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The Search For Life and Death

Chapter Text

I

The Nightmare


In a normal-looking neighborhood, on a normal-looking street, there sat an eerily-normal-looking house. In fact, the house was so normal  in appearance that most who glanced at it might assume that the suffocating  normalness  was put on.

They would have been right.

Within this façade of a house, there lived a family of four. Vernon Dursley was a large beefy man, who vaguely resembled an obese gorilla, minus the neck. Petunia Dursley, once Petunia Evans, seemed to have somehow gained the neck that Vernon lacked, thereby making her reminiscent of a giraffe, or a very thin-framed horse. Their son, Dudley Dursley, greatly resembled his father, but might be likened to the magicked-hybrid of a pig and a whale.

That is, of course, if the Dursleys tolerated anything of the abnormal sort, which they did not. No, the Dursleys of Number 4 Privet Drive were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

Except where the fourth member of the household was concerned.

Those of you reading this may be of the Wizarding sort, and so you would not find the fourth resident of this small, innocent, normal house in Little Whinging, Surrey, to be of any vast difference from yourself. If you, however, happen to be a Muggle – well then, you may be of the same mind as the Dursleys.

The boy was nothing more than a freak.

Utterly abnormal and of the sort that no one would want to associate with or, worse, be seen with in public! No, that would not do; not at all.

This was why the fourth resident of the Dursley household remained a secretive party to most. In fact, only one other person on Privet Drive knew the true identity of the second child in the care of Vernon and Petunia Dursley.

This boy was almost the same age as Dudley – a few months younger. That, however, is where the similarities end.

Harry James Potter was Petunia's nephew, and therefore Vernon's nephew by marriage, as well as Dudley's cousin. Despite their blood relation, however, there was no bond of love between Harry and his relatives. At one point in time, he may have offered them the love and trust that only children can give to another, but their constant disregard for his needs, both physical and emotional, destroyed that bond long ago. Harry James Potter didn't like staying under the care of his relatives, though he never objected.

The Dursleys hated Harry Potter, and they made sure he knew it.

Harry was a small boy; smaller even than his father had been at his age. This is, in part, due to the fact that Harry inherited his mother's lithe frame, even though most people see only his father in him, except for his vivid green eyes. His small form, however, was also partially due to the fact that Harry was given just enough food that he wouldn't starve to death, and he shared part of this with his pet owl, Hedwig.

Hedwig was a snowy owl, and one of the most beautiful creatures in the world, in Harry's opinion. Although he would never say so in front of the phoenix, Harry thought that Hedwig's beauty might even rival that of Dumbledore's own companion, Fawkes.

This was probably because Hedwig was only the second present that Harry had ever received in his life, since coming to live with the Dursleys. The first present had been a cake baked by the kind half-giant, Hagrid, who was also the person who bought Harry his owl.

Pure white, with flecks of black across her feathers, Hedwig blended in spectacularly with the snowy grounds of Hogwarts during the winter season. Over the Christmas holiday, when Harry remained at the school in order to further avoid returning to Privet Drive, Harry liked to stand outside and watch his beautiful pet fly carelessly across the sky, wishing he could do the same.

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was where Harry spent most of the year. On his eleventh birthday, Hagrid had given Harry the letter that had been kept from him for weeks prior, compliments of his magic-hating relatives. When Harry had finally received his letter, life seemed to have finally taken a turn for the better.

Even when he was home over the summer, Harry was always able to look forward to going back to school come September. It made the summer just bearable enough to survive.

Well, it had.

But Harry wasn't sure that returning to Hogwarts was a good idea.

The previous year, his school had been host to two other schools – Beauxbatons and Durmstrang – and the TriWizard Tournament. The school had also, unwittingly, been host to a Death Eater spy, who had made certain that Harry Potter was entered into the tournament, despite the restrictions, and that he made it through to the end and grasped the trophy within his fingers; the trophy-turned-Portkey, which transported him to a graveyard far from Hogwarts. There, he was forced to play a part in the resurrection of the half-alive dark wizard, Voldemort.

And watch Cedric Diggory die.

Harry and Cedric hadn't been friends, but they had gotten to know each other a little throughout the tournament. Harry had also known Cedric from Quidditch, as he had been the Seeker for Hufflepuff, while Harry was Seeker for Gryffindor, his House Team.

But now Cedric was dead, and it was all Harry's fault.

"It's all your fault, Harry. All your fault…"

Those words plagued his dreams and now, more recently, his waking moments. Spoken in the voice of his dead classmate as Harry witnessed, over and over, the life being sucked from Cedric eyes as he suffered the very curse that had orphaned Harry all those years ago…

"It's all your fault, Harry. All your fault…"

"Stop it…" Harry cried weakly, but his voice was barely perceptible to his own ears. During previous summers, Harry was given a massive chore list to accomplish, and was expected to have everything thoroughly completed. Naturally, the list was far too extensive for anyone to complete, and so when the Dursleys came home, Harry was severely punished for whatever chores weren't done (this led to Harry trying to do all that he could within the limited amount of time, in order to evoke a lesser degree of punishment). Whatever was done to him wasn't enough to keep him down, because the Dursleys didn't want to lose their slave and, therefore, be forced to work themselves.

This year, however, things had changed. Vernon had been promoted during the time that Harry was away at school, and had also received a rather substantial raise. The majority of his money went, of course, toward his perfectcan-do-no-wrong son, but Vernon had used some of his paycheck to have a contractor come and tear out the wall of Harry's bedroom, replacing it, minus one window.

So this summer, instead of spending his time outside weeding the garden, or downstairs cooking breakfast and filching food when he had the rare chance, Harry was confined to his bedroom. Surprisingly, the broken, battered, and all-but-forgotten mass of unused toys belonging to Dudley had been removed from the room, because you don't deserve the chance to play with such nice things, according to his aunt.

At least Harry wouldn't fall over something and break his leg during the night.

Not that he could get up.

No, right now, Harry was lying on a worthless mattress on the floor, the bed frame having been removed because freaks don't deserve to have nice things. His uncle had come in early today – or was it yesterday? – and punished Harry, because nothing around the house had been done at all.

He had, of course, ignored the fact that there were five locks on Harry's door, keeping him safe and secure inside of his room.

Harry coughed suddenly, bringing his legs up and trying to curl into a ball to ward off the pain. The spasms caused his ribs to ache unbearably, bringing tears to Harry's eyes and occasionally causing him to cry out. He tried very hard not to call out, especially in nightmares, because it often woke Vernon and he would come in and punish Harry severely.

After a few minutes, the coughing subsided, and Harry weakly stretched out again, clenching his teeth to keep from crying out. But Gods, it hurt so bad!

Groaning softly, he swallowed with some difficultly, his dry throat and parched lips a testament to the fact that he hadn't had anything to drink in some time. He had no clock with which to go by and could no longer see outside to note whether it was day or night, but he was pretty sure that he hadn't eaten in at least three days.

Harry shivered, his hands twisting in the frayed and barely-existent blanket, struggling to pull it up to his shoulders and ward off the chill. The cold seemed to have settled inside of him, as though he had swallowed a Dementor that was even now slowly – agonizingly – devouring his pathetic soul. No matter what he did, he couldn't seem to get warm.

"Harry… Harry…"

"Go away," Harry demanded the voices, though his weak tone barely penetrated the air. His constant screaming had shredded his throat and now it stung constantly. His eyes felt as though they had been severely burned, perhaps with a hot poker. He had been crying a lot lately, waking from nightmares and letting the tears fall silently so that he could keep from crying out or sobbing uncontrollably. He couldn't imagine how he had water enough left in his body for tears. He was so thirsty…

"Harry…"

Sometimes, the voices sounded so soothing, so peaceful, he just wanted to fall away into their depths. He wanted to be consumed by darkness and the sound of someone calling his name, as though they wanted him. But no… no one could want him. He was a freak.

More than a freak. He was a murderer.

No! No, no, no, no, no! Don't let them get to you, Potter!

Despite the pain that rippled through his back and down his spine, Harry shook his head vehemently in an attempt to drive the thought away. He would not let his relatives get to him. He was stronger than that. He was not a murderer. He hadn't cast the Killing Curse at Cedric – Voldemort had. And Voldemort would do it to anyone else who got in his way, no matter who they were. Harry couldn't control the maniac. He could only hope he had strength enough to stop him.

Wasn't that what he had been doing all his life?

The Killing Curse cast on him when he was a baby rebounded back and hit Voldemort. The only reason the monster didn't die was because he was just that – a monster. There wasn't enough humanity left in him to die, according to Hagrid, and Harry had to agree.

During his first year at Hogwarts, Voldemort had somehow manifested himself – or his face, at least – on the back of their Defense Against the Dark Arts professor's head. Harry, Ron, and Hermione had gone off to stop Quirell, but it had been Harry alone in the end, facing the madman that had killed his parents. Once again, Voldemort escaped – a bodiless shadow, but nevertheless a threat.

Second year, an old diary had been passed to Harry's best friend's little sister, Ginny, who had just started at Hogwarts. Thanks to Lucius Malfoy, stuck-up Pureblood and Death Eater extraordinaire, Ginny had nearly died. Ron would have been devastated if that had happened, and it had been Harry, again, who had gone off to defeat the reforming memory of Tom Marvolo Riddle – a younger version of Lord Voldemort, as the man called himself. Ron had been left along the way, unable to continue, but Harry was glad, as he wasn't sure his friend would have survived the battle. Harry had very nearly died himself, having been bitten by the Basilisk in his efforts to slay it. Only quick thinking and great kindness from the phoenix, Fawkes, had saved Harry from a swift-approaching death.

Harry's third year, surprisingly, had been the least-dangerous, even though a mass-murderer and escaped convict was supposedly after him. As it turns out, there had been a mass-murderer and Death Eater in his presence since his first year, but Scabbers the rat – Peter Pettigrew or Wormtail, all masks aside – was too much of a coward to attack Harry without assurances of protection from a greater power. From what he had heard, Pettigrew wasn't that efficient with a wand, anyway. He had, however, escaped, thereby ruining Harry's chances at living with his godfather, Sirius Black.

Sirius.

Harry missed his godfather. He thought about him a lot, when the pain wasn't so excruciating and he was able to concentrate. Sometimes, Harry was lucky enough that Uncle Vernon's punishments knocked him unconscious. This usually led to two things: one, Harry got a decent amount of sleep without waking up screaming from nightmares; and two, Harry dreamed of happier times at school with his friends, or of Sirius coming to get him and taking him away from this awful place. But they always ended the same way.

He woke up.

Sighing, Harry tilted his head so that he could see the door out of the corner of his eye. It was dark in the room, but his eyes had adjusted after a couple of days enclosed within the shadows. He searched the floor for any bowls of food or water that might have been pushed through the cat-flap. He couldn't remember if he had fallen asleep or if consciousness had been holding him this entire time, but he was desperately hoping for something to eat. His stomach hurt and it made it hard to concentrate on much of anything.

Vivid green eyes, reminiscent of emeralds but lacking the shine that had once filled them with earnest, traveled to the cage hanging in the corner of the room. While Harry was desperately hungry, he knew that any food he gained would be offered first to Hedwig. Harry adored her; she was his first true friend (except for Hagrid), and she dealt with so much. He didn't know how she had managed to survive this long, but he had a suspicion that she had done so with sheer stubborn will and out of reluctance to leave him on his own.

Sometimes he wished Hagrid had never bought her for him. At least then, she'd be safe.

His eyes traveled back to the door, searching the floor in front of it. There was no food or water in sight; just a single object that had lain in the same spot since he'd returned.

It was a large knife – one used predominantly for dicing. The blade was newly-bought, never-used, and it glittered almost invitingly in the meager light coming from the crack under the door. If Harry didn't know about the Dursleys' vicious hatred of anything out of the ordinary, he might have suggested that it was magic. Instead, he rather thought the glitter could be likened to the hatred that often existed within Vernon's beady eyes, just before he struck.

Vernon Dursley had set it there the day after Harry had reluctantly returned from the Hogwarts Express. He'd proceeded to insult Harry profusely for the following hour and then explained that if he wanted to do his "freaky friends" a favor, he should just kill himself and get it over with.

Harry wasn't that far gone, yet.

No, not "yet," Harry corrected. I'm not that far gone, period! Nor will I ever be!

He tore his eyes away from the knife. The day that it began to look enticing and like an escape, Harry would know that he had finally been driven mad.

Still, he had his doubts that he was entirely sane. Vernon had spent the last two weeks brutally beating Harry with every blunt instrument he could find. His head had been slammed into the wall so many times that the he suffered from an endless, biting headache that often forbid him from what little sleep he might have gained otherwise. He did have to admit, though, that his constant migraine might be in part due to the fact that his scar hadn't stopped burning since Voldemort had risen back from the ugly and half-dead. Now he was ugly and alive. Wonderful.

After every beating session, as Harry waited for the darkness to claim him, he made a checklist of every part of his body that hurt and what he thought was injured and how. He'd had enough experience in the Hospital Wing that he thought he was at least partially qualified to diagnose himself.

From what he had gathered from his own ability (or rather, inability) to interact with his surroundings, Harry determined that he had any number of cracked ribs, a sprained ankle, a dislocated shoulder, one black-eye (possibly two, he didn't have a mirror with which to look, but his face hurt to the touch), and numerous cuts all over his body. He had to fight to remove his shirt, as the blood would clot around the cloth and removing the fabric would rip open old wounds. Harry was also certain there were still strangulation marks around his neck from the week before, as his flesh there was extremely tender. There was something wrong with his left wrist, as it hurt like hell every time he moved it, much less tried to pick something up. Currently, he was having difficulty moving at all, but he was pretty sure it had only been a few hours since Uncle Vernon had last visited him, so that made sense.

All in all, Harry thought that he was worse off than all of his Quidditch screw-ups combined. He had a bit of a laugh at the irony of that, but it had made his chest hurt, so he stopped.

Harry shut his eyes tightly as a wave of pain rolled over him. Though it hurt even to breathe, the sudden onslaughts were agony in comparison and had been going on for what Harry assumed had been a few days now, followed closely by a deathly chill. Harry knew he was sick. How could he not be? - he hadn't slept more than two hours at a time since he returned to the Dursleys' (except when he was knocked unconscious), he hadn't eaten in half a week (give or take a few days), and he'd run out of what water he had rationed... he didn't remember how long ago.

Harry flinched involuntarily, as he heard the front door slam open, and regretted the movement immediately, as pain lanced through him. Uncle Vernon was home, and from the sound of it, his day hadn't gone well. He would be up to visit Harry soon, no doubt.

With that thought in mind, Harry began the slow, agonizing task of rising to his feet. The action took far too long, but Harry dared not complain. He did his best to keep from crying out whenever Uncle Vernon beat him, because his cries would only be interpreted as a request for pity and would serve only to anger his uncle further. Luckily, his screams over the last few beatings had rendered his voice almost non-existent, so he didn't have to struggle so hard to remain silent.

Harry desperately wished he had some way to contact the Wizarding World. He needed help; he would be the first to admit it. The summer wasn't half over yet and he knew that if he didn't get out of here soon, he was going to die. He wouldn't be surprised if Uncle Vernon tried to starve him to death pretty soon (perhaps they had started already?). He had no doubt that the man was capable of executing a teenage boy. He had certainly threatened enough times, hadn't he?

"BOY!"

Harry felt his breath quicken, a sharp pain in his chest making him gasp as a feeling of dread passed over him. He could hear Uncle Vernon's footsteps as he came up the staircase. He was coming closer… he'd be here any minute…

Not for the first time that summer, Harry thought of Hermione. Her parents were both Muggles. She had a phone. Harry didn't know her number, but he knew that if he called the Operator, he could have his call transferred to her phone. Then he could talk to her, have her call for help, and someone could come and get him out of there, away from the Dursleys!

Even without the padlock on the door, Harry was fairly certain he didn't have the physical strength to overcome four bolt locks. Uncle Vernon had thrown all of his "freaky shit" into the cupboard under the stairs. Harry didn't even have his wand. He knew he would have risked being expelled from Hogwarts just to escape this Hell.

The thought of the phone in the kitchen – so close but so far – made Harry ache inside. It was a pain deeper and more noticeable than the dull throb that had begun to consume his every waking moment. If only he could somehow get to the phone, he could call for help.

He needed help.

But he was trapped in this room, a burden on the darkness. His only visitors were the nightmares that stole his only chance at peace, and Uncle Vernon, as he walked through the door with a brand new baseball bat in his hand.

Batter up.


Hermione Granger awoke in an icy sweat, her thick, frizzy brown hair slicked to her face with the remnants of terror – at what, she did not know. Her chest felt constricted and her breath came in shallow gasps of fear, which alerted Hermione to how terrifying her dream – nightmare – must have been, because she knew that one's breathing slowed down when they were in a state of sleep. She had read about it in one of father's psychology texts.

Shivering, still feeling that fearful chill inside, Hermione kicked the covers off and crawled out of bed. She grimaced as she felt the sweat-drenched blankets peel from her skin and knew that she would have to wash them later that day.

For a moment, she simply stood in the center of her bedroom, taking everything in. Nothing was out of place but for the blankets cascading to the floor. Her textbooks were all back in her trunk, organized by last year's class schedule, and all her homework was neatly tucked away and completed. Her desk was bare but for the bit of parchment she had out to remind herself to write Ron and Harry each a letter (and perhaps one to Viktor Krum in Bulgaria, as well). Not a space was left open on any of the three bookcases in her room, and she nodded absently at them, as though they might respond like the one near Madam Pince's desk in the Hogwarts library.

She shivered again, and her mind came back to the present.

Pulling a crimson housecoat over her light blue nightgown, Hermione slipped into a pair of fuzzy red socks with golden puffballs she had received from an aunt for Christmas last year. Satisfied at her barriers against the cold, she descended the stairs to the first floor, and made her way into the kitchen.

The house was silent, telling Hermione a number of things. For starters, both of her parents were gone, because her mother would have been singing as she fulfilled whatever task she had yet to accomplish, and her father would likely have been trying to invent some new form of toothbrush that was quieter than all of others (therefore meaning that all of the prototypes would have to be extremely loud).

The second thing that this told Hermione was that it was past nine o'clock in the morning, as that was when her father left the house (her mother left at eight o'clock to go and open the Dentist Practice).

The third thing that this informed Hermione was that she was late waking up, which was very unlike her.

Generally, Hermione awoke around six o'clock (the same time as her parents) and would be up and talking to her mother as the woman made breakfast, or humoring her father by testing his prototype electric toothbrushes. She would eat breakfast with her parents, before saying good-bye to them as they both left at their own times, and then she would either do her homework or, seeing as that was complete, read a book.

Hermione released a violent sneeze, shocking herself so suddenly that she could only blink for a moment. The sound seemed to hang in the air of the silent house and she sniffled in annoyance once she had regained her thoughts. Hugging her housecoat tighter around her body and pouting in a stroke of immaturity that she would not have let her friends see her indulge, she was reminded of the cold that she had acquired the previous day. She had gone to the dental office to visit her parents and one of the patients just had to cough on her. That was all it took.

I hope you enjoy your root canal today, Mr. Porter, Hermione thought somewhat sadistically. She sniffled again and released a small growl. There was little she hated more than getting sick.

She had been attempting to sleep off the worst of the cold, but so far it had failed to leave her, as demonstrated by her violent sneeze a moment before. Conceding to the fact that she wasn't really tired and would probably not be able to go back to sleep (not that she hadn't slept enough, goodness knows), Hermione began to search for some breakfast.

She had been pulling her mother's homemade lasagna from the refrigerator when she felt a cold chill pass over her. It wasn't like the chills she had been getting all day from her insufferable cold. It seemed icier... more vicious. Almost like a Dementor…

Oh, what was she thinking? Dementors? Here? Hermione had to smile at that. Even in a Wizarding village, it would be unlikely to see the abysmal creatures, not so much clothed in ragged cloaks, as being made of palpable shadows. The horrid demons (for how could they be anything less?) were assigned to guard Azkaban, the horrible island-prison that Hermione personally thought had no right to exist. The isolation of imprisonment on an island in the sea might have been punishment enough, but to add to the prisoners' misery the presence of creatures that drained from you every sliver of happiness and left, in its place, your every horrible thought and memory… Years ago, Hermione would have thought that adults could never have been crueler than the children she went to school with who had teased her for her love of books.

She knew better, now. It seemed that as a child grew out of innocence, they were sadly capable of growing into cruelty.

Hermione shook her head, banishing the thought. No, there would be no Dementors here. Ignoring the fact that it was a Muggle neighborhood, the Dementors were far away at Azkaban, leisurely draining all happiness from the poor prisoners of that foreboding stone fortress. Hermione didn't need to see the prison to know it would be cold. She thought that she could feel the very chill of its existence at the calling of its name.

Azkaban… she shivered, annoyed with herself, but unable to shake off the terror that came unbidden with the cold spell.

She just hoped that there weren't fellow innocent people trapped within the walls of the prison, as Sirius Black had been. True, Hermione thought that the existence of such a cruel place was barbaric, but if it must exist, then she at least prayed that it no longer existed to cause sufferance to those who had committed no crime.

Still, the Aurors that work there…

Damn her shivering.

Hermione paused from taking the foil off of the dish. Her thoughts were dancing around various ideas, but continued to return to the chills that periodically raced through her body. True, she wasn't feeling well, and yes, she was thinking on less-than-desirable topics, but this seemed to be more than that. This was colder still than mortal sickness and cruel contemplations. This was… this was…

Dread.

The revelation struck her hard and though Hermione had never been weak, she could not find strength enough within her soul to banish the idea. The chills that swept through her were sensations of utter dread, of fear. No, no, not fear – terror. Absolute, blinding terror.

Something was horribly, horribly wrong.

Hermione's mind was suddenly called back to a few days after she had returned from Hogwarts. Over a late-night cup of tea, Hermione had succumbed to her mother's request and told her of the TriWizard Tournament and her own participation within the second task. She had been placed in a magical-coma by Professor Dumbledore, and secured on the outskirts of the Merpeople City, at the depths of the lake. There, she had been safe as she waited in comfortable unconsciousness to be "rescued" by her respective TriWizard Champion. Viktor Krum, the Bulgarian champion, had also been her date to the Yule Ball, so he had been the one meant to rescue her.

To her surprise, confusion, perhaps even a little fear, her mother had offered up the exact date and time of the second task.

At Hermione's characteristic curiosity, her mother had explained that whenever Hermione was in any sort of danger, she simply felt a cold feeling of dread, which lasted until the danger had passed.

Hermione felt that cruel, icy hand finger her heart with sadistic glee.

She didn't like the implications her mind was offering. She didn't like the idea that one of her friends was in terrible danger. However, Hermione was not the kind of person to ignore the facts. True, she was never one to solely base her ideas on either emotions or hunches, but this… she couldn't disregard this. Besides, when she got a feeling, it usually led to some way of finding the facts, so why should she ignore it?

She shouldn't, of course.

True, she would feel like a fool if she was wrong. But, she theorized, at risk of sounding vain, she was rarely wrong.

Running into her laundry room, Hermione blindly grabbed a pair of pants and scrounged for the rest of an outfit, before coming up with something that would cover her. Glancing down at herself, she noted with some distaste that she didn't match, but if she was right – and she feared she was – there were far more important matters to consider.

Pulling on a coat, Hermione slipped into her sneakers and barely remembered to grab her keys before she locked the door. As she climbed onto her bicycle, she ran her mind over the prospect of getting her own owl this year, or at least talking to her parents about hooking their fireplace up to the Floo network. Conversations with Ron would be a lot easier if she didn't have to wait for someone else's owl to fly her way.

Conversations with Ron. No, not conversations with Harry, because Harry was no longer permitted to let his beautiful owl, Hedwig, out to fly. She remembered Ron saying that the Dursleys had caged both Hedwig and Harry up in second year, and Hermione and Ron had discussed, at the beginning of this summer, that Harry was likely unable to receive letters, or send any, when Pigwidgeon kept coming back with undelivered mail.

That was why her mind turned to Harry now, instead of Ron. If someone was in dire need of help, it was more than likely Harry. Ron had his mother and father, as well as Fred, George, Percy, and Ginny to watch over him.

Harry didn't have anyone. Not there at the Dursleys. Privet Drive, Hermione reasoned, was probably more a prison than a home.

Hermione was grateful that she only lived two miles from the busy side of town (not that the busy side of town was busy, at all). Shelly's Tavern was located in the center of the commercial area, and it was the only place within twenty miles that had a fireplace hooked up to the Floo. There were only three or four witches or wizards living anywhere near the tavern, but Hermione didn't personally know any of them, so she couldn't ask to use their Floo and save herself the ride. She did wonder how the bar managed to stay in business, and she hoped they didn't make their money by charging people to use their fireplace.

She grimaced as the cold wind buffeted her and she felt the tingling in her throat that hinted she would regret not wearing a scarf later. She'd be lucky if she didn't end up with strep throat or bronchitis. Perfect for the holiday, she thought, as she coasted down a steep hill.

Hermione had been thinking of who to contact about this feeling. Her first thought had been the Weasleys, but their image was immediately overshadowed by that of Sirius Black. He was, after all, Harry's godfather. If he hadn't been framed for the death of thirteen muggles and Peter Pettigrew, and sent to Azkaban for the murder of Lily and James Potter, Harry would have grown up loved and cared for. As it was, however, Sirius had escaped Azkaban only two years previous and the Wizarding World still thought he was guilty of killing that horrible little rat, Pettigrew, who was likely groveling at the feet of Voldemort this very moment.

Hermione ground her teeth, a habit her parents admonished her for regularly. Though not many people knew it, Hermione had a nasty temper, and right now it was rearing its ugly head. Peter Pettigrew had cost Harry the happiness he could have had as a child, and it enraged Hermione that she had been there when Pettigrew escaped. She should have been able to stop him!

Lay blame later, Hermione. Right now, you have a job to do. The voice in her head sounded suspiciously like her mother. Hermione took a deep breath and forced herself to remain calm. She was almost to Shelly's Tavern. When she got there, she would Floo to Hogwarts. She wished that she could contact Sirius, but she had no idea where the man was and she couldn't risk breaking his cover, even if she had a way of contacting him. She knew Dumbledore had sent him and Professor Lupin on a mission at the end of last year, and she wondered if they had completed it yet or if they were still searching. At any rate, contacting either Professor Lupin or Sirius was out of the question, so the obvious choice was to turn to Professor Dumbledore.

She hoped the headmaster would still be at Hogwarts. Although it was the summer holidays, Hermione had her suspicions that part of the duties of a headmaster was to remain on Hogwarts grounds throughout the year. She was certain that the Headmaster himself was bound by the wards that surrounded the school, and that they were passed to the succeeding Headmaster (or Headmistress, respectively) when they rose to take their place.

Granted, Hermione hadn't read such a thing in Hogwarts: A History, and this was all nothing more than speculation and theoretical contemplation, but there was just something about how Dumbledore knew nearly everything that happened in the school; nothing seemed a surprise to him. He wasn't omniscient, but being linked directly to Hogwarts would certainly explain a lot.

Hermione ignored the strange looks as she ran into the tavern in a bright yellow jacket and an otherwise quite colorful outfit. She noticed distantly that a number of the patrons appeared to be Muggles, and she made her way through an archway and into another room, where she found the fireplace. Not waiting to ask for permission and figuring that she would deal with whatever payments might be required on her return trip, Hermione grabbed a handful of Floo powder and threw it into the fire. Stepping into the fireplace with only a moment's hesitation, she didn't even think of restrictions that might have prevented fireplaces outside of Hogwarts from linking to the school, she gasped, "Hogwarts… Dumbledore's office," before being whisked away in a flare of flames. 


Ronald Weasley woke up screaming.

The moment his brain took in the delayed fact that he was awake, he rolled over onto his stomach and lost whatever was left of the supper he'd had the night before. He heard running footsteps and then his door opening, before someone's hand gently touched his back. He continued coughing for a few more moments, heaving in attempts to regurgitate the contents of both his stomach and his mind.

He couldn't quite remember what he had been dreaming about, but he knew it had been horrible. Even when he had dreams about spiders, he never woke up screaming. He also had a very strong stomach and rarely vomited, excluding the incidents in second year. The slug-regurgitation curse was unavoidable, and Ron had a perfectly good reason for wanting to hurl after they drank the Polyjuice Potion. There was nothing more horrid that Essence de Goyle. Blegh…

The hand that was gently rubbing circles on his back finally brought his mind back to the present, and whoever was nearest him helped to pull him back on the bed. He heard a muttered cleaning spell and the scent of puke vanished, leaving Ron leaning back against his propped-up pillows with his eyes closed, catching his breath.

"Ron?"

His name grabbing his attention, and from a source he hadn't expected, Ron opened his eyes to see not only his mother (as he had anticipated), but also his father, as well as the twins. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ginny peeking in through the doorway, curious and worried, as always.

"Geez, Ron," George finally piped up, obviously deeming it safe to whip out the humor, "we know you like to eat-"

"-but you really shouldn't stuff yourself to burst," Fred finished for his brother, grinning from ear to ear.

"Of course," George said, his face falling into a mock frown, "perhaps that's just what he wants us to think."

"Now, now, Ickle Ronniekins," Fred said babyishly, "Mum's cooking isn't that bad."

"I have to say, though, that was done with spectacular force, wouldn't you agree, Gred?"

"Indeed, Forge," Fred replied, nodding. "Our ickle brother is a regular cannon for vomit."

"Do you suppose we could use that?"

"Have him puking on the Slytherins?"

"Sounds like a plan, doesn't it?"

"Enough, boys," Molly Weasley demanded, her stern voice unable to hide her concern for her youngest son.

The twins regarded each other with curious looks, wondering why they hadn't been told to leave the room. They looked back at their little brother. In their own way, they had been showing their concern. Ron knew that, which was why he hadn't told them to stuff it. 

His eyes returned to his father and he caught that gaze almost reluctantly. As he calmed, the nightmare was coming back to his memory, though half of him wished it wouldn't. He closed his eyes for a moment and felt his mother run her fingers over his forehead, smoothing back the red bangs that were drenched in sweat and stuck to his skin. Swallowing, he forced himself to think of what the dream had entailed, and the repercussions.

"Dad," he muttered weakly.

"Yes, son?" Arthur asked, stepping closer to his son's side. There was concern etched deep within his eyes. The Weasleys were well-trained in the art of child-raising, but it was an almost null occurrence, one of his children waking up like this. The only other time he could recall it occurring was the summer after Ginny's first year. The events in the Chamber of Secrets, with that damn diary and Tom Riddle's memory… he thought his daughter would never recover. Now his son had woken up in a similar fashion, and Arthur couldn't begin to imagine what had brought on those kinds of screams. He kept his voice calm as he waited for his son to speak, but he was certain his eyes betrayed his concern.

"Could you… go to Professor Dumbledore?"

"Aww… ickle Ronniekins misses school," George teased.

"More like he misses a certain girl he goes to school with," Fred corrected, grinning.

"Ah, yes," George said, tapping his chin with a forefinger. "Now, what was her name again? Harley?"

"Mindy?"

"Mandy?"

"Hermandy?

"Oh, I remember," George declared triumphantly. "It's Hermione!"

"Quiet, you two," Arthur demanded sternly, immediately silencing the twins. Arthur Weasley rarely raised his voice in any fashion, and to hear him do so now must have meant that some was wrong.

Fred and George glanced at each other, and then turned back to the scene before them, uncharacteristically silent.

"Why, Ron?" Arthur asked his son in curiosity. Oddly enough, another feeling had begun to fill him, and he glanced over at his wife to see the concern less-restrained in her eyes. She was always more in-tune with Ron than he had ever been.

"Something's happened…" Ron whispered, but then abruptly broke off. Opening his eyes, he looked to the twins, whose silence had turned into seriousness upon those spoken words. They seemed now to be waiting for an explanation as eagerly as their parents. Ron's eyes traveled to Ginny, still peering in through the doorway, gripping the frame tightly in worry, her eyes locked on her youngest brother.

In an act of maturity that they rarely exhibited for fearing of looking too much like adults, Fred and George Weasley, pranksters extraordinaire, looked at each other, looked back at Ron, and then left the room. They ushered Ginny back into the hall and then shut the door behind them, leaving Ron in the presence of his parents. No doubt they would want some answers later, but Ron would gladly give them up. He wasn't sure that Ginny, however, would be able to take it. Though her crush on Harry had lessened in degree over the years, from what he had overheard his mother saying, she still cared about Harry and worried about him as much as Ron and Hermione did. He didn't know how she would react to what he was about to tell his parents.

He didn't know how they would react, either.

That thought in mind, Ron returned his gaze somewhat reluctantly to his father's face.

"Something's… happened to Harry," he said hesitantly. He felt the bed shift almost imperceptibly as his mother stiffened. He heard her take in a sharp breath, and he watched as his father's eyes narrowed searchingly, studying Ron's face, trying to read the answer to his question before Ron gave it. Before he even asked it. 

You would have made a great Auror, Dad.

"What's happened?" Arthur asked, his voice all business, expression stoic.

Swallowing with minor difficulty at the memory, Ron began to recount the nightmare. It had started in a dark room, him lying on an uncomfortable bed that seemed familiar, though he knew he had never even been in the room before. The slamming of a door had called his attention, before a man that he recognized as Vernon Dursley came in with a baseball bat, and began to beat him viciously with the bat, as well as his fists.

Ron had been thrown from his body, only to land on the floor in the corner and look up to see that it was Harry who was being beaten by Dursley, and Ron was now nothing more than a witness. He had been forced to watch the events play out, the nightmare-vision finally releasing him only when Dursley swung the bat at Harry's head, calling darkness.

Ron's voice finally cracked and he drew his knees up to his chest weakly, shivering despite the warmth of the room. Ron knew that Harry's home life hadn't been wonderful, but he had never thought…

And somehow, he knew this wasn't just a dream. Somehow…

His mum had tears in her eyes, he noticed, but he focused his gaze on his father's face. "Dad?" he whispered pleadingly to the tense man. "Please? Will you go to Professor Dumbledore?"

Arthur met his son's eyes, feeling somehow outside of himself, before Ron's question finally penetrated his shock-induced stupor, bringing him back. Nodding to assure the boy of his intentions, he looked to his wife, taking in her red eyes and the tears on her face, and instantly knowing that she believed everything that Ron had dreamt was true. He couldn't deny that he felt the same. Ron wasn't exactly the most creative person in the world, and he would be hard pressed to come up with a fantastical thought, but to imagine this? No… no, this was no mere dream, he was sure of that.

Nodding at his wife in assurance, he said softly, "I'll be back soon," before swiftly leaving the room. He made his way into the sitting room, slightly surprised to see Ginny on the couch, her eyes focused on the open book in front of her, while Fred and George barely managed to entertain themselves, their minds obviously not centered on mischief at the moment. What a rare occurrence…

All three of them leapt to their feet the moment he stepped into the room. There were questions on their faces, but Arthur knew he didn't have the time to answer them, or the answers, for that matter.

When he turned to his daughter again, he found her eyes focused intently upon him, and he saw again that look within their depths that he had considered many times before. It was almost disturbing, in a way, the intelligence visible within her eyes. She always appeared as though she wasn't looking at you, so much as through you. He'd only known Albus Dumbledore capable of eliciting such a feeling before his daughter had been brought into the world.

"It's Harry… isn't it?" Her voice was quiet, gentle. It didn't hold a stammer or even fear, but rather a conviction and deep understanding that gave him pause. It wasn't so much of a question, really. She knew already that it was Harry who was in trouble. She was merely telling him that she knew.

Knowing he didn't have the time to go into it now or to contemplate the depths of his daughter's mind, he placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder and gazed deep into her expressive irises. "Put the kettle on and make some tea, would you, Gingersnap?" he asked, using the nickname he'd given her long ago to try and ease the mood.

He didn't know if it worked or not. He certainly didn't feel anymore reassured, but Ginny merely nodded in understanding and obediently went into the kitchen to do as he asked.

Arthur turned back to his twin sons. He was prepared to stave off any questions they had ready to barrel at him, finishing each others sentences in a dizzy interrogation. Unexpectedly, however, they were silent, simply watching him and, he realized, waiting for him to give them something to do. He'd worry about the oddities of the day later, however.

"I don't have time to explain now," he said, though he was certain that they already assumed this. They were hardly unintelligent; they simply found other activities more… rewarding than schoolwork. He couldn't deny that he had once felt the same. "I have to go and speak with the headmaster. Take care of your mum and Ron. I'll be back as soon as I can."

He saw them nod as he passed them, but his mind was already on its way to Hogwarts, and his body followed. Taking a pinch of floo powder, he tossed it into the fire, and, thankful that his Floo had been hooked up to Dumbledore's office for emergencies (though I doubt they ever expected this), called out, "Hogwarts: Dumbledore's Office," before being swept away in a burst of green flames.

Chapter Text

In the previous chapter, we learned that Harry is locked up at Privet Drive, not being given nearly enough food to sustain him. Suffering from guilt over Cedric's death and torment at the hands of his relatives, there is nothing he can do to defend himself against Vernon's cruel attack. Meanwhile, Ron and Hermione both awaken from nightmares, Harry on their mind, and Arthur Weasley and Hermione both make their way to Hogwarts.


 THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AND DEATH

II

Convincing


Hiding in plain sight.

The act sounds daring, dangerous, and therefore, exciting beyond measure. It sounds like something a fully-trained Auror would do, as he stood beside his opponent and grinned down at the unwitting adversary, knowing he had always had the upper hand. After all, he was hiding in plain sight. He was so visible, he was invisible. Yeah, it sounded exhilarating.

It wasn't.

It was, quite possibly, the most ridiculously boring thing that Sirius Black had ever done in his life. Coming from a man who had spent twelve years of said life rotting away in Azkaban Prison, this was saying quite a lot.

Both an Auror (though no longer recognized as one, thanks to stupid choices, dirty traitors, and the dim-witted Ministry of Magic), as well as an escaped convict, Sirius Black was the kind of person who liked to be active and participating in the efforts against the newly-resurrected dark lord.

Not hiding.

Sirius sighed heavily in a fashion not befitting him. Head propped up on his hands, elbows resting on the top of the table, Sirius stared unseeing at the wall in front of him. His mind had wandered elsewhere, unwilling or unable to remain still, as his body was forced.

He was thinking of the dream he'd had just that night. The one that had caused him to wake up screaming in terror and anticipatory dread.

In helplessness.

"I think I'm in love with you, Sirius."

Those words wouldn't leave him alone. Rather, they haunted him like his own personal ghost, and they were likely to continue to do so for the remainder of his life. Remus had said those words to them. Said them and meant them with all of his beautiful, self-sacrificing heart.

And Sirius had questioned him, and rejected him.

So very like a Black.

He shook the thought away. The voice sounded disturbingly like his father; a deep tone interlaced with shame, dancing in an air that said he knew that he was more than you could ever even hope to be.

I hate it here, Sirius mused darkly, eyes regaining focus as he came back to himself and to the present. Leaning back, crossing his arms in front of himself, Sirius studied the kitchen with an eye that held something akin to contempt. He knew the layout by heart and could have navigated the rotting mansion in his sleep, but it was so much easier to loathe something when you could look upon it with narrowed eyes.

Ah, the wonders of the infamous Black Family Glare of Doom.

Rot, House, rot, Sirius demanded silently of the stale air, his sapphire eyes filled with a cruel glee that would have made his parents smile, even though it came from him, worthless blood-traitor child that he was. Rot as I have done.

Number 12 Grimmauld Place was a dark home, reminiscent of some Dracula-esque tomb, with an aura of death, pain, and undeniable hatred. It had been the home to one of the oldest, darkest, and cruelest wizarding families in England, and perhaps the world.

It was where Sirius Black grew up.

He hated it.

He had hated it when he lived here, years and years ago. The loathing was worse now, he thought. It might even border on abhorrence.

He was channeling his dear, dead mum now, he was sure.

Even when you're dead I can't escape you, spiteful bitch, he thought viciously.

Sirius had not had a very pleasant childhood. At all. It was quite horrendous, actually, and nothing like a childhood should be. Some pureblooded families were like that, he supposed; they put appearances above happiness. In his family's case, they put values above love. Sirius was not loved by his family, because he did not believe as they did. He was hated, because he was the family freak.

They were all dead now, but he was still a freak.

Sirius let his head drop and hit the table, trying in vain to beat the thoughts out of his mind. Unfortunately, he was a puppet, as all of his relatives, and they had begun to ingrain the thoughts into his impressionable mind at a very young age.

"Damn you all," he muttered darkly.

Running long, slender fingers through his ink-black hair, Sirius sat up again and looked around the kitchen. He was alone in the house now, asides from the crazy old house elf, Kreacher, who he would like very much to-

No… no, that led to dark thoughts and even darker actions. He was not a murderer. Not, not, not.

Huffing a sigh that might have come from a dog rather than a human, Sirius pondered how to waste the day. Remus had been staying at Grimmauld Place with him for the past few days, likely to keep him company. The werewolf had his own house and Grimmauld Place was far from pleasant, but by Dumbledore's orders, Sirius had to remain in his childhood hellhole, and Remus was selfless enough to join him.

I think I'm in love with you, Sirius.

And it was back to slamming his head on the table.

Remus had not asked then why Sirius had refused his love. Of all the things that the werewolf could have said, Sirius would have thought he would have at least questioned the boy's reasoning behind rejecting him. But Remus had not asked, and Sirius had not told. Still, however, he remembered why.

Because Remus was a liar.

That was his reasoning, put simply, but it went deeper than that, as all truths did. Sirius had grown to be able to read people. It was a gift he had gained that had been born as a defense mechanism, used in his early childhood to tell when it was safe to speak and when it was best to run. His life at home had been anything but pleasant and he had needed to learn quickly how to defend against attacks, physical, verbal… and emotional.

When he was finally able to escape his home by attending Hogwarts, Sirius had been careful. He paid attention to everything – every little detail, every word someone said. He analyzed every spoken phrase, tried to catch every guilty look they were unable to hide. Such looks he had seen in Remus.

When Remus had first claimed his mother was ill in their first year, Sirius had sympathized. Actually, he had wished Remus' mum's illness upon his own mother, but he had then tried to reassure Remus that everything would be okay. That was what friends were supposed to do, right? He had thought so, but then he had never had a friend before, so he hadn't been certain.

The days had reoccurred, Remus needing to return home to visit his sick mother. Their concern had grown for her, through Remus. What would happen to him if his mother passed away? Would he remain at Hogwarts? Where would he live? How would he change as a person? Could he handle it?

Remus seemed so… soft, so fragile sometimes that Sirius had almost been afraid to touch him. And then… something... it would break through the mask Remus wore, a look in his eyes, almost primal. It was both terrifying to see and exhilarating to witness, but then it would be gone, and Sirius thought he had imagined it all, perhaps because he had wanted to see it.

