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No Journey's End

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“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”
― Gautama Buddha, Sayings Of Buddha


It was a good day for a clandestine meeting -- hot and sluggish, clouds stretching across a colorless sky -- the kind of day that made people dull and irritable and less likely to be looking around at what other people were doing.

And Tonks was late.

This happened a lot. Aurors didn’t really have tidy schedules. At the Ministry this wasn’t a problem, since they were used to it. Unfortunately, those Aurorly habits made it hard to be on time for clandestine meetings.

She Apparated into the little copse of trees in the park on Grimmauld Place. Notice-Me-Not spells gently discouraged Muggles from wandering into the Apparition spot, but they had, of course, no effect on wizards. That was rather the point. The problem occurred when you Apparated at the same time as someone else and, trying to hoof it to the Secret Meeting for which you were already late, ploughed into them and knocked them over.

“Sorry!” she said, stepping on their cloak and then falling over when she tried to jump off. “Sorry, I’m just--urk.”

She wondered what she had done, what horrible transgression she’d committed in a past life, to have set herself up to knock over Snape.

He gave her a filthy look, which carried the suggestion that being also late was the only reason he wasn’t already sharing the park with her corpse.

“Sorry,” she said again, knowing it was useless; but she’d been raised to be polite.

“I suppose I should be grateful it wasn’t worse,” he said, and his was not so much a no-harm-done tone as a dearly-wish-harm-would-come-to-you tone.

Tonks pretended to be brushing some mud and grass off her trousers so she could wait till he’d stalked out of the clearing. It was entirely because she felt that a bit of space would do them both a bit of good, though if asked, she’d say it was because they hardly cut two inconspicuous figures. Snape had worn his black, imposing robes, like always, and Tonks’ long hair was magenta shot through with black and lightning-colored streaks. If anyone saw them standing around together, they’d be looking around for the heavy metal concert, or possibly the circus.

But when she finally tottered across the square to the front door of Number Thirteen, Snape was clearly still feeling that what England needed to make it a place fit for all good wizards and witches was fewer Tonkses.

If you’re ready,” he said, and raised his wand to rap on the door.

She heard the familiar sinuous clicks of the locks drawing aside. Pausing only to shove his oar in one last time--“Do try to remain upright and not set her off”--Snape swept over the threshold.

Tonks edged into the gloomy interior. She pushed the front door shut, closing off the rectangle of metallic daylight, and stood waiting a moment for her eyes to adjust. Bilious light filtered from the dusty old lamps that Sirius hadn’t cleaned yet, though she knew that was the least of his worries. Over the decades, the Black Drawing Room had become the lair of a carnivorous escritoire that nobody could get near; an Axminster carpet had devoured one of Tonks’ own shoes and then got horrible indigestion, which resulted in a synthetic leather sick-up that all but glued it to the floor; and it was hard to get rid of all the nasty Dark Arts stuff without someone asking where it was coming from. Remus and Mundungus had been carting off small batches since March, but they hadn’t made much of a dent. And it was already June.

She tiptoed past Mrs. Black’s painting and followed Snape down the kitchen steps. If only she’d managed not to step on his cloak, she’d have counted it a win.

“Sorry,” she said again. At least Sirius would find this all very funny. She supposed it was, if you weren’t Nymphadora Tonks. Or Snape, she added fairly.

Snape’s answering glare said that she was on his list, right after blokes named Voldemort, but he said nothing, only turning to enter the kitchen. She reckoned he hadn’t been able to think of anything mean enough. He’d often given off that vibe in the seven years he’d taught her Potions: as if she was so hopeless, he’d run out of ways to describe her.

The meeting room smelled like oven cleaner and overcooked roast. Someone, probably Remus, had packed in as many lamps as they could find, but all the extra light seemed to do was layer the gloom.

The group clustered round the long, pitted, ancient table were chattering amongst themselves as they waited for the meeting to start, but a hush fell across them as Snape glided into the room like the family spectre. With his long, gaunt face and crow’s black hair, he seemed like just the sort of ghost you’d find haunting the Black family mansion; far more than Sirius did. He was slumped at the far end of the table, his unkempt hair and whiskers giving him the look of an aging rock star.

Sirius waved at her. She gladly took a wide orbit around Snape to the spare seat between him and Remus, who helped her pick up her chair after she knocked it over. Sirius grinned at her as she finally, after an ordeal that would have made angels weep, sat down.

“Good evening, Severus, Tonks,” said Dumbledore, as if they were all gathered for a nice, informal family dinner. “I hope you had a pleasant journey in. How is Tom enjoying Narcissa’s hospitality, Severus?”

“A great deal more than Narcissa’s enjoying it,” Snape said with a curl of his lip that settled into the well-trafficked lines around his mouth. “Theirs is the nicest residence of his circle, however, so he’s unlikely to budge until something necessitates it.”

Sirius slouched in his chair, propping his chin in his hand. Behind his fingers, he muttered to Tonks, “Coming in with Snivellus, Tonksie? I thought better of you, my favorite cousin.”

Pretending to be absorbed in the details of Draco Malfoy (her other cousin of the House of Black) being sent off to summer in Austria, Tonks kicked Sirius under the table. He laughed silently. Remus, a pensive crease between his eyebrows, wrote on a scrap of paper and casually nudged it towards her.

Tonks looked down. Remus had written: ‘Kick him once more for me.

She grinned at the note and took the request. Sirius, rubbing his ankle, muttered something about it biting sharper than a serpent’s tooth to have a thankless cousin, and a thankless werewolf wasn’t any better.

“So, the Malfoys are divided,” Dumbledore said thoughtfully. “Young Draco with family abroad, Narcissa at home, and Lucius, like his son, abroad -- but the details as yet unknown.”

“Could it have to do with You-Know-Who’s interest in the prophecy?” asked Kingsley.

“Possibly,” said Snape. “But the Dark Lord doesn’t content himself with one plot at a time. He’s always been adept at . . . multi-tasking. One of his reasons for making Lucius an errand boy is to show that he can. But he will have a legitimate purpose as well.”

“Narcissa would tell you if she knew?” asked Dumbledore.

“I believe so.”

Sirius snorted. “You can’t trust Narcissa, Sni--Snape,” he said, changing the insult to Snape’s name at the last moment, but (Tonks was sure) only because Dumbledore had shot him a warning look.

“When did I say she was remotely trustworthy?” Snape asked boredly, as if listening to Sirius’ comments was duller than watching that ugly wallpaper in the Black Drawing Room peel. “Narcissa can be trusted to do what she thinks is best for Draco’s interests. That will align with our aims only so long as they’re to her benefit.”

“And his other plans at present,” Dumbledore said. “What are they?”

“He wishes to have the prophecy in full,” said Snape. “Now that he’s satisfied you will not release the memory to me, he is making plans to approach the Ministry itself. . .”

Tonks doubted “satisfied” was the right word. Snape always looked like that family spectre about to pronounce judgment on his descendents, but when she’d first re-met him back in March, he’d looked like he’d clawed his way right out of the ground.

After Snape’s report, they heard from Emmeline Vance and others. Remus made notes, like always; he took them in code, which he’d given to Tonks to try her hand at cracking. She’d had no luck so far; but whatever he was using, Sirius understood at least some of it, because he’d said, “Moony, I thought we were friends.”

Tonks was good at remembering exactly what she heard, thankfully, because she couldn’t take notes in code. Sirius always gave off the impression that he was daydreaming right through every meeting, but when you asked him later, he could rattle off the full specs. Remus said it was a very annoying talent and had always frustrated his professors, who’d hoped to catch him out for not paying attention, only to have Sirius quote them back.

“How is Alastor faring, Miss Tonks?” said Dumbledore, turning so that his light blue gaze fell on her.

“They’re releasing him tomorrow,” she said, trying to keep it professional and not add any dumb jokes about how she expected the Healers to cry with relief. “I’ll be down there to meet him at ten -- Scrimgeour’s already given me the time off.” Even if he only agreed to get me to shut up and leave him alone, she didn’t say.

“Splendid,” said Dumbledore, though the gleam in his eye suggested he had a good idea what she’d held back. “Remus, if you could arrange to be nearby, though not seem to be directly accompanying? There’s the slim possibility that Alastor may present a target.”

“Happy to,” said Remus.

Sirius kicked at the table leg but didn’t say anything.

“Hestia,” said Dumbledore, to the youngest person at the table, after Tonks, “you will be taking over our Harriet Potter watch. If you can leave immediately after our meeting to relieve Mundungus--”

Fletcher?” said Snape, with a loathing that made Tonks feel suddenly quite well-liked. He seemed about to say something else, but Dumbledore just gave him a mild look and he subsided with an expression that said he’d like to bite a hole through the table.

The group broke off into segments once the last of the assignments handed out. Tonks expected Snape to sweep out straightaway, like he nearly always did, but he stayed right where he was, talking in a low, fierce voice to Dumbledore. It was probably a diatribe against Mundungus. Tonks just hoped it wasn’t about her.

“So they’re finally releasing old Mad-Eye,” said Sirius. “Bet he’s been going stir-crazy in hospital.”

“I think the hospital’s releasing him in self-defense,” said Tonks.

Sirius grinned. “Do the Healers shed golden tears of gratitude when they see you coming in the door to distract him?”

“Something like that.” She turned as she saw, from the corner of her eye, Dumbledore approaching -- with Snape in tow. Maybe if she stood very still, she wouldn’t run into him again. Or maybe if she hid behind Remus a bit. She recalled that thunderous look from Hogwarts: he was in a really foul mood and was looking for a target.

“I heard you discussing Alastor,” said Dumbledore, smiling. “How is he enjoying his gift?”

“After he asked me about two dozen security questions to make sure it was really me,” said Tonks, trying to keep a straight face, “and had six different Healers scan it for traps, he was only deeply suspicious that it had really come from you, sir.”

“A mysterious Ficus,” Remus said thoughtfully. “Though, considering the ordeal he’s had. . .”

“I’m sure the shadow of the threat accompanying my gift made him feel his old self again,” said Dumbledore. “I’m glad you could make it in tonight, my dear.”

“Sorry I was late--”

“Not at all,” said Dumbledore, sounding sincere. He probably was; he didn’t seem the type of person to be irritated by tardiness. “We are at your disposal.”

With a nod of farewell, he took himself off. Snape stalked beside him, his robes rippling, his cheek a pale, sallow curve around the edge of his hair as he looked up at Dumbledore. Tonks supposed they were off to discuss spy strategy.

“If either of you ever repeat this, I’ll put the curse of the Blacks on you,” said Sirius as the kitchen door shut, leaving the three of them alone. “But even Snivellus can run into the right idea once every hundred years. The idea of Dung looking after Holly-berry fucking gives me nightmares.”

“Unfortunately, Dung has the most open schedule,” Remus said. His voice and his expression were mild, but Tonks would bet her watch that he didn’t like Mundungus’ being on the Harriet Potter Duty Roster any more than Sirius -- or Snape -- did.

“Who knew a life of crime was so flexible,” said Tonks. “They’d better keep that under wraps or more of us will be ditching our office jobs for a career in grand larceny.”

Sirius chuckled, though the hand he dragged through his hair was anything but easy.

“I just want to be able to see how she’s doing,” he muttered. “Not just rely on a damn report, from Dung of all fucking people. And hell if I’m going to ask Dung to take a bloody picture, he’d sell it to some fucking creep reporter or worse--”

“She’s all right, Sirius,” Remus said quietly.

“I want to see it for myself, Moony.”

He pulled the newspaper clipping out of his pocket and unfolded it - or it unfolded itself, along its well-worn creases. Tonks expected it to fall apart any day now. Sirius spread the newsprint on the table with a sigh, not an audible expulsion of breath but a slump of the body, his gaze grim but also full of longing. Tonks leaned her cheek against his shoulder to look, too, even though the picture never changed: a black and white image of Harriet Potter, unsmiling even as she was photographed, just two weeks ago, tying for the Triwizard Cup with Cedric Diggory. Tonks had yet to meet her, but she felt, in a weird way, like she had -- not, in fact, because she’d seen this photo enough times, but because Harriet had a . . . presence. Cedric Diggory was particularly photogenic, handsome and regal; but Harriet was . . .

Well. Something else.

They’d told Tonks that Harriet had fought Voldemort off in February and dragged her best friend Hermione Granger to safety, saving her life. Looking at that girl in the photograph, Tonks could believe she’d been through something like that. Several layers of person seemed to look past those shaggy bangs and thick glasses.

A squishy byline from Harmony Harris, a new reporter whose coverage of the Triwizard Tournament after Rita Skeeter’s sudden disappearance had catapulted her to the front page of the Daily Prophet, titillated the public with the news that Harriet Potter had donated her winnings to Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, an up-and-coming enterprise. “‘Everyone could use a laugh,’” Ms. Harris reported Miss Potter saying, “with no hint of a smile.”

Poor kid, Tonks thought, wanting to meet her. Sirius gushed when sober and grew melancholy when drunk; Remus clearly adored her, in his cautious way; and if Snape’s extra-snappish behavior wasn’t bloody protective, she’d eat her shoe like the Axminster carpet had tried to do.

“I know no one can approach her straight so nobody knows we’re watching,” Sirius said, his fingers brushing the fraying creases on the newspaper. “But Tonks, you can look like anyone. You could--”

“Sirius,” Remus started in warning.

A thud from upstairs made them all look up.

Sirius was sliding the clipping back into his pocket and Remus was half out of chair when Dumbledore’s phoenix Patronus burst through the wall in a glitter of starlight.

Come at once,” he said, “the Black Drawing-room.”

Tonks knocked over her chair as she darted after them, but she didn’t stop to pick it up.

The wind passed hot and dry across Harriet’s sticky forehead and rustled the edges of her letter. She flattened her hand across the paper until it stilled again.

Another breeze, she wrote, the pen damp in her palm. It’s been hot, too hot to rain, apparently, according to the weather. I have no idea what that even means. I lie under the bushes sometimes, listening to the weather report. Why do weathermen have to put such a cheerful spin on everything? There’s nothing good about it being this bloody hot. The grass cracks and prickles when I lie on it. The dirt burns. I’m sitting in the shade and it still burns. My feet are always dirty these days. I go barefoot everywhere because I haven’t found any sandals that fit. Plus it pisses off Aunt Petunia. Maybe that’s reason number one. The pavement scorches, so I walk in the dry, crackling, prickly grass or on the hot dirt.

The wind came again, ruffling through her hair. She closed her eyes -- not because it was cool or felt good, but to picture Hermione in hospital. Her right hand would be shaking as she tried to move the geometric pieces around the board. She’d try to mouth the words on the cards silently to herself so that she wouldn’t fumble them when she read them aloud.

I hope they’re giving you lots of soft blankets, Harriet wrote to her. I hope they’re keeping it cool in there. And bringing you loads of books, obviously. Remus sent me a whole box of romance novels -- he got them secondhand, he said they had weird labels on them like “Interspecies Dating Problems” and “The Absolute Definition of Guilty Pleasure” and he picked the box he thought I’d like best.

She closed her eyes, not against the dusty wind this time, but to picture Remus. There was a big scar on the side of his face now, tracing from above his eyebrow down to his chin. He’d come back just before the Third Task, held out his hand, and with a funny smile said, “Look at what you’ve lived through while we’ve been gone, dear one.”

You, too,” she’d said, running her finger down the side of her own face, where the scar would be if it was on herself.

In the negligent shade of the old tree, she opened her eyes and pressed her pen against the paper again.

I wish I could come by the hospital, she wrote, but they’ve told me I have to stay here because of the Riddler. I miss you. Say hi to your parents and baby Hugh for me. I’ll write again tomorrow.

She folded the paper into threes, stuffed it into a paper envelope, printed the hospital address by memory and stuck on the stamp. Dr. Granger -- Jean -- had given Harriet the stationery when she’d picked her up at King’s Cross. It was printed with psychedelic cartoon animals. Jean had said, “I thought of you when I saw it.” Harriet couldn’t fault her; she did like it.

Standing, she tucked the envelope into her notebook and dropped her pen in the pocket of the sundress she’d bought at Oxfam. It was some floral smocked thing, probably pretty ugly, if she had an eye for that sort of thing -- and she wasn’t sure she did -- but it had pockets. She kept her wand in one.

The trip to the postbox wasn’t familiar because she wrote the letters in a different place every day -- in the shade of the empty local school, on the creaking swings at the playground, in the underground station where it was almost cool when the trains blew past -- and she liked to find new postboxes when she could. The search took her out on long walks that lasted the days, so she wouldn’t have to spend them in Privet Drive. The Dursleys were fine with that. They didn’t say anything at all.

She swung her shoes -- ugly old trainers that she put on when she needed to -- by their laces as she walked. Her dress stuck to the small of her back, her sweat acting as adhesive. She closed her eyes as another breeze whispered, crunching, through the grass.

It wouldn’t have mattered if her eyes were open, she thought later, as the blow came from behind.

Stunner, she thought as magic electrified straight to her bones. Her eyes shot open and caught the bleached-out sky tilting wildly overhead before the black slammed down and the heat was finally gone.

When Tonks nearly tripped over Sirius and Remus heels on their sudden screeching halt into the Black Drawing-room, Snape was slumped on a settee, looking like death scraped off the bottom of a frying pan. Dumbledore seemed to be keeping him from oozing to the floor only by an iron grip on his shoulder.

“What the hell?” asked Sirius, and the others had to hear the Why’d you drag us here to help Snape? because Tonks sure could.

“It’s the Vow,” Snape said, his voice rasping like he’d been gargling gravel.

Tonks didn’t know what that meant, but Sirius was at Snape’s side in an instant, actually dropping to kneel by his chair. In a voice sharp like the edge of broken glass, he said, “What’s happened to her?”

“I don’t--” Snape breathed in like it seared; Dumbledore was running spells over him, too fast for Tonks to count. The magical streaks flickered over Snape like a lightning storm.

“He collapsed,” said Dumbledore, “and lost consciousness for approximately thirteen seconds.”

“She’s in danger, but it--” Snape coughed, and it sounded like a punch in the lung.

“We’ll go,” said Remus. It took Tonks a second to realize he meant that she’d be going with him.

Sirius stood, clenching his fists, his shoulders rigid as iron. He turned toward her and Remus, his face full of fury and helplessness --

“Fuck the Dursleys,” said Sirius, “and fuck the security detail. She comes back here.”

Dumbledore said, “Sirius,” just like Remus had downstairs.

“I’m her godfather,” Sirius said, twisting his chin to glare at him over his shoulder.

Dumbledore looked at him, but Remus tapped Tonks on the shoulder and tipped his chin at the door with clear meaning: “Let’s go.”

As she left the room, she heard Dumbledore say quietly, “As you wish, Sirius.”

The trip across Grimmauld Place to the Apparition spot was quite familiar, as if Tonks had been there only an hour ago. She re-materialized in a cramped Apparition vestibule by herself, Remus already having stepped out. After taking a moment to switch her hair from the lightning stripes to a nondescript dark brown, she sidled through the glamored brick.

The sickly yellow lights overhead looked bizarre after the antique gloom of Twelve Grimmauld Place; so too the rubbish bins and the bored woman reading a magazine on a bench.

“What happened to Snape?” Tonks asked Remus as they climbed the dirty concrete steps up to street level. A blast of hot wind made her grimace and fumble in her pocket for her sunglasses. The sky was a colorless void in the heat; around them, the endless rows of identical houses looked surreal.

Remus had a way of sighing soundlessly, which he often did when Sirius and Snape were having a go at each other.

“He wouldn’t like you knowing,” he said, brushing his graying fringe out of his eyes, “or anyone, for that matter -- which I only say to let you know that you should probably not bring it up in front of him. He swore an Unbreakable Vow to protect Harriet.”

Tonks almost ran into a postbox. Remus put out a hand and gently steered her around it, and then out of a path of a little old lady trundling a shopping cart behind herself down the pavement.

“An Unbr--” She closed her teeth around the words, Is he bloody stupid? because swearing an oath to the death when its object was marked by You-Know-Who was at best masochistic, at worse - fatally idiotic.

Of course, Snape was a spy. He was squirrelly, dark and weird.

“It was Sirius’ idea,” said Remus in a tone as dry as the dust puddles where water once had lain in the street gutter.

“Huh,” Tonks said. “I wouldn’t have thought they’d get along long enough to cast it.” Oops, she hadn’t meant to say that. But Remus looked up the street with the shadow of a smile, though it faded as they turned beneath the sign marked Privet Drive.

“Have you ever met Harriet’s relatives?” he asked quietly.

“Only seen them from a distance.” When Tonks was on Harriet Patrol, she followed her around the neighborhood and surrounding fields at a discreet distance; Harriet went home only late in the evening, when the sky darkened like a bruise. (And by the way, they really needed to teach Harriet some counter-surveillance moves; she always appeared totally oblivious to being tailed.)

“They look like a family of shits,” she added.

Remus’ smile that time was slender, with a grim edge. “You’re not wrong,” he murmured.

“She’s almost never at home,” Tonks said as they stepped onto the tidy lawn of Number Four. Remus deliberately trod across the grass, not the walkway to the front door. “I mean, I know why we’re here, but--” She was an Auror; she knew that you had to start with the last place you knew they’d been.

“Yes,” Remus said, his voice empty of emotion, and raised his hand to ring the bell.

Severus’ head felt like someone had poured one of Longbottom’s potions into his ears and set it on fire. Were he so inclined, he might find it interesting that different kinds of danger to Harriet produced different results of pain. When the Dark Lord had returned, Crouch’s Cruciatus had been almost a reprieve. The Third Task of that damned, bloody tournament, had mimicked the tingling jackhammer of a migraine. Now, he thought he’d got a good idea of what it felt like to be hit by a car while running a high fever.

Black was stomping around on the periphery, muttering to himself like a madman. It was irritating. Severus wanted to kill him more than usual.

“Black.” His voice came out like he’d scraped it across a cheese grater. “Kindly throw yourself out the window.”

“Oh, shut the fuck up,” said Black. The floor creaked as he came to hover over Severus, who, little as he liked having his eyes shut around Black, couldn’t be arsed to open them and look at his stupid fucking face.

“Is this really all you’re good for?” Black asked, like he couldn’t believe it.

Once, Severus had cut Potter’s nose off his face. He took a moment to imagine doing the same thing to Black. It almost made him feel better. He shivered on the settee and wondered what Harriet had got herself into this time.

The mark on his arm did not burn. The Dark Lord did not have her, then. That was his only comfort, as the pain chilled and burned and hammered at his organs, his skull, his flesh.

But anyone else could --

“Snape,” said Black, with an edge that sounded like the dark side of concern.

Snape breathed in. “You’re the fucking brilliant arsehole who cast this curse on me.”

“I wanted it to kill you, obviously,” Black said, because they were alone. Without looking, Severus knew he was dragging his hand through his hair: a gesture he was growing more familiar with than he liked, because it meant he was spending too much time with the bastard. “I didn’t realize it’d be…”

“Totally fucking useless?”

“You can’t figure out where she is?” Black asked, his voice tight, pacing away as the floor creaked.

Useless useless use -- “Not through this spell.”

The floor stopped groaning. The house, a dusty tomb of a family who’d lost everything it had ever possessed, waited in silence that pressed on Severus’ pounding head.

“. . . But there’s another one,” said Black in a low voice. “Isn’t there?”

Severus slitted his eyes open. The room was dark around them, like streaks of soot on glass.

Black knelt beside the settee, a sharp, knowing look on his unkempt face, his dark eye gleaming past the tumbled thread of his hair.

“Albus left,” he said, sliding his gaze away and then back, sharper and more knowing than before. “Gone to find Dung.”

Severus stared at him, thinking he shouldn’t have been surprised. “You’ll have to help me cast it.”

“Fine,” Black said immediately.

“And it will only work if you have some image of her.”

Black’s face tightened. “Not a problem.”

Severus breathed out. “You’ll need to gather some . . . supplies.”

Harriet woke up on a dirty floor. It wasn’t a trade-up from the hot field she’d fallen face-first into. The room was dim and stuffy and smelled of dust and wet wood.

At least her glasses were still on her face. She sat up, wincing -- just because you got hit with magic didn’t mean you hadn’t been hit with something, and Stunners were a full-body smackdown -- and squinted around. The room would have given Aunt Petunia a heart attack: peeling mustard-colored wallpaper, dusty floorboards, a soot-streaked fireplace, a sealed window with filthy panes. Her shoes were missing.

So was her wand.

Okay, so, she’d been kidnapped. Maybe whoever had taken her had been dumb enough to leave the door unlocked. . .

Hobbling across the creaking floorboards, she grabbed the doorknob. It didn’t sting her with any kind of spell, but it didn’t turn, either. Peering through the keyhole revealed a hallway as decrepit as the room around her and nothing more.

The window was her next point of possible escape, but it had been sealed at the edges with some kind of caulk. Using her skirt, which was barely cleaner than the window at this point, she rubbed a spot on the dusty pane so she could see into the garden.

Wherever she was, the place was huge. A sprawling garden stretched around the side of the house in both directions and didn’t seem to end there. A tall, black hedge boxed it in, and running down the middle of the wide yard was an algae-spotted fountain big enough that at first she thought it might have been a swimming pool. But everything was overgrown and derelict, matching the room and the hallway beyond.

If she had ten years to spend in here, she might be able to chip the sealant away. Or she might go out of her mind with boredom. She didn’t have nails, anyway; she’d bitten them all down last term, Hermione in hospital, and Snape . . .

Turning, she surveyed the room for anything that could help her bust out. She could always punch out the window panes, she supposed -- wrap her dress around her elbow, maybe. And get a really nice cut, maybe bleed to death.

Her eyes fell on the fireplace.

It was boarded up. . . but the nail on the top right corner of the board had been torn loose, and there was a jagged gap in the wood.

Her hand fit into it. She curled her palm around the shredded edge, smiling as the edge bit into her skin.

Bracing her foot against the brick, she wriggled both her hands into the gap and pulled as hard as she could.

“Okay,” said Black, in the blackness behind Severus’ closed eyes. “I’ve got all the freaky dark arts shit you asked for.”

Severus forced his eyes open. Black was standing over him, his mouth twisted like he was about to muck out a hippogriff pen.

This . . . was going to be extremely unpleasant.

Black was going to have to touch him, and Severus had to let him.

“. . . Help me up,” he said with extreme distaste.

Black leaned down and, with a grimace, grabbed his arm. Severus just managed to control the urge to kick him in the knee, mostly because he was too weak to work his leg properly.

Black hauled him upright, then to his feet. Severus lurched forward and slammed his hip into the table when he tried to slide into the chair Black had pulled out.

Black hovered, for the sake of his goddaughter prepared to catch Severus if he started to fall.

Gripping the edge of the table, Severus managed to collapse properly into the chair.

Black tugged the flat, wide silver bowl to the center of the table. He’d dredged up an old candle end and properly melted it a bit in the bowl’s center so that it stuck upright. It was just as well he’d done the job properly; Severus didn’t have the energy to bitch at him. His lungs felt as if they were being pumped like a bellows every time he took a breath.

Black pulled a folded newspaper clipping from his pocket: snipped from the Daily Prophet that had carried the story of Harriet’s tieing the Triwizard Championship with Diggory.

Severus had read it. He had not kept a copy of it.

Black held the tattered clipping over the bowl but did not move to burn it. “How come you had to do that crazy spell to find Wormtail, but this will work for Harriet?”

“That spell was . . . to find and bind, idiot,” Severus said, leaning his weight on his trembling, folded arms. If he was lucky, he wouldn’t face-plant onto the table and smash his own nose. “This is merely . . . to locate. Now set the damn picture on fire.”

Shrugging, Black used his wand to light the candle stub, and then pressed the tip of the clipping to the flame. It ate up the newspaper, the newsprint turning to ash, Harriet’s face flaking apart. Severus wanted to look away, and felt extremely stupid.

Pain spiked through his head like a knife into his eye socket.

He reached forward and swirled his shaking fingers through the ash. Drawing his fingers upward in a spiral, he raised the ash to dance around the flame. For a moment, the rush of dark magic seared through the prickling agony of the Unbreakable Vow, colder and deeper. For a moment, he breathed ice and fire and felt peace as blinding as a solar flare.

And then his vision wavered, like mist seeping across a sky that had been until that moment quite clear, and he saw her, an image of smoke and shadow: prying a board off a brick fireplace, pulling it back enough to squeeze behind it

More,” he thought, or perhaps said, and he was inside the black chimney, watching her press her back against the bricks on one side and her feet against the other and push herself up, soot streaking her pale dress, her hands, her feet, her glasses, her fierce expression of concentration that echoed the searing thrill of dark magic in his blood --

And a flint, a certainty, embedded itself in his chest, pointed in the direction of the one he sought.

Something rough and prickly was scraping his cheek. He cracked open his eyes.

He’d fallen out of his chair and was lying in a heap on the rug under the table. Black was leaning over him, his face grey-green in Grimmauld Place’s bilge-water light.

“Did it work?” he asked, his fingers digging into Severus’ shoulder, almost as if he needed to hold onto something.

Severus’ head whirled; the light danced on the edges of the room; his skin felt like it burned at every one of his pores.

“It worked,” he said, his voice gripping his throat like a closed fist. “Help me up. We have . . . a little journey to take.”

Chapter Text

Harriet hauled herself out of the chimney, coughing and trying not to crash back down it head-first and smash her own skull in. A brisk breeze blew over the roof top -- a nice change from the scorching heat she certainly hadn’t been enjoying on Privet Drive, except for the fact that it made her swallow a new cloud of soot.

When I find out who nabbed me, she thought, I’m going to punch them in the bollocks.

She had to lean against the chimney stack and hack. Wiping at her glasses only made them worse. There wasn’t a clean patch on her dress to clean them off.

At least she was out of that room, though. Now she just had to figure out how to get down.

. . . before the person who’d shouted down below found out where she’d gone.

The yell echoed up the chimney; bangs wafted up from the room below. The window rattled open.

“--out of the room? You said you took her wand!” A man’s unfamiliar voice, Bristol accent.

“I did fucking take it! It’s right here!” Also a bloke: Welsh accent. She didn’t recognize him either.

“Well then how the bloody hell did she get out?”

Okay, so Harriet could be fairly sure they were stupid: the covering on the chimney had been--

“Look! The board over the chimney--” said Wales.

“You stupid tit!” said Bristol.

Harriet was at the edge of the roof on the side opposite the window, inching down the tiles to keep from falling off or telling them where she was. Tall hedges boxed in the garden, but beyond it were only overgrown fields; no one nearby to signal. Nor could she see a way down on handy drainpipes or climbing ivy. What business did a house left to rack and ruin like this one have not sporting any bloody climbing ivy?

From the room below came thumps and shouts. “She’s got to be on the roof, you fucking twat, get up there and grab her!

So being quiet wasn’t very necessary anymore.

She scrambled back to the roof peak and slid down the other side, scraping her sore feet. She jammed her heels into the gutter so as not to go flying off, then straightened and peered over the edge, to the garden below.


She yanked a muscle in her neck whirling around: one of the blokes was teetering on the roof peak, trying to get his balance after Apparating up. Seeing her, he straightened, pointing his wand, then slipping as he overbalanced.

“Stop right--ah! Shit!”

It would have to do.

Harriet flipped two fingers at him and jumped.

Her stomach tried to stay on the roof as she plummeted through the air. The reflecting pool was coming up fast and hard.

She shut her eyes and hit it with enough force to punch all the air out of her body.

Winded, she knifed through the algae-clogged water, banging her knees and her foot on the slippery bottom. She clawed to the surface, coughing and sputtering,

Fuck!” shouted Wales from the roof. “Fink, she’s fucking jumped!”

Spitting out brackish water, she hauled herself out of the pool and pelted toward the only gap in the hedge she could see through her filthy glasses. Another crack! behind her meant Fink or Bristol or whoever-the-hell he was had come down to the ground.

She hurtled through the overgrown hedge and plowed straight into a third body.

The third body wasn’t sturdy, she found out when she took it straight down with her. Claw-like hands dug into her shoulders, and she flung out her fist to punch whatever she could.

“Potter!” hissed a voice that froze her like an Impedimenta.

Her heart tight with dread, she pushed her filthy fringe out of her eyes and looked over the tops of her glasses.

Snape’s gaunt face glared at her from only inches away.

“Do you understand what I’m telling you?” he'd said, without mercy or pity, in the Confessor’s Garden, in the dead of winter, only hours after they'd both, separately, gone to face Voldemort and somehow survived it.

She was frozen; she couldn’t seem to move. It was like --

It was like when she’d moved toward Dobby’s headstone until it had filled her vision, only she hadn’t been moving then -- like her legs had melded to the frozen earth, and Snape was all she could see -- Snape, the planes of his face biting sharp, his voice crushing as he told her:

“He went to Godric’s Hollow that night, on Hallowe’en, killed your father at the front door, and then proceeded upstairs and told your mother to step aside. And when she wouldn’t -- she begged him not to, but you hear that when the Dementors get near you -- he killed her and turned his wand on you. You know this part. Because she refused to give you up, she saved your life. But for her, you’d be as dead as either of your parents -- because of what I told him.”

Snape pushed at her shoulder. His hand was like ice but it scalded.

She scrambled up, only to swear and tumble back down when her ankle folded in protest. She scraped her knee again, dammit.

“Your glasses,” said Snape, his voice sounding like it, too, had been Stunned, dragged up a chimney, and fallen two stories into a reflecting pool.

She squinted over her frames; even this close, he looked like an Impressionist painting, swathes of paler paint and whorls of black. He was holding his hand out toward her.

Somewhere close by that felt faraway, muffled explosions and shouting filtered through the muddle in her head.

“You can’t possibly see through them,” he said when she stared at his hand. Maybe it was just the blur, but she thought it shook a little.

Yeah. The blur.

Reaching up -- her hand was definitely shaking, the way it hadn’t been when she’d woken up on the dusty floor or realized she’d need to jump off the roof -- she tugged her glasses off and handed them over.

The wind rustled the trees overhead. The yelling behind the hedge had faded. She squinted over her shoulder, though all she could see now were greenish-brown blurs.

“Here,” Snape said.

He’d cleaned her lenses, even repaired the scratches. Once she hooked them back on, she could see the pitted deck beneath them, cracked and choked with weeds; the tall, reaching trees; and Snape’s haggard face. Always sallow, his skin now had a greyish undertone that made him look like a plague sufferer, and his cheekbones could’ve been used to cut marble.

“How’d you--did someone come with you?” she asked, trying to keep her disgusting fringe out of her eyes. It stank like algae, like the rest of her.

“Your illustrious godfather.”

Snape pointed his wand at her ankle; a brief, searing clench of fiery ice squeezed it like a vice, and then the pain was gone. She flexed her foot, trying to ignore the throbbing ache in her knees.

She stood, dropping her head to hide her wince, brushing uselessly at her filthy skirt.

“Where else are you injured?” Snape asked. His voice was cold, clinical, like a particularly unfriendly doctor’s.

“I’m fine,” she said, lifting her chin and trying to be as cold as he was.

He didn’t look impressed. His sneer didn’t even need to work to get into position.

“Very well,” he said. “Suffer, if that’s what you prefer.”

Except then he winced. A muscle flexed in his jaw, and he pressed his fingers against his temple.

Harriet’s determination to keep her heart as hard and cold as his wavered. “Are you--”


Sirius came crashing around the overgrown hedge, ragged-haired and wild-eyed.

“Thank fucking Merlin,” he said, grabbing her up in a hug. “What the bloody hell, you look like a swamp demon.” He released her from the hug but held her at arm’s length. “Did you jump in that fucking pool?”

“I had to get off the roof somehow,” she said, trying to be glib.

“The ROOF?” said Sirius and Snape together. Then they glared at each other.

“Glad to see you two getting along,” she said, looking between them. “How’d you find me?”

“That can wait,” Snape said. His wand looked long and deadly in his hand. “What did you do with them, Black?”

“Tied them up and gagged them.” Sirius jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “Come have a look.”

Harriet (trying not to limp) followed Sirius; Snape trailed them, and unless Harriet was off the mark, he was hiding a limp too.

“Voila,” said Sirius, waving a hand at the reflecting pool.

Sirius had tied Bristol and Wales to the dried-up fountain in the center of the pool upside-down. They were out cold -- and their mouths had been crammed with water-lilies.

“Nice work, don’t you think,” said Sirius, smiling. It was not a nice smile.

“For once, not contemptible,” said Snape.

Sirius opened and shut his mouth, like he couldn’t believe it. Harriet couldn’t, either. They traded incredulous looks. Snape ignored them. He looked like a stiff breeze would push him into the pool, though his face -- or rather, his expression -- showed no hint of it. It was like he’d forgot, or didn’t care.

“Did they identify themselves?” he asked, his black eyes calculating.

Harriet shook her head. “The other one called that guy ‘Fink’”--she pointed at Bristol--“but that’s all I heard. I got out of the house as soon as I woke up in it.”

“Atta girl,” said Sirius, draping his arm over her shoulders. His face was casual but his body was tense against her arm.

“Well, then,” said Snape, raising his wand. “We should awaken them and. . . begin introductions.”

“Not a totally shit idea,” Sirius said.

Harriet supposed she was glad to know that, if she had to get kidnapped, at least she’d always have the normalcy of Snape and Sirius taking potshots at each other.

“It’s done,” he’d told himself. “It had to be done.”

He’d been prepared for her to say “I hate you"  -- to scream at him -- to hit him with a curse.  He’d been on the live-wire end of her temper, the witness of her rage. He’d evaded, with little to no success, her attempts to know him better, to dig out what knowledge lay in his past. He had wondered, longed to know, how to break her of wanting to know more from him, once and for all.

In the end, he feared he’d always known. He feared it because it meant he had held back, for fear of wanting the attention ongoing.

He feared that he’d known, somewhere in the corners of his heart, that he’d wanted it all along.

Because when it was gone, when she turned away as if glancing through a cloud of mist rising from the frozen earth on a dawn winter’s morning, he knew.

As ever, what he feared meant nothing. Fear never stopped anything. His fears always came to pass.

This time was no better or worse. You could not measure life or death for utter moral failure.

He always failed.

His only success lay in having the courage to have told her, and in earning her indifference.

Severus kept himself in a state of partial disconnect, the way he did when attending the Dark Lord. He didn’t think too hard about working with Black (he’d fuck it up if he did) or about the Harriet not hiding her limp very well at all. He was a good spy because he could do what needed to be done while not thinking about it as he was doing it. For the present, there was the job. Later, he could feel as he would about it. Detachment. Compartmentalization.


Perhaps the most surprising thing was the way Black had clearly noticed Harriet pretending she wasn’t injured and hadn’t said anything about it. She wanted to hide it and Black was letting her. There was an unexpected delicacy to it.

None of the other adults in Harriet’s life would see it that way, but they weren’t here.

He and Black dragged the unknown wizards into the house. Storm clouds outside threw even darker gloom over the dusty floors and the peeling walls. The place was long abandoned, but Severus knew it.

“This belonged to the Rosiers. They aren’t Rosiers,” he added when Black squawked and dropped his trussed-up charge on his head. “The Rosiers are all dead.”

“Huh.” Black waved his wand to roll the one Harriet had called Wales onto his back. “But whoever they are, they knew the house was empty.”


“Did you know?” For once, Black seemed interested only in information, not in being a suspicious prick.

“I hadn’t given it a single thought.”

“Well, maybe there’s--Holly-berry, what are you doing?”

She looked up from where she’d bent over Fink, trying to root through his pockets. She pushed her glasses up with a filthy hand. “One of them’s got my wand.”

Accio Harriet’s wand,” said Black, and put up his hand as it flew out of Fink’s breast pocket. Her wand restored, he turned to Severus, smiling. “Shall we, Sniv?”

Harriet frowned at Black, who didn’t notice.

Severus pointed his wand at Fink. “Rennervate.”

Fink and Wales stirred, then coughed as they realized their gullets were stuffed with leaves. They tried to spit them out, but Black had been zealous.

“Good afternoon,” Severus said, in a voice that clearly said it would only be good for some people.

He had the satisfaction of watching them both freeze. Their eyes widened as they took him in, and bugged out when they saw Black. Severus had to admit he was in fine escaped convict mode, unshaven and unkempt -- nowhere near the skeletal madman from two winters ago, but a reputation for being a homicidal maniac worked wonders.

“Isn’t this pleasant,” said Black, smiling down at them.

Fink started shaking his head, while Wales spat out more leaves.

“Fuck you, by the way, for kidnapping me,” Harriet said. Severus had thought, once, that she’d soon rival Minerva in her glaring power, and he hadn’t been wrong.

“Yeah,” said Black, “we want to know why you did that.”

“And who the bloody hell are you, anyway?” Harriet said.

“Also a good question,” Black said.

Severus was still feeling like he had a screwdriver jammed between his eyes, so he found a dusty chair with the seat sagging through, fortified it with a few Transfigurations spells, and took a seat. He’d let the Black and Potter dogfather-and-child duo handle this, while he rested for a bit.

“Guess we could clear their mouths,” said Black. “If we wanted them to talk.”

But he just folded his arms and watched Wales struggle, with mild amusement. Severus genuinely could not tell if it was put on or not.

“Y-you’re--” Wales had finally got enough leaves out to be able to talk, though he still had some stuck in his teeth. “S-sirius Black--”

“No, I’m Alice fucking Cooper,” said Black, rolling his eyes.

“Neither of them seem too bright,” Harriet said, as if insulted that she’d been successfully kidnapped by a pair like this. “So he’s Fink, and who the hell are you?”

“Not telling,” said Wales, darting a frightened look at Black.

“I’ve got you tied up on the floor,” Black said, giving Harriet a can-you-believe-this-tit look. “It kind of doesn’t fucking matter if I know your name. But we’re curious.”

The tit considered his position. “Nottle,” he said sullenly, at last.

“Fink and Nottle,” Black said flatly.

“Are you for real?” Harriet asked.

“Look,” said Nottle, “we just wanted to know if--” His voice dropped. “If You-Know-Who really was--you know.”

“No,” Harriet said slowly. “I don’t.”

“We been hearing rumors. That he’s--back. They said you fought him. We just--wanted to know.”

“You could’ve just sent me a note in the post,” Harriet said with an edge of dark sarcasm.

“Yeah,” said Black. “That would've been a much better idea.”

He stepped forward and placed his boot heel very deliberately on Nottle’s cheek, pressing his face against the floor. Harriet’s attention darted to Severus, then back to Black, and she twisted her wand in her hands.

“You kidnapped my goddaughter,” Black said, kneeling down slowly; beneath his heel, Nottle whimpered. Fink hadn’t bothered trying to spit out the leaves. He was keeping his mouth shut, as it were. “Tell me why I shouldn’t make you regret that.”

Nottle whimpered. “I do regret it,” he said desperately.

“Funny guy.” Black rocked his heel forward; Nottle yelped. “Not in the mood for funny.”

“Sorry,” Nottle whimpered. “Sorry.”

“Disgusting,” Severus said softly.

Harriet turned her impressive glare on him, then said, “Sirius, let up.”

Black stood -- putting his weight on Nottle’s face before he removed his foot.

“See?” The look in his eyes was no longer amused, mild or otherwise. “She’s a good kid. Even thinks pieces of shit like you should be protected.”

“We’re sorry,” Nottle gasped. “We won’t do it again. We swear.”

