Harry could pinpoint the exact moment the Ministry went too far.
He could live with the harassment and the not-too-quiet expectations that he would be a Ministry puppet or a living piece of Auror propaganda. He could live with the barely hidden demands that he and Ron and Hermione return to Hogwarts for a proper seventh year and show everyone that all was peaceful and prosperous again. He could even live with the media following him, with the fans and the enemies, and the people demanding why he didn't end it faster, end it sooner, end it before their loved ones died, or their businesses burned down, or someone put them under the Cruciatus, or whatever made them decide that sucking up to Voldemort wasn't in their best interest after all.
The moment the Ministry turned its attention to the werewolves and the vampires and the giants – because they were all Dark and Voldemort supporters, obviously – Harry knew that they couldn't be allowed to continue.
Harry didn't know if Teddy Lupin was a werewolf, and he didn't give a damn. Remus Lupin had his flaws but he was a good man, and Harry would do anything in his now considerable power to keep the last piece of his family safe.
The Ministry had to be stopped. Not even The-Man-Who-Won had the power to do that, but Harry had never allowed a minor thing like that to get in his way.
It was that early September morning in Grimmauld Place, when Harry quietly got up, put aside the offending issue of the Daily Prophet, and left the kitchen to blast a dozen conjured statues to pieces, that he realised that Voldemort had won after all.
Harry Potter couldn't change the wizarding world. Dumbledore couldn't change the Wizarding World. Even Lucius bloody Malfoy at his political prime could barely keep the Minister and the Wizengamot from doing something idiotic the moment he turned his back. Voldemort managed to take over due to sheer bloody incompetence and cowardice on the part of his opponents, and not because of anything Malfoy had done.
There is no good and evil, there is only power and those too weak to seek it.
There was no fragment of Voldemort now to offer him his parents back. There didn't have to be. Harry had a godson to protect, and he had seen too many good people die to allow this kind of racist idiocy to pass.
The greatest factor for change in the British wizarding world in thirty years had been a Dark Lord.
The greatest factor for change in the European wizarding world in sixty years had been a Dark Lord, too.
Bad changes, sure, but they had been changes, which was more than he had seen anyone else manage.
Not Dumbledore. Not Malfoy. Not a line of incompetent Ministers for Magic.
If it would keep Teddy Lupin safe, then Harry would gladly add Potter to the list.
Hermione knew the moment she saw him. After their year on the run together, he didn't think he would ever really be able to keep a secret from her again, she knew him too well for that.
She had only just stepped into the drawing room in Grimmauld Place, Ron behind her, when she frowned in that uniquely Hermione way and then sighed. It wasn't the destroyed statues, he already vanished those again, but he wouldn't put it above her to somehow know about those, too.
The privacy wards that flowed from her wand were second nature to all of them these days, and Ron didn't even blink. Another year at the most and Hermione would be able to cast them wordlessly, just like Harry had the heavy-duty silencing ward on Walburga Black's painting down to an art.
“The Prophet?” she asked.
“The Prophet, the Wizengamot, really, the entire British wizarding world,” Harry replied with a shrug. “Tea? I just finished a pot.”
Hermione frowned again but allowed him to change the subject. “Yes, please. Don't think you're getting out of an explanation, though.”
“Never,” Harry agreed fondly. A well-practised spell and flick of his wand sent the pot, cups, and plates along with a pack of biscuits bobbing through the air in a parade from the kitchens below, up the stairs and to the small table. It still felt like an indulgence, to be able to use magic openly and for something so silly. “Ron?”
“Like you wouldn't believe.” Ron settled gracelessly in the old couch with the casualness of someone who had claimed the spot countless times before. “I've been helping dad with the Burrow all morning. Mum's ...”
He trailed off. None of them needed it spelled out. Molly Weasley had not taken the death of a son well, and George had all but retreated from the rest of the world.
“If I can help ...” Harry offered quietly.
Ron shook his head. “I wish.” He picked a cup from the bobbing line and just looked at it for a moment. “It's nice to have this place. I've still got Doxy bites from the box of tapestries in the attics but it's somewhere ... not home, y'know? I don't have to worry about staying something stupid here. Reckon it'll get better at home in time, but ...”
Harry probably didn't understand as well as he should, but he could still empathise.
“You've got a place here, mate. As often and as long as you want to stay. I still haven't got used to the silence when I'm alone.” He glanced at Hermione. “That goes for both of you. If the Burrow ever gets too much.”
Ron gave him a tired smile. Hermione reached over and gave his hand a squeeze in silent gratitude.
Comfortable silence settled. Harry picked the teapot and a cup from the bobbing line of kitchenware and proceeded to pour tea for Hermione. Ron picked a plate and the biscuits, and the next minutes were filled with the thin sound of porcelain against porcelain, tea being poured, and the soft tear of the paper that wrapped the biscuits.
Harry considered it a ritual by now. He had the timing down well enough that he'd usually at least put the water on by the time his friends appeared from the Burrow.
Both of them looked as tired as Harry felt these days. All the Weasleys were dealing with the loss of Fred, and while Hermione had chosen to leave her parents in Australia, they both knew the decision still kept her up some nights.
They're happy, she had said when she came back as she had left - alone. They never were before. I can't – I'm a Witch now. They were never comfortable with me. I can't take that happiness away from them again.
And maybe she couldn't, maybe it was the right choice, but her weariness was still plain, and Harry couldn't remember the last time any of them were truly happy.
Neville was at Hogwarts now, with the castle mostly restored and ready for students. So was Ginny, and Luna, and most of the others. Harry hoped they were coping better than he was.
The silence stretched on.
Finally Hermione put her cup down.
“You're about to do something incredibly reckless,” she told him bluntly. “I know that expression. Talk.”
“The only real source of change in the wizarding world the last century has been two Dark Lords. Bad changes,” Harry added before Hermione could, “but changes.”
“Horrible changes, Harry!” Hermione snapped. “Grindelwald was directly involved in World War Two! Voldemort would have continued where he left off – he had already started on the extermination camps!”
Harry took a slow breath. “I know. Believe me, I know. They were the Darkest, vilest bastards in centuries, but not all Dark Lords were. The Ministry routinely labels anyone that goes against them as a Dark. History is written by the victors. Herwald the Treacherous was a Muggle-born Dark Lord claimed to have brought the knowledge of Inferius-creation to Britain, but the Black library has books fifty years older than him that mention the process in disgusting detail. His cause was equal rights for Muggle-borns. That's it. He failed, he was tried and executed for high treason, and Muggle-born rights were set back a century.”
“You'd think 'Dark Lord' would have been enough without the whole high treason business,” Ron muttered. “Not much Dark Lord about fighting for Muggle-born rights, though, is there?”
Hermione looked a little pale. “The traditional punishment for a male convicted of high treason was to have him hung, drawn, and quartered. 'Dark Lord' meant they could strip him of his magic first. There were ... illustrations. I read that book, too, Harry.”
Ron looked a little sick. Harry didn't blame him.
Hermione squared her shoulders and gave Harry a sharp look. “Most of them were evil. They are called Dark Lords for a reason.”
“But not all,” Harry argued. “If he'd succeeded, we'd probably have known him as a hero on par with Dumbledore. He failed and history was written by someone else. If Voldemort had won, he would have made Dumbledore out to be the bad guy – oh, sure, probably couldn't get away with calling him a Dark Lord, but he would definitely have been made an enemy of all of magic in every history book out there. Working against the poor, innocent, righteous pure-bloods, encouraging common mudbloods to steal magic from their betters by offering them an education -”
“That's not what happened!” Hermione hissed.
“Who'd remember after thirty years of Voldemort's indoctrination?” Harry snapped right back. “That's what Malfoy and whatever Death Eater headmaster Hogwarts got would have made it out to be, and you know it.”
Hermione's eyes narrowed to a vicious glare. “So now Grindelwald is a poor, misunderstood victim of political propaganda?”
“No. Grindelwald was a would-be dictator with delusions of world domination, but if that's what it takes to keep Teddy safe, then the wizarding world bloody well had it coming.”
“You can't just take over the wizarding world!”
“Well, I damn well can't let them keep going this way! Look at the bloody werewolf bill. So what if we manage to earn an exemption for Teddy? Who will they target next? Hagrid for being a half-giant? Fleur for being part-Veela? Oh, I know, Professor Flitwick for having a goblin as a great-great-grandfather!”
“And what will happen when the wizarding world objects? Will you threaten the Prophet and the Quibbler? Will you hunt down the dissidents to change their minds? Who will stop you from turning into another Tom Riddle?”
Ron, who had barely managed to keep up with their fragmented argument, got in a, “Bloody hell!” and it was testament to Hermione's state of mind that she didn't scold him.
Under the eyes of his two best friends, Harry felt his anger fade as quickly as it arrived. “The only two people who've been there through everything,” he said softly.
The silence was heavy and thick with tension. Neither Harry nor Ron dared to speak until Hermione's furious stance eased slightly.
“And will you listen?”
She was not convinced, but she was willing to hear him out. Harry knew that expression, too. It was a legitimate concern. Tom Riddle was utterly insane in the end, and Grindelwald helped trigger a World War, but both of them at some point probably believed they did the right thing. Dark magic was addictive, and power even worse.
“I'll make an Unbreakable Vow. I'll swear to stop the moment you say I've crossed the line.”
Hermione went utterly still for a moment. Ron only stared wide-eyed at the both of them as the fragmented argument turned deadly serious, but Harry only had eyes for Hermione's reaction. She was the one he needed to convince, she was the one who would see him succeed or fail before ever trying, and if a Vow was what it took to get her on board with the plan, then he would offer it gladly.
“It would take a while to write,” She finally said. It wasn't quite acceptance yet but willingness to consider.
“At least four feet of parchment, probably, to cover all the loopholes,” Harry agreed with a small, wry smile.
“I will need the Black library.”
“Anything,” Harry promised.
“Hermione?” Ron frowned, and Hermione sighed, a little tired but mostly resigned.
“Apparently we're making a Dark Lord.”