As the year went by, Sirius began to pay attention to his friends more closely. He had let his guard down around them – something he never did around anyone - and James had pranked him horribly one night. Sirius had claimed revenge, as well as to not let James catch him by surprise so easily, and so he paid attention, watching for the sly grin, the guilty looks, the expression of fear at the idea of being caught. In the end, however, it hadn't been James he had caught lying.

Remus. Quiet, thoughtful, unfairly-intelligent Remus Lupin. It had been one night near the end of term, when Remus was telling them he had to run home to visit his mum. He seemed concerned, but when Sirius looked deeper, paid closer attention, he saw the look. It was a glance, a snatch of sight at each of them in turn, trying to see if they suspected anything of what he was actually doing – if they truly knew what was going on.

Immediately, Sirius had grown suspicious of Remus' intentions. What exactly was he doing on those nights, if not going to visit his sick mum? Sirius began to pay closer attention to him, noticing more and more about him – how often he lied.

Sirius did not like lies. He was lied to far too often at home and had learned that believing in such falsehoods only ever lead to pain. When he had discovered that Remus was a liar, that he lied every day to him, James, and Peter, Sirius had felt a wall position itself between him and Remus. Remus had felt it, too, as Sirius grew distant, confiding in him less, making efforts to avoid being alone in his presence…

That was why he had turned Remus down when he claimed that he was in love with him. Was Remus lying? Was he trying to make Sirius lower his guard so that he could get something from him?

There had been more to it than that, however. It was more than the fear that Remus was lying about his love, as well, and that Sirius would only be hurt again by someone's lies. It was the fact that Remus was a good person – too good.

Everyone had their dark side; a part of them they tried to keep hidden.

James could be cruel. It was hard to believe, as James was one of the nicest people Sirius had ever meant (though that wasn't saying much, really, considering his family). However, James had a temper and when someone did something to anger him, James did not like to forgive, and he was very good at holding a grudge. He thoroughly enjoyed pranking people for a spot of revenge, but James' pranks could turn deadly in an instant, and he was a fearful sight when he was on a rampage.

Peter was a coward, and this much he would admit to, especially under the scrutiny of a furious James Potter. Though Peter was practically a genius in Potions class, the young man had a tendency to skitter far from danger whenever there was a chance of a duel, or even a rather destructive prank war.

Sirius was suspicious of everyone, never trusting someone at their first meeting. It was something he had gained over the years of being spoken to sweetly by his mother, and then kicked in the ribs.

They lived with each other's faults, though, perhaps brought together by them. After all, they all had flaws… except Remus.

It was this which Sirius found to be the most irritating and distrustful thing about Remus. The boy was kind, generous, a bit quiet and shy, but always ready to lend a helping hand. Despite his superior knowledge in most areas, he wasn't arrogant or self-righteous, and there was no doubt that he was attractive, both his personality and physical appearance.

But there was no vice. Nothing to combat the light within him. He seemed to be almost mechanical, because there was nothing about him that wasn't nearly perfect. It sickened Sirius that he almost hated Remus for it, not out of jealousy, but because he knew that there was something more about Remus that he did not show them, and it made him a liar in Sirius' eyes.

However, that day in their third year, when they had followed Remus into the Shrieking Shack, everything had changed. Sirius had seen what was buried beneath the mask of kindness and quiet intelligence that Remus wore – something fierce… powerful… primal… and beautiful.

Sirius had returned to the Shrieking Shack under cover of James' invisibility cloak. He knew the cloak wouldn't protect him from the superior senses of a werewolf, but it was successful in bringing him safely through the passages of Hogwarts. When he reached the base of the Whomping Willow, he discarded it.

He entered the Shrieking Shack only half-cautious. The other half of him was reckless, uncaring. If he was bitten and turned, it wouldn't matter. He needed to see Remus again.

He had timed it close, dangerously so, arriving just as Remus began to turn. He'd ducked into a closet and barricaded the door effectively, just in case. The door had cracks in it, though it was strong enough to hold. Sirius stood in the claustrophobic darkness of the tiny room and watched his best friend transform into a howling beast.

At that moment, he fell in love with Remus Lupin.

The absence of this part of Remus was why Sirius had been unable to love him. How could you hope to love someone who was perfect? How could you dare to compare yourself to them? It was impossible, because it wasn't the perfections of a person that you loved, but their flaws – the little idiosyncrasies that made them who they were.

Sirius had wanted to tell Remus that he loved him. The term ended only a week after that day and he returned home for the summer. Not even his horrid family was able to drag him from his thoughts, however, as he sat at his desk, quill in hand, poised over a piece of parchment. The gears in his brain cranked ceaselessly, trying to find the words.

They never came.

How could he tell Remus that he had changed his mind? How could he explain it so that he would understand? He didn't concern himself with the idea that he would be breaking a promise to James to wait until Remus told them he was a werewolf. His mind was too consumed in the realization that he loved Remus, and that Remus was one of his best friends.

But Sirius had hurt him, hadn't he?

Remus had admitted his feelings, and Sirius had turned him down. How could he reconcile that? He didn't finish a letter and send it off to Remus that summer. In fact, during those three months, he didn't speak to him at all. How Remus must have thought Sirius hated him!

Sirius nearly cried when he thought of how he must have hurt his friend. When they returned to school the following year, things were strained between them. Remus avoided Sirius' presence whenever possible, and Sirius couldn't think of what to say. He wanted to confide his feelings to Remus, but he couldn't get close to the secret-werewolf, and when he was finally in the position to be able to tell him, Sirius could never get his mouth to work right.

He remembered constantly the day Remus had told him he loved him, and the looks of sadness and longing that had adorned the werewolf's face for weeks afterward. Sirius dreamed about that day; about the look of pleading in Remus' eyes, the hopeful tone of his voice, and more than once, Sirius would wake up crying in the middle of the night at how much pain he had caused his friend.

Eventually, sleep became his enemy. Unable to close his eyes because he would see only Remus' pain-stricken face, Sirius took to cat-napping. He would sleep in half-hour or forty-five minute increments, wake up and do something for an hour, then go back to sleep for another half-hour. If Sirius could have been able to do that all day, he might have been all right, but he'd had Quidditch practice, classes, exams, homework, and three friends that loved to prank anyone who they thought got out of line. Eventually, the dreams, memories, his suppressed feelings, and the lack of sleep finally caught up with him.

Truth be told, Sirius didn't remember a whole lot of those three weeks. He remembered how he had started to feel ill, what with the lack of sleep and not eating as much as he should have, but he chose to let it take care of itself. It would go away.

Well, it didn't.

From what James had told him, they had been playing Quidditch – in the middle of the game against Ravenclaw – and Sirius had been spending his time protecting the Chasers (especially James) from the Bludgers that the Ravenclaw Beaters were firing their way. The game was a long one, however, as both teams were extremely good, and the storm was making it hard to see. The cold had been hard on Sirius, but he was determined not to let his team down, so he never complained, even when their captain asked how everyone was fairing.

It was a long way into the game when Sirius began to falter. He was stubborn, against people as well as himself, and he had been fighting his needs. However, they finally caught up with him; when he beat a Bludger back away from James, he didn't notice the second one.

He wasn't sure if he'd passed out before or after the Bludger had struck him, but James said he was hit hard, directly in the chest, and thrown from his broom. This was a terrifying incident, considering that, at the time, he had been over one hundred feet in the air.

A number of the teachers had moved, he was told by his classmates. Dumbledore and McGonagall had seemed to be of a similar mind, as they both cast spells to slow him down as he plummeted through the air. Sirius liked to think, however, that it was Remus' genius that truly saved his life, as his friend cast a series of cushioning spells so fast on the ground that no one was sure exactly how many he used.

Sirius had been rushed to the Hospital Wing. True, the damage he could have gained from the fall had been thwarted for the most part, but the Bludger had struck him hard – too hard – in the chest. Remus and James had to be literally dragged out of the Hospital Wing when they learned that a number of his ribs had been shattered, and the bones piercing his lungs had stopped his breathing.

Three days without sleep, is what James had said. Sirius would have laughed it off, but for the look on James' face. James never joked with that serious look on his face – the look that was reserved specifically to show that he was not kidding. Three days, they had waited. They had refused to go to class, but sat in the hall outside of the Hospital Wing, waiting for news. McGonagall had threatened them with everything she had, taking over two hundred points from Gryffindor for the both of them (Peter didn't want to defy the professors and continued going to class, taking notes for everyone). When she had threatened with expulsion, Remus had frozen up for a moment, meeting her eyes with a gaze of utter fear, James had related, but then his golden gaze became determined, and he simply said, "If it's necessary, Professor, but I'm not leaving."

And that was it. The threats stopped, and the professors gave up trying to make them leave. After they fell asleep in the hall on the fourth day, Madam Pomfrey finally relented, at Dumbledore's insistence, and let them sleep in the Hospital Wing.

But they still weren't allowed to see him.

A week later, she gave in again, this time without Dumbledore's insistence. Remus had to go to the Shrieking Shack that night and he didn't want to leave. The boy was near tears at the thought, and he later confided that he was afraid that if he left, Sirius would die while he was gone. So Pomfrey let them see him.

It still gave Sirius chills to remember how James described him, that emotionless voice he used to hide the pain that was too visible in his hazel eyes. He'd stated quite clearly that he thought that Sirius was dead upon first seeing him, and he was certain that Remus had stopped breathing for a time. Sirius had been pale, his lips slightly blue, his chest wrapped in bandages, and an odd bubble spelled around his mouth to help him breathe. Even with the spell, he seemed to have trouble breathing, and it terrified them.

It must had scared Remus more than he thought it would have, because he had been carried back into the Hospital Wing the next morning by Madam Pomfrey, blood covering his body, his throat nearly ripped out. He'd nearly died himself that day, and Sirius remembered waking up to find him like that, in the bed next to him.

It had hurt to move, but he'd had to see Remus. He half-walked, half-dragged himself over to the boy's side, sitting down on his bed. The movement immediately waking the wounded werewolf, and Remus' eyes had widened at seeing him. Sirius remained silent for a long time, studying the scratches and scars across Remus' arms, before meeting his eyes and whispering softly, "I'm sorry I made the wolf so mad."

And there it was. Sirius had broken his promise to James to wait until Remus was ready to tell them, and he had revealed to Remus that he knew. He knew Remus was a werewolf, and he didn't give a damn. He had never seen so many emotions flicker across a person's face at one time before, but he saw fear, hope, happiness, sorrow, regret, disbelief, and then again that love, but then Remus had settled on cautious hope and started to ask a question, but found his voice too weak from the wound across his throat.

"Remus, I don't give a damn what you are otherwise," Sirius had replied, and then smiled. "You're my best friend, furry or bald."

He mentioned nothing about the hug he had received. More a glomp, considering it had nearly thrown him to the floor. Remus had sobbed into his shoulder, muttering "thank you thank you" weakly, despite how Sirius told him to shut up so he wouldn't damage his throat any further.

And Sirius had told him how he found out, how long he knew, and everything – everything at all.

Except that he loved him.

Sirius pushed himself to his feet, deciding that moping at the table was doing nothing but making him feel more miserable. He wondered vaguely if he would ever have the courage to tell Remus how he felt? Some Gryffindor he was…

"Coward," he muttered darkly to himself, and then trekked out of the kitchen, searching for something that still needed cleaning, or a nice cement wall he could pound his thick head against until his problems solved themselves.


There was blood on the knife.

Harry sat on the bed with his knees pulled up to his chest, staring at the floor where the blade lay. It no longer glinted enticingly, having been drenched in blood.

He'd given in finally. He couldn't take it anymore.

And now it hurt even worse.

Burying his face in his bloody hands, Harry Potter sobbed relentlessly, trying to ignore the profound silence of the room otherwise, and the utter loneliness his actions had brought. His first friend, his dear companion, the only person in the house that didn't hate him, was dead. Hedwig was dead.

He had killed her.

He tried to tell himself that he did it for her own good. That wasn't a lie, but it wasn't making him feel any less guilty. She was too thin for an owl, her beautiful brown eyes dull and hollow, and she had begun to let out pain-filled squawks that were weak to his ears, but loud against his heart. She was dying, he knew. She was starving to death.

So he had killed her. He released her from her pain.

He'd tried to hold her through the bars of the cage as best he could, stroking her feathers lovingly, while he held the blade in the other hand. She'd eyed the weapon with those eyes of hers, so intelligent, and then she had looked at him.

Of course she knew what he planned to do.

And she didn't fight him. She knew, too, that she was fading. He could have given her all of his food, but she still wouldn't survive the summer, and they both knew it. If it had been anyone else, he knew she would have fought brilliantly, but she trusted him, loved him, and knew her feelings were reciprocated.

He'd aimed carefully and made sure it was swift and as painless as possible. He was proud of himself in that regard, though he noted that the thought was rather sick and morbid. Still, he hadn't wanted her to suffer anymore, and he had ended it swiftly. The blade had pierced her fiercely-beating heart, and he'd held her as best he could. She'd lasted for barely a second – only long enough to twitter reassuringly, before slipping away completely.

He didn't know how long he held her, but he cried every second. He loved her so much, his first friend, and he missed her already.

But at least she wasn't in pain anymore.

Maybe you'll get to meet my parents, Hedwig, he thought sorrowfully, if animals go where humans go when they die. Tell them I love them, Hedwig. Tears fell like stars from his dull green eyes. I love you, Hedwig…

The silence in the room continued mercilessly.


Remus Lupin had come to expect the unexpected. It helped that his past was filled with the unexpected, he having been turned into a werewolf at a young age, and then spending his school years around the biggest pranksters in the world. He'd been to the wedding of two school rivals, who no one thought would graduate without one of them killing the other, much less get married. He found out his martyr friend was alive and a Death Eater, and that his murderer best friend was an innocent convict. Yes, he was rather well-versed in the unexpected.

But he was still startled speechless when both Hermione Granger and Arthur Weasley came tumbling out of the Floo at the same time.

Only Hermione's sudden violent coughing fit managed to call him back to the present reality. She looked pale, with sweat rolling down her face and a fevered glaze to her eyes. He bit his lip. Obviously, no one had told her that you shouldn't travel the Floo when you were ill, as it amplified the effects of the illness nearly ten fold.

"Here, Miss Granger," he said, helping her to her feet and ushering her into a chair, where she coughed violently some more, and then began to shiver. He conjured some tea and a blanket, wrapping her in it as she gratefully took the warm drink.

"Th-Thank you, Professor L-Lupin," she shivered. The change was palpable. Hermione was always buoyant and well-spoken. To see her pale, shivering, and stammering was a sight that floored him in its odd reversal. It sent warning bells off in his head, as happened when things didn't add up, but he had acknowledged them and let them go. This wasn't a Death Eater in disguise, or if it was, it was a very ill Death Eater. He could smell the sickness on her, and he did not envy her the chills that caused her to shiver so violently.

At that moment, Dumbledore chose to enter the office, and look at the two new visitors with a surprised look, before schooling himself. "Miss Granger, Arthur, how are you?"

The attempt at pleasantries was expected, Remus supposed, but it still annoyed him a little. Hermione was obviously not well.

"I wish I could suggest that things are fine, Albus," Arthur offered, stepping forward and taking all of their attention, "but I'm concerned about Harry."

Dumbledore sighed and shook his head "Mr. Potter is fine, Arthur." He sounded somewhat exasperated as he sat down in the chair behind his desk and folded his hands in front of him. "The wards on Privet Drive will protect him against Death Eaters and Voldemort alike."

Arthur flinched at the use of the name, but his voice didn't tremble and he spoke with some heat. "It's not You-Know-Who or Death Eaters that concerns me. Ron woke up this morning screaming, and what he saw…" He shook his head, paling slightly.

"A mere dream. I don't think we have reason to be concerned over a nightmare."

"Sir," Hermione said, and everyone turned their heads to look at her, "I had a n-nightmare, as well. S-Something's wrong." She swallowed, biting back the cough that demanded precedence. "P-Please, Professor. Ch-Check on him, at least?" Her cold took over at that point, and Remus refilled her teacup when the coughing had subsided.

"Headmaster, I don't think it would hurt to check on Harry," Remus said, turning to face the Headmaster. "Even if these are only nightmares, Harry has recently gone through a traumatic ordeal, and it might do him good to see a friend or have someone to talk to. From what I remember of Petunia, she's not very… accepting of our kind. I doubt Harry would have someone to confide in at Privet Drive."

Albus sighed, reluctant to give in for whatever reason, but obviously seeing some truth in Remus' logic. To be fair, there were few who could defy the werewolf's genius, and most who did weren't intelligent enough to know how to follow someone, anyway.

"Perhaps you're right, Remus. Very well. You bonded quite well with Harry during his third year here, if I'm not mistaken, and he obviously trusts you, as he was comfortable working with you one-on-one concerning some higher defensive spells."

"It was only the Patronus charm, Headmaster." Remus didn't want the man think more highly of his relationship with Harry than was realistic. "You know how he reacted around the Dementors. He needed to know how to cast it. I'm quite certain he would have gone to Severus for help if need be."

Hermione held in an uncharacteristic snort at this comment, but only just. It was Arthur, however, who spoke up in argument against Remus.

"I don't think you're being fair to yourself or to Harry. For one, Severus has a rather prejudiced view against Harry, and the boy is hardly comfortable in his presence."

"Few are," Remus muttered, and Dumbledore's eyes twinkled brilliantly in amusement.

"From what I have seen, Harry doesn't trust easily-"

"Now, Arthur," Dumbledore argued, but the Weasley patriarch held up his hand, and the headmaster quieted, regarding him in polite curiosity.

"He doesn't, Albus," Arthur continued, glancing at the headmaster before turning back to Remus, "though it's an easy thing to miss. Harry seems to be a rather open person at first, but if you start on a topic that he's uncomfortable with, he becomes very tight-lipped. He's quite secretive concerning his knowledge of things, whether it is of himself or something that he has learned… when he probably shouldn't have."

"You seem to be speaking from experience, Arthur," Dumbledore commented, steepling his fingers and gazing thoughtfully at the redheaded man before him, who had the attention of all in the room.

"Yes, well, I'm sure you remember what happened at the beginning of his third year?" Arthur asked, and they all knew immediately what he was talking about. "Harry stumbled upon a… conversation I was having with Molly, about whether or not to tell Harry of Sirius Black's escape. He didn't say anything, until I confronted him at King's Cross, where he admitted to having heard our discussion. I wish he hadn't learned of it that way, but it got me thinking. How much do you suppose he knows but doesn't say, because he either thinks he's not supposed to know, or isn't sure how someone will react?"

Hermione was biting her lip, yet another annoying habit of hers. Mr. Weasley's comments were quite thought-provoking. True, Harry was rather open with her and Ron, for the most part, but then, they were almost always present when strange things happened – stranger than normally happened at a magic school, anyway. When the discussion turned around to Harry's home-life, however, Harry did grow extremely quiet and mentioned little, other than the occasional comment that he didn't like living with his relatives. Ron thought it was because they were Muggles, mostly, but Hermione had to wonder…

"Arthur, you seem to have put a great deal of thought into this," Dumbledore noted.

"It's been on my mind lately," Arthur admitted, scratching his head. "You see, when we went to pick Harry up to take him to the Quidditch World-Cup, his guardians were… less than welcoming." The last few words came out somewhat sarcastic, making Hermione think that Mr. Weasley would have rather said something else, but didn't find it appropriate.

"I wish you would have brought this to my attention earlier," Dumbledore said, leaning back in his chair. "Although I don't wish to remove Harry from the protection his relatives offer, I admit that it might make his summers more enjoyable if he were able to have his friends over. If his aunt and uncle are, as you say, not welcoming to other witches and wizards, that would make it somewhat difficult."

"Albus, think about this for a moment!" Remus said, stepping away from Hermione and raising his hand in a beseeching move for attention. "If Harry's relatives act this way toward visitors – toward Harry's friends – how do you suppose they treat him?"

"Now, Remus," Albus said, smiling softly, "whatever Mr. and Mrs. Dursley think of the magical world, Harry is their flesh and blood and they would care for him despite what fate has brought upon him."

The sudden lack of emotion on Remus' face caused Hermione to shrink down into her chair. She did not fear Professor Lupin, but no one could deny the fact that he could be very intimidating if he so chose. Watching him now, his golden eyes taking on a fire, while the rest of his face became dreadfully expressionless, she had to draw in a deep breath to calm herself, lest she run from what was obviously a deep, oft-hidden strength in the man before her.

"Are you forgetting, Headmaster," Remus said in an icy tone that Hermione had never heard him use before, "what occurred to a particular friend of mine during our time at Hogwarts?" Hermione noticed that a bit of the twinkling within the headmaster's eyes had gone out, and she wondered exactly who Remus was talking about. She knew he'd only had three really close friends in school – well, four, if you counted Lily – but she doubted that he would still consider Pettigrew a friend, and Harry's parents were dead. He must have been talking about Sirius, but what exactly did he mean?

"No, Remus, of course not," the headmaster said quietly, after a lengthy silence. "I could not forget the mistake I made then, and I wish terribly that I could change it. Unfortunately, I cannot."

"I know that, Albus," Remus said, his voice calming to a tone of understanding, "but you could work to prevent what might be a similar mistake."

"Or a worse one," Arthur added. The others looked at him. "I was a few years ahead of you in school, Remus, but I remember what happened. I don't think I could forget it if I wanted to. The difference here is that he was born into that family." Arthur turned to meet the headmaster's weary gaze. "But you placed Harry in the care of his relatives. Truth be told, someone should have checked on the boy's wellbeing a week ago, considering what just transpired at the end of this past year."

The room was silent for a long few minutes. Even Hermione's coughing seemed to have gone into a contemplative stillness. Finally, Dumbledore let out a tired breath and bowed his head, his eyes dim. "You are, of course, right, Arthur. Not only should I have checked on Harry early this summer, but I should have already begun making plans to have him come to the Burrow, where he could be around friends. It seems, having been distanced from the battle Harry underwent against Tom, I found it easy to forget. It is the mistake of an old fool, and one I am not keen to make it again."

He raised his head to meet Remus' eyes. "If I'm not mistaken, you arrived here only to reveal that the mission I assigned to you and Sirius has been completed." Remus nodded. "In that case, would you be so kind as to take Sirius with you to check on Harry? I'm sure you can easily appear as a man walking his dog, so as not to draw suspicion."

"Of course, Headmaster," Remus replied. "I'd like to escort Hermione to the Hospital Wing first, however."

Dumbledore's eyes regained a bit of their twinkle, while Hermione looked up at her former-professor in surprise. Remus smiled down at her. "Unfortunately, no one has taken the initiative to record a warning in any textbook that Floo travel amplifies illness," he informed her conversationally. "A rather negligent move on the part of the Wizarding World, don't you think?"

To her embarrassment and annoyance, Hermione's initial response was a rather violent sneeze. "Th-Thank you, Professor Lupin," she stammered weakly, and smiled softly in gratitude.

"You're quite welcome, Miss Granger," Remus replied, banishing the obsolete tea set back to the kitchens, and helping Hermione to her feet. He was quite aware of Dumbledore's twinkling gaze focused on him as he wrapped the thick blanket tighter around Hermione, as she shivered violently when she stood.

"Headmaster, if that is everything…" Remus gave Dumbledore a curious look, leaving the rest of his question unsaid.

"Yes, yes, all seems to have been taken care of. I'm sure Sirius will be happy to have a moment out of the house," Dumbledore commented with a smile, after saying good-bye to Arthur, as he returned home.

"No doubt," Remus replied, opening the door for Hermione. "I just need to get a pain relieving potion from Madam Pomfrey. Sirius has had a headache for the past three days, but Merlin forbid he ask his house elf to do anything."

"Kreacher has never been the most obliging house elf, if my memory serves," Dumbledore noted. "But a headache, you say? That's rather unlike Sirius."

Remus nodded. Similar thoughts had been pervading his mind lately. Even when Sirius did become ill, he wasn't the sort of person to complain about it. It had worried Remus for a time, but Sirius kept insisting that his time in Azkaban simply shot his immune system. While the theory was plausible, Remus couldn't bring himself to accept it. He didn't know why, but something felt off.

Dumbledore came around his desk and followed them down the moving staircase. "I need to make certain that Poppy has everything she will need for the beginning of the school year, as well," he explained, "but first, I believe I will need to speak with Argus." He shook his head. "It seems that two of Arthur's children left some rather potent fireworks inside a broom closet." The gargoyle jumped back into place after they had exited into the corridor. Remus and Hermione made their way toward the infirmary, while Dumbledore headed down a separate corridor, after offering a farewell.

"Professor," Hermione began thoughtfully, glancing at Remus, "have you or Sirius received any letters from Harry this summer?" Truthfully, Hermione doubted that they had, but she considered that, if Harry had been able to send just one letter, he may have sent it to his godfather. In his position, Hermione thought she probably would have.

Remus appeared startled by the question, which proved her suspicions correct. "No, Hermione, I haven't," he admitted, "and Sirius hasn't said anything. Knowing him, he'd gloat for hours about his godson sending him a letter." Hermione let a smile come over her face at this, but it quickly followed Remus' lips into a frown. "I thought you and Ron would be talking with Harry all summer, as close as the three of you are."

Hermione sighed, her eyes reaching the floor. "Ron's been trying, but Pig – his owl – keeps bringing the letters back, and I haven't seen Hedwig since the beginning of summer. Ron says they probably have her locked up, though."

She felt, more than saw, Remus' frown. "They, being the Dursleys, I presume. What do you mean about locking Hedwig up?"

Hermione pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders as they walked, her eyes on the stone floor. "According to Ron, when he and the twins went to get Harry the summer before second year, Fred and George had to pick the lock on her cage."

Remus stopped in the middle of the hallway, staring at the child in front of him. "I'm sorry, Hermione. Call me dense, but what? Why would they keep Harry's owl in a locked cage? And when did the twins and Ron pick Harry up in second year? I thought Molly and Arthur would have seen to that."

"Umm…" Hermione wondered if she had, perhaps, said too much. From the concern and worry in Remus' golden eyes, however, she thought that she needed to continue that path of bluntness. "H-Harry wasn't answering our letters," Hermione began hesitantly, feeling much like a lectured child beneath those watchful golden eyes, "and we were getting worried. Ron said that he and the twins drove Mr. Weasley's flying car to Privet Drive, and… and…" She swallowed hard and couldn't meet Remus' eyes. "Th-they had to rip the bars off of Harry's window."

Hermione didn't see the color drain from Remus' face. His voice was an abhorred whisper. "There were bars on Harry's window?"

"Yes, sir," Hermione replied just as quietly.

"Hermione, what else has happened to Harry at home that we don't know about?" Remus asked in a concerned tone.

"I don't know, sir," she answered truthfully. "Harry doesn't like to talk about his home life, but I know he doesn't like it there. He never goes home for the holidays and he always seems reluctant to leave when school ends. I… I'm worried about him, Professor."

They started walked again toward the infirmary and Remus' face was painted with a glower. "So am I."

Chapter Text

 In the previous chapter, Hermione and Arthur Weasley end up in Dumbledore's Office at the same time as Remus Lupin. Between the three of them, they convince Dumbledore to allow Remus and Sirius to go check on Harry. Meanwhile, Harry makes a decision to spare Hedwig her suffering, and bears more guilt and pain down upon himself in the process.


 THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AND DEATH

III

The Rescue


 Sirius had been anticipating Remus' return from Hogwarts. The werewolf had said he would talk to Dumbledore, then bring back a vial of pain relieving potion for Sirius' headache. He refused to have Kreacher make him anything. No doubt the little rat-faced house elf would poison it to please Sirius' dear ol' mum.

He had been expecting Remus' return, but he hadn't anticipated the werewolf to storm into the house in a rage that rivalled the anger he had been feeling after The Prank (also known as James' Major Fuck-Up).

"Remus?" Sirius asked, coming into the kitchen.

"Get your cloak," Remus snarled, golden eyes flashing in a way that left no argument. "We're going to Privet Drive."

Sirius obediently grabbed his cloak and threw it over his shoulders, as he moved swiftly toward the door. He knew not to defy Moony when he was acting like this, but he also knew what lay on Privet Drive, and so, as he walked briskly to the door, he dared ask, "Why?" He didn't look away when those golden irises focused intently upon him, still set in a fierce glare, and it was a testament to their friendship that Remus did not attack him outright for their eyes locking.

"Something's happened to Harry," Remus said, and then apparated away.

Something was never a particularly descriptive word, and the only thing it managed to do was start Sirius worrying. He had never been a particularly careful person, as a child or as an adult. He was reckless and foolish, he was told, and the things that he did often put him into danger, but he didn't worry about himself.

When it came to people he cared about, however, worry was a frequent visitor. Sirius was on a first-name basis with the emotion, and it came knocking on the door at those words.

"Something's happened to Harry."

Tracing Remus' signature, Sirius narrowed his eyes in concentration, not having done this at all recently, and apparated only a step behind the werewolf.

Transformation-Apparation was something that Sirius had become well-practiced in over the years. Not many Animagi were able to turn into their animal forms while they apparated. Sirius was the one who had actually invented the technique, but people were unaware of this, as he published the idea under the name Orion White. Asides from inventing the technique, Sirius had also perfected it, and there was no one better than he at performing it. Damn good thing, too, considering they appeared in a familiar alley on Magnolia Crescent, Surrey.

Remus hadn't even paused in his steps, but had continued walking toward Privet Drive. Padfoot trotted to catch up to him and peered up at his face, noticing the tightness of his jaw and the flashing golden eyes. He whimpered softly, tilting his head to the side.

Remus' eyes roved over to meet him, and he let out a soft sigh, before slowing mildly. "Hermione Granger," he began, looking at Sirius to make sure he knew who he was talking about, though how could he forget, "flooed into Dumbledore's office while I was there to meet him." Remus didn't know that a dog could lift a sardonic eyebrow, but apparently, it was possible. "Arthur Weasley flooed in at exactly the same moment, and we had a very interesting conversation."

Sirius huffed in that way that only dogs could manage, giving Remus a look that demanded that he not act as though Sirius was stupid.

"Perhaps interesting isn't the appropriate word," Remus admitted. "Enlightening suits it better, I suppose, but not in a positive manner." Sirius whimpered softly when Remus stopped in the center of the street, his thoughts whirling. He looked down at the onyx-furred dog beside him, and wished he didn't have to say what came to his lips next. "Hermione and Arthur both seem to believe that Harry is undergoing the same treatment from his family… as you did from yours," he admitted softly.

Remus didn't know quite what to expect from Sirius at that. One anticipated reaction was for his fur to bristle, his hackles raise, and for him to emit a growl to rival the greatest demons of Hell. It was, however, the other anticipation that came to pass, when Sirius' ears flattened on his head, his tail dropped between his legs, and he pulled into himself tightly, whimpering at the memories and implications.

"I know," Remus muttered. He had assumed that reaction was one of the possibilities, but it still hurt him to see it – the pain in Sirius' eyes. He reached out and rubbed one of Sirius' pointed ears gently. "That's why we're going to check on him. Come on."

Remus found that his temper had lessened slightly. He wasn't certain if this was because of his taking the time to speak with Sirius and trying to forestall his concerns, or if his own concern was simply outweighing his anger at the Dursleys for what Hermione had told him.

It didn't take them long to reach Number 4 Privet Drive. The driveway was empty and the house was dim inside, boasting that no one was home. Remus' frown deepened. This early in the morning, that seemed off. Something felt incredibly wrong, though it probably didn't help that, within his soul, he could feel the wolf tense up, as though preparing for an attack.

Remus shuddered convulsively. He had lived with the wolf for decades, but it was often still disturbing to feel the emotions of a creature that was both him, and yet… separate.

Remus was pulled from his thoughts when they reached the step. Drawing his wand, he did not concern himself with the idea that he was breaking and entering, or using magic in the middle of a muggle neighborhood, as he cast the unlocking charm and opened the door.

The smell that hit him when the door opened was enough to make his heart pound in utter terror. He could smell blood. It was thick in the air, both sweet and revolting. Beyond that, however, he recognized the scent. It was distinctly Harry's.

As a werewolf, Remus never forgot a scent, and even now, years later, he could recall the scents that would announce the arrival of two of his best friends. Lily smelled like sugar and flowers on a rainy spring morning. He remembered James even better, having shared a dorm room with him for seven years; the boy smelled of sweat, dirt, and, oddly enough, black cardamom.

Harry's scent was a mixture of these, born from genetics and a similar disposition, crafting his own unique scent. Harry smelled of rain. Not a gentle spring rain, but the drenching downpour of a raging thunderstorm. He smelled of dirt on a hot summer morning, but also of mud as it was pounded mercilessly by a monsoon. When he was a baby, Remus remembered the spicy scent of his magic, like crushed red peppers and cinnamon, but that scent was nowhere to be found now. He hadn't smelled it, either, at school during the boy's third year. Instead, the smell was replaced by a soft smell – almost more of a texture than a scent – like tissues or feather down, and only now that he was considering it did Remus wonder what could possibly have happened to change the scent and intensity of the boy's magic.

The scent of the blood was strong against his senses, however, and he could not remain in the doorway, contemplating. He stepped into the house, though his stomach churned in revulsion. Trying to ignore his body's reactions to the overpowering scent, Remus set his keen werewolf senses on discovering where exactly Harry was located.

He moved up the stairs slowly. He wanted to hurry through the house to find Harry and stop whatever had caused the blood he smelled to flow from him so freely, but he couldn't risk letting down his guard. The Dursleys didn't appear to be home, but that didn't mean that someone else wasn't here.

As Remus continued to reach out with his other senses – listening for another person breathing, sniffing for a stranger's scent, looking for something out of place – Sirius slipped into the house behind him and transformed silently back into his human form. He moved in the opposite direction of Remus, his wand in his hand and his eyes alert. His feet carried him into the living and kitchen areas to check for other signs of life.

Remus, noting absently that Sirius had the rooms behind him covered, moved up the stairs, following his senses. The blood smelled still thicker as he reached the landing and his eyes, keen even in the darkness, took in the hall and the closed doors, no doubt leading to bedrooms.

He wanted to bypass these doors but didn't dare. Although he could not smell the presence of Harry from beyond them, there was a chance that someone else lay in wait.

The floorboards behind him creaked too softly for a human to hear, but his keen hearing – a blessing amidst the curse of Lycanthropy – caught the sound and had him glancing behind him.

His golden eyes met the grey gaze of Sirius. The man's eyes were scanning the hall, taking in the sight of the doors as Remus had done only a moment ago. He met the werewolf's eyes again and leaned his head gently to the right, indicating that he would take the two doors on that side.

Remus nodded and moved to the door on the left. He placed his head near the door jamb, breathing deeply, taking in the scents available to him.

There were two prominent scents overlapping each other, so much so that Remus could almost not tell where one began and the other ended. The smell of ground metal was common near, yet a complete contrast to, the scent of fine linen. A grainy scent met his nostrils, and he could also smell cosmetics.

Not everything that he took in matched another scent. Some things weren't definable in comparison to flowers and foods. Some things belonged in the scent of a person, but the specific smell was not a smell, but almost a personal observation – Remus could know something about them, without ever knowing them.

What he smelled on top of the fine linen and cosmetics was a talkative sense of distrust, the latter on his own end. There was a sense of falsehood around the scent that made the hair stand up on his neck as the hackles would have raised on the werewolf.

Beyond the ground metal and grainy scents there lied a manipulative scent. Remus curled his lip at this. It was, unfortunately, not a partial scent that he was unaccustomed to. He had received a similar level of scent from politicians, ever since he had suffered the honor of meeting the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge. It caused, like the other scent, a sense of distrust within Remus, though this one was even worse, because the reason was worse.

But he hadn't the time to contemplate that now, and he could smell no physical being beyond the door, nor hear a heartbeat. Glancing behind him to see that Sirius had already entered beyond the first door, Remus turned the knob and quietly slipped inside.


 The first door led to the restroom.

Sirius pushed open the door and, thankful that it didn't creak, slipped inside.

He kept his back to the wall as he made his initial observations. The room wasn't overly large, but it was decent in size, and there were places enough for people to hide. He scanned the room to see if there were any spells recently cast, but found nothing that hinted at magical foul play.

His eyes screamed in protest that he still remained among the banana yellow walls and bad fruit decoration, but he opened the cupboard beneath the sink and checked. It was, although an unpopular place to hide, still large enough to house a human, and easily large enough for an animagus to hide in. All he found, however, were bottles of shampoo and bubble bath, still opened, some lying on the sides and spilling their contents on the floor of the cupboard. No wonder it smelled overwhelmingly wonderful in the bathroom.

On silent feet born of years of Auror training and even more years as an amimagus, Sirius moved to the opposite end of the room. He opened the closet door with a spell to keep silence, and found nothing but towels, toiletries, and a plunger within. He sniffed and turned away, closing the door behind him in disgust. Harry's cousin was clearly not the cleanliest person.

Sirius crept to the shower. The curtain had been drawn and, having spent too much time in muggle move theatres enjoying horror films, Sirius had saved this part for last.

He supposed that he could have pushed the curtain aside, but he could only imagine something leaping out at him and attaching onto his face, trying to suck out his eyeballs. That image happily pervading his mind, he raised his wand, and simply banished the shower curtain.

His lip curled back at what he saw. Soap scum, and loads of it, forming a film over the bottom and sides of the tub. Petunia Dursley desperately needed to clean.

The bathroom successfully checked, Sirius crept back out into the hall and closed the door silently behind him. He locked it, to ensure that no one could sneak into it while he wasn't looking, and moved down the hall to the other door.

It had five locks on it, and he had a fairly good idea of whose room this was. With a dreading heart, he cast the unlocking charm five times, turned the handle, and pushed the door open.


The first room had contained no living people, but there was enough within it to cause his anger to rise as high as his fear. A baseball bat with blood on it leaned against the wall in the closet. A hamper next to the television held towels covered in blood. Remus felt a growl rising in his throat and bit it down. The blood was Harry's and there was so much of it in this room that he both hoped they found Harry soon, and dreaded it.

Having found no one within the room or nothing that could help him now, Remus moved toward the door to go and search the room next to this one. As he left, he raised his wand and cast a spell on the master bed, before shutting the door behind him and locking it soundly.

The second room smelled like dirt, varnish, and cruel laughter. Remus knew whose room this was and entered it without much hesitation. He could handle a fifteen year old bully.

The room, however, was empty, in a fashion. There were no people save himself within the confines of the four walls, but there were broken toys, half-eaten food, empty candy wrappers, and garbage thrown all over the room. To a point, it almost made Remus ill.

Despite his certainty that he would find nothing of use – even less so than in the other room, he checked the closet (nearly getting crushed by a broken television in the process) and under the bed (those dust bunnies had rabies!). There was trash everywhere, broken games and unwanted toys, but not a single book. The teacher within Remus' soul wanted to cry, or assign detention, but he ignored it. Instead, he raised his wand and cast a spell on the room that would, hopefully, give this boy just a small bit of hope.


Sirius choked when the air hit him in the face, and nearly collapsed to his knees. He could smell the blood as keenly now as he had when he was in dog form, but other scents were mixed in now that he hadn't noticed previously, though he didn't know how he had missed them.

The smell of blood and sweat hung heavily in the air like mist over a swamp, but the scent of urine and feces burned his nostrils and there was a sweet scent in the air that made him choke and start coughing. He could barely hear the footsteps of Remus on the stairs, as the werewolf made his swift way up to the second landing. No doubt his keen senses had caught Sirius' distress, and Sirius was proven right. Not a second later, Remus appeared beside him.

"My God," Remus whispered, his voice weak with disbelieving horror.

Sirius, gathering himself, glanced up to see what Remus was looking at, and felt his insides turn to ice.

The werewolf had stepped into the room, heading toward the far corner, where a thin mattress lay on the floor. It was what lay on top of that mattress, however, that called their attention.

Or rather, who.

"Harry," Sirius whispered.

He stumbled to his feet and dashed into the room, only to collapse again to his knees beside the bed. Harry was lying on top of a thin, threadbare sheet, his eyes closed. His face was extremely pale, even his lips were near white, except for where they had cracked open and begun to bleed. His skin was stretched over his skull, making him appear even smaller than he had seemed last Sirius had seen him. 

There were bruises all over his body. His left arm was twisted at an unnatural angle at his side, while his other was held over his chest, as though he had passed out while attempting to defend himself. His thin shirt hung off one shoulder, the collar stretched from years of use. The fabric was torn in places, stained in others, and the shirt clearly should have been disposed of years ago. The pants, too, though clearly made from someone much larger than Harry, hung loose around his waist. 

"Harry," Sirius whispered, reaching out a hand but hesitating. He wondered, if he touched his godson, would the boy shatter? "Oh, Merlin, Harry…" He finally brushed his fingers against Harry's forehead and felt the heat of his skin – a high fever trying to burn through his flesh. There was sweat coating the boy's skin, slick on Sirius' fingers.

Behind Sirius, Remus was standing with his wand raised, casting a series of diagnosis spells on the young boy. He swore deeply, causing Sirius to spin around. Remus never swore unless something was horribly wrong.

"What is it?" he asked, even as Remus shoved him out of the way. "Moony!"

"Sirius, move!" he snapped, causing the dog-animagus to leap out of the werewolf's way and stand, reluctantly, away from his godson. "I have to heal some of these wounds now. Most of them were inflicted recently and he's lost a lot of blood." He grit his teeth and waved his wand in a series of complicated motions, casting spells silently, as he wasn't sure he had enough willpower to speak the complicated Latin words correctly. He hadn't told Sirius that the wounds weren't the worst problem, nor that Harry's heart had already begun to fail.

It was obvious that Harry had been beaten severely, but what wasn't as readily apparent was that he had been starved. There was no way that anyone could have thought that the boy wouldn't die without serious medical attention, not with the state that he was currently in. Remus had done a quick diagnostic scan, not having time for a full one, but even that gave him a dangerous view of Harry's present state. He feared that his meager knowledge and ability with healing spells wouldn't be enough to stop Harry's body from completely shutting down, but he knew that unless he acted immediately, the boy would be gone within minutes of arriving to the hospital wing. That was if the Portkey didn't send him into shock.

Oh, God, no! Remus begged, as he felt Harry's heart give out. He heard Sirius give out an abrupt cry, halfway between a scream and a sob. Snarling, Remus grabbed a broken piece of glass off of the floor and nearly snapped his wand over it as he barked, "Portus!" He grabbed Harry, then Sirius, and activated the portkey. There was a jerk behind his navel, and they were whisked away.


Ginerva Molly Weasley was the youngest member of the Weasley brood, and the only girl child. Blessed (and equally cursed) with six older brothers, she was accustomed to loud noises and having no privacy or peace, which was probably what made this all so surreal.

