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At the Lord's Door

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Albus Dumbledore had envisioned many different versions of the afterlife, but he'd never pictured one that resembled, in any way, a waiting room.

If he had to admit it, he hadn't expected to have to wait at all. He'd arrived secure in the knowledge that he had served the wizarding world to the best of his ability for his whole life and that he had died valiantly, fighting the good fight to the end. He hadn't thought of a procession of the glorious dead praising him, but he had thought that the universe might deign to acknowledge his extreme cleverness in battling Voldemort.

And instead, here he was in a hideous waiting room with pale green walls, a carpet the colour of oatmeal, and furniture that was an inch too close to the ground for comfort. In place of windows, there were posters that just failed to please the eye. One was an image of the Pyramids. "You can do anything you set your mind to," it proclaimed, "when you have vision, determination, and an endless supply of expendable labor." Clearly whoever was in charge of this...location...had serious problems with his employees.

Sitting at the front desk, and looking quite surly, was a middle-aged man with grey hair, blunt features and a bulldog mouth. He really looked as if he'd be far more comfortable labouring outdoors than sitting in an office. Dumbledore couldn't imagine why he'd taken such a job in the first place. The name plate on his desk read, "Simon Peter." The name made Dumbledore frown. He'd never had much luck with people named Peter.

"Excuse me," he said with just a touch of irritation--it wouldn't do to get the chap offended, after all--"but how much longer do I have to wait?"

"In a hurry to get where you're going, are you, Albus?" said a familiar voice from near the door.

Dumbledore turned around, then blinked. It was Sirius...but it wasn't the thin, haggard survivor-of-Azkaban Sirius that he'd last seen a year ago. This was Sirius as he'd been at twenty--brash, young, handsome, and clad in his favourite outfit of skin-tight blue jeans and a black leather jacket. Dumbledore could almost believe that Sirius's flying motorcycle was parked outside somewhere. Wherever here was.

"Sirius!" he said, smiling. "My boy, how good to see you. You're looking quite well--"

"Oh, stuff it, Albus," Sirius said with a glare. "I don't want to hear your 'quite wells.' I'm not quite well, obviously, or I wouldn't be here. Do you have any idea how badly you fucked up my life, you old bastard? Well, everyone's life. But let's start with mine."

"Sirius, I don't know what you're..."

"The Order, to begin with," Sirius continued, overriding him. "Brilliant job there. Twenty-odd witches and wizards, mostly young and just out of school, with the occasional older witch or wizard, petty crook and Squib tossed in for flavour. Twenty people against Voldemort, his Death Eaters, and most of the giants, werewolves, vampires, goblins and Dementors in England. Not to mention his supporters on the Continent. Does that sound slightly outnumbered to you?"

"Well, you didn't have to join him," another young man added. He resembled Sirius, but had waist-long black hair and was wearing spring green robes. Either he'd Apparated into the seat kitty-corner to Dumbledore when Dumbledore hadn't been looking or he'd just removed an Invisibility Cloak. "You could have said no. I did."

"And it got you killed," said Dumbledore, with a touch of asperity. "If you'd joined us, Regulus--"

"I'd have ended up just as dead."

"But--"

"Edgar Bones," Regulus replied. "Caradoc Dearborn. Benjy Fenwick. Marlene McKinnon. Dorcas Meadowes. Gideon and Fabian Prewett. The Potters. Should we count Frank and Alice Longbottom as dead? I think we should."

Sirius looked at him. "How do you know all those names?"

"Because the Dark Lord threw a party every time one of your lot died or disappeared. That's how."

"Regulus..." Dumbledore whispered sadly, "I could have helped you."

Regulus gave him a look of utter contempt. "I managed to develop a moral compass without benefit of Dumbledore." He glanced at his brother. "Anyway, go on. Sorry for the interruption."

Sirius looked amused. "Rather like your old sex life, Reg. You like to watch."

"In case you haven't noticed," Regulus said, stretching, "I'm not a voyeur here. I'm an active participant. Go on. You were on the bit about the inefficiency of the Order."