Ron was not convinced. Hermione, despite her agreement, was still frowning, too. Harry had expected it. They both also knew from experience that Harry was stubborn as a mule and near impossible to dissuade from whatever course of action he had decided upon. It was, he knew with a heavy sense of guilt, just a matter of wearing them down. They would follow him, like it had always been with the three of them, through arguments and anger and all, and one day it would probably get them killed.
His idea was stupid, dangerous, and likely to get them into a ton of trouble at best and dead at worst, but how was that any different from the rest of what they had done since they started Hogwarts?
Hermione had not appreciated that argument.
“In Hogwarts, we didn't have a choice,” she argued. “We were fighting against Voldemort!”
“And now we're fighting against the kind of society that created Voldemort in the first place,” Harry agreed. “Tell me you're happy with how the Death Eater trials have gone. Tell me it looks like they won't be making the same mistakes all over again.”
Hermione didn't answer. Ron just sighed.
“Dad says they can't go after everyone. It would gut the Ministry. There were a lot of people that weren't Death Eaters but just went along with it to keep their jobs or protect their families.” He sounded angry and bitter, nothing like the Ron Harry had known for seven years, but they all understood. “We fought and bled and died, just so they can keep their heads down for a few months and continue like nothing changed, just like they would have done if Voldemort had won. Bloody Slytherins.”
“Slytherin had ambition,” Harry disagreed. “They're like Wormtail. Spineless cowards that flock to the biggest bully on the playground and hope for protection, and never mind they have to kiss the robe of a madman or kill a few Muggle-born along the way.”
“You spoke up for Narcissa Malfoy,” Hermione said quietly. “And, however reluctantly, for Draco and Lucius as well.”
Harry was silent for a moment. “I repaid my life debt.” It wasn't quite agreement. It wasn't quite disagreement, either. “She lied to Voldemort for me. She did it in a desire to keep her son safe, but she still lied to Voldemort and saved my life when she did. The Horcrux was gone. I wouldn't have survived another Killing Curse.”
“At least it cost Malfoy a lot of gold,” Ron muttered.
Harry grimaced. “They will have it back again soon, even with the fines. Might slow them down for a while, though.”
“It's true!” Ron got up to pace, all anger and restless energy. “They weren't willing to believe the Imperius-excuse twice, but Malfoy still managed to get out of it because he made up some sap about family and Harry was forced to back him up, and then he threw gold at the Wizengamot until they agreed. A lot of Death Eaters managed to escape completely, and we don't even know who half of Voldemort's forces were. Most of them probably weren't even Marked!”
A year ago, Hermione would have reminded them that it was better than innocents being sent to Azkaban, would have brought up painful memories of Sirius, and they would have ended up screaming at each other.
These days they knew better, all of them. They knew the topics to avoid, knew when it wasn't worth it, and most importantly, perhaps, they all knew that the others knew it, too.
“Lucius Malfoy tried to kill us, all of us, at some point or another. Ginny and me in our second year, all of us when we broke into the Ministry, and that's not even starting on the actual war. And he's going to walk free and keep his head down for a few months, and then it's going to start all over again. Just because the wizarding world wants it over with and doesn't want to tear up old wounds.” If Harry sounded just a bit bitter, he personally felt he had plenty of reasons to. “Unfortunately he's too smart to mess up again like this. Probably got rid of everything incriminating he had. Good luck pinning something on him in the future.”
“Any chance the ferret owes us for saving his sorry hide from the Fiendfyre?” Ron asked.
Harry snorted. “I wish.”
“Yeah, thought so,” Ron said wistfully. “Would have been nice, though.”
Hermione just sighed and Ron and Harry looked back at her, their discussion forgotten.
“That the Death Eater trials seem unfair is not a valid reason to become a Dark Lord to fix it.”
“No,” Harry agreed. “But if it can keep us from fighting another Voldemort in fifteen years, then it's good enough for me.”
Hermione did not approve. Harry was kind of used to it by now.
“There will be no backing out,” Hermione tried again, some days later. “A Dark Lord cannot simply change his mind and decide to retire peacefully. You will always be a target.”
“I know,” Harry agreed. “But I'm also the Man-Who-Won and the Slayer of Voldemort. I'd never be allowed to retire peacefully, anyway. The Ministry wants me as a tame Auror, and any would-be Dark wizard out there will be after me to make a name for themselves.”
“There has been no Dark Lord in living memory that died of old age.”
Harry frowned. “There was ... Arsenic? That Russian one a couple of centuries ago.”
“The Dark Lord Arsenij rotted away in a prison in Russia for twenty-six years before he died,” Hermione hissed. “That was not old age!”
“Technically Grindelwald almost died of old age,” Harry pointed out. “He was, like, a hundred and fifteen.”
“And spent fifty-three of them in Nurmengard before he was killed by Voldemort, defenceless in his cell.”
“Right, that part sucked for him,” Harry agreed. “Some of them lived pretty long, though.”
“Until someone killed them!” Hermione did not seem to appreciate Harry's cavalier approach to his future. “If it wasn't their enemies, it was their followers that betrayed them. Several of them died to curses specifically designed to kill them, to ensure there was no known counter!”
“Voldemort should have looked into that. He didn't have much luck with the Killing Curse.”
Harry sighed. “Hermione. Do you honestly think I ever had a chance of dying peacefully of old age? Does it matter if the spell comes from the wand of an Auror or a Dark wizard?”
Hermione swallowed. “It matters to me.”
Harry felt something in his chest twist and he got out of his chair and crossed the room to kneel next to Hermione. Her fingers entwined tightly with his the moment his hand touched hers and let him know just how affected by the argument she was.
They simply stayed there as minutes ticked on. Then Hermione made a soft sound.
“I don't want to have to stop you.”
“I know,” Harry agreed quietly. “And you don't have to. We can find someone else to hold the Vow. We can find another way to make a fail-safe. Whatever you want.”
“No.” Hermione took a shuddering breath. “No. I don't want to, but we have to, and if you make me use that, we will never forgive you.”
She would never forgive herself, either, Harry knew that without it ever being said.
“I'd surrender first.”
“To a lifetime in Azkaban?” Hermione asked quietly. “To the Kiss? Or the Veil, now that they're trying to remove the Dementors? Or just long enough to finish the job yourself?”
Harry didn't answer. He wasn't sure what the answer would actually be.
“How would you even do this?” Hermione asked, another few days later. “We are only three people, each with six years of Hogwarts' sometimes dubious education to our name and a year of Horcrux-hunting to supplement it. What could we possibly hope to do against the Ministry? About centuries of institutional racism?”
“I don't know.” Harry sighed. “Learn what I can. Try to give them a voice somehow, the werewolves and the Muggle-born and the part-humans and all. Force the Ministry to listen to them somehow. Hunt down the remaining Death Eaters and unmarked Voldemort supporters – that would get rid of a good deal of the worst Wizengamot members right there.”
Hermione was silent for a long time. She probably assumed he intended to hand those people over to the Aurors. Harry was pretty sure now wasn't the right time to correct her. “And afterwards?”
“I don't know.” He leaned back in the couch and stared at the darkened wood of the ceiling above them, old and tainted by a century or more of Dark magic. “I haven't given it much thought. I kind of assumed I'd be dead or outed as a Dark Lord by then.”
“Harry.” His name was little more than a sigh from her lips.
“My childhood was crap,” Harry said softly, “and the wizarding world was no better. We should be out there, celebrating and dating and being stupid, not flinch from Apparition sounds and wake up from nightmares. If this can help keep Teddy safe, then that's what I'll do.”
“It could backfire. Spectacularly,” Hermione warned.
“They're voting on the werewolf issues this month. Even if it fails they'll try again, with families like Malfoy and Parkinson and Nott on the Wizengamot, and they'll keep trying until they succeed.”
“And you believe that taking them down would solve the issue?”
“Maybe.” Harry shrugged. “Or maybe the Ministry will be too busy worrying about me to make that kind of idiocy a priority.”
Hermione didn't look particularly pleased. Harry supposed he could have found a nicer way to put it.
Hermione wasn't the only one who tried to talk him out of it. Ron did, too.
“You sure you're all you, mate?” he asked the following afternoon, when Hermione's arguments had gone nowhere. “No ...” he trailed off and made a complicated sort of hand gesture that probably referred to Voldemort and his Horcruxes.
“I'm pretty sure,” Harry agreed. “But then, if I had a bit of Voldemort still stuck in me, I probably wouldn't know it.”
Hermione shifted uneasily. “Have you tried speaking in Parseltongue since – since the Battle?”
“Once.” Harry hesitated. “Luna found a snake in the Forest and made me try. Well, suggested it. I think she was a little disappointed, honestly. I – it feels different, now. She said I don't speak it and I believe her. It used to sound like English to me. Now I know I speak English. I can't explain the difference but it's there.”
He still wasn't sure how to feel about it. Overwhelming relief, mostly, but somewhere, hidden so deep that he almost didn't acknowledge it, was a slight bit of regret, too. Death would have been worth getting rid of the piece of Voldemort's soul stuck in him – the thought of it still gave him nightmares – but the Parseltongue was ... different. He hated the wizarding world's reaction to it but he had liked talking with snakes, and he still had a soft spot for the boa constrictor he had met at the Zoo so long ago.
Something about his hesitation made Hermione frown. “Harry?”
“I miss it sometimes,” he admitted quietly. “Not the bit of Voldemort but the Parseltongue. I don't speak it anymore but I understood most of what Luna's snake was talking about. A lot of it is gone, though.”
Hermione was silent for a moment. “Professor Dumbledore understood Parseltongue,” she finally said. “He just couldn't speak it. It would make sense your knowledge of the language stayed, even if you don't possess the magic to speak it anymore.”
Harry wondered briefly what else of Voldemort's had stuck around before he violently pushed the thought aside. It wasn't something he wanted to think about, and it definitely wasn't something he wanted to bring up. The Horcrux was gone. Compared to that, very little mattered.
They met up frequently, just about every day, but they had good reasons to meet, at least. No one questioned why the Gryffindor Golden Trio spent so much time together. Harry hated that name, hated every last idiot that alternately praised and cursed him – them – depending on the day of the week, but in this case it at least had a use.