The Burrow was quiet.

The Burrow was never quiet.

Even the twins, Fred and George, were unusually subdued, which was a terrifying thing to witness. Not only was it completely out of character, but usually when they were acting innocent, it meant you had something to fear from them. Except this time, they weren't acting, and Ginny was afraid.

She was afraid for Harry.

Ron was up in his bedroom with Mum. He was still shaken up about the dream, and Ginny couldn't blame him. She had been awake, writing in her diary, when she heard his screams and had run to get Mum. She'd stood in the doorway and listened for a while, watched, until the twins, in a frightening act of maturity, had led her from the room.

Truthfully, she had wanted to argue against them treating her like a baby, until they closed the door behind them, leaving only Mum, Dad, and Ron in the room.

The living room abruptly became Brood Central. Ginny had opened up a book, but was unable to concentrate on the words. She had finally slammed it shut with a huff that reminded the twins so much of Hermione in a tizzy with Ron that they looked up in slight fear.

She hadn't said anything to them. She couldn't think of anything to say. She knew what Ron's dream was about, for the most part. She had heard him crying out Harry's name in fear, before she ran to get Mum. So she knew that there was something about Harry going on in Ron's mind, but he had never screamed or thrashed around like that before. Not after his first year when he remembered about being caught in the Devil's Snare, or the Chess Game that he had told Ginny about, but made her swear to never tell Mum or Dad. His nightmares about spiders, both before and after his second year – Ginny's horrible first year – had never been so horrible.

Nothing had compared to this. This wasn't like Ron. This was like… like what Ginny had gone through, in a way, after her first year. Not just the nightmares about remembering flashes of a giant snake, or spiders, or a boy that wasn't a boy, but the memory of simply… fading away…

That had been more than a dream, and Ginny was pretty sure that this was, too.

She had opened her book again and simply sat there, staring at the pages but not really reading. Fred and George were nearby, eerily quiet, and they were all waiting for someone to come downstairs and give them some sort of information. Her father had only passed through quickly, however, on his way to Hogwarts, unable to tell them anything at the moment. So Ginny made tea for her Mum and took it up to her, and then went back to the living room to sit and wait.

She was still sitting, still waiting.

Ginny's mind wandered from Ron to Harry. She was worried about them both. She and Ron didn't always get along; he was always nosy about what she was doing and who she was with, when he thought she couldn't handle something. When she wanted him to know what she was doing, he could really care less, and he didn't give much stock to her opinion when it came to Quidditch. She was a girl, after all, and his little sister. Apparently those were the two qualifications that, if found together, meant a person was incapable of playing Quidditch.

She found herself getting angry and forced her temper into check. This wasn't about Ron's faults; it was about Ron's dream that was surely more than a dream, and Harry.

Ginny's foolish crush on the Boy-Who-Lived had faded years ago, thank Merlin. She still felt foolish at times for having one. She had thought that she was in love with a hero from story books, but she hadn't ever stopped to consider that he was more than a slayer of evil. He was a boy, only a year older than her. He was just another student at Hogwarts, but one cursed with a fame born of death, and hunted.

Her first year of Hogwarts, he'd saved her life.

She got a glimpse of the real Harry Potter that day. Sure, she had watched him all during the year, but she had only ever seen the Boy-Who-Lived.

It wasn't until after he had saved her life in the Chamber of Secrets did she realize that he wasn't some storybook hero. Oh, he was a hero, of that there was no doubt. He had saved her life, nearly at the cost of his own, but he hadn't done it for glory or because he knew he would be recognized for it – he had done it because it was right, and that made all the difference.

So no, Ginny didn't have a crush on the Boy-Who-Lived anymore. She had a crush on Harry Potter, and she was worried.


Severus Snape was not a happy man.

Now, most people would tell you that such a thing was a given for the Hogwarts Potions Master, Head of Slytherin House, Potions Professor, former Death Eater, and spy for the Light.

The truth was that Severus had, only just that morning, been in a stunning mood. He had been at his summer cottage, free of horrible Potions students, whining Slytherins, goodie-goodie Gryffindors, and one hated Harry bloody Potter.

He'd woken up that morning next to his wife. Oh yes, snarky Professor Snape was indeed married, though he didn't allow that fact to be well known. Not only would that forever damn his image of being an evil, unlovable, vicious git, but his House especially was home to children of Death Eaters, and he didn't want it getting back to the Dark Lord that Severus Snape had a lover. Merlin knows what that vicious, snake-faced bastard would do to her if he found out.

But Snape's day had been ruined, his chance to spend the summer with his wife stolen away.

And by whom, you ask?

Harry bloody Potter.

Snape had been making breakfast for his still-slumbering wife when the crazy house elf appeared, wearing seventeen hats and two mismatched socks. He said that Dumbledore needed him at Hogwarts, for Potter.

Stalking down the dungeons, his robes billowing out behind him, Snape glared at anything that dared to get in his way. He had flooed from his house to the fireplace in his office, as they were connected, and he'd grabbed a box of potions on his way into the corridor. The box was levitated behind him and following at the same brisk pace that he had set. He was almost to the Infirmary when Dumbledore appeared.

"Severus."

Snape sent a narrow glare in Dumbledore's direction, which would have continued if not for the weary look on the Headmaster's face, as well as a darkening bruise. It appeared as though someone had punched the Headmaster, but that curiosity was cast aside for another time.

"You called for me, Headmaster?" Snape drawled, keeping the concern out of his own voice at what could possibly cause such a dark, worried look in the Headmaster's eyes.

"That I did, Severus. I'm sorry to take you away from Elena, but your skills are needed desperately."

"Yes," Snape said, his voice unable to hide the contempt he felt, "I was told. Potter."

Dumbledore sighed, his eyes dim and without their customary twinkle. "Yes, Severus. I'm afraid Harry is the reason you're needed." He met the Potions Master's gaze with a pleading one. "I would ask you to please put aside your hatred for the boy long enough to help him. I realize that you do not enjoy his presence-"

"Headmaster, I loathe that boy's existence," Snape corrected sharply.

Dumbledore cast him a very sad smile. "You know, Severus, James said the same thing about you, though with differing words."

Severus reared back at the gentle accusation, recalling the memory. It's more that he exists, really.

"You hate the boy for what his father has done to you," Dumbledore continued in his soft voice, "but you treat him the same way that you were treated. Only in this case, Severus, I feel that it is worse, because you're his teacher." He sighed softly, bowing his head in what seemed resignation. "Right now, Severus, you may be the only one able to keep that boy alive."

Severus refused to let any manner of emotion beyond loathing and annoyance to show, but he couldn't hide them from himself. "Headmaster?"

Those blue eyes met his, dark and full of regret. "Follow me, Severus." Dumbledore turned and stepped into the Infirmary. With a step of hesitation and a world of reluctance, Severus followed behind him.

They moved through the Infirmary until they reached a bed near the back. It was surrounded by a privacy curtain, which Dumbledore held aside so that Severus could pass beyond it. He did so, and Dumbledore followed, letting the curtain fall closed behind him.

Severus stood at the side of the bed, staring down at its occupant. His immediate reaction was to ask if Death Eaters had somehow gotten past the wards on Privet Drive, but he knew that wasn't possible. Voldemort didn't even know where the boy lived, and if he had found out, there would have been a great deal of gloating on the part of the Dark Lord, and Severus would have known, of course. Something would have been asked of him.

No, Death Eaters didn't do this to Potter. But who-

"I'm sorry to say that I have made a grave mistake," Dumbledore said quietly, his voice burdened by weariness and pain. He placed a tired old hand on Harry's forehead, rubbing his finger over the scar. Potter didn't react at all to the touch, but remained with his eyes closed, his face deathly pale only where there were no bruises marring his skin. "I placed Harry with his relatives, believing that the Blood Magic would keep him safe from Voldemort."

"It did," Snape said, glancing up at the Headmaster. "The Dark Lord has no idea-"

"I know, Severus," Dumbledore interrupted, nodding slowly. "I know, the wards worked perfectly to protect against Voldemort, and no one, save a select few, knew where Harry was staying." He met Snape's eyes, and the level of pain within the Headmaster's deep blue eyes was almost painful for the recipient of the gaze. "But I wasn't willing to listen to Minerva that first night, or any complaints thereafter, or even to Harry himself – though he never spoke aloud. Only his eyes..." He looked back down at the pale boy lying on the bed, his mouth spelled with a Breathe-For-Me charm. "I didn't want to believe that his relatives were unfit to care for him."

"His relatives did this?!" Snape asked sharply, his eyes narrowing.

Dumbledore nodded sadly. "Yes. His uncle was the one who caused the physical damage, if what Arthur told me is true." None of the Dursleys were innocent of what had been done to Harry. Vernon was the one who had physically beaten Harry, but Petunia had been passive toward her husband's actions and even raised a hand against the boy at times. They were both equally guilty, however, in not giving Harry enough to eat. Or anything to eat recently, if what Poppy suspected was true.

Dumbledore turned to Snape, his weariness and regret taking a backseat to the determined gleam in his eyes. Severus knew what it meant before the Headmaster opened his mouth. He would have been willing to offer Severus anything to help Potter, or to take anything away – even his job as Potions Master, or as spy. "I know you hate the boy, Severus, but please…"

Severus stared down at the boy lying pale and still on the sheets. The blanket was only pulled up to his waist and his shirt had been removed. Severus could see every rib the boy had through skin pulled taught across his bones. Had he been wearing robes or even muggle clothes, Severus might have ignored the sunken features of his face. With his bruised and battered chest bared, black, blue, purple, and a sickly yellow array of bruises decorated across it, there was no passing off how hollow the boy's face had become, how thin his arms were, his wrist bones clearly visible. The boy had always appeared small, but he looked disturbingly young now. He looked like a twelve year old, or younger. And damn the Sorting Hat for ever deciding to place the boy in Gryffindor.

Severus had made his choice even before Dumbledore had opened his mouth. "Of course, Headmaster," he said softly, and turned back to the old man before him. "What do you need?


Being a Malfoy takes a certain degree of skill.

One has to know how to act like a Malfoy, walk like a Malfoy, talk like a Malfoy, and, of course, look like a Malfoy. It took years of training to make the transformation from just another kid to Malfoy, but all members of their family had accomplished it, save a few.

But no one ever spoke of them.

The Malfoys were a well-known pure-blood family. If you held that name, no one questioned you. No one turned you down if they knew what was good for them. No one defied you. It wasn't smart, and it wasn't safe. Even for another Malfoy.

Draco Malfoy was not just another Malfoy. He was the son of Lucius Malfoy, a powerful pure-blooded wizard and Death Eater. A man with a mean-streak and an even larger cruel-streak. Blood meant everything to Lucius, as did appearances and obedience.

So when his son chose to defy him, he got angry.

Very angry.

Draco Malfoy was hiding in a secret passage in the wall of his mother's bedroom. She had pushed him there when his father went on a rampage through the house, blowing up random objects and a few house elves. Banishing spells were foregone in the face of cutting hexes and implosion curses. Bureaus, candles, chandeliers, china cases – nothing was safe from his wrath save the walls, spelled for such occasions of anger and venting.

Narcissa Malfoy, Draco's mother, was a smart witch, though she hadn't always been. She had, after all, married Lucius Malfoy, which had proven to be a grave mistake. She was realizing this now more than ever. Her son, her dear boy who she loved so much, was not his father, though he had tried for years to be. Narcissa knew that Draco had done all that he could to make his father proud; to make his father love him.

Unfortunately, nothing short of killing a god – and perhaps not even that – could appease Lucius Malfoy fully. She had learned this years ago and had taken precautions for such an incident as this. Draco was fifteen now; he would be expected by his father and others to take the Dark Mark and join the ranks of the Dark Lord.

The difference between Lucius and his son was that Draco didn't want to.

In the privacy of Narcissa's room, spelled with silencing charms as it was, Draco had spoken to his mother. He had confided in her despite his fear that she might turn him over to his father. She hadn't, of course. She loved her son more than anything. She would give him anything he desired.

All he wanted was freedom, and she couldn't fault him that.

He didn't want to take the Dark Mark and become a slave to the Dark Lord. He didn't want to go around killing people and pretending to enjoy it. He didn't even want to be a Malfoy anymore, with its expectations and its curses disguised as blessings. He wanted to be normal – a boy that could go to school and have friends, people who cared about him and not his status or money.

He knew it would never happen, of course. People would never see him as just a boy, even if he did renounce his family name. He was a Malfoy, by name, by birth, by blood.

And by curse.

But Narcissa wanted to help him, however she could. This was her boy, her son, her little dragon, and she would do everything she could to protect him, no matter the cost.

So when Lucius went on a rampage, destroying the house, killing house elves, wrecking the mask that they wore to disguise the nature of this horrid family, she pushed Draco into a secret passage in the wall that she had made, one that her husband didn't know about. She hid him so he would be safe. She hid him so he wouldn't have to take the Dark Mark and become a slave. She hid him so he could be free.

She hid him so that he wouldn't have to watch her die.

Chapter Text

In the previous chapter, Remus and Sirius hurry to rescue Harry from 4 Privet Drive, but Harry is in horrible shape and they may well be too late. Draco Malfoy is suffering, too, his mother dead at Lucius' hand, and Draco himself next on the list.


 

  THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AND DEATH

IV

The Summons


Number four Privet Drive had been empty most of the day. Vernon and Petunia Dursley had decided to take their son, Dudley, out for a day to the zoo and aquarium, and for ice cream and a special dinner, because he was a perfect son and they couldn't ask for anyone better. There was no mention of how much greater he was than their filthy, horrible, abnormal nephew. He wasn't a problem anymore, anyway.

"Vernon," Petunia Dursley said to her husband, as he pulled into the drive and shifted the car into park, "how will we… you know – get rid of it?"

Vernon Dursley turned his head to look at his wife, despite not having any neck, and smiled at her in a reassuring manner. "Now don't you worry yourself, Pet. It's all been taken care of." He shut the car off and kissed his wife on the cheek before the three of them made their way into the house.

Earlier that summer, Vernon had gone in search of some help with the problem of his nephew. It wasn't enough that he confined the boy to his room for the entirety of the summer. Vernon wanted him out of the house and out of their lives, but from what Petunia told him, that would never happen so long as that boy was going to that damnable school. And nothing seemed capable of tearing him away from it. As long as the boy was alive, he would be attending Hogwash or whatever the place was called.

The solution had been simple.

The lingering problem was disposing of the boy's body after he had been dealt with. That was where Vernon's contact came in. Vernon didn't like the man, and he didn't trust him, but there was no denying that he would be useful. As he had put it, he had ways of getting rid of unwanted things, and he knew exactly what it was that Vernon wanted to get rid of.

The man wouldn't arrive until the next day, but that was fine. The door to the boy's room was closed and that would keep the smell in. He certainly wouldn't be going anywhere.

Things are already starting to look up, Vernon thought, as he and Petunia got ready for bed. Petunia had been forced to cook dinner since the boy wasn't capable of doing so anymore, but it hadn't been any great tragedy. Petunia had always loved to cook and she was far better than the boy, since they didn't have to fear that their food might turn them into slugs on a bad day. Dudley had been sent off to his room with a movie and two bags of popcorn, and for the first time in almost fourteen years, Vernon found he didn't have to worry about what the freak might be doing in his room.

He did find himself wondering briefly, as he crawled into bed and kissed his wife's throat, whether or not the boy had actually died, yet. Vernon hadn't stopped beating the boy after he had fallen unconscious from the hit to the head – a bad miscalculation on Vernon's part. His ministrations had continued until he had been satisfied with the number of cracks and snaps he had received from the freak's body. It was a strangely powerful feeling, Vernon had found, knowing that a rib would break under the simple pressure of one foot. He wondered if he would miss that over time.

He had no worries, however, that the boy would survive. If he was not dead yet, he surely would be by morning. Vernon had needed to throw the boy onto his bed to stop him bleeding all over the carpet. That cost a great deal more than a new set of bed sheets, and it was bad enough that the boy had pissed himself when he passed out. They'd have to hire a cleaning company to come in and fix up the room once everything had been disposed of. Once the boy was gone, that bed was garbage, as well.

The room would need to be remodeled and refinished, but then Dudley could have his second bedroom back once they got the smell out. Life would be so much better, not having that freak in the house. That thought spurred an excitement in his blood – the very idea that they would be free of all of this freakishness – and Vernon slid his fingers over his wife's bare hips.

Petunia giggled, a sound he loved to hear, and moaned as he ran his hand over her narrow hips and up her chest, squeezing her breasts in his large hands. He thought about the boy as he slid into his wife, how he had been standing expectantly every time Vernon came into the room, like a well-trained dog. The last few times, the boy had been swaying when he walked in, or still struggling to his feet, movements lethargic. 

Some days, Vernon hadn't bothered going up to the boy's room. The smell that always assaulted him when he entered was beginning to make him nauseous. Not just the urine, but that sick-sweet smell that came from the boy's sweat and breath. He didn't know what it was, but it was disgusting. Probably some freak-reaction to being given his just dues. Maybe that's what it smelled like when the magic was being properly stamped out of a person. He should have taken a firmer hand to the boy years ago, dealt with him before he ever received that damn letter. 

"Vernon," Petunia said sharply, bringing his attention back to his wife, who was grimacing up at him in mild pain. Vernon eased his aggressive motions, leaning down to kiss her on the neck apologetically. She gasped in surprise as he nibbled on her ear. They'd been young teenagers since he'd last done that. "Vernon!" she gasped, scandalized, when he licked her neck. He chuckled. 

He could hear Dudley's movie playing through the wall, but no sound came from the freak's bedroom. He wondered again if the boy was still alive. He would check in the morning, he decided, see if the freak had managed to linger. The baseball bat was ruined, of course. He had burned it after he couldn't get the blood off, but there was a crowbar he'd found in the garage the other day. It would make a nice tool for his last visit to the boy's room. 

He wondered if he should use it as he had the bat, swinging wildly, or if he shouldn't try using it as it was meant. He imagined how he would hold it, affixing the end in between two of the boy's ribs and then jerking it sharply. He remembered how loud the crack of the boy's ribs had been under his boot, and the feel of it snapping. How would it feel as he used the crowbar, he wondered? He swallowed thickly, imagining. How would it feel to press his hands against the boy's ribs until one snapped? 

He had to swallow the saliva that filled his mouth at the thought. Petunia moaned as he rocked against her, her hands gripping his large shoulders. He'd have the boy on the floor beneath him and he'd use one hand. His right. 

He'd press down on the freak's ribs. He'd do it slowly, testing how much strength it took. He was pretty heavy, and the boy was pretty small - it wasn't a surprise he'd cracked a rib with his boot. His hand would take more pressure, probably, but he'd see how much. Press down - with the heel of his hand, he decided - adding more strength as needed, until the boy's rib cracked beneath his hands. 

He grunted, feeling the thrill of excitement race through him. He thrust against his wife, Petunia groaning his name. He'd get up early in the morning, well before he had to leave for work, and visit the boy. He'd try his hand - ha! - at this new technique. Forget the crowbar. Vernon wanted this final visit to be the best. It would all be by hand, he decided. 

He found he was hoping the boy was still alive in the morning. Conscious, even. Yes. Fourteen years they'd dealt with his freakishness. The boy owed him this. Vernon would finish him off himself, with his bare hands. Oh, he couldn't wait!

He would finish it properly this time. 

Vernon imagined the boy's choking breaths as he dug his hands against Petunia's hips. He imagined the sound the boy would make after his ribs had been broken, the bones shoved down into his heart. He had killed a rabbit once when he was little. Vernon still remembered the sound of the creature's last exhalation. It had sounded so... final. He imagined that sound being made in the back of the boy's throat.

Vernon gave a loud grunt and thrust sharply against his wife. Petunia made a sound in the back of her throat, like a little gasp. It had been years since he'd managed to finish this fast. No doubt another by-product of the freak. Having him near to gone was solving a lot of their problems. This was only the first of many. Vernon's movements were quick and he was pleased that Petunia couldn't quite keep herself quiet as he moved, her body closing around him as he spilled inside of her, not bothering at all to silence the sounds of his pleasure. 

Vaguely, Vernon was aware that Dudley had raised the volume of his movie, but he paid it no mind, kissing Petunia on the throat. 

He hadn't yet pulled himself out of her when there was a flash of light from the walls and a spell activated.


Hermione wished fervently that she was still at Hogwarts.

She had been there, within those great stone walls, and had been so near the attainment of knowledge that her fingers ached to turn a page. It wasn't until after she had returned home that Hermione had recalled wanting to look up feelings that connected one person to another. That dread that she had felt for Harry, and the feeling of having had a dream she couldn't remember…

Remus had escorted her to the Hospital Wing, as he had promised. The walk had been silent for the most part, Hermione shivering beneath the folds of the blanket around her shoulders and Remus clearly lost in his thoughts. He had received a headache remedy from Madam Pomfrey and slipped the unbreakable vial into a pocket absently, lingering in the doorway for a few moments. It was when Madam Pomfrey began a fierce lecture on how she shouldn't travel by floo when she was ill ("You should have been in bed resting, Miss Granger!") that Hermione saw Remus slip quietly out of the door.

Madam Pomfrey had clearly not been unaware of his presence, and the conversation that she'd had with the medi-witch came easily to Hermione's mind.

Madam Pomfrey glanced at the doorway just as it swung fully shut. With a swift twist of her thin, frail-looking neck, she'd turned back to Hermione and hmphed indignantly as she concentrating on waving her wand over the girl before her. "Honestly," she muttered, either forgetting that Hermione was a functional human capable of hearing what she said or not really caring, "the way he acts you would think I didn't know how to treat a simple cold!"

She slipped her wand into the pocket of her apron and bustled to the cabinet on the wall, unlocking it and pulling out two vials. Hermione watched her quietly as she locked the cabinet and came walking back, all the while muttering to herself.

"It's not as though I spent seven years of his life treating him for bruises, cuts, scrapes, and everything those boys managed to get themselves into when the moon wasn't full. If I didn't know better I would have thought that he was the medi-witch and I an intern." She tsked as she uncorked both vials and handed them to Hermione. "Blue one first, then the green," she said sharply, "and mind you drink all of it, Miss Granger."

Hermione had done as she was told, swallowing the blue first and grimacing at the bitter, rubbery taste. Madam Pomfrey hadn't given her much time to recover before she was demanding that she drink the green potion, and Hermione did, coughing once she'd done so, at the smoky flavor and the waxy feeling of her mouth afterward. Madam Pomfrey had tsked again and muttered something about time lapses between potions. Hermione had taken that the two potions she drank needed to be taken immediately after the other and she wondered why the two weren't mixed, though perhaps that would nullify the effects. She was grateful for the glass of water that Madam Pomfrey pressed into her hands, the cold liquid washing away the residual taste in her mouth.

Madam Pomfrey was bustling around, putting things away as Hermione stood next to the bed, wondering on many things. She was wondering where she would return home from – should she go back to Professor Dumbledore's office? She was wondering what Remus would find when he went to check on Harry (oh, she hoped he was all right!). And she was wondering why Remus had lingered for a time in the doorway, since Madam Pomfrey seemed so worked up over it.

"Do you think he doubts your skill?" Hermione asked. She dug her teeth into her lip afterward, startled by her own bluntness. Madam Pomfrey had turned to look at her in mild surprise, however, and there was no taking it back now.

"No," the medi-witch said, folding the blanket Hermione had been wearing as she turned to her patient. "Remus Lupin has been a resident within my infirmary far too many times for him to question my skill." She placed the folded blanket in a closet, clearly thinking about how to word what she next wished to say. Everyone knew Hermione's intelligence and curiosity, and Madam Pomfrey knew that the girl before her would have taken more from her soft ranting after Remus Lupin's exit than most people.

"He cares a great deal, Miss Granger, for many people." She shut the closet door and turned to face her patient. "He loves in a way that is dangerous for him, because of the way that people view what he is."

A werewolf, Hermione knew. She had figured it out herself, though it didn't bother her as much as it seemed to many other people. Harry certainly didn't seem concerned about it, even after their disastrous third year, and Ron had only apparently reacted so harshly in the Shrieking Shack because they all thought Remus had been helping Sirius Black, a murderer. But that wasn't the case, and Ron had never seemed bothered about it beyond that – even the other Weasleys didn't act as though anything was different about Remus. It didn't matter.

"I know a great many things about the students of Hogwarts, Miss Granger – those present and those who graduated long ago. It is my duty as healer to keep their confidences, even if they do not realize that I know as much as I do. I will not break the bonds I have made for myself. I can tell you, however, that Remus Lupin is a man with a heart of at least three people, who cares for many but loves a select few deeply – cherishes them and their presence, and wishes to protect them. For whatever reason, Miss Granger, you are one of those people. If he thought for a second that you would have had a cough after I was done with you, or if I would have needed to go to Severus for a potion that I did not have in my stores, he would have stayed here until all was well, or until I returned. That is simply the way that Remus Lupin is around the people that he loves. It is a dangerous level of love, but so, too, is it something to be cherished."

Hermione sat on her bed, deeply lost in thought. She knew, of course, that Remus was a very kind man. He had been protective of the three of them, and he had taught them all a great deal. Yes, he was a professor and he was supposed to teach them, but the truth was that not many professors did. Certainly not the Defense Against the Dark Arts professors, of whom Remus Lupin had been the only decent one. He had taught them more than the rest of the DADA professors combined, and he had even taught Harry how to perform the Patronus Charm, outside of class. He cared, but she had not … she would never have thought to word it as Madam Pomfrey had, but it felt – right.

Hermione's musings were interrupted by a fierce and incessant tapping on her bedroom window. She twisted to see a tiny ball of feathers flying repeatedly into the glass, as though through sheer stubbornness it might be made to disappear.

"Pigwidgeon?" Hermione asked, recognizing Ron's tiny owl. She hurried over to open the window, letting the owl into the room, where he began to fly in excited circles around Hermione, making it impossible for her to grab the letter he was holding.

Sitting on the bed, Hermione sighed. "Pigwidgeon? Is that for me?"

The tiny owl hooted excitedly and flew into her arms, nibbling happily on her fingers as she extracted the letter from around his leg. "Oh, hush," she scolded softly as he hooted in disagreement at her hands being stolen away. Leaving the small owl to flutter around the room, Hermione unrolled the piece of parchment and sighed at Ron's atrocious penmanship. Until she read his words.

Hermione,

Dad said he saw you at Hogwarts. Did they go check on Harry? I dreamed about him. The muggles were beating him, Hermione. Do you know ANYTHING?

Ron

Moving over to her desk, Hermione dipped her readied quill in ink and began to pen a response.


"Albus, what is the meaning of this?" Minerva McGonagall asked, as she stepped sharply out of the floo, dusting ash from her emerald green robes. The headmaster stood before her, solemn-faced and weary. As Minerva looked, however, she noticed that his office was not empty.

"Poppy, Severus," she said, nodding in greeting to her fellow staff members. Poppy was sitting in a chair, her hands clasped tightly together in her lap and her face steadfastly determined to hold a neutral expression. Behind her, Severus stood with his arms crossed and a scowl on his face that seemed rather a bit darker than normal. Minerva regarded the two curiously for a moment before she turned back to the headmaster. "Albus?"

"I'm afraid something has happened, Minerva, of which I dare not keep you unawares." He motioned toward one of the chairs in front of his desk. "Please sit down."

The Transfiguration professor and Head of Gryffindor House had never been one to back down or to take something like a request to sit down lightly. She knew Albus Dumbledore quite well, on a variety of levels, and she did not like the look in his eyes now – a gaze completely devoid of the twinkle that normally pervaded his every waking moment and annoyed the hell out of everyone else. She ignored his request, standing quite firmly in front of him. Her lips thinned to a white line as she continued to match his gaze. "Albus?"

Dumbledore sighed heavily, having expected this level of stubbornness from Minerva, but still not enjoying it. He eyed her, hoping that, perhaps, she already knew what he was about to tell her, and so he might be spared the dark task. He knew he would have no such luck, of course and so he sighed again. He took a moment to adjust his half-moon spectacles, but met her eyes solemnly when he caught sight of her growing impatience.

"I have made a mistake, Minerva," he said. His voice was a little rough from his most-recent use of it, but he ignored this. The physical discomfort of a scratchy throat was heavily out-weighed by the discomfort of having to inform Minerva that she was right. Not because she would gloat but because he knew she would wish that she had not been right, and against all evidence otherwise, she might choose to take the blame herself, rather than laying it at his feet. Where it belonged.

"It is a mistake that may have been prevented, if only I hadn't been a stubborn old fool and had listened to you in the first place." He coughed, looking away from her worried, stunned expression. It was rare that he admitted to being wrong, and rarer still that he admitted it to her. He didn't want to go on. "You were – quite right, Minerva, about Vernon and Petunia Dursley being unfit guardians."

There was a soft poof-thudding sound, as Minerva fell into one of the chairs behind her. She had brought her hands up to her mouth and her eyes glimmered in moist fear. She continued to stare at Dumbledore, and forced her hands down to speak. They lowered no further than her throat and sat there, one clutching at the other until her knuckles were white.

"Not Potter," she said in a whisper. He tongue was struggling to untangle herself, to voice more words, though she did not know what she would say. Why did this moment seem so similar to fourteen years ago, when she had sat with Dumbledore on a brick wall and asked if it was true, that Lily and James were… were…

"He is alive, Minerva," Dumbledore said, though his face grew no less solemn during this admittance and he looked almost reluctant at having assured her of this. "He is badly injured. Poppy and Severus have been taking care of him."

Minerva turned to her two colleagues in time enough to see Severus grimace at the Headmaster's words. He made no reaction otherwise, however, and it was Poppy who spoke up.

"It took far more time than I would have wished," Madam Pomfrey said, taking over for Dumbledore when he glanced at her, "but we managed to stabilize Mr. Potter. Remus and Black had found him."

Minerva was watching Poppy with rapt attention. The medi-witch was keeping her demeanor sternly professional, her face an emotionless mask as she spoke. Behind her, Severus had no such reserves and Minerva caught his sneer at the names of his two childhood rivals.

"Remus was trying to heal some of the damage when Potter's heart failed." Minerva let out a sharp gasp, her hands returning to her mouth as her eyes widened. Poppy either did not hear or chose to ignore this in favor of getting all of the information out at one time. "They were forced to take a portkey to Hogsmeade. Black made it here first in his animagus form and warned me, so I was able to prepare the wing and summon the headmaster. Remus arrived moments later with Mr. Potter."

Poppy glanced at Severus with a look of deep gratitude, which he turned away from, pointedly looking away from Minerva, as well. "I admit that I was not certain we would be able to save him. He was very far gone and he is still in a great deal of danger. We were able to restart his heart and keep it going."

She refrained from telling Minerva about the second time Potter's heart had failed. She and Severus had been magically injecting potions directly into Potter's stomach in order to replenish his lost blood and fluids, and had been doing their best to repair the major damage done to him. While straightening the shattered bones of one leg, Potter had moved instinctively away from the pain. He had not been conscious – of that Poppy was certain – but he had clearly been close enough to awareness to feel the discomfort of his shattered leg bones moving around underneath his skin.

It would not have been that great of a deal if Potter hadn't jostled himself in a way that one of his broken ribs shifted and slid through the soft skin of his left lung. Poppy closed her eyes at the gut wrenching memory. The boy had still been unconscious and his movements had only indicated a mild pain – of course, it would have been a great deal more than mild and the child's threshold of pain alone was disturbing – but then his breaths had turned into strange wheezes one moment, and gurgling gasps the next, and then he was choking as he coughed and sprayed blood across white sheets.

Poppy remembered Severus' moment of inaction probably better than he did himself, for she knew where it stemmed from and knew what emotions – or thought she knew, though she was rather certain in her ideas – she would have seen parading across his face had she turned to look at him. Shock, disbelief, horror, uncertainty, hatred, disgust – he hated the boy and all the staff knew it, but so too did he recognize the bruises and the damage. Or she recognized and prayed that he did, as well, because he had once suffered similar trauma, though never nearly as bad as this moment, and it was something that he should consider before condemning the boy any further. Thinking back on that moment now, she briefly wondered if he would.

The two had worked in tandem, their wands flicking swiftly, their faces set with grim resolve. Severus magicked blood replenishing, bone repairing, and various other potions directly into Potter's stomach, and Madam Pomfrey used a diagnostic spell to allow her to see the rib piercing the boy's lung, and thus extract it and reform it in place.

For a short moment that seemed more like hours tacked on the end of others before, things were smoothing out. The rib had been fixed back into proper place, the skelegro already working to mend the bone. The blood replenishing potions were certainly not yet at full effect, but Madam Pomfrey had vanished the blood from the boy's throat and lungs, and the child was breathing steadily.

And then, abruptly, his heart stopped.

The air in his lungs whispered past the boy's lips and he went completely still, as the blue pulsing light matching his heart suddenly gleamed bright blue, a steady, burning glow, before winking out of existence completely.

Madam Pomfrey heard Severus swear in a string of words she was sure would have shamed He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, as she rushed forward and placed her fingers on Potter's neck. She sought a pulse that her heartbeat revealer spell might have failed to detect, but found none.

"Severus!" she snapped, as she pulled the pillow out from under the boy's head, tossing it toward another bed and out of the way. She waved her wand in an arching path, before ending the movement at Potter's mouth. "Aer Respiro," she said, watching as the air above the boy's face swirled and seemed to coalesce into an orb that was no more opaque or solid than it had been moments before, but was visible, almost like a bubblehead charm. She thought it might have been a variation of that same form, crafted for medical purposes. Filius surely knew, but she hardly cared at the moment.

Severus was waving his wand, as well, and the bed beneath Potter had stiffened. He was mumbling under his breath when he didn't need to chant a spell and Poppy had a fairly good idea that he was exercising his rather extensive vocabulary on the cruder levels.

"You need to cast an extensive healing spell," he said, his voice almost detached save for the sharpness displaying his discomfort with the situation, in many forms. "There is too much damage here for us to wait for him to heal on his own. The potions won't take swift enough effect." He flicked his eyes, very briefly, to her, though they returned to Potter almost immediately.

"I cannot cast a healing spell on…" She swallowed the thickness in her throat, unwilling to continue in that line, though they both knew her words. One could not heal the wounds of a corpse. "His heart needs to be beating, Severus."

There was a hesitation in him that she wanted to strangle. She'd do the damn procedure herself if he could perform the healing spell, but he couldn't! She opened her mouth, eyes lighting up in rage, but he stepped forward before she could say anything, his eyes still on the boy. "Prepare your damnable spell, woman."

She ignored his tone, the insult, and his clear distaste for what he had to do. She touched her wand with both hands, brought the tip of it to her forehead so it lay vertically across her face, and closed her eyes. She began to chant quietly.

"Ω, Aceso, κυρία της Θεραπείας,
Σας εκλιπαρώ για έλεος σας.
Δωρεάν αυτό το σώμα, και η σφραγίδα αυτών των
πληγές μ 'ένα φιλί.
Αφήστε τη ροή του αίματός σας για να επουλωθούν
και να επιστρέψει σε μας.
Σε ικετεύω, θεά μου, κυρία μου.
Ω, Aceso, πάρτε μαγεία μου για το έλεος σου."

Madam Pomfrey shook herself mentally, driving away the memory of those crucial moments that still had her shaken.

"Who is with Mr. Potter now?" Minerva asked after some silent contemplation, after which she was forced to clear her throat before she could speak. The hesitation gave Madam Pomfrey time to compose her thoughts.

"Remus is with him at the moment," she said, recalling the werewolf's return to the hospital wing. It had been at a very unfortunate moment, while they were still trying to restart Potter's heart so that she could activate the healing spell. Madam Pomfrey was not sure she would be able to coax the man to leave the boy's side after he had been forced to bear witness to that moment. His tears were still painful to her memory.

"I asked him to watch over Harry while Severus and I came to speak with the headmaster."

Dumbledore nodded quietly to Madam Pomfrey and Severus, though there was still a grim quality to his face. Clearly, Harry's current status was not what he had hoped for. "Was there anything else before I allow you to return to your charge?"

Madam Pomfrey looked slightly uncomfortable, as she met the headmaster's eyes. "I… cannot be certain. It's very difficult to diagnose in an unconscious patient, before symptoms begin to show-"

"Potter might be mentally damaged, though that's hardly anything new," Snape said, cutting Madam Pomfrey off. She turned to him with an exasperated look, almost appeared as though she might strike him, though she didn't. He met her gaze with an emotionless glance, but she merely pursed her lips in distaste.

"Poppy?" Minerva asked, her concern outweighing any intention she might have had, otherwise, to hex Snape for his comments.

"Nothing is for certain," Madam Pomfrey reiterated, returning her attention to the stern Transfiguration professor, "but Potter has suffered a great deal of head trauma. My diagnostic spells are similar in some regard to those of Frederick Worthington. You remember him, I presume."

"Of course," Minerva said faintly. Frederick Worthington had been a Gryffindor a year below James Potter and his friends. He was remembered in his school days for his unfortunate fascination (and failed emulation) of the Marauders and their pranking. This resulted in a great many trips to the Hospital Wing, as the boy was notoriously horrible at setting pranks that he didn't manage to get caught in himself. On the Quidditch field, however, Frederick rivaled James Potter as the best Gryffindor Chaser in the span of a decade. With Alexander Paddington rounding off their trio, the Gryffindor team was a force to be reckoned with on the field.

The only problem that Frederick had was that he was incredibly adept at attracting bludgers. He frequently took them to the head.

It was this, unfortunately, that led to the end of Frederick's career as a star Quidditch player. He was set to receive a letter from various Quidditch teams asking him to play for them once he graduated, but too many knocks to the head had caused detrimental effects. He developed an affliction more well-known in the muggle world than the wizarding world, known as Dementia Pugilistica, or Punch-Drunk Syndrome.

Headaches, tremors, loss of strength… by the time Frederick was nineteen, two years after graduating Hogwarts, he was unable to walk. Three years later, he'd committed suicide. It had been a hard time for everyone who'd known him – student and teacher alike. He had been a well-known, well-liked boy.

The idea that this could happen to Potter – to Harry…

"Isn't there anything that could be done, if this proves to be right, Poppy? Severus?"

"I'm afraid I don't know of any spells that will counteract the effects. There were none when Frederick was suffering, and I consulted many friends more knowledgeable in the field than I."

"Nor are there any potions available. There simply isn't a cure for mental afflictions such as this. We'll just have to set up a room for Potter in St. Mungo's. Perhaps near the Longbottoms-"

"Severus!" Minerva cried in shock at his words. She stared at him with wide eyes but he merely sneered in reply, which brought her concern to the forefront. Now was not the time to address him on his attitude, but she would make inquiries later.

"That's enough, Serverus," Dumbledore said, stepping calmly forward. He gave the Potions Master a warning look, but Snape did not appear apologetic and none of the three really expected him to. He merely rose to his feet with the others, ignoring Minerva's scrutiny.

"I dearly hope your fears reveal themselves to be unfounded, Poppy."

"As do I," she muttered, straightening her robes.

"We must consider it a possibility, however, and in that light, I shall allow you to return to your charge. I might ask that you send Remus to me, however, so that we may discuss plans on where Harry will be spending the rest of his summer, and beyond that, of course."

The act of speaking of the boy as though all would be right in the end did not escape Madam Pomfrey, but she was grateful for the optimism, however forced. "I will tell him that you're asking for him, though I cannot promise me will come." She glanced at Severus, but the Potions Master was avoiding her gaze and, without a further word, she returned to the hospital wing through the floo. Severus took a moment to nod a silent farewell to McGonagall and Dumbledore both, before he followed the same passageway, back to his dungeons, leaving the two alone in Dumbledore's office.

"Albus, you don't think…" Minerva was wringing her hands together, her eyes staring quite some distance away, into the past.

"I dearly hope not, Minerva, and truly, that's all we can do. We must simply hope."


Severus Snape stormed out of the blazing floo as abruptly as a tree suddenly collapsing to the forest floor and crushing all life in its wake. His cloak billowed out behind him as he moved swiftly, his long stride carrying him across the office. His wand was out, his wrist twisting and flicking the slender stick of wood. The already-dimming fire burst into new fervor when three large blocks of wood were magically thrown into the hearth. A large green armchair slid across the floor to rest in front of the fire and a table flew over to rest beside it. Snape plucked a glass off of a shelf, flicked his wand to silence the room and lock the floo so he would not be interrupted by anyone unless it was exceedingly important.

Grabbing a half-full bottle of firewhiskey by the neck as he strode back toward the hearth, he fell into the armchair, filled the glass to the brim, and threw it back in one shot. Grimacing as the liquid burned acid down his throat, he poured himself another glass before he sat the bottle on the table next to him. Then, holding the glass in both hands, he began to brood.

This had to be the worst day he had ever had during summer holidays since he began teaching at Hogwarts. Since he had once still done a great deal of spy work for Dumbledore over the holidays, this was no small feat, but, of course, Potter could accomplish it.

Severus wiped his mouth as though to rid it of some lasting residue, though there was nothing on his lips, nothing at all signifying such an awful experience in the hospital wing, save for a memory.

Severus truly wanted to tell himself that he didn't give a bloody damn if Potter died and just return to his dungeons, where he would brew more potions for the upcoming school year. He wouldn't need nearly as much of anything, because Potter wouldn't be around to throw himself into trouble every five minutes.

For a moment, Severus basked in the imagining: a world without any lingering memories of James Potter. No messy black hair and stupid, clumsy children with glasses flaunting their princely fame about like it could grant them leave of death.

Why should Potter be saved when so many others had died?

Emerald green eyes flashed across his mind's vision.

Lily.

Sometimes, Severus Snape hated the memory of Lily Evans almost as much as he hated her son. But only because it caused so much pain to remember.

The seeming-sturdiness of the boy's chest gave under the pressure of Severus' hands. He did his best to ignore how very small and frail the boy actually was, as his hands, one layered over the other, thrust down, compressing the boy's ribcage and pumping blood from his heart. The boy lay frightfully still, his face a pale-grey color, those damnable emerald green eyes closed. Severus thanked the gods for that small mercy. He did not know if he would have been able to function under the vigilance of a second pair of dead green eyes.

The boy's body moved slightly with every thrust of Severus' arms, his chest compressing tightly downward and then springing back up. He stopped for a moment, he fingers moving to the boy's neck, seeking a pulse but finding nothing. He paused to let Poppy's ongoing spell feed oxygen into Potter's lungs so his brain wouldn't shut down, not that doing so could hurt much.

Behind him, he could hear Poppy reciting a spell in Ancient Greek. His mind translated it on instinct.

"Oh, Aceso, Lady of Healing,
I plead for your mercy.
Free this body, and seal these
wounds with a kiss.
Let your blood flow to heal
and return to us.
I beg you, my goddess, my lady.
Oh, Aceso, take my magic for your mercy.
"

He could feel the magic swirling through the air like a current, drawn to Poppy as the spell summoned the energies. It drew power from him, from the school, from her, and from all of the spells that she had cast.

