her. How about Pandora?”

 Harry’s brow furrows, because he doesn’t recognize that one at all. Maybe a family member of an Order member? Someone affiliated with the Order but not a member? Like Ted and Andromeda Tonks?

 (“You have permitted-”)

 Harry shakes his head free of echoes. “Sorry, don’t know her.”

 “That’s okay,” Lily says easily.

 She can’t hear that terrible voice, ringing in her head.

 “Hmm. Do you know Hagrid?”

 Here, Harry can grin again. “Keeper of Keys and Grounds at Hogwarts!” he recites. “Always wanted a dragon for a pet. Kept a bunch of other monsters in the meantime. Yes, he’s…”

 Oh. Oh, no.

 (“HARRY! NO!”)

 “...a good friend,” Harry finishes lamely.

 (“NO! NO! HARRY, WHAT’RE YEH-?”)

 “Brought me my Hogwarts letter,” Harry says, as though happier memories will keep on keeping the painful ones away. It doesn’t seem to work like that, unfortunately.

 The painful memories just seem to make the good ones bad too.

 (“You have permitted-”)

 “Really? That was nice of him.”

 “Yeah.”

 “Hmm, who’s left that you might know? You obviously know Professor McGonagall.”

 “Yeah.”

 “Oh, how about Fabian and Gideon?”

 “Uh, no.”

 “No? Fabian and Gideon Prewett? They’re hard to miss.”

 “Sorry, no,” Harry says.

 The skin of his wrist itches for his watch, the present that hadn’t left him for nearly a year, until he died and woke up here. It was an old thing, but it was more precious than any new gift could have been. The smoothness of the cloak over his arm is suddenly abrasive and distracting.

 “I know of them, but…”

 They’re dead, Harry doesn’t say. I’m pretty sure most of the people you’re naming are dead.

 “I suppose you might not run in the same circles,” Lily muses, “given the age difference. Apparently their sister is up to the tip of her hat with their influence on her sons as it is.”

 “I know Molly,” Harry volunteers, as though this’ll stop the woman who could’ve been his mother from figuring out Harry doesn’t know these people because they were viciously murdered twenty years ago. “And Arthur. I know the Weasleys.”

 How well, he doesn’t know if he can yet say. It takes everything in him not to rub at the skin of his wrist. He doesn’t. He won’t.

 (“You have permitted-”)

 Lily hums consideringly. “They’d be your age, wouldn’t they? Molly Prewett and Arthur Weasley’s boys? You would’ve all gone to Hogwarts together.” She looks at him and smiles, wide and open, like the thought of children playing and being friends is just lovely. “That’s nice.”

 “It was nice,” Harry agrees faintly.

 (“You-”)

 It was so very nice and he’s lost it. He’s lost… all of it.

 (“You-”)

 Harry looks away from Lily, turns away from the itch of his wrist and the prickle in his eyes. He swallows his heart like it’s strayed too far from him. He looks around like he might be able to find a place to hide his heart. Here, in this room that has swallowed centuries of secrets, that burned so easily, it might be safe.

 Speaking with Lily Potter has been lovelier than Harry ever could have imagined. Dreams of conversations were little more than laughter. Harry was only ever able to eavesdrop on his parents through the memories of others. This reality of knowing them is harsher, full of awkwardness, tempered by hunger and exhaustion, and overshadowed by things. Yet it has still been lovely - lovelier than Harry thinks he can bear.

 Lily Potter is a person, full of love and laughter, but not only that. She’s full of suspicion and nosiness as well. Lily Potter is alive, really alive, and every time he lets himself realize it sends joy and grief thundering in equal measure through his veins. But now the loveliness of it, the awkward reality of it, is serving to remind him of the bittersweetness of this second chance.

 Everything around him seems only to exist to remind him of the persons left behind. It’s too real here to be borne. Surrounded by lost things, with the girl who could have been his mother for company, the true weight of the situation comes down: the price of knowing Lily Evans has come at a great and terrible cost.

 (“I speak now, Harry Potter, directly to you.

 “You have permitted your friends to die for you rather than face me yourself.”)

 It is with heavy heart that Harry lets himself think what he has known all along, but not let himself admit, ever since he realized the reality of all this… It wasn’t worth it.

 He gave himself up to save his friends. No matter what secrets had been locked in Snape’s memories, if Harry had known them from the beginning, his choice would have been the same. His friends were worth everything, much less his life.

 But this? He didn’t ask for this apparent second chance at life in the past, if that is what this harsh, too-real-to-be-a-dream situation is. If he hadn’t died to save his friends, if he had chosen to be here, if he had been able to live, the remorse would kill him yet again. This wouldn’t be worth it, and the guilt of that thought, in the face of Lily Potter looking curiously at him now, may kill him too.

 (“Don’t listen to him.”

 “It’ll be all right.”)

 Harry stops walking, at the echo of Ron and Hermione’s voices in his head. The awfulness of it all is smothering him, making it impossible to keep walking, much less speak. He has to pull himself together again, he knows, because Lily is right there, but he doesn’t know if he can.

 Last time he felt as though he was losing his world, he held himself together by telling himself that it was crucial. That he must be like Dumbledore. He must keep a cool head and make sure that there were backups, others to carry on.

 But he’s not dying now. He doesn’t have the foggiest what must be done now. If time is broken, even though Marlene assured them it wasn’t, then he’s only breaking it further. If time has misplaced him, is allowing him to make the changes he’s trying to make, must he simply continue the hunt? Continue the fight? Even now that he’s alone and lost and friendless?

 Even unknowing what has become of his friends or his sacrifice or his own time entirely?

 “Harry,” Lily says urgently.

 She says his name as though this is not the first time she’s said it, and she says it again against the roar in Harry’s ears. Against the silvery rushing of his heart and wrists and lungs.

 “Harry. Are you all right? Look at me, Harry, please.”

 It’s such a simple request, but Harry can’t look into those green eyes again. He’s too wrought with remorse and despair and overwhelming guilt. He should never have come to Hogwarts. He should never have gone to Godric’s Hollow. He can’t bring himself to look into Lily Evans’ green eyes and see the distant pity of a stranger.

 (“I can’t pretend anymore. You’ve chosen your way, I’ve chosen mine.”)

 “Harry, it’s okay.”

 No, Harry can’t think of that man right now. He can’t think of Snape. All of this began when he let Snape’s memories get trapped behind his eyes in the first place. How did Harry escape the silvery whispers before? Wandering down through the castle, what interrupted him?

 He needs something. Someone. Someone who has nothing to do with Severus Snape or secrets. Someone good, someone brave, someone kind, who has never been anything but what he appears. Someone who could have stopped Harry, if Harry had listened.

 “You can look at me, Harry. Everything’s fine.”

 (“All right, Harry. You’re okay, aren’t you?”)

 “I’m fine, Ne-” Harry stops, then says instead, “Never mind, I’m fine.”

 He takes a deep breath, even though he feels like a golden snidget against a thunderstorm. This memory he can follow for a little while, before it gets bad. Lily Potter, slight and red-haired, is more of a distraction than a replacement for a blond and broad young man.

 “That’s good,” Lily says, her hands hovering like she wants to reach out.

 Harry can almost feel ghostly fingers wrapped around his wrist, large and warm and callused, keeping him from moving on. Keeping him from dying to save them all.

 “You’re all right, then?”

 (“We’re all going to keep fighting, Harry. You know that?”)

 “Yeah, I-” Harry takes another breath. “Yeah.”

 His voices breaks on the word and it sounds like the lie it is. Lily doesn’t call him on it for some reason, just looks at him gently, standing a respectful distance back, and he’s grateful. The memory tries to continue, tries to walk on as the shade of Neville clasps him on the shoulder, towards a ginger girl comforting another girl in the middle of the wasted halls.

 Ginny’s voice echoes on him, despite all his attempts to quash the memory.

 (“It’s all right. It’s okay. We’re going to get you inside.”)

 Lily moves a little closer, still holding her hands back. “Harry, I don’t know what’s happening with you,” she says. “I don’t know what you’ve been through. Really, I can’t even begin to imagine what you’re going through.”

 (“But I want to go home. I don’t want to fight anymore!”)

 “I want to help you, however I can. What can I do to help you, Harry?”

 (“I know,” said Ginny, and her voice broke. “It’s going to be all right.”)

 “I don’t know,” Harry says hoarsely.

 “Well… this seems much worse than before,” Lily says. “Harry, please, look at me. Try to focus. I feel like I’m going to lose you again. Just look at me if you can and focus on breathing, okay?”

 Harry nods. His insides are in freefall, his wrist aches, and he can feel ripples of cold over his skin. The temptation of the Invisibility Cloak weighs like the world over his arm. He wants to speak, but he doesn’t know what to say. He wants to shout out to the night.

 (He wanted Ginny to know that he was there, he wanted her to know where he was going. He wanted to be stopped, to be dragged back, to be sent back home…)

 “Breathe, Harry. Please.”

  Harry breaths.

 “Is it something I said?” Lily asks. “Whatever’s happening here. Is it something I said? If it is, I want to know not to say it. Remember, we don’t have to talk about things yet if you don’t want to.”

 Lily was the one to bring up the deceased Order members, but Harry shakes his head. It wasn’t any of her fault. It’s not any of her fault that he can’t keep his head on straight. It’s not any of her fault that he can’t control his own trembling fingers and wasted lungs. It’s not her fault that his thoughts are so twisted.

 Lily Potter’s company is a gift. A mercy in the face of the great and terrible unknown.

 Even if her company is also awkward, uncertain, and empty of love and loss and longing. Even if she keeps setting off unknown triggers in his head. He is grateful, he thinks, or perhaps it’s that he should be grateful. Here, Lily Potter looks worried and uncertain and uncomfortable, all because of him. She’s real and… he doesn’t want her.

 She was the only thing he’d ever wanted and he doesn’t want this.

 “It’s me,” Harry assures her, miserably. “It’s me. I’m sorry, it’s me.”

 Lily’s lips purse in determination. The softness in her eyes is haunting, for all that focusing on her is also the only thing keeping back the silvery threads that keep twisting him up.

 “You were doing all right before,” Lily says.

 I really, really wasn’t, Harry doesn’t say. I was falling apart then too. I could just hide it then.

 Every breath takes in the smell of dusty antiques, the blink takes in the weight of Lily’s gaze, and every beat of his own heart threatens to undo him. If a person can unravel, he’ll manage.

 Though he knows that he must go on, he doesn’t think he’s able. The long game of going with this dream, this trick, this cruel existence despite everything, is suddenly all too much.

 “So there must have been something,” Lily says certainly. “We’ll just figure out what it was.”

 That seems impossible to Harry, because it’s not so much something as it is everything. Lily has no idea the mess going on inside his head. Harry himself doesn’t understand why it’s now that everything became too much.

 Why now is this next great adventure too daunting to continue?

 “Harry,” Lily says suddenly. “Would you take my hand?”

 

 

Chapter Text

 Harry looks at her to remind her that there’s no point in reaching out - no reason for her to look at him like that, so gently, and offer him her hand - because his hand will surely only fall through hers. He doesn’t say this, though, instead reaching out automatically.

 It’s a surprise, of sorts, when Harry’s fingers brush Lily’s, finding them warm and solid.

 For several silent seconds, Harry and Lily stare at the meeting of their hands. Then, without taking her eyes away from their hands, Lily carefully threads her fingers through Harry’s. After another few seconds, Lily looks up.

 (“You’ve been so brave.”)

 “Hello,” Lily says.

 Harry can’t immediately speak. He thought that he’d like to stand and look at her forever, to hold her hand and stay like this, but it’s not enough. It’s a mercy, but not enough of one.

 “Hello,” Harry says weakly.

 “Should we sit for a time, do you think? There’s a desk over there that’ll do.”

 “The diadem-”

 “It can wait,” Lily says. “Jim can look for it. He’s nearly as good at sniffing things out as Sirius, you know. Foraging instincts, maybe? It’s been a long day all around. Let’s sit.”

 Harry is torn between being frozen where he stands and continuing the damnable walk forward. It feels strange to be gently pulled, Lily only half-turning to lead him, to sit for a moment.

 The last time he just let himself sit for a moment, let himself rest and stop, was… when he and Regulus sat on that motel bed together. The both of them were without direction or urgency, just tired and grateful to be alive. Going to sit with Lily on top of broad, sturdy, claw-marked desk gives him a similar sort of feeling.

 Lily doesn’t let go of his hand as she settles next to him, far enough away to give him plenty of space between them, enough for another person. Even after they’re both settled, she doesn’t let go. Their hands rest between them on the desk and Lily sighs in relief.

 “That’s better,” she says.

 Harry doesn’t say anything, but Lily doesn’t seem to expect him to. Lily doesn’t continue speaking either, just sits next to him and stares out towards the stacks of furniture and objects, the experiments and abandoned things, like the dusty knick-knacks are a veritable sunset of a view. The silence and vast space of the room looms around them, an awkwardness settling in between, and Harry’s free hand clenches around the cool fabric of the Invisibility Cloak spilled over his lap, as he tries not to think of death.

 Harry focuses on taking deep breaths, on Lily’s hand in his, on the here and the now and the known.

 “It probably wasn’t a good idea to talk about friends like that,” Lily says. “Merlin knows that I should be able to recognize that sort of pain when I see it. Marl would probably swat me if she was here right now. I’m sorry.”

 “It’s fine,” Harry says.

 Lily shakes her head, still not looking at him. “I don’t think it is. I won’t naysay how you say you feel, but you don’t have to say you’re fine if you’re not. It’s okay not to be fine. Marlene knows that I’ve not been fine sometimes. You can ask her.”

 “Uh, alright.”

 “Really, she will tell you if you ask her. You don’t have to hide yourself from us, Harry. It’s pretty clear that you’ve had some terrible things happen to you. It’s not your fault if you’re not fine.”

 (“You have permitted-”)

 “Besides, I didn’t say sorry to make you feel guilty or anything. My saying sorry wasn’t about you needing to forgive me so I feel better, it was about letting you know that I am sorry, I didn’t mean to, I’d do differently if I could do it over, and I’m going to try not to do anything to upset you again.”

 “...Alright.”

 “Sorry,” Lily says again. She lifts her other hand, still holding her wand, to rub at her eyes, her lips pursing again momentarily before she forcibly relaxes them. “I have opinions on apologies, Jim says. I have opinions period, says Jim. Hello, cauldron! You’re black!”

 Harry tries to laugh at that familiar, fond disgust, but it’s too familiar, and he ends up choking on a sob instead. He raises his hand away from the cloak - he won’t use it as a tissue, it’s not even really his right now - and rubs uselessly at his eyes. He only manages to spread tears over his face and the stream of them seems endless.

 Through the blur, he sees Lily being kind enough to pretend that a hazardous stack of mouldy armchairs is more interesting than him falling apart.

 (“You’ll stay with me?”)

 Harry dislodges his glasses, pressing his hand against his burning eyes, now more to hide his face than wipe it all away. He brings a knee up, perching his foot on an open drawer, and hunches in on himself. His shoulders heave, his lungs stutter, and he gasps like a drowning man, but still it won’t stop. It just gets worse when he tries to stifle himself.

 (“They won’t be able to see you?”)

 Harry cries… and cries and cries and cries.

 He doesn’t even know why he’s crying - though he could name a thousand reasons, none of them have ever laid him so low before. He’s cried before, but even when he couldn’t stop his tears he could usually hide them. He cried for Cedric and then for Sirius and then for countless others over this past year, he’s cried at his own nightmares before, but only ever in private, and when day broke Harry would never have been caught breaking.

 He’d rather have been caught dead.  

 It’s exhausting and embarrassing - it’s humiliating - to cry like this. He feels like a child, breaking apart, and stupidly dreading voices like fucking Dudley’s and Malfoy mocking him for daring to care about anything. He’s been through so much and he cries now?

 And yet… Lily doesn’t look at him with anything more than reassuring glances, her hand holding him through it. The warmth of her touch is a priceless anchor; her steadiness is everything. Harry lightly tries to pull away, curling in on himself, but Lily’s fingers squeeze his all the tighter instead, understanding and gentle.

 (“Stay close to me.”)

 Harry cries until it feels as though he’s sobbed himself dry. He doesn’t know how long. He’s left a damp patch on his knee and his free hand is soaked, and there a grossly fresh feeling all over his face by the time he can breathe without an interrupting hiccup.

 Deep breaths ought to do it, if only because it would be a bloody mercy.

 “...Sorry,” Harry says finally.

 “It’s fine,” Lily says. Like it’s simple, like it’s easy, and like it really is just fine. “I don’t mind. I’ve heard it said that sometimes you need to cry to let the bad feelings out before they drown you. Honestly, I wish I learned that a lot sooner than I did. I would have cried way more.”

 Harry laughs, but it’s weak, and he’s still wiping at his face like he’ll be able to get rid of the evidence. His eyes and face are probably hopelessly red, but he can try. He doesn’t answer Lily because he doesn’t know how to speak without apologizing again.

 Lily doesn’t immediately say anything either. She brushes away some hair come free of her braid, then puts her hand on the desk and leans back, breathing deeply. Harry mimics her, unfolding his leg and stretching it out on a discarded trunk, then leaning back. All opened up, he breathes deeply in, then deeply out in the hope his breaths will take the tears and memories away with them.

 It’s a long shot, but a bloke can live in hope.

 Harry jolts as his hand runs up against a curtain of some sort, and just behind the curtain something cold and hard. He yanks his hand away immediately, as though the cloth might eat it.

 “What is it?” Lily demands, her fingers tight on his.

 “I…” Harry looks behind him. “Nothing.”

 Behind them is a large object, as wide as the desk and at least two meters tall, covered in cloth. The cold surface underneath had also been smooth. Just the thought of the touch is enough to send another shiver down Harry’s spine.

 “No, really, what is it?” Lily says.

 “...A mirror.”

 And, if he isn’t mistaken in recognizing the beaten frame, a familiar one.

 “Is it dangerous?”

 Harry shakes his head. “No, it’s not even magical so far as I know. It’s just… I’ve seen it before. I wasn’t expecting it.”

 “Is it important?”

 In some small way, maybe, but not particularly. “Not really.”

 “That’s still a little bit important,” Lily points out. “It’s all right, though. If it’s a bad memory, you don’t have to tell me about your magic mirror.”

 “It’s not a bad memory,” Harry assures her honestly.

 This mirror, unlike a certain other mirror, inspires mostly happy memories. It brings up memories of loyalty and friendship and determination - everything and everyone Harry died for - with this mirror in the background. Bittersweet, yeah, but still good.

 “This room…” Harry begins carefully. “It’s called the Room of Requirement, and sometimes you need the Room of Hidden Things, but sometimes you need a different room. Me and my friends needed it for a secret club room. It looked completely different: like a classroom, none of these mountains of junk. I didn’t even know about the Room of Hidden Things until like a year later.”

 His voice is hoarse and his free hand is still trembling, but speaking openly is at once terrifying and like taking something back. He can see Lily looking at him again, but there’s still nothing like judgement there in her eyes, just someone listening.

 “The Room can make things you need: furniture, training dummies, beds. We needed a space to practice Defence. I can’t remember if it was there when we first came in or if someone asked for it, but there was a mirror in there. We glued some photographs and newspaper articles to it, or magazine articles. To inspire people. Or just stupid stuff to make them laugh.”

 Colin Creevey had started it, Harry thinks, by putting up pictures of proper duelling forms so he could practice them in the mirror. It’d been a good idea. Then the next thing anyone knew, the mirror had become an occasional message board and scrapbooking project for the whole D.A.

 Fred and George put up advertisements for their products, advertisements for volunteers to test them, and some newspaper articles of Ministry officials with offensively vandalized headlines. Hermione ripped up the advertisements for test volunteers, but she’d done a very good job of pretending not to see articles poking vicious fun at everyone’s least favourite Senior Undersecretary and Minister for Magic.

 Hermione herself added several newspaper and magazine articles on nonhuman rights for people to read. Ron and Ginny added a couple postcards from Bill and Charlie, complete with encouragements for the club on the back.

 Harry remembers all of it: a sketch of Seamus as a donkey from Dean, Teen Witch Weekly’s latest dueling fashion photographs from Lavender, and the importance of auras when casting spells from Pavarti. There had been a Charms journal article on the nature of the Patronus from Cho, a picture of Cedric that Ernie had determinedly put up and dared anyone to argue with, a basic guide to magical first aid from Hannah Abbott, pro-Quidditch bets and radio schedules from Lee, studying tips from Terry Boot, and notable Quibbler articles from Luna.

 By the end of it all, there was honestly very little mirror left for Colin to practice his duelling forms. Luckily, by then, Colin was confident enough in himself and the help of his friends not to need the mirror. Colin was too invested in and delighted by the group collage to mind.

 Harry exhales deeply. “This is the mirror. Either that or the room copied it to make a mirror for us, and maybe this one is magical and cursed.” It seems unlikely that the Room would give up its hidden things like that. “I don’t know.”

 The mirror and most of everything on it was destroyed when the D.A. was busted. Including the copy of a group photograph of the original Order of the Phoenix. Harry had shared that photograph with Neville, Neville had nervously suggested they put it up, and Ginny had gotten Colin to make some copies when Harry was reluctant to give it up. One copy for Harry, one for Neville, and one for the D.A.

 Harry sighs again and hangs his head. If he has to remember everything awful, then he ought to be able to remember the good bits as well, but… even then the back of his mind won’t forget that he’ll probably never see them all again. He’d probably cry again if he had any tears left - by the pinpricks at the edges of his eyes, he might - but his swallow feels dry.

 (“Just in case they’re… busy… and you get the chance-”

 “Kill the snake?”)

 The memories of Neville’s voice, in that last exchanges, echoes in the hollow feeling in Harry’s chest. He has to tell himself that it was all worth it, to die for them, because it was.

 “Huh, I wonder how that works,” Lily says about the Room. “That’s interesting. I wonder what it does if it has to make something it doesn’t have tucked away to copy. It must have some mind-reading ability, but relying on that to create objects sounds difficult at best. I wonder how clever it is. Wait, I’m interrupting. Continue.”

 (“Kill the snake.”)

 That last task… passed on to the other… Harry may never know if it’ll be complete now.

 “I…”

 “Yes?” Lily prompts.

 “I don’t know a lot of the people you mentioned. I never met them. I don’t know why. I could figure why, but I don’t know for sure.” Now that Harry’s talking, it seems the words just keep tumbling out. “It’s… I did meet some people you know… probably. Order members.”

 “Well, I do know all the other Order members,” Lily agrees.

 Deep breath. In. Out.

 “Frank and Alice Longbottom.”

 “Yes, I know them. They’re lovely people, aren’t they?”

 Harry doesn’t immediately answer, it takes him nearly a whole minute of terrible silence. Second by second crawls by and Lily’s face slowly falls with realization.

 “They’re… not dead,” Harry says finally.

 At least, they weren’t dead last he heard. He didn’t hear anything about Saint Mungo’s being attacked or controlled, though it probably was. If the Death Eaters went after Neville’s grandmother, they might’ve gone after his hospitalized parents too.

 “...That’s good,” Lily says.

 “I guess, um… They were kidnapped and tortured by the Lestranges after Vold- You-Know-Who went missing. He went missing for a bit, by the way, for about ten years and everyone thought he was dead. The Lestranges and Barty Crouch wanted to know where he was, so they… attacked the Longbottoms for information. They lived, it’s just… they weren’t well after.”

 Harry feels terrible sharing this. He promised that he wouldn’t share what happened to Neville’s parents around and it feels a bit like breaking that promise to share it now. Harry never managed to figure out how he felt about Frank and Alice Longbottom. Mostly, he’d felt like it was somehow his fault, or he would become so overwhelmingly angry or sad on Neville’s behalf, so he didn’t like to think about it. He still doesn’t like to think about it now.

 “At least Neville got to know his parents, sort of,” Harry says. “Better than nothing, I guess. The Lestranges and Barty went to Azkaban. Moody caught them, I think. I wasn’t there.”

 The Pensieve memory of the trial doesn’t count, Harry thinks.

 “So… I guess what I’m trying to say is that we should stop that from happening? I thought of it earlier, I… someone ought to know about that, if we’re changing things. I don’t want to forget.”

 Maybe Neville Longbottom can grow up with parents who can tell him they’re proud of him. Although, Harry knows that Neville hasn’t been born yet and won’t be born until late July. Neville… might not be born at all, actually, which is an awful thought. Harry doesn’t like that idea at all. The world should have Neville Longbottom in it. 

 “Barty Crouch… as in Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, Barty Crouch?”

 “Oh,” Harry says, in the face of Lily’s wide eyes. “Oh, no. His son. His son’s a Death Eater. Barty Crouch Jr. Mr. Crouch doesn’t know. I had the same bit of confusion a few times, actually, when I saw him on the Marauder’s Map, because I didn’t know he had a son. It’s his son.”

 His son who successfully impersonated Alastor Moody for a whole year. His son who seems to have been the first person to have been successfully and secretly broken out of Azkaban. His son who was Kissed and dismissed because Cornelius Fudge was a bloody coward.

 “...I think I know who you’re talking about,” Lily says. “I think he’s still here at Hogwarts.”

 Harry is… just not going to think about how the boy who could be the man who handed him over to Lord Voldemort in the Little Hangleton graveyard and who tortured Neville’s parents is alive and in the castle right now. If he gets one hint that Barty is already going down that path, Harry might break his face at best.

 “We are very much going to stop that from happening,” Lily says determinedly. “It’s not going to happen anytime soon, right?”

 It takes Harry a moment. “It didn’t happen until late 1981 at least.”

 “Then it’s not going to happen.”

 The determination in Lily’s voice is like a weight off Harry’s shoulders. His eyes are stinging again and he blinks back another crying fit before it can happen.

 “Thanks,” he says.

 “Not a problem,” Lily assures him. “Whenever you’re ready to share things, Harry, I’ll be here to listen. Even if they’re horrible… especially if they’re horrible, even, if we’re trying to stop terrible things from happening, so don’t worry about that.”

 Harry hasn’t been able to stop worrying about that. They’re pretty horrible things.

 “I’d rather hear about terrible things happening to my friends than have those things happen if I can do anything to stop them,” Lily says firmly. “Which… sounds sort of awful, but still.”

 Harry nods at that, because he thinks he agrees with that.

 “The only person I’d really be concerned about when you’re ready to share things with us is Marlene,” Lily says, almost conversationally, smiling weakly at him. “She’s got a great big ego, you know. She’s going to feel fantastically outdone and none of us are ever going to hear the end of it.”

 Harry manages to snort at that.

 “Oh, you think it’s funny now, but you’ll See.”

 “...Was that...?”

 “Maybe. So what if it was a pun? I didn’t take Divination, so I can’t be held accountable if that was bad.”

 Lily’s smile is stronger now, and Harry finds himself caught between laughing with her and crying again. He focuses on taking down both urges - he’s not laughing at that, that was bad - and ignoring the cloth-covered mirror behind them. He’s not in the mood for mirrors. It’s probably cursed, anyway.

 “Hey, Harry, would you mind if I asked you something?” 

 “...Depends. What is it?”

 “Are we dead in your time? Jim and I?” Lily asks.

 Harry looks at Lily again, but she’s not looking at him anymore. Her smile is still there, but it’s transparent like glass and quivering. There’s a glistening to her green eyes that wasn’t there before, as she stares ahead with her head held high.

 “I know there are some things you don’t want to talk about - we just covered that - and that’s fine, but… if you’re trying to change things… I’m… well… saying that I’m ‘morbidly curious’ is in rather poor taste, isn’t it?” Lily grimaces at the mouldy armchairs across the way. “It’s either that or ‘dying to know’ and I think that’s worse.”

 Harry is too surprised to judge one way or the other. What is he supposed to say?

 “Well? Are we dead?”

 “...Yeah.”

 “Oh,” Lily says quietly. “That’s disheartening.”

 “That’s not another pun, is it?”

 “Not intentionally. I’m not feeling very witty or funny right now.”

 “Yeah,” Harry agrees sadly.

 Lily rubs at her own eyes, then says hoarsely, “When?”

 “Sorry?”

 “When do we die?” Lily clarifies, and then continues, “I could guess, though. October thirty-first, 1981, isn’t it? You would’ve been very young then. Only about a year old. That’s… awful.”

 “...It was, yeah,” Harry says. “How… how did you guess?”

 Lily lets out a shuddering breath. “A hundred little things? A feeling? People don’t generally survive being given up to You-Know-Who, that was the big one. ‘How did we live?’ I thought. Once the thought crossed my mind, I couldn’t get it out again, and figured it probably happened then for you to be so angry if it happened at all. I… I was hoping you’d tell me I was being ridiculous.”

 “Sorry,” Harry says, throat swollen. “I’m sorry.”

 Unbidden, a silvery memory of snaps into his head in Lily’s voice:

 (“I’m not interested.”)

 “No, it’s not your fault,” the real Lily is saying.

 It kind of is, Harry doesn’t argue, because he doesn’t know where to begin to explain Trelawney’s prophecy. He doesn’t know how to share the haunted, dementor-given memories of Lily begging Voldemort to spare her son’s life. He doesn’t know how to reveal the demand Snape made for her life, without thought to her son or husband. He doesn’t know how to explain that Voldemort might have let her live.

 “I’m sorry,” Harry says again, instead of all those things.

 (“Save your breath.”)

 “I… I want to say it’s fine,” Lily says. “We’re going to change things, right? So things like that don’t happen? To me or to Marlene or… Jim… or Frank or Alice or anyone else! It’s not going to happen, so it’s fine.” She still hasn’t look at him. “It’s all right. It’s okay.”

 (“I only came out here because Mary told me you were threatening to sleep here-”)

 Harry doesn’t know how to answer Lily without apologizing again. There are two lives’ worth of remorse suddenly stuck in his throat. If Harry was standing, his knees would have given out, or he would’ve walked into something with this silvery haze dizzying his vision again.

 Very, very gently, Harry lets his fingers curl more surely around Lily Evans’ and he squeezes. He does it so fearfully that it’s a bit of surprise when Lily actually looks at him again. She’s pale and pursed and her eyes are still so very green.

 (“Look… at… me…”)

 “You said that You-Know-Who went missing for nearly ten years,” she says.

 “Yes.”

 “In 1981, after Hallowe’en, but before anything happens to Frank and Alice.”

 “On Hallowe’en.”

 Lily is silent for several seconds, then she says, “Something happened that night. Something big.”

 “Yeah.”

 “Something that… everyone else should probably hear too.”

 “Probably.”

 Lily nods and says nothing else. For several seconds, she and Harry just look at each other, before she very gently squeezes his hand back and smiles weakly. Harry smiles back, probably equally as strained, if not worse.

 At least Regulus already knew that he was going to die.

 “I hope Jim is having better luck than we’re having,” Lily says finally. “I hope Marl and Sirius and the others are having better luck too. It’s sad to say, but they probably need it even more than we do. I hope no one’s hexed anyone, since it’s likely pointless to hope there’s been no arguments.”

 “...I wouldn’t bet on it.”

 “Me neither.”

 Then, after several more seconds of silence, Lily squeezes his hand again.

 “Thanks for telling me, Harry.”

 “Not a problem.”

 Lily doesn’t call him on that blatant lie. She doesn’t let go of his hand. They just sit on the desk together, soon looking away to stare out towards nothing and everything, and Harry wonders if they’re both trying not to cry now.

 He doesn’t lean back again. He doesn’t think about magical mirrors and the things that might be seen in them, because he learned a long time ago that mirrors didn’t hold all the answers, back when he was a little boy staring in awe at seeing his parents for the first time. What would he even see in the Mirror of Erised now, if it were here? A young woman with dark and unruly hair and a red-haired young man, this time?

 Harry also doesn’t think about the humiliation of breaking down in front of a beloved stranger. He doesn’t think about the uncertainties in two different futures, one left behind and the other still ahead. He doesn’t think about the memories he apparently may never escape.

 (“I thought… you were going… to keep her safe…”

 “She and James put their faith in the wrong person. Rather like you, Severus. Weren’t you hoping that Lord Voldemort would spare her?”)

 Lily’s fingers thread even more tightly through his.

 (“Her boy survives.”)

 Harry breathes, open his eyes to the unburnt Room, and returns the gesture.

 It’s fine. 

 

Chapter Text

 Harry and Lily sit there for maybe five minutes longer, not saying anything. Lily kicks her legs absentmindedly, deep in thought, her hand intermittently squeezing his. Harry squeezes back when he can find the courage and mostly finds himself playing with the smooth fabric of the Invisibility Cloak, trying not to think of anything.

 It’s hard to tell how much time passes, really. Harry’s never had much of a knack for time, especially not over the past week, so he doesn’t know how much time they’ve spent in the Room of Hidden Things. He’s still trying to figure it out when footsteps come sauntering their way.

 “There I am, hunting alone in the wilds of abandoned furniture for some of the most awful magic known to McKinnon-kind - which’s a step worse than awful magic known to regular people, by the way - and here you are lazing about atop a desk, smug as sirens on a beach!” James Potter announces. “Lily, love, you lazy temptress. What’s all this about?”

 If anything, Lily relaxes deeper into her seat on the desk before she replies without a hint of shame, “We’re taking a much-deserved break, Jim, dear. Drowning nosy wizards is just so much work.”

 Harry tries to subtly tug his hand away from Lily’s, but her firm grip makes it seem like nothing short of flinging himself off the desk with free himself. James, approaching them with a grin, clearly notices their joined hands. His smile doesn’t budge, but his brow furrows for a second; the wrinkle is gone by the time he reaches Harry and Lily, though.

 “All right there, Harry?” James says, and there’s something almost soft in his face when Harry forces himself to meet James’ eyes. “She didn’t get you into too much trouble, did she?”

 “Um, no.”

 “Good, good. You can’t let her talk you into anything, you know, you’ll find yourself- oof.”

 Lily moves her foot where she’s mockingly pretended to kick her husband in the stomach. “Shush, you. Don’t you tell him lies about me.” She raises her nose so high in the air that she’s essentially looking up. “I have never caused trouble a day in my life!”

 James looks caught between two overdramatic reactions and then chokes on both. “What?!” he sputters. “What?” He laughs and dodges out of the way as Lily lightly kicks at him again.

 “I don’t go looking for trouble,” Harry says knowledgeably. “Trouble usually finds me.”

 James stops jumping about and Lily stops mocking kicking at him, and they both look at Harry. James raises his eyebrows, doing a half-decent job at suppressing a grin, but Lily outright beams at him.

 “Exactly!” she says.

 “Get into a lot of trouble, do you, Harry?” James asks, letting himself grin widely again. He asks this as though Harry hasn’t given more than enough evidence that trouble might as well be an old, really shit friend. James doesn’t show any sign he knows Harry was crying.

 Harry shrugs, a little stiffly. “A bit.”

 “Well, now you know where you get it from,” James says, then points. “It’s her. It’s all her. You should blame her entirely.” He dodges a kick that had no chance of reaching him, smiling like a fool who laughs at Bludgers. “I had nothing to do with it!”

 “Jim, dear, don’t lie to him!”

 James laughs and settles slightly. “Alright! Alright. While you two were lazing about, I’m pretty sure that I found You-Know-Who’s sparkly tiara! I shouted, but I don’t think you heard me, so I figured I’d find you so we could figure out what to do with it.”

 Lily and Harry both straighten. “Jim, wh-”

 “I didn’t touch it or anything!” James says indignantly. “I heard what Harry said earlier same as anyone else! I like this face where it is, thank you very much, and it doesn’t deserve to be possessed or whatnot by a piece of evil jewellery.”

 “So what’d you do with it?” Lily asks.

 “Marked it and left it where it was, of course,” James answers, holding up his wand for the first time and giving it a performative twirl and flick for their inspection. He gestures towards the wand and bows slightly. “Not-a-lady and gentleman of the labyrinth, your evil crown awaits courtesy of Ariadne’s Thread… and me… who did all the work, of course.”

 At the tip of James’ wand is a long, golden thread, softly glowing, which winds through the air and around a pile of misshpane lamps with much space to spare. It bobs gently with James’ movements, the ripples floating off in the direction of an unknown destination.

 Lily leans back and smiles at her grinning husband. “All the work? Any work, for once.”

 James winces with all the appropriate drama, bringing his non-wand hand down to once again mime that blow to his heart. Then, still bowed, he offers that hand to his wife, despite being several steps out of kicking range. “Shall we, my siren of the storage seas?”

 With great dignity, Lily hops off the desk and reaches for James with her wand hand. Harry tugs lightly on their joined hands again, but somehow ends up being pulled after her, only barely managing to grab the Invisibility Cloak. Lily puts her hand, wand included, in James’ palm.

 James looks between his wife and Harry with raised eyebrows. Lily ignores then both, holding their hands with immovable friendliness. Her shortness allows her to avoid their stares simply by not looking up.

 “Lily, love?” James says.

 “Never mind that,” Lily says. “Too much to do for questions, Jim, dear. Keep up.”

 With perhaps even greater dignity and no further ado, Lily marches forward, dragging James and Harry with her. Harry and James exchange a look, but follow nevertheless. In the new openness of his chest, Harry feels more bemused than anything else. James appears to share the feeling.

 The march through the Room of Hidden Things isn’t especially noteworthy. James plays with the golden thread spun from his wand, making waves that ripple down its length. Lily asks how he managed to find the diadem and James, busy twirling golden loops, answers that he pretty much just saw it while wandering through the maze. Lily looks sceptical, but doesn’t prod, so James strikes up conversation about some of the strange objects he’s passed.

 Harry’s just pointed out that there isn’t any warning for stuffed trolls, besides the warning he already gave them when they came in, when they all turn a corner and James’ rolling eyes land on something that halts the conversation. Harry follows James’ gaze to the end of the gold thread.

 “Is that it?” Lily says, as they approach.

 “Yeah,” Harry says.

 “I mean, unless it grew legs,” James answers at the same time.

 The infamous, lost Diadem of Rowena Ravenclaw is sitting squarely on a pillow, on top of a dresser, looking like nothing more than a discoloured old tiara. To describe it as glittering would be a lie, shining would be generous, and in matching company the truth. The embroidered pillow is motheaten, the carved dresser stands crooked, both fancier but no less dormant or dusty than the abandoned junk surrounding them. All maybe dreaming of days passed being the finer things in life.

 “It’s… a lot duller than I was expecting,” Lily says finally, as they come to a stop. She releases both James and Harry, putting her hands on her hips, then purses her lips and stares down. “It’s pretty and all… just a lot dingier than I expected.”

 “It fit the description,” James argues. He dissipates the golden thread with a flick - the string snaps off and then melts into thin air. “I wasn’t expecting it to be sitting out in the open like this. Alright, but… where’s the lake-full of necromancy? Where’s the unimaginable horrors and aforementioned Fiendfyre? Where’s the art? Al- oof.”

 Lily not-so-subtly retracts the hand that, Harry guesses by her expression, just lightly thwapped her husband in the stomach of its own accord. She had nothing to do with it, even if she might agree with her hand that he had to be stopped.

 “Well… you could go complain to Tom, I suppose,” Harry says.

 James and Lily both look away from the diadem. James pauses rubbing at the back of his neck and raises his eyebrows expectantly.

 “Lodge a formal complaint,” Harry elaborates, trying very hard not to imagine those unimaginable horrors. It’s hard, given that he’s already seen them all. “Say: ‘Sorry, Dark Lord, good sir, but I’m trying to destroy your horcruxes and they’re disproportionally protected. I was very disappointed when retrieving Ravenclaw’s diadem. One out of five stars.’”

 James is grinning widely again, halfway through, and Lily makes her amused sound again.

 “It’s a bit of a let-down,” James agrees cheerfully. “Not that I’m actually complaining.”

 Again, Lily’s amused sound.

 “But… this is it, then? This is an actual piece of You-Know-Who’s soul?”

 “Yeah.”

 “Just sitting right there. In plain sight.”

 “Yeah.”

 “I was half-expecting you to tell me I’d found the wrong thing.”

 “Uh, no. That’s it.”

 “Really?”

 Harry snorts. “Yes, really.”

 “Alright, well.. I suppose I’d never guess unless I knew what I was looking for,” James says. “But he never thought someone might wander in here and recognize Ravenclaw’s lost crown? It’s on her statue in the Ravenclaw common room!”

 “Arrogance,” Harry answers. “He thought he was the only one to have uncovered Hogwarts’ greatest secrets. That he alone knew about the Room of Hidden Things and had power over it.”

 Maybe Voldemort thought this place would be another Chamber of Secrets for him.

 “...But he’s clearly not the only one to have used it,” Lily says, confused.

 Harry shrugs. “Arrogance. He really thought that.”

 “You sound very certain of this,” Lily says, her brow furrowed.

 Harry can see the question hovering on the tip of her tongue: How do you know this? How were you privy to the innermost workings of Voldemort’s mind?