Of course they spent time together. They were war heroes, veterans, and while it was odd that none of them returned to Hogwarts with the rest of their year, that was understandable, too. The Weasleys had lost one of their own, after all, and Ron was such a dutiful son to turn down his proper seventh year to help his father and his family rebuild. And Harry, faithfully restoring a piece of wizarding heritage to its former glory – the Prophet had run a two-page article on that on a slow news day.
Mainly he worked on Grimmauld to have something to do, something to distract himself with, but that wasn't what anyone wanted to hear.
No one had mentioned Hermione much. Apparently, not even being a war heroine could make a Muggle-born interesting enough to write about unless there were scandals involved, except for a brief mention that the three of them planned to take a few N.E.W.T.s over Christmas with the home-schooled students, and a few articles romantically linking her to Ron.
At least all their names had been spelled right. Harry considered that a small mercy.
A far greater mercy was the fact that Rita Skeeter still behaved. She toed the line but Hermione's threats of exposure still seemed to hold her back from anything too damaging. Harry held no illusions that it would last, but for now it kept her acid quill reined in.
Part of the time they spent together was spent trying to make Grimmauld inhabitable. It had taken damage during the war and they worked through it slowly, one room after the other. Kreacher might have been a help, but Kreacher had killed himself in the days following the final fall of Voldemort. Harry had found his body in front of Walburga's portrait, and good riddance to him.
Part of the time was spent on lists. Hermione might not like what Harry had planned but she had reluctantly gone along with it, and that meant her analytical mind was working hard on the problems they would face. There were lists, Harry knew, long, detailed lists under brutally efficient security measures, and those lists grew longer every day.
“You will need to learn Occlumency,” Hermione told him bluntly one quiet afternoon, after they had waged a minor war against something bad-tempered and with entirely too many teeth living in a curtain. “Short of insanity, that is the only thing that will keep this secret. The Veritaserum-antidote and Memory Charms both take too much preparation to risk, and both can be tested for.”
Memories of lessons with Snape, of Voldemort in his head, of nightmares and visions, and Harry nodded. “I'll find a way.” They had the whole of the Black library at their disposal. Somewhere, someone had to have written something down. If anyone needed a way to get around Veritaserum questioning, the Black family had to be it. The Blacks or the Malfoys, and Harry wasn't about to go to them for any kind of help.
Hermione hesitated. “If you do this, you will have to fight against friends one day. Sooner or later, someone will find out what you're doing and the Aurors will come after you.”
She wasn't talking about Occlumency anymore, but Harry had grown used to the sudden changes in subject and followed her easily. It wasn't the first time a discussion about something or another had derailed into yet another attempt to change his mind.
“Ron isn't interested in the Aurors much anymore, but he wasn't alone. Susan Bones will likely join next year. There will be others, too. Students from the DA. People we fought side by side with.”
Hermione pursed her lips. “And when they come after you? When their orders are to capture or kill at any cost? Will you be able to curse them back? People who stood up to Voldemort for you?”
“Probably not,” Harry admitted. “But that doesn't rule out non-lethal means. It's a pretty stupid Dark Lord that relies on the Killing Curse after it went wrong twice already.”
“What do you want me to say? No, I won't have a problem cursing the hell out of the Voldemort collaborators in the Auror force. No, I won't be able to do the same to people I actually care about. No, I probably won't be able to deliberately hurt Susan or Neville or Ginny unless they threatened you or Ron.”
Hermione watched him for long seconds.
“That may get you killed one day.”
She sighed. “You'll make a horrible Dark Lord, Harry.”
He grinned. “I know.”
“Prat.” Hermione took a deep breath. “All right, then. Occlumency.”
“I'll find a way,” Harry repeated. “I'll figure it out.”
“We'll figure it out,” Hermione corrected softly. “We're in this together.”
Somehow he had managed to convince Hermione Granger of something. He wasn't even sure how.
In late September the proposed werewolf regulations came to vote and failed to pass. There were a lot of current and former Hogwarts students who remembered Remus as one of the only good Defence teachers they'd had and who were more than willing to help campaign against the current idiocy of the Wizengamot.
The regulations were tarred and feathered in the court of public opinion through liberal use of heartfelt letters, tear-jerker articles, and hand-picked pictures of Teddy Lupin, Son of a Werewolf, at his most adorable.
Teddy was safe – Teddy, and Bill – but Harry knew it was only a short lull in the proceedings. Eventually they would try again, with werewolves or vampires or something else entirely, and eventually they would fail to find a sufficiently beloved poster-boy to counter it with.
The Ministry was licking its wounds and would take a while before they risked it again, but Harry doubted they had more than half a year at the most. They would want to act while the memory of the war was still clear. For now the Ministry of Magic was trying to build up goodwill through whatever cheap gestures they could.
Not for the first time Harry wished the Ministry would burn to the ground, but for once he was starting to do something about it.
With the werewolf vote out of the way, Harry turned his frustration to something more productive – the continuous renovation of Grimmauld Place. For the moment it was mainly his own task, with Ron and Hermione's help, but he didn't mind. Kreacher would have helped, but as far as Harry was concerned, a bit of extra work was a small price to pay to be rid of the deranged house-elf.
The first few things on his list were already fixed, but there were months of work ahead of him still. One of the things near the top of the list was the décor. The house-elf heads, the creepy decorations that lingered everywhere, and – most importantly – the portraits.
All but one of the Black family portraits were easily removed. It only took a few hours to wrap them in some of the horrible, old curtains and move them to the attic to shout their indignity at the treatment where they wouldn't bother the living occupants. The portraits had ignored them for months on end. Harry frankly didn't care if some of the portraits were distant family if that was the sort of people they had been.
The only portrait left was Walburga Black, hidden by the tattered velvet curtains and kept quiet by the strongest Silencio they could manage between the three of them. Nothing the Order had done had helped. Nothing Dumbledore or Sirius had cast had done a thing to move her.
Now, armed with a detailed list of the spells used in the construction and expansion of the Burrow, they were ready to try again with significantly more violent methods.
Ron, who had helped his father with the Burrow over the summer and George with the shop in Diagon Alley, knew the spells like the back of his hand. They flew easily from his wand in bursts of violet and blue and blinding white that danced across the wall and vanished into the cracks.
“The front's not a load-bearing bit,” he finally concluded. “We've got about a yard on either side before it gets touchy. There's reinforcements behind. If we get rid of the first inch or two, that should do the trick. Bit of spare rubble from the back yard should patch it up afterwards.”
“The honour's all yours. You've got more experience with the finer points of it, mate,” Harry said. “Hermione, you want the portrait or the reinforcement spells?”
Hermione's lips pursed as she considered it. “Portrait,” she finally decided. “The reinforcement spells can be strengthened if she tries anything, and you can do that faster than I can.”
Harry nodded. “Two inches deep?” he asked.
“That should handle the Sticking Charm,” Ron agreed.
Harry focused on the wall, tried to picture to himself the layers of material, the depth of the plaster and the bricks, and when he had as clear of an impression as he could, he raised his wand.
A purple ball of light hit the wall and spread out like a cloud of fine powder, then seemed to seep through the wallpaper. Ron waited a moment before he raised his wand as well.
“Adrado!” he said sharply.
The wall around the portrait moved like small waves. They started on the outer edge of the part Ron had targeted and vanished beneath the frame. Then, with a loud crack, the plaster crumbled and the painting fell in a cloud of debris.
Hermione caught it well before it hit the ground and for a moment it just hovered there, still covered in ageing curtains and with a thick layer of plaster and wallpaper stuck to the back. Then, almost reluctantly, it floated in front of Hermione as she led it to the backyard and out of Grimmauld Place.
Ron banished the rubble and finished the last of the spells to keep the rest of the wall in one piece until they were ready to fix it. Then Harry carefully let go of the reinforcements spells.
The wall stayed where it was supposed to. Ron took a relieved breath.
“Don't know how dad does it. Merlin, it takes enough focus out of me just to do a bit of a wall, and he put up an entire shed in a weekend.”
With one last glance at the gaping hole in the wall, the two followed Hermione outside.
They found her in the back of the small yard, wand aimed at the portrait. A moment later Harry understood why. Laying in the sunlight, the painting seemed to leech the last summer warmth from the air and cast shadows through the garden. He had never noticed it inside, with Grimmauld Place already plenty Dark and gloomy, but outside in bright sun and clear air it was obvious.
"Fiendfyre, Basilisk fang, or Killing Curse?" Harry asked, only half joking.
The three of them stared at the painting for a heartbeat longer. The shadows seemed somehow darker.
Ron swallowed. "I'll get the fang."
"I'll raise the containment wards," Hermione agreed.
They moved swiftly, with the long practice of teamwork. By the time Ron came back with one of the fangs they had managed to salvage, the wards were up and both Harry and Hermione had their wands aimed squarely at the portrait.
"The grass started withering," Hermione said hoarsely. "It slowed down when we raised the wards."
"You want the honour, mate?" Harry asked. "For all the blood-traitor insults?"
Ron's eyes narrowed as he started at the painting. "You sure?"
Harry nodded. "For Sirius and the insults and every last miserable moment we spent in her company. If Basilisk venom was good enough for Voldemort, she should be honoured to share the fate of a bit of his soul."
Ron gripped the fang tightly and crossed the distance to the painting. The wards shimmered when he passed and Harry saw him shudder. Something dark flickered through the sunlight but Ron had obviously seen it, too. Before Harry could shout a warning, Ron grit his teeth and rammed the fang through the painting and into the rubble behind.
The world stilled.
A deranged, female scream cut through the air, breaking through even the silencing part of the wards. The ancient Black wards flared like Fiendfyre in Harry's mind for an excruciating second, then came down on the abomination in the painting. Ron stumbled backwards as writhing, black smoke rose into the air and imploded on itself, then turned and fled beyond the wards, wide-eyed and shaking.
"That thing was a Horcrux. She had a bloody Horcrux. We slept in the same house as a Horcrux. Everyone in the bloody Order saw this painting all the time. How did no one know?"
Hermione looked deathly pale. "Two. We slept in the same house as two Horcruxes. The locket and this painting."