"Right! Not enough people, no special spells or equipment, nothing to fight a bloody war with..."

"Sirius," said Dumbledore, his eyes glistening with sorrow, "I swear to you that I did the best I could."

"Not in every respect," Sirius snarled. "Let me count the ways. Now, you always said you were a Legilimens, yes? Well, you knew there was a spy in the Order for more than a year! You could have found out who it was by reading the minds of the members! It would have been easy!"

"It certainly would," Regulus agreed. "Peter never had one ounce of talent at blocking Legilimency. That was how he was spying on you lot in the first place. He never had to say anything. The Dark Lord entered his mind and ripped out all the information he wanted." He fired a supercilious glance in Dumbledore's direction. "The Dark Lord didn't boast of having rare powers and not use them. Unlike you."

"You might also have used that talent when I was arrested," Sirius said through gritted teeth. "How hard would it have been for you to go to the Ministry or to Azkaban, read my mind and find out if I was actually guilty?"

"You could have demanded that Sirius's wand be checked," Regulus interposed. "Asked that he be confined somewhere until any antidotes to Veritaserum had left his system, and then have him fed truth serum. Demanded that the Healers at St Mungo's check him for the Imperius Curse, to see if he'd betrayed his friends of his own free will. Head of the Wizengamot, Supreme Mugwump, all that...the Ministry would have listened to you. But no. You never gave it a second thought. And you left my brother to rot for twelve years." Regulus clenched his fists. "What I wouldn't give for a wand right now..."

"And let's not forget the Prophecy," said James, who had suddenly materialised next to Sirius. "Explain to me about Snape telling you about that in June 1980 and you not telling Lily and me that we were in danger until the week before Halloween 1981?"

"Ah," said Regulus. "That explains why you didn't flee to Antarctica. I did wonder about that."

"Well, it's hard to flee danger that you don't know exists!"

"You have a point." Regulus mulled things over for a moment. "So, due to the lack of warning about the Prophecy and the lack of Legilimency, you and Lily got killed."

"Negligent homicide, it's called," said Lily, appearing sitting next to Dumbledore and looking as angry as he'd ever seen her. "And then he decided--he, not anyone in a position of authority--to abandon my child to my miserable sister and her foul husband. Knowing full well what they were like!"

"Oh, he had to do that," said James, and Dumbledore winced at the scorn in his voice. "If Harry had grown up in a wizarding family--which would have been quite possible; my parents were dead by 1981, but hello, I was a pureblood and that means dozens of cousins--if Harry had grown up in a loving wizarding family, the wizarding world would've been normal to him. Ordinary. Mundane. Not a magical Paradise/escape route for a neglected, unloved little boy who'd never belonged anywhere."

"I did indeed 'have to do that,' James," Dumbledore said, feeling both downcast and somewhat put-upon. He had hoped that James and Lily, at least, would have appreciated his efforts on behalf of their son. "I needed him put under blood protection, and only Lily's sister would do."

"That's not true and you know it," snapped Lily. "James died for Harry every bit as much as I did, so any of his blood relatives would have worked just as well."

"And besides," James added, "the blood protection didn't work. Staying with the Dursleys for two weeks out of the year was supposed to protect him from all attacks everywhere, not just attacks by Voldemort personally--"

"And how well that worked out," Sirius said in a sour tone. "How many attacks did the boy experience, at home and at school? Quirrellmort and Diary Tom--and both of those took place BEFORE Voldemort supposedly overcame the blood protection. True, Quirrell got burned by touching Harry's skin--but that didn't stop him from attacking Harry, not at all. Dementors attacked Harry twice in his third year, and ambushed him and his cousin only weeks after Voldemort's resurrection. Obviously the blood protection didn't work quite so well as you'd hoped, Dumbledore. As in 'not at all.'"

"Not to mention," Lily said, white-lipped, "that if two weeks' time per year with my sister and her family was all that was required to keep Harry safe, then he didn't need to spend ten miserable years with them in the first place!"