 “I’ve met one of his horcruxes,” Harry explains, carefully opting out of the loop of memories stirring again. Crying seems to have helped with avoiding them, or at least coping with them without feeling like he’s falling apart.

 He’s got a bit of a headache now, thought, and could use some water.

 “Met?” Lily says.

 “They’re pieces of his soul. They can think. Possess. Manifest to some degree,” Harry explains, paraphrasing one of Hermione’s rambling during their camping, after she’d read Dumbledore’s books and interrogated Harry for notes. “They’re sort of stuck at the age he made them. It turns out he’s pretty much always been an arrogant, evil bastard.”

 James and Lily both seem to shy away from the diadem, very slightly.

 “Who monologues,” Harry adds, like an afterthought. “A lot. That’s how Regulus figures out that he had horcruxes, I think. He talks a lot about how great and clever he is, thinking that no one could ever put together the clues he can’t help but brag about. ‘I who have travelled further aong the path to immortality than anyone’ and all that.”

 “Sounds dreadfully dull,” James sympathizes grinningly.

 Harry smiles back. “Underneath the terrifying, yeah, a bit. He didn’t think anyone else knew about this room and he didn’t have much time to hide it here. He hides his horcruxes in places that have personal meaning to him, mostly, so one had to be here at Hogwarts. Sometime before the war started, I think, he came to ask for the Defence Against the Dark Arts position and to hide the diadem in here. Dumbledore turned him down and wasn’t about to let Tom hang around the school, so he was in a rush.”

 James and Lily both look stunned. James might even be aghast.

 “You-Know-Who wanted to teach Defence Against the Dark Arts?” James demands.

 “It would’ve just been the Dark Arts under him, but yeah, probably just long enough to set himself up as Headmaster and destroy anything good about Hogwarts. This school means a lot to him,” Harry explains, grimacing at that awful parallel.

 Hogwarts hadn’t meant enough for Voldemort not to destroy it, in the end. Voldemort had been burning just about everything down the end. Gringotts was a bloodbath.

 “When he didn’t get the position, he jinxed the job,” Harry finishes.

 James and Lily are silent for several seconds. Harry nervously ruffles at his hair.

 “The job’s jinxed?” Lily says. “It’s not just an awful joke and a string of bad luck, but an actual curse?”

 “Considering we never managed to keep a Defence teacher for more than year when I was at Hogwarts, yeah, I’d say so,” Harry confirms. “That’s a bit more than a string of bad luck. They were getting… pretty bad by the end there.”

 Quirrell was dull, but all right until he turned out to be evil. Lockhart was a disaster. Lupin was fantastic. Barty was… educational, if in hindsight terribly scarring. Umbridge was awful. Snape was less awful, which really said something about Umbridge, because it was Snape. Snape wasn’t a fun teacher, but he taught them some stuff.

 And then there were the Carrows. Harry figured the Carrows were probably what Umbridge would have been if she’d been a bit more of a Death Eater and allowed to openly torture children.

 “Yes. Two Death Eaters, you said?” Lily says, strangled.

 “What?” James demands, definitely aghast now.

 “Well… four-ish,” Harry corrects, holding up his fingers to count them. “One was only being possessed by You-Know-Who. One was impersonating Mad-Eye Moody using Polyjuice for a year under Tom’s orders. One was a… sort of double-agent… I guess? The last one was just a regular Death Eater, but I’d left school by then, so I didn’t count seventh year before.”

 James and Lily stare at him, then James says:

 “At this point, if I didn’t already think you’re alright, Harry, I’d believe you on the point that I’d not sure a person could make any of what you say up. Four Death Eaters? I’m terrified to ask what the other three were like.”

 That’s… fair, Harry decides.

 “One was pure evil, but not a Death Eater,” Harry says, just to get it over with. “One was an idiot who lied about everything he’d ever done for his best-selling book series. And our third year teacher was actually excellent. One of the best teachers I’ve ever had.”

 “Well, that’s something,” James says.

 Harry still doesn’t feel good, but it’s sort of amusing to put these things into a different perspective. It’s somewhat alarming just how much of his life was abnormal even by magical standards, but he figured that out a long time ago and gotten used to it. Sometimes it’s kind of funny - in the humourous way instead of the horrifying.

 There was happiness back there too. He needs to remember that.

 “It was Remus,” he says.

 James and Lily stare, but James only stares long enough to find some glimmer of truth in Harry’s expression before he starts howling with laughter. Whatever bemusement Lily expresses is completely lost in the face of James cackling to put any caricature of a witch to shame.

 He doesn’t really stop cackling either.

 “Jim!” Lily admonishes.

 James shakes his head, either miming or wiping an actual tear from his eye. “Pads is going to cry!” he declares delightedly. “I’m going to cry! Professor Remus! Oh, that’s just perfect!”

 Harry grins back, because he imagines he’d feel much the same about the idea of Professor Hermione… or Professor Ron. He can see it in some ways, but it does make him want to laugh or cry, because it’d really be Professor Granger or Professor Weasley and that he can’t see.

 “Professor Lupin, actually,” Harry corrects.

 James pauses at the exact same time that Lily makes her amused sound before she can help it. James takes one look at her with her hand over her mouth - too little, too late, they all heard that - and immediately starts crowing again. Lily looks just about ready to stomp her foot.

 “Jim! Oh, at this rate, everything’ll be ashes by the time we get back to Marl’s!”

 “Ashes?” Harry repeats curiously.

 James stops laughing, though it takes a bit of wheezing. “Because Sirius and his brother get along like a house on fire,” he explains. “And Lily somehow managed to find a new friend who stirs almost as much trouble as she does. Oh, Lily, love, come on, don’t make that face. Could you really say that Marlene McKinnon wouldn’t let her house burn down to prove a point?”

 Lily glares at her husband, lips pursed but silent. Her expression says very clearly that she would very much like to say that.

 “Dorcas would stop her,” Lily says instead.

 Harry hopes so, because now that he’s thinking about it, he’s not entirely sure that Regulus or Sirius wouldn’t let a house burn down to prove a point. Regulus has seemed pretty sensible so far - if a bit spoiled and snobbish, even when forced into situation he’s clearly not happy about - but he did get sort of weird around Sirius. Harry’s noticed that a lot of “purebloods” who say it like it’s something to be proud of, even the nicer ones, tend to be… careless sometimes.

 James doesn’t look convinced on the character of Dorcas Meadowes, but he doesn’t voice any disagreement. Instead, James sighs off the last of his laughter and says, “Alright, well, you’re going to have to tell me all about ‘Professor Lupin’ later, Harry. For now, let’s start with how to move the evil crown. How’s it done?”

 “I… just picked it up.”

 “Now you’re messing with me.”

 “No, I really just picked it up,” Harry insists. “Usually they’re okay to pick up. You just can’t wear them - most of them - or hold onto them for very long. The diadem should be all right.”

 “...That’s like what I’d say to my mum right before I proved her right,” James says, looking thoughtfully towards the diadem.

 “I don’t think we should touch it,” Lily agrees. “Jim, you see a bag about?”

 What proceeds is probably not the strangest affair of Harry’s life, nor does it even come close, but it’s still slightly unreal. They spend the next couple minutes searching for a bag or something suitable for James for transfigure, and Lily comes up with a large, ratty book bag that fortunately isn’t cursed or enchanted.

 After airing out the mothballs, Lily opens the bag wide and scoops both the diadem and the embroidered pillow inside, then deftly ties it closed. And… that’s that.

 “I feel cheated,” James says, but Lily ignores him so Harry does that too.

 Lily slings the book bag over her shoulder and declares, “Time to go home. Well, to Marl and Dory’s home, at least. Maybe Marl’ll have dinner on by now.”

 “Yeah, over the coals where her house used to be.”

 “Shut up, Jim.”

 

~

 

 They leave the Room of Hidden Things immediately. James leads the way with confidence, Lily keeps readjusting the bag over her shoulder like she can’t ignore it, and Harry does his best not to think about fire or ruin or anything else that’s awful. He does wince still, but that’s now due to a physical ache in his head rather than any memory.

 He cried himself dry, it seems.

 It’s easy to get out of the Room than it was to wander around its maze. The door seems to come to them just as much as they go to the door. Lily Disillusions herself again to poke her head out, James having confirmed that they’re well into fifth period now and classes are still in session.

 “Should we try to get the Room to make a tunnel out?” James asks.

 Harry considers it, then says, “Where to? I don’t know if we’re desperate enough for that. I don’t know if this version does things like that. We might have to leave the Room and come back in.”

 “I’d rather go out the way we came in than stare at a wall and hope,” Lily says, mostly invisible, her shimmering arm reaching up to tap her husband on the head with her wand. James dribbles into the background quickly, his accepting shrug melting into the wall.

 “Harry, the cloak, if you would?” Lily prompts.

 Harry complies, the cloak taking him back into its embrace as easily as it always has, and they set out again. It’s almost depressingly easy to wind their way through the castle, quick and silent. A few paintings might catch the glimmer of Lily and James in the air, but they don’t seem to think much of it beyond students up to their usual trouble, if they suspect anything at all. It depends whether the paintings are lazier or nosier.

 They’re all back at the One-Eyed Witch before Harry really knows it, having encountered no one in the halls except one young student with their face and all attention deep in their book. Harry froze when the student let out a soft exclamation behind them, but when Harry turned with a hand on the knife still in his pocket, he realized it was because the student had walked face-first into a wall. It must have been a good book. Or just a Ravenclaw.

 They go down into the passageway behind the One-Eyed Witch statue again, then up into the Honeydukes cellar, and then, after waiting for an employee to go by, they all hurry through the busy-yet-empty kitchen and out the back door again. Harry focuses on walking, on ignoring his headache, on not being caught, and then… they’re out.

 They did it.

 James closes the door carefully behind them. “All right, then?”

 Lily undoes her Disillusionment Charm and says, “Almost. Give me a moment, I want to buy something.” She’s already walking away, her braid swishing as she slips between buildings towards the main Hogsmeade streets. “I’ll be right back.”

 “Lily? Lils, love, we have chocolate at home!”

 “Be right back!”

 James’ next protest turns to grumbling, as she disappears fully about the corner. “What is she doing now?” he says, possibly to no one, but also possibly to the invisible Harry.

 “I… don’t know?”

 “Hmm,” James says, before the glimmer of him sighs heavily. “Now we wait, I s’pose.”

 “Guess so.”

 “...While I am a champion loiterer, I am not great at being patient and quiet. They are mutually exclusive things, you know, Harry.”

 “Oh, absolutely.”

 “Wise man. So! Now that I’ve got you alone, I’ve got to know.” James’ voice with very serious - no pun intended. “It’s the burning question on everyone’s minds.”

 “...Yeah?”

 “Do you play Quidditch?”

 Harry laughs. “Only since first year.”

 “Now I know you’re lying to me. Except, not, this proves everything. What position? How?”

 “Seeker. I did something a bit stupid in my first Flying Class and instead of giving me detention for life, McGonagall marched me straight to the Gryffindor team captain. They needed a Seeker desperately, having just lost theirs to graduation, so… I didn’t really have a clue what was going on, but, y’know, no detention sounded good.”

 James cackles again. “That sounds… exactly like her. I played Chaser, sometimes I’d fill in as Seeker in pick-up games sometimes. Not my favourite position, personally, but… not bad, Harry. Not bad.”

 “Thanks,” Harry says wryly.

 James is about to get started on Worst/Most Embarrassing Quidditch-Related Accidents - a topic that begins even more seriously - when Lily appears from between the buildings again, the bookbag still slung over her shoulder. The only change is that she’s holding a bottle of Sparkling Water. She holds it out in Harry’s direction, the bottle fizzing with multi-coloured lights inside, missing him by only a foot.

 “Here,” she says. “For the dehydration headache.”

 “Thanks,” Harry says again, awkwardly, and reaches out of the cloak to take it.

 “You nearly gave me a panic attack for that?”

 “Kettle? Cauldron.”

 “Marlene’s house is a disaster, but I’m pretty sure she has water, love.”

 “Let’s hope so, if they’re all getting along like a house on fire,” Lily replies, unconcerned. “It’s the thought that counts. Shall we?”

 

Chapter Text

 Marlene McKinnon’s house is not on fire.

 The country road is just as they left it, steady and comfortable, and they’re greeted by the same bright red mailbox, tallish hedge, and sprawling, well-tended garden. The house beyond looks quiet, peaceful in the late afternoon light, and none of them can hear any shouting as they meander down the path towards it, stripping spells and cloaks as they go.

 “So, this was fun,” James says, tossing a grin at Harry. “We should do this again sometimes.

 “Well, we sort of have to,” Harry says, smiling back.

 “Eugh, don’t say it like it’s a responsibility.”

 Harry snorts at how dramatically disgusted James sounds. He feels drained and achy and not really looking forward to McKinnon’s poking, but he’s keen to see Regulus and Sirius again. He feels… better… vaguely... coming back with the cloak over one arm, the bottle of Sparkling Water in the other hand, and a horcrux in Lily’s bag.

 He feels better able to stop giving Regulus repeated crises, at least, and hopefully to help Regulus find better ground with Sirius. If Harry and James and Lily can get on decently, despite the obvious mess and the crying and the secrets, and agree to try in the face of the unknown and potentially horrifying, then there’s hope for Regulus and Sirius Black.

 Lily doesn’t bother with the doorbell this time and goes right in, the doorknob turns with a clunk and she shoves the green door open. “If Marl hasn’t got dinner on,” she says, “we should just pop out for takeaway. Honestly, once we hand this over, we might have to keep her from accidentally burning water-”

 Lily trails off, interrupted several steps into the dimmed hall by loud barking. Underneath the dog barking are several voices, clamouring from deeper inside the house. There are shadows moving under the doorway of the lit kitchen, on the left wall at the very end. The voices don’t sound panicked, or angry, just unfamiliar and too many of them - several women, almost indistinguishable from each other, speaking all at once.

 The distinct sound of company.

 Harry quickly realizes what else is markedly wrong. Marlene McKinnon’s front hallway looks entirely different. Larger? No, larger because it’s clean - spotlessly clean. The strewn shoes, bicycles and broomsticks, coats, purses, and rakes are all just gone. Even the coat hooks on the cream walls and the front table are empty and gleaming. The hall is free of clutter, of dust, and of any signs of being lived-in.

 The house that gave the Room of Hidden Things a run for its money could now put the most Dursley-ish cleaning daydream to shame. Even then, the hall looks stripped rather than respectable. There are no decorations. Just the one hall table.

 At the end of the front hall, the kitchen door swings open so quickly that it slams into the wall. Suddenly, Marlene McKinnon is there, splayed like a starfish with a death grip on the doorframe. Her frizzy blond hair is dishevelled exactly like someone who sprinted for the door in a panic.

 “Lily and Jim!” she crows, unnecessarily loudly. “How nice to see just the two of you!”

 Behind Marlene’s one-woman barricade, the shadows loom closer. The barking continues, much to the consternation of several of the strangers inside. One of the voices - a woman, loud and displeased and demanding - rises above the others.

 “Leeny, who’s at the door? Did they just let themselves in?” Displeased Voice says.

 “I wonder what that would be like!” Marlene snaps over her shoulder, and someone laughs.

 More barking, even louder, and Displeased Voice says irritably, “Oh, move, you silly dog!”

 “Leeny, who is it?”

 Marlene ignores the question from this new voice - disdainful and snide and almost indistinguishable from the first voice, except how their voices overlap. Marlene’s eyes bounce desperately between Harry and the cloak, and it doesn’t take a Ravenclaw to take the hint.

 James looks at Harry, Harry looks at James, while Lily is still staring aghast at Marlene and the unnatural sight of her perfectly clean hallway. Then James practically yanks the Sparkling Water out of Harry’s hand and Harry fumbles to unfold his Invisibility Cloak. The cloak hits Lily in the face and James has to free it, then James is yanking the hood up just as Harry pulls it around his shoulders, and Harry vanishes safely into thin air.

 “More importantly, Leeny,” says a third voice, relaxed and amused. “Why are you standing like that?”

 Marlene’s shoulders droop in relief, before she tenses again, whirls around, and faces the three voices in the kitchen. “No reason,” she says pleasant, before she points accusingly at something in the kitchen. “Don’t you dare! Don’t be rude to my guests!”

 “Well, then,” says Displeased Voice, as they forcibly sweep past Marlene and into the dimmed hallway. “Tell your guest to behave itself.”

 The witch at the end of the hall looks towards them and the similarity to Marlene is striking. This witch is slightly older, perhaps late to mid-twenties, wearing a long and faded black dress, and her blonde hair is braided in a tight crown. She could have been handsome, but she mostly looked gaunt and severe, in the yellowish light from the kitchen, next to Marlene’s nervousness and comparable plumpness.

 Yet… Harry might not be able to tell them apart, Marlene and this displeased witch, if not for their different styles of hair and dress, or their different expressions and stances. They share the same sharp, long face and the same gangly height. They share the exact same face and height, Harry notices as he stares; they’re almost identical, apart of a slight age and weight difference.

 The displeased witch is holding a wand in front of her chest, loosely, pointed politely at the ceiling, as though she was caught in the middle of a spell and simply had yet to put it away. It makes Harry beware, especially because of his own pointed lack of wand.

 A soft bark from the kitchen and the displeased witch looks towards the source with a frown, then looks back down the hall with that frown. “Lily and James Potter, I presume? May I suggested that you train your dog because you leave it in the company of strangers, so uncontrolled and unruly as it is?”

 “Uh, sorry,” James says.

 The displeased witch lifts her chin, unimpressed, and flicks her wand in their direction. Before any of them can do more than stiffen, the front door slams shut hard enough to rattle the walls, and the lock turns with a heavy clunk.

 “Don’t leave the door open,” the displeased witch chastises, holding her wand close to her chest again. “You might let all manner of poor winds inside.” She seems completely oblivious to just how uncomfortable everyone is, including Marlene, who looks incredulous and pale - or perhaps the displeased witch just doesn’t care.

 “Leeny,” she says, “are you going to perform introductions or not? As host, it’s your responsibility to do such things now.”

 “I thought hosts were allowed to choose their own dinner guests- what the-? Oh, it’s you,” Marlene says, and moves her lug, being nudged by an insistent snout, to let a great black dog squeeze through the doorway and bound down the hall. “Lils and Jim, this is your silly dog. Snuffles, you know Lils and Jim, right?”

 “Leeny,” the woman hisses.

 “What?” Marlene says, and crosses her arms defiantly.

 James crouches down to greet the massive, Grim-like dog that bounds up to him, wagging its tail and snuffling at his hands. It can only be Sirius in his Animagus form, but Harry stares wide-eyed from beneath the cloak, his hands twisted in the fabric, because even Sirius’ Animagus form looks younger.

 Well-fed, for one, so Harry can’t see bones beneath ratty fur. No, the dog’s fur is clean, dark, and thick, and free of grey around the muzzle. He’s bulkier, brighter, less brittle, and his movement is freer. The only familiar thing about Padfoot is his canine grin, as he rubs his face into James’ affection.

 Marlene sighs, loudly. “Lils, you remember Daisy, right? Daisy, this is Lily’s Jim Potter.”

 “Hello, Ms. McKinnon,” Lily says politely.

 “Mrs. Potter now, I hear,” Daisy McKinnon returns evenly, exactly as Harry might expect of one of the least Daisy-ish people he’s ever seen. “Congratulations are in order, I suppose.”

 Naming this woman Daisy would be like naming a perfectly awful person Petunia.

 “...Thank you,” Lily says.

 Another shadow comes over Marlene, who turns only enough to scowl at its owner. Sirius stops playing affection dog with James and turns, winding his way around James’ legs, and the wag of his tail slows to a stop. Harry might be invisible, and so might be the tension in this uncomfortably spotless hallway, but they’re both still here.

 “Leeny,” Daisy, the displeased witch, hisses warningly.

 “What,” Marlene hisses back, but she sullenly moves out of the doorway anyway.

 If Harry thought he was seeing double before, with Marlene and Daisy, the next witch to come into the hallway doesn’t help. This third witch has the same face and height too, her appearance only separated by her embroidered black dress, her blonde hair tied in a high bun, and a disdainful unhappiness about her face. With her now standing between Marlene and Daisy, it looks like Harry’s seeing triple.

 “They really did just let themselves in,” the new witch says disapprovingly.

 Oh, it’s Snide Voice.

 “They were invited,” Marlene says.

 Snide Voice ignores Marlene and turns to Daisy. “We were in the middle of an important discussion,” Snide Voice reminds her. “They’re going to have to leave. If you had just focused instead of playing maid and then nursemaid with Leeny-”

 “Yes, thank you, Etta,” Daisy says sharply.

 “You’re too lenient with her,” Etta continues snidely.

 “Isn’t that why we call her ‘Leeny’?” says a third voice, amused, from beside Harry.

 Another woman has appeared, leaning against the doorframe to the living room, which just so happens to be only a few steps in from the front door. She wasn’t there a moment ago and it’s all Harry can do to keep his heart working. Maybe the end of the hall is getting crowded with McKinnons, but she didn’t have to sneak around the side, thanks.

 “Beyond the fact that she used to be so tiny?” the amused witch says. “Teeny little Leeny.”

 “Yes, thank you, Cella,” says Daisy.

 James and Lily don’t seem to appreciate the surprise either, their wands gripped tightly in hand. The Sparkling Water has been knocked to the floor, as Sirius stands defensively between everyone else and the stranger, not… exactly growling.

 Harry wonders what Sirius did with his wand, the one he gave up, and how he might invisibly convinced Sirius to fetch it now.

 Harry also has to wonder what Sirius has done with Regulus. Regulus made such a fuss over not being seen earlier, there’s no way that he would have been content to reveal himself to… whoever these witches are. Is Regulus hiding? If so, where? There’s isn’t a boot left for a mouse to cower in.

 Safe under the cloak - always for a given value of safe - Harry takes a look of this amused witch, Cella, up and down. Cella too shares the same face as the other three McKinnons, but there’s an amused twist and youth to her identical features that her more similar to Marlene than the others. She’s dressed in a long, faded black coat overtop a dark shirt and old slacks, and her blonde hair is long and loose past her shoulders - she’s easily Muggle-passing - and there’s a drooping casualness to her posture that seems to make Daisy and Etta straighten just by glaring at her.

 “Stop sneaking around like a thief,” Etta, the snide one, snaps.

 “I’m just seeing what all the commotion’s about,” Cella says innocently, crossing her arms. Then she grins straight through Harry at Lily. “Hi, Silly Lily, it’s been a while. You’re looking good.”

 Lily exhales and loosens her grip on her wand. “Hello, Marcella.”

 “How’d those OWLs go in the end?”

 “Fine, thanks.”

 “Good. That’s good. You seemed stressed.”

 Harry can hear Etta McKinnon’s teeth grinding just by looking at her. Daisy McKinnon, who seems to be the leader, looks more displeased than ever. Marlene, at least, seems to find this funny, but her smile is weak and uncomfortable stuck between the other two.

 “Cella, if you could give up your fondness for evasive nonsense for one moment? It would be appreciated,” Daisy says - her wand held lightly, her expression hard. “Pardon us, Mr. and Mrs. Potter, for the abrupt dismissal, but we didn’t come here to make small talk with Leeny’s guests. If you could collect your pet and any other things, then shortly be on your way-”

 “You don’t get to dismiss my guests!” Marlene snaps. “This is my house!”

 “This is an important family matter and I can’t allow anymore avoidance of responsibility. I’ve allowed you to waste my time long enough just coming here to fetch you. I apologize again, Mr. and Mrs. Potter, really, but it’s best that you go. Don’t leave the door open on-”

 “They’re my dinner guests! I have plans with them! I had plans with them first, which you would’ve known if you’d just listened to me, or done the polite thing and asked me when I was free instead of planning some spontaneous siege!”

 “Plans change, Leeny,” Daisy says firmly. “Family should come-”

 “They’re not going anywhere! I’ll hear you out, but don’t you dare kick out my guests in my house!” Marlene says, glaring back into her sister’s face. (At least, Harry is assuming these are her sisters. They can’t not be related.)

 “Great-Aunt Dione’s house, you mean,” Etta corrects snidely.

 Marlene whirls on her other sister and jabs a finger at her. “That she gave to me. Not you! Not Daisy! Not Cella! Me. To invite whomever I want to be in it! And you’re lucky I’m not kicking you out of it now!”

 “Yes, and what fine company you keep in your house, Leeny,” Etta sneers.

 “Enough!” Daisy snaps, because Marlene can hiss back at that. “This is a family matter, not a show!”

 Marlene reluctantly turns away from Etta and scoffs at Daisy. “I’m the host, aren’t I? I can put on dinner and a show if I want to.”

 Beside Harry, Cella McKinnon snorts. Harry might snort too, if he weren’t feeling thoroughly bewildered by this uncanny triple act. Quadruple act, if he could keep all four of them in his sight at once. At least he knows this is real, because it’s too uncomfortable not to be.

 Daisy, the ever displeased witch, narrows her glare on Cella’s soft snort immediately. Lily and James move closer to each other, with Sirius still between them and the McKinnon, with his hackles twitching and his claws scraping over the floor. Harry can see Daisy’s eyes flick down to the dog, severe and grim, before she looks back to the Potters again.

 “Very well. Plans change and I can see we’ll have to make this discussion brief. Mr. and Mrs. Potter, why don’t you take your pet outside for a time? Spend some energy? I believe you may find my sister’s house companion somewhere on the grounds, tending to the garden.”

 James and Lily don’t move to comply. Instead, Lily looks displeased Daisy in the eye, undaunted, before looking to Marlene. Marlene looks back at Lily with the expression of someone who might as well be stuck between a pissed-off dragon and a territorial nundu, and frankly can’t believe she’s stuck back in this old hat again.

 “You go on, Lils,” Marlene says, with a tight and pleasant smile that really isn’t pleasant at all. “Won’t take a tick.”

 “Okay. We’ll just be… outside… then.”

 Lily reluctantly turns around, then… pauses uncertainly, and Harry realizes it’s because she knows he’s behind her but not where exactly. Harry edges carefully to one side of the hallway, the opposite side of Cella standing in the sitting room doorway, as Lily takes a deep breath and moves very obviously towards the door handle. Once Lily has the door, she exhales in subtle relief and just as carefully opens the door.

 It’s not a very wide hallway. Harry and Lily are inches apart, LIly trying to give all the walls as wide a berth as she can, with Harry on the tips of his toes to avoid collision. The door opens on Harry’s side of the wall, but Lily makes sure not to open it far enough to crush anyone unlucky enough to be hiding behind the door on the other side. It’s very conscientious.

 Unfortunately, it’s not exactly casual. Cella, the one essentially standing next to them, is watching this with very bemused confusion, like she’s wondering if she’s going to have to show someone how to work a door. At the other end of the hall, Daisy is scowling, Etta narrows her eyes, and Marlene looks like she’s physically but secretly in pain.

 “It’s really alright, Lils,” Marlene calls out, and gives a cocky grin that couldn’t fool someone Confunded. “Just get out of here already and find Dory. I’ll see my sisters out soon enough.”

 “Well… come find us when you’re done.”

 “Will do,” Lily promises.

 The front door is open. Harry can’t neatly slip out, but he could gently nudge Lily and hurry out into the front garden. He could wait for Lily to step outside and follow her out, since James and Sirius are also giving her a subtly wide berth, more than enough for an invisible person to sneak out after her. James is patting Sirius, gently tugging at the Sparkling Water that the dog scooped up from the floor, casting anxious glances between Lily and the McKinnons.

 There isn’t any excuse where Harry could say he just didn’t have the opportunity to leave.

 There just isn’t. Harry couldn’t say that there was some power keeping him from fleeing all those dark, prying eyes, because there wasn’t. Piercing stares that make him hold the Invisibility Cloak closer to him, as though a gaze could rip it away, are more of an incentive to book it at all costs. They’re especially motivating when Harry doesn’t want these women to know he exists.

 Aren’t the McKinnons supposed to be a family of seers or something?

 But… when Lily steps outside, when Harry is just about to peel himself off the wall to follow, he makes the mistake of glancing back at the McKinnons. Daisy is still frowning displeased after the Potters, but Marlene and the snide one, Etta, have turned on each other. Etta has a tight grip on Marlene’s left arm, while Marlene tries to quietly pull free and looks frustrated. Etta is hissing something, barely more than a whisper, but the harshness of it carries down the dim and emptied hall.

 And Harry James Potter, especially under the cloak, is nothing if not a champion eavesdropper.

 “-time to remember where your loyalties ought to lie, Leeny.”

 Marlene looks unhappily towards the door, towards Cella, towards the leaving Potters, and back towards Daisy. But Daisy only has eyes for the door and James and Sirius are following Lily out now, carefully but at least more casually, with James waving over his shoulder as he passes Harry.

 This is… a terrible idea, Harry thinks, a cold feeling in his stomach.

 Sirius lingers on the doorstep, his tail swishing back and forth, his ears alert. Maybe he can tell that Harry hasn’t stepped outside. He can probably tell. Although, maybe it’s that he can probably clearly hear whatever Etta is hissing at Marlene and likes it about as much as Harry does. Padfoot’s sharp teeth are becoming more visible, his shoulders twitching.

 “-instead of wasting your time with these people, you could be-”

 “Snuffles? Snuffles, c’mon boy,” James calls.

 Absolutely terrible idea. Just an awful idea. Really, really stupid, Harry tells himself again, still not moving out the door. He really should just walk out now.

 Daisy McKinnon - severe and fair and gaunt, most definitely one of the least Daisy-ish people Harry’s ever seen - meets the Grim’s stare without fear. Her wand is held around her chest, but she quickly turns it on the door and, before Harry can ask himself for the dozenth time if he’s really doing something this foolish, Daisy flicks her wand in the dog’s direction.

 The front door slams shut. Harry barely manages to keep from losing his nose to the bright green door. Sirius yelps and bounces from the doorway just in time. All the windows seem to rattle from the impact and the clunk of the lock is very loud in this new hallway.

 This leaves Harry pressed against a wall, under the Invisibility Cloak, without a wand, and stuck in a disturbingly clean house with Marlene McKinnon and three apparently unfriendly McKinnon sisters. Hopefully, none of them know he’s here. Even more hopefully, none of them will ever know he was ever here, because he couldn’t decide fast enough on whether to eavesdrop.

 Regulus is probably outside and definitely going to be upset about this.

Chapter Text

 “Enough, Etta,” Daisy, the displeased witch, orders. “Let Leeny go. Back to the kitchen.”

 Etta, the snide one with the tight grip on Marlene’s arm, releases her younger sister with a scowl and immediately disappears back through the kitchen doorway. This leaves Marlene to rub at her arm and frown after her.

 “Cella, come,” Daisy says. “Get in the kitchen. Don’t argue.”

 Marlene turns her frustrated look on Daisy, but Daisy ignores it and sweeps into the kitchen as well. Beside Harry, the third sister, Cella, doesn’t look quite so amused anymore, with how she leans her head against the doorframe and sighs quietly.

 “Cella, now!” Daisy calls impatiently. Then, less harshly: “Leeny, you as well. If you hadn’t persisted in your games of avoidance, perhaps this would be over by now.”

 “I didn’t ask you to clean my house!” Marlene snaps, glaring into the kitchen. “I was doing things with all that stuff! I don’t come into your room and mess around with all your stuff!”

 “Perhaps because I keep my living space in an acceptable state,” Daisy answers, unaffected by Marlene’s unhappiness. “If you can’t keep this house in a liveable state by yourself, then perhaps you shouldn’t have it. I refuse to have to put up with your trash.”

 “It’s not trash! It’s mine!” Marlene hisses. Then she draws back and shakes her head, declaring, “This is my house! You can’t just come in here and ruin things! I should never have given any of you keys to my house! I had experiments out and now I don’t even know what you did with some of them! I’ll have to start all over again thanks to you!”

 “What we did was clean. You ruin things all on your own.”

 “Etta,” Daisy says warningly.

 “It’s my house! I can ruin my house and my stuff if I want to!”

 “Leeny. Stop arguing. I didn’t come here to let you throw one your fits at me. Get in here and stop avoiding this discussion already,” Daisy says. Then she raises her voice in furious order, “Marcella! Stop sneaking about and come in here now! You’ve delayed this enough as it is! It shouldn’t be too much to ask that you two come when you’re called!”

 With another heavy sigh, Cella pulls herself off the doorframe and goes. Harry hesitates to follow at first, but then he pulls himself off the wall and creeps down the hallway after her. Cella pats Marlene on the shoulder as she slips into the kitchen and, with obvious reluctance, Marlene finally steps into the kitchen with her sister.

 The door is left wide open, light spilling from the kitchen turned room of discussion yet again, and Harry cautiously approaches as the conversation begins.

 “Finally!” Etta says snidely. “Tea, Leeny?”

 “No, thanks.”

 A clatter of crockery, then Daisy speaks. “The time for tea and pleasantries has apparently passed. To get straight to the point, Marlene, we want you to give up whatever you’re doing with this ‘Order of the Phoenix’ and return to the Steeple.”

 “No.”

 “Consider your decisions properly for once-” Daisy begins sternly.

 “Also no.”

 Harry hears laughter and peers around the doorway just in time to see Daisy scowl at Cella, who has a hand over her mouth.

 The kitchen looks like an entirely different room, it’s so spotlessly clean. The elder-looking two McKinnons are standing by the sink. Cella is leaning against a counter, away from the others. Marlene is standing only a few steps inside the room, with her back to Harry.

 Daisy turns her irritation away from Cella and back to Marlene. “No one is trying to take your house, away, Leeny. By all means, keep your house - and your house companion - if you must. Surely even you, however, can see the foolishness of the people you’ve involved yourself with.”

 Marlene stays stubbornly silent, which is… new.

 “They’re inept and directionless, and therefore dangerous,” Daisy continues, as though listing unshakeable fact. “They challenge the Dark Lord directly, without the strength or the wits to see him dead for good. All they will succeed in is getting themselves killed.”

 “What else could be expected of Muggleborns and Squibs?” Etta interjects. “And fools like the Potters! They only know how to overreact and cause trouble. Teenagers playing at vigilantism and looking for war will only escalate civil debate!”

 “Oh, you mean that debate where our fellow ‘purebloods’ argue over whether or not Muggles are even people and if Muggleborns should be sent to their own separate school?” Marlene answers, and there’s a line of iron in her pleasantry. She continues, overtop of Etta opening her mouth to refute that. “Or better yet… to Azkaban! And how about that debate the Ministry’s having about whether or not to tell the public about all the people going missing every day… and turning up dead if they’re lucky?!”

 Etta scowls, unimpressed. “Don’t get hysterical, Leeny. You overra-”

 “Let people be fools,” Daisy interrupts. “We aren’t denying that the Dark Lord and his murderous followers are a problem, Leeny, and one that must be stopped. However, your ‘Order’ is ineffectual and idiotic. It will not and will never do what must be done. You risk yourself on their need to rebel.”

 Harry can’t see Marlene’s expression, but he can see the way, after several expectant seconds, that she stands slightly taller. He can see the way that Marlene McKinnon sets her shoulders and raises her chin, her fists clenched at her sides, her wand pointedly firmly at the floor.

 “I can ruin myself if I want to,” Marlene says.

 It shouldn’t be possible for Daisy, this gaunt and displeased witch, to have a colder expression, but she manages. Beside her, Etta is indignantly disbelieving. Both of these expressions, however, are at odds to the last sister - Cella smiles like she expected nothing less than self-destruction from Marlene.

 Cella’s approval vanishes quickly, though, as Daisy looms forward.

 An unpleasant snarl dredges up from the back of Harry’s mind, despite his focus on this new family scene:

 (“You’re not welcome.”)

 “No, you can’t. You have a responsibility to yourself and this family," Daisy says. "This is not a game, Leeny. This is not whatever consequence-free adventures that certain others would have you believe.”

 Harry notices that Etta tries to send a hateful look to Cella, but Cella is too busy staring boredly at the ceiling. Too casually to be true, but it makes Etta even unhappier. If stares were spells, Marcella McKinnon would be on fire.

 “You’re no longer a child and there is no more room for pretending,” Daisy declares. “It’s time to come home and put your inheritance to a better cause. One that has hope of succeeding.”

 “It’s time to come home to your family,” Etta adds fiercely. “If that means anything to you.”

 Daisy frowns, but she doesn’t disagree. Harry wishes, somewhat desperately, that he could see more than the stiff line of Marlene’s back in the face of all this.

 “...Don’t look at me,” Cella says, lazily throwing up her palms from where she’s still leaning against the counter, now with her legs crossed. “I’m not going to argue. I’m just here because it was either this or Azkaban.”

 Daisy and Etta scowl at her in identical synchronization, but Marlene just laughs.

 “I was wondering!” Marlene says pleasantly. “Finally get caught by the wrong person?”

 Cella grins, a sly expression that looks familiar somehow - it is very like the Marlene that Harry met before. “Something like that,” she says with a shrug. “It couldn’t be helped. You know what a weakness I have for a pretty face, Leeny.”

 “Cella is here because she’s agreed to redeem herself and work with us for the good of our family,” Daisy corrects. “Even she can see the need for action.”

 “And because there’s only so far the family influence can stretch to keep her out of jail.”

 “Yes, thank you, Etta,” Daisy says coldly.

 “They don’t have anything solid on me and never did, and everyone knows it,” Cella says lightly, shoving her hands into her coat pockets.

 Etta actually laughs at that, high and cold and awful. “But they won’t need to with the way the Department of Magical Law Enforcement is going. They don’t need anything and you know it! All it’ll take is one more incident and Crouch not wanting to bother with you anymore, and even Mum won’t be able to save your ungrateful-”

 “Thank you, Etta!” Daisy says loudly.

 “Yes, thank you, Etta!” Cella immediately mimics, and smiles when Marlene laughs again.

 Etta scowls on whirls on Daisy. “I told you that they’d be more trouble than they were worth! Neither of them are going to take this seriously now. Just tell them what Mum said so we can get what we need - there’s no point in trying to reason with them - and let’s leave Leeny to her precious house and guests-”

 “Be quiet, Etta.”

 Very reluctantly, Etta stops and scowls. Cella makes a jeering face at her.

 Daisy closes her eyes, exhales, and hisses, “Cella, shut up.”

 Cella pauses in having just been about to say something. Instead, she closes her mouth, after rolling her eyes dramatically in Marlene’s direction. Harry notices the way she hunches slightly in her black coat, her casualness belied by the way she watches Daisy McKinnon.

 Daisy’s eyes open, then, dark and dangerous.

 “I will not have this visit for a complete waste of time. Leeny, you are wasting yourself and you know it. You are a McKinnon, and if that means anything to you, you will come home to the Steeple. Mum has plans that could end this nightmarish nonsense, and she wants our help. She wants your help, Leeny.”

 The plea isn’t exactly heartfelt, but it’s not without emotion. The scowls around the room fade away, but the strain in the air stays, and the other three McKinnons wait for Marlene’s answer.

 “...What for?”

 Daisy frowns at Marlene’s suspicion.

  “I’m good at what I do,” Marlene continues, and jabs a finger at her sisters. “But what can I do? What can I do that you three and Mum can’t? Why does she need me?”

 The scowl slips back onto Daisy’s face like it never left. “She wants her daughters home. She wants our help to accomplish what we cannot do alone. We’re stronger as one, Leeny, as a family. It’s our duty to come together in a time of need, if there is to be hope of success against someone like the Dark Lord.”

 “...This is… a new approach for us,” Marlene says slowly. “I think I might even like it, if you hadn’t broken into my house. I still don’t understand why you need me for any of it. Really, what can I do that you three and Mum can’t?”

 Daisy stares at her, frustrated, and only says, “This is a family matter, Leeny.”

 “That’s not an answer.”

 “What are you even asking, Leeny?” Etta interrupts snidely. “Do we really need to make you feel special before you’ll accept that you have a role in play in this?”

 “Yeah, that’d be great, actually.”

 Off to the side, Cella laughs again, and the tension of the room only goes up.

 “Look,” Marlene says, before either Daisy or Etta can tear into Cella again. “Is there anything you and Mum need me for right now? Like ‘someone is going to die within the next twenty-four hours’ need me? Or ‘we’re here because Mum sent us in the hopes that the three of us would bring you home and she’ll be disappointed if we fail’ need me? Take a moment to think about it.”

 “It’s the second one,” Cella says, without taking that moment.

 “Well, great!” Marlene declares brightly. “Then I’m not going anywhere!”

 “Leeny.”

 “No, I’m going to say in my house and have dinner with my friends, and talk about our plans to help people. If you actually need me for anything more than wisps, then you can send me an owl like adults - or a howler, I’m not picky - and we can talk about whatever plans Mum has.”

 Neither Daisy nor Etta looks happy about this, but Marlene plows forward.

 “Remember, Daisy? You said I could keep my house - and my friends - if I must, and I must, because I want to. The Steeple’s cramped. Whatever certain others would have you believe, I’m not actually unreasonable.”