Fink lay next to him, just staring at the ceiling. Perhaps he thought they were going to be disposed of.

Black shut him up with a single look of contempt. He turned to Severus, who looked back with no change of expression, but with a feeling of cool surprise.

“Think they’re telling the truth?” Black asked.

“There’s more than one way to find out.” Severus stood, letting his sleeve fall back to free his wand.

Nottle didn’t look reassured, only confused. “Here,” he said, “you’re Severus Snape, aren’t you?”

“He’s the real Alice Cooper,” said Black.

“Thank you, Black, for the introduction.”

Severus knelt on the dusty floor next to Nottle, who tried to scoot away, only to freeze when Severus gripped his chin. A few Dark spells for ascertaining truth leafed through his mind, but he could do without the extra pain. The combination of the Vow and his last Dark spell were enough now.

Squeezing Nottle’s jaw, he dug his wand into the idiot’s chin, making him grunt and tip his head back against the floor, trying to get away. His eyes were round and fearful. Severus did not have to turn and look at the scrapes on Harriet’s bare feet and shoulders or remember her desperate charge through the hedge to think this man’s fear was not enough.

Leglimens,” he hissed, and knifed into the stream.

Harriet watched Snape bend over Nottle and stick his wand beneath his chin and do -- nothing. Or maybe something? He’d hissed, and now he was tense and still, like a raven hunched up against the cold, and Nottle was rigid on the floor.

Sirius stood next to her, arms folded and wand out, watching them. She felt prickly all over and inside, too.

I should put a stop to it, she thought, they’d listen to me. (Would they? But they had so far. They had with Wormtail in the forest, two winters ago.) But what if these blokes are dangerous? (They didn’t seem dangerous, or at least, only dangerous in the way that fucking stupid people were dangerous.) Sirius and Snape aren’t just doing this because they might be dangerous, they’re doing it to hurt them for hurting me. (It felt nice, and horrible, and all the more horrible because it felt even the tiniest bit nice.)

“Is it hurting him?” she asked Sirius.

Sirius slanted a look at her, tossing his head a bit to flick a piece of hair out of his eye. She could see strands of gleaming silver in the black, probably only enough to count on one hand. But they were there, now. Had he had them before he'd gone off with Remus, and Remus came back with a scar?

“Hope so,” he said. “You’re limping, Holly-berry.”

She gripped her wand. “That was from jumping off the roof. The pool wasn’t that deep.”

“That doesn’t make it better, kiddo.”

Snape sat back and stood, his robes -- dirty now, from the dust -- wafting about him as he turned. His eyes were glittering, though he still looked like he’d tried to shake hands with a steamroller. Harriet wanted to ask him if that had been Dark magic, but she also didn’t want to talk to him.

“They’re telling the truth,” said Snape. “After a fashion.”

“What’s that?” Sirius asked, a tone in his voice that made Nottle shrink away from him.

“It wasn’t their idea,” Snape said. “But whoever put them up to it was cleverer than these two dregs of human intelligence -- they don’t know who it was. They simply received the offer.”

“Let me guess,” Sirius said with disgust, and rubbed his fingers together like he was asking for money.

“And I’m going to guess they weren’t the only ones the order went out to,” said Snape, his eyes narrowed as he watched Nottle cower on the floor. Fink hadn’t moved from staring up at the ceiling. “We can only hope they weren’t followed.”

“So we should be getting out of here,” Sirius said.

“Once the final business is taken care of,” said Snape, “yes.”

“You’re not going to kill them,” Harriet said, unable to help it. Nottle choked.

“Just wipe their memories, Holly-berry,” said Sirius, though the look on his face lacked any hint of reassurance.

“Removing all memory of the request should suffice,” Snape said. “Even if their contact reaches out again, they will merely know that we have found out, and I don’t think that a bad thing.”

“Then let’s get to work,” Sirius said.

For Severus, the months following his confession had been long, endless, bleak. But there was work to be done, and if a part of him froze after shattering that tentative truce between himself and Harriet, another part of him. . . woke up. For the first time in fourteen years.

Because he had always known it would come back to this. Lily’s death was never meant to be the end.

He’d always known it would end for him only when he, himself, died.

Each day he wondered, ‘Will this day be the end of it?’

And he did not know whether he wanted the answer to be ‘yes’ or ‘not yet.’

The crushing pressure of Apparition released her, and Harriet opened her eyes. She and Sirius were standing in a dark copse of trees on cool grass. It felt good against her sore, scraped-up feet.

Sirius smiled at her, squeezed her shoulder, and then transformed into Padfoot. Nudging her hand with his snout, he trotted out of the trees and she followed.

Into an unfamiliar city square. The sky was purple overhead, studded with a few lonely stars and the silhouettes of television aerials. Identical row houses rose overhead, boxing them in. Down the block, a streetlamp shone feebly in the gloom.

“We’re not going back to Privet Drive?” she said with relief.

Sirius whuffed and nudged her hand again. She supposed that meant she should wait for Snape, because she didn’t know where to go, and Sirius seemed content to sit and wag his tail.

A moment later, Snape slipped out of the trees. He was still wearing his robes. Harriet looked around the square, but nobody was there to stare and call the cops. With Snape looking like Dracula and Harriet like a swamp demon, nobody would believe them innocent of anything.

“Read this and memorize it,” Snape said, handing her a slip of paper.

Harriet read the loopy handwriting: “The Order of the Phoenix is quartered at Number 12, Grimmauld Place.

A moment later, the paper fizzled into ash -- and the building in front of her expanded.

Another house grew out of the brick in front of them, shoving the houses Eleven and Thirteen to either side. Steps unrolled from the front door, which had no knob, only a knocker in the shape of a cobra. Its eyes were hollow pits, like they had once held jewels but lost them.

“In,” Snape said, pointing up the newly appeared steps. “And keep quiet in the foyer -- making too much noise gets us a nasty surprise.”

Harriet wanted to ask, except this would involve talking to him. She hadn’t yet worked out a way to ask him questions without talking to him.

She followed him silently into the house, Padfoot crowding at her hip.

It was dark in there and smelled about as bad as she did. Greenish light filtered down from ugly lamps, making her feel like she was at the bottom of the reflecting pool again. It was a normal enough setting for Snape, but it was odd seeing Sirius in that creepy lighting. Having transformed back, he now looked as gaunt as Snape, whose black hair hung around his sharp cheekbones in greasy chunks.

“Where are we?” she whispered, peering around. Of the two condemned houses she’d been to in the past few hours, this one would win first place.

Sirius put a finger against his lips and jerked his head to the left, a clear follow me.

Harriet did, down the cramped hall and a set of stairs to a dingy underground lair that she thought might be a dining room and kitchen. At least, there was a pitted table, a blackened hearth, and a lingering smell of burnt potatoes mixed with old cooking lard.

“You hungry?” Sirius asked in a normal voice once the door was shut. “Or -- shit, I’m the worst host -- you want the bath first?”

“I’d rather eat,” Harriet said honestly, trying to look like she wasn’t keeping an eye on Snape, who’d followed them down and folded himself into a chair at the table.

“I can do a mean beans on toast,” Sirius said.

“Black,” Snape said suddenly. “Did you tell Lupin?”

“Tell him wh-- oh.” Sirius swore, then pulled out his wand. “He’s gonna fucking kill me,” he said resignedly.

At a wave of his wand, a massive, shaggy dog that looked just like Padfoot burst into life in a glitter of blue-white stars. It tossed its head and wagged its tail, pacing restlessly through the air.

"Remus," he said to it, "we've found Holly-berry -- we're back at the Dark Tower." 

His Patronus went bounding off through the wall, disappearing in a shower of starlight sparks, and taking the light with it. Sirius used his wand to raise the fire in the hearth, but this only had the effect of lengthening the shadows.

“Remus is here?” Harriet asked.

“Well, he’s staying here -- right now he’s out with Tonks. Looking for you. We. . . sort of forgot to tell him we’d found you.” Sirius scratched his nose with his wand. “Definitely gonna kill me. Time for my last meal, then.” He grinned at Harriet. “No, you sit, Holly-berry -- those who’ve been nabbed off the street and locked up by a pair of knob-ends don’t have to help in the kitchen.”

“Maybe after all that, I just don’t want to be poisoned,” Harriet said, grinning back.

“Cheeky brat,” Sirius said with clear pride.

He disappeared into the kitchen, and a few moments later was banging around and cursing at a can opener. Harriet dragged out one of the mismatched chairs -- she'd picked a heavy one, some Jacobian monstrosity -- and outwardly pretended she was alone at the table. This time, she hid her sneaking looks better than she’d hidden her limp. Of course, it helped that Snape had his eyes shut. He was resting his head against the back of his chair.

To be honest, she was surprised he wasn’t dead. Every time she’d seen him alive since February, when Voldemort had come back -- in class, in the Great Hall, around a corner down the hall -- something in her had fluttered with surprise.

And . . . relief--

The door to the underground lair swung open with the kind of ominous creak she’d previously thought had been patented by the Hogwarts’ dungeon. She looked up, expecting to see Remus, but the doorway was empty.

Then a croaking voice wafted up from the floorboards:

There’s the half-blood bastard, what would my poor mistress think, the house of her ancestors defiled with the scions of Muggles and blood-traitors--

“How fortunate, then,” Snape said, opening his eyes with a look of resigned contempt for the floor, “that she has you to insult her undesirable houseguests in her absence.”

Harriet leaned around the table and saw the oldest, wrinkliest, meanest-looking house-elf she’d ever laid eyes on. He gave her a watery look of loathing on par with Snape’s.

“What is this?” the house-elf muttered. “Who does this one belong to? Another half-blood brat to besmirch the house of my mistress--”

“You’ll be the one getting besmirched, if you don’t watch out,” Sirius said menacingly, emerging from the kitchen. He slid a plate in front of Harriet. “There you go -- four basic food groups: burnt, scorched, beans, and fruit.”

“Sirius, it’s supposed to be baked beans on toast, not burnt beans. Was this bacon?” she asked, pointing at the strip of blackened something-or-other skulking next to the toast.

“That’s the scorched,” said Sirius. He turned to plonk a plate down in front of Snape, who stared at it as if Sirius was serving him a dead snake. Of course, that was the safe and normal reaction to Sirius’ cooking.

“What am I to do with this?” Snape asked.

“Snort it, for all I care,” Sirius said, kicking out a chair and dropping into it.

“Ah,” said Snape, as if he’d been wandering lost in a dark jungle and had suddenly come out into the light. “It’s poisoned, then.”

“No more than Sirius’ cooking ever is,” Harriet said, before remembering that she wasn't speaking to him. She picked up one of the orange slices Sirius had cut up and bit into it to stop herself from saying anything else.

“I’d sue for slander,” said Sirius, “but I don’t think you can, if it’s true. Plus I’ve got that whole escaped convict thing going on -- shame to draw attention to myself now. Are you still here?” he snapped.

Harriet was confused, before she heard the muttering down by the baseboard: “Kreacher is cleaning.”

“Well, go clean somewhere else,” Sirius said, aggressively folding his burnt-bean-toast around his scorched bacon.

“Kreacher does as Master bids,” said the house-elf -- Kreacher -- in a tone that he might also have advised Sirius to go and boil his head. He lurched off, shoulders hunched. The kitchen door snapped shut behind him with a pointed creak.

Master?” Harriet said.

Sirius scowled. When he hunched his shoulders, he looked a lot like Kreacher. “Happens when you’re the only bloody one left. You get the mouldering pile of cursed shit and the malevolent house-elf--”

Something upstairs went bang, making Harriet jump -- and someone start screaming. She stared at the ceiling in horror.

“And not forgetting your dear, departed old mother’s screaming portrait.” Sirius toasted the air with his toast.

“Have you tried a flame-thrower?” Snape said. To Harriet’s astonishment, he’d practically cleaned his plate: all that remained were a few straggling beans that he was mopping up with his leftover crust.

“That’s next on the list. We’ve tried everything else.” Sirius pushed his chair back from the table and got to his feet. “If you’ve got a Dark curse that’ll take her off, don’t hold back.”

Thankfully, the screaming had stopped; as Sirius turned toward the kitchen door, it swung open again.

“Good evening, Sirius,” Remus said in a mild way that made Sirius cringe. “Harriet, my dear. I’m so glad to hear you’re all right.”

“Moony,” Sirius said, a bit desperately, putting his hands up as if to calm down a raging hippogriff.

“That nothing happened to--” Remus stopped, his mouth open slightly as he took in Harriet’s appearance.

Harriet took advantage of his shock to give him a hug. Over his shoulder, she saw an unfamiliar woman standing behind him, beaming at her. Whoever she was, she was very pretty, and built along the lines of Narcissa Malfoy, tall and willowy. Narcissa Malfoy wouldn't have have been caught dead in a ditch in those patched jeans or violently purple t-shirt, though.

“Dear Merlin,” Remus said. “Sirius, did you cook?”

“Oh, ha, ha,” said Sirius. “Moony--”

“Ha!” said the new woman, sliding out from behind Remus. “I thought that was you.” She beamed even brighter at Harriet, holding out her hand. “I ran into you -- for once not literally -- last year, at the Quidditch World Cup. Was getting water at the pump, and you were behind me -- I swear I’m not a crazy stalker,” she said, shaking Harriet’s hand vigorously up and down, “I recognized Remus, that’s all -- seen him once before that, even. I’m Tonks.”

“Nice to meet you,” Harriet said, perplexed but not displeased. Then Tonks’ hair did something quite odd: it went from a normal dark brown to a magenta, in a wave from the roots to the tips. “Whoa.”

“Oh, sorry.” Tonks sheepishly seized a handful of her own hair, as if that would fix it. “Happens sometimes when I’m not paying attention.”

“You’re just showing off,” Sirius said, sounding rather proud of her for that. “Tonks is my cousin,” he added for Harriet’s benefit. “She’s just joined the Order -- well, back in March, but she was a kid the first time, which makes her a new recruit.”

“Sirius, that is a terrible introduction,” Remus said, while Tonks clearly struggled not to laugh.

“Order,” Harriet said slowly, remembering the paper Snape had given her on the street. “Order of the Phoenix? What is that, anyway?”

“Secret society.” Sirius gestured around. “We’re all members. This mouldering old dump is our headquarters.”

“We’ll give you a real answer once you’ve cleaned up,” said Remus. “Here -- we brought your things from Privet Drive.” He rummaged in the pocket of his tattered trousers and pulled out her trunk, pocket-sized for traveling convenience. “Tonks can show you where the bathroom is, if she’d be so kind.”

“Happy to,” Tonks said genially, picking the trunk off his palm. “I’ll enlarge this for you upstairs -- no point in hauling it around if we don’t have to. And we’ll go up carefully,” she added, her voice dropping to a whisper as she pried open the kitchen door. “We’ll see if I can not trip on the way up -- fifteenth time’s a charm, don’t you think?”

“Trip?” Harriet whispered back. She wished she had something more intelligent to say, but she was rather completely lost as to what was going on -- with this broken-down house, its resentful elf, the strange screaming in the empty foyer, the Order of the Phoenix -- even Sirius and Snape, sort-of working together. Sirius had fed Snape and he’d still been upright at the table and not looking any worse than the simply-awful he’d been all along.

“There’s a troll’s leg umbrella stand in the entryway, I always trip over it -- ‘course, I could trip over thin air, I’m dead clumsy. Hang on, let me watch my feet. . .”

Tonks led Harriet up a couple of floors, past closed doors with doorknobs shaped like the heads of manticores and hippogriffs, to a bedroom that looked a little more lived-in than the rest of the place: as if it had had someone staying in it less than fifty years ago.

“I stay in here when I sleep over,” Tonks said, using her wand to open a door to an en suite bathroom. “Oh, while I’m thinking about it -- don’t touch the doorknobs, they’re cursed. Have to be opened with a wand. I know,” she said, grimacing in sympathy with Harriet’s stare. “The Blacks weren’t the jolly, hugs-all-around sort, I can bloody well tell you that.”

“So this is Sirius’ house?” Harriet asked, staring around. The sickly crimson wallpaper wavered like seaweed caught in an ocean current. It was a little hypnotic, a bit dizzying. She tried to imagine Sirius growing up here and felt something in her chest knot. And she’d thought Privet Drive was bad.

“Yeah.” Tonks pointed her wand at the wallpaper and froze the pattern. “It’s not supposed to do that -- just gone a bit wonky over time. The whole house has got architectural dementia, if you ask me.”

With another wave of her wand, she popped Harriet’s trunk back to normal size. “There you go -- have a bath and put on something that’s not -- whatever-it-was that happened to that poor dress.”

“Thanks,” Harriet said. “I really -- what’s that?”

“Oh, hell,” Tonks said, as sounds of screaming echoed through the house. “What set her off? The boys almost never--”

Harriet was distracted hearing Snape, Sirius and Remus called ‘the boys’, but she followed Tonks back into the hall and craned over the banister.

“Well, I’ll be blowed,” said Tonks.

“Thank you for letting me know you’d found her,” Lupin said, turning to Black, who groaned like a man looking over the edge of a plank into shark-infested waters.

“It was an accident, Moony,” he said pleadingly.

“Oh, of course,” said Lupin. He sounded quite understanding. Severus almost pitied Black -- maybe in a hundred years or so, he’d manage it. “You had a lot going on at the moment.”

Black writhed. Lupin, apparently feeling that he’d got his claws in good enough for now, turned to Severus.

“Was she hurt?”

“Apart from some light injuries she sustained escaping from her captors, she was well enough.” Severus didn’t think it was well enough, but that was why he’d left Fink and Nottle a couple of surprises -- nothing too debilitating. Just some crippling arthritic pains they’d suffer whenever Harriet Potter’s name came up. It was a handy little associative spell he’d become rather fond of over the years.

“So it was kidnapping.” Lupin sank into the chair Harriet had taken, looking even more grim than he always did now, with that scar. “I was faintly hoping she’d just run off to London to see Hermione, and the Vow was just. . . reacting to potentialities.”

“They were paid off.” Black dropped into the chair beside him. “Sort of -- an offer went out. Which means more scumbags could come looking for her. So it’s good she’s staying here.”

Severus heard the ‘Dumbledore can try and sent her back to Privet Drive over my cooling corpse’ in his tone.

“The Headmaster should see the sense in keeping her here,” Severus said. “She only needs the blood protection of calling her relatives’ house nominally ‘home’ -- clearly, it’s no kind of barrier to danger itself.”

“Only to Voldemort,” said Lupin absently, making Severus wince. Lupin either took that as a sign of concern or pretended to. “Should we call Pomfrey, Severus? You look--”

“She can’t do a damn thing for this.” He leaned forward. “We need to track down who put up the offer.”

“They wanted to know if Voldemort’s really back,” Black said, while Lupin frowned and Severus winced again and swore at them both in his head. “So whoever it is, it can’t be one of his crowd.”

“But whoever they are, they’re unprincipled enough to pay off petty criminals to get the information,” Lupin said thoughtfully.

“Without wanting anyone to know who’s doing the asking,” Severus said. “That suggests they’ve some standing within the community.”

“And the bribe supports that,” Black added, an ugly shadow in his voice. “You don’t entice shits like those two with promises of small change.”

“No,” Lupin agreed. “So they’re -- what now?” he asked, looking up at the ceiling, beyond which Mrs. Black’s portrait had started screaming. Again.

“Tonks must’ve tripped,” Black said, with what Severus felt was remarkable bloody tolerance.

“Perhaps not. Unless she’s developed six different sets of feet, I think you've got company,” Severus said.

Black and Lupin shared matching looks of alarm; a moment later, Black was out of his chair and hieing through the door. Lupin followed, and Severus, pausing only to curse as his back muscles gave him a kick in the spine, brought up the rear.

The hall upstairs, they found upon reaching it, was crowded with redheads.

The curtain that covered Walburga Black’s alcove swung over her twisted face, shutting her out and up, and silence draped across the foyer. Ronald and Ginevra Weasley took their hands off their ears; the terrible twins looked disappointed that order had been (somewhat) restored; Mrs. Weasley looked like she’d been recovering from a nasty shock only to be struck by a second -- the appearance of the escaped convict, Sirius Black.

Lowering his wand, which he’d used to close the curtain, Dumbledore smiled at his rather stunned audience.

“Terribly sorry for springing this on you, Sirius,” he said, placing a comforting hand on Mrs. Weasley’s shoulder. “But I’ve brought you some houseguests.”

Chapter Text

“Oh, well, great,” Harriet heard Sirius say as she and Tonks tip-toed down the stairs. “My mouldering dump is your mouldering dump.”

“Superlative,” Professor Dumbledore’s voice replied, sounding, as usual, as if it meant it.

The stairs, not getting the memo that the point of tiptoeing was to be quiet, groaned and creaked as Harriet and Tonks put their weight on them. Everyone looked up -- Mrs. Weasley, Ron and Ginny and Fred and George, Remus, Sirius, and Snape -- and Mrs. Weasley let out a muffled shriek.


Movement at the wall -- a dark curtain, drawn over an alcove Harriet hadn’t noticed, plunged open on the kind of portrait she’d have expected to see in a house of horror. The painted face was twisted, its mouth was frothing, and its voice ricocheted off the walls in a roiling tangle of profanity:

Filth! Scum! Half-breeds, mutants, freaks, begone from this place! How dare you befoul the house of my fathers--”

That’s Sirius’ mum? Harriet thought, appalled.

“SHUT UP, YOU OLD HAG,” Sirius roared, rounding on the portrait, as Ron and Ginny clapped their hands over their ears. He flung out a spell that ripped the curtains back so hard they tore at the top, bringing down the bar with a crash.

“Oh, wonderful,” said Snape as Mrs. Black continued to shriek at them (“Blood-traitor, abomination, shame of my flesh!”). “Really good job.”

“You’re a lot of fucking help!” Sirius bellowed at him.

Remus put his hand over his eyes, briefly, almost making it look like he was only brushing at his fringe. All of the Weasleys were now gaping at them -- except Mrs. Weasley, who had rushed the stairs and grabbed Harriet in a squeezing hug.

With a quick, silent spell, Dumbledore fixed the bar back into place and swept the curtain across the painting. The screams died like a record player whose cord had been pulled.

Sirius glared at the wall with such searing menace that Harriet was half surprised the curtain didn’t burst into flame. His chest was rising and falling quickly, and Remus was watching him with the kind of wariness one might give a bottle rocket whose fuse was about to go off.

Harriet sneaked a look at Snape and saw he was watching Sirius in the exact same way -- though less wary and more. . . prepared.

“Merlin, Harry,” said Ron, perhaps at her appearance, possibly to express the sheer madness of this hell-house they were now all checked in to. Then he darted a look at the portrait and put his hand over his mouth, as if he didn’t dare say more for fear of starting it up again.

Harriet waved at him over his mum’s shoulder.

“Sorry,” she whispered to Mrs. Weasley. “I’m all over muck, I’ll ruin your coat--”

“Oh, sweetheart,” Mrs. Weasley whispered back, only squeezing her tighter.

“Perhaps if we could all repair to the kitchen,” Dumbledore murmured. “Quietly. Except for you two, Sirius and Severus--”

Unless it was Harriet’s imagination, Snape and Sirius both looked a bit shifty just then. They traded a look, but, seeming to realize that doing so meant they would rather do something other than have a go at each other, immediately turned it into a nasty glare.

“--I’d like to hear what happened,” Dumbledore said. “The Black drawing-room will do nicely. And Harriet.”

He paused at the foot of the stairs, extending a hand; Harriet hesitated, but offered her filthy hand, which he enfolded in a warm, sure grip.

When he did, something whispered through Harriet's chest, like the sibilant hiss of a cold wind through black trees.

“I am very thankful you’re all right, my dear,” he said, his voice dragging Harriet back to the present. “Even if the same cannot be said for that once-lovely dress.”

Harriet managed to smile and nod. His eyes lingered on hers a moment longer; then he patted her hand and let go. That dark wind in her chest slipped away, leaving her puzzled and more than a bit unsettled. What was that?

He trod up the stairs past her, and of course they didn’t groan and squeal as they’d done to her and Tonks. Mrs. Weasley guided her out of the way as Sirius (ruffling her hair) and Snape followed him up. Snape did not look at Harriet as he passed -- not that she was looking at him either. Her heart certainly wasn’t beating a bit harder because he’d passed so close.

You’re not, she told it sternly, so knock it off.

“Harriet, dear,” Remus said, keeping his voice low so as not to set off the portrait again, “weren’t you off to have a bath?”

“We got distracted by the quiet dignity of Sirius’ mum,” Tonks whispered.

“I’ll take you up, dear, and run the bath for you,” Mrs. Weasley said, quiet but firm.

“Use any of my bath things in there you like,” Tonks told Harriet. “There’s a ton, honestly, you’d think I was trying to start my own bloody shop.”

Harriet led Mrs. Weasley up the stairs, trying not to trip in the dimness or snag her toes on the holes in the old carpet. Unless there was some rule that secret societies had to be conducted in bad lighting, Sirius ought to invest in more lamps.

If she tried listening at the doors just off the landings on her way up, wondering which was the Black drawing-room, well -- it was just a little curiosity.

The whispering hiss was just a memory now. She supposed she'd imagined it.

The Black drawing-room was as they’d left it: gloomy, dilapidated, and with the leftovers of Severus’ Dark locating spell scattered across the table. Dumbledore gave the bowl, with its candle and ashes, a long, silent look, while Severus pretended not to feel his disappointment and consternation coming off in waves. What business of his was it, anyway? He’d gone to rustle up a gang of fatuous redheads instead of being any bloody help. Harriet had been in danger. At least Black appreciated that.

Severus evanesco’ed that thought out of his head. The pain must be making him delirious, if it kept trying to find good points about Black. He should sit down before something worse happened.

“Harriet’s staying here, then?” Black asked Dumbledore. He set his feet a little apart, as if bracing for a fight.

“She is,” said Dumbledore, turning from the mess they’d left on the table. Pewter daylight shone past the gaps in the moth-eaten curtains at the end of the room, limning his beard like filigree. “She’s renewed the blood protection against Lord Voldemort” (Severus was going to strangle them all if they kept this up) “by returning home; she may stay here for the remainder of the holiday.”

Severus glanced over the stains on the walls, the writhing pattern on the rug beneath Dumbledore’s jaunty blue boots, the grotesque faces sculpted into the chandelier that hung over the table, and thought, Better than being stuck with Petunia.

“The Weasleys are here to help you all make this place . . . fit for human consumption again,” Dumbledore added, glancing at the foggy mirror on the china hutch, where his reflection gazed back with sinister hunger.

“Good luck,” Black said with a snort. “This hell-house ought to be razed to the ground and the foundation set on fire. We’ll give it a go, though.”

“I have no doubt you shall do your best. Severus will be here for a few days to assist. His knowledge of Dark curses is quite extensive.”

“I’ll be what?” Severus said, sitting upright on the settee so fast he pulled a muscle in his back.

“He’ll be what?” Black said at the same time, in horror. Severus knew exactly how he felt, which was appalling, as he did not need to agree with Black on anything else. He knew he was meant to suffer but this was getting to be a bit much.

“Severus has been injured,” Dumbledore said calmly, pinning them both with a look over the top of his spectacles. “Not only by the Unbreakable Vow, but in the execution of this.” He made a slight gesture at the table, with its bowl of ashes. “You should not be left on your own, Severus.”

“There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be,” Severus said, deeply vexed. “Your concern is neither warranted nor appreciated--”

“No reason to lock him up here,” Black agreed, like it was the last thing he wanted to find himself doing, but he’d capitulate if it meant getting him out of the house. Severus loathed the fact that he agreed with him on that, too.

“I cannot speak to the second point, Severus,” Dumbledore said, sounding, for the first time, faintly annoyed, “but for the first, yes, it is absolutely warranted. You are staying here. Now,” he went on, raising his voice slightly when Black squawked and Severus choked, “I wish to know where you found Harriet, and whom she was with.” He took a seat in an armchair that did not, to Severus’ disappointment, immediately try to eat him alive. “Have a seat, Sirius, and the both of you -- fill me in.”

Tonks hadn’t been kidding: multicolored bottles littered the sink, shelves, even the side of the tub. Harriet pulled the cork on a green one that matched her eyes; a woodsy lilac scent floated out.

“Well, at least this place has running water,” said Mrs. Weasley as steaming water came streaming out of the faucet. She’d used her wand to turn the tap, and Harriet wondered if that was why she’d come up to run the bath for her, something Harriet would have been perfectly capable of herself if the faucet wasn’t cursed like the doorknobs. She supposed it must be.

“Now, you have your shower,” said Mrs. Weasley as she switched the water to run from the faucet to the shower head. “Wash off all the -- whatever that is,” she added, looking distressed. “I’ll see what can be done about that dress and sort you out something to wear.”

Harriet peeled out of the dress -- really, she should probably tell Mrs. Weasley it wasn’t worth the trouble; it had come from Oxfam for a couple of quid -- and chucked her knickers straight into the rubbish bin next to the toilet. She had no desire to wear those things again, clean or not.

She scrubbed herself twice with the stuff in the green bottle, then washed her hair with a purple one whose contents smelled incongruously like rose petals.

Tonks had some fluffy tie-dyed towels hanging over the radiator; Harriet took one and wrapped it around herself.

“Mrs. Weasley?” she called, cracking the bathroom door open an inch or so. “Do you need to shut off the water with your wand or can I?”

“No, dear, not until we’ve de-cursed everything.” A moment later, the water shut off, the last drops from the faucet making the only sound in the steam-logged bathroom.

Harriet pulled on the clothes Mrs. Weasley handed her through the crack in the door: another dress, a black one with semi-horrible red flowers that tied on one side. Its main feature was, like the probably-ruined smock dress, a pocket for her wand. That’s what she’d been going for when she’d picked them out.

She combed a bit uselessly at her wet hair with her fingers, then let herself out of the bathroom. Mrs. Weasley turned from Harriet’s trunk, where she’d been, apparently, folding and sorting clothes, and gestured at an old, spindly stool that matched the battered vanity against the wall.

“Have a seat, dear,” Mrs. Weasley said, “and we’ll see what can be done with this hair.”

Harriet obediently sat in front of an array of Tonks’ bottles marked with mystifying labels like “The Wave in your Hair,”Savvy Curls,” and “Strong Suit Pomade,” and entered the first-ever experience of someone brushing her hair.

“You’re all right, dear?” Mrs. Weasley asked as she gently picked through Harriet’s tangled curls with a comb.

“I’m fine,” Harriet said firmly, which was the truth. “Sirius and -- Snape showed up right away. The blokes who grabbed me were awfully stupid. They just wanted to know if Voldemort” -- Mrs. Weasley flinched and yanked a piece of Harriet’s hair -- “was back. They’d been hearing rumors, they said.”

“And they didn’t hurt you?” Mrs. Weasley asked as she picked up a little squat blue bottle. Her hands seemed to be shaking slightly. Talking of Voldemort must have disturbed her.

“Just a Stunner, back in Little Winging. I feel loads better after the bath. Mainly I was just feeling gross -- I jumped into an algae pool.” She smiled at Mrs. Weasley in the vanity’s age-spotted mirror, trying to chase that pale, distressed strain off her face.

“All right, dear,” Mrs. Weasley said, in almost a whisper. She patted Harriet’s shoulder, then left her hand resting there, a warm weight as soothing as her fingers gently working through Harriet’s hair.

“Now,” she said more briskly, straightening. “We’ll get you nicely fixed up and then we’ll see about getting us all something to eat. This house leaves much to be desired, but a good meal fortifies you for a great deal.”

“So,” Dumbledore said, his long fingers steepled in front of his beard, “you believe they told the truth?”

“They believed what they were saying.” Severus remembered the greasy feeling of combing through their petty thoughts. “However, that doesn’t mean they knew fully what they’d been asked to do.”

“We put spells on the house to let us know if someone trips one,” Black said. “But we didn’t think there was much of a chance that house would get used again by any of these people.”

Then he frowned, apparently realizing he’d admitted to their being of the same mind on anything. Severus was disgusted he’d let such a thing slip in front of Dumbledore, of all people. He’d been wanting them to get along for over twenty years. Severus wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction now.

“They’d risk too much going back, yes,” Dumbledore said. He gave no sign he’d noticed what Black had said, but Severus doubted it had slipped past him. Echoes of the dreaded phrase When you and Sirius worked so well to rescue Harriet were already playing in his imagination. “Is it your estimation, then, that the mind behind their . . . enterprise is fairly cunning?”

“Not if they hired those tits directly,” Black said. “But since it was just an offer that went out to the criminal classes--”

“Speaking of which,” Severus asked, thinking longingly of a few spells that would really earn Dumbledore’s disapproval, “have we any word on Fletcher?”

“I will be seeing to him after our business is concluded,” Dumbledore said. The ominous phrasing cheered Severus a little: Dumbledore could be both terrifying and merciless when he chose. “I’ll be leaving him alive, of course,” he said with a touch of morbid humor, “if only for the two of you to make proper use of. I mean in feeling out for this ‘offer’ and whoever has made it,” he added, a bit sternly, possibly because Black’s expression had lit up with an edge of nasty glee that echoed in Severus' heart.

He and Black really needed to get off this same wavelength if they wanted to maintain their sanity.

“I had thought to inquire on my own,” Severus said.

“Severus, you are a member of the Order,” said Dumbledore mildly. “That means you work with its agents when required. Beyond compromising your cover, you won’t refuse. Either of you,” he said, when Black looked a little too smug.

“We have to work together?” Black said, as if Dumbledore had asked him to kiss his mother.

“With Mundungus, Remus, and Tonks as required. You cannot leave the house, Sirius. Doing so earlier was ill-advised,” he said, as Black bristled, “though I thoroughly approve of your aims. I am surprised the pair of you went off together.” He cut a look toward Severus, calculating and opaque. “It might have resulted in a sticky situation or two, depending on the identity of Harriet’s kidnappers.”

“We wiped their memories,” Black said, a shadow falling across his face, his voice.

“And between you, I am sure the job was beyond critique. But you might think, next time, before rushing off with little regard to the consequences.”

He hadn’t said ‘little thought.’ He did know Severus well. The consequences could go hang. Severus would do it the same again, had he a hundred times to do it over.

“Well.” Dumbledore placed his hands on his knees. “The Weasleys are members of the Order now -- not the children, clearly, but the parents and Bill, possibly Charlie if all goes well. We have not been able to contact Percy, who’s quite wrapped up in his new Ministry job.”

Severus was sure the Weasleys had been invited along to keep Harriet out of trouble. Black would swear her in as a member of the Order if she asked, and neither Lupin nor Nymphadora had any history of behaving themselves. Mrs. Weasley would keep them all in line. They’d all, Severus included, just been chaperoned.

“Harriet may know light details of our movements,” Dumbledore said, “but nothing that would compromise our operations, should the worst happen. This most recent abduction may not have been part of Voldemort’s plan” (Severus was going to kill someone if he had to hear that name one more time) “but it could easily have been. And after what happened to poor Hermione in February, nor can any of the other children know anything of substance.”

And Granger hadn’t even been taken for information, only as bait. In the staffroom, during those months where Harriet had avoided him and the Dark Lord been all too interested in his company, Minerva had gone to visit her in hospital twice a month, and once -- not the first or second time, perhaps the fourth -- she had wept.

That brave, clever girl, Severus,” she had said. “Every day she wakes up and faces -- that --”

“Miss Potter will want to continue her visits to Miss Granger,” he said, interrupting Black and Dumbledore’s conversation. He hadn’t heard them talking.

Black blinked. An odd dart of emotion disappeared across Dumbledore’s face before Severus could name what it was.

“Of course. You may take turns escorting her. In fact, Remus’ visit to Alastor tomorrow would provide an excellent opportunity. Now.” He rose, shaking out the crinkles in his purple robe. “I must run Mundungus to ground, so I’ll bid you both farewell. Try not to destroy yourselves and the house in the process.”

He shook Black’s hand and rested his palm against Severus’ shoulder as he passed. “I’ll find you both here tomorrow,” he said pointedly. Then with a click of the door, he was gone.

Severus saw no point in trying to determine which of his sins had landed him in this situation. There were too many to count, and it hardly mattered when he was stuck here regardless.

Black was glaring at him moodily but without much heart behind it. Severus felt the same. He was fucking exhausted. It would be nice to pass out across whatever in this dump passed for a bed.

“I’ll get Remus to find you a room,” Black said sourly. “Unless you want to sleep in the Carnivorous Cupboard on the third floor.”

He sounded mildly hopeful.

“Don’t show it to me unless you want me to lock you in there,” Severus said. “And don’t bother routing Lupin -- I’ll find something. You can hope I’m maimed in the attempt.”

“If wishes were horses,” said Black, getting up from his chair.

He opened the door and almost walked straight into his goddaughter.

“Oh! hey,” said Harriet. Cleaned up, she was wearing some old-fashioned dress that gave Severus dreadful 1970’s flashbacks. Mrs. Weasley accompanied her. She couldn’t give Black a wide berth on the narrow landing, but she looked as if she were prepared to step between him and Harriet if he made any funny moves. Her wand was already in her hand -- though that might, Severus thought with disappointment, have been out of necessity for opening the doors.

“Professor Snape,” said Mrs. Weasley, nodding at him. She put her hand on Harriet’s arm. “We were just headed downstairs to join the others.”

“Lead on,” Black said with a gesture that might have been gracious. Mrs. Weasley still radiated suspicion, but she ushered Harriet past him and down the stairs.

“Good luck on not getting yourself cursed,” Black said to Severus with cheerful sadism, and followed them down.

Severus waited until the creaks of their footsteps had faded below before he leaned against the doorjamb. His throat and chest felt like he’d swallowed a bramble vine. The insides of his eyelids burned. His fingertips and toes were ice, and painful.

Harriet had darted a little look at him as she’d left: a slice that had penetrated her aloof indifference.

It was pathetic, to live off scraps like that. But when scraps were all you had, they did sustain you.

He pushed off the door jam and, with measured steps that radiated pain from his kneecaps, started the search for a bedroom in which to weather this new hell of Dumbledore’s choosing.

Harriet’s heart was still doing a funny little two-step as she followed Mrs. Weasley down to the kitchen. Snape had been right there -- obviously, she told herself crossly, because he’d just been talking with Dumbledore. She’d seen him only a half hour ago. If in that half hour he’d gone even grayer and more gaunt, that was --

Besides, he hadn’t even paid attention to her. She’d only imagined that he’d glanced at her. It was the crap lighting in this place. Played tricks on you.

It was odd that Sirius wasn’t seeing Snape off the premises, though. Maybe he was going to talk to Dumbledore some more. . .

“Gracious Gryffindor,” said Mrs. Weasley as she took in the kitchen in all its squalor. Her children were sitting at the long, pitted table with Remus and Tonks, enjoying a pot of tea and a plate of sticky buns in the greasy atmosphere.

“Sirius Black the escaped convict wasn’t kidding when he said this place was a mouldering dump,” Fred said with clear admiration.

“Thanks,” said Sirius, emerging into the kitchen behind Harriet. “Who are you, anyway?”

“I’m George.”

“He’s Fred,” Harriet said, then pointed at George. “That’s George.”

“I’m impressed you can remember it when they can’t, Holly-berry,” Sirius said, slinging his leg over a chair.

All the Weasleys looked curiously at Harriet as she took the chair next to him. Tonks hid a smile behind her tea.

“I was almost named Holly,” Harriet explained as Remus passed her a cup and some kind of sticky bun.

“Hope you didn’t take my observation as some kind of slight, Sirius Black, escaped convict,” said Fred. “It was meant only in tones of the warmest admiration.”

Harriet could tell Sirius was amused, though he was hiding it behind an aristocratic aloofness she hadn’t seen him put on before. “Was it, George? How absolutely ripping.”

Fred looked delighted. Mrs. Weasley looked like she wanted to thwack him for parading his terrible manners around in front of new people.

Ron nudged Harriet and pointed at the fireplace. For the first time, Harriet noticed that its mantel was carved with a writhing mass of snakes. It was hard to see them through all the years of soot.

“I’m afraid the house has been practically left to its own devices for some time,” Remus said.

“Why ‘practically’?” Ginny asked curiously.

“The family house-elf, Kreacher, has been here, but all on his own. He’s rather. . . odd,” Remus said.

“Mental, then?” Fred asked keenly.

“So,” said George, “we’re staying the summer with Sirius Black, escaped convict” -- he and Fred bowed in Sirius’ direction -- “and his mad house-elf.”

Wicked,” said Fred.

“Why are you staying here?” Harriet asked, realizing, for the first time, that this could probably use some explaining. “I mean -- sorry, that came out rude--”

“Arthur and I have joined the Order,” said Mrs. Weasley briskly. “None of you have, you’re too young,” she added sharply as Fred and George opened their mouths. Ron dipped his sticky bun in his tea with deliberate nonchalance, while Ginny rolled her eyes. “And this lot has come with me to help put this place in working order.”

“In the Order,” said Fred. “Working order. Weak, Mum, but getting there.”

She lightly whapped him on the back of the head as she headed into the kitchen proper.

“What is the Order anyway?” Harriet asked. “You said you were going to give me a ‘real explanation.’”

“I did say that, didn’t I?” Remus asked with a slight smile. “Very well. The Order of the Phoenix started the last time Voldemort rose to power. . .”

Severus found Regulus’ room by the pretentious fucking plaque outside the door. Would Black try to kill him for going in there, or would he pretend it had no personal significance?

Poor Reg, Severus thought as he banished the locking charms on the door. The family favorite, and still he’d never measured up. The Blacks had always known their firstborn should have been the nucleus of all their hopes. Reg had grown up a pale imitation. And yet, his mother had, in whatever way she'd been capable, loved him.

Which, come to think of it, hadn’t done Reg much good at all.

Reg’s room was right next to the Carnivorous Cupboard. Third floor, next to a door that didn’t open. It made eerie rumbling sounds when Severus hovered a hand over the knob. He imagined a young Sirius Black lurking in the bilious shadows on the landing, waiting for his little brother to leave or approach the room, to push him into the cupboard. It was the sort of prank pure-blooded children indulged in, like a Muggle child might shove their sibling into a cellar and lock the door.

Reg’s door swung open with a plaintive creak.

The room had once been grand, though whether those days had come before Reg’s time Severus couldn’t say. The familiar colors of Slytherin hung from the canopy, the drapes, even the walls, in striped silk wallpaper, now long faded. Reg had painted the Black family crest over the bed in great detail; he’d been a talented artist, Severus remembered with an odd sense of loss mingled with reclamation. He’d forgotten that. Reg had loved to draw. When Rosier or Narcissa had wanted to be cruel, they’d tell him he could have a good future as a portrait painter.

They might as well have said he’d have a good future digging latrines. Pure-blood children did not become painters.

Reg had made himself a collage of clippings about the Dark Lord. Disgusted, Severus ripped them down off the wall and dumped them into the rubbish bin.

On the table beside the bed sat a lovingly buffed picture frame: Reg on the Slytherin Quidditch team. He’d been a decent Seeker, though not in Harriet’s league. Reg was always a little too cautious to fly with that reckless joy.

Severus picked up the photograph; the team smiled and waved up at him, as they’d have done for whoever looked. They were so bloody young, he thought with a clench in his chest, as if his heart had tightened to a fist. As young as Harriet, who’d crawled out of that slime-logged pool; as young as Granger, who made Minerva weep. It had been twenty years since Reg had been this young, but he would never grow old. This room would rot and moulder and turn to dust and Reg would be. . .