"Harry w-w-wasn't the only p-p-person he wr-wr-wronged," said Professor Quirrell, who had appeared, slouching, in a corner. He scowled at Dumbledore. "You m-might have n-n-noticed that I was p-p-possessed. You s-saw me every d-day--three times a day at m-meals, and l-lets not forget the t-t-teacher's lounge. Not to m-mention that y-you had to s-see me to ask m-me to create a challenge to pr-pr-protect the Stone."

"And you made the same mistake with Barty Crouch, Junior," Sirius pointed out. "You ate and drank and socialised with him for a year, and you never even thought once that 'Moody'--your old, old friend--might have been replaced by someone else."

"So much for Legilimency," muttered James.

"If he's a Legilimens," said Regulus with a snort, "then I'm Morgan le Fay. It takes a special kind of Legilimens to miss the fact that three underage Animagi are at school for three years, and then to fail to notice one of those Animagi for at least another three. Maybe more. Peter was Percy Weasley's rat before he was Ron's."

"And you endangered Harry and Hermione in their third year," Lily interrupted. "Two children, and you sent them out onto the grounds--to tamper with time, mind you---where they could have been killed by two suspected Death Eaters, one armed with an axe, and neither with any reason to want to spare a Muggleborn witch or the boy who'd destroyed their master, a maddened werewolf, or a hundred or so starving Dementors. And you gave my son and his friend nothing--no protective spells, no charms, not even any advice. Unless you want to count 'Three turns should do it, Miss Granger.'"

"What a magnificent way to protect the one person in all the world who, according to prophecy, can destroy Voldemort, eh, Padfoot?" James commented, crossing his arms and glaring down at the old wizard.

"Oh, it must have been wonderful," Sirius retorted. "After all, Dumbledore is the wisest and cleverest and most knowledgeable wizard in the world. Just ask him. He'll tell you."

"Don't forget the Prophecy," said a nondescript middle-aged wizard standing near the front desk. "I only wish I could."

"Well, we already discussed that, Bode," James replied in as kindly a tone as he could muster.

"Not all of it," Broderick Bode said grimly.

"I'm with Bode," Sirius said. "First we have Dumbledore giving a witch with pretensions to Divination skills a job interview in a pub filled with shady characters, and which had housed Death Eaters on at least one occasion, am I right?

"Now, any sane wizard would have held a proper interview at the castle, where there were all sorts of protection spells. Especially during a war. But I guess that just wouldn't have been good enough for Mr Clever Clogs, would it?

"Then, by a strange coincidence, the witch makes a vital prophecy about You-Know-Who--just when someone is spying on them. A someone, by the way, who was caught and then deliberately let go."

"I did not know in June 1980 that Severus was working for Lord Voldemort," Dumbledore said with chill displeasure. He couldn't understand this. Where was all this hostility coming from? Where, by Merlin, was the respect and reverence he had come to expect?

"You were the fucking head of the Order of the Phoenix!" shouted James. "It was your JOB to know!"

"Besides," Regulus added dryly, "you could have easily guessed that Severus Snape, proud and enthusiastic supporter of the wizarding world and detester of all things Mudblood, probably was not working as the Muggle Liaison Officer for Bertie Botts' Every Flavour Beans."

"Especially given that practically everyone in that gang he ran with at school ended up as a Death Eater," concluded Sirius. "Not to mention that it would have been rather odd for someone secretly on your side to be spying on you. If you couldn't figure out who he was working for, you just weren't trying."

"So then," Broderick Bode said, crossing his arms and still looking both grim and indignant, "the prophecy--which must have been copied somehow from your memory, as Snape didn't hear the whole thing and Trelawney doesn't remember it to this day--was put in the Hall of Prophecy in the Ministry.

"I don't object to that, mind. The Hall of Prophecy is a perfectly sensible place for it to be."

"It's so sensible, I'm amazed that a wizard thought of it at all," muttered Lily.

"What I do object to," Bode said, raising his voice, "is that three people risked their lives for that prophecy. Arthur Weasley was on guard duty at the Department of Mysteries trying to keep anyone from stealing the prophecy when he was bitten by Voldemort's snake and nearly died. Sturgis Podmore was also on guard duty when he was caught and sentenced to six months in Azkaban. Without any help or support from the Order, I might add. Wonderful how you protect your people, Dumbledore.