"At least," Harry said quietly, wand still aimed at the smouldering remains of the painting. The Black wards still vibrated with excess energy around them, and the feeling was making Harry jittery as well. "At least two. This is the Black house. How do we know there isn't more of them?"
As one, they turned to look at Grimmauld Place, rising tall and dark and ominous.
"Bloody hell," Ron said hoarsely. "No wonder Kreacher was mad as a hatter."
And Sirius, Harry mentally added, although he would never say it out loud. Sirius had spent a long time around his mother's Horcrux and he had already been damaged by Azkaban. He had never stood a chance.
"Did the wards react?" Hermione asked with a glance at Harry.
"Not until Ron stabbed it."
Hermione bit her lower lip as she stared at the house. "So until we attacked it, the wards thought the Horcrux belonged here. We'll need to go through everything to make sure. The library alone ..."
They fell silent. Then Harry squared his shoulders. "I guess I found a new hobby."
He was regent of the House of Black and his godson was not going to go through Grimmauld Place one day and find a Horcrux. Not while Harry was alive to stop it.
Two spells and a bucket of rubble from the growing pile of junk in the yard was all it took to fix the wall. The wallpaper still had a gaping hole, but they needed to replace that, anyway. Preferably with something that didn't look like it had been bought in the nineteen-thirties.
Harry knew that Grimmauld Place would never be light and he was all right with that. A little bit less dust and depressive decorations would be a big improvement, though.
“Lunch?” Ron eventually said when it was well past noon. Even he hadn't had much appetite after the Horcrux.
Harry's stomach rumbled at the reminder, and Hermione gave them both a fondly exasperated look.
“Eh. I've got bread and leftovers?” Harry offered. “Butterbeer, too. I can cook something, but that'll take a while. Or we can try the Cauldron?”
“Leftovers are good,” Ron decided. It remained unsaid that none of them wanted to deal with the crowds and the attention they would inevitably draw.
Harry opened the door to the kitchen, and stopped so abruptly that Ron almost walked into him.
“Oi, mate -”
“There's a door.”
“What?” Hermione pushed her way past the two of them and stopped just inside the kitchen, too, staring at the wall opposite the entrance. The wall and the dark wooden door that hadn't been there when they had gone for tea that morning.
The three of them exchanged a look, and three wands came up in perfect synchronisation. Harry and Ron kept a close eye on the door as Hermione cast every detection spell she knew of until she finally lowered her wand again.
“Nothing,” she said. “No curses that I can detect, no traps, just the echo of some spell or another that's already fading.”
“Could it have been tied to the portrait somehow?” Harry asked.
“Most likely,” Hermione agreed. “It - I don't know what spell kept it hidden, but it must have been tied to the portrait's destruction. It's too much of a coincidence.”
Ron took a step forwards.
“Just a look,” Ron said. “You said the door was safe. Just going to open it, see what's there.”
Hermione didn't look happy but didn't object, and both of them kept their wands safely aimed at the door as Ron gripped the handle and it moved with a soft sound.
They paused. Then Harry and Hermione cautiously joined Ron's side as he pulled on the handle.
The door opened soundlessly. There was the top of a narrow, winding staircase but the worn steps vanished into inky darkness that swallowed the bright light from the kitchen.
The trio looked at each other, then Ron held out his wand.
The darkness pulled back sluggishly, almost as if it were alive. Harry took a cautious step forward, wand at the ready, while Hermione jammed the door thoroughly open behind them. None of them were about to trust something that had been hidden by a Horcrux.
"Harry?" she asked.
"Nothing from the wards," Harry replied. Just the usual faint presence of old wards with the first whispers of a personality. Whatever was down there, the wards didn't consider it hostile. Then again, so far they had encountered two Horcruxes that the wards didn't consider hostile, either, so he didn't know how useful that information was. The Black wards were just a little too friendly with Dark magic to be all that helpful.
The staircase looked old but stable. The steps were wood and dark with age but they were solid and didn't creak when Harry took a careful step down.
A murmured Lumos lit up his wand as well and he continued downwards before he lost his nerve. The sound of slightly heavier steps behind him revealed Ron was there, too, and then finally a huff from Hermione before she followed as well.
It felt reassuringly familiar, enough that Harry actually smiled.
“I thought we were done messing around in mouldy, Dark, dangerous places after Voldemort finally died.”
“Harry!” Hermione sounded a little scandalised and not entirely serious, and Ron laughed.
For a moment it felt normal again, before Voldemort, before Fred, before Cedric and Remus and Tonks. For a moment something in him eased a little.
Then their Lumos illuminated the room beneath them fully, and Harry was pulled back to the real world.
The basement was clearly magically expanded beyond reason and looked like the final resting place of a century or more worth of junk. Towering piles of old books appeared to balance through magic alone and a myriad of chests and boxes became the walls of a claustrophobic maze. The headless hide of a house-elf with greying skin was draped on the top of an antique-looking desk, while ancient jars and bottles of potion ingredients threatened to spill out of an old crate. Several of the bottles were murky brown, and one of them had what looked like finger bones peeking out of the sludge in it.
Harry kept down the bile and made a note to look up cleaning charms. Possibly get a house-elf. A house-elf sounded good right now.
The floor was bare stone. The sound of their footsteps was swallowed by the clutter, and the towering piles sent a shiver of unease down Harry's back. On the floor, dwarfed by the mess, it would be so easy to get lost, even in a relatively small room. The paths between the piles of junk were barely big enough to fit a human, and Harry suspected that only house-elves had ever actually set foot there.
There was no dust anywhere, but the the smell of stale air and old books and Merlin knew what else lingered heavily in the room as they carefully moved through it. None of them dared use the Bubble-Head Charm. If something in here was toxic after sitting around for this long, the smell might be their first and only warning.
Harry poked at a mangy-looking fur coat ... robe ... thing with his wand. A chunk of fur fell out and slid to the floor, leaving a bare patch behind. He wondered if the Black family had ever actually thrown anything out, other than disappointing family members.
"This book is from the library," Hermione said from a few stacks over. Her voice sounded as if she spoke through a blanket, like it was pressed down by the heavy sense of stale magic. "I recognise it. It was one of the books Mrs. Weasley was going to throw out. Even the damage on the back cover is the same. Kreacher must have hid it. Most of this pile has the Black coat of arms on them."
"Bloody hell! Over here!" Ron shouted from further ahead. Hermione dropped the book and was only half a step behind Harry, wands ready as they ran towards Ron's voice as far as they could through the maze of clutter.
They found him on the other side of an wall of chests, several of which had old robes spilling out from the top. For a moment Harry saw nothing but the wall in front of Ron, then he spotted what had made his friend yell for them.
At their feet, covered by a locked latch of heavy iron bars, was another staircase, as narrow and winding as the first. And, though the thick darkness beneath, the rusty chains just barely visible in the bright light of Ron's Lumos.
Ten minutes and a number of strong locking spells later found them in Sirius' old room with a bottle of Firewhisky and three large glasses.
Ron had gone bottoms-up on his first glass without flinching and was well into the second glass before he spoke.
"Sirius' family was insane." His fingers had stopped shaking after the first glass but he still looked rattled. "You reckon there's bodies down there?
Hermione's hands, already white from her tight grip on her glass, tightened further. "The house was empty for - for a long time. I don't think Kreacher would have fed anyone down there unless his mistress ordered it and Walburga Black never would have. If there was anyone down there it would just be skeletons by now. Mummified, maybe, if the air down there was ..." she trailed off and took a large swallow of Firewhisky. The flush from the heat of it just barely gave her pale face a bit of colour back. "Or Kreacher might have disposed of them," she added faintly.
Harry emptied his own glass before he could think too much about the images that brought up. He still shuddered when he poured another glass.
“I say we get blind drunk and deal with it later.”
Two sick-sounding agreements joined his suggestion.
Harry made the Vow on Hallowe'en. It was dark and dreary outside, perfectly suited for his mood on this specific day of the year, but it felt right to make it tonight. Maybe it was asking for something to go wrong, or for the Vow to mutate in some strange, supposedly-impossible way, but Harry was determined to see it through.
On this day, the Veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest, and Harry wanted his parents and Sirius and Remus to know. Maybe this was a stupid idea, maybe this would get him killed and his name cursed for centuries, but he wanted them to know that he had tried.
They had sneaked out of the Burrow after Molly Weasley's birthday dinner with the woman's reluctant permission. The Weasley matriarch believed that Harry wanted a little time to himself to speak with those he had lost and that Ron and Hermione were there for support. Harry did not correct the assumption.
Headmistress Minerva McGonagall had sent the students of Hogwarts home for the weekend. Few families had come through the war unscratched; even fewer did not have lost friends and companions to remember. She firmly believed that those that survived needed to face the memories together and in their own way, that was what Harry, Ron, and Hermione now did.
As Hallowe'en approached, even bright, bustling Diagon Alley seemed to fall silent. The same heavy, oppressive silence had settled over Grimmauld Place when they entered the door. The rooms seemed dark and unfamiliar and the ambient magic – already Dark on a good day – felt almost alive in every breath that Harry took.
Maybe it was an omen. Maybe it was the Black magic's way of blessing their endeavour. Harry had never been one to back down when he had committed himself to something, though, and he wasn't about to start now.
They had long since picked the spot, and they ascended the stairs in silence. Harry knelt with Hermione on the faded, old rug in the library where they had both spent so much time and felt a strange calmness settle even as his heart raced. Ron stood above them, shoulders squared in the way that meant he wasn't happy about it but he'd go along with it, and they better be bloody sure they knew what they were doing.
Harry held out his hand and Hermione clasped it with no hesitation. Only the slight tremor in her muscles betrayed her nervousness.
“What if I got something wrong? What if -”
“You didn't,” Harry replied with quiet conviction. “Ron?”
The third of their trio touched his wand to their joined hands, and Hermione took a steadying breath. It had to be done, they all knew it. They couldn't risk another Tom Riddle, and for all that they would all argue that Harry would never become another Voldemort, he was also able to cast unfamiliar Dark spells with disturbing ease. Harry, at least, would sleep easier knowing that there was a fail-safe, should it all fall apart and he crossed that line.