This is Master Regulus’ room!” croaked a disused little voice. Not Black: it was his house-elf, standing in the open doorway and looking halfway to an apoplectic fit to see some disgusting half-breed fouling up his dead master's room. 

Kreacher had been kinder to Reg than his own mother, kinder than his father or his brother.

“Master Regulus is dead.” Severus’ voice came out icy and hollow, and he slammed the frame down onto the desk. “He died more than fifteen years ago. Now, the room is mine.”

And he flicked out his wand, knocking Kreacher ears-over-heels, and slamming the door behind him.

Ginny was snoring softly. Harriet lay next to her in the wide bed and watched the car headlights from the square outside track across the ceiling.

She was pleasantly full of Indian food that Tonks and Remus had gone out to bring back for them all. Mrs. Weasley had been thwarted by Sirius having nothing in the fridge except a block of cheese and a bottle of gin. Neither she nor any of her children had had Indian food before -- nor Harriet, though she was desperate to try anything the Dursleys wouldn’t have eaten for love or money -- but they were all game to try it. Ron and Harriet had had the misfortune to eat a fried chili. Fred and George had roared with laughter when they’d both gone bright red and started choking.

But, despite having to drink twelve glasses of water, Harriet had had more fun that evening than she could remember having since February, when Voldemort had come back and Hermione had nearly died.

And Snape. Even if he had. . .

She rolled over and punched at her pillow, imagining it was Snape, just a bit.

She flopped onto her stomach. Ginny didn't stir. She hadn’t had any trouble dropping off. After all those hours of clearing out bedrooms and scrubbing them free of dirt and pests (George swore it was Ron who’d screamed when a womp rat had leapt out from under a wardrobe, but as the rat had landed on George’s leg, nobody believed him), anyone would be exhausted. Harriet even had the bonus of abduction. She should’ve conked out as soon as her head had hit the pillow.

Instead, she was lying here wondering if the wallpaper was whispering and knowing that Snape was still in the house. “Dumbledore’s locked us up in here with him,” Sirius had muttered to Remus, who’d kicked him in the ankle. And her heart had done that funny two-step again. She'd half expected him to loom out of the shadows at any moment.

He'd stayed out of sight all evening, though, and long into the night.

This was useless. Her brain was wide awake, and she was thirsty. Maybe she still wasn’t over that chili.

Sighing, she kicked back the blankets and rolled out of bed. Ginny was sprawled out with her foot sticking over the edge of the mattress, her hair fluttering over her mouth. Harriet wished she had a camera.

Remus had de-cursed the doorknob; it turned easily in her hand, and she slipped out into the hallway. The brackish lamps still burned, casting deep shadows down the endless staircase. It was like looking down into a dark lake in the depths of a cave.

She tried to tread down the stairs with as few creaks as possible, but, perhaps because they hated houseguests as much as Kreacher did, the steps lit up in a symphony of squeaks and groans. You still beat Privet Drive, she thought, jumping on one of the stairs to make it really squeal.

She was on the third floor when one of the bedroom doors opened -- and Snape stepped out.

They both recoiled, Snape actually bumping into his door, Harriet colliding with the wall.

And the wall started to suck her arm inside it.

“Bloody--!” she tried to pull it out but it was inexorably dragging her inside. She flailed with her free hand and Snape grabbed onto it.

“Stop flinging about, you’re making it worse!” he snapped.

“Oh, well, sorry--” Harriet snarled.

But she didn’t get to finish; with a gulp, the wall gobbled her all the way . She tumbled to a dusty floor, thinking, I just had a second bloody shower!

Then she realized her hand was still attached to Snape, and with a groan, as if the wall had eaten more than it could chew, he came stumbling along with it.

Harriet gaped at him. Snape stared back with something like horror. They both looked down to where he was still gripping her hand -- and she’d gripped back, because Sirius' house had been trying to eat her -- and they both let go like they’d been shocked.

“Where are we?” she asked, rather than focus on the fact that she’d just been holding his hand. In fact, she tucked her hands behind her back so they wouldn’t do anything stupid like wind up in one of his again.

“Carnivorous Cupboard -- a charming little Black family tradition for punishing wayward offspring.” He pulled out his wand and turned to face the wall behind him, which they’d just come through. He waved his wand at it, while Harriet waited, thinking a drink of water wasn’t worth this.

Nothing happened. He tried again, a different movement this time, like a slash rather than a conductor’s motion.

Still nothing happened.

He turned back around like he was expecting something bone-chilling to be standing at his back, only he was staring at his wand as if the terror was really in his hand.

Lumos,” he said clearly.

The wand stayed dark.

“What?” Harriet asked as he closed his eyes and let the wand drop.

“It’s sealed,” he said, his voice low and perfectly controlled.

“Sealed? What’s that mean?”

“Magic cannot be used in here. A means to keep magical children inside while they were being punished, I believe.” He was barely moving his lips. “It’s likely that it’s also soundproofed, so no one could hear the child making an unholy racket while trapped inside.”

“Meaning. . .” Harriet said with dawning horror.

“We’re locked in,” said Snape. “Yes.”

Chapter Text

“We’re locked in,” said Snape.

“You’re having me on,” Harriet said.

Snape could give the impression of rolling his eyes while staring down his nose. “You’re right. I’m making it all up because I enjoy spending my nights trapped in a closet.”

Harriet didn’t have that talent, so she rolled her eyes outright.

“Well, I don’t,” she said, edging past him to the not-a-door part of the wall. Snape pressed himself against the opposite wall, like he didn’t even want his hem to touch her. That was fine with her.

She banged on the wall a few times, yelling, “OY!” and “SIRIUS! RON! WAKE UP!”

Of course, nothing happened and nobody came. She wasn’t actually surprised. Snape wouldn’t really be wrong about something like this.

Just wrong about taking half-heard prophecies to Voldemort that get my parents killed, she thought viciously.

“So? What do we do now?” she asked bitterly.

“Wait till someone notices we’re missing, then makes the connection.” Snape sounded like he preferred not to put his trust in the idiots in this house but knew he had little choice. “Black knows about the Cupboard; hopefully he has the brains to realize where we’ve gone.”

“Sirius is plenty clever,” Harriet said, annoyed.

Snape’s expression didn’t change, but it conveyed a complete lack of faith in her judgment.

She glared at the wall. There wasn’t anything to look at on it, only the dull woodwork in front of her nose. That whorl looked like a bug-eyed chicken.

And as she watched, the grains morphed into something with a long face and sharp teeth.

She leaned away. Architectural dementia.

Snape was shuffling around on her periphery. When she glanced over--

He was laying his outer robe on the floor, that big one that puffed him up like a bat. Without it, in just a long black robe that honestly looked like a nightshirt, he was ridiculously skinny. Looking at the curve of his spine, you’d think he’d been stuck at the Dursleys with Dudley on his new diet.

Without looking at her, Snape was pushing his robe across the floor, making sure it took up as much space as possible. The cupboard was quite small enough for it to work.

She gingerly lifted her foot and nudged the cloak all the way up against her half of the wall. Then she sat and tucked her knees up, without looking directly at him. But from the corner of her eye, she could see him doing the same: sitting and not looking at her.

He was making himself very small in the attempt, something she never would’ve expected. The knot on his wrist could’ve cut glass.

She tried to listen for the clank of the pipes in the walls (she’d heard them in the room she was sharing with Ginny), or for the creaking of the stairs as anyone went up or down (Remus, as if patrolling), or Kreacher muttering as he flitted through the house. But the cupboard might have been a hundred miles from anything.

The silence crawled through her.

Not even the telly going, or Aunt Petunia clacking dishes in the kitchen sink, or Dudley’s Gameboy buzzing at him because he keeps losing--

She was suddenly glad she wasn’t in here alone. She hadn’t been alone in a cupboard in a long time, and she didn’t want to start that up again.

Even if she had to be stuck in here with Snape, who’d told Voldemort that. . .

“Where’s the light coming from?” she asked, risking a full glance at Snape, who had his eyes closed and his head resting back against the wall.

It wasn’t lamp-light or spell-light; it was grey and uniform, almost peeling the shadows away. If she looked at Snape too long, it made her dizzy. There should be shadows under his eyes, in the hollow of his cheeks; his crow-black hair should gleam and when he tilted his head, he should hide half his face. But in that flat, faded light, he was blocks of grey and black, like a sketch left unfinished.

She remembered his chair vacant at the staff table as sleet battered the windows of the Great Hall, and Dumbledore’s grave silence at the empty seat beside him. Her scar had stung those nights, jolting her awake as the things she’d thought she’d seen in her dreams had fallen apart like spiderwebs.

The skin along her arms prickled.


He opened his eyes. “What?” he asked, tiredly.

She looked away, hoping her thoughts hadn’t shown on her face. Then she frowned. Snape usually didn’t need things repeated for him. “The light. Where’s it coming from?”

“Part of the room design.” He closed his eyes again, but he no longer looked as . . . relaxed. No, that wasn’t the word for it, though she didn’t know what was. The line of his shoulders against the wall was tense, now, the way it hadn’t been before.

“It’s meant to be disorientating,” he went on.

“Is this normal?” Her arms tightened around her knees. “Like -- was your house like this?”

“No.” It was hard to tell in the uniform grey, but she thought he’d tensed up again. “Only wealthy pure-bloods have these resources.”

“What, like an evil architect?”

“These spells require a specialization, yes.”

“But is it normal?”

“In certain circles.”

“What circles?” she grit out. She knew Ron’s family didn’t have anything like this -- but what about Asteria’s? They weren’t wealthy now, but if they’d once had house-elves and a castle then they had been rich at some point; and if you didn’t have to keep a nice house to have a punishment cupboard. . .

Had Sirius been locked up in here?

(“Abomination of my flesh!” his mother’s portrait had screamed at him.)

“Pure-blood families who keep to the old ways,” Snape said tiredly. “Surely you’ve had enough time in this house to get an idea of what Black’s family was like.”

Sirius had never been well-behaved; the only Gryffindor in a family of Slytherins, he’d said. He’d run away from home at sixteen; he’d told her so himself.

(How old had he been, the first time they trapped him in here? How long had they kept him in? Had he gone hungry? Had he begged to be let out?)

She felt sick thinking of Sirius and suddenly angry at Snape’s exhausted emptiness. Her voice hardened. “Like the kind who supported Voldemort?”

Snape didn’t flinch; he went very still.

“In the beginning,” he said, slowly. “Yes. Then they saw what he really intended.”

He was staring straight ahead, but not like he was looking at the wall. His voice was distant, hollowed out.

She suddenly wanted to grab a piece of his hair, or his collar, and shake him.

“I reckon a lot of people got a nasty wake-up call,” she said coldly. It was hard to force the words out past the fist in her throat.

Being stuck in this cupboard was reminding her of the days, the weeks, the months, after he’d told her what he’d told Voldemort. She’d been angry, and she’d been empty. Could you be both at the same time? The anger should’ve meant she wasn’t empty, shouldn’t it?

She felt it again now, that anger burning in her chest. It radiated from her heart into her throat, overpowering her mind until she couldn’t think of anything but how fucking angry she was -- over a thousand things, but especially what Snape had told her --

And then she’d turn a corner in her mind and suddenly it had all been gone, all that filling anger, and she was empty. Just. . . gone.

She didn’t know which state she preferred. She could think through the emptiness when she couldn’t think through the anger. . . but in the emptiness, nothing made much of a difference.

Time had slipped by her in dollops. The emptiness piled higher as the days clumped into weeks.

It had been like that for so long, the sudden burn of the anger here, now, was as disorienting as the grey light that bled the shadows away in this fucking cupboard. There was probably something metaphorical in that light and her emptiness, but she wasn’t very good at metaphorical.

“You’re the reason my parents are dead,” she said, and her tongue felt raw.

Snape opened his eyes. For just a moment, she saw on his face an immense, immeasurable sadness.

It made her angrier, and then it was gone, and something inside her felt shaken.

“Yes,” he said. “I am.”

There was no emotion in it, just a statement of fact, or maybe an admission.

The silence around the cupboard pounded against her ears.

Why? Why’d you--” do it, why’d you tell me, why “Why?”

In his eyes some inner light burned dim and faraway.

“Telling you will only make it worse,” he said, a warning, not a denial.

Her fingers tightened in the robe he’d laid down against the dust. “Tell me anyway!”

“You think the person I am now is bad?” He sounded only tired, as if he hadn’t slept in years. “You have no notion of the person I have been.”

The cupboard seemed to be spinning around her. If she closed her eyes, it didn’t stop. “So you did it because you wanted them to die?”

“There was no name attached -- only the circumstance. I can’t say I thought beyond anything but the possible benefit to myself. In those days, we’d do anything for his notice.”

She’d never heard Snape sound so empty.

She wasn’t empty anymore. Something was filling her up, something like. . .

Why?” she whispered.

“There is no explaining it,” Snape said after a long pause. Something echoed in his voice, like that feeling she was brimful of now, almost spilling over. “Not to someone like --”

He stopped, turned his head to the side. His black hair swung down over his cheek, creating the only shadow in the room.

Her heart was beating in her throat. “Don’t you owe me?”

The only sound was the breath he took in, so quiet she would have missed it if there had been anything else to hear.

“Someone who is profoundly good cannot understand that kind of hatred. Can you? Have you ever hated the world so much that it didn’t matter what you did, as long as you destroyed something?”

She felt cold and sick. She shook her head. It was all she could do.

“You have never hated anyone like that. Not even -- the Dark Lord. Have you?”

“I do hate him,” she said, surprised by this. “Of course I hate him, he killed my parents! And -- you told him--”

Snape closed his eyes for a second longer than a blink. Some tension left him, like he’d been waiting for this, and it had finally come.

“Would you ever join him?” he asked. “If he offered you power, and you saw a chance through it to destroy him -- would you take it?”

“Of course I bloody wouldn’t,” she said, half angry, half bewildered. “He killed my parents.”

“You love them more than you hate him. That’s. . . its own protection. You can’t remember them, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that . . . knowledge. When you looked into the Mirror of Erised, you didn’t see the Dark Lord dead at your feet. You saw your family. When alone, you didn’t want power or revenge, you wanted. . . them. It makes all the difference.”

Harriet blinked.

Then the wall behind her gave way, and she toppled backwards into the shadowed hall at Remus’ and Sirius’ feet.

“Holly-berry!” Sirius hauled her up and squashed her in a hug. “Shit! Are you all right? Are you -- the fucking hell?”

Snape was emerging from the cupboard like a ghost in a Gothic mystery, his robe all over dust. Sirius just kept holding onto Harriet, gaping at Snape.

“What-- were you--”

“Your cupboard attacked,” Snape said icily, sounding exactly like his old self. “Someone should put a sign up over it.”

Then before any of them could recover, he stepped into the open bedroom and snapped the door shut behind him.

“That--” Sirius finally let go of Harriet. “Bastard! That’s Reg’s room!”

He raised his fist to pound on the door, but Remus grabbed his wrist.

“We are not rowing with Snape in the middle of the night,” he said firmly. “We are not waking the whole house. We’re going to ask Harriet if she’s all right, and then we’re going to try and get some sleep.”

Are you all right?” Sirius asked her, putting his hands on her shoulders and turning her about. “You didn’t say. How’d you wind up in there with that greasy fucker? Ow!”

Remus retracted his wand from where he’d jabbed it into Sirius’ side. “I repeat, we are not waking the whole house. Harriet -- how are you?”

“I’m fine.” The lie was the bloody easiest thing she’d done all day. “Just a little dusty. And thirsty. I was going for a drink of water when I -- ran into him and tripped into the wall. He tried to help me out of it and we both got pulled in.”

That was the truth, at least. And Remus was right: there’d be no Snape-and-Sirius row tonight if she could help it. Right now she might help Remus stuff them both in the cupboard if they started up.

“Fucking thing,” Sirius muttered, glaring at it. “This place needs a fucking architect to take it apart.”

“Since we don’t have one, we’ll follow Severus’ helpful suggestion and put a sign over it. And if Fred and George wind up inside,” Remus said, “it’ll serve them right. Come on -- let’s get Harriet her drink.”

To keep an eye on me, Harriet thought, though she couldn’t fault them. She had been held hostage by two nutters and now a cupboard.

All that stuff Snape had said was bundled up in the back of her mind. She thought there was a lot to go through -- to figure out.

But first, she really was thirsty.


Severus leaned back against the door and passed a trembling hand over his face. His skin was clammy and he was shaking all over.

This house was a waking nightmare. And Dumbledore wanted him to convalesce here.

He looked around Reg’s derelict memorial of a bedroom and laughed.

Ghosts, everywhere he looked.

He and Black had something else in common, then.

Unlike Black, however, he didn’t have to stay here.

A pass of his wand cleared the dust from his robes. He’d need to be somewhat presentable, where he was going.

Narcissa hated it when guests weren’t presentable.


“Harry, you look awful,” Ginny said. She put her hand on Harriet’s forehead, as if testing for fever. “Merlin’s pants, did you sleep at all?”

“No,” Harriet muttered. In the muted light -- were there any lights in this godforsaken house that worked properly? -- she glared blearily at her jumper, which was lying on the bed, requiring pulling on. What was the point of being a witch if you had to pull on your jumpers with your own two hands?

“I don’t think that’s going to fit,” said Ginny as Harriet got her head stuck in the sleeve. “C’mere -- you can’t go see Hermione if you can’t see anything.”

At least Harriet made it downstairs to the kitchen without winding up in the Carnivorous Cupboard again. Small mercies. Some of it might have had to do with Ginny’s hand on her elbow.

Remus, who was nursing a steaming cup in the gloomy kitchen, gave her a long, considering look but didn’t say anything insensitive like, “You look like death warmed over.” Fred and George, however, were happy to fill in the gap left by Remus’ manners.

“And not warmed over well,” said Fred.

“Like Sirius Black, Escaped Convict, tried to cook you.”

(Sirius could not even heat up takeaway leftovers. He’d tried, and now the kitchen smelled like scorched curry.)

Harriet made a rude, if tired, gesture and put her head down on the table. Then she regretted it when her forehead got stuck in some of Sirius’ spilled curry. Ginny rubbed her back and only laughed at her silently.

“Sorry, Holly-berry,” Sirius grimaced as he wiped curry off her forehead.

“Once we’ve all eaten,” Remus told her, “Tonks and I will be ready to take you to St. Mungo’s.”

“This combining of our objectives feels so organized,” Tonks said, pulling out the chair next to Harriet and swinging her leg over the seat. Her long hair was Weasley red today.

“Should’ve put Moony in charge ages ago,” Sirius said, but there was something not-quite-all-there about his smile.

Snape had not come down to the kitchen. Harriet was glad. She had no idea how she’d react if she saw him. Her head felt like a goldfish bowl, everything sort of sloshing around.

When you looked into the Mirror of Erised, you didn’t see the Dark Lord dead at your feet. You saw your family. When alone, you didn’t want power or revenge, you wanted. . . them. It makes all the difference.”

She forked a fried egg between her teeth and chewed. At least, she thought it was an egg. It might’ve been toast.

“Have you ever hated the world so much that it didn’t matter what you did, as long as you destroyed something?”

“That’s salt, Holly-berry.” Sirius navigated the shaker out of her reach and put her juice glass in her hand.

“You think the person I am now is bad? You have no notion of the person I have been.”

“I’m done,” she said, dropping the final broken crust on her plate.

“Let’s go, then,” said Remus. Maybe it was her sleep-deprived goldfish-bowl imagination, but she thought he was watching her very carefully.

“Say hi to Hermione for us,” Ron said, the way he always did whenever Harriet had gone to visit her.

Harriet nodded and squeezed his shoulder.

“Give her our love,” Mrs. Weasley said, wrapping Harriet in a hug.

Tonks tip-toed exaggeratedly past Mrs. Black’s portrait; Remus moved with grace and without sound. Harriet tried not to run into anything.

Then they were out on the street, under the bleached London sky. Tonks was dressed like she was heading to a heavy metal concert; Remus was wearing a button-down with the sleeves rolled up, and Harriet had let Ginny pick out a flowered dress. She dragged off her jumper and tied it around her waist; Number Twelve had been like an icebox inside, but out on the street the oppressive heat lingered, cooking up from the pavement.

“Tube’s this way,” Tonks said, and ambled off. Some time in their careful trip out the front door, she’d changed her hair to a messy black like Harriet’s.

“Moody’s spent a long time in hospital, hasn’t he?” Harriet asked Remus as they trekked down the sidewalk.

“I think the Healers were mostly worried that he’d do himself an injury if they let him go,” he said dryly.

“He’s been enjoying himself, really,” Tonks said. “So many people to suspect of attempted assassination. Turned out to be right about someone being after him, though,” she added.

They clicked past the turnstile into the tube station; Remus handed Harriet an Oyster card he’d pre-purchased; and they piled into the train with a clump of bleary-eyed morning commuters. The crowd of people made the carriage unbearably stuffy. But as Remus reached up to grip the pole over his head, Harriet felt a tuft of cool air, almost like magic.

When she peered up at him, he smiled faintly, pulling on that long scar. It made her want to grin, for what felt like the first time in ages.


Harriet had visited St. Mungo’s so often since Hermione had been checked in that he welcome witches would probably have known her by now even if she hadn’t been Harriet Potter. The commissary staff would save treacle tart for her on Sundays, and all the long-term staff had long since got the urge for autographs out of their systems and now asked after her marks. The mint-green walls mixed with the lime-green Healers’ robes were still an eyesore, though.

Nobody knew about yesterday’s abduction; it was clear from the way they smiled and waved as if nothing were wrong. Remus was given a wide, wary berth that he pretended not to notice. Tonks, however, was greeted like a regular.

“Glad to see you coming under your own power, for a change,” Healer Chaiprasit said to her as he hurried past with a stack of scrolls. “Morning, Harriet.”

“You’re not wrong, but you’re still a tosser!” Tonks called after him.

Remus acted as if this were all a normal way of conducting oneself in a hospital. Harriet supposed that after living with Sirius for so long, yelling public insults at hospital staff was rather lowkey.

“We’ll be back when Moody’s ready to be released,” he said, pausing outside the long term ward. “Ask Hermione if we can come in and say hello, will you?”

“Will do,” she said, and pushed past the swinging doors.

The long-term ward was divided into two sections: one for long-term spell damage that required constant monitoring, and one for non-magical effects of spell damage. Hermione was in the second group: the damage that had resulted from Voldemort’s attack had all been attributed to oxygen deprivation. She could have been in a Muggle hospital but for the fact that it affected her magical control. Lights went haywire; glass exploded; wood and metal melted. She couldn’t be at home with her parents, either, until it went back under control.

She was sitting with Healer Johnson at a round wooden table, transfiguring a plastic cup. Or trying to. As Harriet tread down the row of beds (piled with quilts, personalized pillow cases, and bedsheets from home), her hand shook and the plastic cup collapsed into gelatinous goo.

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with your access,” said Healer Johnson as Hermione threw her wand down. Since the injury, her frustration had come out in uncharacteristic ways. She’d always had a temper, but she was prone to breaking and throwing things now when she couldn’t make things work. She’d had never had a problem making things work, before. “Only with the final movement.”

“I have the power but not the--” Hermione struggled to form the word. “The--” Her expression twisted as she couldn’t get it out.

“Combustion,” Harriet said, stepping up to the table and dropping a hand on the back of her chair.

“--control,” Hermione said. She scowled up at Harriet, but it wasn’t real anymore. “The power but not the control.”

“And as the control is related to motor movements, that’s to be expected. Hi, Harry,” said Healer Johnson, with a brief smile. She was Angelina’s older sister, though Harriet hadn’t figured it out until she’d said, “Angelina says you’re the best flyer she’s ever worked with.” Apart from the occasional likeness of expression, they didn’t look much alike -- Angelina towered; Healer Johnson was hardly taller than Harriet; and unlike Angelina favoring long braids, she wore her hair in a downy cloud. But being in her ward was exactly like being on the Quidditch team with Angelina the few times she’d been in charge. Oliver had been prone to displays of emotion, wailing and gnashing of teeth; Angelina told you what she wanted and you did it. This was a valuable trait in Hermione’s doctor, who had to be able to keep her in line. As a patient, Hermione was more than a little rebellious. She seemed to take it as a personal challenge to get better and get out, and she went after recovery the same way she tackled Transfigurations homework. At school, this resulted in five scrolls of parchment with footnotes; in hospital, the healers told her she couldn’t expect results overnight and she should stop overreaching.

Hermione didn’t take well to being told to slow down.

“Hi, Melanie,” Harriet said. “How long’s it been since the last break out attempt?”

Hermione huffed. “I never tried to -- break out.”

“I heard they found you scaling the wall with blueprints hanging out of your pockets,” Harriet said as she hooked her ankle around the leg of a chair to pull it out.

“I only went to the -- the --” Hermione made a furious noise as she couldn’t make herself say the word.

“Communist party,” Harriet said.


Melanie was smiling, but in a way that Hermione, preoccupied with her own defense, didn’t notice. Harriet caught her subtle wink, though.

“I didn’t know we were expecting you today, Harry,” she said.

“You weren’t,” Harriet admitted. “But I got a special escort. Remus,” she said, in response to Hermione’s curious look.

“Moody?” Hermione asked, because she was still as sharp as ever. She just had trouble making things on the outside work.

“Headed home.”

Hermione nodded, but a light in her eye dimmed. Mad Eye Moody got to go home, but she was still trapped in here. Sirius probably could have related.

“Here.” Melanie pulled a wooden box from beneath the table. “I want you to draw how that makes you feel. Both of you,” she added calmly, ignoring Hermione’s contemptuous snort. Harriet had never seen anything ruffle her, not even when Hermione shattered the lights.

“Cool. I love coloring,” Harriet said. The box was full of colored construction paper, water-colors, and crayons. They looked like the kind of Muggle school supplies you could buy anywhere; she wondered if Melanie had bought them herself. The younger Healers tended to be more into Muggle things and methods. Art therapy was already a rather Muggle idea, though Hermione always scoffed at it like she’d been told to consult her tea leaves.

She took up a black crayon with an air of extreme sufferance -- exactly like she’d act when Lavender and Parvati were consulting their complex star charts -- and started drawing a very uninspired circle on some beige paper. Harriet felt more ambitious since Asteria had been teaching her to draw all through the spring.

“There,” Hermione said shortly, pushing her paper across the table. It was, in fact, just a black circle on beige.

“Is that the Black Spot?” Harriet asked.

Hermione glared at her, but more playfully than anything, and knocked her foot against Harriet’s ankle.

“Remus wants to know if he can come say hi,” Harriet said as she sketched out a long, dark room.

“Yes,” said Hermione, looking away, then mushing her lips together when Melanie slid a sheet of blue paper and a white crayon toward her.

“I thought I was supposed to draw what I felt,” she said a little waspishly.

“You seem to have accomplished that,” Melanie said with an almost invisible smile. She held up the Black Spot. “What shall we call this? A Critique of Long Term Medical Isolation?”

Hermione snorted, but she was hiding a smile as she bent over her blue paper.


Severus woke to a crown-moulded ceiling streaked with golden light. The room smelled faintly of powder, not of dust, and there was no muttered invective coming from the floor; it could not, then, be Grimmauld Place.

Paper rustled next to him, at which point he became aware that the bed he was occupying was supporting than one occupant. It was certainly big enough. Even before he turned his head, though, he caught a whiff of lilac and knew.

What happened, he wanted to ask.

“Ugh,” he said instead.

“I’d say ‘good morning’,” Narcissa murmured, not looking up from her letter, “but for you, I can’t imagine what’s good about it.”

He wished for the energy to pull the pillow from under his head and over his face. Maybe he could convince her to smother him.

“Well, you’re not dead, so I suppose you’ll get better,” she said. The light gleamed on her long, flaxen braid; her dressing-gown matched the frosted blue brocade on the walls behind her. It was all nauseatingly perfect. “What have you been doing to yourself, my decrepit turtledove?”

Not enough, he thought.

“Trying to die,” he said.

Narcissa hummed idly as she skimmed her letter. “Draco really is an excellent correspondent. He certainly didn’t get it from Lucius’ side of the family. Or mine, for that matter. Can you imagine Bella writing a letter? I don’t think she ever did in her life. And the other one was so grim and dry.”

It was hard to imagine someone grim and dry producing the chaotic, merry stormcloud of Nymphadora Tonks; but then it was difficult to imagine how ruthless, icy Narcissa had produced the clingy puppy Draco. Or insufferable prat James Potter contributing to the existence of the sarcastic but undeniably good-hearted Harriet.

He could still remember her face in the cupboard far too well. He’d shown up on Narcissa’s front step last night to “report” to the Dark Lord, really hoping that some retribution would allow him peace, even if only in unconsciousness.

The problem with seeking peace through unconsciousness was that you weren’t bloody awake to enjoy it. And now that he was awake, his self-loathing was set to outdo itself, and it was barely half past nine in the morning.

“What do you know of these Greengrass girls, Severus?” Narcissa asked, apropos of her letter.

Severus briefly considered whether discussing Draco’s love life was more or less appealing than wallowing in misery. He couldn’t decide, but Narcissa kept talking.

“Draco has encountered them at his cousins’ house in Switzerland. Should I be keeping an eye on this?”

“I find it hard to believe that you aren’t.” He knew she had spies everywhere. She would definitely have some pointed at her son when he was abroad.

“Well, you know. I meant figuratively.”

When he made only a vague noise, she finally looked up from her letter. Her eyes looked like a winter sky. “Severus, don’t be recalcitrant. I know it suits you, but you know these girls from school. I know them only through my superb network of spies. It’s an entirely different kind of bias.”

So he would be talking about Draco’s love life. He should’ve stayed at Grimmauld Place and reflected on the nature of life’s transience in Regulus’ room.

“One is in Draco’s year at school,” he said, resigned. “She’s ambitious and bright enough not to do anything stupid. There’s an older sister who was married recently, to an idiot, from what I could gather. The younger sister is terrified of everything. And the youngest of all isn’t Hogwarts age yet.”

Narcissa hmm’d. Severus managed to raise his hand and rub his eyes. They felt like pincushions.

“What happened?” he asked tiredly.

“After you showed up at the door, or after you spoke to the Dark Lord?”

“I remember speaking to him. I don’t remember how the. . . conversation ended.”

“He called me when he felt he’d run out of things to say. I collected you and brought you along here, to keep an eye on you. I was rather afraid you might die on me in the night. Quite ghoulish of you.”

“I do beg your pardon. I’ll plan it better, next time.”

“Oh, Severus, I know you planned it exactly as you intended. You always do this.” Sighing, she tucked the letter into its envelope. “After Reg disappeared, you were the same way.”

He stared out the window. From the first floor, all he could see were the waving tops of trees against a boundless blue sky.

“Breakfast,” Narcissa said. “I’ll have Nitty bring it. You’re allergic to sunlight, I know, and the Dark Lord never seems to eat.”

“He feasts on the souls of the damned, probably,” Severus muttered, watching a bluebird flit past.

“Then you gave him a three-course meal last night.” He could feel her attention grazing the side of his face. “What did you talk about?”

“My failures. . .”

“This is good news, Severus -- I am pleased to know there is someone out there working against me, besides that old fool and his lackeys -- but you know you should have been there. We could have had Harriet Potter in our grasp right now, if only we had been as enterprising as those fools.

“His enemies. . .”

And now she is sequestered with Dumbledore’s piddling Order. . . Severus, if only you had managed to get to her before Sirius Black. . .

“The girl.”

“As ever, then.” Narcissa reached for the tasseled velvet pull next to her bed and rang the breakfast bell. As she did, she triggered a brief scrambling spell; not enough to cause suspicion, but enough for them to talk without being heard. “It’s a good thing Rita Skeeter is no longer out there causing trouble, or I might not have needed to worry that I’d ever see you again, last night.”

“A good thing indeed,” he said quietly, remembering Narcissa’s promise this last winter; remembering the night he had stepped into this house and she’d whispered, “It is fulfilled, Severus.”

Skeeter had skirted too close to a truth that Severus would not need to bring directly before the Dark Lord to receive punishment for. He could hide anything in his own mind, but not the minds of others.

Narcissa had taken care of Skeeter. And the Dark Lord would never know from himself the truth he had told Harriet.

Narcissa tucked a piece of his hair off his forehead, clearing his eyesight of one black bar. “You must be careful, my friend. We cannot lose you yet.”

“I have no intention of going anywhere yet. I know how to tread the line.”

“And that’s its own worry,” she said. “Believe me.”

Chapter Text

Harriet turned, propping the door of Number Twelve open with her foot, and flicked her fringe back off her face in the signal to Remus that she was in. Then she oozed through the gap into the hall and shut the door behind her.

In the sudden press of darkness, all she could hear was the clicking of the locks. Wherever the Weasleys and Sirius had gone, they were shielded from Mrs. Black’s ears, and the hall was heavy with silence.

She took a step forward and tripped over something lying in the fairway.

Catching herself on her hands sent a puff of carpet dust into her face; she only just managed not to swear, sneeze, or wake up Mrs. Black -- and the thing jerked, making her jump.

Snape?” she hissed at the same time he hissed, “Potter?”

“What are you doing?” she hissed at him.

“Nothing you need be concerned about,” he hissed back.

“You--” She worked through the possibilities while he tried to use the troll’s leg- umbrella stand to pull himself up. He wasn’t the type to take a nap in the middle of the hall, and if he was having difficulty standing. . .

Voldemort. He’d been with Voldemort, and he’d got himself hurt.

She fumed at him. “Why didn’t you call for someone?”

“I am capable of-- what are you doing?” he snarled (quietly) when she pulled on his arm.

“Helping you up. Well, why are you lying on the floor if you can get up? Or should I go get Sirius?” she whispered, pointedly.

He seethed, and it practically had a sound: the curdling of helpless fury. Then he cranked out his elbow and let her pull him up. He was heavier than he looked. . . but since he had the physique of a folded umbrella, that wasn’t saying much.

They navigated up the stairs like some lurching monster. Snape leaned on the banisters and walls, clearly trying not to touch her more than he absolutely had to, as if she were some plague survivor. She kept a grip on his arm nonetheless; they weren’t toppling back down the stairs and breaking their necks because he was too. . . Snape to take help.

As he spelled his chosen bedroom door open, she peered curiously at the age-spotted plaque on the wall. ‘Do not enter without express permission of Regulus Arcturus Black.’

“Really?” she muttered.

Snape grunted and fell into an armchair that had probably seen better centuries. Eyes closed, he rigidly slumped against the moth-eaten cushion, his breath rasping. He looked even worse than he had in the cupboard. Honestly, he made her wonder if he’d stuck his soul in an old vase and his body would continue running on spite forever.

“I can get Mrs. Weasley,” she said, eyeing him.

“Don’t you dare.” His eyes opened to slits. “I will be -- fine.”

“Sure,” she said, making her doubt obvious, and turned to peer around the room. She didn’t know anything about Sirius’ brother, but he’d apparently been really into being Slytherin.

“Were you friends?” she asked, glancing back at Snape, whose eyes were shut again.

“You’d probably call us that,” he said after a moment. He sounded bone-tired.

What a weird answer. A pure Snape answer. “Good to know.”

Sirius’ room had Gryffindor memorabilia on the walls and posters of swimsuit models. He’d yanked them down with an embarrassed look and binned them when he’d seen her grinning at them. “Just -- annoying my parents,” he’d said. Regulus’ room, though, was a shrine to everything Black. Toujourus Pur, read a crest over the headboard. She didn’t know what that meant, but judging by the plaque outside the door, she’d bet it was something only a twat would paint above their bed.

“I can get you tea or something,” she said to Snape, whose expression said she had asked him some incomprehensible question, like how she might cure human idiocy. “Toast?”

“That is not necessary,” he said, carefully.

She frowned at him. “So I can’t get anyone, and I can’t get you anything.”

“You can be taught.” He pushed himself up in the chair a bit. His hand was shaking; he balled it out of sight. “Close the door behind you when you leave.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Sure. I’ll remember that.”

Then she ambled over to Regulus’ bookshelf and peered at the books. She could feel Snape’s consternation. The thing about Snape was, he didn’t stay consterned for long.

“Any time, now,” he said scathingly.

“I want to make sure you’re not going to pass out,” she said, like it didn’t matter much. “You know, since I can’t get anyone to check you out.”

Don’t!” he snarled.

She froze; he was leveling a shaking finger at the bookshelf.

“Don’t. . . touch those,” he said more evenly. “They’re -- probably hexed. And over time, the hex will have grown considerably -- worse.”

Harriet retracted her hand. “This is the worst house I’ve ever been in. I thought Privet Drive was always gonna carry that award.”

A dusty picture frame caught her eye on the bed-stand. She bent down to examine it.

“Is this Regulus?” She didn’t expect Snape to answer, but she didn’t need him to; the slight, black-haired boy in the photograph bore a strong resemblance to Sirius, like Asteria’s unfinished sketches before she molded them into the final result. Like the other players, he looked pleased with himself to be on the team, though he kept fiddling with the trim on his robes, as if assuring himself he was really wearing them. “He played Seeker?”

“He won more games than not, though he didn’t have your talent.”

She cast a bewildered look over her shoulder, but Snape was determinedly not looking at her.

“You’re not dying, are you?” she asked.

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“That scathing tone sounds good,” she said. “You still look like you came out of a frozen dinner pack, though.”

Snape’s expression was difficult to read. It took her a moment to realize that this was because he didn’t look angry.

She was just weighing the strangeness of this conversation coming not twelve hours after that. . . thing in the Carnivorous Cupboard, when a sudden screech from far below sent Mrs. Black into a new wave of invective. Harriet groaned.

“Can we get rid of her?”

She went out onto the landing to lean over -- and almost got her eye put out by a rocketing bundle of feathers. “Bloody hell!”

Righting her glasses, she dashed back into Snape’s room, where an imperious eagle owl was settling on the winged back of his chair.

“Hey,” she said, “I know that owl. . .”

“It’s Draco’s.” Snape reached up and pulled the note off its leg. Harriet very much wanted to nose over and see what it said, but the pounding footsteps and swearing on the landing outside distracted her.

“Where’d that fucking--” Sirius went skidding past the open door, rucking up the carpet, and then came shooting back. “Holly-berry, what are you -- hoy!” He leveled an accusing finger at Snape, who didn’t bother frowning up from his note. “What are you doing in here with him?

“I coerced her in here, obviously.” Snape might look like a frozen dinner pack, but his sneer was on point. “It couldn’t have to do with the giant, screeching bird.”

“It did have to do with the giant, screeching bird,” Harriet told Sirius. He didn’t have to know she’d already been in here. In fact, it was much better that he didn’t.

“It almost took my face off,” Sirius said, pointing to his forehead, which was bleeding from a talon mark as long as Harriet’s finger. “And it’s lucky Molly didn’t shoot it. You aren’t supposed to be receiving owls, Sniv.”

“I certainly didn’t invite it,” he said, but he was frowning up at it where it sat haughtily surveying them all like a monarch confronted with a trio of peasants. “It must have followed me. . . I haven’t been back long.”

“That doesn’t fucking worry you?” Sirius said incredulously.

“Were you able to exchange owls with -- the Potters?” There was the tiniest hitch as he said it; if Harriet hadn’t been listening for it, she probably would’ve missed it.

Sirius ran a hand over his unshaven jaw. “Yeah. . . Dumbledore didn’t want us to, but we did it anyway.”

“We should probably do something about that.” Snape turned the note over and used his wand to scribble a reply. Then he held it up to the owl -- only to lose the paper when Sirius swiped it over with a spell.

“This is from Narcissa Malfoy!” he yelped, and then, “Shit!” as the owl dived at him, screeching.

“If you don’t want it to peck your eyes out, give it what it wants!” Snape snapped as Harriet ducked out of the way.

“I’m not -- letting notes to Narcissa Fucking Malfoy -- out of the house! Harriet! Open the damn wardrobe-- No! Don’t touch it, I forgot--”

He shot a spell at the wardrobe door, which banged open, and in a flurry of feathers shoved the bird inside. Panting, he slammed the door; a second claw-scratch ran down his cheek; his shirt was ripped at the shoulder seam, and there was a golden feather stuck in his hair.

“Doesn’t surprise me she’s got a raging bitch for an owl,” he said, shoving his hair out of his face; the feather stayed. Harriet didn’t think he realized it was there. “All right, let’s see what she oh-so-innocently wants--”

She peered over his shoulder at the note, which he angled so she could read, too. Surprisingly, Snape didn’t try to stop them, only treated them to one of his ‘There are things growing on cheese more intelligent than you two’ looks. Behind them, the wardrobe clattered and shrieked as the owl fought to get out.

Narcissa Malfoy’s handwriting slanted sharply across the parchment, spattered with inky backsplashes. She’d written in a hurry, and as Harriet skimmed the note, she saw why.

Severus Something dreadful has happened Draco has gone missing, while out with one of those girls -- a routine walk in the woods, his cousin said, to look at some foolish ruins, only they never came back. It’s been two days and they have only just now informed me, hoping to find him themselves -- I could kill them with my bare hands and I will if I get them within my grasp -- Severus You must find him

She was surprised to feel her heart drop as she read, like she was actually worried about Draco Malfoy. But she knew what it was like to be trapped and lost, to wonder what was going to happen to you, to pull all of your cleverness together to try and get out. Really, she wouldn’t wish that on anybody.

“How can he have just disappeared?” she asked. “Does his mum think he was kidnapped? Who’s this girl he was with?”

“One of the Greengrasses,” Snape said. “As I understand, all of the family was there, or at least most of it.”

Her heart jumped back up and lodged in her throat at the thought of it being Asteria. “What were they doing with Malfoy?”

“And why should you be the one to find her wayward offspring, Sniv?” Sirius turned the note over, as if looking for clues on the other side. The only thing there, though, was Snape’s reply: ‘I will attend to it.’ “What can you do? I thought he was in bloody Switzerland or wherever.”

“Which is why she asked me and not you -- I actually know which country he’s in.”

Snape placed his hands flat on the arms of the chair. If he was trying to get up, though, his legs didn’t cooperate, because he stayed sitting. When his eyes narrowed to furious slits, Harriet suspected he had tried to stand.

“Not like that, you can’t,” Harriet said. And then, the last thing she’d expected to say followed: “Which is why I’m coming with you.” 

Draco’s ankle was killing him; his eyes were gritty; his head felt like a balloon tumbling gently down a grassy slope. Lying on rocks was uncomfortable. All the dust made him want to sneeze. He needed a bath. And some natural light.

“We’re going to die,” he muttered, very quietly to himself.

He snuck a look around; in the only bright spot through the gloom, Asteria was hunched over her sketchbook, her lit wand tucked behind her ear for light, dirty yellow hair obscuring her face. He relaxed. If she’d heard him, she’d have threatened him again.

He didn’t know why he’d ever thought she was sweet or scared of everything. He must have picked up this false information from Daphne, who believed her little sister was some helpless duckling. But helpless ducklings didn’t turn to you holding a sharp rock and say fiercely, “Shut up or I’ll sh-ut you up! We’re not going to d-die!”

If he was having trouble sleeping in this tomb -- where he was probably going to die -- it wasn’t just the uncomfortable rocks, the hunger, or the pounding in his foot and ankle. It was hard to get a proper rest when you were afraid your only companion in your imprisonment was going to bean you with a sharp rock in the middle of the night.