"And then Lucius Malfoy cast the Imperius Curse on me to force me to steal the prophecy as well. I lost the ability to speak. I thought that I was a teapot!

"But did either the Ministry or you even consider that, since I'd been commanded to steal the prophecy, the person who had issued the command might not want me to recover? Not for a second! No guards or protective spells for old Bode, oh no. So at Christmastime, I was sent to St Mungo's, where I was murdered by someone who used Devil's Snare to strangle me.

"And for what? Not for the only copy of the prophecy. For the only copy you were willing to admit existed, which is quite a different thing."

"A waste," Sirius replied. "Arthur Weasley nearly died, and you did die, protecting this not-quite-the-last-copy-of-the-prophecy during Harry's fifth year...and for what? For Dumbledore to turn around in Harry's sixth year and inform him that the prophecy so many people had risked their lives for in the previous year had no power whatsoever."

"I did not say that!" Dumbledore said, infuriated.

Sirius passed his hand in front of his face, and suddenly there were two Dumbledores in the room. "'If Voldemort had never heard of the prophecy, would it have been fulfilled?'" the Sirius-Dumbledore said.

"Yes," James answered firmly. "It would. It's in the nature of prophecies to come true whether you want them to or not."

"But, James--" Dumbledore shook his head at the younger man's willful blindness. "It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Don't you see?"

James pushed his glasses up his nose as he gazed down at the real Dumbledore. "If you really believed that, you should have done everything in your power to prevent the prophecy from reaching Voldemort's ears. You didn't. In fact, you did everything in your power to make sure that it was overheard."

"Professor Trelawney prophesied when she was in her room at the Hog's Head!" Dumbledore exclaimed. "And how could I know that she would make such a prediction? What would you have had me do?"

"Cast an Imperturbable Charm on the door to the room before the interview got started?" suggested Lily. "After all, it was a private interview...and in a place frequented by crooks, the desperate, and, on at least one occasion, Death Eaters. Besides, Trelawney is the granddaughter of a Seer; the fact that she too might be a Seer was part of the reason you were giving her the interview in the first place! And there's no knowing what a Seer will say."

"Or you could have, I don't know, Obliviated Snivellus," James said. "You know, the way you taught us to? In school?"

Dumbledore cringed. He'd thought that he'd been quite clever--but it seemed he hadn't been clever enough to silence his critics.

"If I may continue..." said Sirius-Dumbledore in a pained voice.

James flapped his hand in Sirius's direction. "Sorry. Go on, Padfoot."

Sirius cleared his throat and began speaking like Dumbledore once more. "'If Voldemort had never murdered your father, would he have imparted in you a furious desire for revenge? Of course not!'"

"I thought that the power the Dark Lord knew not was love," said James.

"It is," Regulus replied. "Revenge, he knows about. Trust me on this."

"'If he had not forced your mother to die for you, would he have given you a magical protection he could not penetrate?'"

"And here I thought that self-sacrifice involved willingly laying down your life for someone else," Lily mused. "Not being forced."

"A poor choice of words!" Dumbledore cried out, pulling himself to his feet.

"You seem to make poor choices a lot," Regulus remarked, scratching his head. "Odd for someone who's so insightful and wise."

Sirius continued, disregarding the commentary going on in the background. "'It is Voldemort's fault that you were able to see into his thoughts, his ambitions...'"

"Wasn't that supposed to be a bad thing?" inquired Bode.

"It w-w-was," replied Quirrell. "H-h-hence all th-th-those Occlumency l-l-lessons."

"'...that you even understand the snakelike language in which he gives orders...'"

Regulus snorted. "To Nagini, maybe. Speaking as the token Death Eater here, I feel it my duty to remind a certain ancient wizard that none of us are Parselmouths, and in any case, Parseltongue is extremely rare. So any orders given in snake-language would result in an 'I beg your pardon, my Lord?'"