 “...That sounds reasonable to me,” Cella agrees.

 “Then it’s agreed! Alright, good family discussion, everyone. Time for you to go.”

 Nobody moves and Marlene sighs.

 “You would be more helpful at the Steeple,” Daisy says, displeased.

 “I’m happier here.”

 Daisy doesn’t seem to have an immediate answer to this simple statement of Marlene’s.

 “...Are you going to quit the Order?” Daisy finally says.

 “Mmm… no.”

 “Then you’re going to be of no help to us. Your involvement with those people puts us all at risk.”

 Marlene shrugs. “Well, you have fun with your ‘risk-free’ plans to successfully get rid of You-Know-Who, then. I don’t actually understand what you want from me.”

 “She’s playing the fool on purpose, Daisy,” Etta declares. “Let’s just leave and tell Mum that Leeny’s being an idiot. We don’t need her anyway.” Then, without waiting for an answers, she advances on Marlene and shoves past her. “I have no idea why I thought we could have a reasonable family discussion!”

 Harry only barely manages to move out of the way, flinging himself against the far wall so that Etta can storm into the front hallway. He stays there, trying to exist as invisibly and unnoticeably as possible, as Daisy herds a slow-moving Cella out of the kitchen. Marlene doesn’t let herself be herded, much to Daisy’s displeasure, but Cella obligingly ambles out towards the front door.

 Halfway down the hall, Cella… pauses… and looks back. Harry holds his breath; he can’t tell if she’s trying to eavesdrop on Marlene and Daisy, or if she’s actually looking at him. Her dark eyes roam the hallway as though looking for someone, lingering on where he’s standing.

 “I know,” Marlene says. “This conversation isn’t over.”

 “It’s barely begun,” Daisy answers coldly. “Come, Leeny, see us out.”

 Out of the corner of his eye, Harry can see Marlene step aside, gesturing for Daisy to leave the kitchen first. He’s more concerned about Cella, whose gaze has fixed on his spot against the wall and narrowed. But, as Daisy sweeps into the hallway - Harry swallows his breath and his heart and hopefully all his sound - Cella’s eyes turn away, followed by the rest of her, and she saunters away from Daisy without a word.

 Etta, waiting impatiently by the front door, finally opens it when she sees that she’s being followed. The lock clunks and the green door swings open, and it’s like a breath of fresh air down the hallway. Light and a slight chill sweep the house, entering as Etta immediately exits, shortly followed by Cella.

 Harry exhales, silently, as Marlene and Daisy have both passed him. He lets himself relax against the wall, rather than plaster himself against it, and doesn’t follow the McKinnons to the front door. He misses some exchange between Marlene and Daisy at the door, quiet and rasping, but he can’t find it in him to be all that cut up about it.

 The exchange is brief and Daisy quickly turns to leave. Cella calls out a goodbye to Marlene (“Seeya around, Teeny Leeny!”) that Marlene answers (“Not if you get arrested again!”), and Etta’s distant, snide voice is only heard snapping at one of them.

 Marlene closes the door on any potential bickering. The outside light leaves the room immediately, but the cool air lingers in the wide, dim hallway as Marlene McKinnon leans back against her front door. She sighs in the silence of her emptied house.

 “...Fuck,” she says.

 Then, after a few more seconds, more strongly, she hisses, “Fuck.”

  Harry doesn’t really know what to do about this. He could slip outside and try to pretend to come in with Lily and James and Sirius, and that he didn’t just hear that entire conversation. His head still aches and now it’s spinning with questions he doesn’t even have the words for.

 Were those the McKinnons that everyone mentioned Voldemort having killed? Not just Marlene, but three sisters and a mother? And possibly a great-aunt? An entire family murdered, people had said in hushed voices and almost offhand remarks, what a tragedy.

 I cried all evening when I heard, Lily’s letter had said.

 But… Lily’s letter had just said ‘the McKinnons’. There had been no specific mention of Marlene. If there had been a mention of Marlene, Harry might have better remembered her, and it seems strange that Lily would lump Marlene in with the rest of them if the two of them were really good friends. Whatever happened to the McKinnons, did it include Marlene? If it didn’t include Marlene, who doesn’t seem keen to be included, what did happen to her?

 Carefully, Harry removes the Invisibility Cloak. He feels vulnerable and almost dizzed as the silvery fabric drags over his skin, leaving him bare and visible near the kitchen doorway.

 He misses his wand. He misses Lily and James. He misses Regulus. He misses the life he left behind so badly that he could bleed to death with the pain of it. But, most of all, he thinks, he misses a time in his life when he wasn’t surrounded by secrets and uncertainty, by struggle and untimely endings, though he knows that was a long, long time ago.

 Now, there’s a war with Voldemort. Families are disappearing or divided. Some of the only people Harry knows who are doing something are barely out of Hogwarts, if out at all, despite the enormous risk and responsibility.

 The time and place are different, most of the people are different, but the song and dance are the same.

 At the other end of the hall, Marlene McKinnon sighs again and opens her eyes. She catches sight of Harry instantly, standing in the light of the kitchen doorway, with the Invisibility Cloak slung over his arm.

 “...I suppose you heard all of that,” Marlene says.

 “Yeah.”

 Her only reaction is to lean back against the front door tiredly. “How very dare you, Harry Potter.”

 “Sorry,” Harry says. “I… sorry.”

 “For what? For eavesdropping or for them?”

 Harry doesn’t know. “Uh, both, but mostly the first bit.”

 “...It’s all right,” Marlene assures him, pulling herself off the door and waving a hand as though pushing unpleasant family encounters out of mind. “It’s just part and parcel of being a McKinnon, and they’d never talk about anything too incriminating knowing other people are nearby, so… no harm done. Might as well make it a crowd. I’ll deal with them. They’re pushy, but they never really adapted to me building myself a backbone. I should really take back their keys to my house already.”

 “That’s…” Harry doesn’t know how to finish his own sentence.

 Marlene doesn’t seem to expect it of him. “It’s something. They’re something, but, then again, aren’t we all something? Speaking of somethings, you’re back! Did you find it?”

 “Yeah, um, Lily has it.”

 “Now that’s something!” Marlene says agreeably, looking pleased. “You-Know-Who’s horcrux! The lost Diadem of Rowena Ravenclaw! Daisy and Mum can keep their secret plans that ‘actually have hope of succeeding’, I’ve got all the hope I need right here. We’ll have to get everyone back in here.”

 Harry has too many questions to begin making sense of all of them, but one comes to the forefront easily.

 “Where’s Regulus?”

 Marlene stops staring off into the distance, her focus coming back into her gaze. “What?”

 “Regulus?” Harry offers again. “Black? Sirius’ brother? He was here when I left.”

 “Oh, baby Black. He’s still here. Give us a moment.”

 Marlene comes back over and waves for him to follow her into the kitchen, where she goes over to the counter and pokes her wand at a stretch of the counter, next to the sinks. It takes a bit of muttering and wand-waving, but within seconds, a curved metal handle sinks out of the wood, following by a raised cabinet door to match any other in the kitchen. Marlene opens it.

 “Luckily, Daisy and Etta aren’t clever enough to go looking for a hidden cabinet, much less notice one when they’re mad,” Marlene explains. “Cella is, but she won’t lift a finger to help them clean if she doesn’t have to and she’s not a snitch. Hello, baby Black, time to come out.”

 “I told you to stop calling me that.”

 Regulus Black is crawling out of the kitchen cabinet. He stands to his full height, wincing, stretching out the kinks of hiding in a small space, and sneers at Marlene, “As though you have any room to talk, ‘Teeny Leeny’.”

 Marlene’s pleasant smile goes tight, like she might hex him.

 Regulus ignores her, as he instead notices Harry, and his sour expression disappears immediately. He looks Harry up and down, then nods in greeting, clearly pleased. “Hello, Harry. Did everything go well?”

 “Yeah, we got it,” Harry says, relieved.

 He supposes that hiding in a cabinet would be easier than pretending to be an armchair. Regulus doesn’t look any worse for the wear, after being stuffed underneath a sink, beyond being unhappy about it. Harry can empathize with him on that, because being stuck in cupboards is awful.

 Regulus actually smiles at Harry’s answer. It changes his entire face, so much so that Harry realizes just how tense and unhappy Regulus has been since the meeting in the graveyard. Since… well, since Harry met him, really. Regulus looks younger, relieved and delighted, and it’s a little bit stunning. Regulus looks like so many different people, all the time, but for this moment, in that smile, he looks like someone entirely new.

 “Well done,” Regulus says. “I-”

 “I suppose you heard most of those conversations too,” Marlene interrupts. “And I suppose I can agree, one youngest sibling to another, not to call you names if you don’t call me names, Reggie.”

 The smile disappears as quickly as it came, back into an expression between frustrated and aloof. “I heard much of your circular confrontation, yes. I can’t say I’d ever had the pleasure of encountering your sisters before, Leeny.”

 Harry has the distinct feeling that he’s watching a duel in the making. It’s not a new feeling, nor an uncommon one. There are plenty of people in the world - especially in Hogwarts, and perhaps especially among Gryffindor Tower - who just don’t get on. Harry’s not worries about this pair, yet, but he really does wish he had his wand.

 “Your family actually reminds me of my own dear family,” Regulus says mildly.

 Marlene raises her eyebrows. “Oh?”

 “Yes, only nicer.”

 Marlene laughs her high laugh and Harry can’t tell if she’s offended.

 “Speaking of reunions,” Harry interrupts, before this can keep going nowhere. “Are we going to get everyone else or not?”

 Marlene and Regulus both look at him, eye each other, and then look at him again. Regulus makes a visible effort to relax, not doing a particularly good job of it, and Marlene shrugs stiffly.

 “You-Know-Who isn’t going to drop dead on his own,” she agrees.

 Regulus makes the strangled cat sound again and Harry’s hard-pressed not to laugh.

 “Dory’s out back, I think,” Marlene says. “Let me just make sure that my sisters are gone, so I can start playing with Dark magic like you two promised. And also start dinner. I forgot to do that.”

 

Chapter Text

 Regulus has never been afraid of small places or the dark. However, being stuck in a kitchen cabinet for an extended period of time makes for a compelling argument.

 Fortunately, McKinnon and sisters were excellently distracting, when he could hear more than them hissing at each other or the groan of the pipes. It was easier to bear being in a cabinet when it was his hiding place, keeping him from being caught out and then presumably inevitably killed in some fashion or another.

 Unfortunately, Regulus now has a crick in his neck and an ache in his legs that won’t abate so matter how he stretches them. Each stretch aggravates the dull pain in his lower abdomen. Regulus glowers at McKinnon for her “quick thinking”. The best thing he can say about the cabinet is that it hadn’t been wet and hadn’t had any grasping hands, and that’s not something he’s willing to say at all. He glares at the fiercer for this thought, staunchly refusing to entertain such a foul intrusion.

Unfortunately, McKinnon doesn’t seem bothered by his glaring at all. She has a scheming gleam shining off all the angles of her face. She practically swans out of the kitchen to fetch everyone else.

 “You all right?” Harry asks.

 “Fine,” Regulus answers shortly.

 “Everything go well here too?”

 I was stuck in a cabinet listening to a bunch of jumped-up seers bicker and have managed to further alienate everyone while you were gone, Regulus doesn’t say, because now is not the time to dwell on his many, many personal failures and flaws. The point of this entire disaster is to stop the Dark Lord, not make nice.

 “Well enough.”

 Harry looks unconvinced. “Alright.”

 Harry’s awkward shifting makes Regulus feel worse, as he unsuccessful pulls at the crick in his neck again. He spent the majority of their separation wishing that Harry would hurry up, would come back, and would serve as support and distraction from all the aforementioned failures.

 “Did everything else go well?” Regulus asks, stiffly even to his own ears.

 Harry looks confused.

 “With… your parents,” Regulus elaborates.

 “Oh, yeah, that went fine,” Harry says. He looks embarrassed, but overall pleased. “They were… really good about everything, actually.”

 “Oh. That’s good.”

 It does not, however, feel good. As much as Regulus is determined to be civil, the resolution seems suddenly more difficult. As much as Regulus should be happy for Harry, should be pleased that Lily and James Potter are coming around to their side, there is suddenly a very sour feeling in him that isn’t cooperating with logic.

 Harry is a bit of a wreck, has admitted it freely, and yet Harry is the successful one.

 That sounds uncomfortably, annoyingly familiar.

 “Yeah, it was good,” Harry agrees.

 “...How do you suppose McKinnon will reveal the horcrux?” Regulus says, because that is a subject worth talking about. It’s why they came here. It’s what truly matters. “Did you acquire a method to destroy it?”

 “Uh, no. There wasn’t really… I mean… unless you want to go kill a basilisk, I guess.”

 At the moment, Regulus could think of worse stares to face.

 “I’d prefer not to,” Regulus says instead. “However, when have my preferences ever been taken into account?”

 This makes Harry grin, which makes Regulus feel all the more wretched.

 “We’ll figure it out,” Harry promises. Then begins, “About the locket…”

 “Yes?”

 “Well… Are we going to mention that?”

 “When the need arises,” Regulus says curtly.

 He needs it. He needs that net in case this entire venture falls off the broom. If Sirius becomes difficult Regulus needs something to hold over their heads until he can work out a better plan. He doesn’t want to call Kreacher here either. He doesn’t want to open that… piece of his life… to open his life again quite yet.

 Harry looks like he might disagree.

 “Perhaps when we have a sure method to destroy it as well?” Regulus suggests defensively.

 “Alright,” Harry says, still unconvinced.

 Which isn’t convincing Regulus’ nerves to settle. Regulus thought they had already agreed on this. Something during Harry’s outing with James Potter and Lily Evans must have made Harry reconsider.

 “Did something happen? To change your mind on the subject?”

 “No, not exactly,” Harry says unhelpfully.

 What’s also unhelpful is the sound of the back door opening. Regulus can hear voices, those of McKinnon and Sirius and the returning Potters. Not Meadowes’ voice, of course, because why speak when she can glare venomously?

 James Potter is first through the kitchen door and he makes directly for Harry, who looks anxiously back at James’ stern look, as James comes to a stop in front of him and puts his hands on his hips. Lily Evans and Sirius, who is no longer the great black dog Regulus didn't even get to see, follow with Marlene McKinnon close behind them.

 “Now,” James Potter pronounces loudly, “I believe that you’re my son.” He holds out an expectant hand towards the cloak and says with greatly overdramatic disapproval, “Hand it over. You’re grounded, kid.”

 Harry hands over the Invisibility Cloak bemusedly. “I’m an adult, technically.”

 James take this statement, and his cloak, thoughtfully. “Nope, no, you’re not,” he says decisively. “Grounded, mate. For life. You’re going to turn this old man’s hair grey. Lost your pocket money privileges too, just for the backtalk.”

 Harry’s smile only widens. “Oh, no.”

 “Be more remorseful, young man,” Lily chastises. “Look at how you’ve worried your mother.”

 McKinnon laughs and puts an arm on Regulus’ brother’s shoulder. “In all seriousness,” she says, “I won’t hold it against you, Harry. In fact, I’ll even generously assume a concern for my well-being in snooping. However, in case of emergency siege, don’t do that again. My sisters don’t have… let’s say… much appreciation for outsiders nosing in on the family business?”

 “Yeah, um, I think one of them… the long-haired one, Cella? I think she may have seen me?”

 “Unlikely, with this,” James Potter says, folding the Invisibility Cloak over his arm.

 McKinnon stops leaning on Sirius and moves over to the dining table. “Seeing through that? Unlikely. Seeing through it? Less unlikely than you think. Better Cella than Etta or Daisy, at least. Cella’s reasonable.” McKinnon pauses as she pulls out a chair. “Well… reasonable by McKinnon standards.”

 “Which is less than normal people but more than Blacks?” Sirius drawls.

 “Precisely!” McKinnon agrees pleasantly, then drops into her seat at the head of the table. “Well? Let’s see this horcrux you fetched. I’m beside myself with curiosity here and I’ve been told I’m especially unbearable when I’m curious.”

 The Potters exchange a look between them, all of them, and they look so… familial.

 Lily Evans goes to sit beside her unbearable first first and James Potter waves Harry forward with a dramatic flourish. Harry looks bemused at the “after you” gesture and goes to sit beside Lily. This look exchange between Harry and James Potter is infinitely more comfortable than their initial meeting - if Regulus hadn’t any context, he might have sworn they were brothers.

 Regulus finds himself suddenly, surprisingly unhappy.

 Of course, it’s good that they’re gaining the Potters’ trust, but what Regulus sees here is Harry gaining the Potters’ trust.

 More importantly, the Potters are gaining Harry’s trust.

 This isn’t the first time someone started with Regulus and decided that they liked James Potter better - that James Potter simply had more to offer in every way. Regulus just never imagined that it would happen twice. Nor so quickly.

 It’s not the same, Regulus tells himself. It's not like Sirius, nor the loss of any of Regulus' other so-called friends. But that doesn’t stop his heart from skipping a beat when it looks like James may take the seat next to Harry, at the opposite end of the table from McKinnon. Not only will this keep Harry and Regulus apart, but Regulus will be stuck between James Potter and Sirius… or between Sirius and Lily Evans’ self-proclaimed unbearable friend.

 James Potter glances at Regulus, however, before he sits. Instead, much to Regulus’ relief, James Potter circles around the dining table to take the seat next to McKinnon and across from his wife. Lily, having placed a ratty book bag on the dining room table, raises her eyebrows at her husband as he throws himself down.

 Regulus doesn’t waste time in taking the seat next to Harry, before Sirius can take it just to annoy him. Regulus can’t rule out any behaviour like that in Sirius, unfortunately.

 “What happened to Meadowes?” Regulus demands.

 “She’s decided to commune with the cabbages, rather than hang around our nonsense,” McKinnon says, peeking curiously at the ratty bag like an overgrown child. “Our garden doesn’t look after itself, you know, and Dory’s the only one keeping this place from turning into an eyesore of a hovel. I’ll tell her anything she needs to know later.”

 Regulus doesn’t understand why they need to involve Meadowes at all. She’s a stranger and she hasn’t contributed anything - much less anything useful.

 “Oh, don’t be like that, baby Black,” McKinnon says, unpleasantly pleasant. “Don’t worry, I’ll tell her you were concerned.”

 And before Regulus can answer, possibly making use of McKinnon’s own nicknames, the woman has upturned the ratty bag and let something like a tiara tumble out onto the tabletop. The crown clatters to a spinning spot in the middle of them. Whatever response Regulus imagined fades into the silence.

 “Merlin, Marlene,” Sirius says, from where he’s standing beside his chair. “Do you think you could be a bit more careful about handling that thing?”

 McKinnon tosses aside the ratty bag and shrugs. “I could, but it’s hardly like I’m going to have the chance to toss You-Kn- Harry, what did you call him?”

 “Tom.”

 “Merlin, that’s forgettable.”

 “Yeah, that’s why he didn’t like it. Too common for him. Too Muggle.”

 “Spell me Stunned with that one,” McKinnon says, before looking back to Sirius. “It’s not like I’m going to have the chance to toss ol’ Tom about, now am I? Please have a seat already.” McKinnon whistles, then her grin broadens. “Sit, boy.”

 “Like I haven’t heard that one before,” Sirius grumbles, and doesn’t.

 Regulus is aware of this exchange, but his attention has been commanded by the diadem in the middle of the dining table. Regulus may have seen a drawing of this lost thing once or twice, but not enough to commit the design to memory. He’s not entirely sure what he was expecting.

 He wasn’t sure what to expect of the locket, either. The physical object itself, not what the act of going to the cave would mean. Something grander, perhaps? Something somehow more glorious? Something truly, fantastically great?

 Or something truly, obviously terrible?

 The diadem sits unmoving and as not-at-all insidious as any other object. It looks like nothing more than a discoloured old tiara. The same dull gleam of unkempty finery as the locket. Unlike the locket, however, it doesn’t have the glitter of emerald wetness wrapped around its edges. It doesn’t have the drip and slime, or the shadow of a black lake reaching in.

 Regulus could reach out and touch yet another horcrux, but he rather thinks he might be sick instead.

 He can feel the scratch and tickle of bile crawling up, and up, and up his throat.

 Regulus makes his decision, or rather, the decision is made for him. He bolts from his seat and out of the kitchen. He saw a washroom just outside; the kitchen sink is closer, but he refuses to throw up in front of everyone in that room. Regulus slams the washroom door shut behind him, turns towards the toilet, and heaves.

 Wretchedly, Regulus doesn’t even have anything left in him to throw up. He can hear footsteps coming after him. Someone knocks loudly on the door.

 “Reg?” Sirius calls. “Reg, what is it now?”

 Regulus wouldn’t deign to answer that if he could.

 “What room is that?” James Potter’s voice says distantly.

 “It’s just the back washroom,” McKinnon answers, unbothered, from even farther away. “If baby Black needs to powder his nose or something, just leave him be. So, this is Ravenclaw’s lost diadem, huh? Looks like she had a smaller head than I would have guessed.”

 Regulus can feel the indignity burning up his face, as he tries to stop his involuntary response. Of all the ridiculous, childish reactions! It’s a crown! It’s not even the right horcrux!

 “Jim, come sit back down,” McKinnon says. “What do you and Lils want to do for dinner?”

 Regulus can hear footsteps moving away, but then someone starts to turn the doorknob. Regulus fumbles for his wand, but he’s not fast enough and the blockage in his throat nearly has him bent double.

 It’s a surprise when the doorknob turns back without opening.

 “Regulus,” Harry says quietly. “Are you all right?”

 He tries to say fine, but he gets a soundless croak instead. Regulus has to clear his throat, which sends a feeling like fire and bile down it, before he can answer.

 “I’m fine.”

 “Like shit, you are,” Sirius says angrily.

 “I’m fine,” Regulus snaps back.

 His head is throbbing, his back aches, and his throat feels vile, but he is fine. The last thing he needs is Sirius making a show of a weak moment. There may be nothing in the toilet bowl to see, besides some dribbled bile, but even that’s too much and Regulus jams his hand down on the handle to flush it away.

 “...Is it the potion?” Harry asks quietly. “Still?”

 Regulus pauses in reaching for the sink.

 “What potion?” Sirius demands.

 “None of your business,” Regulus answers, before Harry can. He determinedly reaches for the tap to clean his face, to better pretend this never happened. “Go away, Sirius.”

 Silence from the door, more suspicious than blessed, as it always is with Sirius. Regulus doesn’t know if his brother has left and doesn’t know if he wants Sirius to have given up so easily. Even if he strains, the only thing Regulus can hear is McKinnon’s voice in the background, though he can’t make out what she’s talking about now.

 “Can I come in?” Harry asks.

 Regulus turns off the tap. “It’s ‘may I come in’,” he corrects. “Fine. I’m coming out anyway.”

 Regulus is the one who turns the doorknob and opens the door. Harry is waiting just outside and… Sirius is leaning in the kitchen door, several steps away.

 “You all right?” Harry says.

 At the same time, Sirius says, “What was that, Reggie?”

 “Keep out of it, Sirius. I’m fine.”

 “Yeah, that’s convincing.”

 “It’s a side effect of something from yesterday, probably,” Harry explains. “From when Regulus and I met, during his attempt to get one of the horcruxes, I think.”

 Regulus’ head snaps around, but Harry is looking at Sirius. When Harry does look at Regulus again, there’s no regret, and Harry just shrugs for his betrayal of information.

 “What?”

 Regulus can’t come up with a response that isn’t a variant on the childish, “Don’t tell my brother things.”

 “Give us a minute?” Harry says to Sirius, then pushes Regulus back into the washroom. He shuts the door behind them and looks steadily at Regulus. “If you don’t want anyone eavesdropping on this, you’ve got the next five seconds to do something about it.”

 Regulus glares, but deigns to use Harry’s useful spell. “Muflliato.” He waits for the buzz to settle around them, then hisses, “Why would you tell him that?”

 “Why wouldn’t you tell him that?” Harry counters in his own hushed demand. “D’you really think he’s going to hang it over your head and mock you for everything?”

 Regulus stares disbelievingly. “Yes!”

 That’s what Sirius does.

 Harry, apparently not having realized this, has the audacity to look annoyed.

 “Look,” he says. “I’m sorry, I should have realized this earlier; you’ve been great about keeping me together, really great, but are you serio-” He cuts himself off and corrects that. “Are you kidding me?”

 “No, Sirius is incredibly juvenile-”

 Harry interrupts, “You drank an unknown potion last night. I should have thought about this, but… look, the only person I know who drank that potion besides you made it out of the cave and was later killed within the hour.”

 Regulus stares. “Kreacher survived.”

 “Kreacher’s not human,” Harry counters. “Even if it’s not the potion, I haven’t seen you eat. I’m starving and I at least ate breakfast. Sirius just wanted to know if you were alright and I don’t think he’s wrong to be asking. Are you really all right?”

 “I’m fine,” Regulus repeats, even though Harry’s beginning to convince him that he might not be. Regulus would have to be a fool to want to think about the cave again.

 Whatever Harry thinks, the potion isn’t entirely unknown. Regulus listened to Kreacher, tended to the elf afterwards, and did his research. Regulus is nearly entirely certain that the potion won’t kill him by itself, especially when the purpose of it seemed to be a painful death at the hands of hundreds of inferi. Which, of course, Regulus is not thinking about.

 Harry doesn’t look convinced. Regulus tries not to care.

 “Why won’t you just tell him about the cave and the locket?” Harry asks. “I know he starts it half the time, so why don’t you tell him? Didn’t you talk to him at all while I was gone?”

 “...I was in a cabinet under a sink.”

 I tried and it was a disaster, Regulus doesn’t say. The truth will make him hate me more.

 Perhaps not the truths of the cave and the locket, but even so…

 “I’m not bringing Kreacher here,” Regulus says firmly.

 “I’m not asking you to. I just think you should try actually talking to Sirius. He cares.”

 Harry has said that before and Regulus believed him, but perhaps in the way of someone who wanted to believe. Regulus has his regrets, but he’s still uncertain that Sirius feels similarly, especially now. Talking to Sirius will only continue to reveal the worst of Regulus. Regulus was not only a Death Eater, but a pathetic coward every step of the way. A failed attempt to destroy a single horcrux inspires little self-confidence.

 Some of this must show on Regulus’ face, because Harry’s expression changes from someone having an argument to sympathy.

 Pity, Regulus thinks unhappily, preparing to turn away.

 “I had a conversation with Lily, while we were gone,” Harry says. “One that I didn’t mean to have, but… Look, I didn’t know that Sirius even had a brother until I was fifteen.”

 That sounds the opposite of inspiring.

 “Alright, that sounds bad,” Harry says. “But I didn’t even meet Sirius until I was thirteen; I didn’t even know that I had a godfather or his name until I was thirteen.”

 Regulus stares. “How-”

 “It’s complicated. I’ll tell you later. The point is that I didn’t get to see my Sirius nearly as much as I would’ve liked, only over the summers and through letters until he… died… about two years later. The summer before my fifth year, we were both in Grimmauld Place and I found the family tapestry. Sirius didn’t like being in that house, or talking about his family, but he talked about you when I asked.”

 “Wh- What did he say?”

 “He called you a stupid idiot for joining the Death Eaters and didn’t know how you’d died. He suspected you’d been murdered by Vol- Tom, or on Tom’s orders, for panicking and trying to back out after getting too far in. He tried to find out what happened, but… he never managed.”

 “He… could have asked Kreacher.”

 Harry’s lips twitch, briefly. “Sirius hated Kreacher and Kreacher hated Sirius twice as much. It never occurred to him to ask, and Kreacher couldn’t have told him anyway, remember? You told him not to tell your family.”

 “...What’s the point of this, Harry?”

 “I don’t know, whatever you make of Sirius trying to find out what happened to you, I guess,” Harry says, and his gaze is steady despite the odd light in his eyes. “I remember now because I remembered it later, when I found out that it was you who’d stolen the locket, who’d figured out there was a horcrux and tried to do something before I was even born, much less trying to do the same thing.”

 Regulus has so many questions now, he doesn’t know where to begin. His eyes are threatening wetness, but he refuses to give in.

 Blacks don’t do that. He won’t permit it.

 “Mostly, I remember how Sirius looked sad - like he did when he remembered my dad sometimes, between laughing over the good memories. He tried to brush it off, but… I think he cared. I could see that he cared. And I was sorry that he never got to find out the incredibly brave thing you’d done.

 “This Sirius?” Harry continues. “Isn’t my Sirius. Just like this Lily and James Potter aren’t my parents. Not really. He hasn’t been through… any of what my Sirius went through, which is honestly for the better, but… I don’t think he’s that different a person. If there’s one thing I know about Sirius, it’s that he’s loyal… and he cares far more than he pretends he does about some things.”

 The Sirius that Regulus knows likes to pretend that he doesn’t care about anything at all.

 “He’s not going to hand you over to Dumbledore or the Order or whatever you’re worried about, he’s said as much. I’ve been… dealing with my own stuff and you’ve been great, but… look, I just realized I haven’t been so great to you. I can help you with Sirius, if you want, like… I can talk to him. I can ask Lily and James to get him to stop fighting with you, or I can try myself, but… I think that’s only gonna work if you stop too.”

 Harry puts his hand on Regulus’ shoulder.

 “You can tell them stuff," he says. "It’s all right.”

 Regulus doesn’t know what to say, still, because a person shouldn’t be so capable of being so wrong and so right at the same time. He doesn’t know where to begin with his questions about Harry’s past. He doesn’t know where to begin to confess everything he’s worried about in his own frightening future and his own sorry past.

 “...I’m not telling him anything with McKinnon or the Potters in the room,” Regulus says, ignoring how his voice tries to waver on him.

 “Alright, that’s fair. Do you want me to try to get him and Marlene to stop the… uh…”

 “Unbearableness? No one’s succeeded in stemming Sirius yet for all his life, but you’re welcome to be the next to fail.” Uncertainly, in case this was too sharp, Regulus adds, “Perhaps you’ll be the first to succeed.”

 “That sounds like the story of my life, so I’ll forgive the lack of confidence in me,” Harry says, and squeezes Regulus’ shoulder. “We’re in this together, right? Right beside each other, against the world and all that.”

 If Regulus is looking at Harry as though he can’t believe Harry exists, he’ll have to be forgiven for gaping just this once, because he’s having an extraordinary amount of difficulty in believing that Harry does, in fact, exist. Just earlier today, Regulus was making haphazard plans for what to do if Harry turned out to be something besides his saviour. Regulus has never really had anything like a friend he thought he could trust not to stab him in the back eventually, if it benefited them somehow. 

 How by Morgana and Merlin and everything magical is Harry Potter even real?

 Regulus can hear a Sirius-like voice mocking him, calling him gullible again, and yet…

 “So… you don’t have to be all right,” Harry says. “You don’t have to say you’re fine if you’re not. You’ve had some pretty terrible things happen to you too - you nearly died yesterday. It’s not your fault if seeing a horcrux makes you want to be sick. Those things make me want to be sick and I have seen… well… so many of them by now. You wouldn’t believe it, really.”

 “...I don’t believe anything you say, Harry, for the record,” Regulus says haughtily, and lifts his chin. He forces a smile up and hopes that Harry can see he’s joking. “Not a single word. If I did, I’d be stuck in McKinnon’s washroom while she pokes at a horcrux without either of us.”

 Harry snorts. “What a horrible fate.” Then he grimaces. “Are you ready to go back?”

 “I don’t want to be in here any longer, so I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”

 If Regulus stays in here any longer, he may let himself do something he’ll probably regret.

 “I think that’s the story of my life too,” Harry says, grinning. 

 “I’ll have to hear that story sometime,” Regulus quips, with a pointed look as he dismisses the spell around them. He has so many questions that need answering.

 “You and everyone else,” Harry says, and opens the door. “After you.”

 

~

 

Regulus steps out of the washroom and is surprised to find that Sirius hasn’t been eavesdropping at the door. Sirius is a few steps into the kitchen and, when he turns to look, doesn’t shout out a quip or insult. No “look who finally decided to join us” comes from his brother. Sirius does raise his eyebrows expectantly, but… that’s tame for Sirius.

 Regulus immediately suspects that the other Potters said something to his brother, like Harry to him.

 “Are they done?” McKinnon demands, and steps into view.

 Regulus’ hesitant smile falls into a glare, because he’d really rather not have important conversations near McKinnon. He does hope she knows what she’s doing with this horcrux, but he doubts it. Harry pushing him forward, towards the kitchen, may be the only thing keeping Regulus from reflexively turning on his feel and shutting himself up in the washroom again.

 “Finally,” McKinnon says, going to sit back down. “Get back in here. We’ve been waiting.”

 McKinnon falls into her seat at the head of the dining table, where Lily Evans and James Potter are still sitting. The Potters look up as they enter, but neither look pitying or unhappy. James Potter is twirling his wand boredly between his fingers, like a foo, and Lily has her feet up on Harry’s seat.

 “We ordered curry for take-out,” Lily Evans says. She meets Regulus’ eyes easily. “Someone’ll pick it up in a habit. Is that all right?”

 “Sounds fine,” Harry says, and pushes at Regulus again.

 Regulus nearly elbows Harry for it, because he does not need herding like a child.

 “Is that all right by you, Regulus?” Lily Evans asks.

 “...It’s fine,” Regulus says, slightly disbelievingly.

 “Good,” Lily Evans says.

 “Yeah, decided not to risk dying by Marlene’s cooking,” Sirius says, as he follows them to actually take a seat. “Someone might get turned into the wrong animal or something.”

 “You know, that might’ve actually happened if my sisters hadn’t cleaned everything,” McKinnon says in good humour, completely unoffended. “I’m not a bad cook, but even I don’t know what I’ve done to the dishes or what the dishes’ll do sometimes. I once bought a plate that was supposed to curse anyone who ate off it into a pig. It’s an old favourite for mad hosts who like irony too much.”

 Regulus, for the first time in his life, as he takes a seat, resolves not to use any crockery or cutlery. At least, nothing as given to him by McKinnon. He might feel sorry for Meadowes, for having to live with McKinnon, if he didn’t think these two women deserved each other.

 “I’ll eat with my hands this time, thanks,” James Potter says.

 Regulus nearly scowls at him, because that’s too close to Regulus’ own thoughts and he doesn’t like that.

 “Oh? That’s difficult to usual, how?” Lily says, as Harry nudges her legs off his seat.

 “Well, normally I have hooves,” James explains, and Sirius laughs.

 Regulus doesn’t know how to feel about sitting with his laughing brother’s friends. No one has made any mention of Regulus fleeing the room to throw up. As far as the table is concerned, it’s not important enough to mention and Regulus is pathetically grateful. These people really are nothing like Regulus' so-called friends from the past. 

 Maybe the Potters are ignoring him instead of simply what just happened, but… Harry’s not picking the Potters over him. Harry’s beside him again, sending him a reassuring look that shouldn’t work so well.

 “So, what are we going to do with this?” McKinnon says, pointing at the middle of the table. “We’re going to have to eat off this table, so we ought to do something about this.”

 Regulus forces himself to look at the diadem again, still sitting plainly on the table. This is important. This is why they’re here. Regulus won’t be cowed by an object, even a literally animated one.

 He doesn’t need to flee again, but he looks away quickly, just in case. He settles for looking near it, instead of directly at it. He looks at McKinnon, though he’d rather not.

 “I assume you have suggestions?” Regulus says.

 “Well,” McKinnon says affably. “I thought it only fair other people get time to put a word in first.”

 “How kind of you,” Lily says.

 “You know me, Lils, I live to please. No one else has suggestions? Excellent.”

 

Chapter Text

 “So, Harry, tell me what you know about horcruxes,” McKinnon says, as she reaches into her back pocket and pulls out, with a small puff of white dust, a stick of chalk.

 Regulus raises his eyebrows at her, unimpressed by both the question and the chalk. He is very conscious of the fact that his robes are black and that white chalk dust is to be desperately avoided. “I thought you were supposed to be the expert on them, Leeny?”

 “I’m almost an expert in many things, but my knowledge on horcruxes, I’ll freely admit, is theoretical, Reggie,” McKinnon answers, unconcerned. She gets to her feet and, tucking her hair behind her ear, starts drawing on her own dining table with the chalk. “I’ve never personally felt the urge to split my soul using Dark magic like an idiot. I don’t think it would hurt to have some pointers from someone with actual experience with them. Harry?”

 “Yeah, sure,” Harry says quickly, if somewhat uncertainly, as though he didn’t call the Dark Lord “snake-face” when he and Regulus first met. “What exactly do you want to know?”

 “Well, how would you go about doing this?”

 “Proving something’s a horcrux?” Harry thinks about it with, briefly, a mildly stricken expression, and finally comes up with a shrug. “We never had to do that. We already knew what the horcruxes were. The problem was destroying them, because pretty much nothing even puts a dent in them. Last time, this one was destroyed by Fiendfyre, which… I don’t recommend.”

 “What was the other one you said? Basilisk venom?” Lily asks. “And…?”

 “That’s it, as far as I know. Stuff that can damage the container beyond repair, so… something like Nundu spit might do it, maybe? That sort of thing.”

 “Well, good thing we just have some of the deadliest things on the planet on hand,” James Potter says wryly, and rubs thoughtfully at his jaw and neck. “I don’t even know what basilisk venom goes for these days. My dad told me the last consistent supplier for potioneers was some blackmarket bloke breeding basilisks in his basement - say that five times fast - but he went to Azkaban for that years ago.”

 Regulus’ brother looks at James Potter disbelievingly, and James looks at him questioningly.

 “What?” James says.

 “Why the fuck would anyone need basilisk venom for a potion?” Sirius demands, which may be the most intelligent thing Regulus’ brother has said all day. “What potion’s that?”

 James Potter shrugs. “I don’t know. Poisons?”

 “But if you already have the basilisk venom, why do you need more poison? Isn’t that kind of redundant?” Sirius asks, then he thinks about it and decides, “It could be a potion for the manufacture of something absurdly expensive and Dark. Like my mother’s make-up.”

 Regulus snorts before he can help himself, despite amusement being a hugely inappropriate reaction, especially in the face of his mother’s illness. James Potter and Sirius both look at him in surprise, so Regulus looks immediately away. Marlene McKinnon is carefully drawing three circles around the diadem - perfect rings, which is intriguing on one hand but very boring to watch so far, as empty circles are not an indication of much of anything - and Regulus looks to Harry instead.

 “There might be a way to make basilisk venom safe in potions,” Harry offers him, which isn’t actually what Regulus was looking for. Harry glances towards Sirius and James, and to Lily, but ultimately comes back to Regulus. “Phoenix tears will stop basilisk venom.”

 “Oh, phoenix tears,” Regulus replies. “That sounds common and affordable.”

 Harry grins at him. “Yeah, right? I thought I was going to die of basilisk venom once, but Fawkes showed up at the last moment and saved my life. Talk about sheer dumb luck, right?”

 Regulus stares at him, then raises his eyebrows, because that’s a detail Harry left out of mentioning he’d fought a basilisk once. He’s not even surprised, at this point, that Harry left out a near-death experience with basilisk venom. “...Fawkes?”

 “Dumbledore’s phoenix,” Harry explains.

 “Ah,” Regulus says knowingly, despite not having known this at all.

 It’s very hard work, not reacting with great surprise to something Harry says, but in this instance, it is absolutely worth it. All that practice needing to seem forever unsurprised pays off. It is absolutely worth it to appear as though he knows exactly what Harry is talking about, to nod acceptingly when everyone else at the table is staring at Harry Potter disbelievingly. Behind Harry, Lily Evans is wide-eyed and McKinnon has paused in her drawing. James Potter and Sirius look as though they’re barely managing not to gape.

 Regulus feels ridiculously, wonderfully smug. It’s a far better feeling than being terribly ill.

 “There’s a basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets at Hogwarts,” Harry explains to the rest of the table. Now that he’s realized the expressions on everyone’s face, he seems almost… embarrassed. “We might be able to get in there, but… we might not. It’s… it’s kind of a long story. I swear it’s true, though.”

 Lily Evans nods at him. “I… I… Sorry, what?”

 “Here, look.” Harry rolls up his right sleeve and shows her the inside of his forearm, then shows it around the table. On his arm sits a scar that’s… years old and nearly perfectly round. “Fawkes cried on it and it healed, but it left that behind.”

 “...Oh,” Lily Evans says distantly.

 How many scars does Harry have? Do they all have such interesting stories? That scar on his forehead, for example, must have an equally interesting story, with the shape it has.

 “Sorry, wait, were you poisoned by someone?” James Potter demands. “Were you poisoned by someone with basilisk venom and we…” He gestures between himself and Regulus’ brother. “We just joking about poisoning someone with basilisk venom in front of you?”

 “I wasn’t poisoned,” Harry says, rolling down his sleeve. “I was bitten.”