Footsteps crunched in the dirt; huddling in on himself, he risked a look upwards, but Asteria was only holding out the canteen.

“Time for your ration,” she said tiredly.

He unscrewed the lid and gulped down a mouthful of water -- not too much, because she’d told him off about that the first day. He held the water in his mouth as he handed the bottle back, then let it trickle down his throat. It tasted so good and there was too little of it.

He knew Asteria was right to conserve it. He’d have drunk it all the first day. . . and he wondered where she’d learned this stuff. Maybe she and Potter had been off practicing survival tactics in the Forbidden Forest during spring term. They’d certainly spent enough time together.

Unless Potter and Asteria had also fallen down into a ruined old crypt in the middle of nowhere, they’d surely had more fun together than he was currently having.

“Find anything new?” he asked warily as Asteria took her own mouthful. He had to cap the canteen, since she’d hurt her shoulder.

“Just more caved-in tunnels,” she said, angling her sketchbook so that he could see.

Lighting his wand, he peered at the map she was piecing together. The room they’d fallen into started it off, then the tunnels she’d explored a little bit more each time she went out. X’s marked off the cave-ins. There were a lot of them.

“I’m about to go back out,” she said. “I was just copying off the additions.”

He took the piece of vellum she handed him, though he didn’t want to; stupid, to imagine she’d stay if he didn’t take it. She’d probably just ball it up and throw it at him.

“You should eat something before you go out again,” he said.

She frowned at him. “We don’t have enough food for me to eat every time I leave.”

“Just a bite or something.”

“. . . Fine,” she said, and went to dig in the picnic hamper. She pulled a piece off the bread loaf and chewed it with a defiant air. They’d eaten the cheese and the sausages the first day, since that stuff wasn’t going to keep. Now they had bread and crackers left, with some fig butter that ought to have been refrigerated but hadn’t turned green and fuzzy yet.

Had it only been two days? Maybe a third? One minute they’d been out with her sisters -- the oldest one, Leto, whose husband was a complete twat and whom she kept fighting with; Daphne, who was trying very hard to keep the peace; his cousins, who were clearly wishing Leto and her stupid husband had never answered their invitation; and Asteria, who just wanted to avoid the lot and sketch the scenery.

Ruins are so romantic, aren’t they?” Draco’s cousin Cato had said, and he’d like to borrow Asteria’s rock and brain her with it. She wouldn’t think they were so romantic when she was lying under the bloody ground with a load of genuine skeletons.

He was going to hex them all good and proper if he didn’t die down here: Cato and her sisters for ditching him with the Greengrasses; Leto and her stupid husband for going off to have a row; Daphne for going after them, and telling Asteria to wait there, she’d be back -- if he and Asteria had just gone after all those boneheads, they wouldn’t have fallen into these old catacombs, which apparently no one knew about.

Cato and her romantic ruins!

The pain, the hunger, and the burning desire to wring all their necks made the days seem longer and unreal. He did have a watch, but he’d given it to Asteria, since she was the one with the self-control, the self-designated explorer. By agreement -- she’d allowed him to weigh in, for once -- she had to come back every half hour. Whenever the black on the other side of the door swallowed her up, he lay on his cloak terrified she was never going to come back. Sometimes he reckoned she’d die, either by falling down some bottomless pit or by triggering another cave-in; other times he was convinced she’d find a way out and take off without him. What was he but dead weight? He’d sprained his ankle and knocked his head when they’d fallen through the trapdoor and hit the remains of the crumbling stairs on the way down. Asteria’s shoulder injury didn’t keep her from moving around. She was better off without him. More food and water for one than for two.

“All right, I’m off,” Asteria said, tugging over her head the strap of lace on which she’d tied her wand. She’d ripped it off her dress. Apparently her survival skills course with Potter had included fashioning bits of your clothes into handy accoutrements like pockets and lanyards. He would’ve offered to help her pull her hair free of the strap, but he didn’t want her to glare at him. He was already feeling too fragile.

At the exit to the room -- the only door in the crypt -- she turned back toward him, the wandlight beneath her chin breaking her face into eerie planes of light and shadow.

“We’re not going to die,” she said firmly. “I’m f-inding a way out.”

And with that, gripping her sketchbook, she marched into the darkness.

“You’re--WHAT!” Sirius grabbed her by the shoulders and wheeled her around. “The bloody hell you are! You’ve -- you’re joking, right? Please tell me you’re joking, you didn’t pick up some Babbling Curse at St. Mungo’s.”

“I’m fine,” Harriet said, pushing his hand off her forehead, where he’d been feeling for a fever. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“Look,” Sirius said in what he probably thought was a patient tone, and maybe it was; but the calm effect was ruined by the way his eye was twitching. “You’ve had a rough few days. It only makes sense that something -- completely mental would seem like a good idea, but -- ”

“It’s certainly a joke,” Snape said. “Stop taking it so seriously, Black.”

Harriet rolled her eyes. He would say that. She couldn’t read his expression; it was aloof, somehow.

“No, it’s not, but fine, keep thinking that. How are you getting out of here without help?”

Snape’s eyes narrowed, fixed on hers. His fingers dug into the chair’s arm like claws, and he very. . . slowly. . . rose. He stood there, breathing audibly -- even Sirius was watching him warily -- and his posture shivered, like he was going to buckle. He clamped one hand on the back of the chair and flicked his chin up, his eyes glittering.

“I,” he said, drawing the words past his teeth, “don’t need help.”

Then he slumped into the chair, a shaking hand pressed to one side of his face.

“Get out of here, the both of you,” he hissed. “Black, take your goddaughter and piss off.

“It’s my fucking house, Sniv, I’ll go where I like,” Sirius said, frowning. There was still that wariness to his expression, though, as he watched Snape, who turned a seething glare on him. Just getting the edge of it was hot enough; full-on, Harriet imagined it felt like getting a heated iron pan in the face.

“Look,” she said firmly, stepping in, and on Sirius’ foot. “You need to find Draco. I want to help -- plus, if I’m there, I’m not here, right?”

There was a silence as this inane declaration processed. She said, “I mean, people are trying to kidnap me here, aren’t they? They’ve tried it once, and maybe again. They won’t expect me in -- not-Switzerland so they won’t find me. Much safer that way.”

Snape was looking at her like he didn’t know where to begin to enumerate all the stupidity in this line of reasoning.

“You know,” Sirius said, before Snape could speak, “that’s not a bad idea.”

Harriet saw Snape’s expression shift to ‘flabbergasted’ from the corner of her eye, but she’d already swiveled to stare at Sirius, who was stroking his unshaven jaw and looking almost sly.

“I mean, nobody would expect it,” he said. “So it’s the safest course, yeah?”

“I. . . what?” Harriet boggled.

He smiled and clapped her on the shoulder. “Great idea, Holly-berry. So! When do we leave?”

“W. . . e?” Snape managed, sounding strangled.

“Obviously,” Sirius said, with a bright edge. “We’re all going.”

Snape stared at Sirius, then at Harriet, who stared at Sirius and then at Snape. Sirius beamed at both of them.

Then Snape buried his face in one of his hands. “This is a nightmare,” he muttered so quietly Harriet thought he might have been talking only to himself. “At any moment, I’ll wake up. . .”

“If this is your idea of a nightmare, lucky you,” Sirius said. “I’ve been dreaming out my dear old mother lately. Wonder why. C’mon, Holly-berry, let’s get packing. Or, you pack, I’ll watch Sniv. He’ll try to leave without us.”

“Yeah. . . I really don’t think leaving you two unsupervised is the best idea,” Harriet said.

“Let me be perfectly clear,” Snape said, dropping his hand to hit them both with his frying-pan glare. “It doesn’t matter who packs when or in what order -- you two are not coming with me. Black, you are a wanted criminal. Potter, I have no idea what Draco has got himself into, and if you think I’m letting you traipse off into the middle of it -- ”

“Huh,” said Sirius. “There’s a point. Guess that’s us stymied, then. Right, Holly-berry, you know these Grassy girls? You can write them and ask where they are. Don’t worry, Sniv, we don’t actually have to go with you -- ”

Snape looked like he wanted to pull Narcissa’s owl out of the wardrobe and shove it down Sirius’ throat. “I’ll -- tell Dumbledore.”

Harriet was torn between wanting to laugh and wincing at this rather serious threat. But Sirius only snorted.

“You won’t, because he wouldn’t let you go. This’ll make you unable to keep your spy job, at least for a while. He’d say Narcissa could go herself, and he’d be right.”

Snape shook his head. “I’ll be vastly more effective.” Then he lapsed into silence, staring at Sirius in something like confusion.

“Black,” he said at last, “--no, I don’t know why I’m about to appeal to your capacity for reason. You’ve never shown you have any.” He switched his bleak scowl to Harriet. “Neither have you. This may be the stupidest plan either of you has ever come up with. I haven’t made an exhaustive list, which now seems like an oversight.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Harriet said, folding her arms. “That Unbreakable Vow plan you two came up with was way better. I’ve got to come along for that reason alone, haven’t I? If something happens to me and you’re in another country, you won’t be able to get back in time to help. Remus told me the only reason you knew I’d been kidnapped so soon after it happened was because the Vow -- reacted. That could kill you, and you wouldn’t be helping Draco at all.”

Sirius frowned; the lines on Snape’s face deepened with vexation. Harriet tried not to look too smug.

“She’s got a point,” Sirius said, tossing the words casually at Snape. Harriet tried hard not to look smugger.

Snape stared at them both for several long moments. Whatever he saw only made him look disgusted -- and resigned.

“I am going to regret this to my dying day, but what else is new?” He pointed at the wardrobe. “Let it out and send it off to Narcissa. Then we’ll need to plan -- an actual plan, not that either of you knows what that is -- if we want to get out of here without Dumbledore, Lupin, or Molly Weasley knowing, because they will certainly stop this.”

“Great!” Sirius clapped his hands together. “So glad we’re all getting along. That’s what they’ve all wanted us to do, isn’t it?”

Chapter Text

Invisible, Harriet sneaked after Snape through the dark, oppressively silent house.

Under her foot, the stair gave a groan like Gryffindors told they had to write a foot-long essay on scarab beetles’ use in Potions. She froze. Snape turned his head just the barest flick. She held her breath, waiting, straining--


We’ll sneak out in the middle of the night,” Sirius said from Regulus’ bed, where he’d kicked up his feet. Though they were plotting in a gloomy room, in semi-secret, Harriet felt there was something ironic about it: Sirius reclining with his hands tucked behind his head, Snape clearly wishing they’d both jump out the window, and herself sitting on a very short ottoman.

“I’m an old hand at it,” Sirius said airily, “and Snape’s a spy, that’s all anyone needs to know -- how about you, Holly-berry? Skulk about a lot?”

“Potter can be found wandering Hogwarts’ halls at all inadvisable hours,” Snape said from his armchair before Harriet could reply. “The more immediate the danger, the more liable one is to trip over her in some especially dangerous spot.”

“Excellent work.” Sirius held up his hand and they both high-fived the air, to Snape’s visible disgust.


No bedroom door flew open; no eagle-eyed Mrs. Weasley or suspicious Remus appeared to ask where Snape was headed. No lesser-or-maybe-not evils of Weasley twins or Ginny popped out. Even Kreacher didn’t materialize. Harriet blew out a breath, ruffling her fringe.

Not that anyone would dare ask Snape where he was going, anyway, she thought, and then remembered it was a house full of Weasleys. All right, well, at least they’re all dead heavy sleepers.

Snape looked pointedly the spot where she lurked under her Invisibility Cloak, as if to say, ‘How do you manage to sneak around Hogwarts if you’re this incompetent’ and then resumed descending the stairs like he had smoke for feet. Harriet could’ve told him the floors at Hogwarts were stone, and that stone certainly didn’t bloody creak. Besides, with this house’s character, it was probably being noisy on purpose.

She followed, wincing as the stair squeaked, but Snape -- though maybe giving a tiny sigh -- didn’t stop again.


Since we’re not Tonks and liable to trip over that bloody trolls-leg umbrella stand, the biggest hurdle is going to be Moony,” Sirius said. He grimaced in reply to Harriet’s curious look. “Moony always knows when I’m scheming.”

“He’s had ample opportunity to develop the sense,” Snape said snidely, and got a rude gesture in reply.

“Is Remus going to be okay without you?” Harriet asked Sirius, ignoring their bickering. “Transforming, I mean.”

“Yeah. Like he said, that trip we took back in the spring solved it. He doesn’t need me or the Wolfsbane anymore.” A funny look passed over his face: a darkness, despite his lopsided smile. “Turns out that ‘name of the wolf’ guff actually fucking works.”

“We’ll wait until the others are asleep,” Snape said, as if he hadn’t spoken; when Harriet glanced at him, his face was, for Snape, rather neutral: only a lower-level scowl. “Then be off. We could probably slip out with all the racket they’re making--” They all paused to listen to a cacophony of clangs, twangs, and bangs, which sounded a lot like the grandfather clock plummeting down several flights of stairs. “--but we want the longest period of time possible before they notice we’ve gone.”


Snape gained the ground floor, and despite the fact that if anyone had heard the stairs creaking, they’d just have assumed it was him, Harriet was ready to breathe more freely--

Except that a disembodied voice said, “Sirius?” out of the gloom.

Snape ground to a halt and Harriet smashed into his back.

Her glasses jammed into her face; she only just managed not to swear. When she tried to back off, her foot caught on the Cloak’s hem. The only things to grab onto were the banister and Snape’s robe, and one of those was clearly the worst option; so that’s of course the one she grabbed.

Snape went rigid but stayed put, which was good, as Remus chose that moment to come around the stairs, squinting in the bilious light that filtered down from Sirius’ really horrible lamps.

“Ah,” said Remus, “sorry, Severus. I thought you were--”

“Yes, I picked that up when you said his name.”

(Harriet seized the banister and pried her hand off his coat, pulling herself up like she was manipulating an eggshell. Snape gave no indication that he was suffering this, but as soon as she’d let go, he started toward the door.)

“Of course,” Remus said mildly. Harriet was expecting him to ask where Snape was going, but unlike most people in this house -- everyone else, in fact -- he had tact. He only stood watching Snape head towards the door.

“Did you need something?” Snape asked coldly, stopping and turning so suddenly that Harriet almost ran into him again. She froze and swayed, only inches away from smashing her nose again, only this time into his chest.

“Not at all,” Remus said. But he didn’t leave, watching Snape with a mild look.

Snape narrowed his eyes. Spinning again -- slower than he would have if he hadn’t, Harriet was sure, still been sore from whatever had happened that morning -- he stalked toward the front door for the (hopefully) last time.

He pulled open the door onto the dark, quiet square. Harriet slithered out ahead of him quick as she could. At least she didn’t get her Cloak stuck in the door. That would’ve put a nice period on the near-disaster of sneaking out.

“I hope Black is finding his escape just as exciting,” Snape muttered, and set off through patches of street-light and shadow, toward Kings Cross St. Pancras.


“I can’t believe I’m hearing this,” said Sirius. “I can’t believe there’s any argument about it.”

“If this is something you wanted to do in your ill-advised youth,” Snape said, “you’ve missed your chance. I am not hieing across the bloody rooftops when I can walk out the front door.”

“Killjoy -- why am I not surprised? Well, Holly-berry? What do you say to escaping over the rooftops, ey?”

“How would we get down to street-level?” she asked, smiling, while Snape rolled his eyes so hard that it was a wonder they didn’t stick backwards in his head.

“Scale the fire escape,” Sirius said promptly.

Harriet tried to look very serious. “I think we should save that for when we really need it.”

“I think you can never have too many rooftop escapes, but I see I’m outvoted. What lousy curriculum are they teaching at Hogwarts these days?”

“You can have all the rooftop escapes you want, Black,” said Snape. “It won’t trouble me if you’re caught and I don’t have to spend the next few interminable days in your company.”

“Fine.” There was a funny gleam in Sirius’ eye, like the light of challenge. “You follow Sniv, Holly-berry,” he said, while she tried not to cringe. “Someone’s got to keep an eye on him.”

(She was still waiting for Snape to get back at him for that.)


By the time they made it to St. Pancras, Snape had become someone else. He’d chosen a man with dark-brown skin and close-cropped black hair, his same height and almost as skinny -- but this man had a smooth, open face that looked odd set into Snape’s cold, disapproving lines.

He’d also shrugged his cloak off of the Muggle clothes he wore underneath and, rolling it up, stuffed the cloak into the bag he’d spelled with an Undetectable Extension Charm.

Harriet kept her Invisibility Cloak on; Snape and Sirius had agreed, while trying very hard to seem like they weren’t supporting each other, that it was safest for her to stay hidden as much as possible. Being under the Cloak was a little stifling, but anything was better than the exhausting tedium of Privet Drive or the oppressive gloom of Grimmauld Place. As long as she stuck close to Snape (or Sirius, when he got there), any passersby who collided with an unexpectedly solid patch of air would only think their mind was playing tricks.

Snape with the stranger’s face didn’t walk like Snape. Snape strode around like he owned the place and would crush first years under his boot; Snape-the-stranger rolled his shoulders forward and stuck his hands in his pockets. It was fascinating to discover that Snape could transform himself at will on more than one level. She’d always thought he was more of a hiding-in-plain-sight spy, not a carrying-Polyjuice-at-all-times and fooling-your-very-eyes spy.

He slouched past the early trickle of morning commuters, up to the departures board, and subjected the times to an unimpressed stare. Harriet glanced around and saw a man lounging on a bench nearby, fiddling with a Muggle torch that he kept turning on and off: the signal. She nudged Snape’s elbow with hers and hissed, “Sirius, on the bench, eleven o’clock.”

“Eleven o’clock, Potter?” Snape muttered without moving his lips, but he turned the unimpressed stare directly on the bench, so clearly he knew what ‘eleven o’clock’ meant. Sirius’ grin pulled at the stranger’s face, and he stood, tucking the torch into the pocket of his leather jacket. He moved exactly like himself, and pushed the stranger’s dark, floppy hair out of his eyes.

“Took you long enough,” he said with a smug current of glee. “Told you rooftop escapes were the way to go. Holly-berry?”

“I’m here.” She edged over and tapped him on the arm; he smiled to the left of her.

Holly-berry is the reason we’re late,” Snape said, like the nickname tasted foul. “Along with your boyfriend.”

Sirius’ good humor froze off his face, but Snape had already turned away and was pointing at the departures board. “The Frankfurt train leaves at 06:13. This way.”

“You were right about Remus,” Harriet said quietly to Sirius as he scowled after Snape’s departing back. Really, she just wanted to distract him. “He doesn’t. . . seem to sleep. He was downstairs in the kitchen when we passed.”

“Yeah,” Sirius muttered. He shoved his hair out of his eyes, but with less carefree grace than before. “Let’s go get those tickets, yeah? And then something to eat, I’m fucking starved.”

Dear Hermione, she thought as she trailed after him, I almost made a hash of getting out of the house, but I’ve got a foreboding feeling that that was only the beginning. . .



Ron knew it was coming. Or would be coming. He’d lain awake in his bedroom -- or some old dead wizard’s long-ago bedroom -- listening to the house groan and creak and wondering if any of those footsteps were Harry’s, long past the time when she’d probably left. She hadn’t told him when it would be, just “in the middle of the night.”

Maybe if he counted the creaks, he’d fall asleep. There had to be a billion of them.

It would be dawn, soon, probably. He could see the hint of daylight around the curtains, a kind of softening of the dark. She should’ve been gone for a while now. She’d been vague on the details, which he’d been fine with -- better not to know, so his mum couldn’t beat it out of him.

He’d keep it quiet until the uproar really started, and then he’d tell what he knew. Maybe he’d survive, or maybe his mum would use his guts for garters.

He rolled over and tucked his hand under his pillow, folding it over the letter Harriet had written to Hermione.

You don’t have to do this,” Harriet had said. She’d got sharper and shrewder last year, turned back into someone like that grave girl he’d met in first year, the one who smiled in funny flickers, like she was listening to a joke only she could hear. When she looked at him, it was like she was peeling apart all the layers and seeing down to the core, the way he did when he was about to win a chess match.

It had just been them, while Hermione was gone. He’d got a lot better at Harry-reading these last few months. She’d been turning into someone he didn’t recognize in the weeks, years before (that girl at the ball, practically a bloody princess), but now he knew her again, or the different person she’d become. And when she’d yesterday she’d brought him a letter for Hermione, he’d known she was up to something.

“Going somewhere?” he’d asked, and with one of those peeling-back looks, she’d known, too, that he was really asking.

If I tell you anything, you’ll be in deep shit, you know,” she’d said.

Can’t let Fred and George have the monopoly, can I?” he’d asked, holding out his hand for the letter.

She’d grinned, and he’d wanted Hermione back with them more badly than ever, so it could all be familiar, even if just for a bit again. “There’s that Weasley ambition. Where’d it come from?

Skipped a generation.

He wished he could’ve gone with her. Not that he gave a toad’s shit about Malfoy, but there was something about being left behind -- like when Bill and Charlie and Percy and Fred and George had all boarded the train and he and Ginny had to wave good-bye from the platform as they disappeared --

“But a trip with Snape and Sirius together?” he muttered, rolling onto his back and lacing his hands across his ribs. “Sorry, Harry. . . but you can have that. I’d rather stay here and wait for Mum to slaughter me.”


Severus should have ditched them, at some point.

It would have been easy enough, probably. But then again, maybe not. Black was clever and cunning, and Harriet was exhibiting a return of her unfortunate and damned idiotic desire to keep an eye on him.

What he’d told her last winter should have stopped --

“Hey, kiddo,” Black said from the other side of the table.

Drawn on the glass, in faint lines over the flat green countryside out the window, Harriet was stretching awake. As soon as they’d sat down on the ICE train, she’d passed out. This was fine with Severus, as it meant that Black would be fucking quiet for once, not wanting to wake her.

“We there yet?” she muttered, clearly still half asleep.

“Not yet,” said Black.

“Where?” She leaned toward the window, drowsiness peeling away and leaving behind something like hunger as the German countryside folded past, taking them to Cologne.

“Somewhere in Germany,” Black said. “Here, got you a sad-looking sandwich.”

Severus rolled his eyes, but he doubted the exact location would have meant anything to Harriet either way. She hardly struck him as a geographer.

“Where are these Malfoy cousins, again?” she asked as she folded the cellophane off a slightly flattened ham sandwich.

“Austria,” said Severus.

“Do they live in a castle? Asteria said her family has one,” Harriet said, off Severus’ look. “In. . . Switzerland, I think.”

“They’re extremely rich, at least. I’ve never been to the house before. I know where it is, obviously,” he added when Black opened his mouth. “I believe it used to be an abbey.”

“I don’t hold out much hope,” said Black, “but it would be nice if it was fucking haunted. I hate to think of any relative of the Malfoys getting a good deal.”

“Aren’t they your relatives?” Severus said snidely.

Black pointed a bread roll at him. “Only by marriage, and that barely fucking counts anymore.”

“Really?” Harriet asked curiously. “I thought they’d be Malfoy’s relatives.”

Black grimaced. “All the old pureblood families are interrelated from every bloody side. My parents were cousins.” He tore off a hunk of bread with his teeth, rather like a dog. “Narcissa’s my bloody cousin, too, so I’m related to this Draco kid -- not that I’ve ever seen him, I was disowned before he was born, and Andromeda -- that’s Tonks’ mum, Narcissa’s sister -- was thrown off, too, for marrying a Muggle, so she never got any baby pictures in the post. What’s he like? Complete little shit like his dad, or a rare instance of normal humanity?”

“What would your family know about those at all?” Severus had to say, because the opening was too wide to miss. Black flicked a piece of bread at him, and Harriet shot him a Minerva-like look.

“Malfoy’s. . .” She made a so-so gesture. “Pointy,” she said at last.

Black gave a bark of laughter. “Concentrated Lucius and Narcissa, I bet.”

“He insulted Hermione, the first time we met,” Harriet said, with a dark look.

Severus watched Black to see if he appreciated the irony of Harriet immediately taking sides over the insult of her best friend. Black’s face was never that easy to read, unlike his goddaughter’s. Black was more guarded, appearing to be more open than he really was. The stranger’s face he’d adopted for their journey was more difficult to decipher, and yet Black’s personality showed opaquely through, like the shadow of something moving beneath dark water.

Black smiled, slightly, as if remembering something long ago, and said, “He’s done, then,” a meaningless comment delivered only for something to say.

Severus leaned his head against the back of his seat and let his attention drift out the window, wishing for a cigarette.



Tonks was really, honestly, truly having trouble believing it.


Remus had gone dead silent; rather scary, to tell the truth.


But worst of all was the way Dumbledore wasn’t reacting at all.

“Maybe you should, er, go upstairs,” she muttered to Fred, George and Ginny, who were so stunned by their mum’s rage that they looked honestly willing to be anywhere else. Only when they tried to shuffle off, she rounded on them like an avenging tigress.

“They didn’t know, Mum,” said Ron, earning himself an Award of Merlin, First class, if Tonks had been on the committee. “Harry wouldn’t’ve told me if I hadn’t asked--”

“You are grounded,” shouted Molly, whipping back toward him, “until you’re FIFTY! All privileges revoked, I can’t believe your gall, your utter foolish, reckless disregard for Harriet’s safety! How you could know about this and not tell anyone--”

“Go,” Tonks hissed at the kids, and with a final look at Ron, like a crew watching their captain standing on the burning deck as the ship went down, they hustled out of the kitchen. Tonks hoped they were going off to compose his epitaph, because he might need it.

“Mr. Weasley,” Dumbledore said finally, his quiet voice piercing through Molly’s tirade. She broke off, breathing loudly, as Ron turned toward him. He was pale but holding up. Damn brave kid, Tonks thought.

“I need to know everything that Harriet told you.” Dumbledore didn’t raise his voice, only looked at Ron with a kind of grave mildness that made Ron stare at his feet, the way his mum’s furious shouting hadn’t.

“She only said they had to go help a friend of hers.” He hesitated, then pulled out a small envelope from his pocket. “She wrote this to Hermione, but I doubt it says anything else.”

“May I read it?” Dumbledore asked gravely. Still staring at the floor, Ron nodded and handed it over.

Dumbledore opened it and scanned the letter inside. A moment later, he tucked it back into the envelope and slid it across the table to Ron. “You were correct, Mr. Weasley -- she’s only written a catalogue of the cleaning you all undertook yesterday.”

And Tonks knew Sirius hadn’t been more helpful: he and Snape had each left a note not worth a damn bit of good between them.:“I’ll be back, Moony, but this is safer for Holly-berry” and “You have my word that this does not jeopardize my standing in the Order, in either capacity.”

Whatever their business, they didn’t want to be found out, any of them.

“Does anyone have any idea who this friend could be?” Dumbledore asked, making sure to include Ron.

Off to help a friend, Tonks mused. I can see Sirius deciding it’s a good idea to help her with that, but Snape?

“It couldn’t be Draco, could it?” she asked. “They’re in the same year, aren’t they? I mean, since Snape’s close to the Malfoys. . .”

“Malfoy and Harriet hate each other’s guts,” said Ron with certainty.

“No one else you can think of, Mr. Weasley?” Dumbledore was studying him closely. “What about Asteria Greengrass?”

Ron winced, then hung his head for a moment before bringing it up again, jaw firm, like he’d decided he was in this all the way. “She and Harry are friends, yeah. I don’t know where she is, though, or if anything’s happened with her.”

“But as for close friends, we know where Hermione is, and you are here. Remus?” Dumbledore turned next to him. “Does this match what you know of Harriet? You’re the next closest to her.”

“For a friend, Harriet would go to any lengths,” Remus said. His voice was a little hoarse. “But her close friends are few.”

“Then we must find out what we can about Asteria’s whereabouts,” Dumbledore said. “And their departure does not pass beyond this room,” he added, with a steel that Tonks was sure no one would dare disobey.

They were just lucky no one else had been in the house when Molly went off on her son. Did sound pass through Fidelius Charms? Otherwise they might’ve been heard in Dover.

And if Tonks was morbidly fascinated by the idea of Harriet, Sirius, and Snape taking a holiday together, she wasn’t going to tell a soul.


Another thing about being stuck underground in a forgotten tomb was how incredibly boring it was. At a certain point, even contemplating your likely doom lost its luster. When Asteria was gone -- not that she was much of a conversationalist -- Draco had nothing to do but stare off into space. And it was so dim, there wasn’t much to look at.

He was dozing by the light of his wand when scuffing footsteps dragged him awake.

Two sets of scuffing footsteps.

Heart in his mouth, he pushed himself up, staring at the black doorway through which Asteria always disappeared. Her wand-light broke the darkness first, then her face washed into sight -- her lips set tight together, eyes wide --

A large hand was clamped onto her shoulder, attached to a thick arm -- which would’ve been a relief normally, disembodied hands hardly being the sort of thing one ever wanted to encounter; but the face that loomed out of the shadows above her did not look like the face of a rescuer. Draco’s mother had always taught him to judge people severely by appearances, and this roughly dressed man with a jaw like a slab and forearms whose muscles writhed like snakes looked like he traded in back alleys and did business with a sledgehammer.

Plug Ugly steered Asteria forward with one hand, swinging a lantern with the other. He peered at Draco, who felt he should maybe be doing something other than lying catatonic on the floor but had absolutely no idea what.

“Here now,” Plug Ugly said in French, with a sinister leer. Draco had never seen a sinister leer before, only read about them, but he knew immediately that this was what they looked like. “What have we here?”

Draco had read a great many of the Adventures of Flynn Ryder and found that this cliche line was still rather terrifying when it was uttered by a face like that. He should probably say something -- Ryder would have said, “Let her go, brigand!” -- but his mind was a blank. And Asteria’s mouth was locked up, clearly, because she just stood rigid as a bit of petrified wood, or Longbottom when Snape was staring at him. Apparently her and Potter’s survivalist course hadn’t covered the order of events when sinister thugs grabbed you in abandoned tombs.

He wished Potter were there, so she could address this oversight. If Potter were here, she’d. . .

“And who are you supposed to be?” someone asked. It took Draco a moment to realize it’d been him. He’d said it. Like he was Harriet Bloody Potter or something!

Well, that is what she’d say. In fact, it had been what she’d said the first time they’d met, when he’d sneered at Granger.

He didn’t remember Potter’s voice squeaking like his, though.

“Ahh.” Plug Ugly pushed Asteria out of the way and loomed over Draco. “So you’re the Malfoy kid, ey? I heard your pa’ll pay a pretty Sickle and Knut for you--”

Then there was a silken thud, like a sack of cement falling over. Plug Ugly’s eyes crossed and he slumped down, blinking.

Asteria swung a rock at his head and he toppled over and lay face-down in the dirt.

“Wh--” Draco managed. “WH.”

“C-c’mon.” Asteria tossed the rock away and scrambled over Plug Ugly. Her face was chalk-white and she was shaking. She pointed her wand at Draco’s ankle and before he could stop her, said fiercely, “Episkey!

It felt like a sledgehammer smashing into his ankle. He almost bit his tongue off. His vision whited out. When he opened his mouth, all he could do was gasp.

Then it faded, leaving a ringing in his head and a throbbing in his ankle. He blinked up at Asteria’s terrified face hovering over him.

“Oh no!” she whispered. “That’s why I didn’t want to do it before! Did I break it?”

Gritting his teeth, he flexed it. No pain shot up his leg, unlike before. “No -- it just felt like it,” he couldn’t resist adding.

Asteria looked so relieved he felt rather like a twat for baiting her.

“Come on,” she said again, grabbing his arm. “He’s -- not alone. There are -- others --”

“Whhh--” Draco staggered to his feet; his ankle held. “How many?”

“I don’t know, I saw at least three others, there could have been more.” She grabbed Plug Ugly’s lantern and dumped the oil, plunging them into thicker darkness. “They’re hiding stolen goods down here, the catacombs go for miles -- I stumbled into them, if we can just use them to find a way out. . .”

“Without getting caught?” He massaged his heart through his chest. A glance back at Plug Ugly as he stumbled away showed only an unmoving heap on the receding edge of the wandlight.

“Yes,” said Asteria, so rattled she didn’t say, Obviously.

They passed out of their corner of the tomb into the corridor beyond, eerie in its stillness and silence. Draco felt like he was breathing the dust of centuries. He didn’t like it at all.

“Is this what you and Potter do on weekends?” he muttered. His teeth might have chattered a lot from nerves as he said it.

“Yes,” Asteria said honestly. “She was preparing for the Third Task, you know.”

“Well,” he said after a moment. “Good. I mean, since she won and all.”

He dearly, desperately hoped that meant that he and Asteria would win, too.

Chapter Text

“It’s a castle,” Harriet said disbelievingly.

“You heard what Snivellus said,” said Sirius. “It’s an abbey. Besides--”

“I wish you wouldn’t call him Snivellus,” she said, annoyed.

“--you live in a castle, Holly-berry. This should be nothing to you.”

She looked away from the rambling stone building on the ridge, abbey or castle or whatever it might be, to frown at Sirius, who was gazing off into the distance and looking a bit like a romance novel hero. Maybe one who’d been wasting away in prison for twelve years. When she stayed silent, he cut a glance at her; or at least, at the patch of air where she stood, under the Cloak.

“All right, all right. Sniv says it’s an abbey.”

Harriet wished he could see her rolling her eyes. “I don’t own Hogwarts, I just board there. That belongs to Malfoy’s cousins.”

“Yeah, well, I’m sure they’re a pack of thugs and ghouls. You’re better off as you are.”

“You can’t judge people’s families by the fact that they’re gits. I’ve got the Dursleys for relatives, and you’ve got. . .” She thought of his mum’s portrait, and of Reg’s dusty shrine to Voldemort. “. . . the Malfoys.”

Sirius gave a barking laugh. “Too right. When’d you get so wise?”

“Must be an accident.”

She checked her watch. Snape had been gone a good half hour. She reckoned he’d be quick enough at getting the story out of Malfoy’s relatives, gits or no; Snape could turn any conversation into an interrogation. He wouldn’t waste time on chit-chat.

Sirius still wore the stranger’s face; the man had a cloud of curly black hair that fell into his eyes, which he kept flicking out of the way. Harriet could only be detected by a flattening of the grass where she stood under the shelter of the overhanging trees, down on a lower hillside from the abbey-castle that loomed on the ridge above.

Clearly bored, Sirius turned into Padfoot and snuffled around the edge of the trees. Rather bored herself, she had nothing to do but watch him dig up mushrooms and listen to the murmur of a river that unfolded sharply down the cliff-face ahead, almost in a waterfall.

Then Padfoot’s ears cocked forward and he pivoted to stare into the woods. Skin prickling, Harriet followed his stare, wondering if it were Snape. . . but Sirius was acting cautious, not antagonistic.

Then with a growl, he shot into the trees. Harriet jumped up, a softly cursing patch of quick-moving air, and darted after him.

Severus was shown into a long room with tall windows that overlooked a placid lake below, so still that cloud reflections passed across its surface, golden in the setting sun. Though an abbey initially, the house had been worked on in the intervening centuries. Carven mantels, gold leaf on the mouldings, and the kind of light, airy decor that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a French palace, all conspired to hint that he, a stranger in Muggle clothes, was only an intruder on their elegance.

From the ceiling-high windows, he couldn’t see the wood where Black and Harriet waited. He hoped Black would have the sense not to go exploring on his own, or that he’d listen to his goddaughter enough to stay put if the itch should arise. He’d been suspiciously tractable so far, almost content to follow Harriet’s lead as if he had no greater desire or care. After learning to anticipate Black being as bull-headed as possible, it left Severus with a feeling of deep suspicion. 

He turned from the window, out of which he’d been glaring without seeing, at the clicking of the doorknob.

A fair-haired woman in Continental wizard fashion stepped into the room; Severus supposed her to be Madame de Massard. Her hands were twisted together at her waist; her eyes flicked over him with both anxiety and disdain. He was still wearing the face of the stranger, a man he’d briefly encountered on a street once; it would not due to advertise who he really was.

“You’re Narcissa’s proxy?” she asked, her voice a mix of fear and contempt.

She should worry, if Narcissa had sent him with more than a message. He declined to allay her fears.

“I am,” he said coldly, producing Narcissa’s emerald signet ring.

She swiped it from his hand, turning it over with a kind of desperation that said she didn’t want it to be real. Mouth twisting, she thrust it back.

“They were out with the others for a picnic in the woods when they disappeared. That was three days ago. We’ve combed the forest but found nothing--”

“Have someone take me to the exact place,” he said, stowing the ring back in his jacket. “If I were satisfied with your searches, I wouldn’t be here. Who’s missing with Draco?”

“Astoria Greengrass.”

It didn’t surprise Severus that she didn’t even know the name of the girl gone missing, who was also her guest. Harriet wouldn’t be happy -- neither to learn that her friend was the one in apparent danger, nor to find her so little valued. She’d probably have been hugely rude about it, in the particular way only a Gryffindor could be.

“Igor will show you the place,” Madam de Massard said curtly. “Wait here and he will be sent.”

Igor, really? thought Severus as she left the room. And will he look like an extra in Young Frankenstein?

The doorknob clattered again; he was just thinking that, whatever else, the de Massards weren’t keen on keeping him waiting, when Daphne Greengrass slipped in.

“You’re--here to look for Draco?” she said in a rush, as if she’d run at the door. Her hair, nearly always styled obsessive perfection, was only carelessly pulled back, and she was twisting a scrap of lace between her hands.

“And Asteria Greengrass,” he said. “Yes.”

She started to say something, but the door rattled open again, revealing a face that would have shown up for a casting call of haunted house butlers, swathed in a dark hood.

“Begging your pardon, miss,” he said, bowing. “I’m to show Mister Withers to the place. Igor, sir,” he added to Severus, who would’ve suspected a joke was being played on him, except for knowing that any cousins of Lucius’ didn’t have a sense of humor.

Miss Greengrass nodded, twisting the lace so hard Severus thought it would break. He walked past her without speaking or giving her any comfort; she couldn’t know who he was. If it should get back to the Dark Lord that he’d gone gallivanting off to the Continent with Sirius Black and Harriet Potter, he might not escape with his life. Miss Greengrass’ fears could not be allayed.

But he’d bring her sister back, and that would be worth far more than empty words of sympathy.

“Padfoot!” Harriet hissed as her cloak tangled in a bush for the umpteenth time.

Padfoot’s bark echoed off in the trees. Fed up, Harriet yanked the cloak off, stuffed it into her bag, and took off running after him. So much for stealth; but trying to hurry invisible through a forest was futile as hell. She was sure she’d been about as undetectable as a flying brick.

She skidded to a halt in a small clearing -- really, more of a gap in the trees as they met the rock-face -- and almost tripped over Padfoot.

He changed back into a human -- back into Sirius.

“Oy!” Harriet pointed at him. “The Polyjuice--”

He put a hand to his face, feeling his own whiskers with surprise, and dug into his jacket pocket for his flask. “Ah, shit, I forgot it doesn’t mix with the transformation.”

“Why’d you take off?”

“Thought I smelled something -- or someone. Dung. That’s the bastard who popped off and left you to get kidnapped,” he said darkly when she only looked confused. “Had to happen on his watch, bloody useless--” He grimaced as he drank the Polyjuice down. Harriet wanted to grimace, too, at the way his face bubbled and warped like melting wax.

“Why would Dung be all the way out here? And who names their kid Dung?”

Unfamiliar and curly-haired again, Sirius snickered. “Mundungus Fletcher -- that’s his real name.”

“That’s almost as bad.”

“Can’t say you’re wrong.” He stowed the flask in his jacket and reached out to push aside a low-hanging branch. “Anyway, let’s explore. That cave wall isn’t really there.”

“How do you know?” She followed him up to it, staring as his hand sunk straight into the rock.

“Padfoot smelled it,” he said with a satisfied smile. “People have been here -- badly washed people. Stick with me, kiddo. I don’t think we’re going to find good company in here.”

He sounded pleased, but Harriet couldn’t say she shared his enthusiasm.

Wand in hand, she ducked into the cave. The rock illusion passed across her skin like spiderwebs. It occurred to her, a moment later, that maybe that part was real; but when she touched her face, it was clean.

The air inside the cave folded over her, cool and damp; she remembered the waterfall and caught the faint thrum of rushing water, echoing endlessly in the dark. She thought about putting the Cloak back on, but figured if it was hard to run in, it would be even harder to fight. She’d never tried before, which suddenly felt like an oversight.

“Hm,” Sirius murmured as they came to a split in the path. When he raised his Lumos-lit wand, shadows scurried up the walls. She’d never quite seen shadows move like that.

Curious, she passed her wand close to one wall, and then recoiled. “Shite!”

“Catacombs.” Sirius held his wand-light close to the skull embedded in the rock-face. “Well, it was an abbey after all. You’d think the idiot cousins would’ve known. But I reckon if it was fixed up long enough ago, they’d have been forgot.”

Harriet didn’t consider herself a nervous person, but a skull leering at her out of a cave wall was a mite unsettling. Then she pictured easily-startled Malfoy trapped down there and almost wanted to laugh. The thought that quickly followed, of Asteria also being surrounded by creepy leering skulls, killed her amusement.

“Let’s try this,” said Sirius. “Homnum revelio.”

He swung his arm in a wide arc, rippling the spell along the rough-hewn stairs that curved off to right and left. Harriet shifted, wondering how badly Snape would go off on them when he returned to the meeting place only to find them gone.

Wind carded through her hair; the spell’s return. Sirius pointed to the right.

“This-a-way, Holly-berry. Once more unto the breach, or close the wall up with our English dead.”

“I think our friend Skully here shows that’s already happened.”

Sirius grinned over his shoulder. “Follow your spirit, and upon this charge, cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’”

“How about we try being quiet instead?” she said under her breath.

She shadowed him up the track, their wandlight shivering over the watching bones.

Severus followed Igor across the well-tended grounds closest to the house, then further out the bordering wood, and finally into the cool thickness of the trees, where the shadows grew in the drooping twilight. Severus’ intent was to scope out the spot where Igor led him, then send the man on his way and contact Black. The fewer people who knew he wasn’t alone, even if he and Black were disguised, the better. Especially since Black was likely to do something very stupid.

The path they walked through the trees was one that people would probably call “charming.” It straggled along a stream, black in the gloaming, beneath low-hanging trees crusted with pale blots of flowers. Here and there the remains of a pillar or wall gleamed out of the blue twilight; he wondered whether they had really belonged to an ancient building, or if they’d been added later to give the impression.

“Here, sir,” said Igor as they reached a large clearing into which the path fed. Larger ruins formed a picturesque backdrop, making Severus certain they’d been added on. “Miss de Massard and Miss Greengrass were most insistent that this was where the party broke up, and where Miss Asteria and young Master Malfoy disappeared.”

Severus approached one of the fallen pillars, overgrown with moss. “What other information did they give?”

“Mrs. Wenceslas and Mr. Wenceslas were arguing,” said Igor. His voice never changed; everything came and went with a calm that had to be hiding something. “He struck off into the trees -- away from the water, said Miss Greengrass -- and his wife followed. Miss Greengrass went after them, and Miss de Massard and her sister simply wandered away to pick flowers. They insisted that Miss Asteria and Master Malfoy were here when they left. But upon returning, they were gone.”