They hadn't focused on specific spells or crimes to ban, both of which left too many loopholes, but on intent and – far more important – on Hermione and Ron's safety from him. Those had not been pleasant conversations but they had been necessary and they all knew it. If he went off in the deep end and managed to hide it, the worst case scenario was a second Voldemort determined to rid himself of the Vow and Hermione's influence and willing to do anything to see it done before they discovered his betrayal. Harry, who had known Voldemort's mind better than probably anyone, had gone through every suggestion Hermione had made and ruthlessly torn them apart. It was a careful balance between their protection – and anyone Harry might use against them - and Harry's own ability to defend himself if attacked.
The final Vow took up a foot and a half of parchment and took the better part of fifteen minutes to go through. They had written and rewritten it, gone through it so many times that Harry could recite it in his sleep, and Hermione did not falter as her words wove the first thread of magic around their hands.
At the end of it, their clasped hands glowed brilliantly red from the fine threads of the Vow, and Harry could feel the magic press against them.
“- answer truthfully and completely without evasion or omission should I ask it of you, through word, magic, or any other means?”
Hermione finished the last part of the Vow and Harry felt their joined magic in perfect clarity.
“I will,” he said firmly and bound the last thread.
Hermione swayed slightly from the flood of power that sunk into their hands, and Harry felt the heavy weight of the Vow tighten around his magic.
Ron helped them back to their feet, both unsteady, and for long moments they simply stood there and breathed. Slow and steady, one breath after another until the world stopped swaying and the magic settled.
His magic would never be quite the same again. He had never realised until that moment how light and carefree magic truly was, not until the Vow had settled around him like a criss-cross of thin, unbreakable chains. Never heavy enough to hamper him and never light enough to ever quite be forgotten. He also knew that this was only true as long as he kept the Vow. Should he break it, those same chains would tighten until they killed him. If he was lucky, they would at least be quick about it.
It was a horrible burden to put on someone, especially a friend, and he would never be able to make it up to Hermione. He could only hope to make it worth it somehow.
“Thank you,” Harry breathed, and put a thousand unsaid words into that one breath. Thank you, I love you, I won't let you down, I swear, and, I'm so sorry.
Hermione knew him and heard them, anyway.
“Until the end,” she said quietly. I know, her words agreed, and I forgive you.
Ginny cornered him in the Burrow the morning after Hallowe'en, shortly before she had to leave for King's Cross and Hogwarts again.
The Burrow was a loud, chaotic mess like always, even with just one child about to leave, and Ginny took the opportunity to find him alone in a room, away from all the chaos below. Harry had come to see her off but he needed to be alone sometimes, too overwhelmed to handle it all, and she knew it.
Ginny closed the door softly behind her and squared her shoulders. “Kiss me.”
Harry blinked. They had spoken very little since the Battle, both too busy with other things, and he realised with some unease that he had barely thought of her. He had broken up with her for her own good. The threat was gone now. He ... should have done something, shouldn't he?
“Kiss me,” she repeated, softer and more tired. “Please.”
“I - all right.” He crossed the small room in two steps and took a moment to admire the fiery being in front of him. Then he leaned in and kissed her.
Her lips were soft and warm, and she smelled faintly like the cinnamon from the leftover apple tarts that she had stolen a bite from earlier. There also seemed to be something missing and Ginny obviously agreed as she broke the kiss and gave him a resigned smile.
“I had to know.”
Harry felt a little like something in his chest was suddenly missing. But mostly he felt relieved.
Peace settled in the Burrow again. Diagon Alley came to life once more and normality – what passed for it now – took over.
Harry, driven by new-found determination sparked in part by the Vow, started plotting.
Dark Lords had some specific requirements to properly claim the title. Magic – powerful, skilled magic, preferably Dark, and an abundance of it – followers, and money.
Harry wasn't altogether sold on the followers part, and they were still trying to figure out what to do about the goblins that flat-out hated them, but magic he could do. Magic he could work on.
That was the reason why the three of them were working their way through the Black library, one book at a time. Some were easily dismissed, like the dozens upon dozens of books about pure-blood families and genealogies and dubious wizarding history. Some, like the books on herbology and astronomy, were noted down for later use, but wouldn't be of much help in their current quest.
They were left with a pile of books that ranged from common household charms to one particularly nasty treatise on soul-enslaving curses that they had salvaged from the cellar. The books had been sorted roughly by subject but the towering stacks were still enough to make even Hermione hesitate.
The first bookcase alone had left them with a potentially-useful pile taller than Harry. Even split up into smaller stacks, it still looked intimidating. As Harry stared, one book in the charms pile yawned and caused a small book avalanche.
Hermione pursed her lips and glared at the book like it had just personally offended her. Then she looked at Harry and Ron. “This isn't working. We need a better system.” Her eyes narrowed and pinned Harry. “We need to know what we have to work with.”
Harry didn't offer his first response – which would have been 'magic?' - since he was pretty sure that wasn't what she was looking for. Ron was smart enough to do the same. He also seemed to have at least some inkling of what she was aiming for, because the look in his eyes went from bewildered and to the slightly distracted expression Harry was so used to seeing whenever his friend played chess.
“Rules? Strengths, weaknesses?” Ron asked and continued without waiting for a response. “Makes sense.”
Two pairs of eyes focused on Harry with unnerving accuracy and he felt a little like a specimen in a Potions class.
“Defence, definitely. Can't really call it 'against the Dark Arts' if we're making a Dark Lord, but definitely Defence. It's sort of a branch of Charms and Transfigurations, though, innit? I mean, Dumbledore used Transfiguration when he fought,” Ron said.
“He was a Transfiguration prodigy, though,” Hermione interjected. “And I'm sorry, Harry, but you're not.”
Harry felt he probably should object to that but it was kind of hard when it was the truth. Instead he just sighed and joined in, having figured out what Hermione was aiming for.
“Yes to Defence. No to Potions, Transfiguration, and Charms. I never took Arithmancy and Runes. I do need to learn to cast as many spells as possible wordlessly. Wandless, too, if I can manage. Mind magic – not Occlumency, but I can throw off the Imperius, and Veela magic didn't do much, either. That might count for something. The Patronus is a charm but it never felt much like one to me.” He swallowed. “Dark Arts ... I didn't have any problems with the Imperius, and the Cruciatus just needed the proper motivation. Sectumsempra worked on my first attempt. Fiendfyre takes a bit more focus but I can cast and control it pretty easily.”
Hermione's eyes narrowed dangerously. “You what? Alone?”
“If I lost control, I didn't want you two to get caught up in it,” Harry said honestly. The memories from the burning Room of Requirements were still entirely too vivid and had provided all the motivation Harry needed to do it alone.
“You could have died!”
There wasn't really anything Harry could say that wouldn't make her more angry and he wasn't going to lie and apologise.
“I know,” he agreed. “It had to be done.”
Ron had stayed quiet as Hermione had chewed him out but Harry could almost see his mind at work, examining the bits of information and trying to piece together the puzzle.
“Reckon it had to be something pretty serious to warrant Fiendfyre and we're flat out of Horcruxes,” he mused. “The Elder Wand or the Resurrection Stone? Haven't seen you use anything but your normal wand since the Elder Wand got it fixed up.”
“The Wand,” Harry said. “There's a broken replica in Dumbledore's tomb. Elder wood is common, and there's a herd of Thestrals at Hogwarts. Thestral tail hair was easy to find. I know roughly where the Stone was lost, and that's where it'll stay.”
Ron nodded and seemed to understand. Hermione's inner conflict was plainly visible, torn between relief and loss of the chance to examine the fabled Deathly Hallows more closely.
In the end relief won out. “It's better that way,” she agreed.
“They're old, powerful items, but that's it. And at least two of them are all but guaranteed to kill their owner.” Harry hesitated. “You know the history of the Wand. The Stone ... I saw my parents, Sirius, and Remus when I walked to my death. They told me it wouldn't hurt, it would be over in a moment, I was so strong and they were so proud of me ... sure, that's what I needed to hear, but were they actually the spirits of those I knew, or illusions meant to lure me to my death?” He glanced at Ron with an apologetic look and knew there and then that his friend understood. He focused on Hermione again. “Imagine George with that Stone in his hand. Imagine hearing Fred tell him the same.”
Hermione looked a little pale. She could imagine it just as well as Harry could.
“How many knew I possessed the Stone?” Harry asked. “Us? Dumbledore? That's about it. Hagrid knows where I died. Once you know that, you can make a guess of the path I took and spend months in the Forbidden Forest casting Summoning Spells, but in the end I'm the only one who knows the location for sure. The Stone stays lost and the secret dies with me.”
“Sounds good to me,” Ron finally said and closed the matter before Hermione could argue. “Defence, mind magic, and Dark Arts, then, to begin with.”
“And power,” Hermione said softly. “Ridiculous amounts of power. Adult witches and wizards have trouble leaning the Patronus Charm, never mind a thirteen-year-old.”
“The DA learned,” Harry objected.
“They learned,” Hermione agreed. “They didn't chase off a hundred or more Dementors with it.”
“Powerful spells, then,” Ron said. “Sorry, mate, but you're kind of useless with the finicky spells.”
Harry shrugged. There wasn't much he could say to that, either.
Hermione turned back to the books. She picked up the yawning charms book and placed it back firmly on its shelf. “That should cut down on them,” she said satisfied.
There would still be a lot of books to go through and a lot of new spells to learn, but it was a start.
With the magic-issue being worked on, money was next. The goblins were still a problem they weren't sure how to deal with. They could just walk right in but none of them would wager money that they would be walking back out again without some insurance to keep them safe. Harry had some Galleons outside of Gringotts, and they had found quite a bit more hidden away in various places in Grimmauld, proof that the Black family had been very careful about leaving little nest eggs in case of unpleasant situations. Until they figured out how to handle the goblins, however, the Potter and Black accounts were out of their reach.
Luckily there were other approaches for the moment, as Hermione had pointed out with a bit of a vicious expression.