 James Potter stares at him. It’s very gratifying to have James Potter look so disbelieving and surprised – Regulus could scoff, haven’t they already covered that Harry has died before and come out relatively fine from the experience – while at the same time the man is asking the questions that Regulus also desperately wants to ask. Regulus doesn’t have to look like he doesn’t know everything.  

 “You… were bitten by a basilisk,” McKinnon says slowly.

 “Kind of? I wasn’t really bitten, because if that thing had actually bitten me, I’d… I’d definitely be dead. No, I, uh, I shoved a sword up through its mouth? And accidentally stabbed my arm on one of its fangs? And the fang broke off and got stuck in my arm,” Harry explains, somewhat anxiously, making the appropriate various stabbing gestures as he speaks.

 Regulus, in the back of his mind, now perfectly understands why the cave of inferi didn’t seem to frighten Harry Potter – who had been formidably powerful in the cave and yet gave up his wand easily. What had Harry said at the time? “Just once, I’d like to leave a place without having to fight my way out. No dragons, no Fiendfyre, no inferi, no dementors… you know?” To this, Regulus, not being the absurd person known as Harry Potter, understandably answered, “No.” Because that’s absurd. This is absurd.

 It’s especially absurd that despite having faced such horrors as the cave of inferi repeatedly, despite having faced dragons and dementors and a basilisk, Harry is so cowed by facing his own parents. If Regulus had slain a basilisk, if Regulus had cowed an entire cave of inferi, he would never let himself be frightened by Lily Evans and James Potter of all people, especially if he was their son! (Unlike how Regulus has been pushed around by nearly all his family and so-called friends in his life.) 

 But, then again, Regulus has many suspicions on that particular front.

 “I thought I was going to die,” Harry continues, “but… it was one of the horcruxes that opened the Chamber of Secrets and I didn’t know it was a horcrux at the time - I didn’t know what a horcrux was yet - but I thought that if I was going to die, then I was going to take Tom Riddle with me. So, I pulled the fang out of my arm-” Harry mimes doing this. “-and stabbed the diary - the horcrux - and it worked. Pure dumb luck, probably.”

 Knowing that Harry slew a basilisk vaguely is very different to hearing the actual story. At the very least, Regulus mask of knowingness doesn’t have to be utterly perfect, because no one is looking at him for signs of gaping when they’re so busy gaping at Harry Potter.

 Harry sits back in his chair and says defensively, “I told you: it’s a long story.”

 Regulus takes the opportunity to look towards his brother and, when Sirius looks at him, say, “I told you that he’s been doing this constantly since I met him. I did mean constantly.”

 “You did warn us,” James Potter agrees, echoing Harry and sitting back tiredy back in his seat. “Let me say it anyway: the Chamber of Secrets is real? That’s a real place? Wait, don’t tell me, if you reveal the fact that Hogwarts had another incredible room we never managed to find, I may die of a bruised ego. We looked for that one.”

 “Did you look in the girls’ bathroom? Because it’s in the girls’ bathroom,” Harry says, crossing his arms. “Don’t worry about it. You need to speak Parseltongue to get in.” Then, after a moment of thought, adds, “At least, you need to be able to mimic Parseltongue. Turns out that you don’t actually need to be a Parselmouth.”

 “...The girls’ bathroom,” James Potter says weakly.

 “...Parseltongue?” McKinnon repeats interestedly, having momentarily given up on her drawing.

 “You-Know-Who really is a descendant of Salazar Slytherin,” Harry tells her. “Through his mother’s side, the Gaunts, and he found the Chamber of Secrets in his… fifth year, I think. I know he opened the Chamber of Secrets in his fifth year.”

 “And was setting the basilisk on the students,” Regulus says. He’s very busy being stunned at all this, but… he remembers what Harry said on this subject before, far more informative than the vague rumours through pureblood circles. Oh. OH. The girls’ bathroom. “That’s how Moaning Myrtle died. It’s her bathroom that the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets is in, isn’t it?”

 Harry nods. “Surprise of my life, figuring that one out. Still can’t really believe that no one asked Myrtle how she died and figured out that the monster in the Chamber of Secrets was a basilisk,” Harry says, sounding very tired, but then he shrugs again. “But I don’t know, maybe he did something to the body to make it look like an acromantula killed her when he framed Hagrid and Aragog for it. Her death was kind of an accident, I think, but he did use it to make that horcrux.”

 ...What.

 Not that the Dark Lord used Moaning Myrtle’s death to make a horcrux, no, Harry already smacked Regulus upside the head with that world-upsetting information. What’s upsetting Regulus’ world now is that the Dark Lord framed the groundskeeper, Hagrid, for opening the Chamber of Secrets. Really? The half-giant of all people?

 “Was the framing successful?” Regulus demands. “Did people believe that?”

 Harry scowls. “I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t think it mattered. It was an excuse to toss Hagrid out of the school and to pretend the entire Chamber of Secrets thing was solved. Hagrid went to Azkaban for a bit, but Dumbledore got him out and got him a job, so it didn’t stick.”

 “Hagrid went to Azkaban?” James Potter says, horrified.

 “Yeah, you can ask him about it,” Harry answers. “He hates talking about it, though.”

 “That’s… understandable,” James says.

 It is very understandable. Regulus wouldn’t want to talk about Azkaban either. There’s a certain amount of shame in imprisonment, at least in his family’s circles, for being so obvious in one’s Darker deeds to be caught and then – perhaps this is the worse crime in the eyes of the people Regulus knows – to be not influential enough to escape the charges.

 He’s not acquainted with the groundskeeper of Hogwarts, but he is acquainted with a specific type of purebloods - Regulus knows how his family works - and he would swear on near anything that not a single of them truly believes that a half-giant was opening the Chamber of Secrets. Especially not if Albus Dumbledore vouched for the man. The idea is laughable. He can imagine that situation effortlessly: his family and their friends and his own so-called friends all laughing over the idea that a half-giant be attributed the Dark Lord’s achievements, or the Board of Governors looking for any excuse to remove “bad blood”. 

 “Who’s Aragog?” McKinnon asks shrewdly.

 “Hagrid’s pet acromantula during school,” Harry answers. “He escaped into the Forbidden Forest and… well… I think most of the acromantula in there now are his children? Aragog’s affection for Hagrid is part of what protects him in there. Being Hagrid’s friend is not enough for them, by the way, so… yeah… Forbidden Forest is definitely forbidden for a reason.”

 “Close encounters with acromantulas in your past as well, I take it?” McKinnon says curiously, like this is a casual conversation and most other members of the table aren’t stunned within an inch of their life.

 Harry shrugs again. “Close encounters with a lot of stuff, really.”

 “I’ve guessed that,” McKinnon says, with tight pleasantry, and closes the last of her three circles. She then begins drawing runes around the rings. “I do want to hear this long story, Harry, as much as it will gall my McKinnon heritage to be so fantastically outdone in revealing the secrets of the past and future, but… I feel we’ve gotten a little off topic. Lils?”

 “Just a little,” Lily agrees, strained. “Just a bit.”

 “Oh,” Harry says awkwardly. “Sorry.”

 “Oh, it’s a pleasure to learn these things, Harry, though how very dare you for upstaging me. My questions about horcruxes, however, were leaning more towards the… ‘not destroying them yet’ side of things. Is there anything I should now about handling one now?”

 “Uh, yeah, probably, um…”

 “You said that they can influence people’s moods and minds, and possess them over time,” Lily reminds him. “If worn. And that some of them have fatal curses if anyone puts them on - the ring, I think you said - but that this one isn’t cursed as far as you know.”

 “As far as I know, yeah; I didn’t have it that long before it was destroyed, though.”

 “How long?” McKinnon asks, still marking up her table. “As specific as possible in every detail is more helpful than you realize when dealing with cursed objects, especially sentient ones. What’s our guaranteed safe period? For a given value of safe, of course.”

 “I don’t know. Five minutes? Less than ten minutes,” Harry says.

 “...You had it for less than ten minutes?”

 “I grabbed it and then some nutter started throwing Fiendfyre about,” Harry says defensively. “I got out alive and the horcrux didn’t, but I was too busy trying to get out of there and not die to pay close attention to how the horcrux was doing.”

 McKinnon nods. “That’s fair.”

 “...You also said that horcruxes can manifest to some degree,” Regulus says, in the silence where no one seems to know how to respond to the latest outrageous thing that Harry’s said. “Under what circumstances can the soul fragment project itself and interact with the world?”

 “Oh, good one, baby Black. Good question.”

 Regulus tries to glare at McKinnon for the nickname and what surely must be condescension, but she’s too busy working on her circles. The table turns to Harry, as he thinks about the answers to this one.

 “One of them created illusions, right before we destroyed it, as self-defence, trying to manipulate us into turning on each other,” Harry answers, with a deep grimace and that far-off, odd, glimmering look in his eyes again. “We’d been carrying it around for months, though, and we’d been having mood swings and… it wasn’t good… so the horcrux had probably been feeding off us? We didn’t have a good way to destroy it after we got it.”

 “...Which one was this?” Regulus asks.

 “The locket.”

 Regulus nods thoughtfully, trying to slot this into his collection of information and the building history he has for Harry Potter. He can’t tell whether the diadem or the locket came first, but now doesn’t seem the time to ask that particular question as Harry continues.

 “The diary, which’s the one that opened the Chamber of Secrets, had been possessing a student - a friend of mine - for months. She was… only eleven at the time and she thought it was just a diary… and in the end Tom Riddle was walking around, nearly solid, trying to drain her life so he could be… I don’t know… real? Solid? They might’ve been two Vol- You-Know-Who, though, which would have been…”

 “Bad?” James Potter suggests.

 “I would’ve said a fucking nightmare,” Sirius says thoughtfully.

 “Yeah, Sirius has it,” Lily says.

 “Sirius’ got it,” McKinnon agrees. “Sorry, Jim.”

 James Potter ridiculously mimes a blow to his heart, but nods. “Gotta give it to you, Pads.”

 “I’ve always wanted to win an award for honesty,” Sirius says wryly. “But I think this kid’s fantastically outdoing me there too. So, we’ve got months of safety from possession and interaction is the trigger, so far as you know?”

 “Yeah. Oh, we used Parseltongue to open the locket, though, and stab it. You-Know-Wh- Tom might’ve put in some sort of Parseltongue trigger for the horcruxes? He probably thought he was the only one who could, being the ‘heir of Slytherin’,” Harry says to McKinnon. “I don’t know, we didn’t really… test it. We mostly wanted to destroy the horcruxes as quickly as possible, not…”

 “Play with them?” Regulus suggests.

 Harry looks reluctant at first, but has to concede it. “Well… yeah.”

 “My mother would have my head if she thought I was playing with horcruxes,” McKinnon assures the table. “Although, my mother may have my head not for bringing her a horcrux immediately, and she may have my head regardless for not coming home. Parseltongue keys, hmm? I suppose that’s why you had to learn to mimic Parseltongue.”

 “...Yeah,” Harry agrees. “I can’t do it, though. It was my friend Ron who figured that trick out.”

 “Clever friend,” McKinnon says admirably.

 Regulus has to nod to that, because it is clever. The Dark Lord mostly used Parseltongue to strike fear into the hearts of his enemies and own followers, as far as Regulus remembers, with the great snakes that often surrounded him. In some cases, Parseltongue was used to make his audience drip with awe or envy - or even awe bordering on worship, it seemed, in the case of dear cousin Bella who has always laughed in the face of fear.

 “What word was it?” McKinnon asks.

 “Open,” Harry answers.

 “Makes sense.”

 To eavesdrop on the Dark Lord’s Parseltongue and then mimic the sound… Regulus didn’t even know that was possible. It would have to be a specific moment being mimicked, because otherwise Regulus can’t imagine how long it would take to find the correct hiss.

 On a side note, this is far better than stewing in his own self-hatred and anxiety over Sirius’ reactions. This is what’s important. This is what they came here to do: to discuss how to defeat the Dark Lord. As difficult as it is to repeatedly not react to Harry’s revelations by screaming, Regulus prefers this purposeful distraction much better than everything before. He understands how this can work. This makes sense. This seems possible.

 “So, the horcrux is unlikely to defend itself when I poke it,” McKinnon says. “Good, that’s part of what I needed to know. The other thing I need to know is, ‘Will Tom know when I poke it?’ Are we going to get You-Know-Who bearing down on us? That’s the question. If a horcrux screams in my house, will the idiot it belongs to hear it?”

 “...Fucking hell, Marlene,” Sirius says. “You couldn’t have asked that before you started?”

 “I haven’t poked it yet.”

 “The texts that I read seemed to indicate that there was no conscious connection between a horcrux and the owner,” Regulus interjects, glaring at McKinnon in hopes that she stop casually referring to the Dark Lord as ‘an idiot’. “Although, it was phrased more as a warning to whomever was potentially planning on making a horcrux… in the books I read...”

 “Yeah, that’s what I remember too,” McKinnon agrees.

 “That sounds like our family,” Sirius grumbles.

 “Still, I feel like it couldn’t hurt to have more confirmation than our collective vague memories in this instance,” McKinnon says, as she finishes marking off a circle of runes. “I know we’ve been talking about not involving Headmaster Dumbledore, but maybe we should be talking more about making sure an angry idiot named Tom doesn’t break down my front door and catch us trying to make him mortal again. Just a thought.”

 Lily Evans puts her elbow on the table and her chin in her hand, and sighs. “Marlene.”

 “Sorry, Lils; I thought the theme in the room was blunt honesty. I don’t know about everyone else here, but if I really have a piece of You-Know-Who’s soul on my dining table, then I’m not actually going to dance around the subject of how insanely dangerous this could be. You know me, Lils, I have three left feet.”

 Regulus puts a protective hand over his left arm to soothe himself. As much as he hates to admit it - as much as he’d prefer to not yet think of connections that the Dark Lord may use to track them down and kill them all, connections that will inevitably must be removed if they are to live freely - McKinnon has a point. The books that Regulus read pale in comparison to the fountain of upsetting information called Harry and - perhaps especially because they were written by the sort of people who made horcruxes or knew people who made horcruxes - the information inside those books is not to be automatically, wholeheartedly trusted.

 “So, Harry, how about it? Will Tom know?”

 “He… shouldn’t.”

 “That’s not inspiring me with confidence, Harry, please. Why shouldn’t he?”

 Harry takes a deep breath and - oh, no - it seems like he’s on the edge of being overwhelmed again. Regulus would reach out to assure Harry that he isn’t alone, but Sirius is sitting beside him and Regulus still remembers the burn of Sirius’ mockery. Instead, Regulus holds his own arm tighter, as Harry looks around the table.

 “When we were destroying the horcruxes last time, even the ones that manifested any sort of projection, he had no idea we were destroying them,” Harry explains. “He didn’t find out until… until very recently. One of our attempts to grab a horcrux ended up being really public.” He looks towards James. “The Gringotts one that I mentioned.”

 Regulus doesn’t gape, because Harry mentioned this earlier, that Hufflepuff’s cup was in Gringotts. He’s vaguely annoyed that Harry told the Potters, but he releases that feeling because it won’t do them any good. As shared secrets go, that’s… acceptable.

 James nods. “Where all hell broke loose?”

 “Yeah, we got it in the end, the cup, but… Vold- Tom knew which vault we robbed… and the goblins told him what we took and he was… not happy.”

 “...I’ll bet,” James Potter says.

 “He panicked and checked on all his horcruxes - the locket in the cave, the ring in the shack - and found out they were missing. They’d been missing for years. We couldn’t wait around, we had to book it straight to Hogwarts to get the diadem before he did and… that’s kind of when all hell really broke loose.”

 “The Fiendfyre,” Lily Evans says.

 Harry’s distant look is definitely glimmering now, with… something like the beginning of tears. Not tears, though. Regulus has spotted this several times, when Harry has become overwhelmed, and he has difficulty believing that this isn’t an indication of something. What, he doesn’t yet know.

 “...Among other things,” Harry concedes. “Still, Tom never knew we’d destroyed his horcruxes until he realized we’d stolen one. Someone had to tell him. I haven’t done a lot of reading of horcruxes, but I figure… I figure that if he didn’t know we were destroying them, then he probably won’t notice if you, uh, ‘poke’ one. He shouldn’t know.”

 That makes sense to Regulus, as he notes that the diadem was one of the last horcruxes.

 McKinnon keeps drawing. “That sounds like a reasonable assumption. I wasn’t sure, because although the books said that there was no conscious connection between the horcrux and the idiot who’d one much - much less more - I… I thought, apparently wrongly, that there would still be some connection. If horcruxes were supposed to tether someone to life in this world, then there would be some tether between the pieces of the soul.”

 “...Maybe if a person only made one horcrux,” Harry says, more subdued now, “but he made six. I don’t know, maybe making a horcrux at all damages a soul beyond repair. Volde- Tom’s probably never felt remorse in his life, much less enough to put himself back together.”

 Regulus frowns. He saw that piece on remorse in the books and agrees with the opinion that the Dark Lord has no such capacity; it’s that he remembers Harry having said that the Dark Lord was trying to make seven horcruxes and that still confuses him. It seems that the Dark Lord only ever succeeded in making six, but even only six horcruxes still would have divided his soul into seven pieces.

 It’s a question that keeps lingering in Regulus’ head, among many other questions: is it seven horcruxes or seven pieces of soul that the Dark Lord wanted? Both are terrible options, in Regulus’ opinion, but something doesn’t sit rightly among the idea that the Dark Lord wished to divide his soul into eight pieces, even if Harry said so. Perhaps it’s just the idea of divided a soul that makes Regulus feel ill, because it is objectively disgustingly and mad. One horcrux is one too many.

 “You’re probably right there, Harry,” McKinnon says. “My knowledge on horcruxes has been theoretical until now. I don’t know nearly as much as I need to and I know far more than any person should want to. Shattering a soul through murder is… there has to be some connection, but it would be broken… Numb to poking! Excellent! That’s what I needed to know.” 

 

Chapter Text

 “...So, what are you doing, Marl?” Lily Evans asks.

 “Lils, I thought I’d said: I’m going to poke a horcrux,” McKinnon said, as she finished her second circle of runes. “No, I’m going to do some Divination to try and look into the heart of this poor crown - to get a look at any magic inside and what that magic might be made of - that sort of thing. It’s not an in-depth spell, it’s a penetrative spell that shouldn’t do any damage at all. It should tell me whether or not it’s safe to take closer and longer looks, but… I’ve never tried this spell on anything like a horcrux before.”

 “So, you don’t actually know what you’re doing,” Sirius drawls.

 “I know more than you,” McKinnon answers pleasantly. “Not that that’s difficult.”

 Instead of being insulted, Regulus’ brother just snorts at her. Regulus might have laughed if he didn’t dislike McKinnon’s familiarity with his brother… and if he didn’t unhappily agree with her proposal. If McKinnon can prove that there is some overwhelmingly Dark magic in the diadem, then that should be proof enough. Taking an immediately intimate look would be idiocy, when such spells of Divination are so gruesomely rumoured to allow the Dark Arts to look back at those who would spy on them... and occasionally even to curse them as well.

 At this point, however, Regulus feels that this proof is becoming unnecessary. It’s clear that Harry and his outrageous life have won the Potters over. Perhaps they’re all just going along with this because the horcrux must be destroyed and… once this is over, Regulus has very little idea of what the next step will be. Once they finish with the diadem, they’ll have to argue over what to do next, which is nearly more horrifying a prospect than the diadem.

 “I don’t suppose, Marl, that you could hurry up?” Lily says.

 “Ah, ah, ah!” McKinnon says warningly, finishing her runes around the final circle. “Silly Lily, my friend, do you want to know what happens when you rush genius? Go on, take a guess.”

 Lily Evans raises her eyebrows. “Everything explodes in our faces?”

 Beside Regulus, Sirius elbows James Potter with a grin. It shouldn’t sour Regulus so, but it does. Of course Sirius and his friends have experience with nonsense plans blowing up in their face and no, Regulus is not jealous of that particular flavour of foolishness. Ridiculous.

 “Exactly!” McKinnon declares. “Now, with that in mind, Lils, I want you to imagine what happens when someone who’s not a genius is trying to do a mildly genius thing - such as use a spell of their own invention to reveal some incredibly evil magic.” McKinnon jabbed pointedly at herself with one chalky thumb. “Moi, pour example. So, you shush or you start checking my circles.”

 Regulus looks over these circles, which are… good. Perhaps ‘good enough’.

 “Your handwriting is terrible,” Regulus informs their host disgustedly. The circles are fine, but McKinnon’s runes are… legible… at best. The woman has clearly never studied calligraphy. “Your handwriting is nearly as bad as your accent.”

 He could, with time, likely make sense of this spell and all its parts. At first glance? He’s not that good.

 “We can’t all be from the house of the toujours pur, Reggie,” McKinnon says. “Please, shut up. Sirius and Jim, anything to add that’s not about my perfectly fine handwriting?”

 “That’s not about your handwriting?” Sirius says thoughtfully. “No.”

 “It doesn’t look like you’re going to set your house on fire,” James Potter assures her. “It looks good to me, as far as I can tell. You created this yourself? I’d love to see the notes.”

 “Sure, Lily’s already asked about some of my notes. This is based on some of my family’s spells, so they might be unhappy, but my feelings towards my family right now are running towards ‘they can go jump in the Great Lake’,” McKinnon says. “Oh, Harry! Harry, did I hear you rightly when you said that you robbed Gringotts bank?”

 “...Yes.”

 “Mm, I thought you said that! That’s rather incredible. It must have gotten lost in every other incredibly, fantastical thing you say that outdoes me so completely. It really is a good thing that my sisters didn’t see you, because you’ve fantastically outdone two of us now. If you somehow manage to outdo Daisy and Etta too… well… I don’t know what we’ll do. Thankfully, their specialty is being uptight and unpleasant, and you seem like a fun bloke, so-”

 “Marcella?” Lily interrupts curiously. “What did Harry do to outdo Cella?”

 Regulus was impressed with Harry, after climbing out of that cabinet, for having eavesdropped on the McKinnons. It showed more of the right sort of initiative. If Regulus had been given a choice, instead of being shoved under a sink, he might have done the same thing.

 What Regulus heard of that conversation is that the McKinnons had their own plan to dispose of the Dark Lord, but they made no mention of horcruxes, so presumably it can’t have been a good plan. He is, reluctantly, impressed that McKinnon stood up to her family, although it was really the only reasonable course of action for her. What Regulus doesn’t remember hearing of that conversation was anything done by Harry to influence it. What could Harry have done to outdo another McKinnon?

 Regulus also doesn’t remember which one of the McKinnons this is supposed to have been.

 “...Isn’t Cella the one who was going to go to Azkaban?” Harry says, while McKinnon has paused in answering Lily’s question as to what Harry did to outdo her sister.

 “...Oh,” Harry says next, as everyone looks at him. “Should I have… not said that?”

 Regulus remembers that part and his mild disbelief. He’s wasn’t precisely surprised to hear that one of the McKinnons had been caught on the wrong side of the law. Regulus is a Black and has no shortage of relatives with no shortage of crimes, and the McKinnons may not move in the same circles of the Blacks... but few do. The Blacks and their like are hardly the only magical family out there to look outside the law for the means to an end. Most notable families have secrets. The McKinnons are apparently  influential enough to pull a few strings and avoid the shame of imprisonment, which is more substancte than he might have guessed of them. 

 Nevertheless, Regulus remains enormously curious to know what this McKinnon did. Thankfully, it seems he may not receive criticism for his nosiness, because Lily Evans is wide-eyed with her disbelief and fully willing to demand answers.

 “Why was Cella going to go to Azkaban?”

 McKinnon looks actually sheepish. “Azkaban would have been an overreaction,” she says defensively. “She didn’t kill anyone or hurt anyone, so far as I know, she was just being… Harry, I don’t suppose anyone’s explained to you what my family does, have they?”

 “Uh, no?”

 Lily glowers at her friend, for this shift in topic, but allows it. McKinnon goes back to finishing the spell she’s drawing on her own furniture and, instead of explaining why one of her sisters has been “caught in an embarrassing way”, summarizes her family history. Regulus would find this an admirable move if he wasn’t so annoyed by it.

 Part of his annoyance may come from the fact that he, admittedly, doesn’t know precisely what the McKinnons do. Beyond that they’re seers, of course. They… deal in antiques, Regulus believes; he heard someone call them merchants once. Dealers. New blood and new money, by Black standards, and therefore not important. 

 “The McKinnons are seers, yes,” McKinnon says, “but handing out fortunes is a risky business and a hard business and not a very profitable business. Life is very unpredictable, for all that people can be, and telling people what they want to hear gets boring fast. Besides, palm-reading is hardly all that there is to Divination, although I do know some seers who are very good at it.

 “The McKinnons mostly deal in stuff. The magic of stuff and things. We’re dealers and appraisers for antiques and heirlooms and general curiosities, although sometimes we do enchanting as well. Want to know if something is enchanted or cursed? Want to know how old this thing you found in your grandmother’s memory chest is? Have the money to pay for a McKinnon fee? Give me time and I can tell you exactly where something’s been. Things, especially magical things, can have long memories.

 “Although, it’s sometimes all for nothing if someone’s cleaned it,” McKinnon says unhappily. “Daisy’s the best at that: stripping curses and enchantments and memories off things, sometimes whole houses. Nobody likes to live in a room where the memory of a violent murder is lingering. Nobody likes having their work ruined either, because their sister is an oversensitive, inconsiderate-”

 “Marlene,” Lily says.

 “...Anyway, Cella got a little bored with the family business, at least the analysing and cleaning side of things. She liked the… dealing side better… and she liked the dealing side even better doing it without permission or…” McKinnon sighs. “...without paying for it.”

 “Are you… Is she a thief?” Lily says, looking stunned. “Cella?”

 “Oh, that’s how Harry outdid her,” James Potter realizes, nodding. “Gringotts. Alright.”

 “Did you know?” Lily demands of her friend.

 McKinnon makes a so-so gesture. “Eh, I knew enough to make a point of not knowing.”

 Regulus raises his eyebrows and thinks about that turn of phase. That’s a very Black way of doing things, he thinks, especially when it comes to family and crimes.

 “Well, that explains why my family never hired to McKinnons for anything,” Sirius says, much along the same line of thought as Regulus apparently.

 McKinnon looks up from her work curiously. “You thought we’d steal from you?”

 “No, although yes, because they’re all paranoid bastards.”

 Regulus would not have phrased it like that. For one thing, Blacks that stay on the family tree typically aren’t bastards. However, he can’t deny the rampant, seething paranoia of his family, although he would certainly demur over whether or not he’d personally inherited it.

 “It’s because Blacks would much rather hoard everything and leave it to rot with foul magic,” Sirius says. He glances and Regulus and says, in proactive defence, “Aunt Cassie has an iron maiden that wanted to eat people, Reggie.”

 Regulus has no desire to argue the point, but frowns at the nickname as he points out. “It is an antique. It would lose half its value if someone removed the original enchantments.”

 Which were, admittedly, last Regulus saw, slowly mutating out of control and, also, doesn’t explain…

 “However, she didn’t need to keep it in her parlour,” Regulus admits.

 “Did it try to eat people or just want to?” McKinnon asks curiously, which Regulus thinks is a fair point even if he wishes it hadn’t come from McKinnon and also...

 “It tried,” Sirius says flatly.

 “Mm, that’s not good,” McKinnon says and scratches off the last rune. “There! We should be able to figure out what’s inside this thing now. Once I know what’s in there, I should be able to take a closer look later, and I can check if this is the genuine diadem of Ravenclaw and maybe even get a look at the original enchantments rumoured to be on this thing-”

 “Marl, if it really is incredibly evil magic, is that a good idea?”

 “Probably not,” McKinnon admits easily, and shoves the stick of chalk back into her pocket before smacking dust all over her trousers. “Look at it, though, Lils, it’s so pretty.”

 “It might possess you,” Sirius points out.

 “It sounds avoidable and it won’t be the first time my family’s dealt with that. Come on - Lils, Sirius, Jim, baby Potter, and baby Black - if this is the real lost Diadem of Rowena Ravenclaw, then we can’t just destroy it. It would be such a waste!”

 “I think that’s the point,” Harry says, speaking up for the first time in a while. “That people might be reluctant to destroy something belonging to one of the Founders… as well as him not wanting to put pieces of his soul in pieces of junk.” He looks resigned to destroying such a valuable piece of history, perhaps as though he’s had this argument before. “It has to be destroyed, though, beyond repair, to make him mortal again.”

 “...I know, but…” McKinnon rubs chalk on her own chin, thoughtfully. “My family has been cleaning Dark magic out of things for ages.” She holds up her hands defensively, before anyone can answer that. “Besides, even if we do have to destroy it, it would be a waste not to learn as much as we can from an artefact like this. I mean, Ravenclaw’s diadem.”

 Regulus finds himself… torn… between both sides of this argument.

 On one hand, he agrees absolutely with Harry. The horcrux must be destroyed. All the horcruxes should be destroyed as quickly as possible, in the most sure way they can, so that the Dark Lord can be made mortal once more. The horcruxes are too dangerous. They should take no risks, as regrettable as the price may be. Nothing is worth the continued immortality of the Dark Lord.

 On the other hand, if the McKinnons do perhaps have other ways of dealing with the horcruxes, then it would be a waste to destroy something that once belonged to a Hogwarts Founder. Perhaps it would be worth the risks, to keep such an incredible piece of magical history.

 “We don’t have a way to destroy it yet,” James Potter intervenes, “so we don’t have to make that decision right now. How about we just let Marlene do her thing and figure out if it is a horcrux - just get this big question over with - and then we ask the next questions?”

 That’s… infuriatingly reasonable. Regulus has no decent protest and neither does anyone else around the table. He has so many questions, but they do have to be put in order.

 Except for questions such as: “What will I do if this crown isn’t a horcrux after all?” Questions like that are not welcome and shall be immediately dismissed, largely in part because Regulus has no idea what the answer is and doesn’t even want to consider that possibility. If it turns out, after everything, that Harry is wrong after all… well…

 Regulus doesn’t know what he’ll do. Give in to the urge to scream, perhaps.

 “The man makes a fair point,” McKinnon says. “Alright, everyone up and back away. If this goes horribly wrong, there should be some effort put towards making sure this doesn’t blow up in our faces. The best solution to that, I’ve found, is to take a few good steps back.”

 Regulus has no protest for this either and no will to come up with one. He’s more than willing to take any excuse to move away from the horcrux sitting on the dining table; he hasn’t been able to look at it in more than glances for this entire conversation. Regulus is the first to get to his feet and move away from the table, to the far side of the kitchen, and all the others follow, except…

 “Marlene?” Lily says.

 McKinnon hasn’t moved away from the table. “Well… I need to be here to start the spell.”

 They all stare at her.

 “Well,” James Potter says finally. “It’s your face.”

 “It is my face, thank you. Don’t make that face, Lils, I’ll move away once it’s started,” McKinnon assures them all, as she gets to her feet and moves to stand between them and the horcrux. “It’s like starting a firework.”

 “...Fireworks go bang, Marlene,” Sirius says.

 “Yes, that’s why I’ll be coming over there very shortly, as soon as I’ve started this.”

 “...How are you going to stop it?” Harry says.

 Regulus pauses to think this over, because that’s a very good question.

 “It’s not a spell built to last, it should kill itself, basically,” McKinnon answers, turning her back on all of them. “Once it reaches the limit set into the spell, that amount of power should pretty much make it break itself. If it doesn’t, well… we’ll build that bridge when we get to it.”

 “It’s your house,” James Potter says, and shrugs when Lily Evans smacks him lightly.

 McKinnon has her back to all of them now and her wand in hand, leaning over the circles and runes she’s drawn. From what Regulus can see, she has her wand on one of the circles. She leans down… down… down… until she’s practically face to figurative face with the horcrux.

 “Alright, everyone, ready?”

 “No,” Sirius says immediately, clearly pretending to be relaxed. “But go for it.”

 “I will. Here we go.”

 McKinnon taps her wand on the table, around her drawn spell, three times. Regulus thinks she whispers something, but he can’t make out words despite straining for them. McKinnon has immediately straightened and backed off, over to the rest of them, in the next seconds.

 The white chalk circle on the dining table is glowing. Not instant brilliance, but a gradual light growing brighter, snaking from line to line, circle to circle, around and around, again and again. It looks to be building on itself, as Regulus might expect from a drawn, layered spell. The light is working on the outside in, creeping inwards towards the discoloured diadem.

 The discoloured diadem which is… no longer so still and silent.

 Something like smoke is wafting off the gleaming metal, in thin trails of white. Regulus likens it to smoke because a burnt smell is beginning to waft through the room as well. He considers casting a Bubblehead Charm, but he has no desire to trap the smell in with him, and he pinches his nose as he puts a hand over his mouth.

 “...Maybe I should have opened a window,” McKinnon says, doing the same thing.

 Lily Evans, also with a hand over her nose, immediately points her wand at the kitchen window and flicks it wide open. With another flick and a muttered spell, she has a light wind running through the kitchen, whisking the growing, darkening smoke out the window and away from them all. The smell doesn’t immediately dissipate, but this is something.

 The breeze can do nothing, however, about the sounds coming off the diadem. It’s a low, inconstant hissing sound that makes all the hairs on Regulus’ arms stand on end.

 “...Is it supposed to be doing that?” James Potter asks.

 “Maybe,” McKinnon answers.

 Regulus glances at her, disbelieving, because that’s not the sort of answer he wanted to hear, only to find that McKinnon’s gaze is fixed on the diadem and distant.

 “Maybe?” Lily demands unhappy.

 “I’ve never tried anything with a horcrux before,” McKinnon says through gritted teeth. “How should I know? Sorry, but I’m trying to focus here, Lils and Jim. If you want to know what this thing’s made of, I need to See it and I need you to be quiet so I can see better.”

 That makes no sense to Regulus, but McKinnon likely does need to focus, so he looks back to the diadem. The smoke has gotten thicker, greyer, and the hissing sound louder. Even with Lily Evans' breeze pushing as much as it can out the window, the burning smell is becoming pervasive through the room again. Regulus puts his hand back over his face.

 Just in time to muffle his own shout of surprise, as behind the gleaming jewels of the diadem, within, blinks a living eye. It’s dark and human and it looks back at them.

 And then the eye begins swivelling around them room, over all of them, and Regulus thinks he can hear a voice hissing out from the horcrux. It’s faint and unintelligible, it spits and rasps and whispers words that aren’t words, but underneath the hissing is unmistakably a voice. If a crown can have an eye, of course it can have a voice as well.

 “Oh my god,” Lily Evans says faintly.

 The eye pulls back and another takes its place, like something is truly inside the diadem, peering out at them.

 And the weak, distorted voice shifts, as though trying to reach out and speak to them.

  “Marlene, stop it,” James Potter says harshly. “Marlene, stop it now.”

 The burnt smell is stronger than even the wind and it’s shifting too, towards something foul and rotten. It’s piercing and it makes Regulus gag, as he dares test himself.

 “I can’t stop it,” McKinnon says, which may be one of the worst things Regulus has ever heard even though she already admitted this. She’s still focused on the horcrux, frowning, pale and stricken. “It should stop on its own, soon. It’s not doing anything yet, just leave it be.”

 “It’s smoking and looking at us.”

 McKinnon doesn’t answer this, her gaze becoming even more distant. Regulus looks to Harry for answers, for help, because surely Harry will know what to make of this. He can’t catch Harry’s eyes, however, because Harry is staring with wide-eyed horror towards the horcrux on the table. They're supposed to be the ones with the answers, but neither of them have any answers or help to offer this time.

 When Regulus looks back at the horcrux, the eyes inside the diadem gleam scarlet. Out of the diadem’s jewels, out of the eyes, there blooms yet more smoke. In the cloud around the diadem, distorted shapes were blossoming, made of nothing more than shifting smoke. Regulus could swear that he sees a head… a chest… a waist… legs… all ghastly lit by the still-growing light of McKinnon’s spell. Every grotesque shape, every hint of a human body, is whisked away from the breeze nearly as soon as it forms, leaving each potential figure a mystery.

 The shapes cease, as no figures can be formed, and the eyes appear in the diadem again, roaming around the room. It blinks, rapidly, as the light of McKinnon’s spell is becoming brilliant, perhaps too much to look at. The hissing voice grows louder and it can’t be anything but unhappy. Words that aren’t words lift in a rasping snarl.

 And then the light of the spell becomes blinding, not unlike looking at the sun. Just before Regulus looks away for the sake of his eyes, he can see the eyes in the diadem pulling back, closing, turning away just as blinded. The weak voice goes high and strangled.

 And, as soon as Regulus has looked away and closed his eyes, the bright light gives out. The hissing voice curdles away slowly. Regulus looks back, blinking the brilliance out of his eyes, and finds that the circle is no longer lit. His vision returns to him just in time to see a final puff of smoke come off the diadem, which is quickly swept away by the wind that is doing very little to keep the rotted, burning smell from seeping around the room like a foul aftertaste.

 The eyes are gone; the discoloured gleam of the diadem is still smoking lightly, but whatever lives inside it has retreated. Regulus has to wonder if it thought it was under attack. It clearly hadn’t had the strength to defend itself, as dangerous as it tried to be.

 “Lily,” James Potter says, still looking horrified. “The bag.”

 Lily Evans walks forward, her wind spell blowing her long braid around, and grabs the book bag she left by the table. “Marlene, can I take it?” she asks, as she flips it open, her hands shaking. “Will anything bad happen if I reach into that circle?”

 “...Not from my spell,” McKinnon answers weakly.

 “Good enough,” Lily Evans says. Without waiting for more, she opens the bag wide and scoops the diadem back inside without touching it, smudging the chalk as she drags the bag across the table. She closes the bag on thin trails of white smoke and holds the horcrux’s container away from her like it might catch on fire. “Any ideas on what to do with it?”

 “Destroy it as soon as possible,” Sirius offers.

 It may be the most intelligent thing that Sirius has ever said, Regulus thinks, unhappy at his own fright trembling out. 

 “Any ideas on what to do with it right now?” Lily Evans says, wide-eyed, voice desperate, holding it even farther away from herself. Like she thinks that the eyes might somehow be able to see through the ratty bag. 

 “Just put it back on the table and we’ll move our conversation somewhere else,” McKinnon says, clearly straining to stay calm, crossing her arms thoughtfully... or perhaps to hold herself. “Back into the sitting room or something. I… I’ll admit that I’ve never thought about the radius for the senses of a horcrux before.”

 Lily gingerly puts the bag on the table. “So, it is a horcrux then?”

 McKinnon looks still mostly lost in thought, so Regulus looks to Harry as well, to see if Harry has come through this with the rest of them. Much to Regulus’ displeasure, although not to Regulus’ surprise, Harry doesn’t look well. Not in the way where Regulus feels like he may be ill again, but in the way of someone lost in their thoughts in a way they don’t wish to be. Harry’s gaze is perhaps even more distant than McKinnon’s and his eyes are glimmering again.

 “Harry?” Regulus says.

 Harry’s gaze snaps up from the table. “What?”

 “What do you think of the horcrux?”

 “...It looked like another one I’ve seen - the locket, when it was trying to defend itself - but clearly not as strong,” Harry answers, keeping himself steady despite the horrifying thing they've just seen and heard. “I don’t know much about the diadem, though. I only had it for about ten minutes, probably less. I know Tom made it after he left Hogwarts; it might even be the last one he made.”

 Regulus nods, hoping that Harry won’t fall further into himself again, and looks back to McKinnon. “Well? Is it a horcrux or not?” Regulus demands of her. “Your opinion on this is the entire point of this, isn’t it? What’s your answer?”

 “I… I think it’s a horcrux,” McKinnon admits.

 The rush of triumph that comes at this statement isn’t nearly as much as it ought to be, between the stress of seeing a horcrux manifest and then the stress of everything else besides. However, victory still feels sweet, even if it is one so small.

 “...How can you tell?” Harry asks.

 McKinnon looks at him in surprise at first, but she does answer, which is good because Regulus wants to know that as well. He had no idea that horcruxes could do any of that. It’s taking much of him not to be overwhelmingly concerned about the locket with his house elf.

 “It’s got something like a piece of soul inside it and it reeks of malevolent magic,” McKinnon answers finally, with a gaunt look that wasn’t in her expression before. “There’s something sentient in there and it feels genuinely evil, and I don’t know about anything else that fits that description. So… it’s got to be a horcrux. I’d have to take a closer look to be absolutely sure what the sentient piece is, but really, whatever made that thing was foul, so I don’t see any other viable options.”

 “Okay,” Lily Evans says, in a high voice, nodding. “Okay. Good to know.” She glances at the bag she’s returned to the dining room table, edges away slightly, and looks at McKinnon again. “You suggested we should go to another room and I agree, but… can it hear us?”

 “...I have no idea, Lils.”