“And everyone did return? They didn’t go back to the house without them?”

“Yes, for Master Malfoy had one of the picnic baskets.” Igor’s expression didn’t say that he believed their selfishness carried far enough only to notice Draco’s whereabouts in relation to the food he should have had, but Severus would think t for him. “It disappeared with him.”

“What else?”

“That is all that was reported. They thought perhaps that Master Malfoy had gone back to the house, but when they reached it, he was quite absent and no one had seen a hair of him, nor of Miss Asteria.”

“And what answers have been offered for their disappearance?”

“None, sir.” Igor’s face was still opaque. “No one can account for it.”

Briefly Severus considered compelling him to tell what he was hiding. But he would prefer not to waste his time, and instinct told him Igor’s reticence fell in with protecting the family secrets. They wouldn’t have contacted Narcissa at all if they’d wanted to hide Draco’s disappearance; whatever they were being cagey about, it was likely to be nothing more than some minor embarrassment -- infidelity, perhaps.

And if it weren’t, there would be time for wringing answers out of them all once the children were safe with him.

“You may go,” he said. “I will conduct my own search.”

“You may have need of my help, sir.”

“What help can you provide me, if you know nothing more and have accomplished nothing so far? I work far better alone than plagued by assistants. Go.”

Igor bowed and departed, his black hood folding into the trees. Severus waited several minutes, then cast the Revealing Spell; but Igor was now distant, more than halfway back to the house. No one else registered, and the forest breathed unsullied around him.

He strode across the clearing, casting spells at the earth, searching for footprints, for evidence of the ground disturbed. This would be easier to do with more light, but he couldn’t afford to wait till morning. If the children were injured, without food, or in greater danger, he didn’t have time to kick around at the family mansion. The necessity of traveling like a Muggle to avoid tracing or detection, from the danger of jury-rigging one’s own international Portkey, a feat which only a fool would undertake, had left Draco on his own for a day longer than Severus would have preferred.

His spell pinged back at him: there was something under the ground.

A few more spells ascertained that there was a patch of ground about five feet wide and three feet across which had an oddness about it. It was perfectly rectangular. A door?

Idiots! Severus thought furiously, and sliced the earth open. So preoccupied with searching the surrounding forest, they hadn’t bothered to explore the possibility that the children had disappeared because of the clearing, not simply from it.

The ground dropped open; a patch of blackness, deeper than the encroaching night, yawned in the grass. He cast a spell to gauge the distance down; three meters. Swinging himself down into the hole, he cast a Featherlight Spell on himself and touched the dirt below uninjured.

His wandlight showed the remains of a staircase that once had led from the door overhead. Shells gaped out of the walls, and on the ground lay the litter of a picnic basket. They had definitely been here -- down in the catacombs.

“Witless, fucking--” he hissed. If the de Massards had known the history of their own bloody house, they’d have known these passages existed -- would have known where to start looking.

Well, Draco and Asteria were here no longer.

(Draco didn’t like dark or narrow places; he’d likely be a nervous wreck.)

Another Revealing Spell disappeared into the darkness beyond the only doorway in that ancient, dusty room. Over thirty seconds later, the faintest trace returned to Severus. There was someone else down here, but far away.

Lumos before him, he stepped into the tide of darkness.

Draco woke up with a pounding head and the taste of old socks in his mouth. The fact that there was something that also felt like old socks in his mouth didn’t improve his mood.

He could hear muffled voices but couldn’t see anything. A moment later -- once he was able to cobble some sense together from the pounding of his head -- he realized this was because he was wearing a bag over it.

Indignation warred with terror. He was a Malfoy!

A treacherous little voice pointed out that this didn’t seem to matter in any way that was going to benefit him.

In his memory, Plug Ugly leered out of the dark. “So you’re the Malfoy kid, ey? I heard your pa’ll pay a pretty Sickle and Knut for you--”

Voices filtering through the cotton wool in his head -- and over it, though that seemed more like vinegar-stinking hemp -- only confirmed what Plug Ugly had said.

“. . . send a message. . .” said a thickly accented voice. But it was the sort of accent that would have made his mother’s hair stand on end. Plug Ugly had spoken in French, but this man was clearly English. That didn’t seem right. “Family’ll pay, Malfoy heir as he is.”

“You’re here because that didn’t work out too well for ya, Fletcher,” said a second voice, also in English. “You were tellin’ Duke here--”

“That were different, all right?” said Fletcher, whoever he was. “That were Harriet Potter, she’s got everyone on her tail.”

Draco’s heart, as well as several other organs, jolted. Potter? he thought desperately, then wondered why he bothered. It wasn’t as if you could summon her by the sound of her name.

“This Malfoy kid’s been down here for days, you can tell by a whiff of him. Nobody’s lookin’, or at least nobody’s finding him.”

“Those’re two different things, Dung,” said a third voice.

“Yeah, well, they both mean he’s all alone and there’s no one as can interfere, right?” said Fletcher, or was it Dung? Whoever he was, Draco hated him; Dung suited him perfectly. “We got leeway.”

“Not sure how I feel about takin’ on another o’your bright ideas, Dung,” said Third Voice.

“Shut it, Duke, it’s got nothing to do with you. I’m talkin’ to Rocky, all right?”

“It’s not just me you’ve got to convince, Dung,” said Rocky. “Duke’s in this just as much as I am. And Gaston, though he’s nursin’ his head--”

A horribly familiar groan sounded: it was Plug Ugly. “That little bitch -- when I get my hands on her--”

“You’ve said,” said Duke, not sounding terribly sympathetic.

Asteria’s not here! Draco felt a little ashamed that he hadn’t thought of her before now, but his head was killing him, and it was better that she wasn’t; she could rescue him. She’d already revealed hidden, rather alarming depths--

“The truth is we need money,” Duke said. “Radigan’s not going to wait forever. He’s known for not waiting. We can either ransom the kid off, which’ll take time, or we can bring him to Radigan and let him decide what he wants. That’s got my vote.”

“‘Course it got your vote, you’re the one thought of it,” said Dung. His voice had got closer to Draco, who very much wished it hadn’t.

“Shut it, Dung,” said Rocky. “I agree with Duke. Your plan’ll take too long, there’s too much chance it’ll go wrong. We take the kid straight to Radigan -- only we should take ‘em both -- the girl too, once we find her.”

“I’ve got a better idea,” said a completely new voice, one Draco didn’t recognize at all.

And the darkness flared with spell-light.

Draco yelped around his old sock and did his best to roll out of the way. It was hard when he was bound hand and foot and blinded by a bag, as well as having no idea which would be the best direction to roll. Behind the latticed cloth of the bag, crimson and blue, green and black, white and yellow lights flew. looped and exploded; the thugs yelled and stampeded; down on the ground, Draco was praying no one would trample him--

Then someone hauled him up, a strangling hand on his throat, and Rocky bellowed, “I’ll cut his throat! I will, you fucking--”

And then his grip slackened and fell away, followed moments later by a thump. Draco sagged to the cold damp earth, whimpering around his rag.

Then the bag was being dragged off his head, and he was squinting up at Harriet Potter.

“Afternoon, Malfoy,” she said, reaching up to pull out the rag. “You’ve looked better.”

“P--” He coughed, spitting, as if that could get out the taste of old socks. “Potter?!”

“One and only,” she said. She was dressed like a Muggle; her hair was, as usual, a cross between a ruffled crow and a hedgehog; she looked, in short, the way she always did, like she went around thwarting gangs of criminals every day.

The cave had gone silent, the flashing lights died away. It might have happened while Draco was busy gaping up at Potter; he couldn’t be sure. But looking around, he saw the criminals being bound up in spell-ropes by a tall, curly haired, dark-skinned man he’d never seen before in his life. As he surveyed the bodies at his feet, his expression was distinctly satisfied and not at all nice. That was good -- nice people were hardly good rescuers. But what was a man like that doing with Potter, of all people? And what was Potter doing here?

“So that’s the Malfoy kid,” Tall Dark Stranger said, peering at Draco as he trod heavily on one of the criminals to cross over to Potter. “Looks like a mini-Lucius.”

“Can someone untie me?” Draco snapped, and then felt stupid as he realized Potter was already slicing apart the ropes binding his legs.

“Where’s -- is it Asteria or Daphne who was with you?” Potter asked. “They said she got away.”

“You were just standing around listening?” Draco said, deeply offended.

“Where’s the girl?” said Tall Dark Stranger, ignoring him with the kind of crushing disdain Draco had often seen Snape level at Gryffindors. He didn’t much care for having it leveled at himself.

“I--well, I don’t know, do I?” he asked peevishly. His head was pounding, his wrists and ankles stinging, his joints aching, his cheekbone throbbing, his throat shrieking with thirst, and his stomach gaping like a bottomless pit. “They attacked us in one of the corridors -- I was knocked out -- Asteria must have run.” The conviction that this was just what he would have done had their positions been reversed warred with resentment that she’d left him.

“She wouldn’t have,” Potter said, echoing Tall Dark Stranger’s contempt. “Something must’ve happened to her, or she thought you were with her when she got away.”

“And I can tell Malfoy here’s gonna be useless in finding her,” said Tall Dark Stranger, whom Draco immediately renamed Potter’s Rude Sidekick. “Guess we’ll have to find the information from another quarter.”

He pointed his wand at one of the criminals, who stirred, groaning.

“Hey there, Dung.”

“Whuh?” said Dung -- finally, a face, like a Basset hound’s, to the name. “Who’re you?” he said blearily.

“Call me Stubby,” said Tall Dark Stranger, who looked nothing like a Stubby. “And tell me where the girl is.”

“What girl?” said Dung unconvincingly.

“The one you’re going to tell me how to find,” said Stubby pleasantly, “if you don’t want me to choke you with your own necklace.” He tugged out of Dung’s shirt a heavy-looking locket and started to twist it idly around from the bottom of the chain upwards.

Draco felt a twinge of unease mixed with respect. He darted a look at Potter, to see how she took this; surely a Gryffindor shouldn’t be all right with a threat that would clearly be carried out. She was gazing at Stubby seriously, almost gravely, but she didn’t step forward, didn’t tell him to stop. Interesting.

“Don’t know,” Dung stammered. “Don’t--”

Stubby didn’t say anything, just kept twisting the chain, his eyebrows raised above a pleasant smile.

“Don’t know, she got away,” Dung said desperately. “Found the Malfoy boy in the catacombs, Priest’s Way, but there were some fightin’, and the lights went out, and when we got ‘em back up the girl’d scarpered.”

Stubby wrapped the chain securely around his fist and pulled as he stood. Swaying and staggering, Dung hopped to his feet, wheezing.

“Which way?” Stubby asked.

“Th-through that door,” said Dung, nodding frantically at a gaping doorway carved out of the rock wall.

The ropes around his legs lengthened; not enough to let him free, but enough to let him approximate something like walking.

“Lead on, Dung,” said Stubby in a friendly voice.

Dung gazed beseechingly at Potter, who stared back, cold and stony silent. Draco liked her better then than he ever had, though that wasn’t saying much. It was really more of a slight lessening of dislike.

Stubby twisted the chain and said, “Lead. On.”

Draco didn’t want to go back into those bloody creepy catacombs, but he wanted even less to be left alone. If Potter and Stubby were going there, he would too.

“Here,” said Potter suddenly, bumping his arm with something.

He looked down at half of a wrapped sandwich, and for just a moment, almost positively liked her.

The Revealing Spell was pinging back more strongly at him now. Ahead some quarter of a mile, he was picking up the traces of a veritable pack of people. But he would not rush. This place might be booby trapped, or he might overlook something important. . .

The roaring of distant water, folding endlessly over itself in the echoes, became all that he heard as he passed through the next doorway.

No -- not all.

“Please!” a small, frightened voice called over the water. “Please, can anyone hear me?”

He recognized it, almost instantly, as Asteria Greengrass’ voice. For a moment he wondered if she were lying in wait, hoping to fool one of those blips on his spell’s radar.

“I can hear you, Miss Greengrass,” he called back -- then frowned as the Revealing Spell showed him nothing.

“Down here!”

The water -- the river. It had carved a trench through the rock over the centuries and rushed some meters below the ground on which he walked. He stood at the edge -- carefully, for the rock was uneven and slick with water -- and shining the light down, saw Asteria Greengrass’ tearstained, frightened face squinting up at him.

“I’ve -- did you say my name?” she asked desperately.

“I’ve been sent by your sister.” He aimed the light around, looking at the place where she lay: a slim outcropping of the shelf below, the water rushing close below her. She must have been lying there in a high state of fear and nerves, unable to move for fear of slipping in; the shelf was very narrow, and her clothes and hair were damp. She’d either touched the water or been drenched by the close backsplash. “You fell?”

“Yes, I tried to get away, but it was too dark, and I’d lost my wand, and the ground suddenly dropped away -- I’ve broken my leg, I think, I’ve been unable to get out -- ”

A burst of noise dragged Severus’ attention away from her, to one of the openings in the skull-studded walls that served for doorways in this place.

“Keep quiet,” he said to Miss Greengrass, and dropped a concealing spell over himself.

Light wavering against the darkness beyond the doorway -- a clamor of voices -- and then Mundungus bloody Fletcher came half-shuffling, half-hopping, around the bend -- led as if on a leash by Sirius fucking Black -- no, really on a leash, for Black had some kind of chain wrapped around Fletcher’s neck and the end gripped in his own hand. Severus had a moment to be enraged, but only a moment: Harriet walked behind them, next to Draco.

Incensed at having his instructions so completely disregarded, yet viciously triumphant at getting everything he came for and more, Severus cut the Concealing Spell at once.

At the sight of a stranger appearing out of thin air, Fletcher yelped and jumped back, tripped over Black’s feet, and fell on his own face. Black looked supremely unconcerned.

“Hey, Sniv,” he said. “Fancy meeting you here.”

Harriet’s expression was so eloquent of her irritation that Severus forbore to hex him, at least for now. He’d get to it later. Draco, after glancing once at him, had returned to sucking on the piece of cellophane that had wrapped up the last half of Harriet’s sandwich.

“Asteria Greengrass is down here,” Severus said, gesturing over his shoulder.

Harriet didn’t even wait to yelp ‘What?’ before running across the room.

“Careful!” Severus snapped when she skidded; visions of her plunging over the side crowded into his head, and he grabbed her arm before he thought better of it. He let go as if burned a second later and turned away from her pointed, yet unreadable stare.

Crouching next to the edge, she put her attention where it was much better off. “Are you all right?” she called down, like she couldn’t believe Asteria could be.

“Harriet?!” She sounded near tears. “How did you--”

“Long story -- well, not really, but it doesn’t matter now. How do we get her up?” She looked up at Severus, no glance or appeal to her darling godfather. Of course, it could have been simply because he was literally right there.

“First, I need to get down. She says she’s broken her leg. That needs to be seen to before we move her.”

The trench walls, carved over centuries by the water, were smooth and slippery; spells for lightness and stability assisted him down, though he wouldn’t tell anyone how close he came, once, to slipping and falling straight into the water. Once on the shelf, he and Asteria had hardly any room. She tried to squash herself against the wall to make more space, but went white as she jostled her own leg.

Crouching so he could take a look at her leg was just as difficult. He finally had to cast a sticking spell on his shoes so he wouldn’t slip off or overbalance. The river water misted his clothes and hair, even colder than he’d imagined.

“All right?” Harriet called from above.

“Yes -- don’t interrupt.”

She didn’t reply, but her wand-light remained steady overhead; she stayed put. He could faintly, over the roar of the water, make out Black and Draco arguing. He tuned the idiots out.

Asteria’s leg was indeed broken. He splinted it for fixing when they were on wider, more stable ground.

“Get--” Ugh, Black and his asinine nicknames “--Stubby,” he called up.

“What’s up?” Black’s voice filtered down a moment later; Harriet didn’t waste time.

“I’m going to send Miss Greengrass up to you. Be careful.”

“Of course I’ll be careful.” Black’s tone was kind enough that Severus thought he must be reassuring his goddaughter.

That’d be once in your life, he thought.

“It’s a Featherlight Spell,” he said to Asteria, who hadn’t uttered a sound but was plainly thinking that being ‘sent up’ didn’t sound like her idea of a pleasant use of the next minute or so. “He’ll catch you and bring you onto higher ground.”

She nodded, though more like she wanted to appear reassured than actually being so.

“Thank you,” she whispered, then pressed her lips together and shut her eyes. They came open again immediately as he cast the spell and lifted her, as if she found floating without seeing infinitely worse.

Up she went; once she was level, Black caught her and drew her over the ledge, out of sight. Harriet and her light disappeared from immediate view as she moved with her friend. Severus unstuck his feet and re-cast the spells to take him back up the wall; it was damp and freezing down on that bloody river. Harriet reappeared overhead, shining her light down, as if making sure he hadn’t fallen in.

Above, someone yelped; Black roared, “DUNG!” Harriet tried to turn quickly around, and her foot slipped off the treacherous ledge. Severus froze, pain suddenly tingling through him like an electrical current as the Vow awoke.

She caught herself on the edge, landing on her stomach, tried to get a foot up, but slipped farther; must have tried to grab onto the ground but found it too smooth and slippery; Asteria cried, “Harriet!” In a sudden panic -- how he could keep his head when faced with the Dark Lord but go to pieces when Harriet did anything foolish or dangerous -- Severus lost his footing and hit the shelf below with a curse, knocking his head against the wall and slipping half into the water before he caught himself.

Harriet cried out, “Oy, are you--shit!” and lost her grip completely. He couldn’t get to his wand fast enough, barely caught her in time, almost didn’t save her from hitting the solid rock shelf from that high a height -- the jolt of the added weight and the impact of the fall knocked him completely lose from the shelf--

And the water hit him like a freezing wall as they overbalanced and crashed into the river.

Chapter Text

“Harriet!” Asteria cried as Potter dropped out of sight. Draco heard the horrible splash, even over the thrum of the water.

Asteria tried to stand and fell back on her splinted leg, crying out; Draco was rooted to the spot; even Dung groaned, where he lay on the ground after Stubby had hexed him into the wall.

“HARRIET!” Stubby roared, and leapt over the edge after her.

Wait!” Draco yelled.

“Oh no, what’s he done?” Asteria gasped.

“He’s--” Draco shone his wand over the edge, down into the rushing gorge below. There was no one there, no one at all. “Gone and jumped in the bloody river!”

What? Is Harriet--”

“I can’t see her or that other bloke!” Shaking, Draco tottered over to her, sitting down in a puddle and not even caring. Asteria's wet hair hung in yellow ropes around her white, taut face. He probably didn’t look any better. “Our rescuers just abandoned us.”

“Harriet never abandoned us!” Asteria said fiercely. “She’s just -- that’s what happened to me, I fell--”

“Well, now she’s in need of rescuing herself, looks like.” It was decidedly unfair. Potter was supposed to be the rescuer, not the other way around. If Potter could slip and fall into rivers, what good would they be? And they’d been left alone with that despicable Dung. . .

Draco got up and wobbled over to Dung, who was mumbling under his breath, looking barely half-conscious as he lay prone on the floor. The locket Stubby had been using as a leash dangled down by his ear.

Draco hefted the locket in his hand. It was heavy and gold, stubbled with tiny emeralds. As he cradled it, something seemed to whisper through him, like the thread of an old spell he’d heard his mother murmuring in a dark room, the front of her face warmed by a fire, the only light, and all the rest of her in shadow. . .

He felt suddenly as if he knew exactly what to do.

Rennervate,” he whispered.

Dung stirred, groaning piteously. Draco twisted the locket chain hard, digging the links into Dung’s stubbly throat.

His eyes cranked open, streaming, straining blearily up at Draco, who felt a rush of contempt and disgust that steadied him like the last of Potter’s sandwich. “Wha--”

“Get up,” Draco snarled, hauling on the chain so that Dung, wheezing, wriggled upright, falling back and choking as the leash pulled. “You’re taking us out of here.”

“Wh--lemme just--hold on, n-now--”

Draco just kept pulling until Dung found his feet, his Basset-hound face red and his eyes bloodshot. He was miserable and pathetic, a loathsome figure; Draco’s lip curled.

“You can walk, or you can dangle and choke,” Draco said coldly. “Asteria--” He glanced back at her; she’d managed to pull herself up, leaning most of her weight gingerly on her good leg, some emotion in her face that Draco didn’t have time to parse. He could tell it wasn’t important; he dismissed it.

“Try to keep up,” he said.

Turning back to Dung, he jabbed his wand into his back, enjoying the wheeze of pain this earned. He smiled. “Walk -- unless you want to know what curses my father's taught me.”

Shuffling, limping, Dung got moving. His face didn’t look plotting or whinging; on the contrary, he looked unsettled.

Draco’s smile widened. He glanced back again to make sure Asteria was keeping up. She’d moved to the wall, using it to help herself along. Her eyes met his, then slid away.

Shrugging, he turned his attention back to Dung. She was following; that was all that mattered.

The locket was cold in his hand, but it felt. . . pleasant.

Tumbled and battered and freezing, Harriet spun in the water, trying to kick to get her head above the surface, but in the black, rushing river not knowing which way was up--

She slammed into a rock, hard enough to pulverize all the air in her lungs; the rushing water pinned her there, wedged against the stone; she pushed and clawed, needing to get up, to get out; head spinning, mouth full of water, Don’t panic don’t panic drumming at her head like the current--

Something alive, moving, clawed her wrist -- she wrenched her arm around and grabbed on --

Her head broke free of the water, stinging in the cold; through her dripping fringe, she saw Snape’s blanched face hanging over the rock. His hand was a vice on her forearm.

She seized his other hand, and together they hauled her out of the freezing river.

Hacking up water, slopping her hair out of her face, she squinted up at Snape -- and it was Snape, not the Polyjuiced stranger. A bloody gash scraped over a purple bruise on his cheekbone; his black hair hung dripping around his face, like running ink; there was some wild light in his eye, and he was shivering, certainly from the cold, and maybe from the shock of almost drowning.

“How are your glasses still on?” he asked, effectively so inane a comment from Snape that she was worried that blow to his cheek had affected his head.

“. . . I’ve been sticking them on with a charm since the Second Task,” she said after a moment. “Hermione found it for me before. . . before.”

It was brighter in the cave, though still dark, with a light breeze that felt like an arctic blast when you were freezing wet. Some meters away, past the gaping mouth in the rock, the bottomless sky glittered where the river dropped away. They were at the edge of the waterfall she’d stood admiring earlier.

The world spun slowly around her as she stared at the cut-out of the night sky. She pulled her glasses off to rub at her eyes, and scooted around on the rock until her back was to the drop.

Glasses back on, she could look full at Snape. He was staring around at the rippling black river and their rock in the middle like he didn’t know what to do. Seeing him like that was as unsettling as almost going over the waterfall.

It must be the Vow messing with him. Yeah, and she bet he’d really welcome her asking about it. Always glad to talk about himself, was Snape.

“Next time I dunk myself into some water,” she said, testing his mood, “it had better be on a tropical beach.”

Snape just stared at her; not with the silent indignation he drummed up whenever he’d just been handed a truly stupid piece of conversation, but with an absence of mind that from him was downright disturbing.

“You okay?” she asked guardedly. He wouldn’t tell her, but depending on the way he refused to answer--

“I’m never better than when I’ve been plunged into a freezing river and battered around on the rocks.”

She considered whether this sarcasm was evidence that he wasn’t so badly off, but reviewing her memories of badly injured Snapes she’d encountered only made her certain he’d still be a sarcastic bastard even if his leg was falling off.

A deeper scowl than usual darkened his bruised face as he rooted in his jacket; he switched hands to grope in the other side.

“What?” she asked.

“The flask must have fallen out,” he said, in a tone so flat he could’ve shaved with it.

“So you’re stuck as you?”

“Evidently.” He swiped his dripping hair back, wincing as he caught the bruise. His cuff tugged back from his skinny wrist, something she'd only seen once before. Obviously Snape had wrists, but they were always trapped in his robes.

That thin column of skin in motion drew her eyes to the place where the collar of his shirt gaped. It was missing two buttons -- might always have done; she hadn’t noticed before -- and exposed the sharp line of his collarbone. His wet hair was stuck to his neck, strands of inky black fanning over the curve of his throat.

She must’ve hit her head. Hard. Or got too much water up her nose.

She scrubbed her hands up and down her arms, trying to get warm. It was fucking cold high up in the bloody mountains at night, soaked through with cave river water. “So I guess it would be a good idea to get off this rock.”

Snape only grunted -- maybe he was feeling worse than usual -- and pulled out his wand. She couldn’t resist asking her own inane question. “You held onto that, too?”

“I have my own foresight. Though not, apparently, enough for a fool,” he said with heavy disgust.

He looked like Neville had just melted a cauldron in class. She didn’t think she’d ever heard Snape insult himself. She decided the best method of dealing with it was simply to change the subject.

“How are we getting out?” 

“Apparating. To the place where I told you and Black to wait for me.” But then the anger fell away and he looked almost hesitant. It was only a flash; could have been a trick of moonlight on the water or a shifting cloud in the star-studded sky. “You remember what to do, I trust?”

She thought of a summer three years ago when he’d held out his arm and she’d gingerly wound her fingers in his sleeve, thinking of those Ravenclaws researching whether he was the meanest teacher in the world. She felt like she was looking over the edge of the waterfall again, thinking how much had happened since then, how much she could add to that study and never would.

She put out her hand. His hesitation was hardly there, except in her knowing how decisive he was at any other time.

His skin was cold from the river. A moment later, the crushing pressure of Apparition snatched her into a tunnel of wind and sound, streaked with moonlight and swirling blackness.

She was swaying on the bank below the waterfall, the river pounding down the cliff behind her. Snape snatched his hand away without any of his usual composure. She tucked her freezing hands into her jacket, wishing it did a damn bit of good when your jacket was wet through.

Snape started to turn away, then faced her again with a look of deep reproach. She was just wondering what she possibly could’ve done when he pointed his wand at her. He couldn’t be about to hex her--

A warm breeze folded over her, evaporating all the water from her clothes and hair. Her glasses steamed; she had to pull them off and rub them on her now-dry shirt to clear them. By the time they were on again, Snape was waving his wand over himself, a brittle sneer dug into the lines around his mouth, and she understood: he was, once again, angry at himself for not thinking about drying them off earlier.

Choosing ignorance as the wisest route, she asked, “How are we finding Sirius and the others?”

“You know your godfather best,” he said, with as much distaste as if Sirius were the one melting cauldrons. “Where will we find him?”

“Probably how we got into the catacombs. I think it’s this way. . . Everything’s all dark now, though. Looks different.”

She rather expected Snape to sneer something like ‘I hadn’t noticed,’ but all he said was, “Did you take a direction? Did he?”

“No, he was -- following a scent.”

The whites of his eyes flashed in a way that suggested he'd rolled his eyes, but it was too dark to completely tell. She was half-indignant that he’d robbed her of the chance of really seeing it and half wanting to laugh.

“All right,” he said, irritable and weary, his hand going into his jacket again. “I need some materials.”

“What for?”

“To find your way back to-- what’s that?”

Raising his wand, he strode back to the edge of the bank. Harriet jogged after him, straining to hear anything over the roar of the waterfall.

“Is someone up there?” She squinted at the cave-mouth above, where a bright blue light winked out of the darkness. Then her jaw fell open. “That’s--”

“I am fucking going to kill him,” hissed Snape.

I am fucking going to kill him and I’ll enjoy it--

Harriet said, “Let me handle it.”

He was momentarily speechless, and it wasn’t from his aches and pains. “I beg your pardon?”

“You enjoy having a go at each other too much. I’ll talk to him when he--”

With a soft pop, Black appeared dripping wet in the clearing. He was still Polyjuiced, Severus saw with no small amount of resentful fury.

“Holly-berry!” Black grabbed her up in a hug before she could get a word in or out. “Fucking thank Merlin--”

Harriet patted him on the chest as she pushed him back. “Sirius,” she said, a certain steeliness in her tone, “where’s Asteria and Malfoy?”

“I--oh. Back where I left them, maybe.” Black started patting her down. “You’re okay? I barely didn’t bloody drown, I’ll tell you--”

“You just left them? We're supposed to be rescuing them!”

“Now you understand the little value I placed on Black’s being a part of this expedition,” Severus snarled softly.

Harriet sent him a clear ‘What did I say?’ glare; Black wore an edge to his sneer that was as good as a personal signature.

“Sorry to see that ugly conk of yours again, Sniv--ow,” he said, sounding more surprised than hurt, for Harriet had stood on his foot.

“We’re not standing here in the bloody woods in the dead of night so you two can have one of your bloody rows you’re so fond of, Asteria and Draco need us to help them, and that’s what we’re bloody going to do! So you both can stow it, and Sirius, you can take us back to the cave.”

Black blinked; Severus felt less surprised that she could let loose on them than she had, when one of the pair was her darling godfather. Though he had no right to be, he was proud of her -- not even (principally) for going off on Black.

“Right away, kiddo,” said Black calmly, and transformed into the enormous shaggy dog that Severus rather preferred. At least as a mongrel, Black couldn’t talk.

Harriet shot Severus a brief, steaming look as she marched after the dog into the trees. Severus wisely chose silence -- no sacrifice, as his head still felt far too woolly from the Vow and the near-drowning, the gutting scare of barely hauling her out of the river in time. When she'd hit the rock, he'd had only seconds to grab her before the river whipped her away again.

Some protector you are. Some protector you've ever been.

The waterfall thrummed behind him, a heartless, rhythmic taunt.

Harriet fumed as she stomped through the wood after Padfoot, stumbling over uneven patches of ground and whipping her legs into branches and whacking her face with leaves. She was furious at Sirius for leaving Asteria behind, furious at herself for falling in the river, and furious at Snape for being so -- Snape! He could try helping, instead of winding Sirius up. . .

And these stupid fucking trees! They could try pissing off out of the way--

And somehow -- they did. The ground stayed uneven, but it was like the trees and bushes had suddenly decided to gently sway out of her way. She stopped, confused.

“What is it?” Snape asked sharply from behind her. She didn’t jump. She really didn’t.

“I -- the trees are acting weird.” She put up a hand at the low-hanging branch that should have taken a rude shot at her nose and watched in fascination as it drifted back as if caught in a gentle breeze.

“Yes, I know. It’s a charm, Miss Potter. Magic. Beyond N.E.W.T.-level, or you’d be breaking Flitwick’s heart. You can keep moving.”

She blinked at him several times. A snuffling in the underbrush and Padfoot rejoined them, barking a question. She started walking again, staring at the branches that, because of Snape's charm, now folded away from her face, while the bushes softly parted around her knees.

Okay, maybe she’d be a little less mad at him. For a bit.

After maybe ten minutes, the branches lifted away entirely: they’d come to the clearing again where the rock-face met the forest and the entrance was cloaked. Sirius changed back into himself, once again really himself, the Animagus transformation having wiped the Polyjuice out. He grimaced, rubbing his face with both hands.

“Can all that transformation really be good for you?” she asked. Maybe it was just the moonlight, or his own jaunt in the river, but he didn’t look well.

“Probably not, but we haven’t got a real choice--”

Then the question became moot as Dung, Malfoy, and Asteria emerged from the rock-face and Sirius turned around at the noise. Harriet could only watch helplessly as Dung yelped and stumbled into Malfoy, who shouted, “Sirius Black!” in a high-pitched voice closer to a scream and shoved Dung at Sirius, as if trying to distract him or offer him as a sacrifice. He spun around and would’ve shot back into the cave if the illusion of solid rock hadn't brought him up short.

“Wh-where’d it go?” he said frantically.

“Belt up, Malfoy,” Harriet snapped, stepping over Dung (who’d fallen on his face) and catching Asteria by the arm as she swayed. Her face was completely white in the moonlight; Harriet shrugged off her jacket (now dry, thanks to Snape), and pulled it around Asteria.

“Potter! that’s a -- wait.” Malfoy switched the shaking finger he’d been pointing at Sirius (who was standing calmly and silently, arms folded) to Harriet. “He should be trying to kill you!”

“Going to shove me at him next and hope he finishes me off while you make a break for it?” she asked with heavy sarcasm. “He’s not here to kill you, idiot.”

She helped Asteria sit down on a mossy rock. Asteria’s cold, damp hand clung to hers, and her eyes were glued on Sirius, who rocked forward on the balls of his feet but kept silent. If only he could show the same restraint with Snape. Wait, where was Snape anyway? The clearing was empty of him. He’d been right behind her when the last branch cleared.

Malfoy probably shouldn’t know he’s here, on a jolly jaunt with his worse enemies, she thought. Obviously.

“You okay?” she asked, then realized why Asteria was moving so stiffly. “Wait, is your leg still -- Sirius, you didn’t even fix her leg?”

“Didn’t want you to learn this side of me, Holly-berry,” he said, holding his hands out, “but once you get past the spells-flying-take-the-bastards-down bit, I’m shit at rescues.”

Can you fix her leg? Malfoy, don’t even think about running.”

“I wasn’t.” Malfoy sounded affronted. “But why is he calling you -- what did he call you?”

“I’m her godfather,” Sirius said as he crouched down next to Asteria, who drew closer to Harriet. “Which you know, I’m sure, being Narcissa’s brat.”

“I’m not -- ow!” Malfoy stumbled, clutching his knee, as Dung jumped to his feet. He was still bound in his ropes, but he’d got his feet free, and he was charging off into the trees. When Harriet flung a hex at his back, maybe putting a bit more force into it than strictly necessary, he plunged into the bushes head-over-heels with a yelp.

“Good aim, Holly-berry,” Sirius said, spinning his wand in a leisurely loop. Dung was dragged backwards out of the underbrush, leaves and twigs clinging to his ragged hair.

Sirius waved a drying spell over Asteria, swept his wand down her leg to vanish the split and repair the break, and then lit a tidy fire on the ground. Malfoy didn’t seem to know what to do about this. Clearly these were not the actions of a bloodthirsty murderer, or at least he was hoping they weren’t.

“Better?” Harriet asked Asteria, who was flexing her now splint-less leg.

“Yes,” she whispered, so quiet that even holding her hand, Harriet barely heard her.

Dung had ended up at Sirius’ feet. Closer to, Harriet saw his nose was black and blue and his right eye swollen; he looked like he’d been kicked and dragged and tossed around, and she felt suddenly uncomfortable and rather sad. She and Sirius had sneaked up on the kidnappers early enough to overhear Dung implying that he was the one responsible for those two boneheads, Fink and Nottle, finding her -- he’d been planning to sell off Malfoy, and Asteria too -- but they didn’t have to treat anyone like this.

“Can I talk to you?” she asked Sirius.

“One tic,” he said, and hit Dung with what was probably a full Body Bind, from the way he went rigid.

“You stay there, Malfoy,” she said when he looked like he was going to follow them.

“Oh I’m sorry, Potter, I didn’t realize you’d been appointed the boss of me--”

“Better late than never. I’ll be right back,” she to Asteria, squeezing her hand, and left Malfoy muttering under his breath.

“What’s up?” Sirius asked once they’d reached the edge of the trees, a position where they wouldn’t be overheard but could still keep an eye on the others.

“We should stop treating Dung like a sack of -- well, you know. It’s not good,” she said, when he only stared at her with a kind of waiting expression. “We’re better than that.”

He wore a faint, funny smile. “Maybe you are, kiddo. I’m afraid I never made it that far. That Malfoy snot certainly never did. And as for Sniv -- well, speak of the Devil.”

Harriet almost jumped, realizing Snape was glaring ferociously at them out of the dark tangle of trees.

“Are we supposed to be rescuing the children or having a bloody confab in the woods?” he hissed. He must’ve been fuming at their idiocy and wishing they’d all choke on their wands, unable to come out and tell them off without revealing himself. It had probably been torture.

“Thought you’d’ve Apparated up to the house to get a rescue party,” Sirius said lazily, arms folded.

“He can’t or they’d see it was him,” Harriet said, wanting to add, You know that.

“Take lessons from your goddaughter, Black, on how not to be a fatwit. You’re coming with me up to the house.”

“Why me?”

“You know why,” Harriet said, too exasperated to be polite any longer, “you’re the only other one who can Apparate and you’ve got to know where we’re going.” Sirius sent her a slightly hurt look, but she was dead tired, cold, aching, and annoyed. “Look, we all want to get back where we bloody well belong, don’t we? Asteria hasn’t had anything real to eat in days, I bet, and I gave the last of my sandwich to Malfoy.”

“All right, all right.” Sirius squeezed her shoulder. “If Sniv’ll show me without Splinching me--”

“You’re lucky the children need you, Black,” said Snape with a snarl, and seizing Sirius’ arm he wrenched them away with a crack.

Harriet waited a few moments in the blessed silence, alone. Snape and Sirius constantly bitching at each other was about as much fun as dealing with Malfoy on a good day. She needed a moment to fortify herself.

But she wouldn't leave Asteria alone with him longer than that. As soon as she was sure she wouldn't knock his teeth into his ear the minute he opened his mouth, she joined them again.

“I can’t believe he’s just let us alone with this thug,” Malfoy was complaining as Harriet sat on the rock next to Asteria, who wound her fingers in Harriet's shirt hem. “He tried to sell us off to some sort of crime lord!”

Don't hex him, don't hex him. “Five minutes ago, you were ready to run off screaming because he’s Sirius Black,” Harriet said. “Now you want him to hold your hand?”

“Don’t be stupid, Potter--”

“H-harriet isn’t the one being stupid,” Asteria said, then looked away when Malfoy startled.

Harriet was extremely proud of her, but decided she’d tell her later. She patted her hand instead, smiling.

“And what happened to that other fellow? The one who fell into the river,” Malfoy said. “And the one who jumped in after you -- Stubby? What are you doing suddenly showing up with Sirius Black--”

“Sirius was Stubby. He was Polyjuiced he just. . .” If Malfoy didn’t know about Padfoot, she wasn’t telling him. “. . . lost his top-up, and it wore off in the river.”

“That was stupid of him,” Malfoy said indignantly.

“It’s called an accident, Malfoy,” she said, annoyed. “Like the one that landed you in the bloody catacombs.”

“If he’s on a rescue mission, he should be better at what he’s doing. We had to get ourselves out of the cave!”

“I seem to remember taking out a pack of thugs for you -- untying you, feeding you a sandwich -- sorry, I ran out,” she said to Asteria, who only smiled and shook her head.

“And now I have to keep company with this thieving, stinking, kidnapping lout,” Malfoy said, waving a hand at Dung, who seemed to have decided the best option was steady silence. Or perhaps it was the Body Bind curse keeping him quiet. Oops.

She de-hexed him. He took several gulping breaths, like there had been some pressure on his lungs.

“What did you do that for!” Malfoy said accusingly.

Don't hex him, DON'T hex him. “He’s bloody well tied up, leave off!"

“Good! He had me tied up, when he was planning to sell me off to please his thug of a boss. And what did he need to sell me for, when he had this?” he asked, lifting the locket.

Harriet had to admit it was a fair question: the locket was expensive-looking, gold with a glittering emerald 'S.'

“I’m sorry,” Dung gasped, “I didn’t mean no harm, it were only an idea--”

“Somehow, I think you’re lying.” Malfoy started twisting the chain as Sirius had done; Dung stared up at him with wide eyes.

“Knock it off, Malfoy,” Harriet said sharply.

He only sneered at her. “Going to put me in my place, then, Potter?”

Harriet narrowed her eyes. Malfoy didn’t look away. His eyes were almost all pupil in the firelight, only a thin ring of silver round the rim. A sharp darkness limned his face. . . and a whisper shivered through her, like the sibilant hiss of a cold wind through black trees. Something thrummed between them, a pulse that sent some feeling, black and vaporous, growing, unfurling, curling out of her--

H-harriet?” Asteria’s hand clamped on her shoulder.

Harriet jerked, heart hammering, shaking all over; Malfoy dropped the locket and fell backwards on his bum. Even Dung was gaping.

“What--” he wheezed. “What--”

“It’s that thing!” Asteria clung to Harriet, pointing a shaking finger at the locket. “It’s got some curse on it, it must have, Draco was acting so strange when he touched it--”

“A curse?” Dung yelped. “Get it orf!”

“If it’s cursed I’m not touching it again!” Malfoy scrambled up, shooting to the other side of the fire. “That was--I don’t know what that was, but it was creepy!”

“Oh, for--” Harriet said impatiently. “Accio locket!”

The locket stayed where it was around Dung’s neck. He twisted his head to stare at it.

“Sometimes things are spelled so they can’t be Summoned,” Malfoy said uneasily, instead of making fun of her shoddy spellcasting. He must’ve really been rattled.

“Fine.” She leaned over Dung, and ignoring the whisper of nervousness and maybe something else (not something else, just do it) she grabbed the locket and pulled the chain over his head, then dropped it on the ground. The urge to wipe her hand on her trousers was unpleasantly strong.

Asteria crept up next to her. Draco shuffled a little closer, and Dung wriggled himself into a sitting position. They all stared at the eerie gold thing lying in the dirt.

“That’s Slytherin’s symbol,” Malfoy said quietly.

When Harriet glanced at Asteria, she nodded. “It’s all over the common room.”

They all looked at Dung. He squirmed.

“I found it at--” He coughed and wheezed. “At--oh, you know! That--”

It was like he couldn’t say it, but why. . .

Grimmauld Place. It was under Fidelius; he couldn’t name it with Malfoy and Asteria there.

“All right, I get it,” Harriet said. “So you did steal it.”

“It were only being thrown out,” he said pleadingly. “I thought, this looks valuable, I can fence it -- only when I put it on, for some reason I didn’t want to get rid of it. . .” He shuddered and huddled in his ropes. “She’s right, it’s gort to be cursed. Me, wanting to keep something like that? The Malfoy kid’s right, I coulder sold it off and been clear of Radigan now!”

“You’re lucky it didn’t do anything worse than that,” Harriet said angrily. “When Sirius gets back--”

“He’s back.” They all jumped as he came striding out of the trees. “Taking you two back up to the house now. Holly-berry, you’ll stay here with our associate.”

She figured he meant Snape, particularly by the way he sneered it. Of course, Malfoy and Asteria would think he meant Dung.

“Thank you,” Asteria whispered, pressing Harriet’s jacket back into her hands. When she leaned in to hug Harriet, she said in an even lower voice, “Be careful of that locket, Harriet. I don’t know what’s in it, but it’s dangerous.”

Harriet nodded her understanding. “I’m glad you’re okay.”

Asteria smiled, but it vanished when she look at Sirius, standing a few paces away.

“He’s not really a mass murderer,” Harriet said in a low voice. “Only an escaped convict.”

Asteria tried a brave smile that time, and accepted his arm to Apparate.

“C’mon, brat,” Sirius said to Malfoy, who was hanging back. “Or I’ll leave you out here.”

“I have a name,” Malfoy muttered, but he shuffled over and let Sirius take his arm.

“Second star to the right and straight on till morning.” Sirius cut a smile at Harriet and Apparated.

Snape was out of the trees as soon as they’d vanished with a crack. The top buttons of his shirt were still torn off; he mustn’t have noticed, and Harriet wondered why she had to. There was also a rip at the shoulder of his jacket, which she hadn’t spotted before.

“You and Sirius weren’t off fighting again, were you?”

“We were hardly gone long enough for a good brawl,” he said coldly, glaring down at Dung. “And no one’s said what you’re doing here, Fletcher. Austria is a very unlikely place to find you.”