Severus swore as the breathing spell she had cast flickered and vanished, drawn into the ritual healing spell she was forming now. Swearing profusely in his mind as he thrust his arms down again on Potter's chest, he hoped to restart the boy's heart without having to do anything that was any more insulting.

But the Boy-Who-Lived was useless if brain dead.

"Stupid, ridiculous child. I should just let you die," he grumbled to himself, as he moved to Potter's head. Grabbing the boy's chin tightly and pinching his nose shut, he pulled Potter's forehead back, jutting his chin into the air. The boy's mouth was already open from when he had reacted instinctively, even unconscious, to choking on his own blood. Severus placed his mouth tightly over Potter's – all the while screaming internally – and exhaled.

Potter's chest jerked with an abrupt motion, the air filling his lungs forcing his chest to expand. The air whisked out of him with a little hiss and Severus exhaled again into Potter's mouth. The boy's chest rose and fell with the breath, and after another, Severus fitted his hands back over the boy's chest and began to pump his heart again.

He only needed to start the boy's heart. Even if it lasted only a moment, it would be long enough for Poppy to activate the healing spell and thus do away with the damage causing all of these complications. But the boy was proving, as always, to be difficult.

Potter's limbs twitched lightly at the deep thrusts of his professor's arms, but Severus tried not to see this. He remembered another time, long ago, when he had attempted such a revival technique as this.

It had failed then, too.

CRACK!

Severus froze in his movements. He'd felt the shift and snap in a reverberation through Potter's torso. One of the boy's ribs had broken at the force of the compressions. Maybe the one that had already been broken and had only begun healing…

"Keeping going!" a voice in his mind snarled.

The Potions Master hesitated only a moment, before he thrust his hands down sharply again and continued where he had stopped. If he could just start the boy's heart, his ribs would be healed.

The sound of a door opening and closing had not been clearly defined by his preoccupied mind, but the sudden gasp for air behind him caught his attention, as did the whisper of the boy's name whose rib cage snapped again as another rib broke beneath his ministrations.

"Damnit, Severus, what are yo-"

"Kindly excuse yourself, Wolf. I'm trying to save his life."

"But you-"

The sudden jerking of Potter's head had Severus pulling away abruptly. The boy threw his head back as he gasped for a breath that flew into his lungs with a violent sound. The boy started coughing as soon as he had inhaled, his entire body convulsing with the barks. Blood sprayed from his mouth across white sheets.

"Poppy!" Severus snarled.

The woman had already begun the spell's activation, however. He could feel the magic ripping from her, tearing across their plane and slamming into the boy like a physical force. He watched as Potter's body actually convulsed when the magic struck him, and then the waves of light were pulsing around him as Aceso answered Poppy's prayer.

Severus returned to the present with a fierce snarl, swiping at his lips. Swearing viciously, he grabbed his shot glass, alcohol sloshing over the sides in his ferocity.

"Damn Potter," he cursed, and tossed the whiskey back.

Chapter Text

In the previous chapter, we learned of Vernon Dursley's plans for Harry and that he doesn't know his nephew is missing yet. Harry was at Hogwarts; Severus Snape and Madam Pomfrey worked together to save him from death. It was a close thing. Meanwhile, Dumbledore reveals what has happened to Harry to Professor McGonagall.


The Search For Life and Death

V

The Dreamers


He was flying, the wind billowing around him, caressing his body as he cut through it, an old friend, a comrade, a force that he knew he could turn to. There was no broomstick beneath him, he did not need it. The wind was his companion, his friend, his lover, and she would not let him fall.

Harry's arms spread out at either side of him and his eyes were closed as he reveled in the feeling of the wind rushing around him. He would never weary of this sensation, never tire of the freedom it brought to his body, his spirit, and his mind.

"Harry…"

Harry opened emerald green eyes to gaze forward through the oblivion in which he flew. The voice that called him held a tone of sorrow, and somehow Harry knew it was because the sensation of flying was leaving him, and the voice – whoever it was – was sad to take that freedom from him.

"Harry…"

He could feel the free winds lessening in their strength and power, gravity returning to this world which existed and yet did not. He was righting in the air and coming down, and he could feel, as though it were being crafted by a god beneath his very feet, the ground reach up to catch him. He found his balance on it as his bare feet touched down and, as he looked down at the ground, he saw that he wore no shoes, and the only thing that covered him was a simple black robe. He had never owned something like this before, and he didn't think that he had ever seen someone wearing a robe like this. Why was he?

"Harry…"

"Yeah?" Harry looked up, searching for the source of the voice.

The oblivion through which he had been flying was slowly taking shape. With gravity had come the earth beneath his feet, not cold, hard stone but soft, grainy dirt that shifted underfoot. As he stood, he could feel blades of grass growing, pushing up from the ground to curl around his feet, undeterred in their growth. They were strong. He could not stop them – not alone.

"They lie beneath you, these blades."

Harry's emerald gaze still sought the voice, but he could not find the source. His world was still dark beyond the forces that had appeared. Only the blades of grass, the dirt, and the tree growing steadily behind him were available to his eyes. The rest was deeper even than darkness – far more than his eyes could take in.

"Do you see them, Harry Potter – how they grow, shifting to sprout from the deep earth, heedless of the barrier you make."

"Yes. I see them." It seemed odd to him, talking to a disembodied voice, but how could he not answer? Obviously, there was someone here. He wondered briefly where here was.

"They are Death Eaters, Harry Potter – each and every one."


In his dreams, Sirius often forgot that he wasn't driven mad by the Dementors. He forgot that he snuck out of Azkaban to kill Peter Pettigrew. He forgot that his animagus form helped to stifle the effects of the Dementors. He forgot that Remus didn't blame him for Lily and James' death. He forgot that Harry had wanted to come live with him. He forgot that he wasn't completely mad.

But he remembered that the muggles had hurt Harry. And he remembered that Harry's heart had stopped.

In his dreams, Sirius was mad. His hair was long and ragged, his skin sour-white and stretched over his skull, and his eyes were wild. Every breath he drew rattled into his lungs, and he held a wand in a white-knuckled hand.

Vernon and Petunia Dursley lay on the ground before him. Petunia looked younger than she probably should have. The last time Sirius had actually seen her face-to-face was in Lily's seventh year of Hogwarts. She looked like she had then and, if he listened to what his mind was trying to tell him, he knew that wasn't quite right.

Vernon was far less defined than his wife. Sirius had seen pictures on the walls of the house in his peripheral vision and had taken what little he gathered from there and the distant image in his memory from when he had seen Vernon that one time before Lily and James had died, standing far away from them and waiting on Petunia, his fiancé at the time. At the moment, Vernon looked little more than an indistinct blob of multi-colored flesh, but in his dreams, Sirius didn't notice and it didn't matter. The screams were real enough.

"What you did to him was inexcusable!" Sirius screamed. Apparently, he had been screaming this a lot, because his throat was unbearably sore. His hand shook as he leveled the wand at the two before him, though from rage or exhaustion, he didn't know. He felt tired in an oddly distant way, but the rage was pure and true.

"You don't deserve to be called human!" Sirius snarled. "You're beasts!" He slashed the wand through the air like a sword and heard their screams turn into howls. Their bodies shifted, bones cracking and breaking and molding into new forms, as fur sprout all over their bodies and they shrank down on all fours, until they were cowering before him, a pair of dogs.

"Curs!" he yelled. He remembered the word with a sick fondness. It was one of his mother's favorite nicknames for him. "Beasts!" He slashed the wand, and again, and again. Growls, snarls of pain, howls of agony, the wand cut shapes into the air and opened bleeding mouths in their bodies until the two had collapsed on the ground. Petunia lay in a panting heap, and for the most part, Sirius left her alone. His attention was on Vernon Dursley, and he slashed the wand again.

A snarl, the man-dog snapped at him, teeth spraying saliva. Sirius parried with the wand, jabbing it forward. A rush of crimson light stabbed Vernon in the throat and he reared back with a long, yelping whine. Sirius slashed the wand over his body, fur flying as crimson gashes appeared across canine flesh, each accentuated by a sharp yelp or whine. Sirius ignored the cries, or perhaps reveled in them, and slashed the wand again and again.

"You're right, of course – Petunia Dursley was negligent in her duties of caring for her nephew. Harry should have been loved and treated as family. That was why I sent him there. They are the last of his relatives and, as such, I thought that they would cherish his presence in the loss of Petunia's sister."

"Well, you were wrong!"

"As I am well aware, Remus, and if I could take it all back, believe me in that I would. Time cannot be reversed." There was a moment of silence. "Don't look at me like that, Remus. You know what I mean. It's dangerous."

"Everything involving Harry seems to be dangerous. Why not do just this one thing, Albus? Just this one time – protect him. Stop it all before it happens."

"I'm sorry, Remus, but I can't do that. I can't risk it. So much has happened, so many things could go wrong. Things are safer in this moment, Remus – safer without changing the past and the future blindly. Things will be all right once Harry wakes up."

"They might not." His voice was a whisper, a plea full of pain. "So much, Albus. He's suffered so much, and how could we not see it?"

"I was blind, my boy. Blinded by… a desire for things to be one way and unwilling to admit they were not."

"I just don't understand… how can someone be so willing to hurt a child? How could Vernon Dursley ever do such a thing to a little boy? And Petunia – I knew she didn't like Lily, but to allocate this kind of abuse? Any abuse!"

In the distance, Sirius heard the conversation go on, but he had stopped listening to it in the background of his punishments. He roared with anger over the body of Dursley, still in canine form. He was more red than grey now, his flesh opened up with pulsing wounds that bled freely. He lay on the ground, legs twitching feebly, a low, fading keen in the back of his throat. He had hurt Harry – beat him – treated him like filth – kicked him – called him awful names – made him think he was worthless – HE WAS A MONSTER!

Sirius whipped the wand, bringing it slashing downward over both Vernon and Petunia, an explosion of light erupting from the tip of it, consuming both of them. There were startled yelps, then screams, and then silence. Sirius' eyes regained focus as the lights faded. Nothing remained but black charred spots on the ground, and the feeling of being relieved that they were gone and disgusted with himself and happy that he had done something to keep those people from ever hurting Harry again.

But who was the monster now that they were gone?

Sirius looked down to find his hands bloody. The wand had vanished – he didn't know or care where to – and his hands were caked in blood and bits of fur. He stared down at them, and chuckled. Of course, who else would be the monster than the freak of the Black Family, who had done everything to avoid being what he had become? Who else? WHO ELSE?

Sirius began to laugh, and as he laughed, he also cried, because there really was no escaping it, was there? He was a monster, and he was mad.

And he laughed, and laughed, and laughed.


The blades of grass had shifted, curving inward, and growing to wrap around his ankles. Harry ducked down to pull at them as they wrapped around his feet, but as he tore at handfuls, more sprouted to replace them, and soon both of his feet were covered in blades of green, green grass – blades which began to crawl up his legs.

"They represent the forces of the Dark Lord Voldemort – the Death Eaters who follow their lord without question, without complaint. They are many, Harry Potter – many and too many for you to survive. They will kill you, Harry Potter, if you stand alone."

The blades had reached his knees and were still growing, still crawling upward. Harry tore at them to no avail. They were so many…

"And you do stand alone."

"Please, let me go!" Harry turned his head frantically, searching for the voice, but there was no one there – no one at all. "Please!"

"I do not hold you, Harry Potter." Sorrow and regret was all the voice revealed – and the tiniest, most insignificant grain of hope. "You hold yourself in a position of defeat, Harry Potter – it is you who stands alone, by your own account. It is you, by your own choices, who will die from these Death Eaters."

The blades curled around his hips, digging deeply and cutting into him. Harry whimpered.

"You have but one option."

He pulled hard on his legs, trying to tear his feet away from the grass's hold. It only succeeded in causing him to lose his balance. Some of the blades of grass tore as he fell backward with an oo

f! landing softly and, much to his surprise, against the trunk of a tree.

The tree that had been steadily growing behind him was now massive, nearly as large as the Whomping Willow. In fact, it was a great deal like the Whomping Willow, with a wide, rough trunk and vines hanging down from the limbs.

The limbs, though, weren't nearly as ugly and bulbous as those of the Whomping Willow. Some, Harry saw, were larger, while others were very thin and didn't look like they'd hold up against a gentle rain. That seemed odd to Harry, that a tree should be so mismatched.

"This is not an ordinary tree, Harry Potter. It is the Tree of Bonds."

"The Tree of Bonds?"

"Yes. It is a tree that rests in the hearts of all living creatures, revealing to those who can see it the bonds they share with others. Friendship, brotherhood, and love. The strongest of bonds are those thickest and hardest to break, while the weaker bonds are thin and can be snapped easily.

"If you wish to defeat these Death Eaters, Harry Potter, and not fall prey to their mass, you must nurture the Tree of Bonds that rests within your own heart. Each branch, each bond, must become thick and strong, for the Tree is there to catch you, Harry Potter, and if you give it strength, it will have strength in return to give."


There were a multitude of things that one had to do as Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Some were more rewarding than others, and a few were simply downright trying. But there were those select few which were incredibly dangerous to perform.

Trying to contain Sirius Black in a room was one of them.

"Let me see my godson!" The former Azkaban-attendee threw himself against the glimmering blue-white shield that encircled him like a dome. The shield pulsed as his body came in contact with it, reacting to the energy that flowed through him, but failed to give at all. Sirius punched and kicked the shield a few times, bursts of blue light exploding at the contact. He screamed in rage. One of the picture frames on the wall erupted into flames. Sirius ignored it.

"Has anyone ever considered the similarities between Sirius and an eight year old child?"

"His bouts of accidental magic during these episodes are certainly rare for someone his age," Dumbledore said, leaning back in his chair and steepling his fingers as he watched the man.

"I wouldn't advise telling him that. I'm sure he'd find a way to use it to his advantage."

Remus and Dumbledore sat in the latter man's office, watching as Sirius fought a futile battle with the shield. The man had fallen asleep from stress-induced exhaustion (and a little help from a drugged cup of tea, courtesy of Madam Pomfrey) in the hospital wing after he'd arrived with Harry. He'd awoken after Madam Pomfrey had returned from her discussion with the headmaster and two professors, and had found himself in the odd position of playing mediator between she and his werewolf friend.

In an effort to shut him up and get Sirius on his side, Remus had told him about the scene he had walked in on. Harry's heart had stopped beating and Snape – Snape! – had been performing CPR on the child! How could anyone dare to have let it come this far? And Dumbledore, who had sent Harry to leave with those monsters, wanted to see Remus right now. Right now, when he was fully intending to never let Harry James Potter out of his sight ever again. The man dared to presume far too much.

But the recount had pulled Sirius to his side, and Remus had turned and stormed out of the hospital wing in a very un-Remus-like manner, though he had done so only after checking on Harry. Content to leave him in Madam Pomfrey's care for a short time, for the boy was doing remarkably better despite the earlier incident, Sirius had followed Remus to Dumbledore's office.

One look at Dumbledore, however, and Sirius passed Remus, storming toward the headmaster with the sole purpose of letting him feel the same pain that Harry had been under. It was Remus' quick actions which stopped the man from punching the headmaster as he had done when they first arrived, angrier than he was now. For his part, Dumbledore hadn't moved to defend himself. He looked quite content to accept his punishment without raising a hand against it. Remus had no doubt that if he had let Sirius continue, Dumbledore would not have held it against him.

Now that Sirius was confined within the dome-shield, the two calmer personalities in the room were permitted to speak.

"You realize this wouldn't be quite as bad if you hadn't told him about Vernon's direct actions in harming Harry?" Remus asked, remembering the conversation that Dumbledore had had with them after they'd arrived with Harry. It hadn't sunk in to Sirius then, Remus could tell, but it apparently had now. He would imagine the nightmares had something to do with that. Sirius had always been overly-prone to them.

"Yes, I'm realizing that now," Dumbledore admitted, some amusement tingeing his voice. "Today seems to be a day of mistakes, however."

Remus glanced over at the old wizard and the wide, dark bruise over the headmaster's eye. He winced at the memory. The headmaster had walked into the hospital wing not ten minutes after they'd brought Harry in and Remus had turned out and simply punched the man in the face. "Albus, I'm sor-"

"Mr. Lupin, if you insist on apologizing, I may be forced to give you detention," Dumbledore said, and his eyes twinkled lightly as he regarded Remus. "In your position, Remus, I fear that I would have done far worse than punching me in the face for my blatant negligence. You withheld yourself admirably, and this is nothing to be overly concerned about."

"You still could have allowed Madam Pomfrey to heal it." The werewolf looked away in shame, despite the elder man's words.

"Poppy has her charge, and he is in far more need than I," Dumbledore admitted. Recalling the discussion back to Harry dampened the mood, and both men sighed.

"I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that the sedative did nothing to calm him down," Dumbledore said, watching as the curtains behind Sirius spontaneously combusted, and the man pushed over a table and started kicking it in a rage. "If his relationship with Severus is anything to go by, Sirius certainly knows how to hold a grudge."

You have no idea, Remus thought quietly. "Still, I think he woke up in a worse mood than when he fell asleep." It really was a pity the drug hadn't kept him asleep longer than a couple of hours. It would have had most people out for nearly eight, but Sirius just had to be difficult.

"It was not a dream-suppressing sedative," Dumbledore said. "I honestly had not thought to give him one, though considering what he had just learned, it should have been foremost on my mind. I've no doubt he had dreams about Vernon Dursley's treatment of Harry. It wouldn't surprise me if there had been a great deal of comparison in his mind, between Vernon Dursley and Sirius' mother."

Remus grimaced, but said nothing. He had come to the same conclusions himself some time ago. Dumbledore began to speak again after a moment.

"I am pleased that Sirius has had someone like you as a friend, Remus. I'm certain that it has made a great deal of difference that someone in his life would care for him. It's good for Harry, too, that you're there for him. He needs someone like you in his life."

Remus sighed, shaking his head. "I haven't done anything for him, really, except for this, and the fact that I waited so long…"

"See, that is where you're mistaken," Dumbledore said with a smile. "Arthur Weasley was not wrong in what he said this morning. Harry trusts you. More, in fact, than he trusts me, though I hadn't cared to look before he brought it up." Dumbledore's face grew solemn. Considering what he had put Harry through by foolishly placing him in the care of his aunt and uncle, Albus could hardly blame the boy at all. "Remus, I have a favor that I feel I must ask of you."

Remus looked at Dumbledore expectantly. "I have made mistakes with Harry, sending him to the Dursleys to live, in hopes that the blood he shares with his aunt and cousin would protect him. I have succeeded in protecting him from Voldemort, but it is clear that Harry must be kept safe from all who would do him harm, and that is something that I regret I had not considered.

"The Will that Lily and James wrote before fears of betrayal caused them to change it named Sirius as Harry's godfather, as you know – something that did not change in the rewritten version. However, with the possibility of something happening to Sirius which kept him from taking care of Harry, the three of them agreed that you were to be named his legal guardian."

"Me?" Remus gaped at the headmaster. "But Albus, you know that law states a werewolf cannot have guardianship over a child!"

"Yes, Remus, I do know the law in that regard. However, it states that a werewolf cannot have sole guardianship of a minor." Dumbledore offered a smile that seemed a little smug.

Remus stared at the headmaster. It was quite clear that he was planning something.

"Because of Sirius' current status in the eyes of the Wizarding World, we can obviously not name him as secondary guardian, or enact the Godfather bond described in the Will." That truly was a pity. "However, the two of you are the best options for guardians of Harry and I can't say I can think of anyone better to have him live with."

"But the law…"

"The law can be dealt with by simply naming a secondary guardian of Harry and having this guardian fill out the proper paperwork stating that his living quarters are with you."

"I don't suppose that you have someone in mind?" Remus asked, smiling softly. The headmaster's manipulations of the law through loopholes never ceased to amaze him, and he was not the first to wonder if Albus Dumbledore was, in fact, a Slytherin.

"Yes, actually, I do. I'm afraid you do not know her, Remus, though I wish I had thought to introduce the two of your beforehand. Elena Morely is an acquaintance of mine who has been performing some errands which I was unable to complete myself, for reasons I am not at liberty to disclose right now. Now that we are getting the old crowd back together, I hope she will accept my invitation to join the Order of the Phoenix. I think she will be a great asset in the war against Voldemort."

"Elena Morely." Remus let the name roll off of his tongue. "I don't recall ever having heard of her. Did she attend Hogwarts?"

"No. Elena did not attend a traditional school. She was apprenticed, for a time, though I will leave the details for her to divulge at her leisure and wish. I believe Elena would be more than happy to sign on as secondary guardian to you. Due to the nature of the law, she would be forced to dwell in the same household as long as the secondary guardian status remains, but I don't think we should have a problem finding a place where you can live comfortably without imposing upon one another too much."

Remus was grinning. He trusted Dumbledore, of course, but he hadn't thought that he would have been able to become guardian of Harry, despite Dumbledore's words. If someone signed on as secondary guardian, though, and lived there with them – it would be legal!

Remus' smile faltered at a thought. "Albus, what about Sirius?" Would the headmaster force Remus' friend to live somewhere else, away from his godson?

"Elena is well aware of the current search to find Sirius," Dumbledore said. "She is also aware of his innocence and that he must remain in hiding. I think Harry will be pleased to have his godfather around, and Elena will keep his existence a secret."

Remus released a sigh of relief. Things were actually looking up. He and Sirius would be able to live with Harry. With a secondary guardian, the Ministry wouldn't be breathing down their necks because of him being a werewolf, and Harry would be safe from his aunt and uncle. Remus just hoped that when Harry woke up, their fears would be unfounded and he would prove to be fine.

"There is one other thing I must tell you about Elena." Dumbledore's words interrupted Remus' thoughts and he turned to look at the headmaster. "Elena has a son who will be moving in with her. He is younger than Harry and will be starting at Hogwarts this year."

Remus was smiling softly. He remembered clearly being an eleven-year-old about to start Hogwarts. He was sure the boy was excited, and incredibly nervous.

"His name is Conan," Dumbledore continued. "I don't imagine his presence there will be an issue, but I did want to bring it up and forewarn you before you agree to Elena signing the documents. Conan is well-behaved but… full of curiosity. He truly enjoys learning."

"Ah." Remus understood what Dumbledore was not saying. The boy was curious, and Remus was a werewolf. It would not be impossible for one to add the pieces of Remus' life together and discover such a fact. Hermione Granger herself had done it when she was thirteen. "Do you think it likely that he will figure it out?"

"I believe it possible that… others will hint toward the truth." Remus frowned at him in some confusion. Dumbledore sighed. "Elena is very open-minded and tries to ensure that Conan is, as well, but the boy looks up to his father greatly and I worry that, in some cases, he will emulate his father's more… unsavory traits in order to please him."

Remus was confused. Was Elena's husband not going to move in with them? "Who is his father?"

Dumbledore seemed to consider, for a moment, whether or not it was wise to answer. Finally, he sighed. "Severus Snape."


"How do I nurture it?"

"Build your bonds, Harry Potter – strengthen the love you have for others and that which others have for you. If you allow yourself to be aware of the Tree of Bonds within your heart, it will show you its brother, who rests in the heart of another. When two Trees of Bonds are nurtured by the heart of another, they may join, and in so doing, shape the other. Magic is from the heart – the soul – Harry Potter, and the Tree of Bonds is your soul. It is your magic."

Harry looked up at his tree. So it had always been here. It hadn't just sprouted from the ground moments before. He had only now just become aware of this magnificent force that dwelled within him, but as he stared up at his tree, he realized that his was not so grand to the studying eye.

The bark that covered the tree was torn off in places, leaving bare spots that occasionally leaked sap. Full branches were bare of vines or leaves. There were some vines that were thick, but many were very thin and some others were snapped in half or off completely. The tree looked… sick.

"The Tree of Bonds is you, Harry Potter. To nurture and heal the Tree within your soul is to nurture and heal yourself. To do so is to find your strength, your hidden power, and yourself. It is planted in your existence, Harry Potter. Help it grow and the Tree – your heart – will never fail you."

The voice whispered away, fading from the world that wasn't a world in which he was in. Harry did not need to see the source of it to know that it was gone. He ignored this for the moment, reaching out to touch the bark of the tree – his Tree of Bonds.

He didn't really understand how a tree could be his soul and be him, and he wasn't sure exactly how he was supposed to nurture it, but he could see that the tree was here, and he could see that it needed his help.

So he would do his best, to nurture it, to help it grow stronger, and maybe the voice – whoever it was – would be right, and he would gain power from that, as well. He knew he would need it for the fight against Voldemort.

Harry knew that he would nurse his Tree of Bonds as best he could, in hopes that it would grant him strength. Perhaps once the Tree was grown, it would give him new abilities.

What he did not expect, however, was to wake up missing two.

Dumbledore was about to continue in what he knew would be a futile attempt to placate an even more enraged Sirius by explaining how Snape could possibly have a wife (and a child!) nobody knew about, and, in Sirius' words, why anyone would want to breed with the snarky bastard. He was about to explain to Sirius – again – that he trusted Severus Snape with his very life and, as he had told Severus himself countless times before, Sirius was foolish to hold a stupid schoolboy grudge even after all these years.

He was about to begin this lecture when the floo flared, and three pairs of eyes turned to see Madam Pomfrey standing just beyond the fireplace, looking both pleased and concerned. She met Dumbledore's eyes when the man looked her way and sighed.

"He's awake."


Malfoys didn't cry.

It was a rule – one of the most important. Do not show weakness to the world – your enemy. No emotion is to be shown. Malfoys didn't cry.

But Draco was crying. He was crying because he was hurting, both inside and out. His left arm was soaked and bloody, his head swimming and eyesight fuzzy, and every muscle, bone, and fiber in his body ached. But he would not move. He stood resolutely, stubbornly, defiantly between his father and the body of his mother. His father had been casting spell after spell – Cutting Jinx, Fire – but Draco couldn't let him do that. He wouldn't let his father mutilate his mother like that. He had to protect her!

She's dead, Drake. A voice whispered the words in his head, soft and sorrowful, but he shook them away. He didn't want to think about that now. He knew it, somewhere deep inside of himself, but he didn't want to think about it. As long as he didn't think about it, some part of it, however small, was surely false.

Lucius Malfoy's rage had progressed to a point that he was beyond words. When Draco had sent a severing hex at his father, Lucius had been startled by the action. He had been distracted, casting spells on the prone body of his dead wife and had not seen Draco appear from wherever he had been hiding. The severing hex had sliced through the skin of his arm from shoulder to elbow, and if Lucius thought about it, he could honestly admit that it hurt quite a lot. Had things been different, he might have been proud of such a powerful spell.

But Draco was clearly a failure. Lucius had made a mistake when telling Narcissa that he only wanted one child. He remembered her revelation, when Draco was still a toddler, that she was pregnant again, and he remembered her tears when she had begged him to let her have a little daughter. Lucius needed a heir and that was all he required. That, and her image, was all that Narcissa was required for, and he would not waste his time on another worthless female in the house. He had sneered at her tears and reminded her of that despicable family… the Weasleys – his eyes narrowed at the very thought. He had disposed of the child before it was spawned, with force enough that such a mistake would never happen again, and that had been what it took to quell Narcissa's whining.

That had clearly been a mistake, however. Draco was weak, he could see now. He always had been. He had too much of his mother in him, and Lucius was disgusted and repulsed by that fact. But he knew how to solve problems such as this.

Tears ran down Draco's face without heed and Lucius' eyes burned in anger. He remembered clearly the last time that he had cried. He'd been six years old and had stolen his father's wand from the man's room, attempting to do magic, despite having been expressly forbidden to enter said room. It had been his grandfather who found him as he sat attempting to levitate a chair.

That was the first time Lucius had ever felt the pain of the Cruciatus Curse. The punishment had been swift, but effective. He had never touched his father's wand again, and after the after effects of that spell wore off, Lucius could not remember ever having cried again.

But here was his son – his son! – who was supposed to have his blood and his strength and his cunning, and he was crying like a schoolgirl – not like a Malfoy. The boy was clearly defective, clearly a mistake, and Lucius would not have his good name ruined.

"Crucio!"

Draco screamed and writhed on the floor, his feet trying to find purchase to push himself away from the attack, but Lucius kept his wand trained on the boy. He reveled in the screams that tore raggedly from Draco's throat – listened to them with the air of a creature that fed on pain. How wonderful, to deliver just desserts to those who he so despised.

He lifted his wand and the screaming stopped. He watched with some interest as Draco dragged himself across the floor. His limbs were still shaking, his arms quivering lightly and keeping him from moving very fast, but the boy was stubborn. It occurred to Lucius, watching the bleeding child pull himself across the red-stained carpet, that Draco was not dragging himself away from Lucius, but rather, toward his mother. He looked at the woman with amusement that he did not allow to show on his face.

Narcissa Malfoy lay on her back where Lucius had left her when he had turned his attention to Draco. Her mouth was parted slightly, as though in preparation to scream, and her eyes were open wide, blue irises glazed in death. Her blonde hair framed her overly-pale features, but blood had seeped around her and begun to absorb into the locks. Lucius had cut great gashes into her body after he had used the Killing Curse on her. Her right arm had nearly been severed from her body and there were great gouges opened in her torso.

Lucius noted, with some irony, that he had gouged a whole chunk of flesh out of her stomach. He must have been thinking about the second child for a moment, though he couldn't quite recall. All he could really remember was the flash of multi-colored lights that came from his wand with each new spell cast. He didn't even remember what all spells he had used, but that didn't really matter. He had enjoyed himself, after all, but it was much more fun when they reacted. He turned his attention back to Draco.

The boy had managed to drag himself to his mother and was now laying, quivering, half over her body, as though to protect her. Lucius couldn't help but sneer at him. A mistake, indeed. Oh well. He would merely have to sacrifice a small amount of money and the papers would tell of such a tragic accident and how distraught he was at their deaths. He would find a new wife – a more beautiful one, he promised himself – and have a new, more worthy heir. It wouldn't take much, after all. He was rich, and women were fickle. He had but to take his pick.

But first… Lucius raised his wand, training it on Draco. He contemplated holding him under the Cruciatus until his mind snapped, but that had always been Bellatrix's favored form of destruction. It was effective, of course, provided one made certain that all mental facilities had been broken to the point that nothing could be gathered from the person once they were found, and that was not a hard thing to do, especially for Bellatrix. She had always been very good at excessive destruction.

But Lucius Malfoy was not Bellatrix Lestrange, and he had never liked loose ends.

He pointed his wand at his son, who lay over the mutilated body of Lucius' wife, clutching her robes as though trying to protect her while begging for protection himself. Lucius sneered.

"Avada-"

The spell that struck him from behind silenced him, and he fell to the floor before he could end the life of the boy who had so dishonored him.

Chapter Text

The Search For Life and Death

VI

The Blame


Severus Snape woke to the sound of a chime echoing from his fireplace, signaling that someone was flooing into his quarters who was allowed through the wards he had placed. As there were only five people keyed into his floo when it was locked, Severus was not overly concerned about who he was having as a visitor. Unless, of course, it was Minerva, finally deciding that things had settled down enough that she could take the time to hex him. That would be very much like her.

But, as it turned out, it was not the Transfiguration professor come to hex him. Nor was it the Headmaster, come for a long talk, or the Mediwitch come to ask him to – to – Severus swiped at his mouth unconsciously. He would lose no sleep should that woman choose to never come near him again.

But the floo had chimed to alert him of its use through the wards, which had such a chime because most people would only lock their floo in certain situations. Severus locked his every night. Apparently, some people who were not keyed into his wards – and every one of them with good reason – found this annoying. Severus sneered at the thought.

The fire in the hearth flared a brilliant green, flashing and billowing like the storm of magic that it was. A tall, thin woman stepped from the flames, a gentle smile on her lips. The smile, however, faded as she caught sight of the half-empty bottle of firewhiskey next to him, and when the fire flared green a second time, the short giggling little boy was halted by a hand on his chest. His laughter stopped immediately.

"Mum?" The little boy looked up at his mother, then over at Severus, who had risen from his chair, and then back to his mother, eyes full of confusion and unspoken questions. The woman kept her palm flat on the little boy's chest, her eyes fixated on the man before her. She looked concerned, anxious, and a little angry. The boy seemed to sense this and took a step backward, looking between the two.

"Conan, go back to the house and get your cloak. I think we'll be going for a walk soon and I don't want you catching cold."

Black hair hanging just to his jawline, the little boy – Conan – ignored the fact that it was the summer and he was about as likely to get cold as he was to see Madam Pomfrey smirk when someone came into her ward injured. He stuffed his hand into the pot on the mantle and threw some of the gathered floo powder into the fire before jumping in and saying clearly, "Morely House." There was a flash of green as the flames ignited with magic and then he disappeared.

With her son gone – and looking to make sure this was so – the woman turned back to face the man before her. Her eyes, a deep, dark chocolate brown, regarded him with a wariness he was not unfamiliar with – one that he hated to see in the eyes of this woman, or anyone he cared about.

"Elena-"

"You've been drinking, Severus."

Closing his eyes, he sighed softly. "Yes." He opened them again to find her watching him. She had come no closer and was well out of reach of him should he lunge for her. Defensive tactics. She'd always been very good and, of course, she had met his father.

"I'm not drunk, Elena." She frowned at him in clear disbelief and he plucked the bottle of firewhiskey from the table beside him, holding it by the neck and swinging it back and forth gently. "I've had two glasses this evening. I think the last time I drank from this bottle was after my… a call I received, at the end of last year."

The call, of course, was the summons he had received on the night when Voldemort returned, during the final task of that ridiculous TriWizard Tournament. He hadn't gone, being unable to get away without too many questioning eyes, but he'd felt the burn and he'd known… and then Dumbledore had revealed what had happened. He'd needed a drink after that feeling and the knowledge that the darkest wizard to grace current times had returned. He'd spelled his floo shut from even Elena that night, not wanting anyone near him. And then he'd gotten himself completely drunk.

It had been one of the stupidest things he'd done in his life. Not the stupidest – there were about three things before it on that list – but idiotic nonetheless. He'd drained an entire bottle of firewhiskey and then started working on a second before he had passed out on the floor of his quarters. Two glasses of firewhiskey warmed and relaxed him, but did little else, but half a bottle was enough to knock a man on his arse. Nearly a bottle and a half that night… well, it was a damn good thing both Madam Pomfrey and Dumbledore could override the wards he placed on his floo. Dumbledore would have been down both a spy and a Potions Master if Madam Pomfrey hadn't come in to check on him.

He remembered, much to his annoyance, that week-long stay at St. Mungo's and the various lectures he had received afterward, from Dumbledore, Madam Pomfrey, and his wife. He still wasn't sure which had been the worst of the three, but he had been able to assure them with pure honesty that he would never go on such a drinking binge again. The sensation of having had one's stomach pumped, even by magic, was, ironically, nauseating.

Severus forced himself to focus and returned his attention to the woman standing before him. Her hair, a dark chestnut brown that glimmered in the torchlight, fell halfway down her back in waves. Her skin was a soft olive tone, the brown eyes that steadily held his face so deep that he might drown in them.

Her posture had relaxed slightly, but her eyes were still wary. Severus couldn't blame her. Elena had met Tobias Snape before the bastard died and had known the kind of man who had raised her husband. Severus himself was not particularly fond of alcohol or of the penchant for allowing it to absorb one's problems. Elena was even less-so, because there was always that danger that he could react to drunkenness in the same manner of his father, and she never – nor did Severus, for that matter – wanted to subject Conan to that cruelty.

"I wish you wouldn't drink, Severus," she said, and she sounded calmer now, if slightly exasperated.

Severus offered her a mildly scathing look, but knew she would recognize the apology that came with it. "I wish I didn't have a reason to." He flicked his fingers, his wand darting into his hand, and quickly banished the bottle and glass. Looking down at himself, he sneered. He hadn't even bothered to change his clothes. How undignified.

Elena, however, ignored his attire. She had stepped forward, carrying herself as she always did – like a cat on the prowl – and curled her arms around his neck as she leaned against him. Her lips touched his neck lightly as she smiled at the sound he made in his throat, a low, pleased growl. "Conan will be back soon," she said, warning him not to get too pleased with her lips. In response, he pulled her tighter against him, eliciting a laugh.

They stood silently, holding onto each other, quite content to remain embracing the other. "What was it that had you so worked up?" Elena asked after a few minutes of silence, and she was disappointed to feel his arms loosen and unwind from around her back. She pulled away from him so he would not have to retreat so far, and found him staring past her with a face of conflicting emotions.

"Severus, what is it?"

"I just… I've learned something about a student I – was not particularly fond of. Something that… changes things." He frowned and his eyes narrowed at the floor. "And I do not want them to," he admitted in a grumbling voice.

Elena was frowning at him in concern. She opened her mouth to ask him something, but at that moment, the fire in the hearth flared green and Conan bounded out with a shrieked, "Daddy!"

Severus let out a gruff "oof!" as the little eleven-year-old slammed into his body full-force, but his hands on the boy's shoulders only did so much – so very, very little – to calm the child. Conan was grinning from ear to ear, a cloak clutched in his hands, bouncing from foot to foot as though he had to go to the loo.

Severus rolled his eyes at the child. "What are you so pleased about?" he demanded.

"Can we go see Professor Dumbledore now, please, Daddy? I really, really, really want to get my letter!" Conan had been pestering the entire staff of Hogwarts for his acceptance letter, hoping that he would be able to get it early and be allowed to read it and, he claimed, frame it in his room. He also wanted to pick out his bed in the Slytherin dorms, but that wouldn't be allowed, of course, since they couldn't be certain that he would be sorted into Slytherin.

But my son will not be a bloody do-good Gryffindor, I'm certain of that, Severus thought waspishly.

"The headmaster is busy at the moment," he said to his son, removing his hands from the boy's shoulders now that he had calmed down some. "We might be able to go see him later." He took in Conan's pout, the lower lip poking out slightly and the lowered eyes. The boy could always get to him, even though he was hardly aware of such a thing. "But I'm fairly certain Minerva is free at the moment. Shall we go bother her?"

"Yes!" Conan yelled happily, throwing his fist into the air. Without hardly a moment's hesitation, he bolted from the room and into the corridors, knowing well his way through the castle.

Severus groaned as he followed, Elena at his side. It felt like an ungodly hour of the morning – no doubt was, considering he had married and somehow spawned an early-riser – he had yet to get a cup of tea, the inside of his mouth tasted absolutely dreadful, and he was wearing the same clothes as he had been yesterday, when…

Severus swiped at his mouth. He could see Elena glanced at him worriedly from beside him, but resolved that they would talk about it later. Now was not the time, when others, especially his son, could overhear.

Still, he could remember the sound of the boy choking on his own blood, the feel of his ribs through his thin skin as he pumped the boy's chest, and the taste of blood on his lips when he had been forced to breathe for the child. He thought about those deep coughs that had sprayed blood over the white hospital sheets.

Flicking his wand, Severus cast another cleaning charm on his robes – was this the fifth or the sixth time since he had returned to his quarters? – and caught Elena's sharply curious look with his own grim glance. "I'll tell you later," he said quietly, as he caught sight of Conan standing in front of a portrait, waiting for them while he conversed with an aged knight. They were discussing jousting tournaments and Severus was quite happy to pull him away before the boy got any ideas.

The three continued down the corridor toward Minerva's office, quite unprepared for what awaited them there.


To be quite honest, Remus Lupin was having a very bad day.

He'd had numerous bad days in the past; they came in abundance when one was a werewolf. Still, even he would admit that he was hard-pressed to find a day that, in the last fourteen years, was quite as bad as this one.

He sat in the Hospital Wing, leaning back in a chair between two occupied beds. He sat closer to Harry's bed, because the boy was a child and the one in serious danger here, but he continued to cast glances across to the other bed. A child lay unconscious in that one, too, even if he was only a child in his immature mind.

Ah, Sirius, you're far too impulsive.

Poor Albus. The headmaster had not only been punched by a werewolf, but also hexed, quite extravagantly, by an ex-Auror – and Sirius, everyone knew, had always been one of the best. Remus felt bad for hitting the Headmaster – it had been done in a moment of emotional upheaval, his heart so weighed down by fear and pain that the only way he was able to escape such drowning emotions was to submit to his rage, which burned and rose free of such a despairing pit.

He hated that he was so easily able to turn to rage. He had tried so hard when he was younger, particularly at school and surrounded by other kids, to control his emotions. Children could be so cruel, and it was an intentional cruelty that would break the hearts of those who truly valued innocence and peace, though few of them remained, as well. Albus Dumbledore was one of them, he knew, and he wondered if Remus having lost his temper – losing his temper, not punching the man – had wounded the headmaster's heart. He suspected so, but still, he hoped not.

Remus sighed and reached out to brush back Harry's hair, displaying the lightning bolt scar for a moment before the feral fringe fell back over his forehead. He had often envied the other students when he was young, so open with their emotions – too easily displaying anger and love and aggravation and happiness. For them, there were no repercussions with the release. They could be angry and yell and hex someone's hair blue, and then everything would be fine later.

When Remus got angry, people got hurt. He remembered once, in grade school at the age of nine, a girl had teased him because of his shabby clothes and tendency to turn to books instead of people. He had done his best to ignore her, as he always did, but he had failed to contain the anger when the girl called his mother an awful word he had never dared to repeat, even to defend himself to a teacher. He remembered only the rage at the girl's cruel-intentioned words, and then the feeling of her skin peeling beneath his hand as fingernails dug into her flesh and tore gouges from her cheek.

He'd seen her a few times over the years, though she failed to recognize him, so much time had passed between them. He imagined he might not have recognized her, either, but for her face. There were still four scars that slashed down her cheek, almost silver – deep and hideous. They would never heal, of course, though she was safe from the Lycanthropic curse. He was grateful that he could not pass that through his claws like he could his teeth, even when human. If all she ended up with was a liking for bloody steak, there was little harm in that.

Still, she might have grown up to be quite beautiful, if not for that incident, and though she was cruel then and would no doubt have remained so, Remus still blamed himself for the death of that child's future. He had taken it from her in his rage, and so he knew, quite well from experience, that he dared not let the rage free.

But he still failed. Sometimes the rage got loose, the anger took over, and someone got hurt.

Dumbledore this time. Dumbledore, who had argued the Wizengamot to allow Remus, a child lycanthrope, to attend Hogwarts. Dumbledore, who had adjusted the landscape of the magical property to plant a tree that was a spirit of war in a place that had known peace for centuries. Dumbledore, who most certainly knew of the goings-on of the Gryffindor boys and who had done nothing to stop, to punish these foolish, irresponsible, stupid children.

Remus could never repay him for his kindness. He could only hurt him for it, because he was a werewolf.