 “It probably can?” Harry says, because he apparently really has no end of horrifying information to share with the room at his leisure. “A little bit? It might not be strong enough yet, but-”

 “Let’s not risk it,” Lily agrees. “It smells awful in here now anyway.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 Before they can flee and adjourn to another room, there’s the sound of the back door opening. Regulus stiffens, any number of awful possibilities running through his mind – the McKinnon sisters back, perhaps, or the Dark Lord himself bearing down on them – but it turns out to be only Dorcas Meadowes. She stomps into the kitchen, dirt-stained and out of breath.

 Regulus quickly slips his wand back out of sight.

 “Dory, what-?”

 “I saw the smoke,” Meadowes snaps. “What happened?”

 Regulus raises his eyebrows and takes a slow step backwards, because he’s not going to be the one to answer that question. Not simply because he still doesn’t believe Meadowes should be involved in this, but because of the girl’s expression as she narrows in on the marked-up dining table and the still-smoking bag, and Lily Evans standing awkwardly next to both.

 Meadowes’ attention snaps back to McKinnon.

 “I can explain,” McKinnon says immediately and then… doesn’t immediately do that.

 Meadowes is unimpressed and gestures angrily towards the mess.

 “We eat off that!”

 “Not anymore!” McKinnon declares, with very tight cheer.

 Meadowes isn’t placated. “I thought we agreed: no magic where we eat, Marlene.”

 What an absurd thing to be worried about in the face of horcruxes, Regulus thinks scornfully. Of course, he wouldn’t touch that table now either – he’s still undecided on the prospect of using any crockery or cutlery McKinnon offers him – but there are far more pressing concerns.

 McKinnon moves forward with her hands raised. “I know we did, Dory, and I am very sorry about that,” McKinnon promises, and begins pushing her housemate back out of the room. “But we need to leave this room now because a piece of You-Know-Who’s soul might be listening in on us right now, so if we could just take this somewhere else? Don’t worry, I’ll clean the table.”

 Lily Evans doesn’t hesitate in following her friends out of the room. James Potter follows his wife out readily enough, with an expectant look back towards everyone else, and Sirius follows him, without glaring at Harry and Regulus like Regulus might have expected. Regulus exchanges a look with Harry, who makes an after you gesture. They leave the kitchen for the sitting room as well.

 As they do, Regulus casts one last look towards the ratty book bag sitting on Marlene McKinnon’s dining room table, its folds being pushed at by Lily Evans’ wind spell still breezing around the room. By all appearances, there’s nothing looking back at them anymore, and yet…

 It's a relief to leave. 

 “I mean, I’m not Daisy, but I can scrub a piece of furniture of weird magic,” McKinnon is saying, as Regulus steps into the sitting room again. “Although, honestly, cleaning’s probably not good enough… at least for my peace of mind… if that really is a piece of soul and magic that awful. I’ll destroy that one with fire and get us a new table, and no magic will happen on that one, I promise.”

 The sitting room looks intensely different to the last time Regulus saw it, not so long ago, when he was shoving the Dark Mark in his brother’s face and admitting he’d wanted it. Like the rest of McKinnon’s cleaned house, it is unnervingly spotless and bare, like some sort of show house or museum. There are no signs that anyone lives in this living room. Not beyond McKinnon sprawled on one of the sofas, looking up at Meadowes, who has her arms crossed and is refusing to sit.

 “Especially no magic involving incredibly malevolent acts and You-Know-Who’s soul… and definitely not in the kitchen,” McKinnon continues blithely, and laughs nervously. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to eat in there again and I’ll admit that that’s on me.”

 Regulus feels that this is a relatively reasonable promise, but Meadowes must feel differently.

 “You know what?” James Potter says suddenly. “I bet our order’s ready by now.”

 For a moment, Regulus feels panic. Overwhelming, unreasonable panic. Because James Potter looks like he’s just had a surprise encounter with a boggart… or, Regulus supposes, worse: an encounter with a horcrux. James Potter looks wild-eyed and peaked. Regulus must wonder in panic if this has been the last straw for him; if he’s going to call in the Order of the Phoenix and renege on the agreements to keep this circle of resistance small and-

 “Don’t want the food getting cold,” James Potter says, then looks towards Regulus’ brother beside him. “Sirius, how about we get on that? I could use a pack dog for all that curry. A fellow courier, if you will.”

 “Yeah, let’s get on that,” Sirius agrees quickly, still looking somewhat pale himself.

 Oh, Regulus realizes, feeling like a fool. The food.

 “We might even be late with that… yep, we’re late, let’s go,” James Potter says, as he checks his watch and slides past Dorcas Meadowes. “Excuse me, Dorcas. Lily, love, we’ll be back in just a bit.”

 He practically drags Sirius into the front hallway with him, then his head pops back around the door.

 “Unless you want to come, love. Do you want to come?”

 “Um, no, I’m good, Jim. Go on.”

 “Back in a tick, then.”

 And without further ado, James Potter and Regulus’ brother flee the scene like cowards. They are out of McKinnon’s forcibly cleaned house within seconds, leaving Regulus behind yet again to duffer waiting with McKinnon and Meadowes. The added company of Harry may be a comfort, but the addition of Lily Evans is most certainly not.

 “Oh, shoot, Jim! Jim, wait!” Lily Evans calls out, just as the door slams shut behind her husband.

 “What?” McKinnon says. “What’s the matter?”

 “I don’t know if they have any money on them,” Lily Evans answers tiredly.

 “Oh. Well, suppose we’ll find out.”

 Lily Evans puts a hand to her head and sighs. “We also need to get home and feed the cat before she thinks we’ve abandoned her. There’s a charm in place if we’re too late, but she still might panic and hide on top of the shelf or something. It’s like she convinces herself we’re never coming back.”

 She sits down heavily in one of the chairs, collapsing in it. McKinnon gives her a look that’s far more thoughtful than sympathetic, which seems in line with McKinnon as Regulus has experienced her so far.

 “…Well, you could go off and bring your cat here,” McKinnon says. “Since it looks like no one’s going anywhere for a while. I was assuming that the boys would be staying here – these two right here, not your ones – since it’s getting late and I’m pretty sure neither you nor Sirius have the room for them in your shoeboxes.”

 “We could make it work,” Lily Evans says, frowning.

 “Lils, I’ll freely admit it makes me happy inside to imagine you making another Black live on your couch, or in a tent you set up in your living room or something,” McKinnon says smilingly, “but I have extra bedrooms here. I’ve sort of been figuring that you were going to set up camp here since you actually came back with Ravenclaw’s diadem.”

 “You don’t have the necessary protections here,” Regulus said, unimpressed.

 Surely there had to be somewhere else they can stay. Regulus doesn’t know if Sirius inherited a residence from their Uncle Alphard along with gold, but surely James Potter must still have his late parents’ home. And what of that cottage Harry had mentioned in Godric’s Hollow? Regulus has never lived somewhere that wasn’t Hogwarts or without many guest rooms; he’s having difficulty imagining now living on a couch in a ridiculously small apartment or with McKinnon and Meadowes for the foreseeable future.

 He’s… homeless right now. He hadn’t really thought about that. It’s odd.

 It is quite late now and only getting later. This is something they will soon have to concern themselves with.

 “Not against my sisters or invited guests, no,” McKinnon agreed reluctantly. “But I do have wards and other protections here, believe it or not, and Great-Aunt Dione’s work is leagues better than anything you’ll find at their flats if it’s protections you’re worried about. No offense, Lils.”

 “None taken.”

 “You’re inviting them to live here now?” Meadowes demands.

 McKinnon looks up at her indignant housemate sheepishly. “Well, they gave me some very good proof… there’s a horcrux in our kitchen, Dory. So, it seems they’re telling the truth. But if you’d rather not have them here…” McKinnon looks between Lily Evans and Meadowes. Like she’s torn between keeping Regulus and Harry within poking range and throwing them out of her house on Meadowes’ whim.

 Meadowes turned her look on Regulus and Harry, looking them up and down like they were the ones who had tracked dirt onto the living room rug instead of her. It’s a nasty look, almost more befitting a Black, really. Regulus frowns back at her. Her lack of hospitality at this point is completely unsurprising, and he has about as much desire to live in this house as she must have to let him live here, but it’s the point of things.

 Meadowes just scoffs quietly and looks back to McKinnon.

 “Do what you want,” she says. “Just don’t be surprised if I move out.”

 “Don’t worry, Dory, I’m sure they’re all house-trained,” McKinnon replies, with more tight cheer. “Would the rest of you mind if Dory and I went to talk some more about this? I’d like the chance to get Dory’s insight on… a few things… a lot of things. Everything that’s happened. Merlin, there really isn’t a boring day with you around, is there, Lils?”

 “I try,” Lily Evans answers, with a huff of laughter, but it sounds more weary than wry.

 “I said do what you want, Marlene,” Meadowes says.

 “Yes, I heard, but I still wanted to talk? There’s just so much. All three of my sisters were just here for a surprise visit on family business, which I think merits a bit more consideration... on how to keep them out. You know how I just love talking about my family, Dory.”

 That actually makes Dorcas Meadowes snort with humour, which seems to surprise everyone in the room, Meadowes included. McKinnon looks delighted by someone finding her amusing.

 “We’ll be outside,” McKinnon says, and then claps her hands together. “Lils, you can figure your way around my kitchen, right? Reggie, you’re already getting familiar with the cabinets. How about you three get everything ready for supper for when our couriers get back? Set the table for us?”

 Regulus stares at McKinnon disbelievingly for the cabinet comment, as she pauses like she has – for perhaps the first time in her life – heard what has come out of her mouth.

 “Not that table,” McKinnon corrects. “A different one.”

 Lily Evans just rolls her eyes. “How about a different room? What about in here?”

 “Lils, I like the way you think. That’s perfect.”

 

 ~

 

 Meadowes and McKinnon make themselves scarce before Regulus can come up with a suitable response for the cabinet comment or a reason to object. To be perfectly honest, he doesn’t particularly want to come up with a reason to object to being temporarily rid of them, beyond simply not wanting anyone to go out and conspire where he can’t hear them. He can think of far worse situations than being left with Harry and Lily Evans for company.

 When the back door closes behind Meadowes and McKinnon, Lily Evans gives them both a tired grin. Regulus doesn’t know what to make of this. The first time Lily Evans ever really smiled at him was most likely in the graveyard earlier, and that was a very different sort of smile.

 “This isn’t how I thought today would go when I woke up,” she says.

 “Me neither,” Harry agrees readily.

 “I’ll… admit that I have a lot of questions right now, but… I think we’re all heartily sick of those right now,” Lily continues, sharing a commiserating look with Harry. “If you’d told me when I was a little girl that there were some things I’d be happier not knowing about, I’d probably have told you something rude. And I wouldn’t have apologized later for doubting you.”

 Regulus could point out that she’s not apologizing now, but she continues before he can decide.

 “If you two do come stay with me and Jim for the night, you’ll be sleeping on our couch and the floor. Unless one of you wants to take Sirius’ couch or you have your own place, Marlene’s house is probably honestly the best place to crash. This house has some of those beautifully complex wards. The sort that have aged like fine wine, you know the ones?” Lily says admiringly, and waves a hand as though to illustrate vaguely.

 “Not… really,” Harry answers.

 “Black residences have absurdly complex wards that age in a way that would be ungenerously described as ‘rotting’,” Regulus replies frankly. The veritable fortress that is Grimmauld Place is protected in such a way that “rotting” might also describe the curses that would unfold on those foolish unfortunates who might attempt to trespass.

 “Maybe that’s not a good simile,” Lily Evans muses. “I don’t really drink wine.”

 “Given her sisters’ unexpected appearance today, I find myself sceptical about the quality of McKinnon’s protections,” Regulus says, careful to inject some humour into this honest observation. “Not to mention the… interesting hospitality.”

 He doesn’t mean this unkindly, but he really doesn’t wish to stay with McKinnon. He understands they don’t have many options – a place where he can comfortably expect to hide from the Dark Lord may not, in fact, actually exist – but surely there’s somewhere better than the home of an overly curious witch with too many sisters and her dour housemate who clearly despises him. Besides, Regulus has seen more than enough of their housekeeping to be reasonably wary of staying, lest some stray watering can be the unlikely and embarrassing death of him.

 And yet Lily Evans still gives him a disapproving look. “I’m sure they’ll be as gracious hosts as you’ll be a guest,” she says. “Marlene and Dorcas are both extremely private people. If they decide to fully open their home to you now, you should say thank you for it.”

 “We will,” Harry promises, before Regulus can answer.

 Regulus frowns at Harry for making such a promise to be grateful on his behalf, even if a lack of acknowledgement would be rude. Harry just leans against one of the sofas and raises his eyebrows at Regulus, unimpressed and expectant, and he looks terribly like the girl across from him as he does that. It’s far more obvious when James Potter isn’t in the room for comparison.

 “Am I expected to be grateful to drown in McKinnon’s discarded junk as well?” Regulus asks of them sarcastically. “There’s only so effusive I can manage to be when Meadowes spits in my tea.”

 Harry snorts like this is a joke. Which it is, but the concern beneath it is quite real.

 “I thought Slytherins were supposed to be good at arse-kissing,” Harry says.

 “We all have our limits,” Regulus assures him.

 Lily Evans huffs in amusement at this, then adds, “I don’t think you have to worry about Dorcas ever making you tea again. And if you think after seven years of rooming with her that I’m going to ask anyone to be grateful for Marlene’s mess, then you’re zero for two. I’d expect you not to break or mess with any of their belongings, not put up with wading through endless odds and ends.”

 Regulus would still prefer an alternative. Sirius’ sofa isn’t the most appealing residence for the foreseeable future – especially given that Regulus doesn’t know a thing about how Sirius lives now, beyond that he must be living somewhere else now – but it sounds perfectly lovely at the moment. Possible. Doable. Marginally more bearable. Though the opportunity of wading through McKinnon’s belongings is an interesting one. Perhaps Regulus might find out more about her sisters or her family or what they know of horcruxes?

 “I don’t appreciate being used as encouragement for your friend to clean her house,” Regulus says, ignoring the sudden urge to explore. Even if they don’t stay here, they’ll likely be back; he will, hopefully, have time to “wade” through McKinnon’s belongings, which seems a fitting repayment for being shoved into a kitchen cabinet because of sub-par protections.

 Neither Lily nor Harry seem anything but amused at this protest.

 “We’ll see what Marl and Dory have to say about things first, then Jim and Sirius when they get back,” Lily Evans says. “But, really, Regulus, Harry, if they do decide to welcome you into their house… just be nice. I’m sure you can manage that if you put your mind to it.”

 Regulus is sure she’s not truly talking to the both of them.

 Again, they’re here to kill the Dark Lord, not make nice. But… if these people insist…

 “I can manage niceties,” Regulus replies, meeting her eyes, because for Harry and Sirius and their mission he can, “but I have little say in certain others who have put their mind to not ‘being nice’.”

 Lily Evans purses her lips in disapproval. “Then be civil.”

 Harry clears his throat before Regulus can snap back at her about politeness.

 “If Marlene and Dorcas don’t like you, I’m pretty sure it’s because you used to be a Death Eater,” Harry points out, rather affably. “Yeah, you were a pretty shit one and you’re defecting and all that, but… you know… still a bad thing. Not a great recommendation. If you wanna prove them wrong about you, I’m pretty sure that’s on you. Not them.”

 Lily Evans and Regulus both look to Harry in surprise, Regulus with a frown at the unpleasant truth in that. Harry rubs the back of his neck awkwardly and then shrugs at them.

 “I’ve had some experience with everyone being against you – while being worried that Tom’s going to show up and kill me and everyone I know, and being pissed that no one believed me about it. Getting angry about it and getting into stupid fights over it never seemed to do much.”

 “What did do something about it?” Lily Evans says.

 “Ignoring people and getting on with trying to fight Tom,” Harry answers. “Either they came around in the end or they turned out to be cowards or as good as Death Eaters. My friends believed me from the beginning. Anyone who actually mattered came around in the end.” He looks at Regulus with a serious expression. “It’s not the exact same thing, really, but… it’s like getting along with Sirius, right? You’re just going to have to put some work into it. You've been nice, just... keep being nice, even if they're not.”

 Regulus could answer that it’s not like Sirius at all, because he doesn’t particularly care what McKinnon or Meadowes think of him. Although, admittedly, he would prefer it if they thought differently of him. However, Harry may have a point, even if Regulus would prefer it if he didn’t.

 Lily Evans smiles at her son. “Well said, Harry.”

 “Um, thanks? I guess.”

 Regulus curiosity over Harry’s vaguely similar situation is great, but it’s undercut by a shameful sort of feeling that seems to overwhelm everything else. The importance of their mission is such that they shouldn’t have to bother with making nice like this, and yet… Harry will almost certainly disapprove and so will Sirius, which won’t do wonders for either friendship. Especially since both Harry and Sirius are so heavily influenced by the opinions of Lily Evans and her husband. Harry has reiterated his loyalty and support to Regulus, they're in this together, but Regulus isn't so naïve to think that he alone has all of Harry's loyalty. 

 And it seems, after that terrible display in the kitchen, that McKinnon is capable of making herself useful. And McKinnon’s good opinion may be heavily dependent on Meadowes. So, perhaps it is the intelligent thing to do to make nice with these people, who have been quite reasonable in their disbelieving and now believing, Regulus can admit, and haven’t made any motions to betray them thus far. 

 Regulus allows himself a put-upon sigh. “I can manage niceties and good behaviour, regardless of anyone else’s manners, to make up for the fact that I used to be a terrible Death Eater,” he says to Harry and Lily Evans, careful to inject humour in his honest promise. “Happy?”

 Harry and Lily exchange a look, before they look back at him.

 “Well, it’s a start,” Harry says.

 “It’s a start,” Lily Evans agrees, though her lips are still pursed, and she stands. “Let’s brave Marlene’s kitchen for dishes before people start coming back, shall we? Wands at the ready?”

 Harry nods, before he pauses, and says with a rueful grin, “I could’ve said a second ago that I think dying might’ve made me a bit wiser, but Sirius still has my wand. So… I guess it’s up to you two to get back in there and save the day?”

 Regulus exchanges his own look with Lily Evans, who seems to share his non-existent enthusiasm at the idea of partnering together for anything. They look back at Harry, unimpressed by such an absurd suggestion.

 “Nice try, but unless you break both your arms, you can still carry stuff,” Lily Evans says.

 Harry shrugs and follows her. “It was worth a shot.”

  

 ~

 

 The meal that follows is not, surprisingly, the most awkward meal that Regulus has ever suffered through. The suffering is actually incredibly minimal. Practically non-existent, really, in the unexpected easiness of their unconventional supper. Regulus can easily recall countless meals with many variations of family members that were infinitely worse, possibly because many of them also involved Sirius, but Sirius on his intentionally worst behaviour surrounded by people who passionately hated everything Sirius so rebelliously chose to enjoy.

 Regulus, Harry, and Lily Evans fetched the appropriate crockery and cutlery from McKinnon’s cleaned kitchen. The horcrux had not moved and didn’t move while they were there, sitting simply in that ratty book bag, making none of the irrationally expected attempts to murder them.

 James Potter and Sirius returned with armfuls of packaged food before McKinnon and Meadowes came back inside. Lily Evans left to go fetch her friends while James Potter named dishes, complained about how his mum could’ve done far better, and set everything up on the living room table, then began serving people or letting them serve themselves. Dishes and forks were passed politely. Once people were served, they took the same seats around the living room as they had taken earlier in the afternoon.

 It’s… more like eating at Hogwarts – with friends who would be shock to see him now, in the Great Hall or the Slytherin common room, a long time ago – than whatever Regulus had been fearing. The food is fine. Regulus slowly forces himself to eat, reminding himself that he doesn't want to faint in front of any of these people. His greatest complaint is that: McKinnon and Meadowes, across from him and Harry on the opposite sofa, opted out of being thoughtful and didn’t announce any decisions upon their return. Meadowes, in fact, seems to be contently ignoring him. McKinnon just complained insincerely about their rudeness in starting without her in her own home.

 “So, no one died or anything while we were gone, right?” James Potter says.

 “No. It was very close, but we all made it through,” Lily Evans answers, from where she’s sharing a chair with him. “We just talked a bit about our plans for the night.”

 “Oh, did you figure out what you were going to do with the horcrux?”

 “Not yet.”

 “I want to have a closer look at it first,” McKinnon interrupts. “We don’t have anything to destroy it yet, so I should be able to take a closer look. I have some theories on horcruxes that I want to confirm while we’ve got the chance.”

 Regulus thought it potentially worthwhile to study Ravenclaw’s diadem while they could. After all, they most likely won’t be able to destroy all the horcruxes and kill the Dark Lord quickly enough for Regulus’ preferences. However, he doesn’t like the sound of that. That sounds like it will have the Dark Lord politely ringing the doorbell to pay a call to his horcrux within the day.

 “Marl…” Lily Evans says disapprovingly.

 “I’ll run them by people first,” McKinnon promises easily. Too easily. Perhaps proven by how she immediately changes the subject. “Anyway, Dory and I talked, and the boys can stay in our guestroom, so long as they stay out of all the other upstairs rooms.”

 Much to Regulus’ displeasure, this is a very successful change of subject. He doesn’t know whether to be relieved or horrified.

 “There’s just no room in our flat, Jim,” Lily Evans says to her husband.

 “We could probably make room for the rest of you, if you wanted to stay too,” McKinnon continues smilingly. “It’s late. I’d have to clear out my office – well, no, my sisters already did that, but we’d have to set up a bed – and someone might have to sleep on one of these sofas, but there’s room for everyone. It’ll be like sharing dormitories at Hogwarts again.”

 “Or they could just pop back and forth and use their own bathrooms and bedrooms,” Meadowes says sourly. “If you paid more attention to answering the door.”

 “Or that,” McKinnon agrees.

 “You’re not afraid you’ll be murdered in your beds?” Sirius says, clearly surprised.

 Regulus’ head snaps towards his brother much against his will. He has agreed to make an effort to get along with Sirius, but his promise doesn’t mean that Sirius will suddenly become any easier to get along with. Regulus has no intention of doing any such foul thing for no-

 “Not if I get them first,” Meadowes says flatly, stabbing at her food.

 McKinnon laughs lightly, the only one amused by what Regulus must hope is a terrible joke. At the very least, he didn’t come so far as to die now to McKinnon’s dour housemate’s fork. He must put his foot down at that.

 “Um, thanks,” Harry says, before Regulus can refuse.

 “Oh, it’s no problem,” McKinnon assures him, with an expression other people might have called charming. “We have the room here. This house was built with more people in mind. Homes were meant to be shared.” After a few seconds silence, she adds, “With people you actually like, of course. And I do like people who bring me interesting pieces of magic.”

 Well, if it weren’t already obvious, clearly not much can be said for McKinnon’s family loyalty and taste.

 “Well, that’s what we’re going to try to do,” Lily Evans says to her friend.

 “Not today, though,” James Potter says.

 “No, not today. Oh, by the way, Sirius, you still have Harry’s wand,” Lily Evans says. She continues while Sirius fetches Harry’s wand off himself, “I was thinking we could pick up on… all of this… tomorrow. Unless there’s some terribly awful disaster that’s going to happen overnight that Harry has neglected to mention until right now.”

 “Um, not that I’m aware,” Harry says.

 James Potter nods. “That’ll give us all some time to think about what we want to do next.”

 “And we can talk it all over in the morning, once we’ve slept on it,” Lily finishes.

 “Good idea, love. Yeah, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m beat. I don’t know if I’ll be able to actually sleep,” James Potter says, “but after we’re done stuffing ourselves, I could still really go for a vaguely comfortable horizontal surface for a few uninterrupted hours. That’s not too much to ask is it-? Oh, shit – Lily, love – the cat.

 “I know. I have charms. We might have to peel her off the ceiling, though.”

 “Yeah. Hey, Sirius, you wanna come over to ours?”

 “Maybe,” Sirius answers, as he leans over to give Harry his wand back. The late exchange between them goes easily, with none of Sirius pulling it away as at the last minute, and Sirius leans back still not having looked at either of them. “Might stay here,” he says.

 James Potter just nods, while Regulus sends a suspicious glower towards his brother. If this is because Sirius genuinely thinks Regulus needs watching, he ought to worry about himself first. Oh, Regulus has no desire to murder Sirius, but he does have many, many pranks played upon him during his childhood, especially in sleep, that still desperately cry out for revenge.

 “We’ve got the room,” McKinnon says. “But we don’t have a doghouse, sorry.”

 James Potter snickers, while Lily Evans smiles.

 Sirius just rolls his eyes. “Oh, wow. I’ve never heard that one before.”

 

~

 

Lily Evans, James Potter, and Marlene McKinnon end up being the ones clearing dishes and leftover food, so it’s Dorcas Meadowes who takes the rest of them upstairs for a tour. There are five rooms upstairs: McKinnon’s bedroom, Meadowes’ bedroom, the guestroom, McKinnon’s supposed ‘office’, and the bathroom. Meadowes points at respective doors and then shows them into the guestroom.

 The guestroom is… nice.

 Regulus can easily admit that it’s much nicer than the last place he and Harry stayed, which isn’t difficult. It’s a decently sized room for two people, done in the same white-painted woods, dull greens, and light greys as the rest of the house interior – as was revealed when the other McKinnons swept through to reveal surfaces like floors and tables. This is a similarly stark room, with a large bed, two nightstands, one dresser, and a lamp. If Regulus were feeling generous, he might count the windows and curtains as objects in the room.

 “You can transfigure the bed,” Meadowes says. “And anything else in here. Just don’t put down any curses, jinxes, or hexes, especially not on the door.”

 Sirius gives Regulus a pointed look that Regulus ignores.

 “What about locking it?” he says.

 “Respect other people’s locked doors and I don’t care,” Meadowes says, and turns on her heel to leave the room. “If you need sheets or towels or anything, bother Marlene for them.” She looks at Sirius as he follows. “If you’re staying too, you’ll have to work out where with her.”

 With that, she leaves fully, and Regulus can hear her going down the stairs again. Sirius gives both Harry and Regulus an unreadable look, but he leaves them, then his footsteps head down as well. Which is… both more hospitality than Regulus expected from Meadowes and more privacy than he might have expected of Sirius, especially considering they both seem to be under the mild impression that Regulus intends to anything but cast protective spells and pass out.

 He looks at Harry, who’s looking about the room curiously, even though there’s not much to look at. Harry raises his wand at the large bed and, with a look at Regulus, carefully transfigures it into two smaller beds. The bed appears to slowly split down the middle and then heal over, mattress and sheets and all, as its two halves push apart and scrapingly nudge the nightstands along. It’s a much longer process than Harry’s job with the boat, but a much neater one. The new beds even carefully make themselves, folding and fluffing with what seems like the ease of practice.

 “That’ll do, yeah?” Harry says.

 “It makes the room look marginally less empty,” Regulus agrees, which makes Harry snort as he lowers his wand.

 He still doesn’t want to stay here, but… there seems little point in arguing it. If it’s truly unbearable or a mistake, they can make other arrangements later. He wouldn’t go so far as to say he trusts the people around him yet – that he has another horcrux up his sleeve may be the only thing allowing him to leave the diadem in their hands, figuratively – but he might be willing to admit he is coming to trust McKinnon’s madness. He trusts her greedy curiosity. 

 It takes him several seconds to decide whether to share his suspicions on the other of their hosts. 

 “I believe that Dorcas Meadowes may be a Squib,” he says finally.

 Harry looks at him in surprise.

 “I don’t recognize her from Hogwarts – at least, not the student population – and she has yet to draw a wand on me,” Regulus elaborates. “I haven’t seen her draw a wand for anything. I believe she may be a Squib, perhaps a hedgewitch at best.”

 Meadowes didn’t draw a wand for Regulus or the other McKinnons. She washed the dishes and set the kettle by hand when they first arrived, and she let McKinnon’s mess consume their house when a wand could have easily waved such careless sloth away. The more Regulus thinks over these suspicions, the more certain he becomes: Meadowes must be some sort of Squib.

 “…Alright,” Harry says. “So?”

 Regulus isn’t surprised by this lacking reaction, but he’s not… not surprised either.

 “…Just an observation,” he answers.

 “I think that just gives her more good reason not to like you in her house,” Harry says, somewhere between apologetic and wry. “Sorry, it’s just… there’s really nothing in your past that would make her not dislike you, if that’s true.”

 “She should have said something, when she was introduced.”

 “Why? I don’t think it’s the kind of thing you just randomly announce to people you don’t know, at the beginning of every conversation,” Harry says. “Besides, what would have changed? Getting along with her might be a bit more work, but… It shouldn’t be too hard to prove that you’re not some completely evil bastard. We’re trying to get rid of Tom’s horcruxes anyway.”

 “I suppose so,” Regulus demurs.

 He still greatly dislikes the idea of having to still prove himself to Dorcas Meadowes, especially when he feels the procurement of a horcrux should have been proof enough for anyone. He's been more than polite enough to the both of them the entire time he's been here. Why should some magicless stranger get a say in these affairs? Affairs that should be vastly more important and urgent than playing nice and assuring these people that Regulus is toothless to them.

 Or perhaps it’s that he greatly dislikes the reminder that he may be proving himself to all of them – just how dearly he doesn’t want to go back – far sooner than he might like.

 “Come on, let’s just... go back downstairs and see what’s happening,” Harry sighs. “See if we can get a change of clothes and some towels, so I can have a proper wash. Maybe see if Sirius is staying, and say our goodbyes and stuff.”

 

Chapter Text

 From the moment Harry closes his eyes to sleep, it seems that he’s seeing silver white. That’s the problem with these damn intrusive memories. When he’s just seeing something that he doesn’t like, he can close his eyes, but the memories won’t stop for something as simple as that.

 They had seemed to cool, after his grieving conversation with Lily in the Room of Hidden Things, but the horcrux in Marlene McKinnon’s kitchen stirred them up again. Harry could plug his ears as well, but that won’t stop him from remembering the hissing of that terrible thing. He can’t unhear that now. The shifting smoke and that peering eye haunt him, but not nearly so much as the furious voice that tried to stir from within the diadem.

 Tonight, his memories seem to have taken over his dreams. His sleep is restless and strange; he doesn’t know how many times he’s come awake and rolled back over, it seems like he’s diving into the Pensieve again every time his head hits the pillow.

 “-a job I would entrust to nobody but you,” a familiar voice is saying this time, so frustratingly calm.

 “Yet you confide much more in a boy who is incapable of Occlumency, whose magic is mediocre, and who has a direct connection into the Dark Lord’s mind!”

 Harry is unable to interfere, unable to even stop following the figures strolling together in the deserted castle grounds by twilight. He knows how this scene plays out. It has played out at least a dozen times in his own head since he saw it. He can almost taste the ungenerous resentment in it, which fogs the memory almost as thickly as the grey of the hour.

 “Voldemort fears that connection,” answers the calm figure, as they turn to look at their companion.

 And, so it feels, to Harry on their companion’s other side.

 Dumbledore’s craggy face is the clearest thing in this poor light, and looks exactly as Harry remembers and hasn’t been able to stop remembering. The long, broken nose. The blue eyes behind half-moon glasses, a twinkling shine in them even now. The serene and knowing expression of a man biding his time even now with his secrets.

 “Not so long ago, he had one small taste of what truly sharing Harry’s mind means to him,” Dumbledore explains. “It was pain such as he has never experienced. He will not try to possess Harry again, I am sure of it. Not in that way.”

 Something seems to be different, in the few seconds of silence that follow.

 “I don’t understand,” Severus Snape says.

 “Lord Voldemort’s soul, maimed as it is, cannot bear close contact with a soul like Harry’s. Like a tongue on frozen steel, like flesh in flame–”

 The resentment and frustration twist and seethe in the quiet like living things.

 “Souls? We were talking of minds!” 

 “In the case of Harry and Lord Voldemort, to speak of one is to speak of the other.”

 Dumbledore says this simply, as though such a thing didn’t strike immeasurable dread in Harry’s panicked heart when he first heard it, as though it is enough of an answer for Snape. By the thick fog of frustration, it isn’t. Snape’s patience is wearing very thin, as they stop and Dumbledore glances around to make sure that they are alone.

 There’s no sign of anyone near them, but Harry finds himself following Dumbledore’s gaze yet again, scanning the greyed haze of the grounds. Their path has inevitably taken them to the edge of the Forbidden Forest. The grim, inescapable trees loom over their small party.

 Dumbledore and Snape’s voices suddenly seem to fade into the background, in the face of the woods, like they never have before. The Forbidden Forest stretches high above him and dark ahead of him, nothing visible in its depths but silver wisps of fog pouring over gnarled roots, and Harry is suddenly overcome with a roaring sense of urgency and horror. He does not know whether to run into the woods or away; nowhere he could run could take him far enough away from his own fear, so it must be forward and quickly.

 He must meet what waits ahead of him. There is no one else.

 “After you have killed me, Severus-”

 “You refuse to tell me everything, yet you expect that small service of me!” snarls Snape, behind Harry, who looks over his shoulder to see anger finally flaring over the man’s thin face now.

 All that disappointment and resentment seem so small now, in the looming duty of what must be done. It pales in comparison to the horror and guilt hissing ahead. Harry cannot dwell here, with the woods calling him ahead to that haunted clearing before time runs out.

 “You take a great deal for granted, Dumbledore! Perhaps I have changed my mind!”

 Harry looks away and steps away from this scene. He turns the doorknob ahead of him and walks into the Forbidden Forest, before Dumbledore can give his admonishing, unchanging, ever-frustrating answer. It is certain that there is nothing ahead, but Harry must go.

 Then, mid-step, a voice speaks that belong to neither Dumbledore nor Snape behind him.

 “Stop. Go no farther.”  

 Harry pauses, but not fast enough. He’s already mid-step. His foot comes down on nothing, seemingly plunging straight through the silver white fog of the forest floor, and the dark woods of his dream whisk away behind him as he falls forward, hands outstretched to cushion the fall.

 Harry wakes up just in time to catch himself on a railing.

 

~

 

 It hurts.

 It hurts to have his hands slam into the wood of the railing; it’s frightening have his foot catch on the edge of something only to slip. His shins and hip bang against the hard wood beneath him and his arms feel like they’re being yanked out of his sockets to keep him from falling any farther. As Harry clings to this railing and gasps silently with the pain of it.

 But it probably doesn’t hurt as much, Harry soon realizes, as falling down the stairs would have.

 Squinting through the darkness and around himself, Harry finds that he’s not far from the top of a staircase. He readjusts himself, so that he’s sitting on a stair rather than sprawled down them, and slowly releases his death grip on the railing.

 Right. He’s in Marlene McKinnon and Dorcas Meadowes’ house.

 Harry sits there on the stair for several seconds, before the empty space looming ahead of him gets to him, and he reaches for the railing to pull himself back up the staircase. For the sake of his heart, seemingly fit to burst out of his chest, he makes sure he has a hand on a wall before he lets go of the railing. He keeps the other hand over his heart, as he follows the wall, and tries to breathe out all the fear and urgency still lingering.

 The door to the guestroom that Harry is sharing with Regulus is open. All the other doors – to Marlene’s room, Dorcas’ room, the office where Sirius is sleeping, and the bathroom – are still shut. It seems like no one heard Harry nearly throw himself down the stairs.

 The blurry lump of the other bed hasn’t moved, as far as Harry can tell, through the night. Harry goes silently over to his nightstand and puts on his glasses. Yeah, Regulus is still sleeping.

 Harry sits carefully down on his own bed and his legs easily go out from underneath him.

 He’s not one for sleepwalking. As far as Harry knows, he’s never done it before. Waking up in a sweat is normal enough for him, he isn’t surprised to have done so now, but the closest he ever came to sleepwalking before was when he was dreaming of the Department of Mysteries in his fifth year. Which really isn’t a reassuring comparison.

 He was dreaming of Snape’s memories, he remembers, but it was different this time. He doesn’t remember much of his other dreams tonight, beyond that they were memories and not the usual absurd mash of nonsense that makes up his dreams, but this one is still fresh in his mind. It was the memory as Harry had seen it, up until he had been overcome but the urge to walk into the woods. An urge so strong that he had left his bed and nearly fallen down the stairs in his sleep.

 He can’t help by wonder why. Was this all just some unlikely accident? Was he actually trying to go somewhere? Was something actually calling him? Or trying to cause an unfortunate accident? There’s only one thing downstairs that seems likely and the idea of that is terrifying.

 Harry ignores the fright still beating in him and the lingering pain of the fall, takes up the wand sitting on the nightstand, and leaves the room through the still open door. He moves silently to the stairs and goes down them carefully, with a firm grip on the railing. Perhaps it isn’t the wisest course of action, but Harry enters the kitchen anyway, the mysterious Elder Wand raised protectively in front of him. He feels safer holding it again; it's a powerful wand, he can feel it, even if it's not the wand he wants. 

 The kitchen is silent as the rest of the house, but a little less dark, with some moonlight coming through the windows. Harry can see immediately that the ragged book bag hasn’t moved or been moved. It’s still sitting on the marked-up dining table, the horcrux presumably inside.

 Harry doesn’t dare presume. He goes immediately to the dining table and, with his wand, flips open the bag and peers inside. Ravenclaw’s diadem is still there. No putrid smoke spews out of it, no eyes peer out from inside, and no hissing voice tries to rise from within. It is, by all appearances, nothing more than a tarnished crown. Harry closes the bag’s flap and moves away, even desperate for answers as he is, because right now he doesn’t dare do anything more.

 He doesn’t go far. He sits down in one of the chairs at the far end of the dining table and puts his head in his hands. The night might be quiet, but that only makes all his fears louder.

 Harry didn’t have the courage, earlier, to ask if everyone else could hear the words that had been trying to form in the horcrux’s hissing. Harry doesn’t think he has the courage now, to hiss at the horcrux and see how it responds to him. That rather sounds like it would be a spectacularly bad idea. But it might be a spectacularly worse idea to just go on blissfully not knowing whether a piece of Voldemort’s soul still resides in him or not.

 Is he still a horcrux?

 He doesn’t know. He’s been hoping that he isn’t. Not being able to follow some invisible trail to the diadem in the Room of Hidden Things gave him hope on that front. Would it even make sense for a connection to exist between them now when Voldemort should still have that piece of his soul? Harry hasn’t had a vision of Voldemort’s thoughts or actions since he died. He died to be rid of that connection. He gave up his life as had always been intended.

 And yet he’s still alive now.

 And apparently he might still be a Parselmouth; he has no idea if losing the piece of Voldemort’s soul that initially granted him the ability would lose him that “gift” as well. He hoped earlier that someone might comment on any of the horcrux’s hissing words, so he would know if it had been Parseltongue, but no one had.

 They weren’t really notable words. A few misshapen demands to know who they were and what they thought they were dealing with. Some disjointed mockery and malformed threats. The usual, expected stuff when dealing with Tom Riddles.

 Maybe Harry can casually ask everyone what they thought of the horcrux’s hissing? Except he doesn’t know if Parseltongue will be a sign of anything. There must to be way to know for certain. There must be, if only because Harry can’t bear this not knowing… as desperately as he can’t bear these people knowing that he might have a piece of Voldemort’s soul inside him. He needs an answer, but… he dreads the possibility of being told that he will have to die again.

 (Finally, the truth.)

 Can he even die again? Harry understood before that he wasn’t supposed to survive… that his job was to walk calmly into Death’s welcoming arms. But Death had thrown him and his willing sacrifice back – backwards in time, even – as though the Boy-Who-Lived, the Chosen One, wasn’t allowed to die. Fucking hell, what if he tries to give up his life again and only gets thrown back in time again? If Harry loses everything here too, he doesn’t know what he’ll do.

 (Would it hurt to die? All those times he had thought that it was about to happen and escaped, he had never really thought of the thing itself.)

 It would be ironic, if Harry – the accidental horcrux – is the one who can’t be destroyed. Dumbledore planned it so neatly: Harry would dispose of Voldemort’s remaining links to life, then fling himself across Voldemort’s path and not raise a wand to defend itself. Yet the end isn’t clean at all. The job that began in Godric’s Hollow is far from finished. Harry failed both promises.

 (His will to live had always been so much stronger than his fear of death. Yet it did not occur to him now to try to escape, to outrun Voldemort. It was over, he knew it, and all that was left was the thing itself: dying.)

 He can’t just sit around, waiting to see if some connection exists between himself and this horcrux. It might possess him by natural means, before he gets confirmation one way or the other.

 It might have already possessed him, for all he knew. Harry hadn’t the time to see what this horcrux could do before it had burned, before. He doesn’t – he can’t – know if it was because of some accidental connection between souls or if it was an attempt to manipulate the mind of any of them that happened to choose him. He doesn’t even know if it was the horcrux.

 What is he even doing down here?