It was hardly small talk; Snape’s eyes were boring into Dung, who clearly wanted to burrow into the ground as far as he could get. She remembered Snape digging into the heads of Fink and Nottle and was quite sure she was far too tired to prevent a homicide if he learned what Dung had done. They needed a distraction.

“He was wearing this.” She pointed her foot at the locket lying on the grass. The firelight glinted off its face in a funny way, but she couldn’t tell how. Maybe it was just her imagination, an echo of that dark binding . . . thing. “Asteria thinks it’s cursed.”

Snape had taken one look at the locket and sharpened all over. He was already crouching next to it when she added the last, and he cut a glance at her.

“That’s Slytherin’s symbol,” he said with a tinge of surprise.

Dung yelped and tipped forward; Snape had dragged him forward with some spell like a hand twisted in his collar. “Where did you get this?”

“Sirius’ place! It were just being thrown out, nobody wanted it!”

Snape released him with disgust; he fell over on his face, just missing the locket.

“You could all be kinder, you know,” she snapped, hauling Dung up and propping him against the rock.

“Of course,” Snape sneered, “because kindness is my middle name.”

“What’s your first name,” she said under her breath, “Never-heard-of-it?”

Snape gave her a look that said he’d heard that, but for some reason he chose not to reply. He used a spell to raise the locket in the air and passed his wand over it several times, in different formations, saying nothing, but his frown growing deeper, until it had almost set his face in stone.

She sat on the rock beside Dung, waiting. She wouldn’t get anything out of Snape while he was busy. Had Sirius got Asteria and Malfoy back to the abbey-castle yet? She hoped he’d remembered to Polyjuice back, or they’d have a house full of screaming Malfoy relatives. 

“Miss Greengrass was righter than she knew,” Snape said, popping Harriet’s waking nightmare of Austrian Aurors chasing Sirius through the woods.

“What’s it cursed with?”

“I cannot tell.” His scowl creased with vexation; she was surprised he’d admit it. He'd been surprising her a lot tonight. “But there’s certainly something very Dark. And you were wearing this?” he demanded of Dung, who shrank back.

“I didn’t do no harm!”

“Allow me to doubt you,” Snape said. Harriet would, too; Dung had been ready to sell Draco and Asteria to pay off a criminal debt. If he’d been wearing the locket when she’d been abducted by Fink and Nottle (which seemed likely; could have been a good reason for him to flee England once he knew Dumbledore was after him for abandoning his watchpost, too), he could have told them where to find her for the same reason.

But she wasn’t going to tell Snape; he’d explode and take Dung with him. She’d float the idea to Dumbledore when she saw him again, and let him decide.

Snape had pulled the little velvet bag out of his inside coat pocket, the one she'd seen him taking money from on the trip. It was old-fashioned and rather girly, at least by modern standards; she wondered if it was some family heirloom. Using his wand, he dropped the locket inside and cinched the neck closed.

“It won’t hurt you if it’s in there?” she asked doubtfully. “Even if you’re carrying the bag?”

“The bag has some charms to prevent that sort of thing -- though I certainly won’t be prolonging it.” He stowed the bag away and stood. “Now if Black will return to inflict us with his presence, we can get on and leave this miserable place behind us.”

“Are we taking the trains back?”

“I have another method in mind,” he said inscrutably.

He paced round the clearing, saying nothing more. The firelight and shadows tracked across his face as he walked back and forth. Layered with the closed-off grimness of his expression, hewas an almost sinister sight. Only she felt none of the pull, that sibilant affinity between her and Malfoy as they’d fought over the locket, like a chord had been struck far below the ability of human ears to hear.

She shivered, tucking up the collar of her jacket. She should tell Snape about that.

But later. She didn’t fancy Dung listening in.

Only. . . he was snoring. 

"Honestly," she said in disgust, getting up from the rock. She picked a place by the fire and hung her hands over it to warm them.

"He doesn't deserve your kindness."

Snape's voice made her jump again, though it wasn't loud and she hadn't forgot he was there; it was more the sudden coldness of it.

"It's not about deserving," she said, watching the fire turn the tips of her fingers translucent. "Or maybe it is. I dunno, it's --people shouldn't be treated like they don't matter, like they're disposable."

Snape didn't say anything, only moved closer to the fire and stood with his arms folded, his eyes tracking across the dark trees and the rock face. Harriet tucked her hands beneath her legs, watching the fire. . . and Snape.

"I felt something, when Malfoy was holding the locket." She darted a look at Dung, but he snored on. 

Snape's eyes cut toward her, the firelight reflected in two bright dashes. "You felt something?"

"Yeah, like. . . something inside me was trying to get out." She folded her legs to her chest and hugged her knees. "Like it heard something it wanted. . . I dunno. But it was bloody creepy."

He was silent, watching her. When she met his eye, he looked away. He raised one hand to his mouth, pressing his thumb against his lip. "And what was Draco's reaction?"

"Like he heard it too. . . Asteria said he'd been acting funny when he touched it -- in the catacombs, I guess. And he was acting funny when he grabbed it out here. Nastier. Only when he let go, he'd been freaked out by it too."

Snape was tracing his finger along his lower lip. Something about it was hypnotic, but a completely different hypnosis than she'd felt from the locket. It was. . .

A crack in the trees made her jump. Sirius came striding into the clearing, the curly-haired stranger again, but familiar in his wolfish smile. Dung started awake with a snort. 

"I miss anything?" Sirius asked. "Was Sniv being charming?"

"I'd really like to find someplace with a bed," Harriet said, getting to her feet. "And sleep for a week."

"Your wish is my command." Sirius held out a hand and helped her up.

"Yes," said Snape. "A hotel would be my choice."

"What're we doing there?" Sirius asked, as Harriet said, "Really?"

"Really." Snape's face was inscrutable again, though almost, somehow, triumphant. "I'm going to call Dumbledore."

Chapter Text

Kreacher had been alone for a long time. His Mistress had gone; had been the last of them. She had never known what happened to Master Regulus. Master Regulus had said not to tell. Kreacher could not tell her where Master Regulus had gone. His Mistress’ heart had broke, losing her second son, her best boy. The elder one, the one whose name was not to be spoken, had cracked her heart first. Master Regulus had split it in half.

Master Regulus was gone. Mistress was gone. But the Other Son had come back.

Kreacher hated the Other Son. He was old now, had been in prison where the bad witches and wizards went to die. Other Son had not died. He was Master now. He did not look through Kreacher, like Master Orion. He did not smile at Kreacher, like Master Regulus. He did not tell Kreacher all his secrets and hopes and hates, like Mistress. He loathed Kreacher.

Kreacher loathed him back.

Mistress would have understood. Master Regulus, too. They had understood.

But they were gone, and only Other Son had come back. Kreacher called him ‘Master’ now.

Master hated the house. Master wanted to destroy it. He kept Mistress locked behind a curtain. He sneered at Master Regulus’ memory. He threw out the Black family treasures. He opened his doors to blood traitors and Mudbloods and half-breeds. He let a half-blood bastard sleep in Master Regulus’ room!

Severus Snape. Kreacher knew that name. Master Regulus used to say it often. Other Son had said it sometimes too. In very different ways, they would say it.

The half-blood Snape was gone now; had gone away for a while, with Master, and Kreacher had hoped they would never come back. But they had come back, with the old wizard whom Mistress had called That Old Muggle-loving Fool Dumbledore. They brought back the girl, too, the half-blood Potter. Kreacher did not trust her. He did not trust anyone whom Master was fond of. Master had done spells to recognize the Half-blood Potter as his heir, so that Kreacher had to listen to what she said.

That Old Muggle-loving Fool Dumbledore was angry with Master. He was angry with the Half-blood Snape and with the Half-blood Potter. When he left, he took the Snape with him. Kreacher wished he would take them all away. He wished to be alone again, with Mistress’ painting and Master Regulus’ memories. He did not like the redheaded blood-traitors. He did not like the Potter.

She had taken to hiding in Master Regulus’ room. Master Regulus would not have liked it. Master Regulus had not wanted anyone to enter without his permission. He may have allowed the Half-blood Snape to enter -- against Mistress’ wishes, he had liked the Half-blood Snape -- but never the Potter.

The blood-traitors’ mother was angry with Master for leaving. They shouted behind doors where they thought no one could hear. But Kreacher always heard. He was a house-elf.

“You had no right to put her in danger like that!” the blood-traitors’ mother shouted. “I can’t believe either you or Severus Snape condoned it! After what’s happened to her--”

“After what’s happened to her, she’s got every right to decide for herself!” Master shouted back. “And don’t you act like her mother, she’s not one of yours--”

“You think you’re the only one who can love her, can be worried sick for her?!”

Kreacher did not care why they fought. He only knew it made the other humans tense and unhappy. He enjoyed their unhappiness. He only wished it would drive them away.

But they stayed, day after day. They tore the house apart. They broke into cupboards that had been locked since Mistress’ death and flung her prizes and treasures to the ground. Master shouted and swore at Kreacher when he tried to save it. What did Master care? He hated the house, hated Mistress’ memory; why could he not leave it be? Let Kreacher care for it all, as he had done these long years!

He had already lost Master Regulus’ locket to Mundungus Fletcher’s thieving. He would kill Mundungus Fletcher if he ever crossed the door again. Master Regulus’ orders had been to keep the locket safe, and Mundungus Fletcher had taken it!

Kreacher saved what he could from the blood-traitors’ thieving but it was not enough. He was failing his Mistress. He was failing Master Regulus.

He wished Other Son would die, so that he would never need call him Master again, and take all the blood-traitors and half-breeds with him. He wished the darkness would swallow them whole.

Hogwarts had a long literary tradition of Founders’ stories. Many of them had been written in that same spirit as Monmouth’s King Arthur, less truth than legend. The earliest stories were, like Arthurian myths, variations on similarities. The middle ages saw a rise in morality plays; the Elizabethan era dramatized; the seventeenth century abounded in poetry and the eighteenth saw the introduction of the three volume novel. The nineteenth century had even published a serialized version as thick as Bleak House. Severus had been particularly fond of a comic published in the 1940’s (the fourth issue had gone missing some time in the 80’s).

He had, over his earliest years at Hogwarts, made his way through all of them, even the bloody lyric poems. He and Lily had been rather obsessed with them. They’d had their favorites (hers a novel by Sir Walter Scott, and one of the earliest legends, which focused largely on Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw), but they’d read their way through all of them more than once, even the fucking lyric poems that talked endless nonsense about Ravenclaw walking through green pastures wearing her diadem of wisdom.

And so Severus remembered that, in one of the earlier legends, dated around 1200, there had been a locket.

“Of course Gryffindor would give him a bloody golden locket,” he’d complained -- to Lily, in the library stacks, possibly; neutral ground for Gryffindors and Slytherins, safe against the cold and the dark, Mrs. Pince always watching. “Flashy rubbish.”

“Studded with emeralds,” Lily had said, tapping her finger against the page, where the book’s florid text wrote: ‘And so, in freyndshype did bold Gryffindor gyfte unto his dearest companyone a locket of golde and emeralde.’ “Don’t forget those. I bet nobody else could -- you could probably see the thing from space.”

“He couldn’t get away with wearing it.” Severus had held his fingers out in the approximate measurement, ‘the syse of his noble palm,’ according to the book. “It’d be like having a pill box slung around your neck.”

“What do you think he kept in it?” Lily sketched a locket on her parchment, a snake in the shape of an S. “Ooh, how about his own heart? He magicked it out of himself, like that spell you told me”--they shuddered, dwelling pleasantly on the grotesque fantasy of pulling your still-beating heart out of your chest, the kind of horror that pleased children-- “and put it in the locket for safekeeping, that’s why it was so big--”

“That would be more dangerous than keeping it in your chest,” Severus said. “Just out there, where anyone could get to it?”

“But no one would think to look there.” She smiled as she shaped the emeralds on her drawing into little hearts.

“But a giant gold locket hanging round your neck is just asking to be stolen. You wouldn’t want any old thief running off with your heart. Anyway, he couldn’t have done it for long, the heart can’t be out of you for more than a day or you’d be really fucked.”

“All right, just for the day, then. Maybe he didn’t wear it -- maybe he buried it or locked it away. Then he’d be safe, as long as no one found it. Ooh!” She bounced in her chair. “He gave it to Gryffindor! They were best friends -- he’d have trusted him to keep it safe.”

You should never trust anyone that much, Severus thought, running his gaze along the rows of library books, silent in the cold gray light that fell in murky shafts through the shadows. A good Slytherin knows that.

Severus knew Slytherin’s symbol. Every Slytherin child did. Dumbledore knew it, too. He’d been furious with Severus, but he would never deny an obvious truth like that just to be petty.

There was no knowing what lay inside the real locket, however, for it refused to open. Not for Dumbledore and all his skill; not for Severus and the spells he’d whispered before handing it over.

But it had frightened the children, whatever lay inside it. It had reached out to Draco and to Harriet.

Sometimes, Severus felt something watching him. He was a spy under an Unbreakable Vow to protect a troublesome child in mortal danger; such feelings weren’t in his imagination.

But the locket. . .

He rolled the ladder along its rung, the clacking breaking over the silence and the dust.

Dumbledore had his suspicions. Dumbledore always had suspicions. He seldom shared them, unless he felt it necessary. If Dumbledore ever voiced his problems, he probably told only his pet bird. But Severus suspected he was too cautious even to speak to a creature who could never repeat his words. Dumbledore could teach Slytherins lessons on circumspection.

Dumbledore’s secrets could probably burn the wizarding world to the ground.

Severus climbed the ladder to the fifth row up and skimmed across the titles. There. A book he hadn’t held in. . . perhaps twenty years.

He pulled it off the shelf and let it fall open, where a piece of parchment had stuck between the pages: a little sketch of a locket, with a snake in the shape of an S, surrounded by little hearts.

He snapped the book shut.

Rain sluiced down Dumbledore’s windows. It had been raining since they’d returned from Austria. That suited Severus; sunlight made him twitchy. When forced out of the cool dimness of the dungeons, he preferred the sky to be grey and gloomy.

“There.” He held the book out to Dumbledore. The scrap of parchment with its silly sketch was already hidden in his pocket.

Dumbledore thumbed to the page Severus had marked with a bit of thread.

“So you said it would be,” he murmured. “I must admit, I can’t recall ever reading this one.”

“Did the Founders ever interest you that much?” Severus asked skeptically.

“I was more preoccupied with factual accounts than fictional. But this”--Dumbledore drew his finger down page Severus had marked--”proves that facts can be found everywhere. I shouldn’t have been so short-sighted.”

“It’s an overwrought, sentimental story for children.” The fact that he’d loved it didn’t change that. He had been a very sentimental child.

“I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss sentiment.” He returned to reading the page, but Severus felt himself being observed nonetheless. “As a child, you were fond of the Founders’ stories?”

He and Lily had been bolstered by the friendship between Gryffindor and Slytherin. The breaking of that friendship. . . it had been something unfathomable and fascinating by turns. How could it have happened? they’d wondered. How could two such great friends -- four, by many accounts -- ever leave one another behind?

Sometimes, so often, the memories of childhood were a curse.

“I was fond of anything to do with Hogwarts,” he said dismissively, looking at the rain running down the window.

“Mmm.” The parchment rustled as Dumbledore turned the page. “So was Tom.”

“The Dark Lord?” Severus was confused, but mostly tired. He usually enjoyed mind games, but his adventures in Unbreakable Vows, Dark magic, and traipsing across Europe bolstered only by his bloody-minded determination not to keel over in front of Harriet Potter and her dogfather had worn him down. And the whole spying work, of course. He lived on coffee, cigarettes, and nerves. It was almost comforting.

The children would be back at school tomorrow. He’d be looking forward to the Dark Lord’s little get-togethers, then, when could lightly poison their fathers at the dinner table.

“And Tom still appears to know nothing.” Dumbledore said it as half a question and fixed Severus with one of his most penetrating looks.

“He’s given no indication that he knows Black and Miss Potter accompanied me. As far as he appears aware, I only went to search for Draco on Narcissa’s behalf. But she told him that much.”

“We can only hope, for all our sakes, that Sirius’ spell on the children’s memories held.” Dumbledore closed the book and folded his hands on top of it. The small volume was almost completely hidden beneath his long fingers. “Tonight I must visit Grimmauld Place. You will accompany me.”

Severus was surprised; Dumbledore had forbidden him any visits to that rotting old tomb since his illicit jaunt. Perhaps he was now being allowed because he would be supervised.

“Eight o’clock,” said Dumbledore. “I’ll see you then, Severus. We’ll discuss our business on the way.”

Severus resisted the urge to snipe ‘My lord’ as he left. They weren’t comparable. Of his two masters, he vastly preferred this one.

After all, Dumbledore didn’t want Harriet Potter dead.

Harriet reckoned that Kreacher might actually poison her one of these days if she didn’t stop hanging out in Regulus’ room -- even with that heir spell Sirius had cast so that Kreacher had to listen to her. (She didn’t think she was going to be telling Hermione about that.)

Regulus’ room was. . . interesting. Kreacher had preserved it down to the last Droobles gum wrapper. Regulus liked Slytherin, Quidditch, and being a pure-blood Black. This in itself was more revolting than interesting -- that combination made her think of a dark-haired Draco Malfoy -- but then she’d found Regulus’ diary.

It was full of Snape.

Were you friends?” she’d asked. He’d said, “You’d probably call us that.”

She suspected that Snape had found the diary before they’d gone off to Austria. It had been tucked high on the bookshelf, but slightly pulled out. Kreacher seemed to find it difficult to see much higher than human knee-height; he could easily have missed it, if Snape had put it up there. And judging by the diary’s contents, Harriet was quite sure that Regulus wouldn’t have left it just lying about, especially with no hexes on it.

Imagining Snape reading the diary of his long dead maybe-a-friend gave her a weird feeling of loss. But then she reminded herself that Snape had been friends with her mother and look what he’d done there. Perhaps he was the reason Regulus was dead, too.

She just wished she could fucking sort out how to feel about that. She should feel hatred, anger, disgust. And she did. . . but she felt other things, too, and they made her lie on Regulus’ bed in the shrine Kreacher had built out of his life and read his poncy narrative about teenage Snape.

Severus invented another hex today, Regulus wrote, or some day, at least, the POINT is that he used it on me for the first time today and wouldn’t do me the counterspell until I had given him all my Honeyduke’s chocolate, the BLOODY STUPID WANKER. I had to of course, because you can’t think when your toenails are cramming up the insides of your shoes. I pulled them off but they’d already ruined my socks, which were SILK. Severus just told me to stick it up my arse when I complained, I hate him, the rude vulgar bastard. Anyway I tried to use it back on him, he just stuffed a hunk of chocolate in my mouth and I haven’t mastered nvbl yet so I couldn’t do anything.

It was both disorientating and no work at all to imagine a teenage Snape doing all that; she’d heard enough of his fights with Sirius to know. And for all Regulus’ complaining, she was quite sure that he. . . well, adored Snape. As bloody weird as it was to think about that word connected with Snape. She’d only had some weird fixation on him, it wasn’t like. . .

“Harry?” Ron’s voice came shouting muffled past the walls; his steps were thundering down the staircase. “Are you--ouch!”

“No nasty blood-traitor brats will touch Master Regulus’ room!”

Harriet swung herself off Regulus’ bed and opened his bedroom door. Ron was rubbing his shin and looking ready to punt Kreacher down the stairs. Kreacher, hunkered defensively in front of the door, was clutching a fire poker.

“Let Ron through, Kreacher,” she said.

Kreacher shot her a watery, baleful look. She felt sorry for him for a moment, but he was a nasty little bugger who’d hit Ron for not being a pure-blood disciple of a genocidal maniac.

But he shuffled aside, letting Ron limp in. He shut the door in Kreacher’s furious, miserable face.

“Sick little bastard,” Ron muttered, dropping into the armchair. “Good thing Sirius did that ceremony so he’d recognize you as the heir, or he’d probably poison you for being in here.”

“I had the same thought,” she said, amused. “What’s up?”

“Oh! Yeah -- that little gremlin whacking me in the shins knocked it right out of my head--” He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a crumpled letter. “Had to hide it before Fred or George saw. I need to you tell me if it’s real or -- some prank.”

He pushed the letter into her hands. The heavy parchment was wrapped around something small but bulky. When she unwrapped it, a scarlet badge fell into her palm.

“This is a Prefect’s badge,” she said in surprise.

“It’s addressed to me,” he said disbelievingly.

She skimmed the letter, which, signed jointly by Professor McGonagall and Dumbledore, welcomed Ron to the ranks of prefects. “Seems real enough to me, Mr. Prefect.”

Ron took the letter back, looking from it in one hand to the scarlet-and-gold badge in the other, still clearly unable to believe it.

Harriet grinned. “Congrats. You going to lord it over Fred and George?”

“Are you kidding?” he asked incredulously. “They say only prats become prefects.” His expression darkened for a moment.

“This is Fred and George,” she said. “Of course they’d say that. Having your older brothers as prefects wouldn’t exactly give them a different opinion, would it?”

“Too right. Especially Percy.” He looked curiously at Harriet. “Did you get one?”

“Of course not. It’ll be Hermione.”

They were both silent for a moment, trading a glance of the unspoken ‘I hope.’ If Harriet had got a Prefect’s badge, it would mean Dumbledore and McGonagall had judged Hermione still too unwell to handle it. There was no way anyone in Gryffindor could ever make prefect above Hermione otherwise.

Harriet’s stomach twisted. She hadn’t got a letter, had she?

“Let’s go downstairs.” She swept Regulus’ diary off the bed and tucked it into her jumper; Ron noticed but didn’t ask after it. “You can show your mum your badge.”

He groaned. “Think it’ll soften her up?”

“Worth a shot.”

“I dunno,” he said gloomily, “I think nothing below an Order of Merlin would help.”

After his horrific ordeal, Draco had expected his father to descend on his cousins in a towering fury and take him home. (Please come and get me, I don’t want to be here anymore) But as the weeks had gone by with no more than daily letters from his mother, with not even a word from his father, he’d started to realize he was stuck in this place. . . and to worry. He’d oscillated between resentment at being left after he’d almost died, fear that something like that could happen again, and intense worry that something had happened to his father.

But if that were true, his mother would surely have said something. In her letters, she’d have mentioned it. (She’d have come to take me home. Why hasn’t she come?) He was being stupid. Just because he’d fallen into a dark, mouldering hole and nearly starved to death before being found, it didn’t mean something bad had happened to his father.

. . . Unless someone didn’t want him to know, and his mother was a prisoner, and her letters contained a code he needed to crack to find the truth.

So he dragged up all her letters and took them to the powder-blue and-gold morning room, where the light was strong and the windows overlooked the lake. Hating darkness and silence, he pried the glass open so he could hear the sounds of his cousins boating on the water and sat down with the bundle of letters. He always kept his mother’s letters, and he used to enjoy puzzle games. His mother was extremely clever. She’d have put something in them that would fool her captors, but that he could recognize. She knew him so well. . .

He looked up when the door clicked open. Asteria took a slight step backwards at the sight of him, pulling her drawing board closer to her chest. Her gaze flicked across the letters and he resisted the urge to snatch them up.

“What?” he asked crossly.

“I’m only here to draw,” Asteria said, frowning at him in a way that reminded him distinctly of Potter.

He’d been thinking a lot about Potter lately, to his great annoyance. He supposed it was always having Asteria around. They were friends or something, after all. And if Potter had fallen into a hole with Asteria, she’d probably have single-handedly freed them before teatime. Gryffindors were so annoying.

“Can’t you go to another room?”

“I’ve been painting the landscape out this window for days now,” said Asteria. “The angle won’t be right from any other spot.”

Closing the door behind her, she moved over to the window, where the bright sunlight poured like melted butter down the glass, and arranged herself with her board and paints.

“I’m not going to be able to concentrate if you’re back there rustling,” he said.

“You’re welcome to go somewhere else.” Her voice shook a little, but she didn’t look up, and her mouth was a firm line.

Scowling, he picked up a letter and stared at it, trying to concentrate. To his annoyance, it should have been easy: Asteria was so quiet, it would be easy to forget she was there. But she was probably sitting back there, judging him.

The door opened again. Draco was ready to just throw his letters in the air. He was engaged in important business! Couldn’t everyone just--

“What now?” he snapped.

“Draco. . .” It was his oldest cousin, Adelaide, looking paler than usual. “Your father is here.”

“My--” Draco jumped up, scattering letters. Before he could run out of the room, he heard a heavy step, and his father was there.

Draco almost ran and hugged him. But he was getting too old -- he didn’t want his father thinking he was a baby -- and Asteria was still there. (His cousin had already beat a hasty retreat; his father must have reamed her for letting his only son and heir fall into a filthy old tomb. At least, Draco hoped so.)

“Draco.” His father came forward and gripped his shoulder. “Are we alone?”

Draco blinked. “No, there’s--” But Asteria’s drawing table was vacant. She’d left her paints; the sketch of the lake outside was a miniature reflection on the page. Was there a second door into the room, then?

Well, if he could fall through a trapdoor into nasty old catacombs, there were bound to be other secrets hidden around this dump.

“It’s just us,” said Draco. “Here, let me just--” He started stuffing his mother’s letters into the bundle, hoping his father wouldn’t ask; with him there, Draco’s wild idea of a secret code suddenly seemed stupid and immature. “And then we can go home--”

“The servants are packing for you,” said Father. “We’ll be staying overnight at The Golden Lyre before the train leaves tomorrow.”

“What?” Draco managed to tie his bundle shut; some of the letters were getting squashed. “We’re not going home?”

“It is -- a sensitive matter.” His father brushed a piece of hair back; his eyes darted around the room. Draco got a funny sense that his father was worried about something. His stomach gave a queasy squirm. 

“A sensitive matter?” he repeated. “What does that mean?”

“We have been hosting a. . . greatly honored guest. They do not need idle distractions. Draco.” His father squeezed his forearm and stared at him with an unnerving intensity. Draco wanted to look away, but he felt trapped. “You are older, now. Your fifth year at Hogwarts will see you taking on increased responsibility.”

“I know. I made Prefect.” He didn’t say he hadn’t really cared. He supposed he would once school started -- he’d have increased power over the others, the ability to take away points -- but as he’d stared at the green badge lying on the blue counterpane, all he’d been able to think about was how being a Prefect wouldn’t help him if he fell down another hole he couldn’t get out of.

“Yes,” his father said, like that wasn’t what he was talking about. “We are living in -- vital times. You will need to be alert and prepared. Do you remember what I said to you last winter? Can I count on you, my son?"

And Draco remembered: 'Things are coming, Draco. . . you must be strong. Patient. Wait. Keep your eyes open.' 

He had a sudden, horrible feeling like he was being asked to climb back down into the dark, and this time, he'd be alone. 

And somewhere in the back of his mind, he heard a whisper, like the echo of a dream, of something dark and compelling, washing away all his doubt and uncertainty. . . and somehow only deepening it.

He felt cold and could only nod. There was nothing else to do.

His father squeezed his shoulder. “Good.” 


CONGRATULATIONS, RON, NEW PREFECT read the banner that a beaming Mrs. Weasley had hung over the sooty fireplace. Harriet grinned into her cup of pumpkin juice. So much for the Order of Merlin.

Ron was describing his new broom to whomever he could corner; currently, it was Tonks and Remus, who wore very similar expressions of polite interest. Harriet had already heard all about it.

Her mood was mixed. Not because of Ron: to her relief, the only letter she’d got from Hogwarts had been a book list. But a second letter, in Hermione’s now-shaky handwriting, had arrived at the same time. Hermione’s greatest fear was failure, and February had only sharpened it. Harriet couldn’t escape the creeping feeling that Hermione would have faced Prefect duties with her sleeves rolled up and a glint in her eye at this time last year. But this year. . .

I’m glad Professor Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall think I’m ready for it, she’d written, in letters that wobbled larger as they slanted down the page. Harriet had heard, I’m afraid I’m not ready.

You’ll be great, she’d written back, wishing Hermione was there with her. She was more solid with gestures than with words; a hug would be better than her lousy attempts at reassurance.

Harriet nursed her juice and listened to the others talk. Mrs. Weasley asked Mad-Eye to have a look at the writing desk in the morning room.

“It’s a boggart, all right,” he said, his magical eye rotated upwards. “Want me to get rid of it?”

“No, I’ll do it before I turn in,” she assured him. “Arthur,” she called, “don’t let this lot stay up too late.” She paused to give an embarrassed (but pleased) Ron a kiss on the cheek and let herself out of the kitchen. But then, less than a minute later, she was back, putting her hand on Harriet’s shoulder.

“Harriet dear, Professor Dumbledore’s here to see you, with Professor Snape.”

A gulp of pumpkin juice went down the wrong way. Harriet coughed. “Wh-what?”

“Professor Dumbledore, dear,” said Mrs. Weasley, smiling faintly. “Up you go -- he’s in the Overly Greenish Drawing-room.”

Sirius set down his bottle, moving to go with her, but Remus put a hand on his arm to stop him. While they were locked in a silent staring contest, Harriet slipped out of the kitchen.

Even though she’d spent half the summer there, she still found the house on the heavy side of creepy. All of their cleaning didn’t seem to have scraped off even a layer of the mad darkness that permeated everything from the candlesticks to the carpet. She supposed after fifteen years of being left rot, a few weeks of scrubbing wouldn’t make much of an impact. At least they’d been able to install new doorknobs.

The Overly Greenish Drawing-room had got its name in an earlier age, when the house still had some color. Now, everything was tarnished and faded. When she let herself in, Snape was standing next to the window, apparently watching the street below. His eyes cut toward her and he tilted his head slightly, as if to bring her into focus. The street-lights cast an orange glow across his face, drawing shadows in the hollows. She had the silly (but not really silly is it) thought that he looked like an executioner.

Regulus’ stories of a wild, uncontrolled teenage Snape tried to merge with the still, sinister man in front of her. It was like trying to tune a television as the picture was torn apart by static.

“Uh.” She groped for something to say. I’ve been reading Regulus’ diary was right out. “I thought Dumbledore was here too.”

“He had someone else to speak to.” Snape eyed her a moment longer, then sighed in a very let’s-get-this-over-with way. “Your business is with me, anyway. Come in and shut the door.”

Frowning, she did. “What business?”

He paced away from the window but kept his arms folded. One of his hands tapped against his forearm, like he was thinking. Harriet perched on the arm of a chair and folded her arms, too. Two could play at this game, she thought, staring at him and waiting for him to speak.

“Describe to me again what you felt when you touched that locket.”

She blinked. She didn’t have to ask what he meant, though; it was all too easy to remember. . .

A sharp darkness limned Malfoy’s face, and a whisper shivered through her, like the sibilant hiss of a cold wind through black trees. Something thrummed between them, a pulse that sent some feeling, black and vaporous, growing, unfurling, curling out of her--

And Asteria had said, “Be careful of that locket, Harriet. I don’t know what’s in it, but it’s dangerous.”

She wanted to rub her arms. “Did you find out what it was cursed with?”

“First, answer the question,” Snape said, eyes boring into her.

“Like something inside me was trying to get out,” she said shortly. “Dark -- binding, bloody creepy. What’s it cursed with?”

“Dumbledore is working on it,” Snape said, in a clear we’re-not-talking-about-it tone. That wouldn’t have stopped her, and he obviously knew it, because he steamrollered on: “Have you ever felt anything like that before?”

“What? When?”

“When you were around the Headmaster.”

“I. . .” Something stirred in her memory, something about this house, but slipped away. “I don’t know. Maybe? Look, I’ve been here for weeks now. This place messes you up.”

Snape eyed her with unnerving intensity for a few more moments. She re-folded her arms, glowering back. Then he sighed again and turned away, pacing, but more idly than before.

“The Headmaster thinks your link with the Dark Lord is. . . causing problems for you.”

Harriet almost fell off the arm of her chair. “My what?”

“Your scar,” Snape said impatiently.

“I don’t want a link to Voldemort!” she said, ignoring his flinch.

“This can’t be news to you,” he said, glaring now. “It has always caused you pain when the Dark Lord is nearby. What did you think that was?”

“Weird curse scar stuff!” she snapped. “I don’t know!”

“A curse scar that he gave you,” Snape said, exasperated.

“Well, how do I--” She waved her hands, not knowing how to describe it. “--stop it?”

“That’s what I’m telling you,” Snape grit out. “The Headmaster wishes you to study Occlumency.”

Harriet didn’t fancy the idea of studying; she’d much rather do something about it. Unfortunately, she couldn’t just walk up to Voldemort and tell him to get out of her head, or cut off her scar.

“What’s Occlu--thing?” she asked warily.

“The magical defense of the mind against external forces. An obscure branch of magic, a but highly useful one.”

It sounded difficult and boring. “Okay,” she said, drawing the word out. “How do I learn it?”

Snape eyed her for a moment with clear resignation. “From me.”

Was this what swooning felt like? “Why you? You haven’t got a curse scar link to--What’s-his-face!”

“Who do you think routinely has the pleasure of letting the Dark Lord rummage around inside his head?”

“You didn’t say anything about rummaging around inside my head!”

“What do you think ‘defense against external forces’ means?” Snape looked so irritated, she might have wondered if Sirius had come into the room while she’d been preoccupied.

“I don’t know!” she said, equally annoyed. “You haven’t told me anything! You’ve just been going on like I know everything you know--”

“Quiet,” said Snape, staring at the wall.

Harriet heard it the second she stopped talking: the sound of someone sobbing in the room next door.

She jumped up from the armchair, but Snape was already at the door. The hem of his black cloak disappeared around the frame, and by the time she’d caught up, he’d broken into the morning-room.

Harriet skidded to a stop to avoid plowing into his back. The writing desk had toppled to the floor, and lying on the rug in front of a sobbing Mrs. Weasley was --- Ron?!

R-r-riddikulus!” Mrs Weasley cried, pointing her wand at Ron’s body, which stared up at the ceiling with blank eyes.

The body turned into the twins, also dead. Snape stepped forward, raising his wand; Mrs. Weasley kept crying, waving her wand wildly -- with another crack, the body on the floor turned into Harriet. Snape stopped where he was, next to Mrs. Weasley, like he was frozen.

Harriet pushed around him, pulling her wand out of the pocket of her jeans. Her own corpse collapsed into a pile of rank fabric, rising up off the floor, skeletal hands reaching out, dripping with strips of rotting skin, and the air plunged to ice and darkness as the lights snuffed out as one --

Expecto Patronum!” She stabbed her wand forward, and the room lit silver-white as the stag charged the Dementor. The boggart dissolved into wisps of smoke that sank to the carpet and vanished.

The stag turned in place, watching them with fathomless eyes, then bent to nuzzle Mrs. Weasley’s shoulder. She stared at it, motionless, her hands half over her face, as it dissolved in a shower of stars.

One by one, the lights trembled back to life.

“Oh -- oh,” Mrs. Weasley gasped, and then grabbed Harriet in a hug, weeping into her shoulder.

Harriet patted her back, wishing Snape would do something, before realizing that if she was crap at giving comfort, unleashing Snape on a distraught person would be the best of terrible ideas.

She couldn’t read the expression on his face. His eyes were glittering strangely and his jaw was clenched tight. Then he was turning away to face Dumbledore, who appeared armed in the doorway, his bright eyes piercing in the gloom.

“What has happened?”

“A boggart,” said Snape, his narrow shoulders tight. “Miss Potter took care of it.”

Dumbledore glanced at him, a look that seemed heavier than a second’s work, before turning to smile at Harriet. “Excellent work, my dear.”

Harriet tried to smile back, but something stopped her. . . something dark, binding, like a hand gripping her heart.

She felt cold in a way that had nothing to do with fake dementors.

“Here, Molly,” said Dumbledore, as Mrs. Weasley straightened up, wiping at her eyes, trying to hide her tear-streaked face. “A hot drink will do you some good, I believe.”

“Oh, I don’t want to trouble anyone,” Mrs. Weasley whispered, but allowed him to take her hand and tuck it into his arm. “The, the children shouldn’t see. . .”

“Nonsense,” said Dumbledore gently, guiding her from the room. His reassurances faded as they moved down the hall.

“. . . About those lessons,” Harriet said to Snape.

“My office, six o’clock after the first day of classes,” he said after a short pause. He didn’t look at her; his profile was as sharp as a scimitar. “If anyone asks, you’re taking Remedial Potions.”

“Thanks for that,” she said, thinking of Regulus’ emotional diary entries.

He merely gave her an unreadable look and swept out of the room.

Alone, she stared at the place on the carpet where her own body had lain. The image was unsettling, but it didn’t chain her thoughts as tightly as the question of why Snape hadn’t been able to move after he’d seen it.

And whether or not that had been Mrs. Weasley’s boggart after all.

Chapter Text

Remembering that weird, dark feeling that prickled through her whenever Dumbledore was around, Harriet didn’t seek him out. After seeing her own dead body on the floor, she didn’t feel like seeking anyone out. She decided she’d much rather hole up in Regulus’ room and read more about his teenage drama with Snape.

But outside of Regulus’ door, she stopped. Inside, someone was weeping.

Not again, she thought, stomach sinking like a rock.

She eased the door open a crack. Kreacher was curled into a ball on the floor, rocking slowly back and forth.

“Forgive Kreacher, Master Regulus, forgive Kreacher, Kreacher has failed. . .”

Her heart clenched like it was being wrapped in vines. She thought of Dobby, trying to hit himself when he disobeyed his masters, pledging his life to her. . . "Dobby's life should be worth nothing if Harriet Potter were to die and Dobby live.”

For a moment, the urge to open the door and kneel down next to Kreacher, to tell him, “You did a great job,” was so strong, she almost did it. But Kreacher hated her. He might magically have to obey her, but he wanted nothing to do with her.

She couldn’t give him anything he needed.

Pulling the door shut soundlessly, she moved up the stairs to the bedroom she’d share with Ginny for one more night. It was still empty and silent, only one dim shaft of sickly orange London streetlight breaking the darkness. She struck a match for the lamp -- Grimmauld Place didn’t  have electricity -- and sat on the edge of the sagging mattress to pull Regulus’ diary out of her pocket. She didn’t read it, only turned it over in her hands, this relic of the boy Kreacher had loved.

Then she got up, went to her trunk, and wrapped it in a jumper.

She let the lid fall shut with a thunk.

“You are sure you’re all right, Severus?”

Severus stopped with at the top of the dungeon steps. Dumbledore stood at the foot of the grand staircase, the light from sconces falling across him like dollops of darkened sunlight. It was the first thing he’d said since they’d left Grimmauld Place. Or maybe it wasn’t. Severus had been. . . distracted.

“Perfectly, Headmaster." 

Severus was an expert liar.

Dumbledore’s watching gaze followed him down the stairs. The Headmaster was, in fact, less trusting than the Dark Lord. He believed that fear and self-interest would keep you on his side until you weren’t needed anymore. Dumbledore knew Severus better than that.

Well, he could keep his little curiosity, because Severus wasn’t telling him a thing.

The corpse on the floor of Black’s dirty house had been just a figment of his imagination. He knew that. But that was the thing about boggarts: they challenged you to face the thing you couldn't.

His rooms were cold and dark and empty. Tonight their isolation was hardly a comfort. He could hear Molly Weasley’s sobs and see, lying on the floor --

He dragged to the front of his mind the memory of Harriet shouldering him aside and summoning the stag. The silver-white light had turned all the shadows to mist. The stag's grave, opaque eyes had been somehow wise and compassionate, in that way of ancients.

In the bathroom he rifled through his cabinet, pushing aside clinking bottles until he found what he was looking for, and uncorked the vial of Dreamless Sleep.

He just needed to forget. For a while.

Harriet couldn’t decide the next morning whether she was pleased to be done with trying to sleep. On the one hand, being awake meant she could dodge the nightmares that had tracked her all night like a determined hound. On the other hand, being awake meant being awake. As she tried to drag on her jeans backwards, she wondered if this was like the cursed-half life known to Dark wizards who drank unicorn blood.

Downstairs was pandemonium. The twins, in bewitching their trunks to fly to the ground floor, had knocked Ginny down several flights of stairs, and Mrs. Weasley’s shouts had stirred Mrs. Black into her usual pleasantries. At least all the noise had the benefit of bringing Harriet marginally more awake.

As she was passing the drawing-room, Sirius poked his head out and beckoned her in.

“Morning and all that,” he said, shutting the door and muffling the irate shouting of two angry mothers. “So sad you have to leave this palace of mine, but at least we can say you’ll know what you’re missing.”

Harriet grimaced. Despite all their cleaning, the place still looked like a halfway house for ghouls. One of the gargoyles carved into the fireplace was leering at them, and Mrs. Black’s shrieks still thrummed through the house, like a radio playing in the distance.

“Will you be okay here?” she asked, frowning as she looked Sirius over. His clothes were wrinkled, as if he’d slept in them, and she didn’t think he’d shaved in a few days. The stale tang of old cigarette smoke hung around him, too. Aunt Petunia would have crossed the street to avoid him.

One side of his mouth lifted in a funny sort of smile that was almost like something else.

“I’ll survive,” he said. His voice was even a little hoarse. “Look -- there’s something I’ve got to tell you.”

“Okay,” she said, instead of I’m not going to like this, am I, because he was looking so, well, serious.

“We didn’t tell you earlier because you weren’t allowed to send letters but -- when I took Malfoy Junior and your friend back home, I altered their memories.”


“I wish it hadn’t been necessary, Holly-berry,” he said grimly, “and that’s the truth. You know I hate agreeing with Snape on anything. But they couldn’t know we’d been there, you and me.”

Harriet struggled with her feelings. She wanted to shout, but she’d never shouted at Sirius before. In her silence he went on:

“Danger to Snape you know I could deal with,” his face twisted with a sour smile, “but we can’t jeopardize his spy schtick without jeopardizing you. Dumbledore and Remus -- and Molly and, well, everybody, really -- read me the riot act for going off with him, in case we’d been found out, but bollocks to that; I measured that risk and it balanced. But if the kids had talked -- and they would’ve done -- we’d have been up shit creek.”

“How did you alter them?” she managed to say.

“They’ll remember falling down into the catacombs, and they’ll remember some bloke finding them and taking them back home. His face won’t be too clear. The whole business with Dung and the locket and all that -- you, me -- they won’t remember at all.”

Harriet paced to the window, looking down on the street. The view of the dirty square was uninteresting, but it wasn’t what she was really seeing. Part of her knew that Sirius was right; another part of her was still furious. Grown-ups were always deciding what people should and shouldn’t know, lying, twisting ideas --

A clatter at the door, and Remus’ voice: “Sirius, what are you doing? She needs to come now, we’ve been looking everywhere, they’ll miss the train if they don’t leave now--”

She turned from the window. Remus looked harassed and none too pleased with Sirius, who’d shoved his hands in his pockets with a surly expression.

“Are you all ready, Harriet?” Remus asked, with a calm that sounded forced.

“Yeah,” she said. “I’ll come on, then.”

Remus held the door for her. As she passed, Sirius touched her shoulder.

“You’re the best and bravest person I know,” he said gruffly. Then he looped an arm around her shoulder and hugged her to him, fast and fleeting. “Give ‘em hell, Holly-berry.”

He turned away. The last she saw of him, as she left the room, was his back as he stood at the window exactly where she had, looking down at the street.