Ignoring his brother, Sirius rambled on. "'And yet, Harry, despite your privileged insight into Voldemort's world (which, incidentally, is a gift any Death Eater would kill to have), you have never been seduced by the Dark Arts, never, even for a second, shown the slightest desire to become one of Voldemort's followers!'"

"Yeah," said James, leaning against the wall. "I'd be overwhelmed with a passionate desire to work for the arsehole who kept trying to kill me. I know my son's not brilliant, Albus, but give him some credit."

"Shall I go on?" said Sirius, transforming back to his twenty-year-old self.

"No," Lily replied. "I think you made your point."

"Pity. I was really enjoying myself." Sirius scanned the waiting room. "Hello? Anyone else want to discuss dire and destructive mistakes? Everyone's welcome!"

"I think I should say something," said Cedric Diggory, walking past the guardian of the front desk and into the waiting room. "After all, if it weren't for Professor Dumbledore, I wouldn't be here."

"Cedric, dear boy," Dumbledore said, his eyes tearing up, "I don't know what you think--you're clearly confused--but you were slain by Peter Pettigrew, at Voldemort's orders. Not by me."

"Yes," said Cedric quietly, "but you made it easy for them. You knew the cup had been tampered with to allow Harry to participate. And you knew, as no one else did, that Voldemort had tried to kill him twice before since Harry had arrived at Hogwarts. So you knew that his being disembodied wasn't nearly the obstacle it should have been. And even if you disregarded Voldemort's existence, there were still the Death Eaters to consider. Heck, a suspected Death Eater was a governor of the school! Getting in would have been easy."

"Especially in view of the number of potions that could be employed to admit a Death Eater," said Regulus coolly. "I'm not just speaking of Polyjuice Potion. Felix Felicis springs to mind. Anyone who wanted to and who wasn't on a schedule could brew that--it only takes six months, and what's that to the certainty of the protection spells on Hogwarts not working, and the front door being wide open?"

"Reg," Sirius said uneasily, "you're beginning to sound--"

"Like a Death Eater? I was, remember? I'm just saying that if you know magical tampering has taken place, you'd be stupid not to think of ways it could have happened, who's responsible and why."

"You should have warned Viktor and Fleur and me of the risk," Cedric said. "At the very least, you should have done that. And our parents and guardians as well."

"Amen to that," muttered Sirius. "I had to hear about the Triwizard Tournament--and the danger Harry was in--from Harry. You couldn't be arsed to get a message to me, could you, Albus?"

"What I'd really like to know," James said, "is how you could host an international competition without once checking the equipment. Lily says that even Muggles double-check equipment and prizes to make sure they haven't been stolen or tampered with. Now, if you'd just done that with the Triwizard Cup, also known as the Portkey..."

"Well, the giant maze didn't help matters," said Cedric with a sigh. "Nothing like isolating all the participants while simultaneously preventing any of the audience from seeing what's going on or how anyone's winning."

"True," James replied. "I'm sure it was fascinating and dangerous to the players, but it must have been--pardon the expression, Cedric--absolute death to watch. Whereas, if it had been out in the open, like, say, Quidditch, nothing would have happened. It's a bit hard to kidnap two boys in front of a large audience without attracting some attention."

"He doesn't pay proper attention," said another voice. It belonged to a middle-aged woman who had suddenly appeared sitting next to Lily. She was wearing a rather dull, long-sleeved, high-collared, navy blue dress and an ugly but respectable hat with a narrow brim and rather too much fruit.

"Who are you?" Lily asked, looking bewildered.

"I," said the woman, screwing her glasses to her nose and fixing Dumbledore with a very McGonagall-esque stare, "am Mrs Cole. The matron of the orphanage young Tom Riddle lived at."

"Riddle," said Regulus, gritting his teeth. "What did Dumbledore have to do with Riddle?"

"Why, he came to the orphanage to offer him a place at a school." Mrs Cole sniffed. "Said Tom had been down for the school since he was born. I warned him that the boy was a wrong 'un--hanging rabbits and doing something to small children 'til they aren't right in the head isn't normal! And there were other things he did. Hideous things. Even though he was just a boy himself. I can't speak of them even now."