 (His body and mind felt oddly disconnected now, his limbs working without conscious instruction, as if he were passenger, not driver, in the body he was about to leave. The dead who walked beside him through the forest were much more real to him now than the living back at the castle: Ron, Hermione, Ginny, and all the other were the ones who felt like ghosts as he stumbled and slipped toward the end of his life, toward Voldemort…)

 Harry’s memories are interrupted by the creak of the back door, somehow, for some reason, being opened and closed in the middle of the night. It is immediately clear he isn’t the only one awake when they shouldn’t be.

 (A thud and a whisper. Some other living creature had stirred close by-)

 Harry points his wand at the door, as the intruder comes into the kitchen. However, contrary to his panicked expectations, the intruder doesn’t creep in silently. No, they walk in as though they own the bloody place, flicking on the kitchen lights as they turn toward the dining table. They do stop, at least, clearly surprised, at the sight of Harry pointing at wand at them.

 Marlene McKinnon is standing in front of him. It’s the middle of the night, hours since they bid her goodnight, so she’s wearing cosy, long-sleeved plaid pyjamas and an open bathrobe. No matter how many times Harry blinks to adjust to the light, however, she’s still holding an axe.

 “Well…” she says slowly. “I’d say that this isn’t what it looks like, but frankly I have no idea what this looks like. Hi, Harry. How are you? Can’t sleep either?”

 

~

 

 Harry lowers his wand, staring deservedly disbelievingly.

 “Not really,” he answers.

 “It’s not a problem with the room or anything, is it?” Marlene says. “I wouldn’t be surprised to hear terrible things about rooming with a Black, but I can probably fix anything else. Too warm? Too cold? Not enough blankets? I can set you up on the sofa, if you like.”

 “Why do you have an axe?” Harry asks instead.

 Marlene smiles, tightly, like she wished Harry somehow hadn’t noticed that. “I promised Dory that I’d do something about this table. So – after much deliberation, thanks to my disinclination to get a decent night’s rest – I decided that destroying it was the best course of action after all.”

 “Now?”

 “I wasn’t doing anything else.”

 Harry raises his eyebrows, torn between hysteric laughter and utter confusion. “I thought you were going to use fire to destroy it.”

 “Oh, I am,” Marlene assures him cheerfully. “I just don’t want to use any more magic on the table top – it’ll be safer and burn easier like this. Also, I thought it would be more… soothing to do it this way? Dory seems to enjoy hitting things with her tools, so I thought I’d give it a try.” She lifts the axe a bit. “This is hers. I had to find out what my sisters did with it.”

 She then pauses for several seconds, before asking, “What are you doing here?”

 “Just… thinking.”

 “Ah, looking for trouble, then,” Marlene jokes. “No, I understand that. I have trouble turning my thoughts off too. I think Lily has the same trouble, if you’re looking for someone to blame for it.”

 “I’ll keep that in mind, thanks,” Harry answers wryly.

 “What else is family for?” Marlene jokes again.

 Awkward silence falls between them then, as they apparently run out of things to say.

 It’s occurred to Harry already that Marlene McKinnon might be able to tell if he still has a piece of Voldemort’s soul stuck inside him. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know her well enough to ask, though it’s surprisingly tempting to blurt out everything to a near-stranger. She’s apparently his mother’s close friend, but he still doesn’t know how she’d react to such a thing.

 He doesn’t know how any of them will react. Will they think that it makes him untrustworthy? Evil? If people thought Parseltongue was bad, what would they make of a piece of Voldemort's soul? Regulus is so determined to see Voldemort dead that it gives Harry even greater pause when it comes to admitting what that might mean for him. Harry doesn't think that Regulus will immediately turn his wand on Harry, but... well.. Regulus was willing to kill himself to destroy the locket. Harry doesn't actually know Regulus well enough to predict how Regulus might react to this. 

 Marlene McKinnon is looking at him seriously now. Considering.

 Harry has no idea what she thinks of finding him sitting next to a horcrux in the dark in the middle of the night.

 “Do you want to come destroy a table with me?” she says finally.

 “What?”

 Marlene lifts the axe slightly again. “Do you want to come help me chop up and burn the dining table I accidentally made useless? I’m doing it partly in the hope that it’ll better assuage my peace of mind about there being a piece of soul in my house. Do you want to help? No offense, Harry, but you kind of seem like you could use that even more than me... and you don't seem to be doing anything else either.”

 Harry stares at her, deservedly disbelieving, again.

 “Yeah, alright,” he says. 

 

Chapter Text

 Getting the dining table out of the house and into the backyard is a bit tricky, if only because it’s awkward to fit through doors. It’s also heavier than Harry and Marlene can carry comfortably, but Marlene transfigures the bottom half of the legs into wheels and they push. They leave the horcrux in the book bag behind them, where the dining table used to be.

 It seems best to get away from it for now, since Harry doesn’t know what else to do yet. He needs time to think and if he’s with someone, then they’ll probably stop him if the horcrux tries to call him down another flight of stairs.

 Marlene takes them by wandlight through an enormous, grassy backyard – which Harry hadn’t actually seen yet, which stretches on into the fields and forests of the countryside – to a fire-pit near the edge of the property. The rest of the backyard is dark, strictly ordered gardens, which very much seem to resemble the Hogwarts ones in their rows, with a large white shed off to one side. But there’s no grass or plants around this fire-pit. There are three rings of rocks – a small one for the fire, a medium one where people might sit, and a larger one like some sort of barrier. 

 “I do some spells here, and rituals sometimes,” Marlene explains, as they heft the table over the outer ring of rocks. “There are plenty that call for some kind of natural light or wind or rain. Or Dory just puts her foot down and says that she doesn’t care about the ancient traditions of seers, I’m not allowed to burn something inside because it stinks up the whole house. Lily’s helped me do stuff here sometimes… and now I’m doing this with you, so… this is weird.”

 “It’s a bit weird,” Harry agrees.

 They’re standing outside, in a fire-pit, in the dead of night, and they’re both wearing pyjamas still. Which isn’t pleasant; it’s quite cold. (James Potter brought some spare clothes around for Harry to borrow, before he left for the night. These pyjamas are a tad big on Harry, but very comfortable, and they unnerve him if he thinks about it too long. Which he tries not to, because it’ll definitely sound weird if he reveals just how few of his parents’ possessions he’s ever been allowed to have.)

 Marlene offers him the axe. “Do you want to have the first go at it?”

 “Um, no, I’m good. Ladies first?”

 Marlene laughs her high laugh. “How very dare you, Harry Potter, to insult me like that.”

 And then she raises the axe and brings it down on the markings of her earlier spell. It doesn’t go all the way through the table, but it definitely leaves a wound. It takes Marlene longer to pull the axe out again, while Harry blinks at her and the table, because she’s actually doing this.

 “Your turn,” Marlene says, and offers him the axe again.

 Harry takes it gingerly. “You’re… really going to destroy your furniture because a horcrux touched it?”

 “Yeah. If it makes you feel any better, Harry, I’ve destroyed a lot of furniture and any number of objects for far stupider reasons than ‘it makes me feel better’. It wasn’t really a nice table, anyway, I’ll just get a new one.”

 To Harry, that sounds incredibly… decadent?

 “I know, I could clean it. I could be responsible and scrub it until it shined from a lack of magic. I could transfigure it somehow. But think of it like this, Harry: would you ever be able to eat off a table again knowing that a horcrux had even partially manifested on it?”

 Probably not.

 “I’ve never tried,” Harry says. “Are you just going to destroy every piece of furniture it touches?”

 “Well, no, but I’m not going to let it touch a piece of furniture I eat off again,” Marlene answers. “Look, I need to do something about this table and Lord Tom Idiot’s horcruxes, and I’m just sleep-deprived enough to think this is a good idea, so I want to do this. Just hit the nightmare table, Harry, or give me back Dory’s axe so I can hit it again.”

 “I was just curious,” Harry says, and steps away from her. Before he can let himself think about this, he raises the axe and brings it down on the table. It makes a satisfying THUD!

 Hagrid showed him and Ron and Hermione how to chop wood one Friday afternoon, when he’d needed to do so and they’d had nothing to do but follow curiously. They hadn’t actually gotten to try, since Hagrid’s axe had been at least as tall as they were.

 “Nice one,” Marlene says. “My turn.”

 Harry retrieves the axe and hands it back to her, and steps back.

 “It would be much faster to spell the handle of the axe, but this is more rewarding,” Marlene says, just before she goes again, breaking up her scuffed spellwork with another chop. “I might do that, once I get tired of this… unless you want to keep going without me.”

 Harry shrugs, as he accepts the axe back. “Dunno.”

 Between them, they break the table in half soon enough. Harry’s aching arms are quickly getting tired, but he keeps it up, since the alternative seems to be going back to sleep again. It’s a decent way to stay warm.

 “Did I thank you, Harry?”

 “What?”

 “Did I thank you?” Marlene repeats, as she takes the axe back to keep going after one of the stubborn table legs. “It was strongly implied earlier that I died before you met me. Was that true or was it just baby Black making a lucky guess while being extremely unimpressed with me?”

 “…It was true. Sorry.”

 “Thanks, but really, don’t be sorry about what hasn’t even happened. I’m alive now and, hopefully, I’m going to stay alive. Lils told me that you told her that she and Jim died when you were young. It looks to me that, thanks to you and your ability to change things, we’re not all going to die now. So… thanks. I didn’t say so earlier, but appreciate it a lot.”

 Harry heart stutters a bit, when Marlene mentions the death of the Potters. They’ve been putting off discussing that and he’s not been looking forward to it. He didn’t know Lily told Marlene.

 “…No problem,” he says, as he takes back the axe.

 “It seems weird to talk about her and Jim dying without her, so don’t worry, I’m not going to ask about that,” Marlene assures him, as she steps back and takes a seat on the middle ring of rocks. “However, I’m still morbidly curious about my own death, if you don’t mind telling me more about that. Forgive the phrasing? I couldn’t resist.”

 Harry shrugs. “Lily said that and ‘dying to know’ when she asked.”

 “Did she?” Marlene looks delighted, in the light of the wand sitting next to her, as Harry chops down. “That sounds like her. I knew we were friends for a reason.”

 That brings a smile to Harry’s face again, despite the grim topic. He offers the axe back to Marlene, for her turn, but she quickly waves him off.

 “Oh, no, any more and I’ll have to cut my own arms off to be rid of the pain. I’ll skip a few turns. You go ahead, Harry,” she insists. “Also, I know Lily wants to give you some time to adjust, so you don’t have to tell me anything if you’re not up to it.”

 “It’s… not that. It’s just that I don’t really know much.”

 “What do you know?”

 Harry pauses, to take another swing at the thoroughly wrecked table, and then lets the pause continue. He doesn’t quite know how to say this.

 “I just know that you were murdered within the next couple years,” he answers finally, awkwardly. “That the whole McKinnon family was murdered by Volde- Tom in the next couple years, actually. It was… the sort of thing people brought up to show how bad the war was.”

 When he dares look at Marlene again, her eyes are wide.

 “Sorry,” he says again.

 Marlene shakes her head and smiles, but it’s tight. “No, no, I asked, I just… wasn’t expecting that. Really, don’t look like that, I’m a seer, Harry. I know all about telling people what they don’t want to hear. Or, at least, I know people who know all about that. Don’t go into fortune-telling, Harry, it’s a terrible business.”

 “Uh, alright,” he says, and shrugs again. “There go all my plans, I guess.”

 “I’m so sorry to ruin your dreams like that,” Marlene agrees vaguely, sitting back on the rock, as Harry goes back to work. “All of us, huh? That’s something. Well, I wanted to thank you for saving my life today, but you might have just saved my entire family too.”

 “I think I’d remember doing that.”

 “You heard my sisters today, didn’t you? They have some plan for getting rid of You-Know-Who – Tom – and they wanted me for it. You’re part of why I turned them down. Destroying horcruxes seemed like a much better plan than whatever they weren’t telling me, and I could always go crawling back to them if you hadn’t come back with a horcrux.”

 “You think whatever they’re doing will get them killed?”

 “I thought whatever they’re doing would get me killed, I didn’t know all of us didn’t make it through this idiotic war.” Marlene sits forward again and puts her chin in her hands. “It sounded like they needed me for it, so I’m hoping my refusal disrupted their plans entirely.”

 “You could go find out what they’re up to,” Harry points out.

 Marlene sighs. “Yes, I could, but that would involve talking to them and I don’t want to.”

 That makes Harry laugh, because she sounds so put out.

 But then Marlene’s childish upset is replaced by a very solemn expression, as she says, “I really might have gone along with them, if you all hadn’t shown up today with a way to kill You-Know-Who, and one that actually might work. And apparently it would have ended very badly for all of us, so… thanks, Harry. If I can keep my family on the hook, I might be able to keep them alive. They’re awful, I know, but… I don’t actually want any of them dead.”

 “…Yeah,” Harry says.

 He feels similarly about the Dursleys. At least, most of the time; it’s harder to look over how awful they are when he’s actually being forced to live with them. He’s a little sorry for frightening the younger Petunia, but not as much as he probably should be. He supposes now that he won’t have to deal with them any longer, which is a relief.

 “You’re taking this… well,” Harry says to Marlene.

 Regulus and Lily had both been upset to hear about dying too, though they’d both moved past it quickly enough. Maybe it’s just not real enough to any of them.  

 “It’s like hearing an unpleasant prophecy for me,” Marlene says, waving a hand dismissively ahead of her. “It’s a bit alarming, being reminded how easily and soon we all might die, but we all knew the risks already. Besides, even prophecies can be avoided. They’re just predictions.”

 “How do you avoid prophecies?”

 “Don’t believe in them, usually – don’t let anyone else believe in them either – and go ahead the best you know how. At least, that’s what I believe. I’m sure there are a dozen academics who would be ready to debate me on this at the drop of a hat. But all of life can’t play out like the classic tragedies. It’s not organized enough for that.”

 It can if there’s someone pulling the strings, Harry thinks, but doesn’t say aloud.

 Dumbledore’s betrayal hardly matters now. It had to be done. (Of course there had been a bigger plan; Harry had simply been too foolish to see it, he realized that now.) But still, Harry doesn’t want to invite Dumbledore and his plans into his life and mind again. He doesn’t want to begin to imagine what his intrusive memories will make of seeing the man in person again.

 Marlene taps her fingers against the rock she’s sitting on. “So, you don’t know anything else? I’m not surprised it didn’t get around,” she says. “My family’s secrets have secrets. All magical families have a skeleton or two in their closet, if they’ve been around long enough.”

 That makes Harry think of the Potters and their connection to the Peverells. Does that count?

 “Yeah, no, sorry,” Harry answers. “Mad-Eye Moody told me about you, when he showed me a photograph of the old Order of the Phoenix, but… I can’t remember exactly what he said about you… or your family or Dorcas Meadowes. I just know that you didn’t make it.”

 “But Moody did?” Marlene says curiously. “I’m not surprised. That man’s tough as a dragon.”

 “He died a few years later.”

 “Oh.”

 “Yeah,” Harry says with a grimace.

 (If he could only have died on that summer’s night when he had left Number Four, Privet Drive, for the last time, when the noble phoenix-feather wand had saved him! If he could only have died like Hedwig, so quickly he would not have known it had happened!)

 “I always imagined that that man would live forever out of sheer spite and gumption,” Marlene says, with great conviction. “Did you know that he’s arrested my sister Cella before? He couldn’t get the charges to stick. I thought he hated me when we first met, but Lils asked him about it, and it turned out he was just still grumpy because I looked too much like her and he doesn’t like her.”

 “You do look alike,” Harry agrees, bemused. “And that sounds like him.”

 It’s nice to think that Mad-Eye Moody is still alive here, though strange after grieving him, and even stranger to think that Alastor Moody is at the height of his Auror days right now. Perhaps almost young, even. Harry thinks he might like to see the man – not now, of course, since he knows he wouldn’t get past the man’s paranoia – when he’s ready for it.

 “It’s the McKinnon family curse,” Marlene says jokingly. “We’re all just copies of our mothers. Not even our mum can keep our names straight. No, but there was a photograph of the Order of the Phoenix that he showed you? Was it a big group photograph of all of us?”

 “Yeah, of the whole Order. Do you remember it being taken?”

 “No, I don’t.”

 Harry sighs in relief, because he’s pretty sure Moody said people died soon after that photograph was taken. “That must mean there’s time yet, right? If it hasn’t been taken yet?”

 “It could mean that,” Marlene muses. “I’ll be keeping an eye out for cameras in the future, at Order meetings, like they’re the hot new death omen. I don’t suppose you know who proposed taking the photograph? No? That would have been incredibly lucky for us if you did, but that’s fine.”

 It doesn’t feel fine.

 These people are beginning to trust him, to rely on him, and Harry’s coming to realize that he doesn’t know nearly enough for them. There’s so much about the past that he never knew. So much that no one ever thought to mention to him; so much he never knew to ask after.

 “Sorry I don’t remember any more,” he says.

 That photograph had been too painful for him to look at and now he regrets fleeing.

 “I don’t remember all of my mother’s friends either, Harry,” Marlene says, waving her hand with cheerful dismissal again. “Although that might be because I’m not sure she really has any real ones she actually likes. Are you done with the table Tom ruined? I think I’m done.”

 Harry looks down at the complete mess they’ve made of what used to be a dining table.

 “Yeah, I’m done.”

 “Nicely done, then, Harry. Let’s build that fire.”

 Harry sets the axe aside and they start going through the pieces of the dining table, tossing them towards the innermost ring of rocks. The markings that Marlene made to cast her spell earlier are completely chopped apart. Marlene seems to have targeted them.

 “Don’t worry about forcing yourself to remember, Harry,” Marlene assures them, as they work. “It’s more than obvious at this point that you have stuff you’d rather not think about – Lily was very adamant about that – and I don’t exactly have a Pensieve or anything to make it any easier. Not that that would necessarily make things any easier. And not that I don’t desperately want one of my own, even though collecting memories isn’t even really my thing.”

 That gives Harry pause. “You know Pensieves too?”

 “…I know of them,” Marlene answers reluctantly. “Kind of like I know of horcruxes. Unless you’ve got a really good memory or you’re an Occlumens, getting perfectly clear memories usually involves some Divination, since you are magically looking into the past. It’s more Mum or Daisy’s thing than mine. You sound like you’ve had some experience with them.”

 “A bit,” Harry says. “Not much. It was mostly looking into Tom Riddle’s past… to find out more about his horcruxes… what they were and where they were.”

 It had been a slow, careful trickle of information. In hindsight, Dumbledore could have told Harry everything he knew or suspected in the very first of their “lessons”, but instead the secret of the horcruxes had been delivered scrap by scrap over months and months. Harry was too consumed in the fantastic idea of Voldemort’s great weakness to stop and look inside himself, at the strange connection between them that neither of them wished to acknowledge.

 (He had never questioned his own assumption: that Dumbledore wanted him alive.)

 “I didn’t collect the memories from people,” Harry explains. “Well, I collected one, but that was… a fluke. It needed to be me and it took… a lot of luck… to finally convince them to reveal that they’d talked to Tom Riddle about horcruxes when he was a teenager.”

 Harry collecting memories happened twice, if he counts Snape.

 (“Look… at… me…”)

 Harry doesn’t know if he counts Snape.

 “Hmm. It’s really hard to imagine that You-Know-Who was ever a teenager,” Marlene says. “It’s like… well… for me, it’s almost like imagining my mother ever being that young. I can’t do it. It seems so strange that he’s shrouded himself in all this mystery and Dark Lord and Heir of Slytherin stuff, when really he’s a half-blood named Tom. Dory thinks we ought to tell everyone we can.”

 Harry has been wondering about that.

 It was strange that no one seemed to know that Lord Voldemort had been Tom Riddle. It makes him wonder why Dumbledore didn’t just tell everyone, to remove some of the fear of the unknown around the Dark Lord Voldemort. Harry doesn’t know why he kept keeping it secret too. Some of the Death Eaters must have known and not cared, eager for the opportunity to define who was allowed to have power and who was not, but there must have been others with disdain towards following a man with such a Muggle name.

 He’s also been wondering what it would have been like if he had just told people about the horcruxes. Dumbledore had known that Harry couldn’t do anything without Ron and Hermione, but… What would have happened if Harry ignored Dumbledore’s requests for secrecy and allowed people like Lupin, Kingsley, and McGonagall to help him? Would it have been anything like this?

 “That could be very dangerous,” Harry says, because he remembers how easily the Daily Prophet could become a puppet, “but, yeah, I think she’s right. People ought to know.”

 “Dory’s pretty much always right,” Marlene sighs, but fondly. “And people ought to know so much that they don’t. Speaking of that and classic tragedies, I’m curious, since you’ve had a bit of experience with Pensieves, are you at all familiar with the story of Emilia the Pensive? Did you get that story? We all had to hear the story before Mum let us anywhere near mind magic.”

 “Um, no.”

 “It’s a play,” Marlene elaborates.

 “Definitely not, then.”

 “She was also a real historical figure? I think she gets mentioned in the later years of History of Magic. It’s a biographical play, with the usual embellishments. It’s pretty good.”

 “I wasn’t a very good history student,” Harry admits.

 “I wasn’t either; I did well, but I used the class for napping or homework,” Marlene confesses easily. “Is Binns still teaching? Ugh, no wonder. Well, that’s a shame, because it’s a very good, very… tragic… tragedy about the dangers of memory magic and Pensieves.”

 Harry’s a bit confused by this sudden shift in subject, but he is curious. He enjoyed reading Hermione’s copy of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, even though it was bittersweet to realize how much of the magical world he’d unknowingly missed, simply because it had never really occurred to him to go looking for things like the children’s stories parents might read before bed. He’d gone through pretty much all the books Hermione had brought with her on their hunt for horcruxes, at least skimming them in the surprisingly long strengths of boredom. However, most of them had been non-fiction and none of them had been plays.

 “How does the story go?” he asks.

 “Well, it’s set and written in the 1600s, and it follows this witch named Emilia,” Marlene explains enthusiastically, as she steps over the middle ring of rocks and begins building the fire out of her dining table, “who is the lady of a small magical town in Italy. She’s well-known as Emilia the Pensive, because she’s so thoughtful and wise, and so good at solving problems and people’s disputes. Which is part because she has a Pensieve-like device that allows her to review her own memories and consider every detail of them thoroughly.”

 “Alright, good for her. Where does the tragedy come in?”

 “She’s got a husband.”

 Marlene’s face and tone are so sour as she says this, that Harry can’t help but snort. Marlene McKinnon’s been very irreverent and persistently good-humoured so far, but that was rather more suited to her housemate’s scowling bluntness or one of her sneering sisters. It was very like Regulus, actually, which is just unfathomably hilarious to him.

 “Sorry, it’s… just the way you said that.”

 At that, Marlene laughs too. “Are my feelings slipping through too obviously there? So, yes, she’s got a husband, a wizard who is also known to be wise and intelligent, and they have plenty of lively debate and banter. Which makes them perfect for each other, right?”

 “I’m going to hazard a guess and say no.”

 “Well, you’re guessing right, because Emilia is actually better at what she does than he is. Everyone admires her more than him, everyone respects her more than him, some people make awful jokes about which one of them is the real ‘husband’ between them, and… he lets himself get bitter over being in his independent wife’s shadow and having a lady wife who doesn’t seem to need his wisdom. His resentment turns to hate and he decides that he’s going to ruin her reputation.”

 Harry thinks he remembers Hermione and Ginny complaining about problems like that: boys who hadn’t liked that they were better at things than them. Harry generally skipped out on listening to them commiserate about ex-boyfriends, but he thinks that’s why Ginny broke up with Michael Corner and why Hermione desperately regretted even going near Cormac McLaggen.

 “Oh, so he’s that sort of bastard,” Harry says.

 He misses Hermione and Ginny desperately right now, like he’s missing parts of his chest.

 (People were moving around, trying to comfort each other, drinking, kneeling beside the dead, but he could not see any of the people he loved, no hint of Hermione, Ron, Ginny, or any of the other Weasleys, no Luna. He felt he would have given all the time remaining to him for just one last look at them; but then, would he ever have the strength to stop looking? It was better like this.)

 “Yeah, only worse, because once he gets a taste of revenge, he can’t get enough of it and decides to ruin her completely,” Marlene continues. “See, the way he decides to get his revenge is by poisoning Emilia’s Pensieve.”

 That stops Harry from falling back into his torturing grief, if only from sheer surprise. “You can do that?” he asks, more than a little aghast. That’s horrifying. “Like, pouring actual poison into the basin… and then just waiting for someone to stick their face in and kill themselves?”

 “That’s possible, but what he does is actually worse than that.”

 “How is it worse?”

 “Emilia’s husband wants to ruin her reputation, right? Not kill her. So, he poisons the Pensieve with things like paranoia and prejudice and pride, and all the bitter things that will cloud Emilia’s judgement when she comes to review her memories and then follow her in her life.”

 Harry doesn’t know what to say, because that is worse.

 “You’ve always got to be careful when you’re revisiting memories,” Marlene says bitterly, as she adds the last pieces of the dining table to their pile. “Especially other people’s but even your own, because they’re not objective perspectives and they’re steeped in feelings. Emotions change how we see things, so if you don’t examine where they’re coming from… it’s bad.”

 “How does something poison something with a feeling?” Harry says.

 “Potions? Runes? Any number of curses will do it,” Marlene says as she stands up. “Sometimes it’s intentional and sometimes it’s not. I’m pretty sure the front of Honeydukes accidentally has some delight and hunger hanging around just because people troop in and out every day delighted and desperate for chocolate, and have for decades.”

 “Huh,” Harry says, as he stands up as well. “Really?”

 “I don’t know, I’ve always been distracted by the chocolate,” Marlene admits. “You learned Cheering Charms in Charms class, right? Please, don’t tell me that the future doesn’t have Charms class, I won’t be able to take that one. Definitely don’t tell Lily.”

 Harry snorts. “Charms class is still around and so’s Flitwick,” he assures her, and stops being horrified long enough to actually think about what she’s saying. “So, oh, alright, I get it now. Cursed objects. I just didn’t know you could make a Pensieve into a cursed object like that. Or that you could… put something like… Lochaber’s Banquet into the bowl and just let someone stick their face into it? That would do it, wouldn’t it?”

 “Probably?” Marlene says. “I don’t know what Lochaber’s Banquet is; I’m guessing it’s a potion.”

 “Yeah.”

 Slughorn and Snape both mentioned potions like that a few times. The sort of potions that cause ghastly, frightening hallucinations or overwhelming, murderous rage – the same sort that Harry suspects the emerald potion from the Inferi Cave to be – which makes them very, very illegal and not the sort of thing they ever got to brew in class. Although, to be honest, Harry doesn’t see much of a difference between one sort of mind-altering potion and another like, say, Amortentia.

 There were some horrible ones in Moste Potente Potions, but Harry can barely remember the less literally stomach-turning contents of the book. He’d been more impressed by the gory ones meant to literally turn people inside out.

 “It’s a potion that causes paranoia, but… I think you have to ingest it,” Harry explains, remembering one of Slughorn’s lectures on “Dark” potions in their NEWT classes. “And your family takes Dark magic and bad feelings out of objects for a living?” he confirms, bemused. “You’re basically the opposite of Borgin and Burkes.”

 So much in that shop seemed to exist just to make people suffer.

 “Oh, Merlin, do not mention those names around my family,” Marlene groans. “My mum hates them. They’re her biggest competitor and according to her they trip over a few lucky finds and otherwise only sell rotten junk.”

 “Alright.”

 “No, really.” Marlene raises her voice into a high pitch and mimics disgustedly, “‘No self-respecting wizard would lower themselves to work in that pit and waste their exceptional talents!’ She goes on about it.”

 Harry stares at her, then says, “Look, don’t take this the wrong way, but I have zero intention or interest in meeting your mother right now. So… I think I’m fine.”  

 Marlene stares back at him, then says, “Right.”

 Then she reaches in the pockets of the bathrobe she’s wearing over her pyjamas, and pulls out a small bottle of something that smells foul and a box of matches. (“Always pays to be prepared. I burn a lot of stuff.”) She douses the pile of dining table with the thick, black liquid from the bottle, then offers Harry the box of matches.

 “It’s only fair,” she says. “You let me have the first swing.”

 So, Harry takes the matches and, after a few tries, drops the match onto their fire. The flame catches on the black liquid and soon begins to spread over the wood of what used to be a dining table. Marlene takes a seat on the second ring of rocks and Harry joins her, handing back the box of matches, which she slips back into the pocket of her bathrobe.

 “Now I could sleep peacefully again, if I slept at all,” Marlene says jokingly, as she rubs her arms. “Dory’s going to be unpleasant to deal with until I replace it, so maybe I should do that now, since I’m on a roll tonight.”

 “…Did you mean to burn the axe too?” Harry says.

 Marlene goes wide-eyed. “Shit.”

 The axe was tossed into the pile as well, its end poking out as the fire crackles higher.

 “Oh, no, Dory’s going to kill me,” Marlene groans. “Harry, why did you let me do that? You’re supposed to be my Lily right now; you were supposed to stop me from doing things like that! Maybe I shouldn’t do things without sleep. Now I have to get Dorcas a new axe too.”

 Harry gives her a dubious look, then leans forward and carefully tugs the axe out of the pile. It’s not on fire yet, after all, so it’s not too late to go after it. He drops it in front of Marlene’s feet. Then he checks to make sure that his wand didn’t get tossed in as well; Marlene’s wand is still lit on sitting on a rock beside them, so he knows she didn’t accidentally toss it too from a lack of sleep.

 “Oh,” Marlene says. “Alright, maybe you are being Lily.”

 “Thanks,” Harry says wryly.

 “You’re welcome. It’s one of the highest compliments I know.”

 That brings a warm feeling into Harry’s chest that has nothing to do with the fire growing. Much like the one he used to get, so long ago, when Sirius and Remus actually talked about his dad some.

 “So, um, you and Dorcas,” he says, because he’s been curious, “are you…?”

 “What? Together? Oh, no. No, we’re just friends,” Marlene insists quickly. “No, just getting Dory to come and live with me was like pulling dragon teeth. I had to threaten to do nothing to this great big garden. I’d go mad alone out here and madder with my sisters, and Dory likes me just enough to come out here and keep me company.”

 “Oh. Sorry, I didn’t mean to… um…”

 “It’s fine, Harry. Believe me, it’s a common mistake.”

 They sit there in front of the growing fire in silence for nearly a minute. Moving kept Harry from feeling too cold and what cold he felt kept him from getting lost in thought, but honest warmth now is a great relief. Harry rubs his reddened hands together and holds them to the flame.

 “So, what happened to Emilia?” Harry says, desperate to change the subject after that embarrassing question. “And her poisoned Pensieve?”

 Marlene seems to relax at that, and readily continues relating the story:

 “She starts making mistakes – first small ones, then bigger and bigger ones – and her husband takes secret delight in her distress while he comforts her and helps her on her way to madness. Emilia becomes obsessed with reliving her memories to find where she’s making the mistakes, but that just makes it worse. She starts seeing insults and plots against her everywhere; she starts seeing and hearing poisoned memories outside the Pensieve. She loses all her friends and makes countless enemies – lashing out wildly, even going so far as to kill people.”

 “What happens to her husband?”

 “He’s over the moon watching her ruin herself at first, because he’s lost himself in revenge and thinks she deserves to be brought as low as possible. But she eventually turns against him too, after she’s driven everyone else away, and kills him for the wrong betrayal,” Marlene says quietly. “It’s one of the minor characters Emilia wronged who kills her in the final act. All the major characters are dead by the end of the play.”

 “That’s… grim,” Harry says, disheartened if unsurprised. “But you did say it was a tragedy.”

 “It’s not the most popular play out there,” Marlene agrees. “But Mum made sure we all read it before we were allowed to even think about going near mind magic. Pensieves don’t even have to be intentionally poisoned to manipulate someone, you know? It can be an accident. Badly drawn memories can do it. Tampered memories can do it. Just using a Pensieve too much can have side effects.”

 Harry nods thoughtfully. He didn’t know any of this. He can’t even remember getting much of a warning, beyond one not to dwell too much on the past and forget the present. Maybe it wasn’t thought important, since Harry used the Pensieve so infrequently.

 But… Marlene said Emilia had been seeing memories outside of the Pensieve. Harry has been drifting off into the memories that have been stuck in his head; is that the same thing as seeing things that aren’t there? Harry’s been grieving so many people, including himself, but is that the same thing as going mad because of a problem with the Pensieve? Harry doesn’t remember seeing anything odd or cursed about the stone Pensieve in Dumbledore’s office, unchanged and unmoved since Harry had last seen it. But… how would he know?

 “Mum taught us the signs of misuse,” Marlene goes on. “I think partly because she wanted us to rat each other out if we were sneaking behind her back.”

 “What sort of signs?” Harry demands. “Like… murder? Or…?”

 “Well, I’d hope that there were smaller signs of something wrong before it got to murder.”

 Harry could have laughed at that, but he doesn’t feel much like laughing right now. He thought the intrusive memories were his own fault and suddenly it seems they might not be… that there might be an explanation for at least some of all the wild, unbelievable things that have been happening to him. How much time is too much time in a Pensieve?

 “The memories tend to get stuck in your mind, if you watch them too many times, for one thing,” Marlene explains, as she stares into the fire they've made. “But for other people… well, the silvery white 'liquid' of the Pensieve just isn’t good for you if you’re exposed to it too often, especially not for your eyes. Someone who doesn’t know better can overlook it, though, because to them it just sort of looks like a charming twinkle in your eye.” 

 

Chapter Text

 “Plenty of people enjoy temporary little cosmetic spells like that,” Marlene says. “Not me, personally. I think they itch and they’re such a hassle to layer on in the morning, ugh, and then you have to keep them up all day. Honestly, it’s just not worth it.”

 She goes on, but while Harry can hear her talking, his attention is far, far away.

 He would dive voluntarily into his memories now, so it feels, if only he could search them for every detail he didn’t know to notice. Not only for every lie he missed and every half-truth he didn’t know not to trust – as he has wondered over these past days of being terribly lost in this time – but now also for every swirl and spell of complicated, delicate magic that he hadn’t known enough about to recognize when it was being cast incorrectly. How much was lost to foolish distraction? How much was lost to sheer, overwhelming, inescapable youth?

 Hindsight already makes Harry feel like an idiot, but it still doesn’t let him see far enough. The answers of Harry’s past, the future that he sacrificed away, suddenly don’t seem as lost to him as they did before, and Harry doesn’t know where to begin. If only he had a Pensieve to go back and look again! Maybe then he might finally see the truth underneath it all.

 And yet… it might have been the Pensieve that’s given him these intrusive memories. And yet it might have been the Pensieve that has done so much more than Harry knows to guess. No one told him of the Pensieve’s dangers – no stories, no signs, no tragedy of poor Emilia the Pensive – before he fell into that courtroom, into the trial of Igor Karkaroff, all those years ago. No one told him afterward either.

 Until now.

 (“I… was a fool. Sorely tempted.”

 “Tempted by what?”)

 There’s only one person Harry knows who used the Pensieve and had eyes that might be described as twinkling, but Harry can’t remember if Albus Dumbledore’s eyes held the silver light of memories or the simple glint of a fashionable charm. Dumbledore had admitted that he held many regrets. Had he used the Pensieve too often in chasing them?

 (“It is a miracle you managed to return here!”)

 Harry doubts that any light in Dumbledore’s eyes was someone else’s poison, though it’s all he can do not to cling immediately to the idea that Dumbledore’s actions had some other reason beyond a long, careful, and coldly neat plan to finally destroy all of Voldemort’s ties to life. Dumbledore can’t have been a madman. Dumbledore was a powerful Occlumens and Legilimens – the only man Voldemort had ever feared – and had not trusted many people. Surely the wise old Headmaster would have noticed poison in his Pensieve.

 (“That ring carried a curse of extraordinary power, to contain it is all we can hope for; I have trapped the curse in one hand for the time being-!”

 “You have done very well, Severus. How long do you think I have?”

 “…I cannot tell. Maybe a year. There is no halting such a spell forever. It will spread eventually; it is the sort of curse that strengthens over time.”)

 The only people Dumbledore offered great trust to were Harry and Snape, and each of them was given only pieces of the headmaster’s fragile plan. Harry wouldn’t have done such a thing to Dumbledore even if had known it was possible and how to do it – he had been Dumbledore’s man through and through, and proudly. Snape had been more loyal to Dumbledore than anyone had known.

 (“I am fortunate, extremely fortunate, that I have you, Severus.”)

 And yet… how would Harry know? Even before his death, Dumbledore had proven himself fallible, and had readily, frankly, and sometimes even cheerfully admitted that he was hardly a man above mistakes. Everything after Dumbledore’s death had proven further that Harry didn’t known the old wizard nearly as well as he’d thought he did.

 (“If you had only summoned me a little earlier, I might have been able to do more, buy you more time! ….Did you think that breaking the ring would break the curse?”

 “Something like that… I was delirious, no doubt…”)

 But, more importantly, though Dumbledore might have been able to resist malevolent magic cast on the Pensieve… though Snape might be so equally able… if either one of them had set compulsions into that stone bowl… Harry knows such a curse could have slipped past his meagre defences. Both men were masters of mind magic, while Harry was carelessly hopeless. Harry probably wouldn’t be likely to recognize any sort of mind magic, even mind magic gone wrong, until it danced unignorably in front of his eyes.

 “Harry?” Marlene says. “Are you…? You’re looking a little… um… pensive, there.”

 “That might be the word for it,” Harry mutters. He shakes his head, then he looks desperately up at Marlene – now yet another person in his life who apparently knows more about him than he does, yet another person holding pieces of a puzzle Harry didn’t even know he had to put together – and demands, “What are the signs that something’s wrong with a Pensieve? How do you know?”

 Some of Harry’s turmoil must show on his face, because Marlene’s expression is taken aback at first. Her tight smile strains slightly too far, before she laughs it away, high and nervous.

 “It’s mind magic,” she says jokingly. “You never really know.”

 Which is just about the last damn thing Harry wants to hear right about now. He doesn’t want to have the answers that he almost gave up on dangled in front of him only to be taken away again. This feeling must show on his face too, because Marlene McKinnon quickly launches into a proper answer.

 “Well, keeping in mind that this sort of magic is more my mum and oldest sister’s thing than mine, I think it’s usually something to do with the liquid inside the Pensieve? You know… off colour, funny smell, weird viscosity. At least, those are the first few things I’d look for, beyond curses carved into the side of it… which would probably still show in the liquid of the Pensieve? What did the Pensieve look like when you used it, Harry?”

 Harry gives Marlene a long look. Her expression isn’t exactly… and yet….

 “Why did you tell me that story?” Harry demands suspiciously, because this has all been far too coincidental for his tastes now. “Why did you start talking to me about Pensieves?”

 And now Marlene’s expression turns fully toward uncertainty, flickering over her face like the light of their crackling fire. She definitely looks like she wants to admit something – or at least like she had something to admit – and it only puts Harry further on his guard.

 All Harry can see now is every single person who decided to hold their secrets, sometimes his own secrets, back from him. It never seemed to matter to them how desperately he needed to know something. They all looked at him like he was too young… like they thought he was too fragile fo rht truth… or like they thought he couldn’t be trusted with it.

 (“You trust him… you do not trust me.”)

 “Ohhh, I should have waited for Lily,” Marlene says softly.

 “Waited to do what?” Harry demands.

 (“It is not a question of trust. I have, as we both know, limited time. It is essential that I give the boy enough information for him to do what he needs to do.”)

 “Look, I just meant to give you something to think about, because it’s a lot to take in all at once, before Lily comes back tomorrow. Well, later today, technically. She probably won’t have any room to talk about not sleeping, but she’s not going to be happy, because she wanted to do this tomorrow and she wanted to be here for this,” Marlene says, in a rambling fashion. “We’d both probably enjoy this a lot more with Lily here. Everyone likes Lily-”

 “She wanted to be here for what?” Harry interrupts. It feels he has no patience left in him. “Stop… dancing around whatever you’re trying to say and just say it! What did you want to do?”

 “…Just talk to you, really.”

 “About what?”

 “Well… about the ‘twinkle’ in your eyes.”

 Marlene has been looking at the fire in front of them as she speaks, but Harry, starting incredulously at her, has caught her quick glances. She’s not really even trying to smile anymore and her shoulders are slightly hunched.

 “Although, I wouldn’t call yours a ‘twinkle’,” Marlene continues slowly, lightly. “More like a glow that comes and goes. It’s… subtle for the most part… but very bright sometimes… and quite alarming, really. I don’t know if you’ve looked in a mirror recently…? Any cosmetic spells going that you’ve forgotten about? Although, pardon me, Harry, I wouldn’t have guessed you to be a bloke overly concerned with appearances.”

 “No,” Harry agrees, stunned. “What?”