At her first sight of Hermione, Harriet’s heart jumped like an excited frog. Hermione was standing next to a brick pillar, already wearing her Hogwarts robes, Crookshanks clutched in her arms. Harriet didn’t think she’d ever seen her looking so nervous, not even when they’d been facing the Sorting Hat that first night in the Great Hall. 

Harriet pushed through the crowd, ignoring the waves and whispers and pointing fingers. Hermione spotted her when she was five dunderheads away and dashed forward, her face breaking into an anxious smile, to throw her free arm around Harriet’s neck.

“I made it!” she whispered.

“Knew you would,” Harriet said, hugging her back as hard as she could. Crookshanks purred and nuzzled her jaw.

Over Hermione’s shoulder, she could see Daniel with Hermione’s trunk propped against his leg and Jean with baby Hugh in her arms. He was chewing on the toy dragon that Mrs. Weasley had knitted for him, and which he’d never let go of since it was first given to him.

“Hello, dear,” said Jean, giving Harriet a second one-armed hug. Daniel shook her hand, smiling. Harriet tried not to let her guilt destroy all her manners.

“Harriet?” Mrs. Weasley’s harassed voice called over the crowd as the train’s whistle pierced the air. “Where are you, dear?”

“Bye, kiddo,” Harriet said, shaking Hugh’s tiny hand. Hermione gave the baby and her parents kisses, while Harriet shoved their luggage onto the train.

Ron appeared, hefting her trunk on the other side. Hermione, her arms full of Crookshanks, couldn’t help, but with some swearing and kicking he and Harriet got everything on board. Then it was time for a few last quick hugs and kisses, and they were piling on board as the train gave a final ringing whistle and trundled into motion.

Hermione waved to her parents until the train rounded a bend, pulling the platform out of sight.

It was exhilarating to be all three together again, but also. . . unfamiliar. They were all aware that something had changed, something beyond Hermione’s injury. Harriet didn’t know if it was the way Ron angled himself toward Hermione, as if he was attuned like a satellite to the way she clutched Crookshanks to her chest and breathed a little too quickly. Maybe it was simply the length of time since the three of them had been together: it had been Harriet and Ron, or Harriet and Hermione, for half a year. And before the Second Task, there had been a special combination of Hermione-and-Ron, the extent of which Harriet had never quite wanted to pin down.

Anyway, things were. . . a bit awkward, and a bit more serious than that.

“Shall we find a carriage, then?” she asked.

“Hermione and I have got to go to the Prefects’ meeting,” Ron said, with a slightly guilty shuffle of his feet.

“Oh,” Harriet said. “Right.”

“We’ll come find you w-once it’s over.” Hermione was still whispering. Harriet wasn’t sure if it was nerves or Hermione’s newest way of dealing with her speech difficulties.

“‘Course.” She gave Hermione another hug -- Hermione’s Crookshanks-free hand clutched at her jumper -- and then watched Ron lift Hermione’s trunk with his and tow them away.

Harriet wandered the train, treating herself to more staring (You'd think they'd have found something more interesting to gossip about over the summer, she thought irritably) until she came to an empty compartment.

Except it wasn’t empty; a single blonde girl sat inside reading a newspaper upside down.

For a second Harriet thought it was Asteria, and her heart leapt guiltily -- but when she pushed open the door, the face turning to look at her definitely wasn’t Asteria’s. The blonde hair and blue eyes were quite different. While Asteria’s eyes were large and sort of melting, this girl’s were slightly protuberant.

“Oh, sorry,” Harriet said, “I thought you were someone I knew.”

“No, I’m quite someone else,” said the girl seriously, almost gravely. “I know who you are, of course. But I’d believe I would remember if you knew me.”

“. . . Reckon you’re right. Mind if I have a seat?” Harriet didn’t fancy trooping up and down the train, hauling Hedwig and her trunk from one end to the other a second time.

“Please do. I’m Luna,” said the girl. She watched Harriet stow her trunk with a sort of detached scrutiny that was almost unnerving. “Some people call me ‘Loony.’”

“Your friends?” Harriet asked, somewhat taken aback.

“No, I shouldn’t think so,” said Luna, as if giving it serious thought. “I think they mean it to be rude.”

Harriet didn’t know what to say to such a serene assessment of minor cruelty. “I’ll just call you ‘Luna,’ then, if that’s all right,” she said at last.

“Oh, yes, that’s fine with me.” Luna gave her a dreamy sort of smile. Then she picked up her newspaper (still upside down) and started reading it without another word. Harriet didn’t find this particularly bothersome; small talk wasn’t her forte, and she couldn’t have candidly answer any questions about her summer.

She considered leaving her things and wandering the train in search of Asteria, but hesitated. On the walk to King’s Cross she’d had time to think, and now she struggled with knowing Sirius was right and hating it anyway. Didn’t Asteria and Malfoy have a right to remember what they’d been through?

But perhaps if she hadn’t tagged along, Snape would have been able to rescue them without having to hide Sirius and Harriet’s involvement in order to protect his position. Maybe Asteria and Malfoy would’ve been able to keep their memories then.

And perhaps something worse would have happened, she thought. There’s no knowing. You made your decision and that’s that.

But she still carried that lump of guilt around. And how was she supposed to act around Malfoy and Asteria now? Well, Asteria more than Malfoy -- she’d avoid him as much as she could, the way she’d always done. That bloody business on Valentine’s Day, when they’d found Karkaroff dead, hadn’t brought them any closer together; their summer adventure wouldn’t either, especially if he couldn’t remember it.

She leaned her head against the back of her seat and watched London ebb into the countryside as they headed north.

 Although he was back in familiar places, Draco felt unfamiliar. It was as if he’d changed while everything else hadn’t, like he didn’t quite fit anymore. He didn’t appreciate the feeling at all.

For instance, he was sitting in the Prefects car waiting for the meeting to start. He should have been pleased with the prospect of having extra power to lord over people, and dimly he still felt he ought to make something of it; but his uppermost thought was wondering what the point of everything was. More troubling even than that, too, was the sudden intrusion of thoughts that he knew didn’t matter, such as whether Asteria had ever finished her painting of the lake. Who cared about paintings, even at the best of times?

His father had been very vague last night about everything. They’d had dinner in the restaurant of The Golden Lyre, where Weasley couldn’t have even afforded a single spoon, and Father had made a lot of grand statements that Draco couldn’t really follow, about destiny and duty.

“Make yourself useful to the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor,” he’d said. “Indispensable. Tell me why.”

“Power confers power,” Draco recited.

Father nodded and poured Draco a small measure of golden wine. “Never neglect that lesson, Draco.”

Draco had sipped his wine and wondered where Potter fit into all that. He knew better than to ask. Talking about Potter wouldn’t be cheeky; it would be. . . dangerous. His father was dancing around something that made Draco feel like his chest had been Transfigured into a block of ice. Something to do with Draco's summer-long trip to his cousins', with his mother's silence, his father's odd behavior. . .

Potter was the enemy. She was as much a champion of Mudbloods and blood traitors as Albus Dumbledore. But last February, Snape had told him that Potter had faced the Dark Lord three times. And she was still alive.

Something dug into his side, jerking him out of the memory. He was sure he’d lifted bodily off the seat before he realized the pointy thing jabbing his ribs was only Pansy’s elbow.

“It’s the Mudblood and the Weasel,” she hissed.

Everyone was staring as they entered the compartment. Granger sat down in such a way that Weasley partially blocked her from view. She was carrying a cat, of all things. It was hideous and enormous and sat curled up on her lap like a sentry.

“Too bad she didn’t pop off,” Pansy muttered in his ear. “Would have rid us of one more Mudblood. One of the worst.”

The Head Boy and Girl, some insignificant Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff, called the meeting to order. Draco didn't pay attention. They weren’t important. According to his father, Dolores Umbridge, the new professor, was the only power that mattered. He was more interested in watching Granger and the Weasel. The Weasel looked protective, a lot like the cat; they even had similarly colored fur -- hair. Normally he was gormless and unconcerned; now, he was meeting the eyes of the staring Prefects with the same kind of unblinking challenge as the cat on Granger’s lap. And Granger. . .

Draco had never seen her not making an obnoxious nuisance of herself. But today she was quiet and tense and merely taking notes. Every now and then she’d stop and shake out her hand, like it was cramping, then get back to writing.

“Why doesn’t she use a Dicta-spell?” Pansy whispered. “Stupid Mudblood. . .”

Nobody knew what had happened to Granger. Dumbledore had announced that there had been an accident and that Potter had been involved, but exactly what the accident had been was unclear. But Granger had been sent up to St. Mungo’s in February and hadn’t come back till now.

Draco remembered the darkness and the dust below ground, the feeling of wondering if he’d ever be found, the pain and hunger that went on for days, the taste of decay between his teeth. . .

A weird shiver passed through him, like some thread, as delicate as a spider’s web, had just trailed from him to Granger.

He didn’t like it one bit.

Weasley met his eye, and the challenging look hardened.

Draco sneered and looked away. 

 Harriet tied off the end of Hermione’s plait, wishing it didn’t look so wonky. “I think I pulled it too much to one side, sorry.”

“It looks. . . fine,” Hermione said, touching it. She smiled to show that her hesitation hadn’t been about her odd plaint but from her words not working properly.

“Looks good to me,” Ron said.

Hermione had a little smile on one side of her mouth as she pretended to examine her hair in the compact mirror. There was something private about that smile, so Harriet stood to stash the brush and give her time to straighten her expression.

“Looks like we’re coming into Hogsmeade station,” she said, glancing out the window at the lanterns outlining the distant platform in the gloom. Sure enough, the train was dropping speed, and in the corridor noise swelled as people threw open doors and rattled around.

Luna drifted out of the compartment ahead of them; Harriet and Ron, pretending to hunt around for things they'd supposedly dropped during the ride, were really waiting until the hubbub died down, for Hermione's sake. Finally, when the corridor had mostly emptied, they decanted themselves onto the platform.

Hermione was holding Crookshanks right across her chest, almost like a shield. Her lips were pressed together into a tight, straight line, and her eyes turned toward the castle. Its lights glittered on her irises, and perhaps it was that which made her expression so hard to read.

Harriet put an arm behind her back, steadying her. When Hermione met her gaze, Harriet thought it wasn't just the lights making her eyes so bright.

“First years this way!” called a voice that was definitely not Hagrid’s. It was Professor Grubbly-Plank, who’d sometimes taken over his classes before, holding a lantern to guide the first-years toward her.

“Where’s Hagrid?” Hermione asked Harriet, voice hushed.

“We -- heard,” she said, exchanging a look with Ron, “that he’d gone to do something for Dumbledore this summer. . . but other than that we don’t know--”

“I don’t think it’s a very nice night for walking,” said Luna, materializing so suddenly out of the thinning crowd that they all jumped.

“What?” Ron asked, as bewildered as the rest of them.

Luna turned her large, pale eyes his way, making him edge back a bit.

“The carriages will be leaving soon,” she said complacently. “We don’t want to miss them. I think it will rain.”

The air did feel thick and heavy, with a bite of cold that hinted of storms. The only light in the darkness shone from the lanterns on the platform or from the train’s windows. They grabbed their trunks and made for one of the last carriages standing.

Those weird horse things were still there.

One turned its skeletal black head, following Harriet with a milky eye. She’d completely forgotten about them. The end of last term hung in her memory like a fog, but now she remembered seeing them, and Ron asking, What horses?

She put out her free hand, hovering her palm in front of its leathery nose. Its thin, wide nostrils flared, and it stretched its gleaming black head toward her --

“Harriet?” asked Hermione, leaning out of the carriage.

Harriet pulled her hand back and hauled herself up next to Hermione, shutting the door with a snap.

Severus watched the children pour into the Great Hall, though not from any pleasure in seeing the little rotters. He was waiting for a particular one.

And there she was -- with Granger of course. Weasley’s fox-colored hair bobbed above them, a match for the enormous cat in Granger’s arms. She stopped, addressed some remark to Harriet, and then fought against the student tide until she’d disappeared into the Entrance Hall again. When she returned, her arms were empty. She took Harriet’s arm and was towed in her wake to the Gryffindor table, Weasley forming a one-man honor guard behind.

Students pressed and squashed themselves out of Harriet’s way, as if she was projecting a magical field around her. There was a kind of blazing look in her eye, like she’d walk through you if you didn’t get out of her way.

“How is Miss Granger?” Flitwick was asking Pomfrey.

“Pleased to see she’s up under her own steam,” Sprout said.

“Her progress has been considerable,” Pomfrey replied. “Not as much as she wants, but as much as can be expected. She’s very determined. She’ll be having her familiar with her this term -- you all received the memo, yes?”

Murmurs of assent. Pomfrey said, “I’ll be instructing her on how to use it in a Healing capacity, but for your separate subjects, you all should have greater insights -- ”

Wouldn’t Granger enjoy that, Severus thought: extra instruction from him. He might permit Harriet to tag along. To keep an eye on her, naturally.

Pomfrey was trying to get his attention by laying her hand on the table next to his.

“Have you met her, Severus?”

For a second he thought she meant Harriet, Granger, or possibly even the enormous orange cat. Then his brain shuffled over the part of the conversation he’d tuned out: they’d been gossiping about the new Defense professor.

“I’ve been busy all day,” he said. After waking up from a dreamless sleep, he’d smoked and drunk coffee and thrown himself into a difficult project to erase the hours.

“You’re in for a treat, then,” murmured Sprout. “When Minerva joins us, that is.”

“Ah,” said Flitwick, straightening a spoon that didn’t need it. “Best behavior, now.”

Indeed, there Dumbledore came through the side door, escorting a woman who looked like the unfortunate victim of a botched Transfigurations spell. It wasn’t just that she was short and squat with bulbous eyes and a wide mouth, or that the black bow in her curly hair looked rather like a resting fly; it was the look in her eye -- not stupid, exactly, but not quite clever either. It was a sort of intelligence with a very specific purpose. In a word, it was malevolence.

Flitwick straightened his knife.

Severus had known all kinds of nasty people in his life; he was one himself. But he didn’t need any self-knowledge to know that this woman was going to be trouble.

Dumbledore held out a chair for her at the end of the table. Sitting, she was hardly shorter than standing.

As he went to his own chair, Dumbledore touched Severus fleetingly on the shoulder.

Severus met the headmaster’s eye as he tucked himself into his chair. Well, the last four Defense professors had tried to kill Harriet.

He glanced at the toad woman, whose eye had turned toward the Gryffindor table.

If that was the game she wanted to play, Severus would be her opponent with pleasure.

He’d killed the last Defense professor, after all.

After the Welcoming Feast, in the mass chaos of children moving off to their dorms and whatever pestilential business they’d get up to there, Severus slithered away from the staff table to corner two of them in particular.

“Miss Granger,” he said coldly, looming out of a conveniently placed shadow.

Granger gave a start like Longbottom in Potions class. Harriet turned and folded her arms at him with a frown he could only label “disapproving.” Behind them, Weasley did a fair impression of looming himself.

A sense of loss, almost sadness, darted through Severus quite uncharacteristically; they were moving out of childhood, but it wouldn’t be the same for them as for countless other children he’d watched grow up. This generation’s growing-up would be far quicker and more violent. Especially for these three.

“We must discuss your changes this term,” he said, putting a sneer on it for the show of things. “Miss Potter, you may accompany her. Weasley, move along.”

“I -- sir, my p-refect duties,” Granger stammered.

“I have cleared it with your Head of House.” He’d done no such thing, but he'd get to it eventually. He’d also be able to weasel out of the staff meeting and thus having to listen to Umbridge; wouldn't Dumbledore be thrilled. “Weasley, you do have Prefect duties. See to them.”

Harriet made a ‘go on, it’s all right’ gesture at Weasley as Severus turned away. At the head of the stairs, Granger’s monstrous orange cat slipped out of the shadows and jumped up into her arms.

He escorted the girls-plus-cat down to his office and pointed them in. Harriet sat and Granger followed her lead. Taking his station behind his desk he surveyed them in cold silence, a tactic he always employed to make students nervous.

Granger clutched her cat. Severus got the sense, from the cat’s unblinking yellow eyes and gently lashing tail, that if anyone tried anything on Granger, they’d find themselves with a face full of small tiger. You’ll be the first, it seemed to say.

“This is Crookshanks, by the way,” said Harriet, falsely casual.

Granger shot her a look of incredulous panic. Harriet seemed to realize that treating Severus the way she always did in private wouldn’t be good for her friend’s heart, because she hurried on:

“Is this about the familiar stuff Hermione’s going to be learning?”

“In part,” said Severus. “There are also your own lessons. You will accompany Miss Granger and we shall split the difference.”

“All right,” said Harriet. "Fine."

Granger sent her the most pleading scolding look he’d ever had the pleasure of witnessing.

“I assume from Miss Granger’s lack of surprise,” he said coldly, with a pointed stare for Harriet, “that she is aware of the nature of your lessons.”

“Hermione’s trustworthy,” Harriet said, with a pointed stare of her own.

(Granger made a noise that might have been a moan of horror.)

“For that matter,” he said, ignoring her, “you ought to accompany Miss Granger to all her extra lessons, not only mine. It will raise less suspicion that way.”

Harriet frowned but nodded.

“I will notify you of the appropriate time. The lessons will of course need to coordinate with your other subjects. In the meantime,” he fished a fat green book out of his desk and pushed it toward Granger, “read this -- thoroughly.”

Harriet’s expression said he didn’t need to tell Granger to be thorough, but she’d apparently decided to give her friend’s nerves a break. She confined herself instead to a bold half-glare while Granger flipped through the book (Familiar-Based Spellcasting: Theoretical Principles and Practical Applications) and her cat sniffed the spine.

“Thank you, P-rofessor,” Granger said. Her voice was very soft, almost small. It was the first time she’d spoken since entering the room. In a flash of insight he wondered if Harriet’s impertinence was a tactic to distract and even shield her. Harriet was acting differently -- more for show than from her usual blunt honesty and transparent candor.

She met his eye with a sort of ‘oh yeah?’ look. At the same time, he felt a funny twinge somewhere at the bottom of his ribcage. 

Granger glanced between them uncertainly, reminding Severus that even if her motor skills were impaired, her cognitive abilities weren’t.

“Keep an eye on our new. . . professor,” he said.

“Huh? Why?” Harriet asked.

“I’m sure Miss Granger already noticed the danger,” he said smoothly; they both looked surprised. “If that inspiring little speech of hers escaped you -- she is a Ministry plant.”

“Why would they care?” Harriet asked, looking honestly bewildered. Granger appeared to know exactly what but probably doubted her ability to get anything out.

“Have you forgotten that you were abducted off the street? Your lovely kidnappers wanted to know if the Dark Lord had returned. Where do you think they got that idea? The Headmaster has been making people nervous for the past six months. Fudge is convinced he’s trying to destabilize him. Our Minister had previously confined himself to defaming newspaper articles, but now he’s stepped things up. Umbridge isn’t here to merely keep an eye on us; she’s here to interfere. With the Headmaster and with you,” he added, because he'd forgotten to bring his flashing banner with footnotes.

Harriet looked to Granger, seeking confirmation there. When Granger nodded, Harriet turned thoughtful.

“Lie low, if you’re capable of it,” Severus said. “You may go.”

Harriet opened her mouth, but Granger seized her sleeve and said, “Thank y-you, Professor, have a good--”

Her throat worked, but nothing came out. A look of frustration bordering on anguish crossed her face.

“Good night,” Harriet said quickly, with a stare that dared him to comment, the same way a sharp sword might dare him.

Granger, her cat under one arm, dragged her out the door. It shut behind them, leaving him with the silence in the dark.

He leaned back in his chair and shut his eyes, feeling far too old and tired.

Then his memory replayed his parting remark. He’d just baited a Gryffindor. And not a garden-variety Gryffindor, either: he'd baited Harriet Potter to lie low.

”Fuck,” he groaned. 

 “I can’t believe--you!” Hermione squeaked.

Crookshanks swaggered in front, tail held high. The halls were empty by now, everyone else having shuffled off to their dorms. The torches sketched streaks of light across the deep shadows, flaring on Crookshanks’ flame-colored fur as he padded ahead.

“I talk to him like that all the time." Harriet meant to be soothing before realizing that admitting to constant snipe-sessions with a teacher, especially Snape, would not be information calculated to make Hermione feel any better. 

I know, I only -- can’t believe he puts up with it.”

Harriet had some ideas about that, but she wasn’t going to air them. She hadn’t told Hermione what Snape had shared last February. She hadn’t told anyone, and she didn’t intend to. Ever.

“So do you really think he’s not being paranoi--”

Hem hem.”

Hermione gripped Harriet’s arm as a shape loomed out of the shadows for the second time -- but unlike Snape, with his scimitar nose and gaunt planes, this shape was round and squat with gleaming eyes. As the torch-light revealed the new Defense professor, Harriet didn’t feel exactly relieved. And not just because Snape had warned them about her five minutes ago.

“It is past curfew,” she said. Her voice was sweet, but sweet like that horrible perfume Aunt Petunia wore.

“Y-yes, Professor.” Hermione clutched Snape's book like it was Crookshanks, who wound between Harriet's feet. “We were just--”

“Professor Snape needed to talk to us,” Harriet said when Hermione’s words ran out.

The professor’s eyes gleamed. Umbridge -- that was her name; Harriet remember now -- asked, “Oh yes? And has he given you a note?”

“I would think the word of a Hogwarts Prefect would be enough,” said Snape’s icy voice.

Both Harriet and Hermione jumped that time. Snape oiled out of the shadows, one of his trademark sneers on his face. Not for the first time, it struck Harriet that he ought to look like a cartoon villain -- beaky nose, glittering eyes, stringy hair, always draped in black. Instead, he looked like a bloke who’d shown up to a casting call for the Grim Reaper and been told he would frighten the audience too much.

“Professor Snape.” Umbridge’s face was hard to read in the knitted shadows, but her voice was still ever-so-sweet. “You were not present at the staff meeting.”

“I’m glad you have a firm grasp of the obvious,” Snape said. (Hermione made a quiet choking noise. Harriet wanted to laugh but also felt indignant: he’d told them to lie low, only to turn right around and bait the Ministry plant himself.) “Miss Granger, Miss Potter -- do stop cluttering up the hall and return to your tower.”

Without a word, Harriet towed Hermione off. Crookshanks jumped up onto Harriet’s shoulder -- she staggered a bit under his weight -- and watched the adults over her back, tail lashing in her face, as she hustled Hermione around the corner and out of sight.

You two,” Hermione moaned, hauling Crookshanks off Harriet.

Harriet had to work not to let herself smile.

Outside the Fat Lady, Hermione whispered, “Harriet. . . wait.”

Obediently she stopped. Hermione’s expression on the Hogsmeade platform had hovered between determination and fear. Right now, it was much closer to the latter.

Harriet reached out and stroked her hand down Crookshanks’ fur. He purred, closing his eyes and butting into her hand.

Some of the rigidity left Hermione. For a moment she pressed her forehead against Harriet’s hair. Then she straightened, chin held high, and said, “I-indefatigable.”

The Fat Lady swung outward, and they climbed into the portrait hole.

At their appearance the common room fell silent -- and then erupted in noise.

Hermione leapt backwards, crushing Harriet’s foot, but Harriet, gripping her shoulders to steady her, realized the din was -- applause.

And then she saw, above the fireplace, a huge banner, with tumbling sketches of an orange cat that was probably supposed to be Crookshanks:

Welcome back, Hermione!’

She pointed. Hermione’s eyes roved across it and her lip trembled.

She burst into tears.

“Oh, Hermione.” Angelina emerged from the gathering crowd and pulled her into a gentle hug, while Hermione sobbed on her shoulder. “It’s so good to have you back.”

Chapter Text

Harriet woke up with her wand poking her in the eye.

“Ugh,” she said, swatting it away and rolling over.

It swooped back and poked her in the bum.

She sat up and grabbed it, snarling, “Finite incantatum!”

Okay, so she should’ve really known better than to trust an alarm spell the twins had given her. Double ugh.

She flopped back down, only to have the dubious pleasure of something now jabbing her in the ribs. Glaring at her wand, which now lay peacefully on her counterpane, she rolled over and groped underneath her back.

Oh. Regulus’ diary. Right. Last night she’d lain there paging through it, listening to the others puttering around, Hermione muttering to herself and whispering to Crookshanks, until all the lights went out. She’d figured she would just wait to see if Hermione needed anything. . . then Regulus’ handwriting had gone awfully swimmy, and she’d closed her eyes just for a bit. . .

She thumbed through the stiff old pages for the place she’d left off, now listening to the others get up and shuffle around.

“It’s torture, having to get up this early,” said Lavender. “And after staying up so late last night! I have bags, Parvati.”

“Here, borrow my concealer, and some of the green eyeshadow will balance it out--”

“Foyle’s principle of alchemical transifiguration says. . .” Hermione muttered.

Sev invented another of his stupid spells, Regulus wrote peevishly. This one sticks your tongue to the roof of your mouth. It was funny when he used it to shut up my arsehole brother (Harriet’s stomach did a little flip) but he should know better than to turn it on his friends, the traitorous wanker. I told him that if he wanted to keep on my good side, he ought to keep his little spells for his enemies, but he just told me to blow him

“Harriet?” Hermione asked through the curtain.

Harriet yelped and shoved the diary under her pillow.

“I’m -- awake.” Her voice came out strangled.

“Are you all right?” Hermione sounded seconds away from pulling the curtains open. Harriet wondered if she could manage to Obliviate herself in the next two seconds.

“Yeah,” she said roughly, “I only -- used some stupid spell of Fred’s to wake me up -- ”

“Oh dear,” said Hermione.

Harriet yanked the curtains back, hoping that whatever her face was doing, it could be passed off as embarrassment over the spell and not at -- good God, please let her not have Potions today. She didn’t know her schedule yet. She might. Oh God.

“Harriet?” Hermione looked alarmed. “What did that spell do?”

“Never. . . never mind. Just -- if I kick them when I see them, pretend you didn’t notice.”

“Well.” Hermione gave her little half smile. “As your best friend. It’s the least I can do.”


“Crookshanks isn’t coming down?” Harriet asked, as she and Hermione took the stairs to the common room. The torches on the wall flickered in deep shadows that looked almost as thick that morning as they had the night before; the sky past the tiny windows was rainy-grey and even looked cold.

“No,” said Hermione, “I started reading Professor Snape’s book--”

Harriet remembered he told me to blow him, and knocked her head on one of the low lintels.

“Harriet! Are you all right?”

“Yeah, fine.” She rubbed her new bump. “Guess I got taller. You were saying, the book?”

“Well.” Hermione took Harriet’s arm and steered her along. “Until I can start learning how to use him, there’s no need for him to be there. And classes can be. Quite chaotic -- can you imagine Crookshanks in Charms? With the amount of things. That go flying in there?”

“Oh dear,” said Harriet.

“I wanted to be learning all this over the summer, but the Healers all said. I shouldn’t rush.” Hermione’s tone suggested she’d clearly been in the hands of a bunch of quacks. “‘There will be plenty of time. W-once the term gets started.’ I don’t know where they imagine this extra time will come from--”

She continued venting as they crossed the common room. Harriet looked around for Ron but didn’t see him anywhere. She didn’t have the opportunity to ask anyone, either, as she didn’t dare interrupt Hermione, who towed her straight out the portrait hole.

Puffing up from the seventh-floor corridor, a red-faced Ron skidded to a stop when he saw them. His expression was extremely guilty before he wrestled it under control. Harriet wondered what he could have been doing this early that would make him look so cornered, and have covered him in. . . mucus?

“Ron!” Hermione sounded relieved, then bewildered. “What’s. All over your robes?”

“Er.” Ron swiped at the mess ineffectually and made a disgusted face at his hand. “Mimbulus Mimbletonia?”

“You’re asking us?” Hermione said, as Harriet said, “Mimble-what-a?”

“Neville’s got a new plant, spits stinking sap at you.” He wiped his gluey hand on another dirty patch on his robes. The tips of his ears were bright red. “I was just going to change.”

He dashed past them into the portrait hole before Hermione could get another question out.

“Seeyouatbreakfast!” they heard from his departing blur.

She and Harriet traded confused looks.

“What’s he doing up so early?” asked Hermione.

“Getting covered in stink sap, I guess.” Whatever it was, Harriet felt it was her duty as a friend to distract Hermione until Ron firmed up his lie, which he’d clearly pulled out of his ear. “C’mon, let’s pile him a plate. So, what else did Snape’s book say?”

Snape. Diary. Blow--



Of course Potions was today.

Double potions.


“History of Magic, double Potions, Divinations, and double Defense,” Ron, now free of sap, groaned. “Who cursed us?”

Harriet was just grateful Dumbledore still thought it was a good idea to keep her out of Divinations. Last spring, she’d used the spare period to practice for the Tournament. Currently the spot between Potions and Defense said, “SEE HEAD OF HOUSE.”

Her head of house being occupied by Hermione just then, she poked Ron’s arm, on which he’d laid his head in defeat. “So what were you doing out this morning?”

He peeked over his arm, spotted Hermione in discussion with McGonagall, and relaxed. “Skiving Snackboxes,” he muttered from the corner of his mouth.

“Those things Fred and George have been working on?”

“They were giving them to first years for free,” he said darkly. “Testers, you know. I didn’t want Hermione to see -- she’d flip -- so I told them to use that empty classroom down the hall. Only they make you bleed and puke like crazy, and some of it got on me.”

Down the table, Hermione smiled and nodded at McGonagall, her who gave her a rare, slight smile in return before turning away. Ron started talking very fast out the corner of his mouth.

“Anyway, don’t say anything, would you, they had a sign on the common room board and I made them take it down, but they’re still gonna -- hey there,” he said with a terribly suspicious heartiness as Hermione joined them. “Everything sorted?”

“Yes.” Hermione’s motor control wasn’t in top form, but there was nothing wrong with her brains. She pursed her lips. “You’re acting. Odd.”

“You just haven’t seen me in a while.” He flinched, just a bit; Hermione’s lips thinned out, and her eyes went farther away.

“I’ve always been odd,” he added, ears going red again.

“It’s just the shock talking,” Harriet said, holding out his schedule for Hermione to skim.

The far away flatness in her eyes passed away as her mouth twisted in wry amusement. “Oh dear.”

“Think it’s too late to hire myself out as a test subject for St. Mungo’s?” Ron asked gloomily. “It’s got to be better than Binns, Snape, Trelawney, and that Umbridge woman all in one day.”

Hermione shook her head, a little smile round her mouth, and turned to greet Neville, who had arrived late clutching a plant that looked like an alien fetus in a pot.

“Maybe ask Fred and George for a Skiving Snackbox,” Harriet muttered, under cover of everyone rising for the first period.

Ron snorted. “They told me they’d give me a discount. Turns out you can’t stop bleeding yet.”


For their first lesson of the year, Severus liked to give fifth-years the most complicated and fiddly potion they could even slightly reasonably be expected to perfect. Feeling ironic, this year he’d chosen the Draught of Living Peace, a potion designed to calm anxiety and soothe agitation.

And speaking of agitated -- Potter certainly seemed like she could use a dose. She was acting. . . odd. At first he thought it was another attempt to distract Granger from her own problems, but she looked too genuinely harassed. She’d smashed a bottle of powdered moonstone, banged her head on the underside of her table as she was cleaning it up, and burnt her hand on her cauldron (which the Vow had not appreciated). Luckily Granger could be relied on; he’d caught her eye and jerked his head at the front, and she’d scurried up.

“S-ir?” she squeaked.

He clapped a little green bottle on the desk. “I trust you can read,” he said witheringly.

Clearly bewildered, she picked it up, read the label, and then with widening eyes stammered, “Yes-sir. Thank you, Professor,” and scurried away again.

Ten minutes left, thank Merlin. But then Potter would be out of his sight, and who knew what she’d manage to do to herself.

“A light silver vapor should now be rising from your potion,” he growled at the room at large, which was filled with a hideous miasma of multi-colored steam. Peering through the clouds, he could see Granger rubbing the burn salve on Potter’s hand.

Potter looked up, met his eye, inhaled the gray mist rising from her cauldron, and started coughing.

Now what?


Harriet had to pretend she’d forgotten her Defense Against the Dark Arts textbook to escape from Hermione’s questions. Her brains were definitely not impaired; she’d put together Harriet’s weird behavior before breakfast and squirrelly behavior during Potions and was convinced that she’d been either hexed or poisoned. At lunch she ignored her smothered pork chops to grill Harriet:

“Was it that spell. Of Fred and George’s?” she demanded. “Did someone s-slip you something? We can go. To Madam Pomfrey--”

“I’m fine, seriously -- no, really, I’m just -- it’s just an off day, okay?”

“It’s the Monday from Hell,” Ron said sagely. “And we haven’t even had Umbridge yet.”

Hermione was not convinced. Harriet tried filling her own mouth with shepherd’s pie so she could have an excuse to answer in shrugs.

“I’ll be fine,” she said when forced to swallow. “Look, do you need anything from the tower? I’ve got to go get my Defense textbook, I forgot it--”

She gulped a few more mouthfuls of pie and guzzled some pumpkin juice. Hermione watched her with her lips pressed together. Harriet could see the relays in her brain firing away and decided that she’d better get out of there yesterday.

“Can’t be late for my meeting with McGonagall,” she said, and beat it.

The worst part, she had to admit as she wandered upstairs, was not being traumatized: it was not knowing what came next. She’d had to leave off in that sentence, and she didn’t know the conclusion. Or the next story. Or the next.

She glared out the nearest window at the iron gray curve of the lake below. Dimly, she seemed to remember she’d had some sort of plan to avoid and forget about Snape. At some point, at least. She’d managed to ignore him last term. . . but then all that stuff over summer had happened. Now, apparently, she was screwed. If she wasn’t in class with him, she was reading about him in that stupid diary -- or hanging about in hallways thinking about him.

It’s all his bloody fault, she thought, kicking moodily at the wall. Git. Tosser.

She rounded the landing to the next staircase and almost ran into a completely different tosser.

Malfoy looked, for a moment, quite shocked to see her; then he recovered his sneer. It did not suit his face the way Snape’s sneer suited his.

(For shit’s sake--)

“Where are your cronies, Potter?” Malfoy asked. As he made a show of looking around, she thought he was paler than usual, and not from his usual aristocratic fear of tans and freckles. There were dark smudges under his eyes and his hair didn’t look quite as lacquered into place.

Seeing that, she was less angry than she might’ve been. He was still, however, deeply annoying. “Same place yours are, I expect. At lunch?

You’re not there.”

“Amazing, your powers of observation.”

She definitely remembered her resolve to avoid Malfoy, and decided to put it into practice. Hitching her bag higher on her shoulder, she moved around him. “Shove off, Malfoy.”

He made as if to grab her arm but snatched his hand back, perhaps because she had glared so hard, it made her face hurt.

“Fine,” he snapped. “I don’t know why I bother.”

Now that didn’t make any sense. Bother with what? “Me neither,” she said honestly.

Malfoy straightened his robes, gave her a look of contempt -- again, nowhere near Snape’s caliber -- and flounced off. He probably thought it was a dignified exit. She could have told him it wasn’t.

Maybe she should mention this to Snape. . .

“Ugh,” she said aloud. “Shut up.”

A painting on the wall, full of ladies with gigantic panniers and powdered wigs, tittered at her. Annoyed, she flipped them a rude gesture in reply, and caught sight of her watch. She’d better hoof it to McGonagall’s office if she didn’t want to be late.

She had to hop on the bannister and dash along the corridor, and came up to McGonagall’s door panting a little, one minute past the mark. Professor McGonagall threw open the door before she could even knock.

“Miss Potter,” she said sharply, but she ushered Harriet in with an almost gentle hand. “Do have a seat.”

Despite getting in trouble frequently, Harriet hadn’t spent a lot of time in McGonagall’s office. Unlike Snape (gnnnnrrrrgh), who she was sure had made his office especially menacing just for the purpose of hauling students in there and scaring them out of their wits, Professor McGonagall preferred to dole out punishments and lectures wherever she caught you.

Harriet sat in a chair across the desk from McGonagall, who swept her skirts aside as she took her seat.

“Later this year,” she said, “you will be receiving Careers Advice. Considering, however, the. . . unusual nature of your schedule, we might as well have it now. Have you given any thought to the career you wish to pursue once you’re out of Hogwarts?”

“Er. . .” Harriet could honestly say she had no idea. Leaving Hogwarts seemed as foreign an idea as going to the moon. “Not really?”

McGonagall looked at her over the tops of her glasses. Her face said she was neither particularly surprised nor impressed. Harriet resisted the urge to sit straighter in her chair.

“It isn’t necessary to make up your mind now. But it would be advisable to give yourself some direction to explore. So that will be your first task,” she said briskly. “You will draw up a list of possible careers to look into.”

She pulled open a drawer on her desk and withdrew a packet of pamphlets. The one on top flashed garish colors. MAKE A BANG AT THE DEPARTMENT OF MAGICAL ACCIDENTS AND CATASTROPHES, it declared.

“Here are some. . . basic ideas,” said McGonagall,giving the color scheme a look of distaste. “By next week, I want to see a foot of parchment each for your top three career interests, and half a foot on your next two, for a total of five.”

Harriet dropped the packet. “Four feet? But Professor--”

“This is a vital year in your education, Miss Potter. You might as well get used to the workload. In fact,” she said pointedly, “I advise your getting started on it right now.”

Harriet felt she should’ve been awarded points to Gryffindor for the effort it took to suppress her groan. “Right. I mean -- yes, Professor, thank you.”

Out in the hall, she looked down at the bright stack of pamphlets. Just after lunch on day one, and she already had essays from Binns and Snape to write, and was sure to get more from that Umbridge woman; tonight was her first mind-reading lesson; and now she had this careers’ homework. And the absolute worst part, for sure, was wondering when she was going to have time to keep reading Regulus’ diary.

“OWLs can blow me,” she muttered.


Defense Against the Dark Arts

A Return to Basic Principles

As those words wrote themselves on the board, Umbridge turned to face them with a smile that made Harriet think of Snape’s warning.

Umbridge isn’t here to merely keep an eye on us; she’s here to interfere -- with the Headmaster and with you.

(Though he hadn’t specified how Umbridge might ‘interfere’ with her.)

She pressed her thumb against the nib of her quill and watched Umbridge come to stand in front of her desk, her hands clasped at her waist.

“Well now.” Umbridge’s voice was sweet in a way that was definitely not sweet. “Your teaching in this subject has been rather disrupted and fragmented, hasn’t it? The constant changing of teachers -- many of whom do not seem to have followed any Ministry-approved curriculum -- has unfortunately resulted in your being far below the standard we would expect to see in your OWL year.+

“You will be pleased to know, however, that these problems are now to be rectified. We will be following a carefully structured, theory-centered, Ministry-approved course of defensive magic this year.+

“I should like you to turn to page five and read ‘Chapter One, Basics for Beginners,’” said Umbridge. “There will be no need to talk.”+

Trading gloomy looks, they all pulled their books toward them. Ron, chin propped in hand, was flipping idly through the chapters. Harriet found the first chapter and reckoned this would make her job a lot easier: it should be a cinch to stay out of Umbridge’s way if she was bored to death.

Beside her, Hermione drew in a breath and slowly raised her hand in the air.

Umbridge gazed directly at her, and then turned her eyes away.

Hermione sat up straighter and kept her hand where it was.

After a few minutes, Ron gave up reading to watch Hermione too. And then Parvati. Next Seamus; Dean; even Neville. Soon nobody was even trying to pretend to read, and Umbridge finally had no choice but to address her.

“Yes, Miss. . . ?”

“Granger,” said Hermione. “I have a question about the course aims, please, Professor.”

“Well, Miss Granger,” said Umbridge, with a smile that had probably never made anyone feel any better, “I think the course aims are perfectly clear, if you read them through carefully.”

“I don’t,” said Hermione, and Harriet was thrilled to hear that her voice didn’t waver. Under the desk, though, on her knee, her free hand curled into a fist. “There’s. Nothing written up there about. Using defensive spells.”

Using defensive spells?” Umbridge repeated with a horrible titter. “Why, I can’t imagine any situation arising in my classroom what would require you to use a defensive spell, Miss Granger. You surely aren’t expecting to be attacked during class?”

Her tone made it hardly a question, but Hermione didn’t back down. Harriet saw the knuckles on her hidden fist go white. She wished she could signal to Hermione how her heart had lifted with pride, but Hermione’s entire focus was on Umbridge.

“But surely, the whole point of Defense Against the Dark Arts is to. Practice defensive spells?”

There was some nodding from their classmates, and a whisper swept through the room. Umbridge’s eyes went flinty, but her wide smile didn’t waver.

“Are you a Ministry trained educational expert, Miss Granger?” she asked, sweetly.

“No, but--”

“Then I’m afraid you are not qualified to decide what the ‘whole point’ of any class is. Wizards much older and cleverer than you have devised our new programme of study. You will be learning about defensive spells in a secure, risk-free way--”

“But there will be. A practical portion of our OWL. Aren’t we. Supposed to show that we can actually perform. Counter-curses and other spells?”

“As long as you have studied the theory hard enough, there is no reason why you should not be able to perform the spells under carefully controlled examination conditions,” said Umbridge dismissively.

“Without. Ever practicing them beforehand?” Hermione’s voice did waver then, maybe with indignation. “Do you mean that. The first time we’ll get to do the spells. Will be during our exam?”

The whispers swept back through the room, louder this time. That time, Umbridge’s smile almost looked like something else.

“I repeat, as long as you have studied the theory hard enough--”

“But--” Hermione said.

“I understand, Miss Granger, that you suffered an. . . unfortunate accident last term.” Umbridge’s voice dropped some of its fake sweetness. “I should think that, after the disaster that befell you, you would be wary of performing magic far beyond your abilities.”

Someone gasped. It took Harriet a moment to realize it had come from herself. Everyone else had gone dead silent. Ron’s hand, on the edge of her vision, clenched on his book, crumpling the page.

“That wasn’t what happened!” Harriet said, her angry voice loud in the sudden absence of sound.

“Harriet!” whispered Hermione, sounding, for the first time, upset.

Harriet almost turned to look at her, and maybe that would have stopped what happened next; but Umbridge had fixed her pouchy eyes on her, and she couldn’t -- wouldn’t -- look away.

“What other explanation could there possibly be?” Umbridge asked, sweetly soft.

“It wasn’t Hermione’s fault.” Harriet’s voice, unlike Hermione’s, wasn’t steady. The graveyard--

Hermione on the ground--

Kill the Mudblood,” the memory of Voldemort’s cold voice--

Wormtail’s rising arm--

The arc of blood--

She heard own voice, as if coming from outside the room, “It was . . . an attack.”

“An attack?” Something glinted in Umbridge’s muddy eyes; Harriet realized the classroom was totally silent, as if everyone had forgotten to breathe. “Who do you imagine wants to attack children like yourself?”

Hermione’s hand dug into Harriet’s hip. A memory of Snape’s cold voice snapped through her memory: Umbridge is here to interfere. With the Headmaster and with you.

She swallowed her words, her throat hot and tight with fury. Umbridge narrowed her eyes. One of her thumbs brushed over the other, her hands still clasped in front of her.

“Well,” she said, her eyes flicking between Harriet and Hermione. “Miss Granger, since your skills have proven woefully insufficient, I should think you would welcome the opportunity to practice in a controlled, risk-free environment.”