"Mister Lupin, if you do not stop brooding, I will sedate you, as well."

"Do you have anything chocolate flavored?" The words were out of his mouth before he could actually think of all the reasons not to say it. The moment he registered the question – sarcastic as it was – he brought his hand to his head and seemed to curl into himself on the chair, uttering a shaky curse.

"Remus." He felt a hand, thin and delicate, on his arm and he shuddered at the touch. Of course, Madam Pomfrey understood. She had heard that question asked of her every time she'd threatened him with some medicinal concoction throughout school, for whatever health hazard he was suffering that week. It wasn't always he that said it; sometimes, Sirius copped it off with that devil-may-care-and-you-know-you-love-me grin, winking at her, or James Potter had said it, flashing her an innocent expression that could always melt even McGonagall's heart. It was James that had come up with the phrase to begin with, once they had all grown quite used to Remus' obsession with chocolate. It was said all in fun (and perhaps a little hope that the potions might gain some flavor other than vomitus), but neither of them had heard it since the death of James and Lily Potter, years ago.

"I'm sorry," Remus said. His voice was soft, spoken in little more than a whisper, but that did not hide the strangled note within it, and Madam Pomfrey could feel him shivering beneath her hand.

"Remus, hush now." Her other hand clasped around his forearm as she crouched next to him. "There is nothing at all for you to apologize for, least of all the words of a memory that brings me both pain and joy. Other than the fact that you depleted my stores of potions and were injured, I enjoyed both your company and the constant banter, I assure you. It gives me no small amount of happiness to know that you recall those words as easily as I do."

Remus still had a hand over his eyes, tears having leaked through his fingers, but he was listening to her. He knew without having to ask that the company she enjoyed had not been his alone, but his friends, as well. That was… good – nice to know.

"Thank you," he whispered.

It was sometimes hard for Remus, to be around Harry. It did not have anything to do with the boy himself but was, rather, a failure on Remus' part. He would readily admit to missing Lily and James, to crying over their loss, to remembering fondly the good times they spent together. But though he had grieved over their deaths, he had never quite put it behind him.

This was, in all likelihood, Peter's fault.

Remus had spent more than a decade of his life thinking that one friend had betrayed him, one had died defending their honor, and two others had been murdered. For so long, he had thought that Sirius was a murderer and Peter a martyr in the disguise of a coward all these years. He had been wrong, though – they had all been wrong, tricked. Peter had always been a coward and Sirius… Sirius had always been loyal. He had doubted him again.

Harry's presence, his appearance, his age, was a reminder of the time that had been wasted believing lives. A reminder that he had spent fourteen years mourning the loss of a traitor and hating a brave and innocent man trapped in a mortal hell. He had lived fourteen years of his life in darkness and he remembered this all too clearly when things got bad, but was reminded of everything that he missed out on when Harry was near.

If only he hadn't been so foolish, he could have given Harry the chance at a better life.

"Remus."

"I'm all right, Madam Pomfrey." Remus pulled his hand away from his eyes and cleared his throat lightly, sitting up straight in the seat. He sighed lightly and touched Harry's hand gently, before turning to face the medi-witch.

She looked tired, her face pale and drawn, with dark bags under her eyes and a weary glaze to her eyes. Remus had felt the magic of the spell she'd used to heal Harry, to save the boy's life. It was a summoning spell – one that channeled the power of the gods themselves. It would make any caster weary, though it was a wonder she was still on her feet. Someone else should be here to substitute her position and let her sleep. Perhaps he should stop being so foolish and allow her to rest.

She was still crouched next to him, looking concerned, her hand wrapped around his arm. He offered her an apologetic smile to try and reassure her. "Regrets," he murmured, by way of explanation.

Her face softened lightly. "Things will be all right, Mister Lupin. Have faith in that." She patted his hand gently as she rose to her feet, before striding back to her office and leave him in peaceful solitude.

Remus leaned back in the chair with a sigh and looked back and forth between the two boys he loved, lying in beds. Harry was… okay.

He had been healed of all truly dangerous physical injuries. He still had bruises and some of his bones were still tender, but his ribs were healed and he seemed to be breathing fine. It was the starvation that had Remus concerned. Madam Pomfrey had used her summoning to heal the majority of the damage, that which was the most deadly. At the time, it was all she had been able to do. Had she had more time, Remus knew she would have focused Aceso's magic on specific areas. With Harry... with the state that Harry had been in, she hadn't had more than a few seconds to send the magic in to fix what was causing the problem. 

Harry had been dying. For a moment... for a moment he had been gone. So long as that was fixed and the damage that threatened that state healed, the rest could be fixed in time. Remus knew this. He still found himself wishing that something could be done, however, to better heal the child. Harry's ribs were still terrifyingly visible through his skin, his arms were still so thin, and his eyes were sunken in. He looked, Remus was forced to admit, not much better off than Sirius had looked that first time Remus had seen him since escaping Azkaban. 

Sirius, however, had been better-fed. Not by much, no, as the guards often "forgot" to feed the prisoners on occasion. Sirius, however, had not been suffering starvation ketosis when Remus walked in and found him lying on the floor of the Shrieking Shack. From what Sirius had told him of that time, he had been malnourished, yes, without a doubt, but he did not think starvation had come into it. Madam Pomfrey would have been able to say for certain with a aged diagnostic scan, of course, but Remus didn't care to bother her. 

Remus reached out and gently placed his hand flat against Harry's sternum. He took comfort from the feeling of his chest rising and falling with each breath, and the steady beating of his heart. He did not know if he would ever get the memory of what he had seen out of his head; the vision of stepping into the hospital wing to find Severus performing CPR on Harry – the sound of the boy's ribs breaking beneath Snape's ministrations. Remus had no doubts that it would haunt him until the end of his days, but he was still grateful to Snape. He still owed him… so much.

And still they were asking more of him.

Sirius didn't like the idea at all, of them signing a secondary guardianship with Snape's wife, and he had made his opinion quite well-known when he'd hexed the headmaster for even suggesting it, but Remus knew it was a good idea. It was a good idea and he was definitely considering it, but there were things that needed to be done first – other things that were more important.

Harry. Harry was more important.

And Harry couldn't speak, or hear.

That had been the second most devastating part of Harry waking up. The first had been the tremors.

Biting back a sob, Remus put his face in his hands. It was one thing for the poor boy to be unable to hear and speak because of the trauma he had suffered at the hands of his uncle, but he shook – his hands quaked no matter what, his vision was clearly blurred – his glasses did not do as well as they should. Clear signs. Clear signs.

Dementia Pugilistica.

Of all things, they had hoped – oh had they hoped. But it looked hopeless now. He had the tremors, the diminished eyesight, and he couldn't speak or hear. How long before he was unable to walk on his own? How long before he gave up, like another boy Remus had once known? How long before Remus' life began to crumble anew, now that he had just found it again?

Life, it seemed, was always so cruel to those who least deserved her ire.


Dear Ron,

I wish I had more to tell you, but I'm afraid I know probably even less than you where Harry is concerned. I had – well, I'm not sure you can call it a nightmare, as I don't remember the dream, but it felt like something was terribly wrong and I was worried about Harry, so I couldn't stay at home and just do nothing. I flooed to Professor Dumbledore's office and I did see your dad there, and Professor Lupin, as well.

We talked and I have to admit, I was surprised when your dad agreed with me. I didn't know that he felt the way he said he did, but the headmaster was convinced enough to allow Remus to take Snuffles and go check on Harry.

I had a cold, so I was at the hospital wing for a little while so Madam Pomfrey could check me over, but once my fever had gone down, they sent me home. I wish I had stayed – honestly, I hadn't even thought of it until after I got home. I had other things on my mind, but I'd rather like to think them over first before sharing them.

I don't suppose your dad would know anything more about what happened? I imagine Professor Dumbledore would be more likely to tell an adult what was going on than us, even if we probably do know Harry better.

Professor Lupin did seem adamant in checking on Harry. He was very worried after what I told him I knew and I think he would have gone even if the headmaster had said he wasn't allowed to. I'm sure he's already been to the Dursleys and spoken to Harry. Maybe they even managed to convince Professor Dumbledore to let Harry leave early this year. I know he'd love it if he could spend some time with your family this summer, Ron, before school starts up again. He'll need it, after last year.

I really wish I knew more and could be more helpful. I should have asked to stay at Hogwarts until Professor Lupin returned. I thought about sending him a letter, but I'm not sure that's right and I think if anything was wrong, Professor Lupin, at least, would let us know. He knows Harry's our best friend.

If you learn anything, Ron, let me know. Maybe I can convince my parents to let me come over sometime this summer, before school starts.

Hermione

Ron put down the letter that Hermione had written him and ran his fingers through his hair, groaning in irritation. She didn't know anything, either!

Ron had asked his dad, but Mr. Weasley hadn't lingered at Hogwarts once he knew someone was going to check on Harry. Ron knew his father had been worried about him and, in some ways, he was grateful for this. Well, in all ways, he was grateful, but he was worried about Harry and he hated being worried for his friend, who seemed to attract trouble no matter what he did to avoid it.

Pulling a blank piece of parchment out from under a stack of schoolbooks, the edges slightly torn, Ron dipped his quill in his ink bottle and began to write a letter back to Hermione. Pigwidgeon, who looked quite pleased about being trusted to mail letters, was flitting about the room, only perching for a moment on various places before zooming about again. Ron did his best to ignore him as he wrote.

Hermione,

Dad didn't stick around long after knowing Professor Lupin was going to check on Harry, and he came back home. I asked him, but he says he hasn't heard anything about Harry. No news is good news, though, right?

Ron grimaced. Maybe some people believed that, but when it came to Harry, the best way to keep him from getting hurt was to keep him in your sight, and that hardly did anything to help. No news was just aggravating and terrifying when it came to Harry and Ron hoped he learned something soon. And he hoped that Harry was all right.

I'll ask Dad if maybe he can talk to Professor Lupin and ask how Harry is doing. I don't know what phase of the moon it is. Maybe Professor Lupin's busy being… furry, you know.

That sounded like a horrible way to try and be discreet about Professor Lupin being a werewolf, but he didn't really want to spend a lot of time coming up with some silly codeword Hermione wouldn't get anyway, so he ignored the temptation to do such a thing.

And I'll ask Mum and Dad if you can come over. I think Ginny misses having another girl around the house, though she's been hanging out with Loony Lovegood, this weird girl who lives down the road. I think she's strange, but don't tell Ginny I told you that. She punched me in the arm last time I said it and I'm really hoping she forgets about saying she's gonna bat-bogey hex me once we're back in school.

Anyway, I'll send Pig if I hear anything.

Ron

Folding up his letter, he tied it to an anxious Pigwidgeon's legs before sending the stupid bird off to Hermione. Huffing, he sat with his head propped on his hand for a while before shoving a book off of the stack onto the desk in front of him. He wished someone would just come and let him know what was going on. He was worried about Harry and, although they tried to hide it, he knew his parents were, too.

Sighing, Ron opened his book to a random page and groaned. "Potions," he muttered, glaring at the fourth year text as though it was the cause of all of his problems. Grimacing, he settled his elbows on either side of the books and propped his head up as he began to read.

He hated Potions – hated them and intended to stop taking them as soon as he was able to. From what his older brothers had said, he would need NEWT level Potions to become an Auror, so it looked like that career was out. He would just have to find something else to aspire to.

Out of the corner of his eye, Ron caught a glimpse of his Divination book and snorted loudly. He was having dreams about his best friend being in danger, and now people were going to check on the boy to make sure everything was all right. Ron should have thought of this before. Divination was total hippogriff turds! So, of course, Harry would be just fine, or Ron would just have to take up a career as a Seer.

The youngest Weasley son smirked at his Potions text, for a moment completely forgetting about his worry. Oh, Hermione would totally hex him for that, and Ron couldn't wait to tell her. Maybe she'd let him off easy if he predicted Trelawny's death – crushed by a crystal ball. Ron chuckled to himself, thinking about Hermione's reaction. Definitely worth a possible hex.

A few minutes later, all of his mirth faded when the floo brought a grim-faced messenger, and bad news.

Chapter Text

The Search For Life and Death

VII

The Plan


Albus Dumbledore sat alone in his office for the first time since Harry had been brought to Hogwarts. The solitude, as momentary as it was, offered him a small relief from the position he constantly had to play. Alone in his office but for the crimson bird sitting quietly in the corner, the headmaster of Hogwarts leaned forward in his chair and groaned as he buried his face in his hands.

It was almost impossible to believe that he'd been complaining the previous week of having too much to do. Compared to this week, those tasks had been a cakewalk. Now, on top of trying to convince the Minister of Magic that Voldemort had returned, fighting off reporters that were constantly begging for his comments, and preparing for a new school year (which included finding a new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor), he had a swath of new chores. He needed to find an appropriate place for Sirius and Remus to live with Harry, talk to Elena about signing as Harry's secondary guardian, search for cures for Harry's unfortunate loss of hearing and speech, and make adjustments to the school to accommodate these problems.

At least finding a new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor is no longer a problem, Dumbledore thought, though he wasn't particularly pleased about the choice that had been made. Extremely displeased with how Dumbledore continued to try and convince him of Voldemort's return, Cornelius Fudge had stepped in and assigned Hogwarts a new professor. Dolores Umbridge. Dumbledore had the unfortunate experience of having met the woman some time ago. To this day he rather loathed the color pink.

"There's nothing for it, I suppose." Dumbledore leaned back in his chair and gazed at the phoenix in the corner as the large bird cleaned his feathers. "You're quite lucky, my dear friend. You need only sit on your perch and relax as the rest of us rush around, searching for ways to salvage what's left of the world."

Fawkes raised his head from his preening and stared at Dumbledore with keen eyes. The phoenix let out a trill that sounded much more like a scoff than anything and turned on his perch until his back was facing Dumbledore, as though he had found the comment insulting. Dumbledore raised his eyebrows in surprise, but Fawkes gave him no mind and turned back to preening himself.

Dumbledore was left in a moment of startled confusion, before he turned slowly back to the papers on his desk. He had received another letter from the goblins at Gringotts that stated, in no uncertain terms, that he was to shut up about the Black Family mansion. According to Walburga Black's will, the Black Family Mansion was to go to Regulus Black or, should he be unable to take it, to the descendents of either him or Sirius Black. Regulus had, of course, died some years ago and had left no children, and Walburga had left nothing to Sirius, as he had been wiped off of the family tree. If Sirius were legally and officially Harry's guardian, there would be no issue, because Harry would be considered a descendent of Sirius even though they weren't related by blood. However, Sirius was a fugitive and because he could not claim Harry, the mansion was unavailable for their use. Dumbledore had been trying to convince the goblins, but he had apparently overstepped his boundaries and insulted them, which had been the least of his intentions. He would not attempt to convince them again. Goblins could be ruthless and Dumbledore did not want to anger the creatures that the Wizarding World so often relied upon.

He was reluctant to admit it, but it seemed that his only choice in the matter would be to allow Sirius, Remus, and Harry to live at 12 Grimmauld Place. He had been trying to avoid this for two reasons. The first, of course, was because Sirius was a wanted criminal and not all members of the Order of the Phoenix knew about his innocence. If they lived at Grimmauld Place, Sirius would be forced to hide within his own home during Order meetings.

The second reason was because Dumbledore knew how much Sirius hated Grimmauld Place and how he despised being confined in the home that had been such a painful place as a child. He had wanted to try and make up for his recent (and not so recent) mistakes by giving him the pleasure of being away from that memory, but it appears he would fail at yet another thing in this life.

Sighing wearily, Dumbledore massaged his temples and winced at he pressed too hard against a drooping boil over his left eye. He wondered if Sirius would hex him again when he told him the bad news.

Feeling the greenish-yellow pus gush suddenly out of a shivering boil on the tip of his nose, Dumbledore desperately hoped not.


Ginny sighed for what was probably the third time in two minutes and tried to focus on the book she was reading. She was sitting cross-egged in the grass near the pond at the edge of their property, with Ron's fourth year Potions book resting in her lap. Beside her, a blonde-haired girl lay on her back in the tall grass, eyes gazing with unfocused attention up at the sky.

"You really should tell him you like him, you know."

Ginny startled, turning to look at her friend. The girl's blue eyes were still staring up at the sky. She had one hand lying on her stomach, while the other twirled a few strands of grass between her fingers. Ginny swallowed before speaking. "Tell who?" she managed to squeak.

"Harry Potter." It wasn't spoken in an exasperated tone or a sarcastic drawl, as one might expect. Rather, the blonde said it in a manner that suggested she expected Ginny did not know that she liked Harry Potter, and this young girl was doing her a favor by letting her know that she did.

"Why do you think I like him?" Ginny asked nervously, forgetting about the book in her lap. Her attention was completely focused on Luna, who continued to study the clouds as if there were nothing more interesting in the world.

"Since we have stopped talking about him, you've been staring ahead as though you're not thinking. I might have thought that a colony of Wrackspurts have made a nest in your head, but I don't sense any around, so you must be thinking of Harry Potter." The young girl blinked as a cloud above her was blown into a new form by the wind and lost interest in it. She turned her head to look at Ginny curiously.

Ginny shrugged, though she refused to look at Luna, the blush that arched across her cheeks reaching to the tips of her ears. "I don't really see the point in saying anything. He wouldn't like me like that."

Ginny waited for a reply, but after a while, it became apparent that Luna wasn't going to say anything. Ginny returned to the book in her lap and didn't pay much attention as Luna got to her feet and looked across the pond, humming lightly and singing too low for the words to be clear. Not a moment later, Ginny looked up when Mrs. Weasley called from the house.

"Ginny, dear! I need you to come inside!"

"I'll be right there, Mum!" Ginny turned back to her companion. "Do you want to come inside, Luna? I'm sure Mum would love to have you for dinner."

"No. Dad wouldn't like it very much if I let myself get eaten by your mum."

Ginny blinked at her for a moment, before pursing her lips in an attempt to not laugh. Instead, she smiled at Luna. "Okay, Luna. Well, I'll see you later, then."

"Oh yes," Luna said, and smiled wistfully. Turning, she skipped across the grass toward the road, only to stop after a few feet and turn around. Ginny's attention was still focused on the unusual blonde-haired girl. "You should tell Harry Potter that you like him," Luna said abruptly, and Ginny was surprised to see that her normally-clouded blue eyes were quite clear. "He's going to need you soon."

Luna blinked then, and the clouds seemed to return to obscure her eyes. She offered Ginny a wistful smile as she turned and continued skipping back toward the road and home.

After watching her for a moment, Ginny headed up toward the house to see what Mrs. Weasley wanted. She was surprised to step into the house to find Fred, George, Ron, and her parents standing in the living room, along with the Deputy Headmistress of Hogwarts.

"Ah, Ginny, there you are, dear." Mrs. Weasley hurried over to smooth Ginny's hair. She hugged the girl tight, as though offering comfort.

Ginny looked to her professor, finding that the woman's face was grave. "Professor McGonagall?" she asked quietly.

"Hello, Miss Weasley. I was just asking your mother to get everyone together. I have something I need to talk to you about."

Ginny frowned at the woman. Professor McGonagall always looked stern, but right now, that was overshadowed by a grim expression that made Ginny feel unwell. She glanced over at her brothers to find Fred and George muttering over a parchment, and Ron sitting on the couch beside them, looking at McGonagall as though she'd just told him that Pidwidgeon was eaten by a giant spider.

Mr. Weasley came into the room, moving over to put his arm around his wife's waist, and McGonagall nodded to note that they were all present. "Very well, then. Arthur, you recently spoke to the headmaster about Mr. Potter."

Arthur nodded, his face going grim at the memory being brought up. "I did. Ron here," he motioned toward Ron, "had a very distressing nightmare and I knew I'd feel better to know that Harry had been checked on, just in case. He's like one of the family, you know."

McGonagall nodded. "The headmaster did send someone to check on Harry. They've recovered him from his relatives' home and brought him to Hogwarts."

"Is Harry all right, Professor?" Ginny asked, looking at McGonagall. She had been staring at Ron's face, which had gone very pale. The boy's hands had clenched into fists around the cloth of his pants and he was staring wide-eyed at some point in front of him.

"Mr. Potter is… in the Hospital Wing, Miss Weasley. Madam Pomfrey is taking care of him."

"The Hospital Wing? Oh, is the poor dear all right? What happened?"

McGonagall looked uncomfortable. "I'm afraid Harry was injured when he was discovered at the Dursleys', Molly. His injuries were rather severe." McGonagall refused to admit how severe. There was no way she wanted to be the one to break that bombshell open for Molly Weasley. "He has been under constant supervision since, but he's spent most of his time unconscious."

"Can we see him?"

The question cut the end off of McGonagall's words, and she turned to Ron in surprise. Molly opened her mouth to rebuke her son for interrupting his professor, but Arthur put his hand on her shoulder to stop her. She closed her mouth slowly.

"I'm not sure if that is well-advised, Mr. Weasley," McGonagall admitted.

Ron still hadn't looked at her, but was staring straight ahead, eyes wide, fists clenched so tightly his knuckles were bloodless. As she watched, he swallowed a few times around a tight jaw, looking as though he was gathering his nerve up about something. He raised his head with a jerky motion, finally meeting her eyes. She was taken aback by his haunted gaze, but didn't say anything.

"I want to see him, Professor," Ron said, sounding like he was forcing the words out around a compulsion for silence. "I need to know that he's – he's okay."

You need to know that he's alive, don't you, Ron? Ginny was looking at her brother again and his eyes scared her. His face scared her and so did his words. He was frightened and she didn't know why. She knew he'd had a nightmare, but not that it was about anything but Harry, and though she wished she knew what it was about, she was very glad she didn't.

She looked away from Ron with some relief and turned her eyes to her professor. "Please, Professor McGonagall?" She bit her lip when her Head of House looked at her. "I'm worried, Professor."

"I know you are, Miss Weasley," McGonagall said softly. "I'll see what I can do."


"Headmaster? Are you there?"

Dumbledore wandered over to the fireplace, where he found the head of Kingsley Shacklebolt poking out of the coals. "Auror Shacklebolt, what a pleasant surprise!" It was quite a surprise, actually, as Dumbledore knew Kingsley was currently working and, therefore, on Ministry time. "Would you like to come through?"

"If you have a moment, Headmaster." Dumbledore stepped away from the fire and a moment later, Kingsley stepped through a burst of green flames. He looked at Dumbledore with a grim face and nodded at the walls. Dumbledore waved his hand and a privacy bubble appeared around the both of them, shielding their conversation from being overhead by anyone.

"What is it, Kingsley?" Dumbledore asked, stepping closer to the agitated man.

The auror sank into a chair and rubbed his face. "I've just come from St. Mungo's, Albus," Kingsley said, and looked up at the headmaster. "Lucius Malfoy did a number on his boy."

"Draco?" Dumbledore asked, raising his eyebrows in surprise. "How bad is he?"

"Bad, Albus." Kingsley shook his head and rubbed his face tiredly. "I'm honestly surprised the damn kid is alive. He didn't seem that bad off at first, but then I got a better look at him. Lucius gave him a lot for being so stubborn, but the boy was brave."

"Tell me what happened, Kingsley."

"None of us are stupid enough to think that Lucius Malfoy isn't on the top of the list of those helping the Dark Lord back into power, so I figured that scoping out his mansion wouldn't be a bad idea. If Fudge questions me about it, I figured I would just tell him I wanted to make sure that one of the Ministry's most prominent figures wasn't in danger from those who believed what you had been saying about the Dark Lord, and remembered that Malfoy had once been a Death Eater, even if he did get off on the Imperius excuse."

Dumbledore nodded, so Kingsley continued. "I sniffed around the property for a bit, but it looked pretty quiet. I figure wherever the Dark Lord is, he isn't using the Malfoy Mansion – at least not yet. I was about to leave when I heard someone screaming, and I went to check it out. It was inside the mansion, of course, but the screams were so loud, I'm not sure I would have been heard if I'd banged on the door."

He shook his head for a moment, gathering himself. "I found Lucius Malfoy casting the Cruciatus – and that's just for starters – on his son. He was casting a bunch of other spells – a severing charm, burning hex, and acid blood spell, once, I think. Draco-" Kingsley rubbed his forehead. "The boy was covering Narcissa with his own body, trying to protect her. She'd already been killed, and mutilated on top of it. Lucius was trying to get to her, to do more, I guess, but Draco was blocking him, so he was taking his frustration out on the boy.

"I stunned Lucius. I thought about killing him, but when it all comes down, I want him there, under Veritaserum, to admit to everything. I don't care if they kill him then, have the Dementors Kiss him, or toss him into that ruddy Veil. Damn it all, I'll kill him myself if I have to, when the time comes, but I want his crimes to come out of his own mouth before this is all through, so I stunned him. I got a good look at Draco then and I couldn't stick around and wait for backup. I incarcerated Lucius and called Tonks, and then I Apparated to St. Mungo's as soon as I was outside the wards."

"And Lucius?"

Kingsley sighed and fell back in the chair. "Escaped. I imagine he had help. Tonks got there less than five minutes after me, but when I talked to her, she said no one was there when she arrived. I've no doubt he's kissing the Dark Lord's boots as we speak. He left his wife's body behind, though. I figure we can do good by her, at least."

Dumbledore nodded, leaning back against his desk with a pensive expression. "Who is with Draco at the moment?"

"I have Tonks watching over him. I don't trust word not to leak out about him being there unless someone's there to keep an eye on things, and even then. Tonks'll make sure he doesn't get any visitors." He studied Dumbledore's pensive expression for a moment. "What'll we do about him?"

"I'll have to let his godfather know, if he hasn't already received a message, though I doubt he has. I don't think Lucius Malfoy could be considered a very good parental figure before this, so I see no reason why a notice should be sent out now. Have the healers revealed anything about his well-being?"

"He's still pretty bad off, but they had him stabilized before I left. I wanted to make sure, before I left Tonks alone. The healers have done a good job, but there are some things they've said they can't fix."

Dumbledore frowned. "His mind…"

"The Cruciatus certainly didn't do him any favors, but they didn't see anything wrong with his mind while diagnosing him. One of the spells Lucius used caught his face, though. He'll be blind in one eye for the rest of his life. They say all of the nerves have been severed beyond repair, and I imagine he'll be badly scarred. I don't know about anything else for certain."

Dumbledore nodded and sighed. "I have a meeting with Snape already, so I'll let him know about Draco in a few moments." He looked at the auror, who was unsurprised by the identity of Draco's godfather. "Thank you, Kingsley."

Kingsley bowed his head slightly and stood. "Of course, Albus." He shook the headmaster's hand. "My shift will be over soon. I'll probably keep an eye on Draco after that. I don't want his dad popping in to finish the job." He grimaced. "Let me know where you'll want him moved. I'll handle it."

"We'll be moving him to Headquarters, actually."

Kingsley did look surprised this time. "I thought our furry inmate was going to be spending his holiday there?"

"He is," Dumbledore admitted, not all that happy at his mind being turned back to Sirius, "and so is Draco's godfather. I promise I'll explain more later," he said, at Kingsley's confused look. "Keep an eye on Draco for me."

"Two eyes," Kingsley said, "and maybe even Moody's, if he's available." He nodded. "Good day, Albus."

"Kingsley." The whoosh of the fireplace pulled Kingsley from the room and Dumbledore sank down into his chair. Fawkes trilled reassuringly from the corner of the room, but Dumbledore merely leaned over the desk and placed his head in his hands.


Harry opened his eyes, the room around him dimmed by the night. He blinked slowly, trying to find something familiar in the blur that was his vision. He could smell the sharp tang of disinfectant and knew he was in the Hospital Wing, just as he had been when he awoke the first time. Like the first time, there was a vacuous sensation around his ears – not silence, but rather, no sound at all penetrated his mind. It was disorienting, but he did not allow it to send him flying into a panic as it had before.

He continued to lie on the bed, his fingers clutching the blanket that covered him, and stared up at the ceiling. There was blurry darkness and he wished he could hear if someone else was breathing nearby, but there was simply nothing.

Harry opened his mouth and tried to speak. He moved his lips and tongue just like he would have to call "Hello." It felt no different from when he usually spoke, except for a lack of vibration in his throat that he had never truly noticed before. He couldn't hear that there was no sound coming from his lips, but then he couldn't hear.

Disorienting. And confusing. He didn't really understand what had happened to leave him in this condition. He hadn't been able to get a lot out of Sirius and Remus. They didn't take the revelation of his loss of hearing and speech very well at all.

Harry glanced down at his fingers as he entwined them over his chest. His hands were shaking still, as they had been the first time that he woke up. Admittedly, he still wasn't feeling very well. He was sore all over, as though he had just played an incredibly grueling game of Quidditch, but his chest ached with a strange ferocity. Harry tried to ignore it and think about other things, like the fact that he was at Hogwarts now and he didn't know the date. Of course, thinking about Hogwarts got him thinking about why he was there and that made him think about how he got there, and then he was back to wondering exactly what had happened to make him ache like he did. Did his uncle really do that much damage?

His quivering fingers tightened over the blankets as he thought about Privet Drive and everything he had left behind. There had been no love lost between him and his relatives when he was taken from that house, he was sure, but his trunk was there, his schoolbooks and invisibility cloak and his wand.

And Hedwig.

Hedwig was probably still in that cage, covered in blood. Harry wasn't concerned about the smell her body might be making or the mess that might have occurred. Hedwig was his second friend and had always been his best friend. She didn't deserve to just lie in the bottom of her cage in his room – a place that had always been without love. She deserved a proper burial, somewhere clear and beautiful – a place filled with love, because he had loved her so very, very much.

Harry couldn't hear himself sniffle, but he could feel the tickling of hot tears as they rolled down over his ears. His throat got thick and his nose stuffy and he clenched his teeth together tightly to try and stifle the tears, but they wouldn't back down.

Hedwig was gone. She was gone, and it was more than that Harry had killed her. That in itself was bad enough, but she was gone and he wasn't quite sure what he would do without her. He loved her and part of him wanted to believe that little lie in the back of his mind that he'd had a nightmare about her and she would fly over to him the next time he stepped into the owlery and nip his ear to admonish him for not visiting her enough. He wanted to believe that little lie, he really did, but he remembered the feel of her going limp in his hands as he buried the knife in her heart. He had tried to free her from the pain of dying one day at a time from starvation and maybe he had succeeded – maybe. But then, he was here, alive, and she was not.

If he had waited just another day, someone could have rescued her, too. She needn't have died.

Harry's sniffed again. He saw a shadow to his left move and figured he had woken someone with his crying. Squeezing his eyes shut, he rolled over onto his side and buried his face into the pillow.

He was at Hogwarts. He'd survived the Dursleys. But now he couldn't speak and he couldn't hear and Hedwig was gone.

It just wasn't right.


Remus sighed as Harry rolled over, away from him. He could tell that the boy was crying, but it was clear that he wanted to do so without the acknowledgment of others, so Remus leaned back in his chair and sighed. It occurred to him that he could sigh as loudly as he wanted and Harry would never hear.

He bit back something at that thought – a sob or a scream, he wasn't sure.

"Moony?"

Remus glanced at the bed across from Harry's, where Sirius was sitting up. He could see the Animagus in the darkness, blinking blearily, his hair tousled wildly. He seemed to be gathering his wits rather quickly, so Remus called back softly, "I'm here, Sirius."

"Is Harry awake?"

"He's sleeping." Remus stood up from his chair and walked over to sit by Sirius on the bed. "How are you feeling?"

"Like someone drugged me." He turned a glare onto Remus. It had a rather diminished effect, him still blinking sleep from his eyes and bearing the wrinkly pattern from the pillow on his left cheek. "You drugged me, Remus."

"Actually, Madam Pomfrey drugged you. I merely held you down." Sirius grunted. "You were out of control, Sirius. I understand your feelings, but I think Dumbledore has really suffered enough today." From the look on Sirius' face, the ex-convict didn't quite agree.

"Harry can't speak," he said, after a pregnant pause.

"No. He can't."

"He can't hear."

"No."

"What are we going to do, Remus?"

The werewolf gave his friend a solemn, serious look. "We're going to take him home," he said calmly. "We're going to love him, and care for him, and be the family that he's been lacking since Lily and James died. We're going to teach him to cast spells silently and to use his other senses. And when he wakes up from nightmares, we're going to be there to hug him, because he's missed out on too many hugs, Padfoot, and you can curl up in bed with him and lick his face until he learns to laugh because life is too short for how serious he is." He matched his friend's gaze. "Does that sound like a plan to you, Padfoot?"

"Yeah," Sirius said, his throat choked up with emotion. "That sounds like a great plan."

Chapter Text

THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AND DEATH

VIII

The Injured


 

Dumbledore had little else to do between his impromptu meeting with Kingsley Shacklebolt and the scheduled meeting with Elena and Severus. He had moped for some time in his office, but then had thought it best that he visit his other ailing student, as well. The trip to St. Mungo's never took very long for the Supreme Mugwump and Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Withcraft and Wizardry. Only Mad-Eye Moody had offered him any trouble, and it had been a refreshing familiarity. The man had demanded Dumbledore answer a series of questions to prove he was who he said, and Dumbledore had, of course, passed the test, bidding Alastor a pleasant evening as he went to visit Draco Malfoy.

The boy in question had been asleep when Dumbledore made his way into the room, but that was probably for the best. Draco needed his rest, and his being awake would do nothing but allow him to witness the various nurses and guards gawking at him, poor child. Such a thing was never comfortable for anyone. Standing at the end of the bed and gazing upon the child wearied Dumbledore. No child, no matter who they were, should be forced to suffer such a fate as this.

Blankets were pulled up to Draco's armpits, one arm tucked beneath their folds while another, wrapped tightly in bandages, lay on top of his chest. Small cuts across the boy's face and neck were clearly healing due to the effects of a oily paste that gleamed in the room's light, and bruises that permeated Draco's pale flesh were also beginning to fade. The most noticeable of all the injuries, however, were those that covered the left side of the boy's face.

There were four scars, revealing the identity and nature of the spell. Parallel to each other, the scars looked almost exactly like the scars an animal might make from slashing a paw across one's face. The spell itself was one that mimicked the attack of the caster's animagus form, and was only capable of being cast by those who were animagi. Lucius Malfoy, Dumbledore knew, was a registered animagus with the form of a wolverine – an incredibly vicious and dangerous animal. The spell itself was not often used because of its nature – it was used to harm, nothing more, and was considered Dark for that reason. Dumbledore had never seen fit to disagree and was horrified to find that such a curse had been used by Lucius on his own son.

The curse had caught Draco's eye with two "claws," and because it was a curse scar, Dumbledore knew it would forever remain. The boy's pale features would forever be marred by the shiny, almost silver lines of a wolverine's claws – his father's claws.

Draco had lost sight in one eye because of his father's actions, but Dumbledore wondered if Lucius realized how much he had lost. It seemed unlikely, but Lucius Malfoy had destroyed something very precious, and he would never be able to get it back.


"Ah, Severus, Elena, good, you're here." Dumbledore stood up and walked around his desk to face them, all trace of sorrow gone from his face. "Conan is in appropriate care, I take it?"

"Minerva is holding his attention for the moment," Elena said, folding her arms behind her back. "What did you wish to speak to us about, Albus?"

"Harry Potter."

Severus groaned and threw himself into a chair. He did not want to be discussing this.

Elena frowned at her husband but turned her attention to the headmaster. "What is this about Harry Potter, Albus?"

"I see Severus has told you nothing of what had occurred recently. I suppose the duty should fall to the one who caused such misery." Dumbledore folded his hands inside his sleeves. "Harry Potter was brought to Hogwarts from his relatives home in dire need of medical attention."

Severus scoffed. "Medical attention, Headmaster? The boy's heart had stopped."

Elena gasped and turned fully to face her husband. "Severus? This is the boy you hate so much?" Severus grimaced. "Was he attacked?"

"His relatives were abusive." Elena turned back to the headmaster. "None of us were aware, or at least aware of how badly he was treated at home. They had hurt him severely before someone found him. Madam Pomfrey and Severus were able to heal him considerably, and he is in the Infirmary as we speak. With luck, he should be able to go home with his guardian, and while that is what I originally called you here to discuss, it is a matter that can wait. Harry is in good care for the moment, and we have a more pressing matter to attend to.

"Namely, Severus – your godson."

Severus' attention was fully summoned at this and he recognized the grave severity in the headmaster's face for what it was. "Draco-"

"Is in St. Mungo's, undergoing professional treatment for his injuries, and under guard from Aurors intent on being certain that no one should do any greater harm to him than has already been done."

"What's been done to him?" Snape asked. It would have been a demand, but he couldn't quite gain the pitch in his voice that he usually reserved for such commands. His thin fingers were white on the arms of the chair he sat in. Elena stood beside him, her olive-toned skin doing nothing to dampen the gleam of her eyes, blazing ferocity.

"Lucius attacked Draco with a variety of curses, not the least of which was the Cruciatus." Severus closed his eyes. "Narcissa is dead, Severus." The Potions Master opened his eyes again, to look at Dumbledore. "Lucius killed her, and was attacking Draco while he attempted to protect his mother from further mutilation."

"Is Draco- will he be all right?" Elena asked. Her voice sounded plaintive and frightened, but for one to look at her, they would realize she was anything but. She was restraining herself, it was clear, for her hands were clenched into tight fists, her lips pressed together into a firm white line, and her eyes were a raging hailstorm of anger. She looked ready to kill – ready to kill Lucius Malfoy – and both men were quite happy not to be him.

"The healers have done most the work that can be accomplished short term. Much of the rest that must be done will be over a period of time, and for this, he will most likely be more comfortable in the company of his godfather." Dumbledore nodded at Severus. "Some damages cannot be repaired, however."

"What do you mean?" Snape asked, his heart leaping up into his throat. He knew the dangers of the Cruciatus Curse – knew the horrors that it caused. If such a fate had befallen Draco, his godson who had been cursed with a father much as Snape himself had been, Severus would find Lucius Malfoy himself and rid the man of his breeding tools before he decided how to dispose of the monster – slowly, of course, very slowly.

"Some of the damage to Draco's face was rather severe," Dumbledore continued, "as was the effect it had on his eyesight." Snape's throat went dry. "He can still see out of one eye, which is a blessing and very nearly a miracle, but I'm afraid nothing can be done for the other.

"I have informed Kingsley Shacklebolt, who rescued Draco before further harm could come to him, that Draco will soon be moved into your care. I have asked that he firecall as soon as Draco wakes up. I believe that the best place for you to take him would be Headquarters. Alastor and young Nymphadora Tonks are watching over Draco at the moment, but I fear his father may seek to complete his failed task."

"Lucius is still alive?" Snape demanded, sitting forward in the chair as though flung. "If Shacklebolt stopped him from harming Draco further, why did he not see fit to destroy the bastard?"

"Kingsley was aware that Draco was in dire need and was swift to take him to St. Mungo's. Lucius was bound, but he managed to escape before more Aurors could arrive. His whereabouts are currently unknown."

"Not difficult to guess."

"Indeed." Dumbledore carefully folded each of his hands into the opposing sleeve of his robes. "Severus, I might suggest that you prepare any potions that Poppy might need. I believe that Kingsley may call soon and I know you will wish to visit Draco immediately."

Severus nodded and stood up, turning on his heel to leave the room. Elena moved to follow the billowing robes of her husband, but Dumbledore called her back.

"Elena, my dear, if you have a moment, there is a delicate matter I have that must be dealt with promptly. I had hoped you might consider it."

Severus had paused in the doorway, looking back at Elena. She smiled at him and waved him off. "I'll be along shortly, Severus. Go to your brewing so you can collect Draco."

The Potions Master nodded and left the room, allowing the door to click shut behind him. Elena turned back to Dumbledore and folded her hands behind her back. "What's on your mind, Albus?"

Dumbledore smiled at the use of his first name. Of all the professors who worked at Hogwarts, only Minerva called him by his given name. After a while, it became something to be feared – hearing Minerva say his name. She was a formidable woman and she was always certain to make sure that her views were taken in. Dumbledore would have been annoyed at how she always claimed he stubbornly held to his views, but it was true. It was one of his more spectacular faults – his refusal to even listen to the ideas of others.

Still, it was nice to hear his name come from the lips of someone who was not about to wring him out. Elena had apprenticed in Greece and had not known Dumbledore until after she had been of age. In the presence of others, she referred to him as Headmaster and sometimes even Professor Dumbledore, but alone she referred to him by his given name, which he preferred. She had not been his student, like the others, or in some cases, like Filius, his superior.

"You are aware, of course, of Sirius Black's situation." Dumbledore had explained to her before the secrecy around Sirius' whereabouts, and his innocence. At her nod, he continued. "Sirius is Harry Potter's godfather and, under normal circumstances, would have taken custody of him years ago. As it is, with the current events having revealed themselves for what they are, I hope to place custody of Harry in the hands of Remus Lupin, a close friend of Sirius whom I trust deeply."

Elena nodded, smiling softly. She had not yet had the pleasure of meeting Remus, but she had heard great things from many of the professors. Minerva McGonagall, who Elena had to admit was both very intimidating and very inspiring, had given a stunning recommendation of Remus for her to ponder over.

Of course, Severus had scoffed at and nearly outright argued against the praise, but Elena had shushed him at the time and allowed him to discuss it with her later. She recognized bitterness when she saw it, especially in Severus, who she thought might be the prince of bitterness himself, and she didn't put much stock in his views.

"Remus is very happy at the chance to help care for Harry. Unfortunately, he suffers from an infliction which prevents him having sole guardianship."

"Yes, his Lycanthropy," Elena said sadly, nodding. She saw Dumbledore falter in surprise. "Ah. I have an… acquaintance who works in the Ministry. When they heard that I was coming to Hogwarts to offer my services as a professor, they felt the need to warn me about the position I said I was taking up."

"Ah." Dumbledore nodded sagely. "They should not have revealed that."

"No, they shouldn't have," Elena agreed, "which is why I saw fit to Obliviate them."

Dumbledore raised his eyebrows, blue eyes twinkling. He chuckled lightly. "How very clandestine of you, Elena."

She nodded her head slightly in acknowledgment of what she chose to interpret as subtle praise. "If Remus' Lycanthropy keeps him from holding sole guardianship of Harry, may I assume you need someone to take secondary?"

Smiling, Dumbledore nodded. "That is correct. I was hoping you might accept, as we discussed earlier that you were likely to be spending a great deal of time at Grimmauld Place."

"I would be happy to accept, of course, Albus. However, I don't think I could do so on good conscience without first discussing this with Remus, as I will be under co-guardianship."

"Honorable of you, Elena. Remus is in the hospital wing, watching over Harry. If you wish, you may visit him there." Elena smile and rose to her feet. "I would offer a warning, however, about Sirius. He was particularly against the idea, considering your relationship with Severus."