Augustus Brookstanton was a greying wizard with a scarred wand hand and a pronounced limp. He was a pure-blood who had lost his half-blood wife in the first blood war and held a significant grudge against the Ministry for being effectively useless against Voldemort. He was also an experienced solicitor and came recommended by Andromeda Tonks. Harry had paid in advance for two hours of his time, with the understanding that a more formal arrangement could be agreed upon later, if both parties wished it.
"Mr. Potter," he spoke. "How may I be of assistance?"
His voice was dry as parchment but strong, and while the office was packed with books and documents, it was meticulously clean and well-organised. Harry had a cautiously optimistic feeling about it all.
"There are a number of fictional books that use my name and likeness," he started, quoting the specific phrasing Hermione had used. They had spent a while considering how to approach it. "None of them have my permission to do so. I want compensation and for the production and sales to cease and desist, effective immediately. I know I can't do anything about the so-called factual books and articles unless it crosses into libel, but I refuse to let the same people who spent years calling me an attention-seeking liar earn money off of my name. I am open to the idea of appropriately licensed products by people I actually approve of, but only with my prior explicit, legal permission."
Brookstanton nodded slowly. "That should be doable, Mr. Potter."
Harry hesitated and continued, dropping the Hermione-voice as he did so.
"I need to have a new fund set up - the Evans-Lupin Foundation. It will provide legal help and representation for Muggle-borns, Muggle-raised half-bloods, part-humans and non-humans with just cause and without the means to do so themselves. I want the compensation and all future profits to go that cause. I need trustworthy people to handle it, too. If you are able to recommend anyone, as well as possibly a solicitor willing to work for it, I would be grateful, sir."
Brookstanton's eyebrows arched slowly and Harry saw the first flicker of interest in his expression.
"That, too, should be doable, Mr. Potter," he said slowly, measuredly. "You will, however, be likely to face some negative repercussions once the lawsuits potentially starts building against ... certain entities."
Harry took a deep breath. "The Ministry, sir? I know. I don't care. Most of the Muggle-born and part-humans and unacceptable half-bloods that had their property claimed by the Voldemort regime still hadn't had them returned, and no one in charge seems to care. It's all 'we're working on it' and 'legal issues, you know'. The only reason their vaults aren't gone, too, is because Voldemort didn't have enough time to crush the goblins. The Ministry is too busy passing laws to keep werewolves out of jobs or arguing how much non-human blood makes someone a sub-human being to do a thing about it. This isn't what I fought for, sir. This isn't what any of us fought for. If they come after me, so be it. I'm not leaving my friends and last bit of family behind just to see Britain fall into an abyss of racism and pure-blood politics."
The solicitor nodded slowly once more. His granite face hadn't changed but the look in his eyes and the slight way he leaned across the desk to watch Harry belied his sudden interest.
“Then, Mr. Potter, it is most certainly doable ... and a very worthwhile endeavour.”
Relief followed the words. Harry hesitated for a moment but brought out a unsealed scroll from his robe. In for a Knut ...
“My Will. In the event of my death, half of my gold will go to my godson, with the rest split between a number of friends and family. Can you serve as witness if I sign? I can't to go through the Ministry. They made enough of a mess of Professor Dumbledore's will.”
“Witness and validator, Mr. Potter. It will be registered with my office, although keeping a few copies around may not be a bad idea in your case,” Brookstanton said. “Should one or two of them happen to be unfortunately ... lost if the Ministry took interest in the case.”
Right. Harry unrolled the scroll and re-read it once more. He knew the words by heart but he needed to make sure one last time that he had taken everything – everyone – into account. Then he handed it over and waited for painfully long minutes while Brookstanton read it through.
“It fulfils the legal requirements,” the solicitor finally said and put the unrolled scroll on the desk. He held out a quill. “Your signature, Mr. Potter.”
The quill felt heavy in Harry's hand, the whole thing suddenly strangely real. His parents hadn't had a will. He was eighteen and about to sign an incredibly dry legal document in the knowledge that the next time someone read it, he would be dead.
He signed swiftly, before the quill could grow heavier still, and pushed a small amount of magic into his name as he wrote.
Harry handed the quill to Brookstanton, who signed the will with the calm efficiency of someone well used to it.
A whispered spell later and the ink was dry. Harry rolled up the parchment and closed it with the Potter seal, then finally added another bit of magic to that. He handed over the scroll, a strange calm settling over him.
Signed, sealed, and delivered into hopefully trustworthy hands. He had done what he could.
Brookstanton accepted the scroll. It glowed muted gold once, then returned to its normal appearance. Another whispered spell, and two sealed copies rested on the desk. “Your copies, Mr. Potter. I recommend one goes to your vault and one to a trusted friend.”
Harry winced. “My vault would be a problem at the moment. We still have ... outstanding issues with the goblins.”
“Keep one with a trusted friend, then, and another somewhere safe,” Brookstanton conceded. “And do make sure you have a heavy arsenal at your disposal when you do approach the goblins, Mr. Potter. The law on its own will not be enough, should they have taken a particular disliking to you for whatever reason. The Gringotts vaults are untouchable but the owners themselves? Unfortunate accidents have happened.”
Harry sighed. “That's what I was afraid of. Can you recommend anything?”
Brookstanton hesitated. “I would suggest a competing bank, Mr. Potter, but in all truth that is well beyond my area of expertise. Gringotts has worked hard to keep the British wizarding world ignorant of the virtues of other financial institutions. To my knowledge Gringotts has the monopoly in France as well, along with a number of other European nations. The dwarves have the Northern European countries and a good part of Eastern Europe. Constantinople holds a large section of the Mediterranean. Beyond that the travel distances would start to become far more than reasonable. Be aware, also, that there are a number of lesser banks in Europe. How many of them that have the ability and willingness to cross the goblins, I am unsure of. Some of them may even choose to simply work with Gringotts for a reward instead.”
It wasn't a solution, Harry figured, but at least it was information, and he would bring that back with him.
It was mid-November by the time Harry bought a suitable house-elf. There were few of them available at the best of times and he could not bear the thought of one that reminded him of Dobby. Winky, still working in the Hogwarts kitchens, might have been an option, but she carried the same painful memories with her.
Add to that the fact that he wanted one with experience with Dark magic and the options were limited.
Then the Lestrange home was sold in late October, what with Bellatrix being dead and the two surviving Lestranges being sentenced to life in Azkaban in absentia. Their former house-elf was promptly dismissed from service by the new owners, who wanted nothing to do with a Death Eater's elf. For once the Prophet was good for something, as they carried a small article near the back detailing the work to be done on the 'horrid, Dark place' and mentioned the elf in an off-handed sentence.
Harry deliberately waited several weeks before he approached the Office of House-Elf Relocation to avoid drawing too much suspicion.
The Office was hidden away in a corner of level four of the Ministry and Harry was greeted by perpetually surprised-looking older man.
“Mr. Potter?” he greeted and shook Harry's hand enthusiastically. “Such an honour, sir! I'm Nuttley, Mr. Potter, Almerick Nuttley. What can our humble Office do for you?”
Harry, almost used to the unsettling amount of attention he still attracted, shook the man's hand. “Good to meet you, sir,” he greeted, having also learned that being polite and personable tended to get him out of the awkward situations easier. “I'm looking for a house-elf. I need to do something about the Black home before my godson can visit, and the Black house-elf died shortly after the Battle.”
Died, killed himself – minor detail when it came to Kreacher, as far as Harry was concerned. As long as he was gone, Harry was happy. “I need a good, mild, hard-working house-elf to take care of the house and my godson when he visits.”
“Good, mild, hard-working elves – we have nothing but, Mr. Potter,” the man said proudly. “We have seven to choose from at the moment.”
They arrived the moment Nuttley finished the sentence, like they had been waiting for it. They probably had. It sounded to Harry like it was the usual way of showing them off to potential buyers.
He felt a sharp pain in his chest when he found himself facing seven pairs of enormous, hopeful eyes, and he wished he could buy them all. He wouldn't have near enough work for them, and they were expensive, but they would have a good home, at least.
Harry pushed the emotions aside, determined to see it through, and really looked at the elves beyond the desperately hopeful looks.
Four of them looked positively ancient and Harry wrote them off immediately. They would be too old to handle Teddy through his childhood, and Harry didn't want his godson to face the pain of losing a beloved house-elf as a child.
He hadn't been sure how to recognise the former Lestrange elf, but the moment he saw her, he knew. She was paler and thinner than the others and hunched over like she was trying to hide herself. She was also missing most of her left ear and Harry didn't for a moment believe that had been an accident. Not with people like Bellatrix Lestrange around.
Harry crouched carefully in front of her and made sure not to make any sudden moves.
“Who is she?” he asked softly, glancing at Nuttley.
The man cleared his throat. “That's Mute, Mr. Potter. She's, ah, the former Lestrange elf. No name, they never cared, so we gave her one, we did. A timid little thing but I assure you, she's a hard worker. She just – she can't speak, you see. They removed her tongue.”
Merlin. Harry looked at her again, small and frightened and looking so lost and hopeless, and his heart broke for her. He had planned to buy the former Lestrange elf pretty much no matter what, short of another Kreacher, but there was no way he would let her stay in Ministry hands now.
“Has anyone else shown interest in her?” Harry asked quietly.
Nuttley shook his head. “Not when they find out about her tongue, sir. A house-elf that can't speak unnerves people. Add that she was the Lestrange elf and ... well. She could be here for a while.”
The pain in Harry's chest tightened again when he saw the small elf flinch at the words. He was not leaving her there. “I'll take her.”
Wide eyes, hopeful and terrified, looked up at him, and Harry had to swallow a lump in his throat. “I have an old home,” he said. “Lots of maintenance. I hate cooking, too, and I have a godson that's going to be walking soon and leave a mess everywhere. Would you like to be my house-elf?”
The large head nodded frantically, and that was the end of it.
Harry Potter was the new owner of a house-elf that was probably as damaged as he himself was, and he was just fine with that.
His first point of order with his new elf – beyond thorough instructions to never share what she learned with anyone, in any way, and making sure she understood she was never to punish or harm herself – was to do something about the basement.