"I...see." Regulus rubbed his temples as if he were getting a migraine. "And even after knowing all that, he offered Riddle a place at Hogwarts."

"He certainly did," Mrs Cole replied. "And Tom told him what he'd done, too--not that I knew that when I was alive, but I certainly know it now. I didn't mind. I was quite happy to see the back of Tom, let me tell you. Even if it was only for nine months out of the year. And so were a good many other people."

"Let me get this straight," said Sirius, his voice reverberating with horror. "At the age of eleven, Tom was torturing and killing small animals, and doing something to other children--most likely torturing them--until they weren't right in the head. The Muggles around him noticed this. Dumbledore, reputedly the wisest wizard in the wizarding world, was told about Tom's behavior. Tom himself confirmed it. And Dumbledore, despite being told twice over of Tom's actions--which would be scary in anyone, let alone a little boy--nevertheless decided to give Tom a place at Hogwarts. Because a kid who killed and tortured for fun really needed to learn every potentially destructive spell in the world." He stared at Dumbledore, gaping in disbelief.

"And if he hadn't admitted Tom to Hogwarts," said a sulky voice from just outside the waiting room door, "then I wouldn't have died, either."

Dumbledore craned his neck around, but he couldn't see anyone. The voice was familiar, though.

Lily stared past the young men crowding the doorway. "Moaning Myrtle? Is that you?"

"Yes, go ahead!" Myrtle shrieked. "Call me names. Make fun of me. It's not as if I'm ever going to get past that waiting room door, is it?"

"Myrtle..." Lily said helplessly. "Please don't go."

"Tell us what happened when the Basilisk started attacking people," Sirius said. "It might help."

"Don't know what you want to know," Myrtle replied. Dumbledore could just imagine her standing there with her lower lip pooched out.

"Did anyone ever suspect Tom?" Lily asked. "It seems as if they should have, considering what he was like before he came to school."

"Oh, no!" Myrtle exclaimed. "No one thought of Tom for one minute. All the teachers liked him, except Dumbledore. He was one of Slughorn's pets, and Headmaster Dippet positively doted on him."

"So you never told the other teachers?" Lily demanded, giving Dumbledore a sulphurous look. "You never saw fit to mention that one of the first-year boys was unusually, abnormally cruel, and to make sure he didn't treat the other children the same way?"

"No. I-I thought it best to give him another chance. In case he felt...remorse."

"Did you see any signs of remorse?" Regulus inquired politely.

"No," Dumbledore said, his voice and hands trembling. "But that doesn't mean that remorse wasn't there."

"And when the attacks on other students started," Lily said in a voice like double-edged steel, "you, the 'wisest wizard in the world,' did not immediately think of the boy you knew to be using Dark magic at the age of eleven, and who you also knew had tortured and killed living things before. Is that what you're telling me?"

Dumbledore flinched. There had been a reason why he hadn't suspected Tom, he was sure that there was, but he just couldn't think of it right now.

"Not to mention," Regulus added, "the whole Legilimancy question again. Even if he hadn't been told what Tom had done--which he was--he should have glimpsed a few unpleasant though unspoken things in eleven-year-old Tom's mind. And you'd think that he'd have used that vaunted power to protect the school."

"How?" demanded Dumbledore, determined to take this haughty boy down a peg or two. "What would you have done?"

Regulus didn't hesitate for a second. "I'd have talked to Dippet and convinced him call every student and staff member into the Great Hall. Then, once they were all together, I'd have cast Finite Incantatem to neutralise any spells or potions that might be used to shield a mind. Then I'd have walked up and down the hall, using Legilimancy on every single person present from the Headmaster on down.

"If I got tired, I'd stop for a while till I'd recovered my energy, and I'd keep the people whose minds I hadn't yet read isolated.

"Sooner or later, I'd run into a mind that knew more about the attacks than it should. Or into Occlumency, which would be suspicious in itself.

"The point is--with a Legilimens around, no one had to be paralysed...not after the first incident. And no one had to die. And there didn't have to be a repeat performance fifty years later. Hagrid didn't have to be expelled, or be sent to Azkaban." Regulus looked down his aristocratic nose at Dumbledore. "Unless, of course, you're just a big fat liar."

"Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore," said Cedric. "Killing students by criminal negligence since 1943."

"When you come right down to it," Sirius concluded, with the air of a judge summing matters up for the jury, "he's responsible for the very existence of Voldemort. If he hadn't admitted a crazy evil boy to Hogwarts--if he'd told Dippet that there was something seriously wrong with young Tom Riddle and that it would be better for everyone if he didn't get any stronger--there'd have been no Voldemort later."

"And no Horcruxes," added James. "Hogwarts was where Voldemort learned about Horcruxes, after all."

"And if he's responsible for Voldemort's existence," Lily said in a voice that might well have belonged to the goddess of justice, "that also means that he shares the blame for every single death in the First and Second Wars. For those deaths and those wars wouldn't have taken place if not for Voldemort. Who would not have existed, Albus, if not for you."

The words felt like stakes stabbing his heart, like curses searing his bones. He knew beyond question that they were right. He had failed in every way, and he hadn't realised it until this moment.

But he had little time to mull this over, as the waiting room appeared to be swelling, bulging this way and that to accommodate dozens, hundreds, thousands of people. Most he'd never seen before; a few, like.the Prewett twins and Dorcas Meadowes, were familiar. All were staring at him with accusing eyes.

"I do think that we should be going now," said James, satisfaction evident in his face, voice and manner. He offered his arm to Lily. "Pads, are you coming with us or not?"

"In a bit, James," Sirius said. "I think that I need to talk to my little brother for a while."

Regulus gave a startled smile. "Thanks. I'd like that."

There was an exchange of farewells as the others--Quirrell, Bode, Mrs Cole, and so on--vanished. Cedric walked back in past the man at the front desk, who smiled at the boy. Lily and James followed suit. Before Sirius could leave with his brother, Dumbledore cried to him.

"You're not just going to leave me here?"

"Well," Sirius said, appearing to think about this, "that is the idea. I don't think that telling them that you're in a hurry to go elsewhere will make much impression on your victims."

"Your dead victims, anyway," added Regulus. "Quite a few people that you've hurt are still alive. So far. But the war is still going on...and they could be popping up any day." He grinned impishly at his brother. "I can't wait to hear what Severus has to say. That'll be incredible."

Sirius's grin was even broader than Regulus's. "Oh, I'd love to hear that." He turned and waved at Dumbledore. "So long, Albus. Enjoy the company."

"We'll likely be back eventually," said Regulus.

"True," Sirius agreed. "There are so many other things we could talk over with you. But not now. I've got a best friend to visit. A godson to watch over. A brother to talk to. Eternity to enjoy. You know how it goes." And with that, he walked past S. Peter and was gone.

"I'm sure I'll see you later," Regulus said, turning toward the door. He glanced back over his shoulder. "By the way, a word of advice. If your mortal enemy wants you to drink poison, you don't drink the fucking poison." So saying, he followed his brother, hurrying a bit as if to catch up.

The scorn in Regulus's last words, combined with the growing awareness of his failure, ripped into Dumbledore with physical agony. It was as if something was biting, tearing, clawing at his entrails but was unable to free them from his body. The pain should have blurred his concentration and made it harder for him to focus on the words of the others in the room; instead, the agony brought with it a peculiar clarity, making every tale his new visitors told spring to vivid, palpable life before him.

He listened as the pain burned its way through his veins, wondering how much longer he'd have to sit here, demonstrating fortitude and humility for the benefit of a bureaucratic bulldog no better than the ones at the Ministry.

At last, however, he gave up.

"Excuse me," he shouted to the bulldog, attempting to drown out the voices of the war victims, "but how much longer is this going to go on?"

The man at the front desk blinked. "Why, forever, of course."

It began to sink in then. "But...James and Lily were here. And Sirius. And--"

"They're fine," said Simon Peter. "Telling you the truth about yourself and about what happened because of you--that's part of their Heaven." He smiled rapturously. "But it's YOUR Hell."