"Yes, I've no doubt that Severus will have an equal amount to say about it when I tell him." Dumbledore's eyes were twinkling madly, and Elena found she couldn't help but laugh. "Wouldn't it be amazing if they could agree so easily on everything else."

"Indeed. I'll leave you to it, Elena."

"Have a good evening, Albus."


Conan was bored. Spending time with Aunt Minerva had been great, and meeting some of the older students had been really exciting. The Weasleys hadn't been incredibly happy, however – not like Conan was at being at Hogwarts over the summer. They had all looked rather concerned about something, but they'd been nice enough. The two twins had been the greatest, all talking after one another and completing one another's sentences, and discussing some pranks that they had pulled. Conan had heard a little about them, of course, from his dad. He called them the Gemini Toxins, but they introduced themselves as Gred and Forge.

Once they had left, Conan had spent some time with Aunt Minerva, talking about getting ready for classes and how excited he was to go to Diagon Alley and get his wand, and a little bit about the Weasleys. Aunt Minerva gave him a mild warning about the Weasley twins, but it was clear that they amused her to a degree.

After that, Aunt Minerva had to get back to work, filling out paperwork and preparing to send out letters to new and returning students. She had received a message from Severus that he had returned to his labs, and so Aunt Minerva sent him off to head back to the labs, down in the dungeons. The only problem was that his dad would be brewing potions, and Conan didn't like potions.

Conan liked history, and if not for the fact that he only ever talked about the Goblin Wars, Conan would happily go see Professor Binns, but there was really only so much to be learned about the goblins and their wars before things became repetitive and Conan got bored. So, Professor Binns was out of the question, Aunt Minerva was busy, and his dad would be wrapped in a cloak of nightshade and other potions ingredients that Conan always saw fit to flee from.

Madam Pomfrey it was!

With a grin on his face, Conan dashed down the corridors at a full run toward the hospital wing.


"Conan?" Elena walked through her husband's quarters and slipped into the labs via a secret passage few knew about. She glanced around, but was unable to find her son. Severus had already left, his potions successfully completed and sent to Madam—

Elena smiled. Ah yes. Poppy.

Turning, Elena left the labs and hurried up to the hospital wing. She had gone to speak to Minerva first about Albus' request of her, and had learned of Conan's assumed whereabouts. In that time, Severus had finished his necessary brewing and Draco had woken up. Albus and Severus had left to collect him.

And Conan was off bothering Madam Pomfrey. Elena resisted the urge to sigh. She loved her boy dearly, but sometimes she wondered how she could have spawned a child as sociable as Conan, when his father was one of the most antisocial people she had ever met.

It didn't take Elena very long to reach the Hospital Wing, as she'd learned the layout of Hogwarts years before and had little trouble navigating the moving staircases. She didn't know if this was Hogwarts' attitude toward people who had never been students within the confines of her walls, or if a particular headmaster had something to do with it.

In any case, Elena walked into the hospital wing to find her son, and found him. He was sitting cross-legged in the center of a hospital bed, talking emphatically to a sandy-haired man who appeared rather amused by the boy's antics. They both glanced up as she walked in.

"Mum!" Conan bounded from the bed and raced over to her, wrapping his arms about her waist. "Mum! Mr. Lupin was a professor here, did you know? He's knows all sorts of stuff!"

"Does he now?" Elena smiled down at her son and then graced the man – Mr. Lupin – with an appreciative smile. He returned it, and she was rather pleased with how the expression lit up his face. "You would be Remus Lupin, then, I take it?" A blur of movement out of the corner of her eye made her glance at one of the hospital beds, where a young boy lay sleeping with a great black dog lying at his feet. She blinked for a moment, and then smiled, turning back to the man before her.

"That would be me, yes." Remus held out his hand and shook hers. "It's a pleasure to meet Conan's mother. He's quite a smart child."

"Thank you." She smiled down at her son. "And it's Elena. Elena Morely." She tried not to be too amused at how quickly the dog's head snapped up. Hello to you, too, Mr. Black.

Chapter Text

THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AND DEATH

IX

The Vanishing


 

Severus Snape sat in the room of St. Mungo's Hospital, alone but for the unconscious form of his godson. He knew that both Kingsley Shacklebolt and Alastor Moody stood outside of the room, acting as guards, as he had passed both of them on his way in, after being forced to undergo a test for Moody. Apparently, as far as Moody was concerned, no one else could craft a glare capable of masquerading as Snape.

Although Severus' own dark past had once put him at odds with Shacklebolt and Moody, he had a great deal of respect for the both of them. Mad-Eye came off to most people as nearly-mad in his paranoia, but Severus knew that there was no such thing as being overly cautious as long as someone like Voldemort existed. Shacklebolt, while Severus didn't know him as well as he did Moody, was a fair man with a brain he wasn't afraid to use. That in itself was a rarity, and not something to be taken for granted.

Severus also knew that the respect he had for both men was reciprocated. Knowing that the two men respected him assured Severus that they would not turn to the idle peeking and gossip of lesser people. Here, in the privacy of the hospital room, Severus was allowed a moment to be himself. Here, safe from prying eyes, he was allowed to care.

Severus trailed a hand gently down the side of Draco's face that was layered with scars. The warmth of the boy's skin relieved some of Severus' trepidation, but the fact that the boy didn't even react to his touch still bothered him. Severus had to be careful at all times to keep in character, to never let anyone on the wrong side realize exactly where he stood. Only when they were at school, in the privacy of Snape's office, was he ever allowed to be himself in front of Draco. Severus had cherished those moments, just as he cherished the moments at home with Conan, when he didn't have to hide and was free to just be Severus, a husband and a father, and a godfather.

Severus reached down and gripped Draco's hand in long fingers, squeezing the limp limb lightly, but still failing to get a response. He sighed.

"Draco, I'm sorry about your mother," Severus said quietly, holding Draco's hand tightly in his own. "She loved you very much, and she didn't deserve what happened to her." Severus sighed and leaned back in his chair. "The headmaster told me you were protecting her from being hurt more."

Severus knew that Draco had been injured while protecting Narcissa's body from being further mutilated, and that she had already been dead, but he didn't want to mention that. If Draco could hear him, and it was always possible that his unconsciousness was loose enough to allow outward stimuli to slip through, he didn't want to remind his godson of that horrifying fact. No doubt he couldn't escape it as it was.

"She would be proud of you, Draco." He trailed long fingers over his godson's forehead and down his cheek. "She was always proud of her little dragon."

A knock on the door stopped Severus from saying whatever else he might have. He pulled his hand from Draco's and swiftly rose to his feet, turning to the door as it opened and Kingsley Shacklebolt stepped inside. He closed the door behind him and moved swiftly to where Severus was standing.

"We have an unwanted visitor," Shacklebolt murmured, glancing at the door. Severus followed his gaze, but Moody was standing in front of the window and prohibiting any views from either direction from getting through.

Severus reached up and grabbed the privacy curtain, pulling it around Draco's bed and turning to Shacklebolt. "Who?"

"Scrimgouer, the Head of the Auror Department. Someone let slip that the Malfoys were attacked." He gave Severus a wary look. "He believes Draco knows where his father is being kept."

"Kept?" Severus nearly snarled. Leave it to Lucius to get a story out quickly enough that people would think he was just another victim. "I take it you were prepared for this?"

Kingsley reached into an inner pocket of his robes and pulled out a green and gold silk handkerchief. "Courtesy of Albus."

Kingsley lay it on top of Draco's arm, and Snape reached out and touched it. "You're coming with us?"

"I was told to remain with Draco, as his guard." Severus nodded and Kingsley and he both gripped the handkerchief over Draco's arm. The sound of the door bursting open and feet bustling into the room was the last thing they heard, before there was a jerk behind their navels and they were gone.


Ginny didn't feel well.

Over the years, she had learned to distinguish the different types of sicknesses she occasionally felt. A child, especially a wizarding child growing into her magic, would, of course, suffer a common cold or the types of illnesses that occurred when magic built up over time. The first was cared for by mothers, naturally, and the second was dealt with by a release of accidental magic or, once one was equipped with a wand and permitted to use it, by casting spells in class or in practice (or, in the twins' case, in pranking unsuspecting individuals).

This other sickness, though – the one that now made her stomach churn and her chest ache – was one that she had not felt until after her first year at Hogwarts. It was the sensation that was in her blood and bile, when she woke from the nightmares about red slit eyes and hissing and a big nothingness within herself, her will, her own abilities. She would dream about this massive emptiness that was buried in her body, where Ginny was supposed to be, but something else had taken her place. Something else was in that part of her, and so foreign and cruel and un-Ginny, that there was no place for her there.

And though that something else had been banished, sometimes the dreams were still enough to call back those feelings as though she were reliving them in real time. When Ginny would wake up from those nightmares – those memories – it would not be fear that caused the sickness, loneliness, or self-hatred like her parents had believed for a time, and possibly still believed. No, it was the realization, the understanding, the knowledge, that life was unfair, people were cruel, and the world was wrong. Corrupt. Painful in its truth.

It was a burden she realized that adults bore so fully that they didn't even acknowledge it as anything but maturity. It was so normal for them that they viewed it as adulthood, rather than a loss of innocence. But that's what it was – a loss of that naivety which was all that kept children from being adults. It wasn't age, but truth.

The burden, that same sickness that had haunted Ginny so much, and still sometimes haunted her in the early hours when she woke, was back now. As she sat with her family in the Hogwarts Infirmary, quiet on principle alone, she knew that the reminder of the unfair-cruel-wrong-corrupt-painful truth of life had returned to her, because Harry was lying asleep in a hospital bed, and his uncle had put him there.

Harry had been awake when they arrived. He had been quietly watching a discussion between Mr. Lupin and the woman that they had briefly met in McGonagall's office – Elena. Ginny and the others had been informed, after Elena left, that Harry could not speak, and he could not hear them, and the lot of them hadn't really known what to do. Mum had looked like she wanted to cry, and Ginny was sure that later, she would let herself, but she had held back while they were in the Infirmary, and Ginny was glad.

Ron had surprised all of them, really. She had seen the stunned look on her parents' faces, before Mum had gone all teary-eyed and quickly left the room, and her father had looked so – so proud. Because Ron had spared just a moment to study Harry, lying in the hospital bed watching them, before he pulled over a chair, moved the table next to the bed to fit between them, then pulled a collapsible chess set out of his pocket and set it up. He hadn't said anything, but Ginny had watched the smile that curled over Harry's lips, teasing and grateful in turns, before he'd moved himself into a better position and began to lose spectacularly. Ron never said anything but, watching the two of them play, Ron determined and Harry content, it was clear that he didn't need to.

Eventually, Harry had fallen asleep after being beaten multiple times by Ron. Normally, Harry would have given up after getting so thoroughly trounced and let someone else play, but he had seemed to be enjoying himself. Ginny thought it might have been the normalcy in the action, but she hadn't asked what anyone else thought. She had simply watched as, after Harry had dropped off in the middle of the fourth game, Ron packed up the chess set and simply sat there in the chair, watching Harry sleep. It occurred to Ginny that Ron was taking Harry's predicament hard, and part of her wondered what the exact reason was – if it was because he could do nothing to help, that there might be nothing that could be done, or if it was because Ron had borne witness to the cause, and had been incapable of doing anything to stop it. Ginny had, for a time, thought she was to blame for Tom's actions through her. Did Ron blame himself for what had happened to Harry?

"How bad was it, Poppy?"

Ginny's attention was drawn from her thoughts at the sound of her father's voice. Sitting on the hospital bed closest to Madam Pomfrey's office, Ginny turned her head just slightly to see her father standing in front of the mediwitch. Madam Pomfrey, Ginny had observed earlier, looked tired and a little worn down – more than Ginny had ever seen her. She was much paler than usual and the wrinkles on her aging face that often aided in her stern looks were stark against the skin, making her appear older, and possibly frailer. It was a startling change from the usual bustling lioness she was when caring for patients, but no one had commented upon it.

Madam Pomfrey sighed, averting her eyes from Mr. Weasley's for a moment, gazing at something within the office. Eventually, she turned back to him, the expression on her face uncomfortable.

"Honestly, Arthur, I am…" She lifted a hand to touch her eyes, as though thinking of rubbing them but choosing instead to sigh again and lower her hand. "As a healer, I should never express anything less than the utmost hope that a patient recover, for even the smallest of doubts can lead to the patient themselves losing faith in their own magic's ability to help them recover – in their own strength. I should never let myself doubt, Arthur, but I cannot help it. When we lost him that second time, I did not think we would be able to get him back. I had thought that he was too far gone to return and I very nearly released my hold on Aceso's magic."

"You called upon Aceso?" The clear shock in her dad's voice made Ginny frown. She tried to think of who Aceso was, but the name had no meaning for her. Clearly, it was a person, but it was an unfamiliar one. Perhaps a healer from St. Mungo's? But why would Madam Pomfrey have a hold on someone else's magic?

"It was necessary. Mr. Potter was injured far too much for his magic alone to heal himself before more damage could be done. It is probably for the best, however. Aceso was generous, and her magic healed more of Harry's injuries than I had thought it would. I had planned to keep him here for at least a few days after stabilizing him, but there is little reason to. I have been keeping a close watch on him all day. Beyond his inability to speak or hear, he is almost in perfect health." She sighed again, bowing her head slightly. "Almost."

"The Dementia—"

"It's unclear," Madam Pomfrey interrupted gently, shaking her head. "Mental afflictions are as difficult to diagnose as they are to heal. However, if you're asking if it is still a possibility, then the answer is yes – unfortunately, a high one. He has a number of the symptoms." She glanced at Arthur. "You've seen the tremors, of course."

"Yes," Arthur admitted. "They weren't so noticeable at first, but when he was playing chess with Ron, it was hard to ignore how he shook. Is it constant?"

"Frequent. It comes and goes in waves, and aggravates him."

"It probably frightens him," Arthur admitted softly.

"It does all of us. The implications… I hope I'm wrong – horribly wrong, Arthur. I hope we might look back on this one day and realize I was being a complete idiot, but I fear my own track record. What does the future hold for him if I'm right? Can you imagine him in a few years? Trapped in a wheelchair, unable to move, living life as a cripple no more powerful than the weakest muggle?"

"You don't know that you're right," Arthur said gently, but it was clear he was only trying to reassure.

"But I fear I am," Madam Pomfrey said sadly, "and that's enough."

They were silent for a time, before Arthur moved toward the door. "I suppose it would be in Harry's best interest if we removed ourselves before we woke him. It would probably be best for you to rest, as well."

Madam Pomfrey smiled gently at this. "Such advice sounds familiar, Arthur. I do believe I once said something similar to you, years ago."

"So you did. And you were as correct then as I am now. I know how exhausting it is to bear the Summoning, Poppy. If there's anything I can do—"

"Rest assured I will let you know." Madam Pomfrey smiled gently at him in gratitude. "My thanks, Arthur. Now, off with you. Perhaps things will shine in a different light in the morning."

Ginny turned her attention back to Harry, as her father made his way from Madam Pomfrey's office, the door closing behind him. He paused next to her and reached out to squeeze her shoulder lightly. "Come on, Gingersnap. It's time to go home."

Ginny looked up at her father and nodded, but couldn't bring herself to ask if they could come back and visit Harry the next day. Madam Pomfrey looked exhausted and her father had even commented upon it. Ginny didn't understand what had happened, but she figured if they were home tomorrow, she could try doing a little research – just enough to find out who Aceso was, and what her father had meant by a Summoning.


"A basilisk?"

"Um… yes?" Ron ducked his head a little, looking at Sirius with no small amount of fear. The man's grey eyes were gleaming, but his already fair skin had been leeched of all color. Ron was reminded of that day when they had first met him, when he had looked dangerous, mad, and so… so ready to hurt someone.

"Now, Sirius, don't take it out on Ron. He didn't do anything." Remus was standing in the middle of the hospital wing, facing his friend, his hands held up in a placating gesture. His tone was the same as one used to try to calm a wild animal, and Ron admitted he couldn't see much difference between the two where Sirius was concerned.

His father had told them all that they would be returning home, but Ron had been talking to Sirius while watching Harry. In hindsight, he probably should have been more careful about what he said, but Sirius' helpless anger at the situation had drawn Ron's own emotions to the forefront, and he had started something of a rant about how unfair it all was. After everything they had faced, the most damage Harry ever received came, not from Voldemort, but from his uncle. Now, sitting in a chair and wishing Sirius wasn't between him and the door, Ron wished he had refrained from saying anything.

The rest of his family was out in the corridor. Sirius had asked him to stay behind for a few minutes, while the others left the room and Madam Pomfrey was in Dumbledore's office, giving a last update to the headmaster before she settled down to rest. As soon as the doors had shut him inside, Remus had cast a series of silencing and privacy spells about the room. Knowing how proficient the man was with a wand, Ron was pretty sure his family didn't hear anything, despite Sirius' loud tone.

"Remus, we weren't told about any of this!" Sirius paced back and forth between the beds, his lips curled up in a snarl and his grey eyes icy. "Harry never said a word, but he shouldn't have needed to. We should have been told by Dumbledore ages ago, but he said nothing. A possessed professor, a basilisk, the ghost of Voldemort the younger! Dementors, which we did know about, of course, and then last year, that damnable tournament, and then Voldemort himself! Isn't this school supposed to be safe? Why the hell didn't Dumbledore do a better job of protecting Harry?" Striking out, Sirius kicked the side of an empty bed, making the frame shake. "Remus! If it was so easy for Voldemort to get in here years past, why was that fucking Tournament ever allowed here?"

"I don't know, Sirius, but yelling about it isn't going to get us answers, and it certainly isn't going to do anything to help."

Sirius swung around to face the werewolf with a snarl. "Damn it, Lupin! At least act like you give a fuck!"

Remus raised his eyes to meet his friend's, and Ron swallowed sharply at the sight of his eyes. The grey-green color that usually permeated his irises had been entirely overrun by gold, and Ron couldn't help but sink a little in his chair at the predatory gleam in that gaze, so very, unmistakably wolf.

"I assure you, Sirius. I am far from calm, considering the circumstances."

He spoke so softly, his voice was almost a whisper. It was more effective than a scream in making Sirius react. The ex-convict halted his pacing abruptly and turned to stare at Remus, his entire body freezing to a halt as their eyes met. A moment later, he let out a shuddering breath as he raised a shaking hand to cover his eyes. "Rem…" He shook his head slowly and sank down onto a bed, closing his eyes as he hands rested limply at his sides. "I'm sorry."

Remus watched his friend for a moment, before turning to Ron and nodding softly in an attempt to reassure him, inwardly sighing at how the paleness of his skin made his freckles stand out so prominently. "Thank you, Ronald," Remus said quietly, and was unsure if he was able to put any warmth into his voice. "Please tell your father that I will let him know when Harry has been relocated."

Ron paused, giving Remus a curious look. He knew that Harry was supposed to be going with the both of them to a secret place, and that the others would be able to visit him once they were all settled in. So, relocating was precisely what they would be doing, upon Harry's release from the Hospital Wing later today. Except, the way that Remus said that didn't sound quite right – not like they were just taking Harry home, but rather, somewhere… else.

Ron thought about saying something, but it was a brief consideration. Remus was watching him with an expression of gentle intelligence – the same expression he had given them in class, when he was their professor. It was a kind gaze that assured them that he would teach them of the Dark Arts, but they would be safe in his care. It was a gaze that both asked them to, and assured them that they could, trust him.

And, of course, Ron did trust him, because Harry trusted him.

So instead of calling him on what he heard, Ron simply nodded. He didn't have to say "take care of him," because he knew they would. And he didn't have to ask them to tell Harry he said to get better soon, because Harry knew Ron wanted that. So he said nothing, and quietly left the room, closing the door behind him. He met his family in the hall, but he didn't immediately say anything, because his dad was smart.

He figured he could wait until they got home, to see if his dad was as good at reading between the lines.

Still in the Infirmary, Remus turned back to face Sirius. The man was bent over, his fingers running through dark hair as he stared at the floor. For a while, there was nothing but an uncomfortable silence between the two of them that stretched on cruelly.

Finally, "I really am sorry, Remus. I didn't mean it." Sirius slowly lowered his hands, resting his elbows on his knees. "I know you care about him as much as I do."

Remus nodded. "And I know you're angry, Padfoot." He watched as the familiar nickname caused the tension in Sirius' shoulders to ease. "I am, as well."

"He was supposed to be safe here." It came out as a whisper, as though Sirius was pleading to the world for an explanation he would not receive. His entwined his fingers and leaned his forehead against them, gritting his teeth. "Is there anywhere he'll be safe from that monster?"

After a moment, Remus sighed. "This world has many monsters, Sirius. Some of them, it seems, do mean well."

"You and I both know where that road of good intentions leads, Remus."

Remus nodded. "Sirius." He paused for a moment, glancing to the side and thinking. He had always placed such faith in Dumbledore – such trust. The headmaster was the only reason he had been able to come to Hogwarts as a child; he'd fought for Remus' right to go despite the lycanthropy that cursed him. For years, Remus' gratitude had been paid back in loyalty.

But it wasn't just Remus now. He had Harry to worry about – a mere child who had faced more horrors than most aurors. It was cruel of life to have done such a thing to him, but crueler still that it had been aided. They had been kept in the dark, and Harry had been left in a dangerous home, thrown into disastrous situations, because of that. Remus had always trusted Dumbledore but, apparently, Dumbledore didn't trust them. Not enough.

And Harry's life – be it his physical well-being or his emotional health – was not worth the loyalty that Remus had given Dumbledore all those years. He was worth far more than that, and until Dumbledore realized that – realized what he was risking – he couldn't be trusted.

"You stayed under the radar of the Ministry, Dementors, and Dumbledore for a long time, Sirius," Remus said, and watched the ex-convict's head snap up to meet his gaze. "Do you think you could do it again?"

Sirius frowned. "Remus?"

"If no one else is willing to do what has to be done to protect Harry, Sirius, then we will." He stepped forward and held his hand out to his friend. "I know how to hide what I am, but to completely disappear is quite a feat, my friend. I don't suppose you have magic enough for three?"

Sirius lips turned up into a smile, and though the reasoning for what would inevitably be a grand amount of deceit was grim, he couldn't help the mischievous glint that flickered in his eyes. Remus was glad to see it.

"We're creatures of the night, Moony," Sirius said, clasping Remus' hand and hauling himself to his feet. "Becoming a shadow is no trouble at all."

When Madam Pomfrey returned to the hospital wing ten minutes later, it was to find it completely empty of other life. All of the beds were made and it looked as though no one had been there, save for the folded piece of parchment on the nightstand. It was addressed to Dumbledore.

When you're ready to trust us with the truth, we'll be waiting.

And though Dumbledore would spent the next month searching for Remus Lupin, Sirius Black, and Harry Potter, he would not find them.

Chapter Text

THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AND DEATH

X

The Letter


Hermione,

Dad took us all to Hogwarts to see Harry. I talked to Snuffles some and ended up accidentally telling him about the snake problem in second year, and that really bad teacher we had in first. He was really unhappy about it, and so was Lupin.

I didn't say anything to Dad yet, but Lupin said he'll send him a letter when they've "relocated" Harry. I think they might be leaving.

- Ron


Ron,

Ron, are you sure? Did Professor Lupin say anything else to you to hint at that? Did he give you any clues about where they're taking Harry? Just tell me what he said exactly and I'll see if I can't figure it out.

And how was Harry? I haven't been able to go see him, yet. I tried to use the floo in the tavern near my house, but for some reason, it's not working now. I was able to floo to Dumbledore's office before, so I don't understand why I can't get to Hogwarts now. I thought about flooing to Honeydukes and walking, but I have a feeling they lock the gates over the holiday.

Let me know as soon as Professor Lupin sends your dad a letter! Are you sure they're leaving, Ron? That might not go over well, and Harry was hurt pretty bad, wasn't he? I mean, wouldn't it be safer to stay here, where Madam Pomfrey can help Harry if he needs it?

- Hermione


Hermione,

I don't remember everything that was said, but Lupin said 'Let your dad know I'll send him a letter when we've relocated Harry' or something like that. He didn't hint at them going anywhere specific, but I just got the feeling they weren't planning on sticking around.

Harry's deaf and he can't speak. He shakes sometimes, too. I don't know if it's permanent or not. No one would really talk about it or tell us anything.

No news yet.

- Ron


Hermione,

Couldn't wait until you sent a letter back, so I'm sending this with Errol. Though you better send your reply with Pig - I don't know if Errol can handle another run.

Dad just got back from talking to Dumbledore. Lupin and Snuffles vanished from the hospital wing, and they took Harry with them. They left Dumbledore a letter – I don't know what it said. No one knows where they are.

- Ron


Ron,

I got your second letter just before I sent back my original reply, so I'm rewriting my reply. Errol looks horrible, so I'm going to let him go home now. Pig looks content enough to wait for me.

I guess you were right about Professor Lupin's hinting, if they're gone. Do you know why they left? If Professor Dumbledore doesn't even know where they are, I wonder if the letter they left might have been a little negative. Did your dad tell you anything about it?

I suppose they have to have had a good reason for disappearing. Professor Lupin doesn't seem like the type of person to go running off without thinking things through, though I can't say the same about Snuffles. You don't suppose Professor Lupin got dragged into doing something, do you?

Deaf and mute? Are you sure, Ron? That's really not good. And he's been shaking? The speech and hearing impairments might be indicative of brain injury, and I think head trauma can cause tremors, too. How often did he shake – was it constant or only some of the time? I'm going to do some research into this.

If you hear anything, let me know right away. I hope Harry's all right.

- Hermione


Hermione,

Mum and Dad are really angry. Lupin sent my dad a letter like he said he would. I got a look at it, but it just said they've taken Harry somewhere he'll be safe from Dumbledore, until he's ready to be honest with them. And then they told my dad not to try looking for them, because he'd never find them. I'd quote it word for word, but I didn't get a good enough look to remember it exactly.

He didn't shake all the time – it came in spurts, I guess. And yeah, Lupin told us when we got there that Harry's hearing and speech had been affected. He didn't say if it was permanent or not, but he looked sorta worried about it.

Lupin and Snuffles will take good care of Harry. They love him – you know that.

- Ron


Ron,

I did some research on head trauma and brain injury. If Harry was struck the right way, that could cause impairments to his speech and hearing. Unfortunately, it could be temporary or permanent, and it's impossible to know whether it's temporary until he regains his ability to hear or speak, which he might never do.

Snuffles stayed hidden for a long time. If they don't want to be found, I bet even Dumbledore won't be able to find them. You said Snuffles and Professor Lupin were angry about the snake king and the garlic turban? If they didn't know about it, that means that Harry didn't tell them, and neither did Dumbledore. I wonder if that's what they meant about him being honest with them. It would make sense, and I could understand why they would be angry about it.

The tremors could be from anything, really – head trauma, stress, an extended fight or flight reflex, a reaction to a potion, or something else. Harry might already have recovered from it, if it was from something like stress. Being with Snuffles and Professor Lupin would help ease his mind, I'm sure. And you're right, they do love him, but so do we, and I still worry about him.

- Hermione


Dear Hermione,

Mum and Dad grounded Ron from sending any post. Dumbledore came over to ask if any of us knew where Professor Lupin and his dog would take Harry, and Mum and Dad are really angry that they've disappeared. Ron told them it was "none of their bloody business," and he's been confined to his room. Don't send anymore letters or you might get into trouble. Dumbledore might come to your house, too, to ask if you know anything. He's angry about it, too, I think.

Hopefully we'll see you sometime this summer. We can talk then.

- Ginny


Albus Dumbledore removed his half-moon spectacles and pinched the bridge of his nose, gusting out a weary sigh. Not even halfway through the holiday, this was racking up to be the most stressful summer he had experienced in years.

It had been just over a month since Sirius and Remus had disappeared with Harry, and though Dumbledore had spent the time since then searching for them, he had nothing to show for it. Not a hint of where they were or where they might have been. He had asked for help from some of the members of the Order of the Phoenix, but even Mundungus Fletcher (who was quite talented when it came to finding things that didn't wish to be found) was at a loss. Sirius, it appeared, had at least gained that small benefit from his imprisonment in Azkaban for all those years.

Dumbledore shook his head lightly, disappointed in himself. There was no good way to look at what had happened to Sirius – no silver lining on the storm cloud that had been his lot in life. Dumbledore should never have even thought such a thing, that the man could have benefited from that horrific and ongoing event. There was not enough light in the world to dispel the shadow of that misfortune. And to think, it hadn't affected him alone, either. Harry, too, had suffered from Sirius' fate, for if the boy's godfather had not been sent to Azkaban, Harry would have grown up loved and cared for…

Dumbledore replaced his spectacles and glanced over at Fawkes with a sigh. The phoenix was standing on his perch, looking decidedly content – a direct juxtaposition to his human companion's state of mind.

"I don't suppose another attempt might convince you?" Dumbledore asked, knowing it was futile before he even opened his mouth. Still, it reassured him that he had tried, even as the phoenix gave him a look that was clearly sardonic, and turned to stare out the window.

Phoenixes were not like wizards.

The magic of wizards brought with it the limitations of combatable magicks. The owls used by wizards to deliver post had all been bred for that particular purpose, from the original ten owls that Ulrich Aviahart had enchanted centuries before. Wizard owls were much smarter than regular owls, and though they were able to find the recipient of their letters through the magic bred into them, the magic was not theirs to manipulate – it was wizard magic passed through their genes. Because of this, a wizard who was sending a letter could use a spell to block the recipient from tracing the letter's origins, and block the owl from being able to find them again. It could be useful on one side, but was quite annoying on the other.

Phoenixes were not owls. They had not been enchanted with a wizard's magic; phoenixes were creatures of magic. They had magic they could use, and were one of only a few creatures that existed only so long as magic itself existed. There was no wizard in existence more powerful, magically or otherwise, than a phoenix. Fawkes, if he had any desire, could easily flame straight to the side of Sirius Black and bring him back before Dumbledore, and there would be nothing that could be done to stop him.

The problem was that Fawkes didn't want to, and Dumbledore, despite his many titles and grand standing in the eyes of the public, could not make him.

There was no doubt in Dumbledore's mind that Fawkes knew precisely where the three missing people were. The phoenix had once appeared to Harry when he'd had need of him down in the Chamber of Secrets, and that was not something done lightly. Phoenixes were notoriously finicky creatures, and much like cats in that regard. However, their reasons were different. Cats were simply undomesticated and, in Dumbledore's opinion, would never be tamed, though people still insisted on trying. Phoenixes, however, were wild creatures, and this was accepted, at least by those who actually cared to think about it. Some actually did think that Fawkes was Dumbledore's familiar, but this was not the case. Fawkes was a friend and, as far as Dumbledore was concerned, he did not deserve the phoenixes' company, but he was grateful for it, nonetheless.

Although a phoenix was known well for appearing only to those who had kind hearts, it was still rare that one should appear to any wizard at all. Fawkes had appeared to Dumbledore nearly a century before, but it was only a few decades ago that he had become an almost constant companion. And though the phoenix would often perch on the stand in Dumbledore's office during his meetings with various professors, students, and otherwise, Fawkes was still quite a solitary creature. It had come as quite a shock to learn that the phoenix had not only appeared to Harry down in the chamber, but that he had carried the Sorting Hat down with him, no doubt with the knowledge in his fire-bound heart that Harry would draw from it the blade that had been lost for generations.

Talking to Harry after he returned from the Chamber with Ginny Weasley en tow, Dumbledore had hinted to Harry that Fawkes had appeared to him because the boy had shown great loyalty to Dumbledore. It was not an outright lie, because he had not said that it had been only that which summoned Fawkes to Harry's side, but he had not elaborated. He wondered now if that had been out of shock at learning such a thing, or petty jealousy.

"You would protect him, even from me, dear friend?" Dumbledore was aware that his voice was quiet as he spoke, almost plaintive, and he wished he could make it sound stronger. Unfortunately, he had begun to doubt himself in the last month, as each day passed without sight of the missing three. Arthur Weasley had received a letter from Remus Lupin, assuring him of their safety and cautioning them in the futility of attempting to find them. Dumbledore sighed. It had further implicated him as being the reason that they had left, and he had no doubts that they meant every word of it, even after this amount of time had passed. Dumbledore's mistake in placing Harry with the Dursleys had been an honest, if foolish, one, and though it had caused Harry no small amount of harm, Dumbledore had done it with the best of intentions.

Young Ronald Weasley had revealed to his father later that Sirius and Remus had learned from him about Harry's encounters with the various faces of Voldemort over the years, and it wasn't hard to realize that it was their lack of knowledge about these dangers that had driven them to leaving. Dumbledore wasn't sure that he disagreed with them in their anger that they hadn't known, but it had seemed foolish to tell them about past events that they could do nothing about. Harry had accomplished a great many feats since coming to Hogwarts and Dumbledore was profoundly proud of the boy. He was also well aware of the boy's modesty and how he tried to avoid the attention that so often came with his natural desire to help – and often to save – people. Not bringing up the past seemed like the best idea.

Dumbledore sighed again. Apparently, he was mistaken.

"I don't suppose you would appear to them if my intention were to apologize?"

Fawkes had turned back around on his perch, watching Dumbledore. At this, he raised his head slightly and then tilted it to the side. A feeling of mild disbelief rippled through Dumbledore and the man sighed.

"No… no, I suppose they would have no reason to." Believe him, that was. From what they had said so far, it was clear that they distrusted Dumbledore, and even if he should reach them with an apology, it was unlikely that they would trust his sincerity.

Fawkes was very observant, and in moments such as these, Dumbledore appreciated his council. The phoenix did not speak – Dumbledore had coined a theory about three decades prior that phoenix were incapable of speech, or rather, not incapable so much as that they had no use for it. For a phoenix, emotion and intention were all that mattered, for that was what defined a creature. Humans had long been separated from each other by a language barrier, and it was even more difficult for humans to understand animals. Words, so often relied upon, fell short when communicating with other beasts, and meanings were lost in translation. Words could be so misleading, and so easily misunderstood, that they were undoubtedly unreliable.

Emotions, however, and intention, drove all creatures. Emotions – what a person felt about a particular action or instance – and intentions – the why of the person feeling that way – was all that a phoenix needed, because together, that was truth. Fawkes was perfectly capable of getting his point across to Dumbledore by projecting an emotion – in this case, by suggesting the disbelief that Sirius and Remus would feel under the circumstances the headmaster had recommended. Knowing the phoenix for as long as he had, it wasn't difficult to come to the appropriate conclusion.

"Then what do you suggest, my friend? Do I simply wait for them to return September 1st? That is, if they choose to allow Harry to return?"

The phoenix gave him an encouraging look, and sang a gentle note of reassurance. Dumbledore closed his eyes, sighing as the emotions of calm and contentedness washed over him. There was nothing so beautiful as the song of a phoenix – nothing that could so easily calm a frantic heart. Dumbledore was reminded that Fawkes had once sang to Harry, a feat even more rare than a phoenix simply appearing to another person. Fawkes truly did care for that boy.

With a sigh, Dumbledore turned back to the letter he had been reading before he attempted to move Fawkes again. He had been receiving quite a number of letters recently, and though this was not unusual, he wished they held some better news.

Headmaster Albus Dumbledore,

I am Officer Reanna Garda, of the Muggle & Magicks Bureau in America. I'm writing you on behalf of a rather unorthodox occurrence earlier today. I am aware of the fact that a witch or wizard attending Hogwarts that becomes involved in a case of child abuse are assigned to the Ministry of Magic in England. For whatever reason, we recently not only received a full and detailed report of child abuse for a young wizard in the Ministry's jurisdiction, but we also received the abusive muggles in question.

Vernon, Petunia, and Dudley Dursley arrived in the lobby of our offices here in New York, via a spell the likes of which I have never seen before. Not just the three muggles in question, but rather, their entire house, which had been carefully shrunk down to such a size as to fit perfectly inside an empty cubicle, without disturbing anything.

I'm afraid that we are somewhat at a loss as to how to reverse the shrinking charm on the house, but the three muggles were swiftly retrieved from its confines, wherein they were immediately returned to their normal sizes. A few other effects of the spell remained active, however. Vernon and Petunia Dursley were caught in a stasis spell that not only paralyzed their movement, but halted all of their bodily functions. They remained unaware of anything that had been going on around them, until we released them from the spell. In my opinion, that was quite a mistake, and you should know that Vernon Dursley is currently being contained, considered a danger both to himself and those around him. Petunia Dursley is also in confinement, pending a decision about where a trial should be held, not only concerning the damages done to her nephew, but also those done to her son.

Dudley Dursley is now a ward of the state. He has been removed from the care of his parents, a restraining spell has been put in place to make certain that neither of his parents can get within thirty feet of him, and we are simply waiting for an Obliviation Crew to come and erase his memory.

I have sent all of this information to you, because I have a younger cousin who attended Hogwarts and now works for the Ministry of Magic. She has never had anything but good things to say about you, and has told me how much you care for the students under your guard. I do not know who performed such a spell to send these reports and the muggles to us, rather than to your Ministry, but we are currently working with the Ministry of Magic to decide where a trial and punishment should take place. I would not be adverse to hearing your opinion on the matter, Headmaster, as this incident is rather unprecedented and, quite frankly, these reports have me at a bit of a loss. I have seen the damage done to Dudley Dursley, but if half of the information in these reports is true, I may have to ask that someone perform a diagnostic check upon Vernon and Petunia Dursley, just to ascertain that they are, indeed, human.

I have included a copy of the reports for your perusal. If I may be so bold, sir, I would advise you not to review them in any place but utter privacy. My partner was, unfortunately, taken off of the case due to the fact that she had been emotionally compromised by the information within. Regardless of how many officers within the Bureau I believe would turn a blind eye, it's against protocol to murder suspects.

I would tell you that I look forward to hearing from you about this matter, sir, but frankly, I hope I wake up tomorrow to learn that it was all a nightmare.

Still, I await your owl.

Reanna Garda
Muggle and Magick Bureau
Child Services and Safety Division
New York City, NY, United States of America

Dumbledore lowered the letter back onto the desk with a sigh and pinched the bridge of his nose again. He had been wondering what had happened to the Dursleys. In all of the initial chaos, the muggles had been forgotten, and Dumbledore had only remembered that they had not done anything in regards to them once Sirius and Remus had disappeared with Harry. Even then, it was two days after the disappearance of the three that someone finally made to Number Four Privet Drive, only to find that, though the yard, flowerbeds, and mailbox were still in place, the Dursley's house had simply vanished.

Tracking, revealing, and summoning charms had been used in great excess, but to no avail. The house had simply disappeared, and the Dursleys along with it. A little over three weeks later, it had finally been found.

Sent to America! Dumbledore didn't have to think very hard about that. Who would have more reason to distrust the Ministry of Magic than a werewolf who had been outcast all his life for a disease he could not help, an innocent man who spent twelve years in hell without a trial, and a young boy who had been nothing more than a tool to sell more papers? Dumbledore had little doubt that at least one of the three of them had seen fit to send the cause of so much damage to a place far more likely to properly react to it. The name Harry Potter did not have nearly as much meaning over in the states as it did in England. Perhaps that was for the best.

Dumbledore thumbed through the report that Garda had sent him with the letter. He had yet to read it, and was somewhat disgruntled with himself for this. It wasn't that he hadn't had time (not that he hadn't been busy), or that he had never been alone, as his current location suggested, but rather that he had been disturbed by the officer's warning. He was not looking forward to discovering all the hell that his foolishness had cast upon Harry, and how selfish of him. Young Harry had been forced to live whatever horrors lie within those pages for nearly fourteen years, and all Dumbledore would have to do is read about them.

Still… he set the report aside for the moment, and turned to another letter. He didn't bother reading this one again, as he had already done so multiple times. Instead, he merely glanced at the signature, and sighed.

Miriam Strout
Janus Thickey Ward
St. Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries

One of the things that had been bothering Dumbledore since learning about the truth of Harry's home life and his own mistake was that he had never received word for Arabella Figg. The old squib had been placed on Magnolia Crescent as a way for Dumbledore to make certain that Harry remained safe. A squib was perfect as a lookout in the muggle neighborhood, because she was accustomed to living as a muggle, but able to see things that they chose not to.

Dumbledore had thought it was the perfect plan, and had been quite happy when Arabella had volunteered herself all those years ago. She had always had a soft spot for those who didn't quite fit in with the rest of the world. Dumbledore thought it probably had something to do with how she grew up as a squib in a family of wizards and witches, watching as her brothers and sisters went to school to learn magic, leaving her behind. The woman hadn't been resentful, but rather sympathetic toward any creature that didn't quite fit in. She had, over the years, taken to adopting half-kneazles who wandered into her home. Unaccepted by full-blooded kneazles but too smart to fit in with regular cats, the half-breeds had been left alone to find their own place. Once Arabella had taken a couple of them in, word had got around to the rest, and Arabella became known quite well as being mad for cats. Dumbledore had always been rather fond of the woman for her view on life in that regard – finding the silver lining in what most would consider to be a damnable fate, as a squib.

Like her half-kneazle companions, Arabella had been more than happy to keep an eye on Harry, who himself was an outcast in Wizarding society for his fame, and in Muggle society for his magic. Dumbledore had been certain that if anything had gone wrong, he would have heard about it.

He honestly hadn't considered the possibility of something happening to Arabella.

Mental deficiencies were quite rare in wizards. Their magical core grew inside of them from the moment they were born, and in most cases, any great illnesses or problems were healed and corrected by the magic itself – self-preservation. It was easy to forget, sometimes, that squibs were quite like muggles in that regard.

Arabella Figg had once had a younger brother whom she was quite fond of. He had been born a wizard, but his magical core had, for whatever reason, not grown very fast or very large. When he became ill in his youth, his magic wasn't strong enough to combat the illness, and he had deteriorated over time until, at age fifteen, Newton Figg died.

It's funny how the mind works. It was horrible that Harry had suffered because no one had thought to check on Arabella's welfare, but Dumbledore was glad to know that Arabella had suffered no greater distress from what she had come to believe was her brother next door. Apparently, the woman had been seeing visions of her brother infrequently for a long time, but had always been able to tell that they were mere memory or hallucination. It had never occurred to her to inform anyone about it, and so no one knew when she began to see Harry and mistake him for another vision of her brother. And when Harry began to look more worn, injured, and sick… he simply began to look more like Newton Figg had, before he died.

Arabella had sometimes had Harry over to visit, during which time she would show him photo albums of her family and her cats. It was unfortunate that she had often mistaken Harry's visits for spending time going over old memories with her younger brother, and that Harry had never picked up on that. So much of it had occurred in her mind, however, and she had spent so long keeping Harry out of the loop, not telling him who she really was and why she was there, that perhaps it came of no surprise that she never realized that she thought he was someone else. And no one had ever checked on her.