They had worked a little on it, the three of them. The dungeons did not hide the remnants of previous occupants, but the stone floor and walls of four cramped cells were stained suspicious brown in places, and no amount of lighting spells seemed able to fully chase the dark away from the corners.
There were dozens of trunks filled with old clothes. Most were robes and shoes, along with a number of dresses, and most of it was so hideously out of date it made Ron's robe for the Yule Ball look positively fashionable in comparison.
The potion ingredients had looked even worse up close and even Hermione had agreed to leave it to a house-elf to sort through, as it presumably would have a much better idea of how to go about it. Harry certainly wasn't going anywhere near ... whatever was floating around in some of those bottles under long-expired preservation spells.
The house-elf hide had been burned. A stuffed crow that had looked entirely too lifelike for anyone's comfort had joined it, and not a moment too soon. It had come alive with an otherworldly screech when it caught fire and been torn to pieces a moment later by one unified Reducto from three different wands. They all cursed first and asked questions later these days.
They had moved as many books as they could find, and cleaned what they could, but the basement was still dark and unnerving and downright disgusting in places. Mute thankfully didn't seem to mind.
“Return any books to one of the empty bookcases in the library and put anything else that's harmless and potentially useful in the attic,” Harry instructed her. “Toss the ruined things you find, and anything Dark or dangerous or you're not sure about, you can leave here and I'll sort it. Anything enchanted goes in one pile. Be careful. Don't trust anything in here – this was all collected by the Black family and they were as Dark as can be.”
Mute nodded frantically and popped away. She didn't want thanks or acknowledgements, Harry had already learned as much. She preferred to do her job out of sight and out of mind. If Harry had lived in the same house as Bellatrix Lestrange for years with no way to defend himself, he would have wanted to be invisible, too.
Harry settled down in the office he had claimed for his own with a stack of papers from Brookstanton. A number of things needed his signature and the lawsuits were the least of it. Setting up a foundation apparently required a lot of paperwork, and all the more so when its stated mission included dealing with non-humans.
It was a few hours later, when Harry was wrapping up the last of the papers, that Mute reappeared.
She wrung her hands anxiously and looked at Harry with worried eyes. If he hadn't been worried what else he might see in her mind, he would have wished he knew enough Legilimency to tell what she wanted.
“You found something?” he half guessed, and Mute nodded frantically in agreement.
He doubted she would have wanted to disturb him without a good reason to, which was all the incentive he needed to leave the paper for later and follow her to the basement.
One corner had been cleared entirely and revealed the grimy floor and probably centuries of dirt and stains to the world. One trunk of what looked like plates and particularly hideous goblets had been set aside – Harry could practically feel the Dark magic seeping from them – and leaning against the wall, in a heavy, ornate frame, was the portrait of a middle-aged woman with greying hair.
She looked like a Black, dark haired and with sharp eyes that narrowed as he approached. She wasn't the mirror image of Andromeda or Bellatrix that he almost expected from a portrait of a woman of the Black line, but there was enough of the same features that the relation was impossible to dismiss.
Then he spotted the small, grimy plate beneath her and could barely make out the name.
Harry recognised the name from the Black tapestry and felt his mouth go dry. Dorea Potter, married to Charlus Potter, and actual honest-to-Merlin family, however distantly related they might might be. The woman pursed her lips.
“You look familiar,” she said sharply, then peered closely. “Who are your parents, boy?”
Harry swallowed the lump in his throat. “James Potter and Lily Evans. They died in eighty-one. And – we're family, I think.”
Dorea Black was definitely of the Black line. She was also family – distant family, but family – and Harry didn't care if it was technically by marriage. The Potter line had intermarried with the Black family several times before and that meant that somewhere, generations in the past, they shared several common ancestors.
The closest Harry had been able to find was Cygnus Black, father of four children including the disowned Isla Black, who married a Mudblood and whose daughter married into the Potter line, and Phineas Nigellus, Dorea's grandfather.
Harry had brought the painting to the dining room where it would be easier to talk with her, and he had thanked Mute as much as he could before she popped off once more to continue her cleaning of the basement.
“They never approved of the marriage,” Dorea explained when Harry had wondered why her portrait was hidden away. “The Potters weren't of proper blood, they claimed! They weren't Dark, and Charlus and Fleamont were the grandsons of a Mudblood. Grandsons! Better the grandson of a Mudblood than an inbred squib, I say! Wanted me to marry a Crabbe, of all people!”
She sniffed a little haughtily. “Didn't have a problem with Callidora marrying that Longbottom, now did they? And Lucretia – married a Prewett, if you would believe that. I'd swear myself a Hufflepuff if there's a drop of Dark in that family.”
“And the Potters?” Harry asked curiously.
Dorea cackled. In that moment she sounded unnervingly like Bellatrix. “Potters cared about power. Dark or light, it never mattered to them. Your namesake, Henry – oh, he was a Muggle-lover and married a half-blood, but that just meant he didn't have any pure-blood sentimentalities. People underestimated him and paid bitterly for it.”
She peered at him closely. “A little scrawny but you'll fill in. Make sure your house-elf feeds you proper. And power – you'll do, child. Oh, you'll do.”
Her smile was a little sharp and the glow in her eyes just a little unnerving but she was family, and she approved of him, and that was all Harry cared about.
Harry introduced his two best friends to Dorea when they showed up the following day. It had long since become routine that they met him at Grimmauld Place if nothing else demanded their attention. They seemed to have reached a silent consensus that this was their refuge, their place to hide and rant and laugh and cry as they needed to, and the wards recognised Ron and Hermione as family.
“Hermione, Ron,” Harry said as he stopped in front of the portrait. “Dorea Black, my great aunt. Mute found her portrait in the basement yesterday. Dorea, this is Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. My family.”
Hermione squeezed his hand in response, then took a small step forwards.
“It's a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Potter.”
“Dorea, child,” the portrait corrected her. “My grandnephew claims you as family. To you and young Ron, my name is Dorea.” The sharp eyes focused on Hermione. While Harry couldn't read her mind, he was pretty sure she was trying to work out if Hermione was descended from anyone she might know. Family mattered a lot to Dorea Potter.
“Muggle-born or half-blood?” Dorea asked after long moments. “I don't recognise your features but some lines could have intermarried since I died,” she conceded.
“Muggle-born,” Hermione replied, a little defiantly.
“And a Gryffindor,” Dorea stated, seemingly not bothered by Hermione's bloodline or their Hogwarts House. Harry was relieved. “None in Slytherin, and Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff don't have that stubborn fire. Oh, they all have their uses, but I married a Gryffindor. Brave and boisterous on the outside, but relentless and merciless as can be.”
Something about the answer nagged at Harry, until it finally clicked. “Did my grandparents have a portrait done? My parents?”
Dorea stilled for a moment. “Your parents died young, child. Few wizards and witches have portraits done young. My Charlus refused. So did your grandparents. The Potters didn't do living portraits. They refused to be remembered as the pale echo in a portrait.”
If this Dorea was 'a pale echo', Harry had to wonder what she had been like when she still lived. Her and her husband both. He had seen no images of the man but he got the impression of someone stubborn and proudly defiant.
He had hoped there had been portraits somewhere, some fragment of his parents still left, but a part of him had known it to be a fool's hope before he even voiced the question. It did not make it hurt any less.
Dorea turned her attention to Ron, and this time there was clear recognition in her eyes.
“No doubt about the Weasley blood with that hair and freckles,” Dorea said, although she didn't sneer the name like most pure-bloods had liked to do before the Final Battle. “The Prewett family had the red hair but not the freckles. Related to Cedrella? She married Septimus Weasley and was blasted from the family tapestry for it.”
Ron glanced at Harry, who shrugged in return. Ron shrugged back, but still answered. “My grandparents.”
Dorea pursed her lips. “My cousin. We're family, then. I'm pleased to see a generation of Black and Weasley ignore the blind fools. Pure as can be and a magically powerful man, Septimus Weasley, but say one kind word about a Muggle-born and you would be forever labelled a blood traitor.”
“Still are,” Ron said a little bitterly. “Bloody Malfoys.”
Dorea made that haughty little sniff again. “Inbred upstarts. How many siblings do you have, boy?”
Harry could see the moment the memories of Fred hit, the tightness in Ron's stance, and he put a hand on Ron's shoulder in silent support. “Six,” Ron said without flinching, head raised in silent defiance of anyone who dared say otherwise, though Harry and Hermione never would, and Dorea didn't know the story. “Five older brothers and a little sister. And all of them stood up to Voldemort.”
“Seven children, powerful and pure of blood! And the Malfoys barely manage one!” Dorea snapped. “Haven't had more than one child in generations, that family! Hyperion, Abraxas, Lucius? Not a single sibling between them. Seven magical children is a sign of powerful parents. Don't let the slippery little sycophants claim otherwise.”
Harry didn't know Hyperion Malfoy but it sounded like Lucius Malfoy's grandfather. Abraxas sounded vaguely familiar as the elder Malfoy's father, at least.
“Draco Malfoy is an only child as well,” Hermione added. “He is the son of Lucius Malfoy and Narcissa Black.”
Dorea's expression twisted like she had tasted something unpleasant. “Yes. Cygnus approved of that union. Malfoy had money and power, everything Narcissa desired. Never liked getting her hands dirty, did she. There has never been a proper woman of the Black line that couldn't put the fear of Morgana into any man that crossed her. Had decent gifts, did she, but little desire to bloody her own hands when she could make her husband's money solve those problems instead.”
“That sounds like Narcissa Malfoy,” Hermione agreed, and turned sharp eyes on Harry. “Harry? A word. Now.”
It was not a request. Harry followed her as she pulled both of them into the kitchen and raised the usual privacy wards.
“Harry James Potter!” she hissed. “What were you thinking? She was in the basement and you brought her up here? And talked to her? Alone?”
Anger flared in Harry, bright and vivid, and latched eagerly on to his emotions.
“She's family!” he snapped back. “She's my great aunt and a cousin through the Blacks, pretty much the only blood family I have left that's not a Dursley, and you're angry because I talked to her?”