 “Lils and I both noticed you’ve got some sort of… magic going on with you. You keep coming in and out of conversations and you’ve got that silvery light coming in and out of your eyes when it happens, and Lils thought it might be some sort of… Divination something. She thought it seemed too irregular to be a charm or a potion, so she came to me. I told her I thought it might have something to do with mind magic – memory magic – gone sideways.”

 Marlene pauses again, to give Harry time to say something, then continues.

 “We were going to talk to you about it tomorrow. Well, today, really. I don’t know if Jim or Sirius noticed – or if Lily talked to them about it – and I don’t know about baby Black either. I know Dory has no idea. I didn’t tell her.”

 Harry really ought to speak up, but he has… no idea what to say. There’s been a light in his eyes while he suffers from his intrusive memories? Lily saw it? Who else saw it? Did Regulus notice it at all? Did James? Did Sirius? Why has no one mentioned this until now?

 “You knew I was going mad,” Harry says hoarsely.

 “I guessed? You’re not going mad, though. Lily doesn’t think so and neither do I,” Marlene assures him quickly. “We just want to help. As Lily put it when I told her my suspicions, ‘It’s got to be hard enough being a boy from the future without being stuck in the past.’”

 “…And what were you going to do about it?”

 It isn’t surprising, but it’s still not a joy to remember that people talk about him when he’s not there, whispering their observations about him behind his back. It’s even worse to know for certain and because these aren’t just random strangers reading a gossip rag. Harry held the opinions of Lily and James Potter in high regard even before he met them. Have they been talking about him? What do they think of him? Do they think he’s going mad?

 It’s unnerving beyond words, even though Harry’s had similar worries before. If this is half of what Regulus worries about when he’s with Sirius, it’s no bloody wonder he’s defensive and paranoid.

 “We were… going to talk to you about it,” Marlene answers, wincing. “The first step to resisting any kind of mind magic is to know that you’re being influenced, right? Lils was going to look a few things up and so was I. I didn’t know it was something to do with Pensieves until… all this happened.”

 Marlene waves her hand at the fire in front of them, at the burning dining table.

 “No better time to confess things than in the dead of night while doing something idiotic, right?” she says, with some of her tight cheer again. “Boys like destroying things with axes, right? I know girls do. Well, I know Dory does and I’m starting to see her point.”

 Harry lowers his face into his hands and breathes. In. Out. In. Out. Unfortunately, Marlene can’t seem to let any silence rest, with all the tension that’s been released into it.

 “I… probably should have been more direct about this? But… well… it’s not easy to march up to a stranger and say, ‘Hey, I know we’ve just met, but I think you might be under a spell and I’d like to try and help you with that.’ That’s the sort of thing that gets a ‘how very dare you, Marlene’ at least. Really, no offence, Harry.”

 Harry is too surprised, too tired, to say it’s all good.

 Things are very much not all good.

 “When I walked into the kitchen and you were there, I thought to myself, ‘Well, maybe this is a lucky sign… or just a sign telling me to get on with it.’ Besides, it seemed better to bring all this up without baby Black lurking around. Reggie seems the sort who takes offence to… most things.”

 Harry takes a deep, shuddering breath. “Yeah,” he agrees, strained, and finally clears his throat to speak with all the calm he isn’t feeling. “So… you all think there’s something wrong with me… and you think it has something to do with Pensieves?”

 Saying it makes it feel realer and more unreal all at once.

 “We can honestly just wait for Lily on this one, if you’d be more comfortable with that,” Marlene says, quick to make the offer again. “Lily and Reggie and the whole parade, if you like. Though I think your friend’s likely to freak out at any mention of mind magic – unnecessarily, really, because I might not like being in my own head sometimes, but that doesn’t mean I want to be in his, right? We should probably sleep on this, I say, as someone who hasn’t slept at all-”

 “I was in the kitchen because I nearly brained myself falling down your stairs.”

 Harry gets silence to this, of course, and after a few seconds dares to pull himself out of his hands and look at Marlene. Marlene was in the middle of standing up and now slowly sits back down. Her expression is quite bewildered.

 “What? How? I know we leave stuff on the stairs sometimes, but the house was just cleaned-”

 “I was sleepwalking. I’ve never done that before.”

 “There’s a… first time for everything?” Marlene says carefully. “That’s… not good?”

 “No,” Harry agrees shortly.

 “Did it feel off somehow? Do you think it was…” Marlene raises her hand and waves it next to her head in an awkward gesture. “…whatever magic you’ve got going on upstairs-? Oh, bad choice of words. I mean, whatever magic that’s been bothering you?”

 “It’s either that or the horcrux.”

 Marlene makes a face that flips between horrified and dubious to further illustrate just how Not Good this situation is. Yeah, Harry would say that a horcrux being able to reach out and mess with their minds is Not Good, and Marlene doesn’t even know there’s a history of that with him.

 “I don’t think it should be able to do that?” she says finally. “Should it?”

 “No, it shouldn’t… I think.”

 “Alright, maybe we should try to figure this out now. Do you want to figure this out now? Because we can go wake Lily up right now. She might not even be sleeping, so-”

 “No! No, we… don’t have to do that.”

 The last thing Harry wants is to bring Lily into this mess quite yet. Well, not the last thing, but he doesn’t even know if he wants to bring Lily Potter into this at all. It’s all he can do not to panic. Bringing other people here, having to explain all this memory stuff to them, and then having to deal with them panicking over it? Now that sounds like a nightmare.

 “No, we don’t have to do that,” Marlene agrees slowly. “We can catch Lils up later.”

 Harry takes another deep breath and… doesn’t argue. He probably should tell Lily – everything in the Room of Hidden Things proves he probably can and it will go far better than he thinks – and he’ll probably force himself to later. It’s just… right now… more importantly… more desperately…

 “How do you know that there might be something wrong with you?” Harry demands quietly.

 “…How do you know that you got screwed over by a Pensieve problem, you mean?” Marlene says, after an awkward beat. “Well, we’re already pretty sure that you’ve got some kind of magic working on you. I’ve noticed, Lily noticed, and you’ve definitely noticed. Together, we can figure out whether it was a Pensieve problem or… or the horcrux. What do you think it is?”

 “I don’t know!” Harry says, frustrated.

 If he knew, he wouldn’t be asking her. For all Harry knows, it’s both. For all Harry knows, it’s neither the Pensieve or the horcrux. It could be something else entirely that he also managed to miss.

 “Well, alright, let’s… we don’t think the horcrux should be able to do that… and we’ve been seeing that silvery light in your eyes? Are you having issues with memories, Harry?” Marlene asks directly, her smile and cheer entirely gone, replaced with something solemn. “I’ve been making a lot of assumptions here about what this magic you’re dealing with is. When you come in and out of conversations like you do, what’s happening? Are you daydreaming or seeing something or…?”

 “I’ve been… reliving memories… in the back of my mind, mostly, but they get… loud,” Harry answers, unsure of how to explain it. “I see… flashes of scenes sometimes, but mostly I’m… hearing things people said. Old thoughts. Echoes of them. Overtop what’s actually going on. Like… déjà vu, I guess.”

 “Are they caused by something? Have you recognized a pattern?”

 “No, I… I do get reminded of things that happened when I see certain things here, but mostly it’s just… me. I can’t stop thinking about the memories for long enough,” Harry admits. Then he decides, “The Pensieve. I think it was the Pensieve, last I used it, but… I couldn’t see anything wrong with it when I used it. It looked exactly the same as it always had.”

 “How long did you use it for? How frequently were you using it?”

 “No more than half-an-hour,” Harry insists.

 He remembers because Voldemort had only given him an hour to deliver himself to the Forest to save everyone else. After going from the boathouse to the Headmaster’s Office, then with the time he’d had left, Harry couldn’t have been watching Snape’s memories for very long.

 “And I hadn’t used it in nearly a year before that, and that was only a few times every couple months or so, for about an hour at a time?” Harry explains, recalling his occasional frustration at how slowly Dumbledore had delivered his lessons. “Before that, I’d only been in a Pensieve a few times in the past two years, probably not for much longer than fifteen minutes, maybe.”

 Marlene nods. “Right, so… were those long memories? I don’t think it’s a frequently issue, then. If it was, I think the memory-shine you’ve got going on would be more constant. You didn’t happen to be watching the same memory over and over again, did you?”

 “No. Not the… not this last time.”

 Harry only saw Snape’s secrets once and now that feels like more than enough.

 “Then I think you’re right, Harry, in that it must have been something wrong with the Pensieve or the memories,” Marlene says, and taps on her chin thinkingly.

 There’s something… almost placating… about Marlene McKinnon’s readiness to suddenly chase answers here – something soothing against all the fury and frustration and horror seething inside Harry’s chest. Harry is offended at the idea that someone has been poisoning his mind without his noticing, but he tamps down on that scorned feeling to keep it from lashing out. Being offended at his own shortcomings won’t make them any less true.

 Someone is actually helping him figure out what happened to him. Someone is taking him entirely seriously, just taking his word for it that he’s not mad, and trying to help him fix things.

 Fuck, but he misses his real friends.

 “You didn’t notice anything wrong with the Pensieve, alright, but was there anything strange about the memories themselves? Because if it wasn’t the Pensieve used to review them, then I can only presume it was the memories. Was there something off about how you got them? How well did you know the person you got them from?”

 Harry has no bloody idea how well he knew Snape in the end. Even with that final insight into the man’s life, he only has even more questions about why the man acted the way he had in so many moments. Harry has no idea what Snape actually thought of it all.

 “I… didn’t know him that well, but I knew him a bit… he was one of the few people who might have had the answers I needed… and he gave me his memories while he was dying,” Harry summarizes awkwardly, trying to explain himself while really leaving everything out. “I didn’t ask for them or anything. He could barely talk, but he clearly had to tell us something, so it seemed like he was giving a memory over instead to say everything he had to. I had to see what they were. We were running out of time.”

 (To escape into someone else’s head would be a blessed relief…

 Nothing that even Snape had left him could be worse than his own thoughts.)

 “Deathbed memories?”

 Harry looks away from the fire, where his gaze has been fixed, at Marlene again.

 “Is that… bad?”

 “Honestly, I don’t know,” she admits, putting her chin in her hand again. “I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with handing over memories on your deathbed. It’s kind of cliché, though, isn’t it? Everyone gathered around a bed because someone’s dying, to hear their last words, and then they give over a memory that changes everything? I thought that sort of thing only happened in stories.”

 Harry stares at her, then says finally, coldly, “It happened.”

 He gets what she’s saying – as in: he understands the sentence and the sentiment – but he doesn’t appreciate her lightened tone or the implication that his story somehow might not be true. He’s not really in the mood for this anymore. Not right now. His life might be ridiculous, but that doesn’t make it a joke.

 “He was dying because he’s just been attacked by V- You-Know-Who,” Harry says flatly. “Not many people were going out in their sleep or in a nice bed surrounded by loved ones.”

 “Oh,” says Marlene.

 “Yeah.”

 They sit there in silence for several seconds. Harry turns back to the fire and wonders if Snape had any loved ones left in the end. He wonders if he ought to feel bad for the man after everything he did. Harry also wonders if he ought not feel bad for Snape… after everything he did.

 “So… this was a long memory?” Marlene says finally.

 “It was lots of different memories, each fairly long,” Harry answers shortly.

 “All connected?”

 “…Mostly, yeah. Yeah, they were.”

 All the memories had connected somehow to Lily or to Dumbledore… and all come together in a miserable tale to offer an explanation as to why Snape had done the things that he had. How Snape had set Voldemort to kill Harry, then sworn an oath to protect Harry… only to let him die at the right moment.

 “So, lots of different, long memories taken from a desperate man who was dying – I will assume, because I’ve already made an arse of myself here, so why not – a very violent or painful death,” Marlene says. “Not… not a lot of people are going out in their sleep or in a nice bed surrounded by loved ones now, either, and I don’t suppose the ‘Dark Lord Tom’ became any nicer in his old age.”

 That makes Harry snort, a little surprised. “Definitely not.”

 “That must have been…. Were they even coherent, these memories?” Marlene says incredulously. “Mind magic isn’t something I’d like to do under duress… or at all… and definitely not while your life is already supposed to be flashing before your eyes.”

 Harry takes a few seconds to think, holding on tight not to lose himself in silvery thoughts.

 “It was… rushed,” he decides finally. “There were a lot there. But they were in order and they were all really clear – vividly clear – but… I guess a bit rushed in places?”

 Snape’s life really had flashed before Harry’s eyes.

 “He didn’t even use his wand,” Harry remembers. “He was dying quickly. The memories were just pouring out of his face – out of his eyes and mouth and nose – almost like blood.”

 He resists the urge to shudder at the gruesome memory; it had been a sad and horrifying sight. Only Hermione’s intervention had allowed Harry to push forward and collect those streaming memories at all. He looks away from the fire, toward Marlene again, when nearly a minute passes by without another question or some pithy comment from her.

 She looks a little ill, but she smiles tightly again under Harry’s stare and says with breathless laughter, “Well! I think that’s probably your problem. Memory magic might not be my area of expertise, but I am still quite certain that that is very much not how you’re supposed to pull memories safely.”

 “Probably not,” Harry agrees.

 So… was it Snape? Snape, so desperate to pass on Dumbledore’s messages that he hadn’t cared what might stick in the mind of a boy doomed to die soon anyway?

 “What… happened after you watched these memories?” Marlene asks carefully. “Were you experiencing these effects afterwards? Because Lils is pretty sure that this has been happening before you got anywhere near the horcrux, so…. What thoughts did you feel overwhelmed with after you saw the memories? Were there any powerful compulsions to do something?”

 When Harry frowns at her, she hastens to add, “You don’t have to tell me what they are, but it’s important to look at your own thoughts and figure out where they’re coming from, right? Especially with Pensieves. It’s what got Emilia.”

 “I died less than half-an-hour after I saw those memories,” Harry says hoarsely. “I…. There wasn’t much time to stop and think about things.”

 Now then, but there’s time now.

 (“Good. Very good! Now, Severus, the sword! Do not forget that it must be taken under conditions of need and valour – and he must not know that you give it! If Voldemort should read Harry’s mind and see you acting for him-!”)

 Suddenly, Harry’s mind isn’t even pretending not to be a whirl, because after watching Snape’s sorry tale, he was consumed with the final task that Dumbledore had left him: to die.

 Harry was overwhelmed by the betrayal and yet determined to sacrifice himself for everyone else. He forced himself to walk out into the Forbidden Forest, taking comfort in the shades of the people he thought he would soon join, and to face Voldemort’s wand, in the faint hope that his death might bring a better end for his loved ones.

 (“I know.”)

 The greater message of Snape’s memories was that Harry was supposed to die, but… was there more than just a message? Harry has since decided that he probably would have sacrificed himself for his friends and family freely, if it was necessary, had Dumbledore simply told him the truth. And yet… would Harry have stopped if not for some magical compulsion in Snape’s memories? Would he have taken the time to reconsider? To speak with his friends and at least say goodbye?

 If there was a compulsion in the memories, was it even intentional? To let Harry rest in peace rather than live on with a horcrux in his head and death flying on his heels? To drag Harry down into death alongside Snape? Or was it simply the miserable mistake of a dying man weaving complicated and delicate magic?

 (“And you still aren’t going to tell me why it’s so important to give Potter the sword?”)

 A corruption of the Pensieve or the memories does explain much. Most of the memories have been focused on Snape and Dumbledore, perhaps stirring up the other adjacent, painful memories with their presence. A desperate mess of mind magic… stewing in his head… unwilling to settle… pushing its way into his other, previously untainted memories and into every moment.

 Especially… especially the moments with Lily. Just looking at her is difficult enough for Harry all by himself, with how desperately he loves a complete stranger, but when the silvery memories threatened to rise up as well… sometimes it was easier not to look at her.

 (“No, I don’t think so. He will know what to do with it.”)

 But does it explain Harry’s dream? Yes, Harry was dreaming of one of Snape’s shared memories at the time, but could a memory have the power to pull him from his bed? To have him nearly fall down the stairs toward the horcrux in the kitchen?

 In his dream… Harry was overcome with the urge to walk into the Forbidden Forest toward whatever waited for him. He felt compelled to leave Snape and Dumbledore’s conversation and walk toward his death… to end the long game again… to finished the fight. As he had somehow failed to do when found himself alive and here, in this time, instead.

 Yes, of course. It was never the horcrux. Why should the diadem have power and reach so far beyond all the others? None of the horcruxes as Harry knew them were capable of possessing a person like that – not so suddenly, not in a single night, without a single touch. Ginny had poured herself into the diary for months and she had only been eleven years old. It had taken time for the locket to affect all of them when they were wearing it and camping in the woods. Harry had resisted Voldemort’s Imperius Curse and Voldemort’s attempts at possession before, while he had without doubt had a piece of Voldemort’s soul inside him.

 (“And Severus, be very careful, they may not take kindly to your appearance after George Weasley’s mishap-”)

 Harry’s fears of the diadem aren’t unfounded, but they might be exaggerated. Marlene McKinnon’s spell and the horcrux’s manifestation frightened all of them, but Harry doesn’t think it gave this horcrux powers beyond everything he’s seen before.

 (“Don’t worry, Dumbledore.”)

 It’s Harry’s own bloody mind trying to do him in. He remembers the suddenly urgency and horror that had descended over the ordinary frustration and resentment of the memory… and the dutiful urge to walk into the woods. Was Harry trying to kill himself by falling down the stairs? Or was he simply trying to go to the nearest Voldemort he had: the diadem sitting downstairs?

 (“I have a plan…”)

 All along, Harry has been looking outside with fear, and not at the memories he invited into his own head. He had trusted Dumbledore and so trusted the memories Dumbledore had shown him. He had seen Slughorn’s clumsy manipulation and thought nothing of what better liars might accomplish. It didn’t occur to him that Snape’s memories might have been more than simple memories… that the potions master could have poisoned his shared memories with his dying breath.

 Dumbledore betrayed Harry. Why not Snape? Harry doesn’t know the exact oaths Snape had made so long ago. Was it considered protecting Harry to get rid of the horcrux in his head at all costs? Was it considered protecting him if the person thought he was better off dead? Harry doesn’t know.

 He can’t know. Snape and Dumbledore and their twisting plans are beyond him now, lost in a future that might now never come to be. Maybe it was all a mistake. Maybe Snape’s dying desperation to fulfill his promises only accidentally twisted the tale he shared. But even if Harry somehow lived past his sacrifice, he couldn't have known that, because both Snape and Dumbledore had died and taken their answers and true intentions far away.

 (Finally, the truth.)

 Harry will never know the truth now.

 Why couldn’t it all have been as obvious as an Imperius?

 

Chapter Text

 Harry looks beside him, to Marlene McKinnon, who has her chin in one hand and the axe in the other. She’s using the axe to poke at her burning dining table. When she notices Harry looking at her again, she pauses in playing with the fire and gives him a cautious look.

 “You looked like you were thinking some things over,” she says finally. “I didn’t see any overly strong memory-shine, just a few flickers, really, so I thought it might be best just to… leave you to it and sort through my own thoughts while you were sorting through yours. Do you want me to shake you if it happens again?”

 Harry has no idea. Maybe?

 “Do you want me to go?” Marlene asks plainly. “I can go get Lils or Jim, if you like.”

 Harry swallows and says, “How do I get them out of my head again?”

 “What?”

 “The memories that’re stuck in my head. How do I get them out again? How do I end this?”

 “Harry, I don’t even know what exactly you know or think is going on with you,” Marlene says warily. “I can’t offer a solution if I don’t actually know what the problem is, but… honestly, I’m not even sure that you can get them out again.”

 Harry stares at her disbelievingly. “Then what was the bloody point of telling me all this?”

 “To try to help! But I can’t just pluck the memories out of your head and make it like they never happened! They’re memories! They don’t work like that! Some things can’t be unseen. Short of some very, very skilled Legilimency I’m not sure is feasibly possible, you’re stuck with them.”

 Harry thinks of Snape’s Occlumency lessons in his fifth year. He wants someone else’s wand pointed at his hand again about as much as he wants to confess his deepest and most desperate secrets, but neither does he want to continue to let whatever magic Snape and/or Dumbledore had him put inside his own head continue to wreak havoc like this. Is it really so much to ask just to be rid of it all?

 (Neither would live, neither could survive.)

 “There must be some way.”

 “Well, there’s always a full Obliviation,” Marlene says sarcastically. “Look, there’s a reason Mum wanted us all to tattle on each other for meddling with our own minds. Maybe if you’d only just watched them, I suppose picking them right back out again cleanly enough might have been doable by someone who knew what they were doing, but it’s been days, hasn’t it?”

 “So you can’t actually help me,” Harry decides. “You can’t get them out.”

 “Just because I can’t wave my wand and make a miracle doesn’t mean I can’t help, Harry. Just because you can’t unmake a memory doesn’t mean you can’t do something about them. We can help you.”

 “So what can I do?” Harry demands, angry and afraid and quickly becoming exasperated with being so bloody angry and afraid. “Wait until my memories manage to fling me down another staircase for failing to die properly? How am I supposed to ‘deal’ with them? Why shouldn’t I be able to pick them out of my mind with magic? Why shouldn’t you?”

 “If you don’t mind probably tearing out massive pieces of everything those memories are touching, damaging your mind possibly beyond repair, sure, you might be able to do that,” Marlene answers tartly. “Which you shouldn’t do and I wouldn’t do for you if I even knew how – and not only because Lils would murder me – so don’t ask.”

 “Why not?”

 “I’m no Legilimens! I don’t know nearly enough about mind magic. I’m not comfortable with doing something like that to someone else’s head. Besides, personally, I don’t want to give anyone the opportunity to go poking around in my head either. Bridges go both ways!”

 That’s something that Harry can relate to easily enough. The necessity of his Occlumency lessons with Snape don’t make them memories he looks back on fondly, and he’s far from fond of the idea he might have to let someone else into his head for his own good again. He’s just as good as offered Marlene access to mind and memories now… and, despite all her relentless nosiness, she’s turning him down flat. Which… might be for the best.

 She might be right. He doesn’t want to end up like Lockhart.

 “So what do I do?” Harry repeats tiredly.

 “There are techniques for managing your mind and your memories that might help, there are spells and rituals that are meant to exorcise malevolent compulsions, and there’s pretty much always healing through time and with the help of friends,” Marlene answers, a clear note of relief in her voice. “Lils will dig up frighteningly brilliant solutions for you, I’m sure, and we can always talk to someone who actually knows what they’re on about.”

 “…I don’t want to talk to one of your sisters about this,” Harry says frankly. “Or your mother.”

 The other solutions sound almost plausible, but not that one.

 “What? Oh, no, Harry. Absolutely not my family. But there are other Seers out there to consult – not as talented as a McKinnon, probably, but still talented enough – and we do know a healer who’ll probably have a thing or two to say about this mess if we need his help. He’s exceptionally discreet and I am really not at all above the phrase ‘so I have this friend’.”

 “…Who is this?” Harry demands, confused.

 “Caradoc Dearborn? Don’t suppose you’ve heard of him?

 “…No,” Harry replies.

 Had Lily mentioned him earlier? Possibly, but Harry can’t remember right now. Either way, he’s wary of letting a total stranger into his head, or of reaching out beyond this circle of people he and Regulus have found for themselves. Harry’s fairly certain Regulus will go to pieces at them bringing in some new, unknown, unplanned bloke.

 “Not surprising. He’s a busy wizard. But we don’t have to call him in without your say-so, Harry. Your head is yours first, not anyone else’s, and you don’t have to go along with our ideas of help,” Marlene says insistently. “I’m one of the first people to argue that everyone has a right to ruin themselves… and I’d like to think we’re becoming friends, but… maybe you ought to be more careful before letting even friends in. You know how people say ‘when the people you let in turn on you, they have the most room to hurt you’? That is meant very literally when it comes to mind magic.”

 “Yes, I know.”

 “It’s just… definitely something to keep in mind,” Marlene says sagely, nodding. “Remember Emilia. You know, I can actually go find the play for you right now, if you’d like to read it. I have a copy.”

 “I’d really rather get my own memory problems out of my head than read about someone else going mad right now,” Harry snaps, feeling determinedly uncurious. He has absolutely no desire – less than no desire, at the moment – to read about someone being helped into murderous madness and then dying for it. “Is there really nothing you can do that might help me right now? Or should I just give up sleep and stay constantly vigilant until further notice?”

 “Well… we could try to pull the memories? While waiting for Lils to weigh in.”

 Harry narrows his eyes. “What does that mean?”

 “I can’t just pluck them out of your head entirely and neither can you, but… there’s this little ritual people do sometimes with memories they’d rather forget,” Marlene explains awkwardly. “I’ve done it before, with my sister Daisy, when I was really small. You don’t have to be an Occlumens or anything. It’s a… mostly symbolic sort of thing? And it doesn’t have to be done cleanly – just pulled safely – because there’s no actual intention of sharing the memories around. Strong feelings and compulsions are encouraged to be attached to them.”

 “But… the memories are still there,” Harry says, trying to make sense of this. “I’d still be stuck with the memories and whatever’s attached to them. I’d just… what… have a copy to share?”

 “I said it was mostly symbolic.”

 “So… it’s meant to make me feel better.”

 “That’s what a lot of mind magic is!” Marlene says defensively. “Controlled feelings. That’s a lot of what magic is. You’d be surprised at just how much a strong optimistic disposition or spiteful stubbornness can do against malevolent magic. What do you think a Cheering Charm is?”

 Harry bites back another sharp remark, because he knows she has a point. His next remark is still sharp, but not as much as it could have been.

 “So, what? I should just cast a Patronus until I’m all better?”

 Marlene’s answer is sharp as well. “I didn’t say it would fix everything, I said it would probably help until Lily or someone like Caradoc gets here. Yes, a Patronus would be better than nothing, probably, but it wouldn’t have the same sort of meaning as the act of taking unwanted thoughts and feelings out of your head and then casting them away. There’s magic in that. There wouldn’t be the same feeling of control with a Patronus or Cheering Charm or what have you.”

 Harry stares at her unhappily, but her answering stare is unfairly steady. He can see the sense of what she’s saying, even though he doesn’t like it. This might tide him over for a while, but it wouldn’t actually get rid of the cocktail of unknown crap he poured into his own head.

 Perhaps nothing would.

 “If you wanted my memories, you could’ve just said so,” he grumbles finally.

 Marlene laughs, high and startled and short. “Like I’m going to let any of that anywhere near my head after everything you’ve said! I’m not skilled or desperate enough to watch memories as corrupted as that!” Then she sighs and says, “No, thank you, Harry Potter. Keep your secrets until you’re ready to say them. The secrets you’ve shared already might have saved my life and my family, so I’ll have to be content with that. Let me know where you toss your memories only so I can clean up after them rather than let them linger anywhere.”

 Harry feels offended by that, even though he wouldn’t have wanted the memories either if he’d even had a hint of what he was getting into and someone who could just tell him everything.

 Marlene then gives him a sidelong look. “A Patronus, huh? Can you really cast one?”

 “Yeah.”

 “Corporeal?”

 “Yeah.”

 He hopes she doesn’t ask him to prove it. He doesn’t feel much like casting one right now.

 “That’s impressive! And it bodes well for dealing with your memory problems. I feel like I should have known that Lily’s son would be just as good at Charms and strong-minded as she is,” Marlene says brightly. “If you feel the need to cast a Patronus to ward off malevolent feelings, I wouldn’t say not to, I suppose. I don’t think it can hurt? Personally, I’ve never managed anything corporeal, unfortunately, so I wouldn’t know. Seers have never really been known for their optimistic dispositions, you know; it goes a bit against the job.”

 Harry snorts despite his mood. Yeah, he wouldn’t call Professor Trelawney or Professor Firenze particularly sunny people. Having the future that he came from laid out before him now only seems to fill him with dread. There’s so many terrible things ahead.

 “Yeah,” he says finally. “Yeah, alright. Why not?”

 “Sorry, what?”

 “Let’s do this ritual thing to make me ‘feel better’,” Harry says.

 He’s not going to jinx himself and say that he couldn’t possibly feel any worse right now, but he could definitely feel better. It’s either doing something about all this mess in his head or descending into a spiral of sad-minded panic. Harry would much rather do something.

 “You’ve done it before, right? You can show me how to do it.”

 “I… could,” Marlene says slowly. “Are you sure you want to do this now, though? I mean, I’m not saying no, it’s just that we really can go wake Lily up for this. Or even your Black friend if you like. I even have an axe to break down doors dramatically.”

 Harry shakes his head. He can hold out a little longer on his own. He wants to get this under some control before he goes to them with this. Neither of them are going to be happy about this and both of them will want to know everything. Harry doesn’t want the pity he knows he’s sure to get – the pity that Marlene McKinnon has already been sending him out of the corner of her eye. He definitely doesn’t want to get Sirius or James involved yet.

 “Well!” Marlene claps her hands together. “What’s a few more hours of no sleep?”

 “…You think this is going to take hours?”

 “You don’t?” Marlene says, as she gets to her feet. “You don’t have a lot of experience with pulling memories, right? Neither do I. I’m not an expert and these won’t even have to be even remotely watchable, but even I wasn’t about to start right away with the twisted deathbed memories giving you trouble.”

 That sounds… sensible? Harry gets to his feet as well, picking up his wand.

 Marlene picks up her own wand and the axe. “Come on, Harry. I have a few books I want to have a look through first, before we do anything, to make sure we’re doing our next late night exorcism of ‘things that give us bad feelings’ rightly. I’m not bringing them outside.”

 With one last look at the dining table, all in pieces and burning merrily away in its thrice-ringed pit, Harry follows Marlene McKinnon back inside her house.

 

 ~

 

 Marlene takes them in through the back door, leaving the axe leaning against the wall outside. She urges Harry on to the sitting room without her, haphazardly kicks off her shoes, and then bounds up the shadowy stairs – quietly, in her socks and pyjamas and bathrobe – to fetch the books they’ll need to pull these memories.

 Harry takes off his shoes, feeling a bit awkward remembering that he’s still in his borrowed pyjamas, and arranges them and Marlene’s neatly against the wall so that no one will trip over them. He rubs his hands together and breathes on them, at least glad to be out of the night’s cold. Before he goes on to the sitting room, he peers into the dark kitchen. The ratty bookbag holding the diadem is exactly where they left it when they took the dining table outside.

 (The Resurrection Stone slipped from between his numb fingers, and out of the corner of his eyes he saw his parents, Sirius, and Lupin vanish as he stepped forward into the firelight. At the moment he felt that nobody mattered but Voldemort. It was just the two of them.)

 Harry stares at it for a long moment, before he forces himself to walk away.

 (The illusion was gone as soon as it had come.)

 Marlene comes back downstairs sooner than Harry might have guessed she would, with a smaller selection of books than he might have guessed she would. But maybe it’s just Harry being used to the reading habits of Hermione Granger that makes him surprised when Marlene only drops a thick textbook, a worn journal, and something that looks like a thin novel onto the coffee table.

 Marlene plops down on the sofa next to him and immediately hauls the thick textbook back into her lap, cracking it open and flipping deftly through the pages. It looks like an official book of spells. Harry catches familiar glimpses of the large and professional printed text, the dictionary-like definitions and the clear descriptions of incantation pronunciations, the yellow and red warnings written to the particularly dangerous or difficult spells, and the diagrams and drawings outlining wand movements.

 He doesn’t quite know what to make of the worn journal, though. Its cover is brown leather, with drawings of flowers etched into it, and it’s loosely tied shut. A diary, maybe?

 The thin novel is blue and plain and says in silver letters: The Tragedy of Emilia the Pensive.

 Harry looks away from it quickly, just as Marlene finds what she’s looking for.

 “Here we go! This is the spell for pulling memories and making copies of them,” she says, tilting the textbook toward Harry and pointing. “I knew it was in here somewhere.”

 The spell to pull memories spreads across both pages, with the incantation and a comprehensive description and a brief history. However, Harry’s attention is captured rather by several neat drawings, which depict an anonymous wizard putting the tip of his wand to his head, pulling a wisp of memory out, and then carefully placing the memory in a glass vial. It’s much like Harry saw Dumbledore do a handful of times… much like he saw Slughorn do after Aragog’s funeral.

 “Here, you read through this,” Marlene says, and dumps the textbook in his lap.

 Harry keeps the thick book from falling on the floor, while Marlene leans forward and picks up the worn journal again. She unwinds its loose knot and opens it with a thoughtful care she didn’t show the textbook he’s holding.

 “What’s that?”

 The first page appears to be a dedication of some sort, handwritten in black ink on a yellowed page. Marlene turns it gently to a table of contents that spans several pages and devolves, after the same black handwriting, into many more differently sizes and sizes of handwriting, in different colours of ink, but not randomly so. There are sections; each new style of handwriting marks a new author.

 “A witch’s recipe book that Dory’s mother passed on and Dory shared with me,” Marlene answers. “Well, that would be potions, actually, wouldn’t it? This isn’t quite a spell book. It’s rather a collection of folk and family rituals. Which just so happens to contain a few potions and cooking recipes, because some of these wise witches seemed to believe that good bread was as good as magic if you did it rightly. You know, I often think they had the right idea.”

 “…My friend’s mum said things like that,” Harry volunteers. “About cooking and knitting.”

 “‘Only fools say knot magic is not magic’,” Marlene says knowingly, like she’s quoting something. “I think I have a book on that… somewhere. No idea where my needles went.”

 She runs a finger down the mismatched tables of contents, then stops at a line and taps it. As she turns through the dog-eared pages, besides the handwritten text, Harry catches glimpses of artful portraits, stick-figure drawings, water-colour paintings, stamps, and photographs Spell-o-taped to these yellowed pages like a scrapbook. He’s never seen a spell book quite like this one before.

 It does actually remind him of recipe books. Particularly the older ones that Mrs. Weasley kept on a shelf in the Burrow’s kitchen, which were cramped and stained and easily overlooked.

 “I knew there was a version of it in this book!”

 The page that Marlene finally stops on doesn’t have any drawings, just a cramped description and several lines of what looks to be a poem. Harry turns his head to read the cursive title and subtitle of the ritual at the top of the page.

 “‘Burying Unwanted Thoughts’,” he says aloud, disbelievingly. “‘A ritual for casting off the shackles of the past and curing a broken heart’?!”

 “Well, it seems to have been written down here by a witch who was very unlucky in love,” Marlene admits awkwardly, tapping the page. “Aaand the added note here is from a… scorned someone else who’s recommending it for getting over a bad break-up… but that’s just one interpretation of the ritual and how these people used it. It really is about the symbolism of throwing away unwanted and hurtful thoughts in general.”

 Harry still feels bitterly dubious.

 “I am going to be tossing away my sisters’ surprise visit today,” Marlene announces, as she reads the ritual. “Yesterday, technically. And I’d never been in love when last I did this with Daisy – I really was teeny tiny, I’m pretty sure I was in love with sweets – so I’m fairly certain that a broken heart and lost love are entirely optional, Harry.”

 “You’re what?”

 “I’m doing this with you,” she says determinedly. “It’s a simple ritual. I’ve done it once before and I remember doing similar rituals with my mum and great-aunt and sisters. I have memories I’d rather not keep rattling about, you know, although… perhaps not quite as much as the next person here.”

 Harry doesn’t quite know what to say to this. When he angrily confronted Marlene over her dancing-around-the-subject poking and prodding, for all her long-winded stories and babble, he didn’t expect such straightforward… help. He doesn’t know what he expected from her. He’s still reeling from all his realizations – at the same time that he’s reeling from not really being all that surprised, because it feels rather like he should have seen all this coming long before now.

 Really, what did Harry realize that he didn’t already know? Dumbledore and Snape were men with regrets and their own agendas. Does it really make a different that Snape’s dying memories, unintentionally or otherwise, might have been broken and helped magically set into Harry his final task?

 (Dumbledore’s betrayal was almost nothing. Of course there had been a bigger plan; Harry had simply been too foolish to see it, he realized that now. He had never questioned his own assumption: that Dumbledore wanted him alive.)

 “I’ll go first,” Marlene says decisively.

 She takes the textbook back and Harry lets her. He listens carefully as Marlene reads every word on the page aloud – pausing, of course, for the occasionally comment on the author’s choice of wording and such. Every time that Harry catches his attention wandering, he forces it back.

 This is for the sake of not going mad or offing himself. He can’t just get bored and not pay attention.

 Marlene is less precise about reading the ritual aloud from her worn journal of them. She summarizes the description of the ritual, clearly omitting parts, but she doesn’t hide the book when Harry leans over to get a better look at what she’s choosing not to say. It seems like she’s just skipping or rephrasing the parts on romance-related heartbreak to make them more general. Harry can also read the rough poem-like piece that’s scratched underneath the description of the ritual, also by the witch who originally wrote it down here, that Marlene chooses to gloss over.

 It says, “let the past be the past.

 you do not have to live that day again;

 you cannot. let it go

 for it does not have you anymore.”

  “The one that I did with Daisy had us actually tossing the memories away,” Marlene says thoughtfully. “This one suggests we collect them in bowls or bottles or the like first, then get rid of them by burying them in the garden. The bowls sound like the good idea, but I think Dory might bury us if we take a shovel near her garden, so let’s not do that bit.”

 She passes both books over to Harry again and goes off to fetch bowls from the kitchen. (“If I don’t come back in five minutes, come find out what happened and avenge me.”) A minute later, she doesn’t return with bowls at all, but rather with a pair of empty glass bottles. The brown one was clearly once a bottle of cider – The Ambushing Apple Tree Cider, it reads clearly on the label – and the clear bottle is the Sparkling Water that Lily had bought Harry in Hogsmeade, which he emptied during their take-out dinner earlier.

  “I just poured some perfectly good cider down the sink,” Marlene announces, relatively quietly in consideration for the late hour, as she drops down next to Harry again. “I very much wanted to drink it, but that seemed like something that a better witch wouldn’t do before performing mind magic.”

 “What happened to bowls?” Harry asks, accepting the clear bottle that she thrusts at him.

 “I’m not burying my good dishware in the garden or anything. Admittedly, that sounds like a very me thing to do, but I think I’m hitting a limit on the destruction of household items for today. I’m down a dining table and nearly lost an axe already, and the sun’s not even up.”

 “…Fair enough,” Harry muses.

 He turns the glass bottle over in his hands. It’s just a bottle, really, so there’s no need to hang on to it, and yet… it’s kind of the only thing that Lily Potter has ever given him. From his father, Harry inherited the Invisibility Cloak, the Marauder’s Map, and Sirius and Remus (and Peter). But from his mother… Harry never really had anything.

 (Snape took the page bearing Lily’s signature, and her love, and tucked it inside his robes. Then he ripped in two the photograph he was also holding, so that he kept the part from which Lily laughed, throwing the portion showing James and Harry back onto the floor, under the chest of drawers…) 

 Well, now, he guesses he kind of got Snape. But honestly, now more so than ever perhaps, Harry personally thinks he really could have done without Snape.

 It’s a silly thing to get stuck on. Lily Potter is alive here. Harry doesn’t need to hang on to an empty bottle from her, even one that had been given in a show of kindness, so he sets it aside on the coffee table and turns his attention back to the friend of hers he never met.

 “Alright,” Marlene says, lifting her empty cider. “Here’s to forgetting, eh?”

 She holds it out to Harry expectantly, then wiggles it

 “Come on, Potter.”

 Harry raises his eyebrows at her, but picks up his own empty bottle just long enough to clink it against Marlene’s in a mockery of a toast.

 “Cheers,” he says wryly, before he sets it down again. 

 

Chapter Text

 “That’s the spirit,” Marlene says brightly, before she gives an exaggerated shudder. “I had to walk past the horcrux in the kitchen to fetch these. Do you mind if I put a silencing spell on this room? I don’t want to be waking everyone else up, especially not the animated crown in my kitchen.”

 “No. Go ahead.”

 “Thank you, don’t mind if I do.”

  Marlene stands up again to ward the doorways of her sitting room, leaving Harry to peruse the books yet another time. He’s read through them completely now and it feels as though if he is not prepared to take the plunge yet, he’ll never be, so he leaves them alone. Instead, he watches Marlene work to keep the horcrux out. It’s comforting… though Harry still sits uneasy.

 He's sure now that his intrusive memories and any potential compulsions in them stem from his viewing of Snape’s sorry tale – how exactly, he still doesn’t know, but it fits, yet another mystifying layer over an unchanging betrayal – but he still doesn’t know if he still has a piece of Voldemort’s soul in him. That any horcrux in him is mostly still dormant only makes things slightly less terrifying. Is it biding its time? Is it really gone? There must be a way to check, though Harry has no idea how any of this works. Voldemort hasn’t yet even split off that part of his soul.

 “I’m impressed that you could stand to be in the same room as the horcrux, if you’d seen such things before and knew just how awful it was,” Marlene says casually, as she finishes. “That really was nightmarish. I don’t know if I’d be quite so brave.”

 “Aren’t you planning to… poke it… some more?” Harry says dubiously.