She turned and returned to sit behind her desk. The class was dead silent. Hermione’s hand still pressed against Harriet’s thigh, as if she didn’t dare move it for fear Harriet would explode.

“You may resume your reading,” said Umbridge, sweet again. “There shall be no more foolish questions. Perhaps, Miss Granger, if you learn to listen rather than talk on matters about which you are clearly ignorant, you shall learn something this time.”

Hermione motionless on the ground, the snow scored and stained with blood--

Harriet was on her feet, her head filled with something hot. Hermione clutched at her arm and whispered her name, frantic.

“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”

Someone behind Harriet gave a muffled bleat. Umbridge’s face went blank, and for a second Harriet thought she’d scream at her, or perhaps laugh.

“Come here, Miss Potter,” she said softly.

Harriet kicked her chair aside and strode up to the desk, past a thicket of staring eyes. Umbridge made her stand there while she pulled out a piece of pink parchment, smoothed it, picked up her quill, and scratched out a note.

When Umbridge looked up and met her eye, the hair on the back of Harriet’s neck prickled.

“Take this to Professor McGonagall, dear,” said Umbridge softly.

Harriet snatched it from her fingers and swept out of the room. Once the door was shut, she smashed her hand against her face and leaned against the door.



Severus remained on alert the rest of the day but felt nothing from the Vow. Deeply suspicious, he went up to dinner and found Potter sitting at the Gryffindor table in a mood so foul and furious, he could feel it across the Great Hall. Although impressive, it told him nothing.

And he couldn’t just ask Minerva. If he sat down and started chatting about any of the students as if he cared, she would think he was another Polyjuiced intruder.

He now saw that being as unsociable as humanly possible for the past thirteen years might have its drawbacks.

So he made to snap up the seat next to Dumbledore. But somehow, the toad beat him to it.

“Ah, Professor Snape,” she said in her horrible syrupy voice. “What a lovely coincidence. I had been wanting to speak with you.”

Over her head, Dumbledore sent him a swift look: a kind of warning that he didn’t like at all. What was she up to?

“Yes?” he asked coldly, forced to take the seat next to her. Well, at least it gave him a good view of the Gryffindor table.

“Professor Dumbledore was just telling me that Miss Potter had. . . extra lessons with you, starting this evening.”

Severus looked as disinterested as possible. He was good at that. He spooned cabbage onto his plate with even more disinterest.

Umbridge, realizing that he wasn’t going to elaborate, continued: “I am to inform you that these lessons must be adjusted. I require Miss Potter in detention with myself.”

A small atomic bomb seemed to go off in his head. All conscious thought was obliterated in the blast. No -- not quite all: one thought remained:

I am going to kill her.

“My lessons cannot be adjusted,” he heard himself say. “I established them with Miss Potter at her guardians’ request.”

Umbridge’s voice became even sweeter. “Her guardians are Muggles, are they not?”

“I believe you will find that incidental,” he said with, he felt, admirably bored disdain. “They are still allowed to make requests and have them honored, with sufficient cause.”

Umbridge’s face, arranged into a cloying little smile, took on an ugly shadow.

“Very well,” she said softly. “However, these lessons cannot be very frequent, I am sure. It would clearly be favoritism for a student to monopolize the time of one teacher.” She gave a girlish titter that made him feel quite more violent than usual.

“Naturally,” he said coldly. “You may have her tomorrow, if you like, but I will not be rearranging my schedule.”

“Of course not, Severus,” said Dumbledore. “Your time is absolutely valuable. And how did you find your first day, Dolores? We didn’t finish going over your suggestions. . .”

Severus let the Headmaster snag her attention. He felt it leave him like a gluey residue and knew he hadn’t shaken her. He’d only put her off for a time.

But he would worry about that later. His eyes fell on the Gryffindor table, and he gripped his fork hard enough to feel the scalloped relief dig into his palm.

He’d told her only last night to steer clear of the simpering menace and she’d landed herself with detention in the first class.

And she would be explaining that to him.


After dinner, there was no time even to drop off their books before they were expected at Snape’s lesson. The entrance to the dungeon stairs seemed even more foreboding and dark than usual, as if it was sucking in all the light.

Hermione’s hand brushed against hers, then hooked their fingers together. Harriet glanced at her -- like Malfoy, she was paler than usual -- and received a nervous little smile.

“It will -- be all right,” Hermione said, though Harriet didn’t know exactly what she thought would be all right. She was lucky if Snape stopped at trying to bite her head off.

Well, let him. Her temper burned in her chest in a hard, bright ball.

“Who do you imagine wants to attack children like yourselves?”

She marched up to Snape’s classroom door and raised her fist to give it a good pounding, but it swung open before she could try. She grit her teeth.

Deprived of something to hit, she stomped inside the classroom and glared around. Even though the dungeons never got natural light and should look the same at any time of day or night, after dark their shadows seemed deeper, the light more fickle. Her skin wanted to shiver in the chill.

The door to Snape’s office opened from the darkness at the edge of the room. When he manifested in the gloom, she saw she had underestimated his temper, even after all this time.

“Miss Granger.” His voice was deadly, and little more than a hiss. Behind Harriet, Hermione drew in a sharp breath. “You will get on with your reading while Miss Potter and I discuss a few things.”

Putting her chin up, Harriet marched past the rows of desks. The fury in his black eyes snapped like a leaping flame. She glared back and swept past him into the office.

The door slammed shut and lit along its edges, as if with bogfire -- a silencing spell, probably, because Snape’s face twisted and he let loose.

“What did I TELL YOU?” It almost came out in a shriek, and for a second Harriet found this hysterically funny before her temper obliterated any spark of humor. “Less than a day after my advice to stay out of her way--”

“She said it was an accident!” Harriet snarled back.

“I don’t CARE what she said--”

“That it was all Hermione’s fault--”

“She was goading you! I told you--”

“VOLDEMORT,” Harriet yelled, and Snape flinched like she’d thrown one of his nasty jars at his head, “almost KILLED Hermione and that -- that cow was standing there, saying it was all Hermione’s fault that she’s got -- that she can’t --”

She spun and kicked at one of Snape’s chairs, jarring it across the floor. Her breath was hot and painful in her chest. She wanted to shatter all of his jars.

“What are you talking about?” Snape asked in a deadly voice.

“She -- Hermione was arguing with her about her stupid course aims -- and when Hermione wouldn’t back down, she said -- Hermione was practicing magic beyond her abilities --”

I told her to run and she wouldn’t leave me. They took her because she was my friend.

“She got hurt because of me.” Her voice shook again. Suddenly she remembered crying in his office two years ago, and felt a swoop of horror at the thought of it happening again. She pushed her glasses up and dug her fingers into her eyes. No way, no way--

The room was totally silent. Snape’s fire, something creepy and green, didn’t even crackle.

“Miss Granger ‘got hurt’ because that is what the Dark Lord does,” he said coldly. “I believe numerous people spent a great deal of time stressing this last term.”

Thankfully poking herself hard in the eyes had squashed the urge to cry, and she could turn around. “Well, yeah--”

“Then you know better.” He glared for good measure, or glared harder, really, since he’d been glaring the whole time. The green firelight pulled shadows across the bones of his face in a way that made her stomach flip. “Umbridge was goading you -- as I warned you she would,” he added with asperity. “You let your temper get the better of you.”

This was so rich coming from him that Harriet was momentarily speechless. Oblivious to her struggle, he went on:

“How do you expect to protect yourself and your -- Miss Granger if you are rendered powerless by every ignorant insinuation? Umbridge should be beneath your notice.”

“Wait, you told me to watch out for--”

“Umbridge can make your life very difficult,” he tossed his hand in an impatient, aggravated gesture, “but that is her only power. The Dark Lord, however. . .”

“Yeah,” she said, her heart beating suddenly tight again. “My memory doesn’t need refreshing on that.”

“I am pleased to hear it,” said Snape coldly, like he didn’t believe her at all. She couldn’t believe she liked this bloody git.

Then something occurred to her, as suddenly and horribly as if Snape had dumped the contents of one of his creepy jars over her head. These were mind-reading lessons. And her mind was full of him--

“. . . need to learn to clear your mind,” Snape was saying, and then a book hit her in the nose.

“Shit! What was that for?”

“You weren’t paying attention!” Snape snapped, but he looked upset. “I was floating it to you, you should have had ample opportunity to observe a large object crossing the room to you! This is exactly what I am talking about,” he snarled as she rubbed her nose and glared at him. “You have no priorities, no focus--”

“Maybe you and Umbridge should get together and list all my short-comings,” she said sarcastically. “I bet she’s thought up a few you’ve left out.”

Snape looked like he wanted to strangle her. Well, good; what went around came around.

“Let me see your nose,” he snarled.

“It’s fine,” she said coldly.

“I’m sure, given your vaunted powers of remembrance, you’ll remember that I know when it hurts.” He angled his wand at her nose; she brought the book up to her face to shield it, thinking, ‘Vaunted powers of remembrance,’ could you sound more like a tosser--

“There’s nothing wrong with my sodding nose!” But the reminder of the Unbreakable Vow made her anger a little less hot. She suddenly remembered him calling Hermione to the front of the room to give her a burn potion, and the anger slipped even lower.

“What’s this mouldy old book about anyway?” she said, by way of a peace offering.

“Occlumency, what else?” He pulled the book away and pointed some spell at her nose; she didn’t feel anything, but his wand’s tip lit faintly pale blue. Whatever that meant satisfied him, for he dropped his arm and moved away.

“You will read it,” he said, making it sound like a threat, “and--”

“Not more essays,” Harriet said, horrified.

His face lit with a smile of spiteful pleasure.

“Now that you mention it,” he said silkily.

“You’d just have to read it. Surely you don’t want something else to read? After all the fifth year essays you’re going to get?”

Snape’s expression was impossible to interpret. Harriet didn’t think she’d ever seen that one on his face before. It didn’t look angry, but she couldn’t tell much else about it. Likely because anger was his default setting.

“I suppose I should spare myself,” he said. She wanted to be relieved, but was too suspicious of anything from Snape that looked like capitulation. “But if you do not read it, Miss Potter, I will know.” He let that formless, but no less menacing, threat hang in the air for a moment, possibly so they could both savor it. “And if I hear of you receiving any more detention from that woman--”

“No more detention,” she said quickly. “Lots more reading.”

That odd expression flickered over his face again, but he merely pointed his wand at his office door, which swung open.

“Go,” he said tightly. “Start reading. And send in Miss Granger.”

When Harriet lugged the book into the classroom, Hermione leapt to her feet. Her face, white and rigid, flushed with relief.

“What?” Harriet was able to smile just then. “Afraid he’d killed me and gone off to hide the body?”

“No, of course not,” Hermione whispered, but she clutched Harriet’s hand with unconvincing fervor.

“It’s fine.” Harriet patted her hand. “I think I defused him. You can go in.”

She sat down at the desk Hermione had chosen and stared at the old book Snape had given her. Just looking at it filled her with an odd mixture of terrible boredom and something almost. . . light.

She sighed and put her head down. The cool wood of the desk felt good against her flushed forehead.

“Great first day back,” she muttered.

Chapter Text

The Dark Lord, having little respect for the duties of a Head of House during the opening days of a new school year, had scheduled a Death Eater meeting at a very inconvenient time. Unfortunately, he wasn’t likely to review to a memo on the subject.

So Severus dumped on Filch the detentions he’d accumulated during Tuesday’s bad mood, and made his way to Malfoy Manor.

Narcissa had a servile house-elf answering the door, but Severus’ cloak hem was barely over the threshold when she herself appeared. Her eyes glittered, but she reached out both her hands to take his with perfect poise.

“Severus, my ewe lamb.” As she leaned forward to kiss his cheek, the scent of her perfume - violets - folded around him. Her hands were cold.

“Narcissa.” He offered her his arm; she accepted with grace. “It hardly seems flattering to observe that I would rather be here in your company than in the society of those little human pustules at Hogwarts. I’d rather smash all my toes with a hammer than put up with them.”

“Naturally. I take the compliment in any case.”

They ascended the curving staircase, rising through the draping shadows. Narcissa had inherited a house designed by pure-bloods at least five centuries ago, when tastes had been Gothic and lugubrious; she had done a great deal with wallpaper and marble but been careful to retain the sinister air. Like a proper pure-blood wife, she had learned everything about the history of the manor that had been duly recorded, and the first time Severus had been permitted across the threshold as a young man, had detailed the exact history of the black candelabras that flanked the foot of the stairs and the Malfoy responsible for the leering gargoyles in the crown mouldings. At the time he’d been impressed - not so much by the architecture as by the weight of history, the prestige of owning such a place by blood. These days he only wondered what fathead had wanted to stare at those bulge-eyed monstrosities every day. Probably they’d never looked up at the ceiling.

The library doors swung silently open at Narcissa’s approach. Firelight burnished the walls and poured deep pits of shadow into the corners. Everyone was gathered already; Severus was the last. Lucius had arranged himself near the Dark Lord and taken on the office of dutiful listener. In this he had to compete with Wormtail, who had no pride or shame at all. Severus was almost amused at seeing the two of them vying to be the bigger toady.

The Dark Lord glanced over and met Severus’ eye, with a glint of amusement that, for a split second, warmed him as it had always done, and then left him absolutely cold. It was an old look - one of the tricks the Dark Lord had used to appeal to him when Severus was twenty. Witness these fools, the look said. You and I are not like them. You and I understand more than they do.

Get a grip, he snarled at himself. He was here to work, not to grovel to his shriveled conscience.

Narcissa peeled away as Severus knelt to the Dark Lord. The fire from the hearth lay like a scalding shroud on his icy face.

“You’re late, Severus,” said the Dark Lord, but he made a slight signal that permitted Severus to rise. “Did the students keep you?”

A titter traveled through the Death Eaters ringed in a wide crescent around the fireplace. Severus ignored them. It wasn’t as if they were laughing at anything funny, anyway.

“As they always do, my lord.”

The Dark Lord gave a dismissive wave of his hand, allowing Severus to melt into the crowd. He joined Narcissa a few paces to the side: still within sight of the Dark Lord, but only if he turned his head. Sixteen years ago he’d have been bitterly jealous of Lucius’ stance at the fireplace, of Pettigrew’s cringing spot at the Dark Lord’s left hand. He’d have gulped at any opportunity of putting himself forward.

What a fucking idiot he’d been.

Harriet would be in detention with Umbridge by now. He hoped, without much hope, that she would behave herself, and then wondered how he could even think it was a possibility. He’d met her.

“And how is the Minister’s stooge fitting in, Severus?” the Dark Lord asked. Another titter swept through the room, but was quickly choked off when the Dark Lord glanced over. Now was apparently not the time for appreciative giggling.

“I hear she has been sent to discover the truth of what happened to Harriet Potter and her Mudblood friend,” the Dark Lord continued. “Do relate what you told me, Yaxley.”

Yaxley stepped forward, looking proud to deliver tedious Ministry gossip. Kingsley Shacklebolt had already reported on this, and Severus suspected Dumbledore had known it before confirmation was even possible.

“The Mudblood-loving Headmaster,” said Yaxley, dutifully insulting, to the usual banal murmurs of agreement, “still has had no success convincing the idiot Fudge” (All right, Severus agreed with that one) “that you were behind the attack, my Lord. He has sent the Umbridge woman to obtain the truth.”

“A spy in your midst, Severus,” said the Dark Lord with a tinge of amusement. This time he permitted the resultant laughter. “And how is she progressing?”

“She already has the girl--”

Severus’ throat caught as a sudden pain pierced him; only by dint of long training did he manage to keep talking.

“-- in detention, my Lord.”

“Hm. I had no idea anyone within the Ministry could be so enterprising,” said the Dark Lord.

The pain itched across his skin like little marching ants, and with it came a rising panic. What is she doing? She’s supposed to be in detention. . .

“That is one word for her, my Lord,” he said, hoping he sounded tolerably composed.

“My Lord,” said Lucius, attracting the Dark Lord’s attention -- no doubt from jealousy, but Severus didn’t care as long as he made himself useful. “My son has informed me that the detention was the result of. . .”

Severus took stock. Unless he’d been surreptitiously cursed, which he tended to doubt, even in this crowd, Harriet was in pain. If she was indeed in detention with Umbridge, which was likely, and if Umbridge had been sent to root out information that Dumbeldore had already offered freely to Fudge, then Umbridge must be the source of the pain.

He would not make a feeble excuse and rush back to Hogwarts to commit instant homicide. He had a job to do. He would -- be calm.

(If only it wasn’t like trying to stop the tide by scooping up water in a little cup and throwing it back into the waves)

Physical sensations. They were grounding. He’d practiced this.

Take stock of yourself, fool.

He felt like someone had dumped him in a bath of itching powder. Even the inside of his nose burned. But the pain was not debilitating, which meant it wouldn’t be to Harriet either. It was acute but stable -- if she were being seriously tortured, his sensations would most likely be peaking and subsiding. And if she were in real danger, he would be suffering more than a full-body itch and a throbbing in the back of his skull.

But he couldn’t think of anything Umbridge would be doing that would result in pain of this nature, and that was almost as hard to deal with as the need to stay put.

You cannot leave, you daft cunt. You have a mission here. She is not in danger or you’d be on the floor.

But she was being hurt, and he had to fucking stand here like a stuffed vulture and listen to this inane, self-important, obsequious fucking chit-chat.

A pleasant fantasy of murdering Umbridge shifted to daydreams of murdering everyone in this room. To keep himself busy, he went through a list of curses he would use as the clock ticked and the Dark Lord droned on.

“. . . presence must be turned to our advantage,” he was saying. “We were successful in luring the child from the school once before, with an ally inside Hogwarts’ walls. . . Umbridge can become our tool, though she will have no idea. Put forth your thoughts, my loyal followers. How can she be of use to us?”

This -- this is why he was here -- to learn information that could be got in no other way. Dumbledore had his spies in the Ministry, but Severus was the only one in this circle. No one else could do this job; that was why he did it. . .

The ideas were predictably stupid enough to try the patience of a saint, which certainly described nobody in this room. He filed them away anyway. He suspected the Dark Lord held these little conferences in order to amuse himself with the idiocy of his followers, and to reassure himself that he really had done a good job of picking the biggest morons in England for his henchman. The Dark Lord had always had a few Death Eaters who could find their arse with both hands, but for the most part he deeply mistrusted intelligent people. These meetings must go a long way to helping him sleep at night.

Blood boiling curse for you, Severus thought as Dolohov suggested they take a leaf out of Fink and Nottle’s book and ambush Harriet on Hogsmeade road, hopefully killing her friends in the process.

Flesh-peeling would do nicely in your case, he thought at Crabbe, who offered his son as a proxy to poison her.

After each idea was presented, the Dark Lord gave a pithy summation of its suitability as a plan, which was to say he insulted it. This only made the others eager to clamber with their own ideas, to be rejected as the stupidest thing their Lord had ever heard. Severus was surprised someone didn’t suggest Imperius-ing Umbridge in the bathroom of the Three Broomsticks; that had been a go-to move fourteen years ago.

“Place the Imperius on her when she visits Hogsmeade, my Lord,” said Lucius. “Then she will be able to carry out our bidding.”

I’ll just strangle you with my bare hands.

The throbbing in Severus’s head was deeper now, and he wasn’t entirely sure it could be attributed to whatever was happening in Harriet’s detention -- which, whatever that was, was still going on.

Umbridge wouldn’t be able to become the Dark Lord’s stooge if Severus killed her. . . Murder was sounding better by the second.

People were starting to move about, to mutter to each other, shake hands, look at the time. The meeting was breaking up. The Dark Lord must have had his fill of fatuous remarks.

“Severus?” Narcissa was still at his side. “Will you stay and take tea?”

Judging by her tone, she desperately wanted to talk to him. Had something not been wrong with Harriet -- but tonight there was no choice.

“To my regret I must return to Hogwarts at once.”

“Of course. If you see Draco--”

Someone bumped Severus roughly as they squeezed past. “Out of the way, Snape,” said Yaxley.

It was said to rile him, but it was not remotely creative. In fact, it was one of the lamest attempts to be insulting that Severus had been subjected to recently, which included the names the first year Gryffindors called him behind his back.

Severus’ wand was already out. “Oh, Yaxley. . . Do watch where you’re going.”

Then he hexed him in the face.

The angry cuts on the back of Harriet’s hand felt like they’d been written in fire. Taking a deep breath, she stuck her hand under the icy stream of water coming from the bathroom faucet. The sting gave her a good opportunity to bring out some of Snape’s choice swears.

Speaking of Snape, she’d been expecting him to charge into Umbridge’s room before she’d written to the end of the first line. But the office had remained distinctly Snape-free.

That’s good, she’d told herself. If he told me to stay out of Umbridge’s way, then he should take his own advice.

And yet, with each bloody mark of the quill-tip she’d dragged down the paper, she’d wondered where he was.

A towel wrapped around her right hand -- blood was already spotting through the paper -- she fumbled in her school bag with her left. Last spring, after Hermione’s abduction, she’d started carrying around the Map and her cloak. But after solemnly swearing, she couldn’t find any dot labeled ‘Severus Snape.’

She frowned over the dungeons, the Great Hall, Dumbledore’s office, even -- her insides feeling cold by this time -- the Astronomy Tower, where Snape liked to prowl and surprise students out for a moonlight canoodle. As far as she could tell, all of Hogwarts was Snape-free.

And if Snape, who’d sent down a salve after Harriet had just burnt her hand a little, was nowhere to be found after she’d spent an hour carving her hand open at the will of an evil toad, then he had to be with --

The bathroom door scraped open. As if her heart weren’t jumping at her throat, Harriet wiped the Map clean and looked up as calmly as she could.

In the deep shadows of the doorway, a pale sweet face surrounded by long fair hair stared back.

“Asteria!” Harriet said in surprise, her pang of relief braided up with guilt.

Asteria’s smile trembled across her face, but then vanished when she saw the towel wrapped around Harriet’s hand. “Oh! What happened?” she whispered, as if they might be overheard.

“Cut myself.”

“Won’t you go to Madam Pomfrey?” Asteria’s hands reached forward, as if she would take Harriet’s injured one. Harriet pretended to fuss with her bag strap, to draw her hand away.

“Was just going there,” she lied.

“I’ll come with you. That is --” Asteria, still unused to asserting herself, shrank a little. “If you w-would. . . let me.”

Since Harriet hadn’t had any intention of going to Madam Pomfrey and showing what was actually on her hand, she very much wanted to refuse; but turning Asteria down would be like throwing a kitten to a manticore.

“It’s nothing, really,” she said. “I don’t want to bother her.”

Something flickered in Asteria’s gaze. Harriet wished she hadn’t put the map away, so she’d have something to fiddle with. She had a feeling she wasn’t being very convincing at all, and the longer they stood there staring at each other, the more her flimsy excuses would come apart.

“I’m not keeping you from. . .” She gestured at the toilet cubicles. “I hope?”

“Oh, no. I came in here because I saw you running past.” She bit her lip, like she thought she was overstepping.

“Oh,” was all Harriet could think of in reply.

Asteria’s eyes searched Harriet’s face. Harriet couldn’t meet them; she looked away, fiddling with the towel, which was melting into her hand as it soaked up her blood.

“Can I. . . see your hand?” Asteria asked quietly.

Harriet felt a curious lump in her throat. “It’s nothing,” she repeated, roughly.

Silence. A pipe dripped somewhere, the plaintive echo of falling water.

“Please?” Asteria asked, even more quietly.

Harriet blinked swiftly. Chancing a look at Asteria, from the corner of her eye, she saw her face set with resolution, but also something that made Harriet’s throat feel caved in.

She held out her hand.

Asteria’s eyes widened. Gingerly, she took Harriet’s hand and unwrapped the sodden towel. It slithered down into the sink. Still with extreme gentleness, she titled Harriet’s hand so she could clearly read the letters, in Harriet’s own handwriting, cut into her skin: I will show respect.

A spark flared in Asteria’s face; her jaw flexed. For a moment, she looked like somebody ready to fight. Harriet observed it in fascination, forgetting that her hand still throbbed.

Then it faded, and Asteria looked disturbed instead. “What is it?”

“Don’t get detention with Umbridge,” Harriet said dryly.

Asteria swallowed. “She did this?”

“Well, she sort of has you do it to yourself. There’s a quill.” She shrugged at the expression on Asteria’s face, her skin feeling tight and uncomfortable. “It’s not a big deal. I don’t. . .” She squeezed the fingers of her good hand together. “I just don’t want -- a big deal made of it. It’s fine. I’m fine.”

Asteria was silent a moment or two. “Will you let me . . . tend it?”

“. . . Sure,” said Harriet, surprised.

Asteria led her down to a little alcove on the first level of the dungeons. A section at the top opened to the air, like a window with no glass, leaving the small space thick with the scent of algae and wet earth. Harriet perched on a recessed stone bench carved into the wall and dragged the map out again.

Still no Snape dot.

The back of her hand burned.

If he was in the castle, he’d certainly have come. And the only reason he wouldn’t be in the castle was if he was -- with him. And she’d seen Snape suffering from the Vow’s feedback loop. . . if Voldemort should realize something was wrong --

Her throat felt like she’d swallowed an ice cube. Her only consolation was that this time, her injury was minor. Maybe he wouldn’t be too distracted.

Soft footsteps echoed down the hall; her heart jumped -- but Snape walked completely soundlessly. A moment later, Asteria swung round the corner, carrying a little battered leather satchel in both arms. She set a fat little jar of something mint green on the bench between them, a role of gauze, and a pair of scissors.

“Where’d you learn how to do this?” Harriet asked, impressed, as Asteria spread some kind of stinging paste over the inflamed letters on her hand. Within seconds, a cool tingling washed across Harriet’s skin.

“I just read some things, I suppose.” Her touch was gentle and light as with a wet cloth she dabbed the excess paste away. “I had. . . wondered if there were herbs or things to take to. . . calm one down. You know. Because I get so. . .”

She ducked her head, bending over the little bag she’d brought.

“Were there?” Harriet asked.

“A few. But none for. . . what I really needed.” She brought out a roll of clean white bandage and began to wrap it around Harriet’s palm, then over her wrist to secure it. “But I learned other things too. And then after this summer. . .” Her voice caught, but she said steadily, “Well. I told you. After that I - thought it would be good to prepare some things - to know. . . this.”

Harriet’s sense of guilt felt like a tennis ball sitting in her chest.

“How were you after the. . .” She couldn’t think of a good word for it. “After all that?”

Asteria’s grip tightened on Harriet’s hands, then released. Her face was turned down, slightly away, and Harriet couldn’t read her expression. Should she bend down to look, or was that being interfering?

“I have - nightmares,” Asteria said in a rush. Her grip tightened again and stayed. “The darkness, the falling - and sometimes I dream. . .”

Harriet had a sense of foreboding, though at what? She waited, not wanting to scare Asteria’s confidence off.

“Sometimes I dream that Draco and I weren’t - alone. That something found us.” She suddenly released Harriet’s hands and stood, tucking her hair behind her ears, before sitting again and clasping her hands tightly together in her lap. “I don’t even know what but - I just. . .”

“. . . I know,” Harriet said heavily, wishing she could tell her the truth.

Asteria’s eyes darted up to her face and away, but she’d turned her upper body toward Harriet, as if asking for more.

“After - last February. I’d dream about it all the time. Sometimes it was every night, and then sometimes it would drop off and I’d think, oh, I’m better, and then - ”

“It came right back.”

“Yeah.” That was all Harriet could say, if she wanted to protect Snape’s and Sirius’ secret. She knew very well why Asteria was dreaming of someone finding them. Maybe she should tell Snape.

“Harriet. . .”

“Hm?” Harriet glanced at her, but Asteria hid whatever she was feeling behind an unconvincing smile.

“Nothing. How is your hand now?”

She flexed her fingers; her palm was now wrapped snugly in its bandage. It still stung a bit when she moved it, but beneath the bandage the skin was cool and faintly tingled. “That’s loads better, thanks.”

Asteria shook her head and placed fat little bottle of that minty paste in Harriet’s good hand, along with a roll of bandage. “Try not to get it wet in the shower. In the morning, you should re-wrap and reapply. Or you can find me before breakfast and I’ll do it for you. It’s hard to do one-handed.”

Harriet shot her a sharp look, and saw perfect, quiet understanding in her face. Her own mouth tugged up in a half smile, though her throat felt too small at the thought that Asteria knew what it was like to want to take care of her problems alone.

“You have to use this stuff a lot?” she asked, because she had to know.

“Not particularly,” said Asteria, seeming quite honest. “But I know. . . what it’s like to take care of things by yourself.” She was plaiting a piece of extra bandage between her fingers. “Daphne. . .” She trailed off, looking down at her bandage.

“She’s not in any trouble?” Harriet asked sharply.

“I don’t think so. Well. Not. . . no,” she said, clearing up absolutely nothing.

“Well,” Harriet said. “If she ever is. . . I’ll help you.”

Asteria’s smile stretched her cheeks. She ducked her head, nodding at her mangled bandage scrap.

“You always do,” she said a moment later, as if she’d had trouble getting it out.

Harriet felt that old pang of guilt, but figured that, strictly speaking, that summer she had helped. Asteria just didn’t remember it.

She gingerly placed her damaged hand adopt of Asteria’s where they worried at the old bandage, and squeezed.

“So do you.”

Asteria turned her palms over and held on.

Harriet’s wristwatch chimed - a charm Hermione had put on it to alert her of the hour. She groaned. “Guess I should get back to Gryffindor.”

“Oh, it’s after curfew,” Asteria said, worried. “Will you be all right?”

“Yeah, I’ve got the Cloak. Various people think I should carry it everywhere now.” She smiled to take away some of the harshness of the necessity, but Asteria didn’t look relieved. Harriet supposed she wouldn’t.

“Thanks for this,” she said to change the subject, raising her mummified hand. “It feels loads better.”

Fixing her bag over her shoulder, Asteria only ducked her head to hide her smile, the way she always did for praise.

They turned the corner to the foyer where the staircase lay, and almost walked right into Snape.

Harriet put out her arm as Asteria teetered backward; she grabbed on. Snape, too, had swayed back, and he drew himself up to his full height -- which was a lot to Harriet, but, she noticed, not very much to Asteria. Hot relief spread through Harriet’s middle at the sight of him, even a rush of fondness when she saw his face flash with the fury that would definitely precede a vicious telling-off. If only he didn’t look like he’d just been kicked out of a tomb for scaring the other corpses. His red-rimmed eyes stared out of deep hollows, and he was breathing through his yellowed teeth. Harriet edged a little in front of Asteria in case Snape really went off, though Asteria was so much taller that Harriet wouldn’t be much of a shield.

“It,” Snape hissed, “is past curfew. Just what do you think you’re--”

His eyes fell on Harriet’s bandaged hand. Unless Harriet was mistaken, they even bugged out a little. It was almost funny, except she was afraid he was going to have a heart attack.

She couldn’t tell him. If this was what he was like before he knew --

“Miss Greengrass,” he said in a truly deadly voice that made Asteria squeak. “You will return to your common room. Miss Potter,” he struggled like he’d been garroted, “you will come with me.

“It’s fine,” Harriet whispered to Asteria, squeezing her arm. Snape waited, practically vibrating, and then marched Harriet along to his classroom. He flung open the door with a crash; the torches flared as he stalked past, knifing pits of trembling light and deep shadow across his face and hair. Harriet had to admire the display.

She gathered all her determination and guile. If she was going to get out of there without him discovering what Umbridge had done, she was going to need it.

In his office, he spun around, his cloak swirling round his legs. Harriet prayed he wouldn’t trip; he might just explode and kill them both.

“What,” he said in a viper’s whisper, his finger pointing at her hand, “did. You do.”

“Cut myself.” It was true.

“Repeatedly?” His eyes seemed to stare out from some pit. The uneasiness grown by his absence had dissipated once she knew where he was, but a feeling of disquiet was creeping through her now. He really didn’t look well.

“Pruning a plant. It got me a few times, that’s all.”

“Really.” He could wield a simple word like a pruning knife. “Is that what your detention involved?”

She tried to paste a nonchalant expression on her face. From the way a muscle jumped in his cheek, she wouldn’t have bet on her success.

“I was just writing lines, that all.”

“Lines.” That one was stronger than a paring knife; more like a machete. “Let me see your hand.”

Shit. She stuck it behind her back. “You’ll just ruin Asteria’s hard work.”

His fingers jumped into a fist. “And why was Asteria helping you? Why not the estimable Madam Pomfrey?”

“It was Asteria I was helping with the plant. She knows all about this stuff--”

The pinpricks of light in the depths of his eye reminded her of a painting in one of the lesser used corridors, of a monk carrying a lone candle in the midst of drowning shadows, his face gaunt and haunted. Only Snape looked more like what could’ve been stalking him in the dark.

“Let. Me see. Your hand.”

“I’ve told you.” She stepped to put the chair between them, in the hopes that he wouldn’t deign to involve himself in a stupid game of chase. “You’ll mess it up.”

Snape watched her, eyes glittering. His hand flicked up, holding his wand. For an indignant second she thought he’d hex her; but then he said with deliberate precision, “Accio bandage.”

“Oy!” She grabbed the end as it went flapping loose and they engaged in a furious tug-of-war: him with his spell, and her yanking on her end. “Give it--back!”

“Very well.” He dropped the bandage, and then darted forward and seized her wrist. Her right wrist, because she’d used her right hand to grab the bandage, damn it--

He went completely still, staring at the back of her hand held up toward him, his long fingers curled around her wrist and the bottom of her palm. Her heart slammed against her sternum.

“This is your handwriting,” he said at last, in a voice so quiet it was louder than any alarm.

“I told you it was lines,” she said heavily.

His gaze met hers. Something stared out of him; some thought or emotion that made her whole nervous system shiver.

“Don’t kill her.” Her voice came out too loud.

That disturbing light stayed in his face; his focus didn’t waver. Then he dropped her hand and turned away. He wafted away -- his office so full of shadows, in the light of his indifferent fire, that he seemed to melt into them -- and opened the door to his personal store-room, which Hermione had once robbed.

Harriet was trying to rewrap her hand when he reappeared carrying a jar of something that looked like sickly honey.

“Miss Greengrass is not, apparently, without expertise.”

He set a bowl on his desk and upended half the goop into it. Was his hand shaking or was that the funky fire he kept in his grate? If only he’d turn up the lights like a normal person instead of skulking in the dark.

“This will work faster,” he said, shoving the bowl forward with the tips of his fingers. “Put your hand in it.”

Cautious but curious, she did, letting the bandage drop to spool on the desk. The stuff in the bowl did feel sort of like runny honey, cool and smooth and viscous, and had the same soothing feeling on her hand that honey did on her throat.

“Oh,” she sighed. “That’s -- nice. What is it?”

“Murtlap essence. Stay there.”

He melted back into his storeroom, while she sat with her hand soaking. When she flexed her fingers, the cuts didn’t pull at all.

Snape oozed out of the shadows with his own roll of bandage and another jar, this one full of little pink dittany petals.

“And what is dittany used for, Miss Potter?” he asked in his most astringent professor voice. Maybe he was feeling the strain of being helpful.

She pressed her lips together on an absurd urge to smile. He was fine. He’d come back in one piece. “Like I remember.”

He set the jar down with a little rap. “Scarring.”

“Oh. Yeah.” She looked at the words I will show respect floating crimson on the back of her hand. “That’d be useful.”

A blood quill. The livid words on the back of her hand, now resting beneath the surface of the murtlap, floated across his vision. He’d stood in Narcissa’s drawing-room listening to Death Eater posturing while Umbridge had had her writing lines with a blood quill.

Don’t kill her, Harriet had said. She had no idea.

Blood boiling, skin-flaying, eyeball-melting. . .

Only Harriet’s by turns- watchful- and- oblivious presence was keeping him from flitting upstairs and displaying his. . . displeasure. He imagined how good it would feel to see that bulbous face twisted in fear. . . Smashing Yaxley’s head against the floor would be only an appetizer. . .

But Harriet would follow him and try to stop him. He’d already murdered one worthless pile of flesh in front of her; she didn’t need to see it again. (The first time may have been a comfort, or it might have scarred her for life -- hard to tell.) No, she was sadly correct: Umbridge couldn’t be murdered.

It was good Harriet was here. He could indulge in the fantasy without needing to act on it. He was calmer now. Each little cup of water went back into the sea. She was healing; he knew she was well enough. He was left only with the pain of his little spat with Yaxley, a solidly grounding sensation of pain with no drawback, and before he went to bed tonight he could -- non-homicidally -- draw up a plan to deal with Umbridge.

Maybe a little homicidal. . . some sort of untraceable violence, perhaps. . .

“What’s on your lip?”

Out of reflex, Severus raised his (trembling) hand to touch it. He caught himself and put his hand back down, but it was too late.

“You’ve got a cut,” she said, as if she couldn’t believe he’d have the nerve to lecture her about injuries when he had one himself. “You’re bleeding.”

“Chapped lip,” he said quellingly, but of course it had no effect on the most Gryffindor of them all.

“There’s blood on your hand, too. I saw it just now,” she added when he exerted all his control over his movements and expression and held rigidly still. “What happened at that -- meeting?”

What happened they were plotting ways to abduct and kill you while I knew that piece of human shit was torturing you is what happened

“The most evil deeds you can imagine,” he said with biting sarcasm.

She pinched her lips together, narrowed eyes flicking over him like she was searching for a way in. He wanted to drag his robes around himself and shrink into the shadows. More fool he, for having an audience after going there. He had only himself to blame for this attention, this notice, at this time of weakness. Even in the cavernous shadows of his office, her eyes were bright and penetrating.

“How bad is it?”

In spite of everything, and in spite of himself, he was faintly impressed by her gumption. But he’d had plenty of evidence lately that she no longer found him frightening in the least.

Well. He remembered her face when she’d blurted out Don’t kill her. Perhaps a little bit frightening still.

“It’s none of your business.”

“Sure. Like my hand wasn’t yours.” She stood up, dripping murtlap essence. “Let me see.”

“Put your hand back in that bowl!”

Her expression wavered like she was trying to exert control over her temper, but she must have decided not to waste her time. A good instinct; Severus despised it when people controlled their temper at him.

“You can’t make a big fuss about my hand and then not do anything about yours!”

“I most certainly can.” In fact, his ribs were throbbing and it hurt to breathe; he was sure there was blood underneath his hair from the strike his head had made against the table; but he’d drink the bowl of murtlap essence before he told her about it. This pain was nothing; he was only tired. He was back at Hogwarts and she was in one piece. He would mend. “I am the adult.”

“Doesn’t mean you’ve got sense.”

Even he was struck momentarily speechless, and he didn’t think it was entirely the result of a knock-down drag-out fight in Narcissa’s drawing-room. He tried for his most dangerous voice, but he was pretty sure it only came out incredulous. “I beg your pardon?”

“If you’re supposed to be setting a good example for me,” she said, an unrepentant flare in her eye, “you aren’t if you refuse to take care of yourself. So. What are you going to do?”

He couldn’t believe his ears. “I’m going to throw you out if you aren’t careful.”

“With my hand still all messed up?”

She had him there, and her face said she knew it. He tried a different tack. “I’ll send you to Pomfrey.”

He knew as soon as he said it that he was wasting his time. She rolled her eyes at him. He should’ve been driven to a fury. The whole spat should have made him incandescent. He didn’t know why it hadn’t. He felt mostly bemused and bewildered, with a strange lump in his throat. Perhaps he’d been cursed worse than he thought. He’d better run a scan later.

“And I’ll tell her that you’re hurt, too,” she retorted. She folded her arms, then winced when it scraped her wound. “Ow. Look. Just -- do something about your lip and your hand and I’ll stick my hand back in the bowl. That’s not too hard.”

Reduced to bargaining with a teenager -- worse, one who couldn’t keep herself out of trouble for a single day. He consoled himself with the knowledge that she’d only seen a tiny portion of his injuries. He could hoard the rest to himself.

Let her have these two. Then she’ll relent. You’ll be left in peace.

“Hand,” he said in his most threatening tone. “Bowl.”

But he rose -- with a searing glare as she dipped her hand back into the bowl like an overzealous mime -- and trudged into his storeroom. He did not limp, but his knee kicked him for it. He brought down bottle of disinfectant and bruise salve, to apply to his lip and the cut on his hand, to pass her cursory inspection. He was lucky she had little experience detecting other people’s injuries or she would have realized he was hiding worse.

He needed to get her out of there soon, or she might catch on anyway. Even if, once she was gone, he would no longer have the certainty. . .

She would be in Gryffindor. Nothing bad had ever happened to her in Gryffindor. Wait, Black had broken in with a knife -- but he’d been after Wormtail, and had only slaughtered Ron Weasley’s bed curtains.

A madman running round Gryffindor with a knife. This was what he needed to be thinking about now, certainly.

“Better?” he asked with some of his finest sarcasm as he returned to his desk. He did not lean on it too heavily as he sat down, and he didn’t sag into his chair.

She gave him a serious look over, which again failed to have the usual effect of infuriating him. He pretended he did not wish he was lying down under his desk. If he could survive an evening with the Dark Lord and his evildoers, he could weather the probing attention of a fifteen-year-old Harriet Potter.

He hoped.

“It wasn’t. . .” She frowned. “Him, was it?”

He didn’t like being reduced to hunting for words. He wouldn’t tell her to mind her own business, though, not again. It would be a waste of breath.

“Another Death Eater. I started it,” he added when her expression grew stormy, wondering why he felt this information was necessary to impart. Surely it wasn’t appropriate; after all, he was always trying to get her to stay out of trouble. And as this little interlude had proven, she would be quick later to throw it back in his face.

She looked surprised, then smiled, seemingly out of reflex. It dropped quickly, replaced by worry. “What for?”

“I don’t like him.” He picked up the dittany and began spreading it across a bandage. “You may remove your hand.”

She was silent -- miraculously -- as he wrapped up her hand again. Or maybe not miraculously. Perhaps she was just gathering new ammunition.

The motion of his arm as he looped the bandage around her hand was soothing, even when his elbow throbbed. He could feel her watching him as he worked, but it did not trouble or distract him.

“When you didn’t show up in her office, I thought something might’ve happened,” she said quietly. “Especially when I couldn’t find you on the map later.”

He paused, then resumed securing the end of the bandage. “I am only thankful you didn’t decide to mount a ridiculous rescue mission.”

“Didn’t even occur to me.” She sounded tired.

He glanced at her face from the corner of his eye. He couldn’t interpret what lay on the surface, and he was in no state to delve deeper into memories.

“It is late.” His whole body cried out when he stood. “I will escort you back to Gryffindor Tower.”

“You don’t need to. I’ve got the map and my cloak.” She was already pulling the silvery fabric out of her bag. “Besides, you need to fix whatever else you got from that fight. Looks like your ribs.”

For the third time he was rendered speechless. She took the opportunity to swing herself beneath the cloak, shimmering out of sight. The sight of her face he caught before it disappeared was not smug but serious.

“G’nite,” the air at the door said, before it clicked shut.

He sat slowly back in his chair. He should go after her. Even with the cloak, she could still get in trouble.

He touched his lip where he’d hastily dabbed the antiseptic. It stung.

He closed his eyes and rested his aching head against the back of his chair. Just a moment’s rest, and then he would rally, and follow. . .