Dumbledore sighed. No one had ever checked on Harry, either.

And all of this because they were trying to keep things quiet and unknown, from the general public, the media, Voldemort, and his followers. But things had been kept from Harry, as well – so very many things, but that was for the best, Dumbledore was sure. As brave as he was, Harry was still a child. He was not ready to know of the prophecy. Dumbledore wouldn't place that on his shoulders yet.

But he had seen what had come of keeping things from Sirius and Remus. Perhaps much of this could have been prevented if he had simply told them about what had occurred in the past. What harm could revealing that small truth have done? Nothing could be done to change it now, and perhaps then they wouldn't have lost their trust in him, even if he did intend to keep some things from them still. There were some truths they simply weren't ready to deal with, and he would not burden them. They had quite enough to deal with, as it was.

A knock on the door interrupted Dumbledore's musings. Surprised at being visited at such an hour of the night, he called out for the person to enter, not bothering to check on who it was first.

The door opened and Minerva McGonagall stepped into the office, a rolled piece of parchment clutched in her fingers. She glanced at Fawkes for a moment, before turning her eyes to Dumbledore.

"You're up quite late this evening, Minerva," Dumbledore noted, leaning back in his chair and steepling his fingers. He noted that, as usual, the movement did nothing to alter McGonagall's temperament. The woman would never be swayed by him.

"Albus," she greeted, sounding a little distracted. "I wonder if I might ask for Fawkes' assistance with something." It wasn't quite a request, because it wasn't something that Dumbledore could truly grant or deny. The phoenix would do as he wished, regardless of Dumbledore's opinion on the matter. That much had already been made clear.

Dumbledore made a gentle sweeping gesture with his hand. "Whatever he desires, Minerva, you know that as well as I."

"Yes." Minerva pursed her lips and then stepped up to the phoenix. "Would you mind?" she asked quietly, holding out the roll of parchment.

The phoenix reached out with a leg and took the roll of parchment in fierce talons. He chirped in affirmation and glanced at Dumbledore with an expression that the headmaster couldn't quite read. Then, without another sound, he disappeared in a burst of flame. For some reason, he left behind the impression upon Dumbledore that a question of his had just been answered.

"Ah, Minerva," he said, as the woman turned to leave with a word of gratitude, "may I ask whom you asked Fawkes to appear to?"

The Head of Gryffindor House hesitated a moment, her hand on the door, before glancing back at the headmaster. "Remus Lupin sent me a letter," she said quietly. Dumbledore's eyebrows shot up into his hairline as she continued, "He ended it by offering Fawkes' services as a post carrier."

"Did he indeed?" Dumbledore asked softly. He wondered if, perhaps, the phoenix had appeared to the missing trio. Remus was no man's fool and he knew better to trifle with the idea that a phoenix could be mastered. It was entirely possible that Fawkes had offered his services to the werewolf, and Remus had simply passed on the message to his former Head of House.

"Well, that is interesting," Dumbledore said, blue eyes like candlelight. "I wonder, Minerva, if you intend to continue correspondence with your former student?"

"I would, of course, not be adverse to the idea," Minerva said cautiously.

No, of course you wouldn't. Minerva had always had a soft spot for Remus Lupin. That had been clear from the first day that the stern woman had met the shy, sandy-haired eleven-year-old, so unsure of himself. Over his years attending Hogwarts, the two had held a relationship that underwent a series of transformations. Minerva had started as a distant, stern professor, but had progressed to advisor, then mentor, then friend, and later to something almost parental. Dumbledore wasn't certain if Minerva knew how much she meant to Remus, who had gone from an uncertain, cautious little boy to a young man with a loyal and steadfast heart, all under her watchful eye. He knew that Remus Lupin meant a great deal to her, and it really shouldn't have surprised him so much that Remus would turn to her for aid, when he himself had become something of a… liability.

"I wonder, Minerva, if you might be so kind as to help me with something in regards to Remus and his charges." Dumbledore held back a sigh when the woman's caution was not cracked by a smile at his gentle teasing. He continued on, before she might become more concerned about his intentions. "I feel I must make amends, Minerva, for a great many things. The first of which will be doing what I should have done the moment there was time."

Fawkes flared back into existence on his perch, flames dancing wildly into non-existence. There was a rolled up piece of parchment clutched in his claws, filled with magic. Dumbledore could sense the privacy charms from where he sat. Fawkes gave him a look that, on a human, might have been quite identical to a raised eyebrow.

"I believe it's time I was honest with them."

Chapter Text

THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AND DEATH

XI

The Ritual


 

The face staring back at him wasn't the one that he knew. The pallor of his skin was still as pale as it always had been, but now four rose-colored scars stretched across the left side of his face, from the peak of his forehead to under his ear. His iris had filmed over, until his eye was almost completely white.

Draco ran a hand through his hair, pushing his bangs back from his forehead and sighing when they flopped limply back into place, as unattractive as the rest of him. Glaring back into his one good eye, Draco briefly entertained the idea of punching the mirror and shattering it. It would be a defiance against the ideals his father had raised him to believe – control of emotional displays, basic propriety. Draco could throw a raging fit, destroy everything he could see by throwing or crushing it, and his father would never be able to stop him. He would never be able to hit him with another spell or say another vicious word in his presence.

And his mother would never be there to comfort him after his father's cruelty.

Draco felt the hot liquid of his tears rolling down his cheeks, even as his hands clenched into fists at his sides. He bet it would hurt a lot, punching the mirror. The glass would shatter on impact – probably not all of it, but a good portion of where his fist would strike. He would cut his hand, and shards of glass would be imbedded in his flesh. It would hurt, but at least he would feel something other than this chasm within his chest where had once dwelled the need for his father's approval, and the love he'd held for his mother. At least the pain would be received by his own actions, and not handed to him by someone who felt he deserved it. He wanted to feel something because he willed it to be so, not because it was dealt him. And it would be so easy…

"That would cause a great deal more of a mess than I care to bother cleaning up at the moment."

Draco started, spinning to face the entrance to the bathroom. He hadn't heard the door open, but his godfather stood there, leaning leisurely against the threshold and watching Draco with dark eyes.

He could ask Severus what he was talking about, play the fool and attempt to avoid any unpleasantness from what was likely to be a very trying conversation, but Draco had never been the type to play dumb. Often, his arrogance led to foolish actions, but the unsavory results were never what he had originally intended. Still, he couldn't bring himself to pretend not to know what his godfather meant.

Draco glanced back at the mirror and into his own warped image, before lowering his head. It had been an hour, at least, since he had seen his godfather – an hour spent hiding in the bathroom and from the man who had made him an offer he didn't want to refuse… an offer he couldn't take when it was given out of pity. To a hideous, scarred young boy. To a child with nowhere else to go. To an orphan.

Closing his eyes sent fresh tears washing down his cheeks and he turned away to try and keep Severus from seeing. It was a futile move, as the man had clearly already seen the evidence of Draco's weakness, but he attempted to save face nonetheless. He was already repulsive – no need to so easily reveal how pathetic he was.

Severus moved with a silent grace, gliding across the floor like an airborne predator. In a moment, he had moved from the doorway to in front of Draco, long, slender fingers cupping the pale boy's chin. Draco twitched involuntarily at the unexpected action, and he felt the grip Severus had on his face loosen until it was nothing more than a gentle dusting of his fingertips, tilting Draco's head back until he was forced to peer into his godfather's dark eyes.

Severus' other hand came up and he brushed away a tear as it slid down Draco's face. For a moment, both of them were silent; Draco peering into his godfather's dark eyes, and Severus staring at something far away. After a time, however, the Potions Master met his godson's grey eyes as he spoke.

"Your mother would show no mercy in the face of these tears, Draco." The boy tried to lower his face, ashamed, but Severus tightened his grip and refused him the action. "Narcissa was not a fighter. In school, she never did well with spells that benefited one in battle or conflict. Her area of expertise lay in the care of simple things – Care of Magical Creatures and Herbology. She could stay a wild gryphon with a look, and the most stubborn of plants would bloom vividly under her hand. She cared for others, Draco, and in that laid her strength."

Draco sniffled sadly, glancing to the left and away from the gaze that locked to his. Severus gave the boy's head a little shake, and Draco obediently returned his gaze to his godfather's eyes, tears still slipping down his cheeks. Gently, Severus soothed him as he continued to speak.

"Narcissa would never have defied Lucius for herself. He would have beaten her until she could not breathe on her own and have summoned someone to heal her, but she would never move to defend herself. I don't think she cared enough about what happened to her to bother with such a trivial attempt. Under Lucius' eye, it would no doubt have failed. He would have killed her eventually, but it wouldn't have been anything for her to be concerned about. It was you that made her feel concern, to have a reason to live. You gave her a reason to fight, Draco. She would rage against these tears, because she was an enemy of anything that dared to cause you pain. Even her husband."

Severus released Draco's chin and lay a long-fingered hand on his shoulder, still locking eyes with the boy. "So I do not wish for you to think that you are worthless. You are the son of your mother, who loved you dearly. That, if nothing else, makes you important.

"You are the heir to the Malfoy Family, and there is nothing that Lucius can do to stop that now. And you are my godson, Draco… and very important to me."

Draco could feel the tears rolling uninhibited down his face, but he didn't look away from Severus' eyes or try to wipe them away. He was drawn to the sincere tone of the man's voice, and how uncharacteristic it was for him to reveal so much of himself in words, to anyone.

"I do want you, Draco," Severus said, and his tone had grown softer, "as a member of my family. As an heir to my line. As a son, Draco, as you always have been, even when your father lay claim to you. I don't want you to think that my actions are done out of pity. I do not prescribe to pity. I love you, Draco, as a father loves a son, and I want you to find a home here, amongst the rest of my family, with no worries that we will ever betray you." He squeezed the boy's shoulder lightly. "I promise you that we won't."

Draco nodded softly. "I know that, godfather."

"Do you?" Severus asked carefully. "So you truly understand that, Draco?"

"I…" Draco hesitated under the power of those sharp eyes. For a moment, he faltered in his reply and thought about it. "I am… beginning to learn, godfather."

Severus offered the boy a small smile. "Then allow me to teach you."


 

In the teaching of magic in schools, students are taught what a spell is capable of doing. Through this manner, they learn not only what a spell can do, but by exclusion, what it can't.

This, however, is a lie.

Magic has no limits. Magic is everything.

Before mankind existed, before animals roamed the earth, before the planets drifted in the galaxy, and before the galaxy had a form, there was magic.

Older than all things, purer than all things, and the creator of all things, magic came first. It wasn't created or born, wasn't good or evil, wasn't light or dark – it simply was.

A muggle professor would explain to his students that all life follows numbers. The Fibonacci Sequence can be found throughout life, equations can describe processes of evolution and ecological functions, and three sets of three sets of threes can be found circling people's lives, waiting to be noticed.

A witch professor would explain to her students that spells are created through complex equations that magic forms itself around, as though magic itself is drawn to the patterns that sets of numbers and formulas create.

What neither of them will tell their students is that magic came before math, and is not the magic that is drawn to the mathematics, but the mathematics that are created by human minds – magic or muggle – to explain the use of spells and the processes of life in turn. What both of these types of people fail to admit to, out of fear or ignorance, is that muggles do not know everything there is to known about life, and wizards do not know how far magic can truly go. They may theorize all they wish, and they will continue to adjust their equations and add in new sequences as they learn new things, but there is so much that they don't know.

In the same way as witches do not know all there is to know about the ends of magic, if ends exist at all, there are some spells that little to nothing is known about. Rituals, which came before spells, that are as old as mankind itself, perhaps older. Their functions have been revealed over time, their purpose discovered, but not the means by which they work, or how or when they were created, or by whom – if indeed there was a whom.

The Godfather Bond is one such ritual.

No one knows what culture it started in. For as long as witches and wizards have been known to exist, this ritual has existed.

The bond between parent and child is sacred. It is the seed of a man which creates a child, and a woman carries her young long before it tastes fresh air and is welcomed into the corporeal world. A parent who fails by their own action to properly care for a child – or worse, who willingly brings them harm – performs a sacrilegious act that defies the very existence of magic. The recompense for this act is two-fold, as the parents of a child are two-fold. On one side, there stands the mother, who cares and protects – and so the magic will care for and protect the child. One the other side, there stands the father, who fights and defends – and so the magic will fight and take action to defend.

The Godfather Bond is a form of this.

As parents are able to name a secondary guardian for their child, to be certain that he or she is cared for upon their fall, the Godfather Bond upholds this when the ritual is performed. It bonds a child with his guardian, so that the child becomes the guardian's charge. This is recognized by magic, written in the oldest tongue of the world, to be recognized by all, and defied by none.

It was the Godfather Bond that Severus and Draco were preparing to perform.

The ritual allowed for only the two of them to be present, as any other presence would draw the third party into the ritual, as well. In ancient times, the rituals were completed in sacred areas, so that no two rituals were completed at the same time, to assure no interference between the magics. In modern times, the ancient rituals have long since gone out of service but for those few who held to the old ways, so there was little worry.

After dinner, once Elena and Conan had gone to bed, Severus and Draco made their way into the basement of Severus' home. One half of the basement had been made into a Potions laboratory, but the second part, secluded and enclosed, was a perfect square, completely bare but for the magic circle that had been carved into the stone centuries before.

Severus stood on one side of the circle, as Draco took his position opposite him. The boy gasped softly, as the three outer circles lit up crimson as they both stood steady. The inch-deep carved lines filled with scarlet light that rippled like liquid and could very well have been blood, but neither Draco nor Severus dared to reach down and touch it to see. Both stood perfectly still, across from each other, as the circle came to life, beginning to light up around them.

The three outer rings were scarlet, but the designs inside of the circle lit up blue, green, golden, and white respectively, as the thin line that connected the four designs began to ripple and slither like a serpent, and turn black.

"Verus…" Draco whispered uncertainly, as it appeared that the serpent-like line was getting closer to him.

"It's all right, Draco," Severus said, his voice still retaining his usual calm, despite his own awe and fear at the workings of the circle.

The snake-like circle continued to ripple until it had slithered over to surround Draco's feet, still somehow connecting the four designs. Once it touched Draco and lingered a moment, it painstakingly slithered over to surround Severus' feet for a time. Eventually, it rippled its way back into the center of the circle, and both its line and the interior of its form began to glow black, until a great hole had been ripped open in the magic circle that led… somewhere else.

All motion around them stopped, the light halted its glimmering though the color remained, and everything around them was quiet.

Until a voice, like a song, spoke from beyond the shadow of the hole.

"You, Severus Tobias Snape, have summoned me to bind you henceforth to the shadow that is your godson. You wish him taken from where he is and given anew to your blood, as your son, your heir, and your brethren. You ask this of us willingly, and will take it as we give it, eternally?"

"Yes."

"Speak to that which you agree to, Severus Tobias Snape."

"I have summoned you to bind me now and until eternity to my godson, who I will take as my blood, my son, my heir, and my brethren. I ask this of you willingly and will take it forever as it is given."

"Well spoken, you who bear the mark of Godfather."

The air above the hole in the circle shimmered, until a symbol appeared, glowing red. For a moment, it merely lingered there, an image like an inverted V. Then, it moved slowly over to where Severus stood, stopping mere centimeters before Severus' forehead for only a moment, before pressing against the skin.

The red hot symbol hissed as it touched his flesh, sizzling as it branded the skin of his forehead. Severus screamed as the symbol burned into him, but the magic of the ritual held him in place so he could not flee the circle. After a moment, the pain stopped and so did his screams, until all was silent.

His heavy breaths took over then, as he hung his head, his eyes closed and face dripping with sweat.

Draco quivered for a moment, as the voice sang again.

"You, Draco Urien Malfoy, have summoned me to bind you henceforth to the shadow that is your godfather. You wish yourself removed from where you are and placed anew in his blood, to become his son, his heir, and his brethren. You ask this of us willingly, and will take it as we give it, eternally?"

Draco hesitated only long enough to draw a deep breath.

"I have summoned you to bind me henceforth to my godfather, to become his blood, his son, his heir, and his brethren. I ask this of you willingly and I will take it as you give it, for all of eternity."

"Well spoken, you who bear the mark of Godson."

As before, the air above the hole rippled until a symbol appeared, this time a small triangle, outlined in black, but grey in the middle. It floated over to where Draco stood, and pressed itself firmly against his forehead.

It was worse than the Cruciatus.

Draco could not help but scream. The agony tore out of him through his throat, and he could feel the sound cutting him raw, dragging harshly across the interior of his esophagus. The symbol touched his forehead like a cattle brand, hot as fire and sizzling as it pressed against flesh.

The pain didn't stop there, however, but lanced through his body – heat enough to boil his skin, as though he were burning alive. Every pore in his flesh where sprouted a hair felt as though needles were being driven out of them, and his eyes felt as though someone were trying to dig them out with splintery spoons. The blood in his veins felt like both acid and lightning at once, raging through him, burning him from the inside out, and as wild as the magic they attempted to tame. Every beat of his heart pounded heavily in his chest, intensifying the agony, until he didn't think he could take anymore, didn't think he could survive anymore.

And the pain came to a climax, shooting from every vein and pore and flake of skin. Draco screamed as the magic flowed back through his body to slam into his chest, at the throbbing center of his body, agony doubling and tripling over itself as it dug in deep enough to pierce his soul.

And he choked to a halt in his screaming, as his heart stopped.


Somewhere, miles and miles away, another ritual was being performed. The boy who stood in the same position as Draco drew a gasping breath and then another, as his head dropped, sweat dripping down his face. He shuddered, his eyes closed, tears rolling down his cheeks, as the small triangle symbol in his forehead glowed for a moment, and then faded from sight.

The hole in the center of the circle began to close slowly, as a voice whispered from the deep.

"It is done."

Chapter Text

 THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AND DEATH

XII

The Crooked House


There was a crooked man and he walked a crooked mile,
He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse.
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

- author unknown


"Order up!"

The hours between eight and ten o'clock in the morning were always the busiest for The Crooked House. Muggles from the area would rise early and stop in for breakfast, swarming through the door like cattle, scurrying for a table.

Minerva McGonagall, however, did not scurry, and she was most certainly not a cow, or a Muggle, for that matter. She pushed open the door to The Crooked House, smiling in amusement at the bell that jingled upon her entry, and made her way over to a small table in the corner of the room. It was out of sight of a lot of the Muggles, but allowed her full view of the restaurant. And as anyone who knew Minerva was well aware, she enjoyed watching people.

Sitting down at the table with a smile, she didn't have to wait long for Jacob to come over to her table with a smile on his face and a menu in his hand. He held it out to her with a knowing look. "I don't suppose you'll be needing this today, ma'am?"

Minerva smiled gently at the waiter. He had been the one to serve her each day that she came to The Crooked House, always with a smile and a friendly demeanor. She had grown accustomed to his shoulder-length black hair, tied back in a tight knot at the base of his neck, his tanned skin, and his kind, dark eyes. He was quite an attractive young man – something she had seen more than a few teenaged girls act upon while ordering their meals. Jacob was always polite when gently letting them down, however. For whatever reason, it seemed to amuse him to direct their attention to his co-worker, Jack.

Jack was equally as attractive as Jacob. His wild, dark blonde hair was tossed all over the place as though he had been sitting on a broomstick and spinning in circles as fast as he was able. Of course, that wouldn't make any sense, since The Crooked House was a muggle restaurant that Minerva just happened to enjoy visiting. Jack's skin was also tanned, though from the sun, unlike Jacob's natural complexion, and his lime green eyes always seemed to hold a spark of mischief within them. Whenever one of the young women Jacob had let down would turn their sights on him, Jack would offer a grin that would have them all swooning, but he never acted on it. He simply checked them out at the register (in more ways than one, he would say), and cleaned up the tables after the customers left.

The only employee that was rarely ever seen (but often heard) by the patrons was the cook. Jim was Jacob's younger brother. What Minerva had seen of the boy revealed tan skin, wind-swept brown hair, and brown eyes. He had been wearing a large set of headphones when Minerva had seen him, the music blaring from them so loudly that she could hear it across the room. He had been coming out to ask his brother a question at the time about an order. Jacob had taken a look at the order slip and rewrote what he had originally written upon it, and Jim had quickly went back into the kitchens to continue making breakfast for everyone.

Minerva smiled. The three of them were interesting, and she rather enjoyed her weekly visit to The Crooked House.

"No, Jacob, thank you," she said, and watched the amusement rise in his dark eyes. "I'll take the same as usual."

"Two eggs over-easy, toast with jam, a slice of peach cobbler, and chamomile tea with lemon. It will be out in but a moment, ma'am."

"Thank you, Jacob," Minerva said, as he retreated to the kitchens to hand the order over to Jim, before bringing out her tea.

It was interesting to watch the muggles who came in, talking to Jacob and Jack in a friendly manner, never knowing that there was more to them than there appeared.

Minerva could think on Jacob as an attractive young man with a friendly smile, Jack as a laugh-loving flirt, and Jim as a quiet, music-loving young man who tended to hide from attention, but she knew better. Those initial thoughts were for the benefit of people like Albus Dumbledore, who occasionally liked to use their knowledge and practice of Legilimency to read other people's thoughts. Minerva couldn't block the Headmaster from her thoughts completely like Severus was able, but she could certainly misdirect him.

She knew who Jacob, Jack, and Jim really were, and she was still wholly amused by their choice of names.

"Why Jim, though? Isn't that a little risky?"

The dark-eyed man had glanced at his blonde companion, both chuckling in amusement. "Jim Hawkins, actually. Haven't you ever read Treasure Island?"

"Not for many years," Minerva admitted.

"He acts a bit like him, doesn't he?" Jacob asked. "It's almost stunning, how much he has in common with a fictional character."

"Wouldn't the muggles catch on faster? After all, Meyers did write her books for muggles despite being a witch, but the other two are rather popular among this crowd."

"That's true," the blonde admitted, "but to be honest, I'm pretty sure the muggles recognize the references." He jerked a thumb in his companion's direction. "Current popularity as it is, they recognize Fluffy over here quicker than the rest of us. I think they believe it's something of a game, and we're of a mind to just let them continue to think that. It's not doing anyone any harm."

"Even the name of the restaurant can be attributed to muggle culture," Jacob admitted. "A nursery rhyme not many adults may remember, but still." His smile was amused and a little teasing. "We're still debating on which of us is the crooked man who lives in the crooked house."

"Harry refuses to take sides."

Minerva glanced up, feeling someone watching her, and saw Jim standing next to Jack at the register. He grinned at her and waved, and she waved back with a smile. Yes, she was well aware that Jim Hawkins was actually Harry Potter in disguise, just as Captain Jack Sparrow was Sirius Black, his godfather, and Jacob Black was Remus Lupin, a dear friend of her and the others, both. She was well-aware, and she was keeping it a close secret. The only other creature who happened to know was a phoenix by the name of Fawkes, and he had already decided to refuse to tell Albus Dumbledore anything.

The stubbornness of a phoenix is altogether cat-like, Minerva mused, and sipped her tea.

When Jacob brought her meal, she smiled and ate it quietly, as other patrons came and went. When she was finished, she ordered more tea and sat in her seat, watching people come and go, young women flirt and get let down. She couldn't help but be utterly proud of her three students, for though two had graduated Hogwarts years before, they would always be her students, as far as she was concerned.

At two o'clock, the last of the patrons left with smiles, full bellies, and pleasant farewells, and Jack locked the doors behind them. Pulling down the blinds over the windows and doors and then performing a spell to shield the images within from magical detection, Sirius Black waved his wand and transfigured himself back into his normal form.

Long black hair fell in smooth waves down to between his shoulder blades. Sirius had it tied back with a black ribbon. He wore the black slacks and apron, and white shirt that made up his uniform even under the illusion spell. He grinned over at Minerva as she stood, smiling.

"Minnie! You've come to visit again! That's the seventh Monday in a row. I know you love me, but you're making Harry and Remus jealous."

Minerva rolled her eyes at Sirius' antics, because it was expected that she roll her eyes and not burst into laughter like she dearly wanted to. She acted as though she was insulted that he would think to grasp her hand and twirl her around, grinning at her face, but she couldn't keep the smile off of her lips.

"Hello, Sirius."

"Ah, and she remembers my name!" He wiped away an imaginary tear. "I told Remy – your heart would be mine one day." He flashed her the flirtatious grin that everyday caused a new teenage girl to swoon, but Minerva merely scowled, her lips thin.

"That'll be enough of that, young man. I'll not be treated like some love-sick fifteen year old."

Sirius released a put-upon sigh, placing a hand over his heart and sitting down on a booth seat. "Rejected again. My heart shan't survive it this time."

Remus came out of the kitchens with a smirk on his face and Harry at his side. "Honestly, Padfoot, you'd think you'd learn."

"The heart wants what the heart wants, Moony." Sirius gave his friend a lovesick expression. Remus rolled his eyes and swatted Sirius on the back of the head.

"Move over, Pads."

Minerva smiled sadly as Sirius moved over, frowning softly when his face was out of Remus' view. She'd known the two for the seven years they had attended Hogwarts, and then years afterward in the Order, and now she was getting to know them even better. She knew how Sirius felt about Remus, and it broke her heart a little each time she saw him try to hint at his feelings, and the werewolf just not catch on. But she wouldn't say anything. It wasn't her place, and Remus needed to figure out Sirius' emotions on his own. For both their sakes, she hoped he did it soon.

Sliding over in her own seat, Minerva smiled as Harry sat down next to her. She placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed gently, eliciting a grin from the silent boy.

She had worried when the three disappeared how Harry would get along being unable to speak or hear, but she hadn't needed to. Spending time with Remus and Sirius had done wonders for the soon-to-be-fifteen-year-old. He smiled more during Minerva's weekly visits than she had seen him do during an entire school year. It was revealing, but it also pleased her greatly that her two students had been so able to help him.

"How have things been?"

Remus chuckled. "Busy," he admitted, and Minerva knew he didn't just mean The Crooked House. "We've been working on teaching Harry how to read lips." Remus was facing the younger boy as he spoke. "He's been doing quite well, and I know it's not an easy trick to learn." Minerva saw Harry's grin grow at the praise, and was pleased.

"Sign Language is proving to be a little difficult, but to be honest, I had a good deal of trouble learning it, myself. It took me a few years and I still have some problems, and we've only been practicing a little over a month. We've got the alphabet down, and finger-spelling. For the moment, I think that's going to be the most useful. We're more interested in making sure Harry isn't seen by others as being limited. I know once he returns to school, some people would quickly take advantage if that appeared to be the case."

Minerva nodded and then, thoughtfully, "So Harry is returning to school?" She gave the young man beside her a sideways glance.

"Of course," Remus said, smiling and ignoring Sirius' grumble. "We've talked about it and we are well-aware of the problems that might arise, but Harry had his own comments to make. Ultimately, regardless of what we think, it is his choice. And…" Remus nodded, a somewhat sad smile on his face. "I can understand that he wishes to return to school and see his friends. Were I in the same position, that would have been my choice, as well."

"Mine, too," Sirius admitted, "though I don't like the fact that I can't go with him."

Minerva smiled gently. "I can understand that quite well, but I can assure you that I will be keeping a close eye on Harry during the school year." She turned to the young boy sitting next to her, who was squinting his eyes and clearly trying to read what she was saying from the side. "I want you to know, you can come to me if you ever need something, Harry. No matter what."

She watched as the boy's mouth moved in the same manner as hers had, eyes still squinted, before brightening. He grinned and nodded, and then made a motion with his hand, touching the tips of his index and middle fingers to his chin and pulling it away gently. Minerva frowned in confusion.

"It means 'thank you,'" Remus supplied helpfully.

"You're very welcome, Harry."


"Have you given any thought to coming back early?"

Minerva and Jacob were walking together from the restaurant to the nearby bus stop. Harry and Sirius were back at The Crooked House – specifically in the apartment hidden underground, where they had been living these past two months.

"I've talked to Sirius about it, but you've heard him already. He'd rather keep Harry with him from here on out." Remus sighed. "It makes talking to him difficult. He's afraid, you know."

"Yes, I can understand that. Things haven't been easy for any of you."

They walked in silence for a time, lost in their own thoughts and enjoying the company of the other. Since the first time that Minerva had visited, Remus (in the guise of Jacob) would walk her to the bus stop some blocks away, where she would call the Knight Bus to pick her up once all of the muggles were gone.

Hesitantly, Minerva said, "He wanted me to deliver a message to you." She felt Remus stiffen beside her, but he said nothing. "An apology."

"From the Headmaster?"

She nodded without looking at him. "Yes."

The silence returned, but didn't last as long. "May I ask you a question, Minerva?"

"You may."

"Do you trust him? I mean – really trust him."

What an oddly difficult question. "I trust Albus Dumbledore to do what he thinks is right," she admitted, and glanced over at Remus' pensive expression. "Whether or not that ends up being what he should have done is always a question for hindsight. I do know, Remus, that Albus is not a cruel man by nature, and that he truly does care for Harry. He does not want to do him any harm. However, I also think that he remains blind to some aspects of the situation."

"He wants to see the good in people."

"He always has tried to find it, and while I agree with him in that everyone has some light to them, I also know that people can ignore that part of themselves as easily as others ignore the dark."

"He's hoping we'll come back, isn't he?"

"People have been looking for the three of you for over a month. It took him that long to realize that if you don't want to be found, with Sirius on your side, you won't be. He's worried about you, though, even knowing that I've been in contact with you, as well as Fawkes. I'm sure if I had allowed him to write a letter for me to bring to you, it would have also contained an attempt to convince you to come back."

"As well as a tracking spell to locate where we are."

"No doubt," Minerva admitted, smiling. "Which is why I told him I would deliver his message verbally. It's merely an apology, and a promise that should you have questions about what has occurred in Harry's past, he is willing to answer them."

Remus nodded. "We may have some, on Harry's behalf."

Minerva glanced at him. "He's told you what happened, then?"

"As much as he knows. There are things that Harry has been confused about for years, which the Headmaster has failed to reveal to him, no doubt as a means to protect him. The problem is that, for whatever reason, Voldemort seems intent on coming after Harry, and he cannot fight something if he does not know it."

Minerva flinched lightly at the dark lord's name, though between Sirius, Remus, and Albus, she was becoming increasingly used to hearing it. That wasn't something she was particularly happy about.

"Well, he has made the offer, and Harry has a right to know, as many things as he's faced in the past. Especially last year…" She shook her head lightly. "How's he taking that?"

"He's been getting better. He still has nightmares now and then, but things were a great deal worse at the beginning. I know it's not something that he's going to get over right away, and I think he understands that, as well. I'm just glad we're helping."

"The two of you are good for him. I can see how much better he's doing, having been with you. Frankly, if you choose to stay in hiding until September first, I'll understand completely. I'm not here to convince you either way. I enjoy being able to check on all three of you, and I'll do whatever I can to help." She smiled in amusement. "It's also nice to see that you both took something from my class. Your appearances were wonderfully transfigured."

"I'll pass the praise along."

The two of them came to a halt at the bus stop, watching as the muggles loaded up into the waiting vehicle. Minerva turned to Remus as the driver took off, knowing by now that she never took his ferry.

"If you do decide to come back early, let me know beforehand. There are a few people who aren't particular pleased with you right now."

"Molly and Arthur. Yes, we heard." At Minerva's surprised look, Remus smiled. "Hermione Granger truly is the brightest witch of her age. Apparently, she and the Weasleys have taken up residence at Headquarters?"

Minerva nodded, a glimmer is curiosity in her eyes. "Earlier this month."

"She sent us a letter via Fawkes, telling us what she, Ron, and Miss Weasley were able to gather about the attempts to find us. Molly and Arthur are apparently displeased with both Sirius and myself, as well as Ron?"

"Yes, he… spoke his mind to his parents, it seems. I daresay that young man needs to learn when to keep his mouth shut."

"Subtle, Ron is not, I've learned," Remus said quietly, "but loyal – very loyal. I do know that Harry wishes to see them quite badly, so it's entirely possible we will be returning soon – within a few weeks. I will let you know, whatever our decision."

"I appreciate that. I'll see you next week."

Remus nodded. "Good-bye, Minerva." The Transfiguration professor raised her wand, summoning the Knight Bus in a BANG!, as Remus Lupin turned and headed back to The Crooked House, to have yet another discussion with Sirius on how keeping Harry prisoner in the apartment for the rest of his life was not ideal.


Make use of all of your senses, not matter your talent. You use your eyes naturally – you're a human. You cannot hear, so use your sense of smell. What do I smell like, Harry? Now, find me.

The room was completely dark except for the golden words that floated before his eyes, glowing. It was one of the ways that Sirius and Remus had been using to communicate with him. He couldn't hear them speak, and when Sirius was trying to train him, it didn't make much sense for him to stand there and try to read Sirius' lips when he should have been focusing on something else. So Sirius would write what he wanted Harry to know on golden lettering in the air. Harry would read it, and then wave it away with his wand.

Then, the fun began.

Finding Sirius was a game that Harry's godfather seemed to enjoy just a little too much. He put a disturbing amount of effort into hiding, and then would wait – sometimes for hours – until Harry was able to come and find him. Admittedly, though, Harry was not only getting better at finding his godfather during these games, but he was also becoming more observant because of it.

That's been moved, Harry thought, looking at the blanket on the back of the couch. One of the corners had been flipped back, as though someone had brushed by it quickly. Harry moved past the couch, his eyes – back to green now that the transfiguration had been removed – scanning the room for more clues as to where to find his godfather.

Over the past two months spent with Sirius and Remus, the three of them had done a lot. The first thing they had done, of course, had been finding a place where they could stay, without worrying about being found. Sirius and Remus had quickly figured something out, and had explained the history of said idea to Harry in detail.

The Crooked House was not their idea. The restaurant had been a cover long before they were born, built by Harry's great grandparents, on his father's side. During the war with Grindewald, a lot of people had gone into hiding for safety, but some people had gone into hiding and then aided in the war from that location. It had been the idea of James' grandparents to disguise themselves as muggles and open a restaurant in a muggle neighborhood.

A spell was used upon the restaurant that when it was activated, the restaurant appeared to be open and people would simply think that it had always been there. They would go if they wished to, and if they didn't, they wouldn't. When the spell was deactivated, the restaurant would simply appear to be closed and, regardless of the time of day, that wouldn't seem odd to anyone – even if the restaurant sat closed for a hundred years, as it had before the three of them had reactivated the spell.

There were living quarters as a large apartment underneath the restaurant. The entrance to the apartment, however, had been crafted in Wizard Space, so that muggles were not only unable to see it, but unable to enter it unless pulled in by a witch or wizard. The entrance was, amusingly enough, in the oven, and sealed by a password. The knowledge of The Crooked House, as well as the password, had been passed down through James' family. He had shared the information with Sirius and Remus one summer when the three had been hanging out, and when Sirius had run away from home when he was younger, before he went to live with James' family, he had found the Crooked House and hid in the underground apartment.

Learning about this piece of his family history had been a wonderful surprise, and Harry was grateful that Sirius and Remus had remembered it and chosen to use it. After making their way to The Crooked House, they had made sure everything they needed was there, before taking a week to simply relax.

Although Harry had been healed by Madam Pomfrey's magic (Remus and Sirius still hadn't revealed all of the details to him), he had still felt tired, and the inability to hear was disorienting. Harry spent the majority of that first week sleeping, waking up from nightmares, eating meals with Remus and Sirius, and growing accustomed to his new disabilities. The second week had been spent throwing a raging fit about his new disabilities.

It was only during the third week, when Harry was trying to think of a pseudonym and appearance to be disguised under, that Remus had informed Harry of his intentions to teach him how to read lips, and at least the basics of Sign Language.

It had been calming to Harry, who hadn't seen how he would be able to function without being able to hear or speak. How was he supposed to cast spells if he couldn't say the incantations? He hadn't realized that casting didn't require the actual incantation or even words, until Remus had told him so.

Since then, the three of them had come up with a routine. They would get up at five o'clock in the morning, dress in their uniforms and then disguise themselves as Jim, Jacob, and Jack, respectively. They would open The Crooked House, and once people would start filtering in, Remus would take their orders, Sirius would check them out and clear up tables, and Harry would sit in the kitchens and peer through a wall that was transparent on his side, and try to read the lips of the people that Remus was talking to.

When Remus came back to "give Jim his order," he would check what Harry had seen people speak, correct him if necessary, and then leave the order to be made by the cooking spells that were constantly in motion in the kitchen. Harry had never heard it, of course, but apparently there was a spell that would call out "Order up!" every time one of the order tickets had been fulfilled.

At two o'clock, after the lunch rush was over, they would close The Crooked House, and all of the patrons would leave as the spell deactivated. On Mondays, they would spend a few hours visiting with Professor McGonagall, and when she left, Remus would walk her to the bus stop, and Sirius and Harry would go down into the apartment and play Finding Sirius.

Any other day, the three of them would eat a late lunch, and then they would practice casting without speaking. Harry was surprised to learn that, so long as he knew the actual purpose and function of the spell in question, he could actually cast it easier without saying anything than if he did so while worrying about saying the incantation correctly, as well. Remus told him that this was actually something that a lot of people had trouble with, because they were unable to see how unnecessary the words were. Harry wasn't sure he actually believed him, but for him, the wordless casting was easy. Over time, these lessons in casting varied between practice duels and learning new spells, depending on how the day was going.

Afterward, the three of them would have dinner, and then Harry would work on his summer homework. He was nearly done with all of it – having Sirius and Remus around was a great deal of help, as between the two of them, he had a tutor in almost every subject at Hogwarts. Once his homework was completed, they did whatever they wanted for the rest of the night, sometimes playing Chess or Exploding Snap, reading a book, or just laying down and relaxing.

It was a lot of work, that was true, but Harry didn't really mind. He enjoyed spending time with Remus and Sirius, even if they were in hiding. He'd never had a summer that was so wonderful, and part of him hoped that it would never end. Another part, though, missed his friends terribly, and knew that it would soon be time to return to school. He worried a little about how that would go. Would his friends be okay with the fact that he couldn't hear them or couldn't speak, or would they not want to hang out with him anymore? They wouldn't be mad at him for leaving, would they?

The curtain around the window was hanging differently than it had been earlier, and since the windows were only spelled to show an outdoor view, none of them had been opened. Smiling, Harry threw the cloth aside and pointed his wand at a large black dog hunkered low to the ground.

The dog's ears pricked and his tongue lolled out of his mouth in a gesture Harry had quickly determined meant Good job. He grinned.

Chapter Text

THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AND DEATH

XIII

The Artifacts


 

"You know you don't have to make a decision tonight, Harry. It's probably best if you think on it for a few days."

"And if you do want to stay, that's perfectly fine. You don't have to go anywhere and it can be just the three of us. We could move to America. I've been there a few times and it's no England, but—"

"Sirius!"

"Fine, fine… just know that you don't have to go back, unless you want to."

"I know, but I need to."

Harry stared down at his unsteady handwriting. It always had been atrocious, but it was even worse now – or, at least, when they tremors in his hands struck. They only came now and then, but it seemed that they were becoming more and more violent when they did strike.

The journal in which Harry was writing was another invention by Sirius and Remus as a way for them to communicate. The journal was charmed to record whatever a person said, in their handwriting. The two of them had gotten the idea from Tom Riddle's Diary, which Harry had told them about when they had asked him about what had happened during school in the years before they met him. Needless to say, it hadn't been a pleasant conversation, but it had been a necessary one, and some good did come of it.

Because Harry couldn't speak, obviously the book wouldn't record his intended words, so he was forced to pen them in himself. Unfortunately, the tremors in his hands had been bad enough all day that they had needed to cancel their normal spellcasting training, because Harry could hardly aim when his hands were shaking so horribly.

Sighing softly, Harry placed the quill back on the page and continued writing.

"Voldemort is after me. I don't know why – Dumbledore has never told me that, but I can't just run away."

"Of course you can!"

"Sirius…"

"Look, Harry. This isn't you're problem. It's not your job and you don't have a duty to Albus Dumbledore to be there to stop Voldemort every year. You're fifteen years old! You're a child! I know that's hard for you to understand because you've never been allowed to be a child, but we want to give you the chance to be one now. I don't want you to think you have to run back there because it's your job to stop him. You never should have been placed in the situations you were, or forced to face him at all. You've had enough taken from you already, Harry. I will not let Albus Dumbledore take more from you, or from me!"

Harry swallowed thickly, blinking as he read the words as they appeared on the page. He didn't look up at Sirius or Remus as he placed the quill back on the page.

"You've told me all of that before, and I know you guys would let me stay with you forever if I wanted. And…"

And part of him really wanted to. Part of Harry wanted nothing more than for him to turn his back on Hogwarts and the Wizarding World both and spent the rest of his life with Remus and Sirius, with people who he loved, and who he knew loved him. It was such a strange, rare thing for him, and it meant so very much. More than he had words to explain, really.

But he could try…

"And part of me wants to. And I've thought about it, but I really do need to go back. I want to see my friends again, and I want to finish my classes at Hogwarts. I want… to be normal, or as normal as I can be. I don't want to run all of my life, and if that means I have to face Voldemort, even if it's not my job, then I will. If I have to stop him to be free, then I'll stop him."

He chewed his lip a moment.

"That's… you're okay with that, right?"

"Of course we're okay with it, pup. We told you, it's your decision. If you want to go back, then we will. But let's wait a few days. I need to prepare a few people first, and give some of them time to calm down."

Harry relaxed. He had been worried that Sirius or Remus might think that he didn't like being here with them, when the opposite was true. He truly wished that he didn't have to leave, but he had this feeling that there was something coming. Along with it came the sensation that, unless he was at Hogwarts, where, save once, he had always faced Voldemort, he wouldn't survive.

And neither would anyone else.


"There were seven originally, but the seventh hath fallen. The Dust was ground too deeply to be summoned back, its glimmer gone, its magic wrought. Six remain, that you shall hold. Six remain, that shall summon I. Six remain, that you must find."

Six stones formed a circle in the air that spun slowly. Each stone was a solid sphere as large as a boulder, but as they rotated, one by one, they began to change.

The first, a green and blue mix of color, quivered as though something sharp were striking it. Small flecks of stone were chipped away bit by bit, as a chisel invisible to the eyes was hammered against the rock. The bits were taken from the center and tossed into the air, where they fell for only a moment, before disappearing – unimportant.

Paeluis was the first formed. Her magic rested always in her power to hold. To strengthen her powers, her center was removed until she could hold all that could fit within her. She was the strongest of all of the stones, able to bear any burden, unhindered.

The sharp stones edges left over from the chipping were sanded down carefully, until they gleamed smooth, creamy, and the center of the sphere now bore a basin into which something could be poured.

"Paeluis will hold any object within her center with no harm befalling her womb. Her mate is Gladius, the speared one."