 “Well, yes, but I don’t plan to wake it up like that again. I have learned my lesson, Harry.”

 “If you say so.”

 Marlene laughs. “You sound just like Lils.”

 Harry smiles, slightly, because it’s odd being so frequently compared to Lily Evans. (Not as odd as having her around to be compared to, but still odd.) His smile falls again quickly, however, off a face that doesn’t feel much like holding it.

 “What did you think of the horcrux’s hissing?” Harry asks finally.

 He makes sure to keep it vague, so as not to hint that he understood what others might not have. Parseltongue is such a suspicious “gift” to have, such a direct connection to Voldemort, and while Harry has no idea whether it would remain if Voldemort’s soul left him, it’s a start.

 “What? Oh. Very creepy stuff, that hissing,” Marlene answers easily, as she comes back over. “Why? What did you make of it?”

 It’s a completely unhelpful answer.

 “Much the same,” Harry replies, careful not to sound too frustrated.

 He’ll ask Regulus later or something. Someone will have to give him a better idea of what everyone else heard and even if they don’t, all he’ll need is five minutes alone to summon a snake and be done with it. He doesn’t want to make such a confession for nothing.

 “Alright, let’s get on with this,” Marlene says as she sits back down. She raises the tip of her wand to the side of her head, leaning forward to get a better look at the textbook on the coffee table. “I’ll go first, since I said I would. Something simple to start with… something that’s not too emotionally charged just yet… any ideas?”

 Harry looks back at her blankly. “Not… really.”

 His every bloody moment – waking or otherwise, apparently – since waking up in this time has been highly emotionally charged. He doesn’t know enough about Marlene McKinnon to pick anything on her behalf.

 “I’ll go with dinner earlier,” Marlene decides. “Which means I… take a deep breath… look up and a little to the left… and focus on the memory I’m trying to pull. Not too closely, because we don’t want to get lost in the details, or lost in them in general, and everything I was feeling. Which is lot of hunger, mostly. Then I press my wand against my head and say… Memento.”

 The last word comes out softly and Marlene draws her wand away from her head slowly, in the movement indicated by the books. The memory comes out slower than Harry has seen people pull them before. Its silvery tendrils pull reluctantly away from Marlene’s temple, string by string, until it finally pulls free and hangs at the end of her wand.

 It doesn’t look any different to the other memories Harry has seen. He’s watching closely, but there’s nothing discernibly wrong with this supposedly emotion-tainted memory to his eyes.

 Marlene opens her eyes again and gives the memory a considering look. She raises her free hand, looking for all the world as though she’s thinking about poking it, before she reaches for the brown bottle on the table and carefully lowers the memory in through the opening. Once it’s inside, she taps her wand a couple times against the glass and lets the memory fall free. The silvery stands sink to the bottom of the bottle and Marlene begins to swirl them around slowly, before she catches herself again, and instead places the bottle back on the table in front of them.

 “Well, there we go,” she says, then tilts her head. “That was painless.”

 Harry should bloody well hope so.

 “You ready, Harry?”

 “Yeah.”

 “What are you going to start with? …If you don’t mind me asking.”

 “Dinner as well, probably.”

 He can’t quite think of much right now that doesn’t leave some form of emotion swelling in him, but the dinner might be close enough. It was peaceful and comfortable, and distracting enough from the subjects of horcruxes in the kitchen, horcruxes potentially still lurking in his soul, and his breakdown in the Room of Hidden Things. It’ll have to do. If he breaks over trying to pull a bemusing memory of Regulus passing him a fork, then there’s probably no hope for him anyway.

 Better to get this over with.

 Harry raises the tip of his wand to his head, follows the steps, focuses, and says, “Memento.”

 (“-pass a fork over, would you?”

 Regulus picked one up, but he didn’t immediately hand it over to Harry. Harry, his hand outstretched expectantly, raised his eyebrows at Regulus’ hoarding. Regulus only raised his eyebrows in return.

 Fucking hell, really?

 “Pass a fork over, would you, please?” Harry said, indulgently. He’d run into this sort of behaviour before and it always ran between a joke or really annoying, but he was pretty sure it was a joke now and found himself surprisingly amused either way. “Or is there some sort of blood price attached? Is this going to cost me an arm or a leg?”

 Regulus’ own bemusement stiffened for a moment, before he said dryly, “It wasn’t going to before, but now that you mention it…”

 But he handed the fork over anyway and made no such demands, nor any follow-up remarks about collecting on a price later. Instead, Regulus immediately went back to picking at his own food and the side-eyed attention of the room rolled off them again. Harry was hungry enough to let the inconsequential moment fall behind them without a struggle, and instead battled against the feelings of self-consciousness to actually eat something-)

 Harry can feel the catch of the memory at the end of his wand, and the faint resistance as he draws it from his head. It’s quite light, much like a feather, but it’s still not weightless.

 Pulling it from his head feels… odd.

 It feels like cool air against a faint headache, like he’s been staring at a bright light for too long and left himself a little ill, as the silvery tendrils pull away string by string. When Harry pulls the memory free of his head entirely, he sighs in relief, at the removal of unexpected pressure.

 The memory hangs lightly at the end of his wand and Harry, feeling a faint echo of bemusement, can’t see anything wrong with it. He honestly has no idea if there is or not. It’s a small memory. Silvery white and fine as a feather made of candle smoke, it looks like it shouldn’t have any weight at all. It might be a little thicker than it should be, being supposedly tainted with emotion, but that could honestly all be Harry’s own bloody imagination.

 Silently, Marlene picks up the yet empty bottle and holds it out to Harry, who takes it, then carefully lowers the small memory inside and taps it off the end of his wand. He sits there for several seconds, watching it sink to the glass bottom.

 “How are you feeling?” 

 “Fine,” Harry answers, easily enough. “That was painless.”

 Marlene laughs. “What? Did you think I was pulling a healer on you? ‘This won’t hurt a bit’?”

 “No, but I didn’t know if it’d be the same for me.”

 “…Oh. Well, now you do.”

 Harry nods, focused on the memory in his hands. He can see it clearly through the glass; it looks far too small for the bottle and he suddenly understands Marlene’s urge to swirl it around the bottom. He gives into the urge and watches it slide around with fascination for a few more seconds.

 “So, on to the other stuff?” Marlene asks, unhurriedly.

 “Sure,” Harry says, even though some part of him would much rather put this off forever for no real good reason. If he listened to that part of himself, he’d never get anything done, and he’s not actually keen to die again.

 There’s no telling where he’d end up.

 “Right, so I’ll go first again,” Marlene volunteers, raising her wand to the side of her head again. “No problem. Deep breath… focus on the memory and everything I was feeling when my sisters showed up at the door, which was quite a lot of annoyance and panic… and… Memento.”

 Harry watches her repeat this process curiously, though it goes exactly the same way. Marlene pulls the memory out slowly, the silvery tendrils swirling out string by string, until she has another memory hanging at the end of her wand. Harry thinks that this one looks a little different than the last one, though. It’s a larger memory this time, for one, and once again he’d guess it looks a little thicker. He’s pretty sure it’s hanging a little heavier. Less gas, more liquid in appearance, from an insubstantial thing that’s really neither.

 Marlene hums as she looks it over, but drops it into her cider bottle without trying to poke it. Once she’s tapped it off her wand, she tilts her head and says, “There it is. A message in a bottle.”

 “Who to?”

 “My sisters, probably, if it wasn’t anything I haven’t said to them before… and was silly enough to give them my thoughts to use against me in whatever they’re planning now. We could make new labels for these bottles, actually, if we wanted to. Do you want to? No?”

 “I just want to get this over with.”

 “Well… alright. Now, I suggest that you don’t focus on every detail of the memory, because that’s not what this is about. It’s more like… what the memories made you feel… or compelled you to do… but also the memory as a whole, I guess.” Marlene frowns. “Does that make sense?”

 Harry shrugs and raises his wand to his head. “Who knows?”

 “Not me,” she agrees quickly. “Just… maybe not all at once? You can do it in pieces. I did only a piece of mine, really, because it doesn’t make sense to jump off the cliff before you’ve figured out whether the broom actually works properly, right?”

 Harry looks at her again. “Will it make you feel better if I start with only a piece?”

 “…Yes? Look, I just don’t want Lils to curse me blue if this goes badly, but I don’t want to say ‘don’t tell your mother about this’ here, because that makes me sound like a terrible influence and we are going to tell Lily about this later.”

 Through all his nerves, Harry feels a thread of echoing bemusement. He’s never had a mother to get protective over him before, not that the remembers anyway, since he’s not counting the mess of the night that made him the “Boy-Who-Lived.” This Lily is only a couple of years older than him anyway; she’s already said it herself that nineteen is far too young to have a teenage son.

 “Fine,” Harry agrees, because it is a good idea to start on the smaller side.

 The only question is where the hell does he start?

 Probably with whatever’s stuck in his head that’s making it seem like a good idea to throw himself down the stairs and walk into woods to die. With that truthful feeling that he was supposed to die. He ought to be rid of revelation, if he wants to live through the night.

 Harry takes a deep breath, in the face of the silvery thoughts waiting for him.

 He focuses.

 Then says, firmly, “Memento.”

 And pulls.

 

 (“I – I come with a warning – no, a request – please-”)

 

(“Her son lives-”)

 (“Make sure it was not in vain-”)

  (“The Dark Lord will return, and Harry Potter will be in terrible danger when he does-”)

 

(“No, I am not such a coward.”)

 (“Ultimately, of course, there is only one thing to be done-”)

 

 (“What are you doing with Potter, all these evenings you are closeted together?”)

 

 (“-information I must give him before it is too late.”)

 (“It is essential that I give the boy enough information for him to do what he needs to do-”)

 

 (“Lord Voldemort’s soul, maimed as it is-”)

(“Souls? We were talking of minds!”

 “In the case of Harry and Lord Voldemort, to speak of one is to speak of the other-”)

 

(“Harry must not know, not until the last moment, not until it is necessary, otherwise how could he have the strength to do what must be done?”

 “But what must he do?”)

 (“Tell him what?”

 “Tell him that-”)

(“Part of Lord Voldemort lives inside Harry-”)

 (“And while that fragment of soul, unmissed by Voldemort, remains attached to and protected by Harry, Lord Voldemort cannot die-”)

 

 (“I thought… all those years… that we were protecting him-”)

 

 (“If I know him, he will have arranged matters so that when he does set out to meet his death, it will truly mean the end of Voldemort.”

“You have kept him alive so that he can die at the right moment?”

 “Don’t be shocked, Severus-”)

 

(“-you have been raising him like a pig for slaughter-!”)

 

 “But this is touching-”)

(“-grown to care for the boy, after all?”

 “For him?”)

 

 (“After all this time?”)

 

(“I have a plan…”)

 

~

 

 Finally, the truth.

 Lying with his face pressed into the dusty carpet of the office where he had once thought he was learning the secrets of victory, Harry understood at last that he was not supposed to survive.

 His job was to walk calmly into Death’s welcoming arms.

 Along the way, he was to dispose of Voldemort’s remaining links to life, so that when at last he flung himself across Voldemort’s path, and did not raise a wand to defend himself, the end would be clean, and the job that ought to have been done in Godric’s Hollow would be finished:

 Neither would live, neither could survive.

 

~

 

 Harry can feel the catch of memory at the end of his wand again, but it’s different this time. It’s all different this time. The memory… it still isn’t heavy, precisely, but it’s not light either; his wand might have been tugged from his hand if he didn’t have a steady grip on it. Pulling it (something more than blood) free meets more resistance than before.

 Pulling it from his head also feels like crying.

 It feels like a deep breath after a long hour of sobbing, like wind against wet skin, and like words dammed in the back of his throat being released, piece by piece, on shuddering breaths that are far too small for them. The memory’s silvery tendrils pull away string by string, until the memory pulls free entirely and Harry could gasp for it.

 The memory looks differently this time too, hanging heavy at the end of Harry’s wand. It looks noticeably thicker and heavier than the memory that Marlene had pulled, but also… uneven, like the silvery, slightly iridescent strands of it don’t rightly belong together. It’s still neither gas nor liquid, but if Harry had to pick one, he’d say without hesitation that it looks far more like liquid. He has no idea whether this is an indication of poison or just how crap he is at mind magic or both, but altogether it looks like a string of thoughts he’d now think thrice about inviting into his head.

 He wishes, so desperately, that he had paid more attention to the things he had taken for granted… and sought to understand the insidious magic he had encountered. What do the visible different between his and Marlene’s memories mean? Why hadn’t he cared to look for differences between Dumbledore’s cabinet of regrets and the memory that had sat so heavily on Slughorn’s conscience? If Harry had to relate this silvery thing now to any other memories, it would undoubtedly be the ones Snape gave up just before his death, but Harry was so distracted and can’t now remember if that conjured flask truly held any odd weight or shine.

 It might all be wishful thinking.

 Harry takes up the clear bottle again and carefully lowers the ragged memory inside, before tapping it off the end of his wand. He watches it drop and spread over the bottom of the bottle, swallowing the small memory of dinner. The memories swirl together until they’re practically indistinguishable from each other, their silvery tendrils folding over and into each other as Harry tilts the bottle.

 This was Snape and Dumbledore’s final message to him.

 “How are you feeling?”

 Like everything and nothing all at once. Mostly like nothing at the moment.

 When Harry opens his voice to speak, it feels like he has to crack through a dam in his throat.  

 “…Alright,” he says.

 “…Was that all of it? Or do you need another go?”

 Harry would like to think that he’s gotten all of it out – which, he supposes, is the point of this little ritual – but there’s so much more. Snape’s life had flashed before his eyes, before Harry got to the revelation, and the feelings tangled in that are even more unknown to him. There’s all his righteous anger and distressed understanding at Dumbledore’s long betrayal. There’s all of Snape and Dumbledore’s secrets, that bloody prophecy making Harry into Voldemort’s hated foe before he was even born, and then Harry unknowingly harbouring a piece of Voldemort’s soul all these years.

 There’s the sudden loss of everything he ever loved and the sudden gain of these almost-familiar people he never truly knew before. There’s his parents and Sirius and Regulus and the wide, frightening future ahead. There’s dying. There’s still being alive. There’s… a lot.

 Harry rubs his face, displeased to find that his eyes are slightly wet at the corners, and sighs. “That was… just a piece. I should… I should probably keep going….”

 It does help to feel like he’s removing all this shit from his head to look at later.

 It also helps that his secrets are still his own in this. Yes, Marlene could steal this bottle from him, but… well, that’s her problem if she fancies a look at his disaster of a life and fucks herself over. Harry has no intention of just giving it over to her if she changes her mind, anyway. He tightens his grip on the bottle’s neck. He’d fight over these. They’re his and he’s not sharing. Not yet.

 Maybe tomorrow.

 “Well, you don’t have to,” Marlene says.

 “I want to,” Harry replies. 

 “Alright,” she agrees easily. She grins at him again and lifts her own bottle of memory. “Let’s keep this going, then. It’s not like I’m going to run out of things that piss me off about my family, or like I was going to get a decent night’s sleep anyway.”

 “You don’t need to keep doing this too. You can just go to bed.”

 Marlene yawns at the mention of bed, but shakes her head. “No, I said I’d do this with you, Harry. Are you going to pull another memory right away, or is it my turn to toss some out again?”

 Harry’s still staring at her, uncertain, and her grin gets wider.

 “I’ve here until it’s over, Harry… or at least until Lils gets here to tell us off for pickling our thoughts chasing forgetfulness like this.” Marlene lifts the bottle in her hand a little higher and says cajolingly, “You want to make another toast before the next round? It’s your turn to make one.”

 Harry snorts, but clinks the bottles together again nevertheless.

 “So? What are we toasting?”

 Harry takes a few seconds to think about it. Not to forgetfulness again, because he doesn’t want to forget all this. Yeah, he’d like every potential piece of poison plucked from his head as though they never happened, but he doesn’t want to give up the secrets those memories gave him and the long-needed insight they gave him into his own life. Harry won’t go back to not knowing the things he now knows about Albus Dumbledore and Severus Snape.

 Even if it’s not nearly enough to answer all the questions he has for them.

 “To knowing your own mind,” he says finally.

 Marlene nods approvingly. “I like that,” she decides. “That’s a good one. Cheers to knowing your own mind! I’ll get the next one.”

 “Cheers,” Harry echoes.

 It feels a bit hollow, but there’s no point not to say it and plenty points for it. Might as well. 

  

Chapter Text

 Regulus doesn’t panic when he wakes up in the morning, checks the time – nine o’clock, a perfectly reasonable if undesirable time to be awake, as many morning hours are – and rolls over to see Harry’s bed empty and unmade. However, this is not panicking in the way of Not Panicking. Regulus is getting out of bed, snatching up his wand, and making his way down the stairs within seconds calmly.

 He swings into the kitchen first, upon touching down on the first floor, not just because the doorway is close to the bottom of the hallway stairs. Regulus finds that the ratty bookbag that contains the diadem is still there, laid upon the floor where the dining table used to be and currently isn’t. The bizarre, unexpected absence of the table is almost enough to give Regulus pause, because who would make off with only the dining table in the middle of the night? Except Regulus vaguely recalls McKinnon saying that she would “clean” it somehow and that only makes it all the more urgent that he check the inside of the bag, so that he can begin to unravel what Lily Evans’ nosy friend may have misguidedly done with the horcrux overnight.

 The horcrux is, much to Regulus’ uncertain relief, still inside the bag. He doesn’t reach in and touch it, of course, he only crouches down, much to the displeasure of all the aches of his near-death two days ago, and lifts the flap of the bag with the tip of his wand. The diadem and its sicky gleam are still inside, apparently untouched and unchanged and yet dormant.

 It appears as though McKinnon has kept her word. Regulus lets the flap fall again and, to more protesting from his bruises and some dark spots in his vision, quickly stands again. He finds himself unwilling to look at the malevolent thing for too long.

 It is much easier not to panic, knowing that the magical object upon which they have laid all their hopes hasn’t been taken by some thief in the night. However, the horcrux’s safety aside, the hazy mystery of what has become of the dining table remains unanswered… as does, more importantly, what has become of Harry Potter.

 When Regulus set his spells on their shared room last night, it was the intention of warning them of the comings and goings of all others. He hoped to keep the others out, not Harry in. It would have been absurd to keep Harry like some kind of prisoner and Regulus wouldn’t have done so had the thought even occurred, but… Regulus curses himself nonetheless now, mostly for his lack of forethought and Harry’s thoughtless uncooperativeness again. Though, also in part for this overzealous, overtired reaction when, for all he knows, Harry could just be in the washroom.

 Perhaps Harry simply woke up first and decided to go for a stroll? People do that.

 The point, Regulus tells himself as he takes in a deep breath, is that there is no need to jump to malicious conclusions just yet. He has only just woken up and hasn’t yet surveyed the situation; he has no reasonable proof that he ought to panic or Not Panic. So, Regulus decides, calmly, to check the rest of the first floor while he’s downstairs, to search for other people and to take stock of any other bizarre changes that have come in the night.

 He isn’t actually expecting to find Harry in the sitting room.

 Nor McKinnon.

 Regulus stands in the doorway to the sitting room and… surveys the scene with confused suspicion. Harry Potter and Marlene McKinnon are fast asleep, each stretched out across their own sofa, each snoring softly, and each with their own thick quilt thoughtfully draped over them for warmth.

 There are a few books scattered and open across the coffee table, along with Harry and McKinnon’s wands, and… a pair of glass bottles. One bottle is brown and the other is clear, each once having been some carbonated beverage, and both are now filled with a strange, silver-white substance that shines and swirls like neither gas nor liquid. The bottles are tightly corked, in place of the colourful caps that would have originally sealed them.

 To be perfectly honest, Regulus doesn’t quite know what to make of this scene, and he isn’t fond of this feeling. Are those…? He doesn’t know what that substance is in the bottles, actually, although he could likely make a few guesses. Harry and McKinnon have the look of people who have been here for several hours at least, fallen asleep in the middle of some unknown business… and some unknown magic.  

 Regulus steps silently into the sitting room, drawn forward by the open books on the table, in the hopes that they might lay some things clear. If he must make guesses as to what happened here, then they may as well be educated ones.

 He catches the faint smell of smoke as he comes up next to the table, like that of a wood fire. Which is odd, because the grey fireplace of the sitting room is utterly bare save for a lonely grate.

 The largest book on the table is a rather standard, if expensive, textbook of spells – more advanced spells, for the adult witch or wizard looking to expand their magical repertoire – perhaps one or two editions behind the most recently published version. Regulus recognizes the series and the authors both, and might even have recommended them if prompted for an opinion.

 What concerns him is that this textbook is open to a spell for copying memories, incantation: Memento, which is unquestionably and undeniably mind magic. Regulus’ eyes flicker over the diagram of the wizard drawing memories from his temple by wand, then to the glass bottles.

 So… that silvery substance is memories, then, copied and drawn from the mind. One bottle for Harry and one for McKinnon? Or two for one of them? But to which witch or wizard do they belong?

 Better yet, why were Harry and/or McKinnon drawing out their memories? Regulus carefully picks up the textbook and begins to read, accidentally skipping lines in his haste and unhappily skipping back to catch every word. They meant to share the memories, presumably, as is clearly stated in the first paragraph of the spell description, but why? Why would Harry and McKinnon be sharing memories in the middle of the night?

 If it was McKinnon sharing her own memories with Harry, why was she doing so essentially in secret?

 If Harry was sharing some of his precious memories and knowledge, then why would he choose McKinnon of all people as a confidant? Why alone and in secret? Regulus would have gladly listened to anything Harry wished to share. And at the very least, Regulus would have expected Harry to go to James Potter or Lily Evans with his secrets! That would at least make some sense!

 Regulus relaxes his grip on the textbook, as the paper begins to cut into his fingers, and skims over the list of warnings again. Mind magic is infamously dangerous and delicate, and often deemed Dark magic for good reason. It may not be horcruxes, but few things are, and magic not being as despicable as horcruxes is hardly a comfort. This must all be McKinnon’s fault somehow. Regulus doesn’t know what happened or how, but if it was mind magic, then it must have been the seer’s fault somehow.

 Thankfully, the next book open on the table offers some clarity. Regulus sets the textbook down into its place and takes up what appears to be… a poor wizard’s grimoire? It’s a worn journal full of handwritten rituals, a literal scrapbook of spells. It’s open to another piece of memory-related magic: a ritual, titled, “Burying Unwanted Thoughts: A ritual for casting off the shackles of the past and curing a broken heart.”

 This… gives Regulus pause. If he has been Not Panicking this morning because Harry decided to have a midnight chat with McKinnon over romantic woes, then Regulus may hex something.

 No, Regulus decides. That’s absurd. It must be more than that.

 This ritual, copying and drawing unwanted memories out and then burying them in a garden, appears to be an exorcism at heart. It’s an exorcism of emotion, a way to “cast away” undesirable feelings that have been holding a person back, and not exclusively romantic emotion at that, though that appears to have been the popular usage by the previous owners of this tattered grimoire.

 Really, it’s… it’s the same sort of small, simple, symbolic ritual that Regulus might have done as a child… or that his classmates or his cousins might have almost certainly done as young girls should they have suffered a broken heart or been somehow romantically scorned. Though, knowing his cousins, this toothless ritual would have taken place before or after some elaborate, viciously satisfying revenge. Regulus easily recalls some of the small, promise-related rituals he’s done over the years, since his elder cousin Cissy was fond of those and fonder of pulling him along with her. 

 There are many ways to break a heart, Regulus thinks, as he realizes he may be breaking quite a few of those promises to Cissy. She’s going to think he’s dead, if he proceeds with this, as he very nearly truly was.

 Regulus looks down at his unlikely saviour beside him, sleeping peacefully, utterly unaware of Regulus’ presence. He looks… tired. Even in sleep, Harry looks tired, as though plagued by an all-too-familiar exhaustion that even sleep cannot fix. His glasses are pressing into the side of his nose.

 This ritual in Regulus’ hands casts new light on the textbook’s spell. This ritual encourages the drawing of emotion-tainted memories, which the textbook explicitly warns against if the intent is to share the memories with another person or to review them oneself, and in doing so dangerously relive the heightened feelings of the moment. The bottles of memories are tightly corked and the ritual speaks of an intent to bury them, rather than share them around.

 Which demands… which demands what memories Harry might find so undesirable. What thoughts might Harry wish to “cast away”? What in his past might Harry wish to figuratively and literally bury?

 Regulus remembers the confrontation in the kitchen yesterday, when they were first introduced to McKinnon, and Harry admitted dying to the Killing Curse to the others. Harry has hinted at much that he might desire to forget and endeavour to exorcize, by so casually mentioning encounters with horcruxes, inferi, dementors, war, and all manner of horrifying things. Regulus has enough to forget, as he will be pretending to be dead, leaving his family and so-called friends behind, but… Harry has truly lost whatever life he had in the terrible future he came from.

 Regulus looks at the bottles of memories and must wonder what sort of banished secrets and terrors they contain. Unless Harry tells him, Regulus won’t know unless he views them somehow; he knows that can be done, though not precisely how.

 Unless… unless the third book on the table can offer him further insight into this foolish misadventure for which he is still heavily inclined to blame McKinnon. Regulus puts down the grimoire and picks up the third book, hoping against all reason that the answers he seeks will be written plainly inside. It’s a slim and plain novel, with silver script on a blue cover that reads simply, “The Tragedy of Emilia the Pensive.”

 Regulus has heard of this, but he’s not familiar with the… Regulus skims a few pages… with the play. It’s a play? Regulus doesn’t understand the inclusion. Its purpose isn’t nearly so obvious as the textbook and the grimoire. Regulus highly doubts that Harry and McKinnon were rehearsing or reciting a play in the midnight hours, but it must be relevant somehow, because it wasn’t here the night before.

 The novel wasn’t open, but Regulus looks down at the random page under his hand for some hint of what makes this work of fiction so important to matters of the present.

 

Maria:

Be wary of your council, good cousin,

For what so they offer wisdom and aid?

Know this: each man speaks from his own good throne.

Whose is the real good for which each man prays?

 

 Well, that’s… interesting but ultimately unhelpful. Regulus is a relatively quick reader and this appears to be a relatively modern translation, but even he can’t parse the meaning of an old play in whatever time he has left before Sirius wakes up or the Potters return. There isn’t a conveniently helpful summary anywhere in sight, of course not, only a long-winding introduction he doesn’t have the time to read.

 Regulus sets the novel back onto the coffee table, returning it to its precise place, just like he had with the textbook and the poor witch’s grimoire.

 His initial panic over this had first turned to confusion, then to anger and frustration, then to… uncomfortable and incomplete understanding, and now… well… frustrated confusion again, if he had to pick the most notable state of being from the crowd. Perhaps he should have told Harry to wake him up for anything, so that he wouldn’t have had to play this guessing game of what his partner and saviour has done to his own mind at McKinnon’s suggestion and enabling. A childish ritual is less alarming than mind magic initially appeared to be, but Regulus remains displeased over it.

 He doesn’t appreciate being left out of whatever this was.

 However, before coaxing answers out of uncooperative wanderers, he should probably get properly dressed. All he has are his robes from yesterday, but those will offer him better dignity than borrowed sleepwear when he makes his demands.

 

 ~

 

 Regulus finally encounters Sirius after exiting the upstairs washroom.

 It’s not precisely a surprise, but Regulus still stops short, suddenly glad that this is at least happening after he has armoured himself again. Sirius, in ever-obstinate contrast, has a new set of Muggle-looking clothing and appears to have, at best, run his fingers through his hair, which shouldn’t be nearly as annoying as it is. Sirius is loitering outside the guest room that Harry and Regulus were given, wand in hand, but appearing for all the world that he has no need for such useless armours.

 It occurs to Regulus, as he pulls the washroom door sharply shut behind him, capturing Sirius’ attention, that this is really the first opportunity he has been given to speak to his brother alone. This is him and Sirius, finally alone, without any Potters or their questionable friends.

 There is so much to be said.

 None of it appropriate to offer apropos of nothing during an unexpected meeting in their host’s upstairs hallway. If Regulus was not so distracted earlier by the latest worrisome thing Harry Potter has done without him, he might have had the mind to rehearse something in the mirror for when it finally came time to make nice with Sirius.  

 “…Did you sleep well?” Regulus asks, like they’re strangers.

 He doesn’t have anything better to say. Harry was supposed to be here.

 Sirius raises his eyebrows at Regulus’ attempt at small talk, in the face of all that they have between them. Nice sounds rather stupid in all the space between them, honestly.

 “I’ve had better nights. Where’s your friend?”

 “Downstairs with McKinnon.”

 Engaged in both child’s play and incredibly dangerous magic, Regulus does not elaborate.

 He walks forward, towards Sirius and the top of the stairs, at the other end of the upstairs hall. This should clearly communicate a need to be on their way and join the others, but Sirius doesn’t step aside, so Regulus is forced to stop, to step back, and to humour his brother. Unless he chooses to throw himself over the railing, which yet remains an option.

 “When will the Potters be returning?” Regulus asks, rather than let this silence sit.

 “Sometime before ten at the latest.”

 It’s approaching ten o’clock now. The Potters could be here any minute, which is all the more reason to be on their way and save any attempts to rekindle long lost brotherhood later, after planning and rehearsals. Instead, Sirius looks Regulus in the eye, frowning, and Regulus steels himself for Sirius’ latest whim. They are to finish what they began in the graveyard or the like, Regulus presumes. So be it.

 And then… Sirius doesn’t say anything. He steps aside and waits.

 Regulus doesn’t want to be tripped or whatever bewildering pettiness Sirius may exact in this new position, but he also doesn’t want to waste this rare moment of Sirius being reasonable. Regulus brushes past his brother and goes downstairs, ears straining to keep track of Sirius as he confusingly follows Regulus to the sitting room.

 Regulus walks over to Harry again, who hasn’t moved since Regulus left him, while Sirius pauses by the other sofa and the quilted lump that can only be McKinnon.

 “What happened here?” Sirius demands, his voice low and… not accusing.

 Not precisely. Sirius is looking over the assorted clues on the coffee table, between their snoring host and the unconscious time-travelling guest, rather than glaring at Regulus at least. When Sirius looks up again, there is a reassuring scowl.

 “Reggie, what is this?”

 Regulus frowns back at Sirius and gestures towards the clues on the table. Is it so much to ask that Sirius take more than a cursory look at what’s available before he demands Regulus explain everything? Either he ought to accuse Regulus properly, as Regulus expected of him, or he ought to investigate properly. One or the other.

 But Sirius’ scowl just deepens disagreeably.

 “I don’t know,” Regulus admits, begrudgingly. “I wasn’t involved in this. I intend to find out.”

 He leans down and shakes Harry’s shoulder.

 “Harry, wake up.”

 Harry groans and swats at Regulus’ hand, but Regulus just shakes him again, insistently. Harry’s eyes crack open and he blinks at Regulus confusedly, visibly surprised by something.

 “Merlin, fuck, Marlene,” Sirius mutters.

 Harry looks past Regulus and Regulus looks over his own shoulder, to where his brother is now holding the textbook and rightly scowling at the asleep McKinnon. When Regulus turns back, Harry is slowly sitting up, pushing the quilt off and aside, rubbing at where his glasses have pressed harsh markings into his skin. He’s what smells faintly of smoke, though Regulus still can’t imagine why.

 “Regulus,” Harry says.

 “Yes?”

 Harry blinks at him again, then says, “…What time is it?”

 “Nine forty-three, approximately. The Potters are expected sometime in the next fifteen minutes. In the meantime…” Regulus taps his wand against one of the glass bottles on the coffee table, the clear one, which makes a soft clink. “…would you care to explain this?”

 Harry stares at the bottle under Regulus’ wand for several seconds, then looks back at Regulus, then to Sirius and the lump of McKinnon, and then he scratches at the back of his neck again. His hair is quite the disaster this morning.

 “Not really,” he says.

 Regulus raises his eyebrows at this thoroughly unacceptable answer.

 Behind him, Sirius drops the textbook back on the table with a thump and Regulus turns around in time to see his brother shake at McKinnon’s shoulder.

 “Oi, Marlene. Wake up.”

 The visible blonde curls disappear under the quilt, so Sirius picks up the edges of the quilt and drags it off viciously. Regulus might feel empathetic about that, if he was inclined to have such feelings on McKinnon’s behalf. McKinnon doesn’t manage to catch the quilt in time to keep it over her head, but keep her eyes determinedly shut as she tries to pull it back.

 “I was up late. Go away, Black,” she mutters.

 “This isn’t the common room, for all you’re still pulling this shit. It’s mind magic now, Marlene? I can’t wait to hear how you’re going to explain this one to Lily and James,” Sirius says dryly.

 McKinnon wakes up for that. “Lily’s here?”

 She sits up, wearing a bathrobe over pyjamas, with her own case of bedhead, and with a pattern of sofa folds pressed into her face. She tosses the fight for the quilt aside and stands up quickly, looking around for her friend. Her eyes land on Regulus and Harry instead, and Regulus resists the urge to step between her and Harry as her bleary expressions lights up.

 “Harry! How are you feeling?”

 “…Better, I think.”

 “Better’s good! That’s good!” McKinnon says cheerfully, then turns on Sirius. “You said Lily. Where’s Lily? I have a good explanation for this one, I swear.”

 “I’d love to hear it,” Regulus drawls.

 “Lily’s not here yet,” Sirius interrupts, before McKinnon can answer Regulus, and he points to the books and bottles on the table. “What is all this? Were you honestly doing mind magic in the night? What was it? The bloody horcrux wasn’t enough for you?”

 “Alright, I promised that I wouldn’t touch the horcrux without talking it over with people first, for one thing, and it’s not that sort of mind magic, for another. Not the sort that you’re thinking,” McKinnon retorts, apparently offended. Good. “It was only pulling a few memories. I promise that if I suddenly decide to irreparably damage myself, I’ll tell someone first, alright?”

 Regulus’ immediate demand for answers falters in his throat. While he pauses at the sudden, desperately unwanted reminder of what he may yet have to do to be thought dead, Harry stands beside him.

 “It was for me,” Harry says firmly. “She was only helping.”

 Sirius looks at Harry dubiously… and suddenly snorts.

 “What?”

 “Your hair,” Sirius answers amusedly. “James couldn’t do better. Merlin. Fine, so this didn’t blow up on you and no one got possessed; this all turned out by my book. But what were you two doing out of bed without the rest of us?”

 “Exorcising bad memories,” McKinnon answers, picking up the open scrapbook grimoire and offering the ritual to Sirius, who takes it warily. “You must’ve seen something like this before. Harry had some memories bothering him and… well…” She gives Harry a thoughtful look. “I’ll leave the rest of the explanation to him and Lils. We were dealing with them, is all.”

 Then she yawns, sits back down, and admits, “I didn’t sleep.”

 While Sirius deservedly gives her a look he might give an overtired child, Regulus turns his attention back to Harry. He sits down on the sofa behind them and, with a pull, Harry joins him in sitting back down. Harry still looks like he just rolled out of bed… and still uneasy.

 “You should have woken me for this,” Regulus says, first, quietly.

 Harry shrugs. “You needed the sleep.”

 Regulus is of the opinion that he needs to remain fully informed and on top of matters, far more than he needs things like sleep. He slept for far longer than he expected anyway. He’d rather have been involved, even if that meant he would have had to make nice with McKinnon, as Harry and Lily Evans expect of him now.

 “I want you to wake me up for things like this,” Regulus insists.

 Even if it appears that everything went exactly as Regulus surmised when he crept about earlier, it very easily might not have. As satisfying as it is knowing that he guessed the situation rightly, Regulus would have preferred no Not Panicking at all.

 Sirius finishes reading through the ritual and offers the handwritten book back to McKinnon, clearly unsatisfied.

 “What is this?! This is a ritual for a girl getting over her first breakup, Marlene! The next page is a recipe for literally drowning your sorrows in beer! Don’t tell me you two were talking girls all damn night or something.”

 McKinnon, dozing with her hand in her chin, opens her eyes again. “It’s got what now?” She takes the worn grimoire back and turns the page. “Huh, it does. Anyway, I already told you: we were exorcising bad memories. This ritual’s not necessarily romantic. I didn’t write this book this way.”

 “I could tell. I could read it,” Sirius retorts, then sighs and practically throws himself back into one of the chairs.

 Regulus takes the opening to speak. “So… these are memories,” he says to Harry, gesturing to the bottles with his wand again.

 “Lots of them,” Harry confirms readily, if tiredly. “All mixed up in a great big mess that no one should ever put in their head. One big worst memory.” He picks up the clear bottle and lets the swirling, silver-white memories churn under his hands. “There’s… a lot that I just… had to get out.”

 “Are you going to bury them?”

 “…I don’t know.”

 “I’m going to toss mine out and clean them,” McKinnon volunteers. “Digging into Dory’s garden is too dangerous for me. It’s up to Harry what he wants to do with his.”

 “Who else would it be up to?” Regulus demands of her.

 This may answer Regulus’ questions as to who the bottles belonged to, but he now must wonder what McKinnon felt that she had to exorcise from her mind. The only bad memories he can guess her having are in connection to her lovely family of near indistinguishable sisters.

 He looks back to Harry, for the answers he actually wants. “And these memories are… tainted by emotion? Which makes them unsafe?”

 “Mind magic is generally unsafe,” McKinnon agrees, even though he didn’t ask her, then hurries to add when Sirius and Regulus both frown at her, “If you don’t know what you’re doing, of course! But yes, these weren’t memories drawn with the intention of sharing, and they’re all mixed up now besides.”

 “So… don’t look to get any ideas?” Sirius says dryly.

 He’s looking at Regulus as he says this, which makes Regulus stiffen, if only to prevent himself from bristling. As though he really thinks Regulus is going to attempt mind magic on a whim. Even he’s not that nosy.

 McKinnon laughs. “Exactly!”

 “There might be compulsions on mine,” Harry adds. “That’s… part of why I had to get mine out.”

 Regulus would like to beg pardon on that.

 He doesn’t know where to begin with that statement. Even Sirius’ amusement turns to furrowed realization and McKinnon just looks sympathetically towards Harry, who has just admitted that he was ridding himself of unwanted magic as well as unwanted memories. Harry hangs his head and rubs at his neck again in the silence.

 “I wasn’t about to tell Harry to wait on that front,” McKinnon says finally. Then she turns to Sirius and changes the topic. “I was trying to get rid of some feelings on my sisters. I’m not really any less mad at them for yesterday, but I think I might be able to tolerate them long enough to find out what they’re really up to.”

 “…That sounds like a good idea,” Sirius says.

 “Well, it’s going to be awful, so that probably means it’s a good thing to do.”

 Regulus isn’t quite so willing to let the conversation change yet and turns to Harry properly.

 “You had a compulsion on you?”

 Sirius and McKinnon pause, while Harry grimaces at the question.

 “Have,” Harry corrects, which is worse. “It’s probably not all gone and… probably? I’m not sure if I really did, actually, but I think I might have. It might’ve been an accident, really, but… I don’t know.”

 “What was it a compulsion to do?”

 Harry’s expression twists further. “I’ll… tell you later. I’ve got a handle on it for now.”

 Regulus relents because… well, it seems that Harry wasn’t trying to keep things from him and that’s a promise to speak later that Regulus will not let him forget. But, yes, Regulus would also prefer not to have their conversation with Sirius and McKinnon so blatantly eavesdropping. This isn’t over, though. Not by a long, long way. They are certainly not young witches or wizards trying to get over their first broken heart.

 “We should probably get dressed, shouldn’t we?” Harry says to McKinnon.

 She sighs. “Probably, awful as that is too.” 

 

Chapter Text

 The Potters arrive while Harry and McKinnon are getting dressed, while Regulus and Sirius are waiting in the sitting room. Sirius picked up the grimoire again, much to Regulus’ chagrin, and so Regulus took up the thin novel containing the tale of Emilia the Pensive instead. He told himself that it was better than making conversation with Sirius, who remained suspiciously quiet, though Regulus could tell that Sirius was still watching him out of the corner of his eye as well.

 Sirius answers the Potters’ knock at the door, because Regulus certainly wouldn’t be answering McKinnon’s door even if he wasn’t forbidden from doing so. It is no one’s business but his own that Regulus is relieved to hear the right voices, so that he doesn’t have to throw himself over the back of the sofa.

 “Hey, Pads, how was it?” James Potter says.

 “Suspiciously quiet.”

 “That’s good?”

 “Nah, turned out to be right on that front.”

 “Oh.”

 “Yeah. Marlene says that she’s got a good explanation for you on this one, Lily.”

 “Explanation for what?” Lily Evans demands, as she comes into view in the doorway and pauses. She’s holding a medium-sized white box with both hands, but wiggles the fingers of one hand at Regulus anyway. “Good morning, Regulus.” Then she sees the books and the bottles on the coffee table. “Oh, good heavens, really?”

 “Yup,” Sirius says, as he a