Hermione took a deep breath. Harry could almost see her try to calm herself. “She could be a Horcrux. Walburga was.”
The denial was instant and past his lips before he knew it.
“Walburga was insane!” Harry hissed. “She even felt Dark. It was all 'Mudbloods' this and 'Blood-traitors' that.”
“Voldemort's Horcruxes weren't,” Ron said quietly. “They were charming. Slytherin. Ginny got lured in by the diary, and the locket ...” He trailed off.
The argument on Harry's lips fell silent before he could voice it. Yes. The locket.
Voldemort had been insidious. Charming, seductive, and able to smooth-talk his way out of just about anything. Only the Headmaster seemed to have been on to him.
Dorea was family. Dorea was part of the very small bit of decently close blood family he had left, even if she was a portrait, and she cared about him. Or, at least, he conceded, she pretended to very well.
He didn't know what he would do if she turned out to be a Horcrux. It took a horrifying crime to make one, but she was family. She was on their side. So many things would have been different if they'd had a Horcrux of Dumbledore to ask for help, wouldn't they?
The thought was abhorrent but if it could have saved lives, should that not have counted for something?
“Is there a way to find out?” he finally asked hoarsely. “One that doesn't involve destroying her portrait?”
Hermione took a deep breath and Harry knew it would be bad news. “Not that I have found. We could have identified Voldemort's Horcruxes a lot faster if there had been.”
“I know,” Hermione said.
“She knew my father. My grandparents.”
Something in him snapped. He turned and slammed his hands against the wall, the sharp sound ringing through the kitchen. The sudden pain settled into a stinging burn and melded with white-hot rage, and he hit the wall again.
“No.” Harry turned around and Ron took a step back. “No! I don't care! It's always something, isn't it?”
Something in the kitchen rattled. Harry ignored it. “Here's your godfather, Harry,” he mocked, “he's a fugitive and an innocent man who's half insane after twelve years in Azkaban, and he'll live just long enough to give you hope for a family before he's killed by Bellatrix Lestrange. You're a wizard, Harry, and free to leave Privet Drive ten months of the year, and oh, you're famous for surviving your parents' murder and we all expect you to kill the most powerful Dark Lord in centuries, when we're not busy calling you a delusional liar. We found a way to defeat Voldemort, Harry, and all you have to do is walk to your bloody death to save an ungrateful, useless bunch of cowards!”
The kitchen was deathly silent. The rattling had stopped. Every plate and cup in the kitchen was hovering an inch above the shelves, and the air was thick with the pressure of barely restrained magic.
Hermione's eyes were wide. Ron, already pale from early winter, looked downright sick.
Harry took a slow breath and tried to get his anger back under control without shattering every bit of china in the kitchen. Slowly the pressure eased. The cups and plates settled with barely the whisper of sound.
Hermione swallowed nervously. Ron seemed to regain a little colour.
“I don't care,” Harry repeated, calm and utterly unyielding. “She's family. I don't care if she's a bloody Horcrux of Voldemort himself. She's helping us, and that's more than anyone else has ever cared to.”
Hermione took a deep breath. Harry could see the need to argue in her eyes but then she hesitated and her shoulders slumped ever so slightly. “All right,” she conceded softly. “I – all right. We'll keep an eye on her and on you, that's not up for debate, and you have to make sure you don't spend too long talking to her, but – all right. She doesn't feel like Dark magic, and ...”
She trailed off. Ron picked up where she left off. “The Potters were never one of the Dark families. And she sounds a lot more like a Potter than a Black.”
Actually she sounded like both to Harry; a Potter when she was calm and explaining something and a Black when her emotions came to the fore, but he figured that wouldn't help the argument and so he stayed silent.
“Thank you,” he said, and the last lingering magic straining the air finally faded.
Ron and Hermione still looked a little uneasy but for now, at least, the portrait of Dorea Potter was safe.
Potential Horcrux or not – and Harry was leaning towards 'not', since she didn't have anything like the Dark feeling that Walburga's portrait had – Dorea Potter was a fountain of information. A significant portion of what she knew was long since outdated – her knowledge of politics, for one, was twenty years or more out of date – but far more wasn't.
Magic did not easily get outdated. Sure, new spells were invented, and sometimes old ones fell out of use when better ones were created or someone found a counter for a curse, but most spells did not simply stop being useful. Hermione had been quick to point out that most of the spells they learned at Hogwarts were centuries old. The first Blood War had seen a number of new spells on both sides of the war, but most of those had been combat-oriented, Dark, or both. Most new spells in general dealt with specialised areas and weren't likely to be of use to the common witch or wizard.
Dorea Potter couldn't demonstrate the magic she passed on to them, but she could share the knowledge, and Harry was a fast learner when it came to his favourite subjects.
Dorea Potter had also grown up in a house saturated by Dark magic and that knowledge was priceless. Hermione, for all her reservations about the portrait, agreed.
“We hoped to find a book that taught Occlumency,” she explained to Dorea a few days later, when the initial excitement had settled down. “It's one of the few things that can negate the effects of Veritaserum. We hoped ... if anyone had a book about it, the Black family would be it.”
“There's not a Black worth the name that mastered Occlumency,” Dorea stated. “Occlumency requires you to be the master of your emotions. Hardly effective against the Black madness. The Black family knew how to avoid Veritaserum – they used their gold and influence to get out of it. That's the secret right there.” Her expression softened a little as she looked at Harry. “You're a Black, child. A Potter by name, but Isla Black was as mad as can be. She married a Muggle-born as the fourth child of a pure-blood family at a time when heirs had been disposed of for less. Your father had that madness, your grandfather and great uncle had it, and your great-grandmother before that. It's not as strong as hers, I'd say, but it's there. You will never master Occlumency.”
Hermione took a deep breath. Harry could almost see her many mental plans shift to accommodate this new information. “What about the Veritaserum-antidote?”
“Decent enough, if one has the chance to drink it and can act the part to fool the questioners. They can test for it, but that potion is expensive to brew, and the antidote uncommon, and the Ministry is run by miserly little fools at heart. Both should be in the library. Mad about potions, was Pollux. Couldn't brew a first-year potion to save his life but the theories fascinated him. The antidote is fiendishly hard to brew and toxic with prolonged exposure, but if you're questioned under Veritaserum and need to lie, that should be the least of your worries. That was the one I knew of. A better version may have been invented since I died. Plenty of Death Eaters with secrets to keep, I'm certain.”
“You brewed Polyjuice in our second year,” Harry reminded Hermione under his breath. “It's an option.”
Hermione nodded slightly, her focus still on Dorea. “What about keeping the important secrets under an Unbreakable Vow?” Then her eyes narrowed. “But even if it kept the secret, they'd know you were hiding something and they would keep asking around until they found something.”
Dorea's answering smile was sharp. “Indeed. Wizards have tried, child. And some of them died gruesomely when something finally slipped from just the right question and just the wrong wording. Unbreakable Vows were meant to bind actions, not secrets. If you use it to block Veritaserum, make sure it's a secret worth your life. If the only alternative is Azkaban or the Kiss, it may even be an advantage. A swift if painful death is preferable to a Dementor.”
Harry took a deep breath, starting to feel a little lost as every option was shot down. “I can throw off the Imperius,” he offered. “Would that do anything?”
Dorea's attention shifted to him in an instant. “As cast by a competent wizard?”
Harry stood a little straighter, defiance seeping into his stance. “Voldemort himself in my fourth year.” And Barty Crouch, Jr., but that had been nothing next to Voldemort's.
Dorea cackled again. “He was an imposter, Riddle, but by Merlin he was a powerful one.” She turned thoughtful, the shift in mood almost enough to give Harry a whiplash. “Doesn't hurt to try, I think. You sound like a competent girl, Granger. Dose him and make him spill every secret. Then keep doing it until he learns to hide the truth or you give it up as a lost cause. Feed him the antidote, too, and maybe he'll learn to replicate the effects on himself. There's your solution.”
They checked the library, of course, but in the end found nothing that said any different from Dorea.
Harry had a feeling there would be a number of awful potions in his future.
The vial of Veritaserum could have been mistaken for plain water, as the properly brewed version should be. Harry wasn't surprised; Hermione had been the one to brew it, after all. The antidote was an unappealing pale milky green that looked a little like milk gone off. Harry had the dreadful suspicion that he would end up drinking a lot of it in the weeks and months to come.
Ron took a sniff of the antidote and grimaced. “Smells like a Quidditch locker room.”
Harry snorted. “Thanks for the support.”
“Eh, you've had worse in Snape's classes. Especially those we messed up.” He accepted the vial and the dropper from Hermione. “Now sit. Tongue out, mate. Here's the little Quidditch broom.”
Harry rolled his eyes but did as he was told. Three drops of potion landed on his tongue. He tried to pinpoint the exact taste of it, to recognise it if he was exposed to it, but it could have been plain water for all he could tell.
Then the effects hit and the world fell away around him. There was nothing around him, no emotions within him, just a peculiar sound that he distantly recognised as a familiar voice.
"What is your name?" Hermione's voice sounded as if it came across a wide void, almost hollow but strangely clear. A part of him knew he should try to lie or refuse to answer but he couldn't remember how, and his lips were moving even as he tried to figure out how to stop them.
"Harry James Potter." It didn't sound like his own voice to himself, and he wasn't aware of speaking. But his lips had moved and he wasn't sure anymore how to stop when he wasn't speaking in the first place. Was he?
Something landed on his tongue, a drop of something sour and bitter, and the fog lifted from his mind. It had been nothing like the Imperius, nothing obvious to fight, just a perfectly smooth wall between his mind and his desire to lie and not obvious weakness to target to stop it.
Hermione looked worried. Ron looked resigned.
Harry rubbed his face and tried to get the last bit of haziness to go away. "This is going to take a long time to learn.”
"No more than two or three times a day for the Veritaserum, and once a day at the most for the antidote," Hermione said. "And we need to take regular breaks or the toxic effects will build up." She sighed. "I'll brew more of both. We still have a few vials of Veritaserum left, but it won't last long if we keep this up."
Ron paused. “So did it taste like Quidditch locker room?”