The second stone was a gold and silver mix of colors. As Paeluis returned to the circle of stones changed, the second stone began to alter. The edges were stripped, chiseled away, flecks and hunks broken off, to disappear out of sight. Something sanded down her edges, until they became smooth, but remained straight. The bottom of the stone ended at a point, like a sword.

"Gladius always held his magic within his center, for he is strong and strikes true for the heart of things, but it is his heart that is his weakness, for no blood shall ever coat him and let him bear the burden of wrought destruction. He brings harm to no living creature, but his magic and strength can slice through any object."

The third stone that began to change was a milky white. Something unseen moved over it, smoothing the creamy texture until it appeared almost porcelain. The center was sanded and dug at and burned, until the color was drawn away and all that remained was a thin layer as clear and transparent as glass.

"Lapis Verim is sister to Paeluis, and her magic dwelled not within her body, but within her sight. She will look at all things in time, but no lies will pass her vision into the mind of another. No illusion or spell can hide from the sight of the one who chooses only to see Truth."

The fourth stone was black as onyx, and something chiseled away at the edges, smoothing the stone into a cylinder that widened at the base. The object itself seemed familiar, like the model of a tower.

"Turris is the defender, brother to the speared one. Where Gladius will cut, Turris will defend and protect. He bears the pain of others so that such pain can be halved in his presence. He protects all who he holds dear, all who are worth defending, and knows how to keep them safe. He is both the opposite of his brother, and his brother's greatest foe."

The fifth stone was a deep red. It both gleamed like fire and dripped like blood. This stone did not move or change, but remained steadfast in its form.

"Nothing could be done to strengthen the magic of Cor, for she is as she is – strong, made of magic and magic-making, bearing for all things passion, and alone both strong and fragile. She feels everything for others, and feels the everything of others, and can use this, twist this, become this, and change who, where, and how another is."

The sixth stone was rather unassuming. A mute brown in color, like dark mud, its sole change was a hole that was dug through the center of it, the edges smoothed into thin, elegant curves, until it was not so much a stone anymore, as a ring.

"Orbis is the last of the stones, now that the seventh hath fallen. He is the one who hides, for one who seeks a stone shall see a ring as nothing of consequence. Those who seek out his magic shall not find it, for the magic hides but for that moment when it is not sought, and then it comes. Orbis is the binder, who bears the minds of two, and only two, in tandem. He is the mate of Lapis Verim, for he takes the truth that his mate sees and offers it to the mind of another, forever binding them, heart, mind, and soul."

The six circled each other in the air, no longer stones, but now taking on the form of their magical properties. Slowly, they each began to shrink, until they would fit into the palm of a hand, near all but mere pebbles to be grasped.

"These six must be sought, fought for, and borne. Paeluis, the bowl; Gladius, the sword; Lapis Verim, the Stone of Truth, Turris, the tower; Cor, the heart, Orbis, the ring.

"Once there were seven, and so there are seven of you, who shall seek and know and find and fight. Six of you will bear an artifact within your hands, and one of you shall turn to the shadows when your hands touch nothing. Let the six stones call to you in your dreams, and in your dreams, seek them. Find them. Fight for them. Summon me.

"Do so quickly, lest you be bested by he who walks with Death, and seeks its master.

"Fly, my six chosen. Fly, find, and fight."

In the darkness of night's cloak, seven children woke up from a dream of stones and an echoing prophecy. Six children awoke with a purpose.

One child woke up screaming.


"M-Master… they're here." A short, balding man tried to curl into himself as he twitched and quivered before his master. He bleeted his words on a tongue of terror, his fingers flicking and twitching as his eyes scanned the room for the fastest escape route, should one prove necessary.

"Very good, Wormtail." A shadow in the corner moved and the pale visage of Lord Voldemort appeared, flowing across the floor like a creature from Death's playpen, escaped. He rested long, spindly fingers on the head of his personal lackey, who flinched under the touch. The Dark Lord smirked appreciatively.

"You have done well in this, Wormtail. If I could expect such work continuously, you would have no fear of reprisal."

Wormtail twitched and quivered, eyes rolling in search of the words he should respond with. "Y-Yes, m-my lord."

"Do not promise what I know you will not give me! Crucio!" The wand was in his hands in but a second, flicking and sending the rat-like man screaming to the ground in the throes of agony. The Dark Lord made a thoughtful sound, as he steadied his wand into a deeper press on his magic, causing the agony Wormtail was experiencing to increase double over.

Finally, he released the spell abruptly, and watched with only a small amount of interest as the man continued to convulse for a few moments, as he drew in great gasps of air.

"Have I driven you mad and useless yet, Wormtail?"

The balding man quivered, unable to rise. "N-No, my lord."

"So you're still sane, but you were always useless, weren't you, Wormtail?"

"Yes, m-m-my lord."

"Yes, I thought so. Do you know what I do to subjects who are useless, Wormtail?" Wormtail only whimpered in response. "Yes. Yes, I thought you did. Crucio!"

As the man dissolved again into screams, Voldemort walked to the large double doors that led to a grand ballroom. He was careful to keep his wand trained on Wormtail, continuing the cruciatus curse, as he pushed open the doors and stepped into the room beyond.

A group of Death Eaters, seven in total, waited for him in kneeling positions on the floor. Behind them stood four more cloaked figures – not Death Eaters, but something far more potent. They were each swathed in black cloaks, tied about their throats with crimson string, the hoods pulled forward so far that no penetrated the hoods to reveal even their eyes. Voldemort smiled a feral grin at the sight of them, but turned his attention first to his Death Eaters.

"You know why you are here?"

No one answered him, and he released Wormtail from the cruciatus to bring his wand forward, pointed at the Death Eater to the furthest left. "Answer me!"

"Yes, my lord."

Voldemort kept his wand level on the masked face of the kneeling man. "Tell me why you are here."

"You need us to—"

"Crucio!" As the man collapsed, screaming, to the ground, Voldemort turned to the Death Eater next to him. "You tell me."

"You want us to find the Stones of Life and Death."

"Yessss…" Voldemort removed the cruciatus from the other man, leaving him gasping. "I need none of you, but I shall save myself some time. There are seven stones of Life and Death. They can be found within the Realm of Dreams, and once found, you will awaken with them in your hand. With all seven, I can summon Life, to kill Death." Or, his death, rather, giving him immortality, and damning everyone who would try to oppose him. He had but to hold all seven stones within his hands to have command of the two most powerful magical creatures in the world. He would be completely unstoppable.

"Wormtail!"

The short man skittered into the room, having had enough time to recover that he could walk. He held a large box in his hands, which he held out to Voldemort when he had reached his master and dropped to his knees before him.

"Aahhh…" Voldemort breathed, as he flicked the locks that bound the box closed and opened the lid. Inside, there were seven small vials, each containing a mouthful of lavender-colored liquid. Gingerly, Voldemort picked on up in his long fingers and held it before his eyes.

"The Slumber of Ages. A potent potion, is it not, Severus?"

"That it is, my lord." Severus snape, clothed in a blackoyaoak and the white mask of one of Voldemort's loyal followers, stepped out from the shadows. He moved with a grace from the corner of the room where he'd lain in wait, and made his way nearer to the seven Death Eaters that bowed before their lord.

Voldemort glanced his way lazily. "Tell me of it."

"The Slumber of Ages is a potion that takes exactly a year to brew. It must be consumed during a full moon for full potency to take effect. When it is consumed, it sends the subject into a sleep that will last until the duty that has been assigned him prior to his slumber is accomplished. This duty can be anything, but if it is not accomplished, the sleeper shall never awaken. He will not remain asleep until he dies of old age, either, but shall begin to putrefy after seven day's time. Eventually, his body will devour itself."

"Yesss." Voldemort smiled cruelly at the liquid in the vial and spoke to the seven who knelt at his feet. "The seven of you are my chosen, to take the Slumber of Ages and make your way through the Realm of Dreams. The duty you are assigned is to find the seven artifacts of Life and Death and awaken with them in your hands." He held up the vial of lavender liquid. "You will each consume this whole vial upon the rise of the Sturgeon Moon, and then seek out the artifacts.

"Lucius, my most trusted."

"Yes, my lord?" The Death Eater to the furthest right rose to his feet and stepped forward.

Voldemort handed him a vial. "You are to seek out Lapis Verim."

"Yes, my lord."

"McNair, you will find Turris. Amycus, you are to find Paeluis." Voldemort handed each of them a vial of lavender liquid as they came forward.

"Bellatrix…"

"Yes, my lord!" the woman cried, very nearly leaping forward.

"You will seek out Gladius, the speared one."

"Of course, my lord!" the woman took the vial eagerly and unstoppered the top. She sniffed the potion with fervor, grinning from ear to ear.

"Fenrir, you will find Cor. Avery, I want you to find Orbis."

Voldemort stepped in front of the seventh Death Eater, the last vial of potion dangling from his fingers. "Alecto, I send you after the seventh artifact – the most elusive of them all." He handed the last vial of potion to the grinning woman. "I want you to find Afa, the Dust."

"As you wish, Lord Voldemort."

Once the seven Death Eaters who had been named Voldemort's chosen had left, and Severus had bowed and swiftly followed them from the room, the Dark Lord turned his attention to the four cloaked figures that were waiting for him.

"Lilith," he said by way of greeting, "I would tell you it was a pleasure—"

"But it is not." The voice that hissed from the shadows of a hooded cloak was a wheezing gasp of air that formed words that very well may have been a scream, if any force ever could have been placed behind them. They sounded like the last words from a dying woman's breast, the final sound on a final breath, but more kept coming. "Do not waste my time with petty trivialities, Marvolo. I am not pleased at having been disturbed, even for the likes of you."

Voldemort had always hated his father's name – the first, given to him like a brand, and the surname, marking him as belonging to the despicable muggle – but Lilith had forever refused to call him by a name which struck fear into the hearts of mortals and which his servants called him by. Thus, she called him by his middle name, Marvolo, which was not liked, but certainly less repulsive than the rest.

"For what reason did you summon me, Marvolo? I have many things better to do with my time. There are many creatures I would rather spend my time with than you." Voldemort knew she would much rather spend her time eating some of these people than spending any significant time with them, but he said nothing of the sort.

"I have a proposition for you." Lilith said nothing, waiting for him to speak. "Albus Dumbledore has proven himself to be as constant in his interference as a thorn in its pricking. I need him to fall, and with him, the hierarchy he has built around himself. As he rests within a fortress, this cannot be done from the outside." His crimson eyes narrowed. "I need someone to do it from within. Someone that I can trust to be as ruthless and she is discreet."

Reaching up long, gnarled brown-green fingers, Lilith pushed back her hood, displaying a thin, bald head, skin stretched tight over a misshapen skull. Where her eyes and nose should have been, there was only skin, the same sickly color as her rotting hands. The only feature her face contained was a wide, round hole – a mouth that continually sucked air, as though constantly searching for a soul to devour.

The mouth abruptly widened and stretched into a grin that split her head in half, baring large, razored teeth that sat crooked in black, rotting gums. "The children of Hogwarts are always a treat, Marvolo, and I shall gladly infiltrate their masses. As for my children…"

"The dementors always have a place amidst my ranks."

"Very well. I leave you to your mortal rabble." She turned her head back toward the remaining cloaked figures, and had she eyes, it would have been obvious that she was looking at them. Lacking eyes, however, only her cavernous mouth sliding into the form of a sneer could be read on her face, before it fell back into a wide grin. "I shall ready my children. Soon, we feast."


"August 28th."

"Yes, Headmaster." Severus grimaced. "I know that doesn't give you much time."

"No, but perhaps enough. Why the Sturgeon Moon, however? Why not the Thunder Moon? I would have thought that he would wish to move faster, to ensure his success."

"It seems he has been planning this for some time," Severus admitted. "His patience is… alarming in this situation. Not that he has a great deal of it, but still, he is strategizing – setting up his pieces."

"Yes. Playing the Chessmaster. Still, his reasons for choosing the Sturgeon Moon?"

"The Crimson Moon, it would seem. It is merely a myth, of course—"

"As are most things of great power in our world." Dumbledore pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "I hadn't even considered that a possibility, but it shouldn't have escaped me. So, Tom wishes to draw even greater power from the red haze of the August moon. Very well. I will do my best to gather together who I think would be most fitting to face Voldemort's chosen. They shall each have to face one of his Death Eaters in the Realm of Dreams.

"I am afraid, Severus, that I would choose you as my seventh. You may need to give up your duties as a spy for this."

"That is well enough, Headmaster. The second batch of the Slumber of Ages that I brewed is ready to be taken. I will gladly take one of the vials myself and enter the Realm of Dreams. Should I take the potion tonight?"

"No, Severus. The Realm of Dreams is a world quite different from this one. Entering it alone is dangerous, but to slip into its depths on multiple occasions is asking too much. We shall wait until the rise of the Sturgeon Moon ourselves, and enter the Realm of Dreams when Voldemort does. We will match his forces and find the artifacts before he can.

"If you have any suggestions for those who will join you, I would like to hear them."

"Only one, Headmaster, and I would like for it to remain beyond anyone's knowledge that I asked for him."

"Oh? Might I assume you would like a former professor to join you?" Dumbledore asked, his clue eyes lighting up in delight.

Severus scowled at him in return. "It is no manner of kindness of kindred spirits that have me wanting him there. Remus Lupin is a werewolf, and in the Realm of Dreams, the full moon will release his powers just as they do his control. A werewolf with mind intact and full use of his scenes and all of the gifts Lycanthropy grant him. I would ask for no greater tool than this, save omniscience."

"I cannot grant you the latter, Severus, so I shall speak with Remus of it should I see him before August's moon. I daresay Sirius may have some words for you, however."

"He I would request you exclude, Headmaster."

"I do not wish for the Realm of Dreams to be bathed in the blood or spirits of either of you, my boy, and so that is a request I will acquiesce to." The headmaster rose to his feet from his chair, followed quickly by Severus. "And now, I believe we both have duties to return to. I must speak with those whom I can contact about entering the Realm of Dreams, and I believe you have potions to attend to."

"Yes, Headmaster." Severus inclined his head. "I shall bring the potion to you on the twenty-eighth."

"I will see you then, Severus. You have my wish for much luck, my boy. Do be careful."

"Of course, Headmaster."

Chapter Text

Dear Minerva,

I am writing this letter to you, because if I let Jack do it, he'd take up the entire parchment complaining about this, and never get around to telling you anything. Except maybe flirting a little – you know how he enjoys doing that.

We told Jim that the decision was his entirely, and he's decided that it's best we return to Hogwarts. We're planning to wait just a few days, as I know there are a couple people who will need to be prepared – that is, told and given time to calm down. I do apologize if this task happens to fall to you. I rather hope it doesn't. In fact, I think you should let Albus be the one to tell them. It seems a fitting punishment.

I am content to wait for your reply, to tell us when the best time is to arrive, and where we should reappear. Please note that Jim is anxious to see his friends again, but also, I believe, rather nervous. Perhaps a lot of people is not the best of ideas?

I hope all is well with you and look forward to hearing from you soon.

Yours truly,

Jacob


August 5th found Minerva McGonagall back at The Crooked House, for what she estimated to be the final Monday she would eat there. This brought some manner of regret, as she was rather fond of both the establishment and its food. Still, it would be good to have her three students back, as they were meant to be.

She watched as the muggles began to filter out of the restaurant, the spell having been shut off that made them believe the place had always been there. As the last of them wandered out, the rugged Jack Sparrow bounded over to her with a grin on his face. He grabbed hold of Minerva's hand and began to pull her into a dance.

"Honestly, Mr. Black, do behave yourself!" she cried, trying so very hard not to laugh as he twirled her around. Had she been wearing her cloak, it would have spun around her legs as effectively as a skirt, but the smart brown slacks and emerald green blouse she was wearing held no such extravagance. Still, they allowed her to blend in nicely in the Muggle World, and she was rather fond of them, to be honest.

"Oh, but Minnie, you bring out the worst in me, you know!" Sirius declared, completely giving up the pretence that his transfigured form suggested. He finished spinning her about and pulled her to him, grinning devilishly at her.

"Really now," Minerva said, pressing both hands against his chest and pushing away from him. She'd recognized that grin. It was a look he had given to many a girl at school during his days as a practicing student, either trying to coerce them into something, or distract them from one thing or another. She had ceased to be fooled by such smiles around the middle of his third year, and time had not dampened her awareness of the danger they held when present on his lips.

Sirius merely smiled at her with a mixture of happiness and apology. It was a good look to see. She had worried for a time, after learning of his innocence, that the years he spent in Azkaban would have completely destroyed him. While she could see some of the damage they had left on his soul, burning like coal-fires in his eyes, she was glad to see that the spark of mischief which had always caused her as much amusement as exasperation was still glimmering like a lit firecracker in his gaze. She hoped it never faded. Merlin knew their world needed the humor people like Sirius could bring them, and it was good to have him near Harry, childishness and all.

Minerva and Sirius both turned when the door to the kitchens opened and the second half of their party appeared. Harry and Remus had removed their transfigurations, and Minerva watched from the corner of her eye as Sirius followed suit, waving his wand over his body with practiced elegance and removing his own with ease. The dark-haired marauder grinned at both Remus and his godson in turn, and she was delighted to see that there was laughter burning in Harry's green eyes. She hoped that lingered, as well.

"Are we ready?"

"I believe so," Remus said, squeezing Harry's shoulder. "The Crooked House has been turned off, and everything is locked down so that it's protected. I don't think there's anything else we need to do, except return."

"Where are we going, Minnie?" Sirius asked, grinning at her.

"As you said in your letter, Remus," Minerva said, rolling her eyes in expected exasperation at Sirius, "the fewer people, the better. The Headmaster agreed to allow you the use of the castle for two weeks, until the meetings currently going on at Headquarters have been dealt with."

Sirius grimaced in distaste, but Remus was looking at Harry, who was moving his hands slowly, finger-spelling the word Headquarters out as a question.

"We'll explain about that a bit later, Harry," Remus said, the words appearing in the journal Harry had opened in his hands. "It'll be easier for you to see it, but it's where the people Dumbledore has on his side are planning out their part of the war."

Harry nodded and Remus turned back to Minerva. "Are we portkeying, then?"

"Yes. I have one that should take us directly to the Headmaster's Office. He won't be there," she added, as reassurance, and held out a small wrapped parcel. Each of them touched a finger to it, and with a jerk behind their navels, they were off.

They landed heavily in a circular office all four of them recognized from their own specific times having been in it. As Minerva had predicted, it was empty – even Fawkes was absent from his perch. Harry pushed himself up from where he had stumbled to the floor and turned to head, as he suspected, right down the spiral staircase. Minerva caught his arm before he went too far and waited until he had turned back to face her.

"Harry, I'm afraid I'll have to part with you here, as I need to floo to Headquarters," she said, speaking slowly so that he could follow the movements of her lips. "I wanted to give you your birthday present, before it got even later." She handed the wrapped parcel they had used as a portkey to Harry. Surprised, he took the gift and, with a glance at Sirius and Remus, unwrapped it slowly.

The box under the wrapped paper was only large enough to hold a very small object, like a golf ball. Or, in this particular case, a golden snitch.

Harry glanced up at her, startled.

"Your father had one, I believe. I'm not sure where he got it, but I do know he enjoyed playing with it. For a Chaser, he was rather good at snatching it from the air, though not nearly as good at either Charlie Weasley or yourself. I daresay you don't need the practice, Harry, but I thought you might enjoy it, just the same."

Harry took the snitch from the box and watched in mute fascination as it unfurled in his hand, much like that first snitch he had held, in his first year. The tiny dragonfly-like wings fluttered, buzzed, and then the snitch was airborne, flitting madly about his head. He tracked it perfectly with his eyes, unaware that all three of his companions were watching him with expressions of amusement, nostalgia, and relief.

Merlin, he looks like James in moments like these. James had never been able to keep his eyes on the snitch at all points, of course – he was a Chaser through and through – but he did enjoy making the attempt. Moony had always been the one who could catch the snitch when it got away from the raven-haired youth, but they had never been able to convince their friend to play. Sirius had enjoyed a few years as a Beater, but none of them were as mad for Quidditch as James had been; ironically, of course, except for Lily. Sirius wondered, idly, if Harry knew his mother had also been a Quidditch player on the Gryffindor team.

He can still keep it in his sights… Remus had a thoughtful expression upon his face, unlike the nostalgic half-smile on Sirius' lips, and the Quidditch-crazed grin on Minerva's. Madam Pomfrey had informed them, after doing a full physical for Harry, that his eyesight had been affected by Vernon Dursley's beatings, as well as his hearing and his ability to speak.

Remus knew from his year teaching at Hogwarts and watching him play that Harry was an incredible Seeker, and that his eyes tracked the snitch easily. Just as easily as he is doing now, in fact.

And that didn't really make a lot of sense. If the prescription of Harry's glasses were, as Madam Pomfrey had said, a far cry from what he would need now that his eyes had been further damaged, then Harry should have had a much more difficult time in tracking the snitch. As Remus watched, however, the boy flashed out a hand like a cat attacking a tassel and snagged the snitch easily from the air. Its wings flittered and buzzed futilely in his grip, as Harry kept a firm hold on the errant golden ball, and a blinding smile on his face.

I think, perhaps, I will have to talk with Madam Pomfrey, Remus thought, glancing at both Sirius and Minerva. Both of them were concentrated on Harry and didn't see his glances, and from the looks on their faces, Remus estimated that they had not come to a similar conclusion as he. That was well enough, as he could handle such a simple thing himself. It might require nothing more than asking Harry when, exactly, he had gone to the doctor's to get the prescription for his glasses. As cruel and neglectful as Petunia Dursley had been, Remus didn't think it would surprise him very much if it turned out that Harry had been going so long with the wrong prescription for his glasses, and if that were the case, that was good news. It could be that his eyes hadn't been damaged at all. He hoped so. Perhaps things weren't nearly as bad as they appeared.

Minerva was glad to have been able to give Harry his birthday present, even late as it was. She was even more glad, seeing the smile on his face, that she had asked Albus to allow her to replace the Quidditch balls this year, since they had been having some trouble with a few of them in the past. Filius had been more than happy to look over the old snitch and make sure that it was in tip-top shape and there was nothing wrong with it. As intelligent as he was, Minerva hadn't had any concerns about his talents being lacking, nor that any of her requests for certain charms being placed on the golden ball would become knowledge for those who were not meant to know of them.

A clock in the office chimed three in the afternoon, and Minerva glanced at the fireplace, as though expecting someone. Sighing, she turned to find Remus watching her, while Sirius was still studying Harry playing with the snitch.

"Ron and Hermione are currently the only two of Harry's friends present in the castle. They are waiting for you in Gryffindor Tower, where you are all permitted to sleep. It is likely that you will all be joined later by Ginny Weasley, and perhaps a few others. I have mentioned to Albus that a large number of people is not a wise idea, however, and he has agreed to allow only a few people to be present.

"Madam Pomfrey has been staying in the Infirmary, although I believe she had been making periodic visits to St. Mungo's. Filius Flitwick will be returning in a week to prepare for his classes. Should you need anything, however, Elena Morely is currently staying in a room near Gryffindor Tower. You may wish to speak with her, as she is Harry's secondary guardian now, despite your disappearance."

"And how many people know of that?" Remus asked nervously.

"Fortunately, it somehow managed to escape the media's attention. I am grateful to whatever forces have managed to keep Rita Skeeter away from our current troubles, though I fear it won't last." The fireplace chimed and Minerva glanced at the flames. "I'm afraid I have to leave you now, but Gryffindor Tower is ready for your arrival. The password is Kappa, as per Miss Granger's request."

Remus smiled. "Indeed. Very well, then, Minerva. Thank you for your help."

"And thank you for returning, Remus, Sirius." She smiled at the raven-haired boy standing before her, a smile on his face, despite everything. "I'll see you soon, Harry."


Harry kept the golden snitch clutched firmly in his hand as he walked down the corridors of Hogwarts with Remus and Sirius. He tried to ignore the fluttering in his stomach that was leading to a queasy sensation that bode no good will, but he couldn't quite shake the feeling that he might be sick. Really, it was just Ron and Hermione, and they were his best friends in the world. Why was he nervous?

He knew why, of course. He'd been missing for nearly the entire summer. He'd just disappeared without a word to either of them, and he hadn't sent either of them a letter to say that he was even all right. What if they were angry at him? What if they didn't want to be his friends anymore, not just because of his disappearing, but because he couldn't hear or speak to them? Would they just cast him aside?

Not Ron and Hermione. Harry shook his head gently, willing away the doubt. Not his two best friends, no. They wouldn't turn him aside just because he couldn't do something. They'd been friends since their first year, and they'd accomplished so much together – faced so much. They weren't petty, and he shouldn't doubt them.

And he was glad he would be able to see them again. He'd missed the two of them. Of course, over the holidays, he always missed his friends, but this summer it was even more noticeable. He wasn't around the Dursleys – he'd been somewhere where he was safe and cared for, and he'd wanted to share that with his friends, but he couldn't, because they were hiding.

I'm back now, though, he thought, and maybe next summer, we can all spend time together. It would be nice, Harry thought, to have a summer like other kids did, where he could spend time with his friends and have fun. He looked forward to it, almost as much as he looked forward to stepping back into Gryffindor Tower.

Sirius glanced over at the graying man walking beside him. Remus' lips were turned down slightly in one of his less-noticeable frowns of concern. "You're worried."

The werewolf's eyes flicked to the left, taking in the tall, dark-haired man who was rolling his eyes at him. Multiple times, of course.

"I can see you rolling your eyes, Sirius."

"Oh, good, then I can stop."

The two walked in silence for a while, before Sirius spoke again. "Why are you worried, Moony?"

Remus sighed softly. "There's always that chance…" He trailed off, shaking his head softly.

"Remus?"

"I always worried, when we were in school, that you would find out that I was a werewolf. I told myself that one day, when I was ready, and when I thought you were ready, I would tell you, but I'm not sure I really believed myself. In all honesty, I probably would have kept putting it off for as long as I could, because as long as you didn't know, things could stay as they were. I would be fine with things staying the way they were. You were all my friends, and that meant more to me than… than I think I can express." He frowned. "I wish I could explain it."

"I know what you mean, Remus," Sirius said softly, his voice losing the playfully teasing tone it usually carried. "Before I met James, and then you, I didn't have any friends, either." He left out Peter, since both of them knew where that friendship had gone. "There was just Regulus, and the children of my parent's rich friends. Having friends meant that I suddenly had a lot more to be thankful to Hogwarts for. It also meant I had a lot more to lose." He glanced at Remus. "That's what you're worried about, isn't it? Him losing his friends."

"It's what I'd worried about. What I had worried about."

"You worry about everything, Moony." Sirius gave his friend a sideways grin. "I see where you're coming from, but I don't think you have to be concerned. You did see Ron in the hospital wing when the Weasleys came to visit, didn't you?"

"Yes, of course I did. Everyone saw him. However, have you considered the possibility that the truth hadn't sunk in yet?"

"Please, Remus, don't insult him."

"I'm not insulting him, but I had Ron as a student. He's not the brightest crayon in the box."

"Crayon?"

"Oh, shut up, you know what a crayon is, you pure-blooded heathen."

Sirius chuckled at him. "Remus, next to Hermione Granger, are we not all dimwitted fools. Except you, of course." Remus sent him a half-hearted glare. "Come on, Remus. When we were in school, you told me I could get straight Outstandings in probably every class except History of Magic if I really tried. So why did I suffer through, attaining nothing but Acceptables and Dreadfuls?"

"Because you're a lazy mutt."

"Because school is better spent pissing off, doing something fun. Not sitting in a library, reading countless old tomes. I know you enjoy it, but we've discussed before how I think your wolfish dichotomy has rattled your brain in more ways than one."

"Ass."

"My point is, Ron is outshined by Hermione. Before that, I've no doubt he was outshined by his brothers. He has five of them. I only had one and I know people saw Regulus as better than I was in school. Can you imagine how Ron has lived, hidden behind five older siblings? And his only younger sibling is the only girl. James was no dimwit either, and he was pretty good about doing his best. He certainly managed some high level scores on his OWLs. In the face of your genius, though, who saw James for his intelligence other than his parents."

"You?"

"The Great Potion Blunder of Fourth Year was never to be brought up again!"

"I never agreed to that," Remus said, laughing. "And technically, it wasn't a potion blunder. The Lustful Love Elixir was, somehow, brewed to perfection. It's just a pity that it was you who drank it, instead of Lily." He smiled at the annoyed look on Sirius' face. "I think I still have pictures somewhere. I should tell Harry about that sometime."

"Don't you dare."

"It'd be a great lesson as to why one should not experiment with volatile ingredients."

"You don't shut up and I'm going to experiment with your face."

Remus snickered, but shook his head. "All right, all right, I promise I won't say anything. That was embarrassing for all of us, I assure you. And I doubt Minerva would wish to be reminded of the incident."

"She'd probably give me detention again. Scrubbing toilets. In the second floor girl's bathroom."

Remus burst out laughing at the thought. "Do you think Myrtle still has a crush on James?"

"I don't know, but I don't want to go back there and risk having her talk about him for hours on end. Once was enough."

The two laughed until their silence returned for a while. "You're right, of course," Remus said, finally. "I shouldn't judge him based on a teacher's perspective, or at all, really. I know he's not stupid. You saw his face, too, when I told him I'd contact Arthur when we'd relocated Harry."

"Yeah. He'd pretty much figured it out straight away. I'd thought you had caught onto that."

"I did. I don't think he's stupid, by any means, I just… worry."

"Like usual." Sirius smirked. "Things are rarely as bad as you tend to think, Remus, but if it turns out that they do reject him, then we'll be there to straighten it out. We'll whisk Harry off to America and start over. We'll have a happy life."

"I thought that was our plan if the Headmaster goes against his word."

"It's a general Plan B."

"Sounds to me like you're just hoping we get to use it."

"When we get to America, I'm changing my name to Cozmo, and I'm dying my hair green."

"For a pure-blood, you watch way too much of the telly."


"Kappa," Remus said, as they neared the Fat Lady's portrait. She spared only a moment to glance at them, before swinging open.

"I had wondered if she would refuse to let me by."

"Oh?" Remus asked.

"Yes, well, I did do quite a number on her when I was trying to get into Gryffindor Tower." He smiled sheepishly at Remus. "I wasn't exactly in my right mind at the time."

"That's completely understandable," Remus said defensively. "In any case, if I'm not mistaken, I believe the headmaster may have wiped the memories she'd held of that time, since it was apparently rather traumatic for her. I believe she'd threatened to resign her post at the time."

"Resign her post as a guardian of the towers? Has any portrait done that before?"

"I don't believe so."

"Wow. I must have been really scary."

"You were," Remus assured him, deadpan. "The memory of your wretched scent will frighten dormice for years to come."

"Harry!"

Remus made the wise decision to take a large step back and barely avoided the blur of brown hair that rushed past her and engulfed the raven-haired young man standing just behind him. Harry let out a sound like an "oof!" as he was nearly tackled by the bushy-haired young witch. It was a frequent occurrence he should have come to expect by now.

"Hermione, let him breathe, will you?" Ron asked, poking his head over the couch.

"Oh, I'm sorry, Harry," Hermione said, pulling away from him. "We've just missed you so much, and we were worried." Ron rolled his eyes. "Well, I was worried. Ron has the emotional range of a teaspoon." She bit her lip suddenly. "And you didn't hear any of that, of course."

Harry grinned suddenly and made a motion with his hands.

"Oh!" Hermione bounced on her heels giddily, grinning widely. "You're learning Sign Language! Oh, that's wonderful, Harry! We can practice together. I know the whole alphabet, of course, and some words, but I doubt the Hogwarts library has any books on it, since it's a Muggle-designed language. We should order some books from a bookstore near my house, or have my dad mail them to us."

"Here we go," Ron muttered. "School hasn't even started yet and we're gonna be back in the library."

"That sounds familiar," Sirius said, glancing at Remus.

"Shut up, Padfoot."

Hermione dragged Harry over to sit on the couch with her and Ron, so Remus and Sirius stood back at another part of the common room, watching the trio. Harry was showing Ron and Hermione the book that Remus and Sirius had created for him. Sirius snickered when Hermione nearly squealed in delight and started talking about how great an idea it was.

"I think you have a fan."

"Nah, she knows I'm one of the creators of the Marauder's Map. I'm safe." Remus watched as Hermione gushed over the detail put into the spellwork around the journal, while Ron rolled his eyes and huffed indignantly when Hermione started berating him about his horrible penmanship.

"Hermione, Harry's handwriting is worse than mine!"

"Yes, but Harry hasn't been using a quill his entire life, Ronald." Ron grimaced. "If you took a little more time, your writing might even be legible."

"Yes, Mum."

"I think they're going to be all right."

"Told ya. You worry too much, Moony."

"Yeah, so you've said."

"Did I?"

"Getting senile in your old age, Padfoot?"

"Hey, I'm not the one with the grey hairs, Mister Lupin."

"No, you're the one who dyes theirs with magic."

"Do not."

"Do so."

"Furry ape."

"Flea-bitten mongrel."

The two let their insult banter die off, as Ron burst out laughing, drowning out Hermione's indignant mutterings, but doing nothing to quell the smile on Harry's face.

"I'm glad they're back together. Harry needs his friends as much as he needs us."

"He needs his friends more," Remus said quietly. He glanced at Remus. "He's been alone so long, they were the first people who showed him safety and comradeship. They'll be the ones that will stick with him through the rest of it."

"Yeah. You and James were the same way for me, Moony."

The two watched in silence for a long time as the three friends laughed and talked and caught up.

"Thanks, Remus."

"You're forever welcome, Sirius."

Chapter Text

THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AND DEATH

XV

The Reunion


 

The small golden ball clasped in Harry's hand was like a promise. The wings fluttering against his palm brought back all the greatest memories of his first year, when he was introduced to Quidditch, when he held that golden ball for the first time, and when he learned that he could be good at something. It was a promise that things were not as bad as they might seem, and that they would get better. Even if he had to learn to live with being unable to hear or speak for the rest of his life, things would get better. He was back at Hogwarts, after all. The way that Sirius had talked, usually to Remus but occasionally hinted at to Harry, there was a possibility that he would keep Harry from going back to school. Harry had never been entirely certain whether Sirius was kidding or not. He had a feeling that, if not for Remus, there would have been no question.

But he was here, back at Hogwarts, and going to see Ron and Hermione. And yes, he was worried. He was concerned that things would be awkward between the three of them, especially since Harry had disappeared for two months without a word to either or them. And things were different now, with his being unable to speak, and unable to hear. Would that change things? Would he lose the two of them?

And for a while, that concerned him, except the fragile golden wings of the snitch fluttered constantly in his hand and acted like a reminder… hadn't Ron and Hermione's friendship been a constant for him since they became friends? They'd had their moments, of course, when they argued, but when it came down to it, both of them had been there for him through everything. They had risked themselves far too frequently to help him accomplish some foolish self-appointed mission. They blatantly refused to leave him on his own.

A bit like the ever-present wings on his snitch, he supposed.

Harry brushed his thumb over the golden coating of the snitch. He thought he saw it glimmer oddly back at him, but then a movement out of the corner of his eye caused his to look up instinctively.

At times, well, at all times, he wished he could still hear. However, there were some times that it really bothered him that he couldn't – when he knew he was missing out on something truly precious, being unable to. The sight of Sirius and Remus laughing, unrestrained, as they walked down the hall, was something that made Harry want to burst with happiness. It also made him sad, because he could see the mirth in their faces, but he could not hear their laughter. And he knew that from the two of them, laughter was a rare treat not to be taken for granted.

The two did their best to keep things light around him. They were always happy to be with him; that much was clear. However, he would catch them sometimes, with a sorrowful look in their eyes, or a deep frown on their faces. It was always when they thought he wasn't paying attention, or believed him to be in another room. He would catch them glancing at one another, sometimes talking, sometimes speaking without words, or on the rare occasion, one looking at the other without being noticed. Their eyes and faces would always hold some deep emotion he didn't often get to see from them, because they hid it when they thought he was near.

He was fairly sure that some of the sadness was due to him. Some of the anger, perhaps, too. He didn't want them to feel that way about him. It wasn't their fault what his Uncle Vernon had done, but they seemed determined, sometimes, to blame themselves for it. It seemed to happen at night most often, as though in the darkness the two were unable to defend against both the shadows and their own dark emotions.

Other times, the looks didn't seem to be about him so much as they were discussing some topic which bothered them. Dumbledore, at some points, he was sure, as he knew both were angry with the headmaster on some levels. The other times it might have been anything. Harry knew from little things he had picked up that Sirius and Remus were a part of something that had to do with Voldemort, but he knew very little about it beyond that. But anything that concerned Voldemort was an unpleasant topic, and so the dark looks made sense.

That other look, though, that he had seen both of them give the other at times, came when one of them was unaware. Sometimes, he would step into the room, and he would find that Remus was working on something, and Sirius was somewhere behind him, watching him with eyes that were riveted, but filled with some deep well of emotion that seemed to merge sorrow with anger and hope and pain and fear, and so much that Harry could not give a name to. It was in these moments that he would do his best to escape the room unnoticed, and sometimes, more often lately, he could succeed. And he would leave the two to hopefully sort out whatever was going on, but it hadn't been yet. In some ways, perhaps because he didn't understand it as well as he did the others, it was this last look that bothered him the most.

The laughter was sometimes present at The Crooked House. Sometimes, they would be playing Exploding Snap or Chess, or some other game, and someone would say something to someone else that would cause the two older men to laugh, and Harry would smile but try not to lose himself in the humor. It wasn't because he didn't want to get pulled into that uncontrollable mirth, but that he didn't want to lose himself in his own. He wanted to sit back and lose himself in theirs – he wanted to be able to see every creased line that formed on their faces as they burst into laughter at themselves or each other. He wanted to watch their faces redden with mirth and their eyes shut tight, because this visual humor was so utterly rare that he couldn't bear to miss out on it. He'd missed so much of their lives already, being stuck with the Dursleys, he wouldn't allow himself to lose any more than he had to.

And now, walking down the corridor together, he was able to watch them laugh again. He knew the two had been talking. When they walked past a set of candles or a torch on the wall, he could sometimes catch the movements of Remus' hands in the air as the man gesticulated. When they had first taken him to The Crooked House and he had seen them talking to each other, it had bothered him. He didn't know if they were talking about him, or if they were arguing about whether or not to return him to Hogwarts, or to the Dursleys. Sometimes, Sirius would get very angry during the conversations, and Harry would get worried, and he would disappear somewhere in the apartment beneath the restaurant, to try and hide his worries away with himself.

After one particularly heated argument, Harry had ran outside, away from the restaurant, and spent a while simply walking down the road, contemplating whether or not to call the Knight Bus to take him to the Burrow, or to the Leaky Cauldron, like he had done in his third year after blowing up Aunt Marge.

In the end, before he could make up his decision, Remus and Sirius had found him and took him back to The Crooked House. They'd had a long talk there, involving a lot of writing to make sure that they could fully understand one another. Sirius had explained his anger at Dumbledore for not telling them what Harry had been through in his years at Hogwarts, and how he wanted to keep Harry with them and not bother with his going back to school. Remus' argument had been that simply running away wasn't the answer, and it was Harry's choice anyway. The choice wasn't to be made that day, but Harry could solve part of the problem by telling them what had happened in his first few years at Hogwarts. He hadn't done it right then, too nervous about their reactions to the story, but Sirius had taken him aside one night - one Full Moon night, which had been foolish, as Remus was sure they knew - and convinced Harry to tell him what had happened. They had brought out a pensive in order to tell the tale, and they had only managed halfway through his second year before Sirius had become... distraught. 

They'd had to postpone the rest of the story until Remus was sufficiently recovered from the Full Moon and had berated Sirius for his foolishness in going into such a memory alone. After that, Harry had still been reluctant, but Remus had convinced him that it was all right, and they had gone through the memories of his second year, and skipped his third in favor of seeing his fourth.

That hadn't been pleasant for anyone.

That long process, which lasted weeks, had caused a lot of changes. For one thing, Sirius and Remus had talked to him about Cedric and what had happened in the duel with Voldemort. He wasn't completely over it, and they all knew it wouldn't be something to fade over night, but Harry hadn't had a nightmare about Cedric blaming him for his death in over a month. They had also spoken some about the Dursleys, and the memory of Riddle's diary had spawned the creation of the journal that allowed Harry to read what people were saying. It wasn't the most beneficial thing to have happened, but having the ability to open a book and read the words that were being spoken had certainly eased Harry's mind when it came to Remus and Sirius' discussions, as well as their arguments.

Sometimes, he would see them arguing and would open his book and see that their argument wasn't nearly as violent as it appeared when he couldn't hear, and that it often concerned something as trivial as what time they were getting up in the morning (Sirius wasn't a morning person, but Remus was often awake at five or six o'clock). After a time, Harry began to worry less about what the two were discussing, and he didn't always need to open the journal to see if they were talking about him. Sometimes they were, and other times, they were just talking. He grew used to the fact that the two of them talked a great deal. They had, after all, been friends for a long time.

So seeing the two of them talking as they walked down the corridor didn't bother Harry. He had his journal tucked in his pocket, and if he'd really wanted to, he could open it and see what they were saying. He wasn't concerned, though, and he was content to watch them laugh for the time that they did, and think about his friends as they walked on, until they finally did reach the entrance to Gryffindor Tower.

Really, Harry should have been more prepared for Hermione's greeting.

The anxious brunette nearly knocked him off his feet as she flew into him, wrapping her arms tightly around him in a hug. It was the customary greeting she had always given him when one of them had been away, or when he had been at the hospital wing, or when they were reuniting after the summer. He should have expected it, except that he hadn't been sure he was going to get one of her tackling hugs today. He had been worried, on some level, that he would arrive at Gryffindor Tower and they wouldn't be there.

But no, Hermione had greeted him as she always did, and there was Ron, sitting backwards on the couch and waving at him. He had that look on his face that he usually got when he was making a smart remark to Hermione, and Harry saw her roll her eyes, and start talking to him. He did his best to keep up with the movement of her lips, but Hermione always had been as fast a talker as she was a reader, though he caught the main idea of it. She had missed him.

He had missed her, too. Both of them.

Hermione's excitement about his learning Sign Language, and the journal that Remus and Sirius had made, was contagious. Or perhaps he was really just that thrilled to see the both of them. They sat together on the couch, as Harry pulled out his journal and allowed them both to test it out, seeing how their words appeared in their own handwriting on the page.

"Oh, honestly, Ron, your handwriting is atrocious."

"The book is writing that, Hermione."

"Yes, in your handwriting. You really should be neater.I imagine your grades might improve if the professors were capable of reading your work."

"Hermione, Harry's handwriting is worse than mine!"

"Yes, but Harry hasn't been using a quill his entire life, Ronald.If you took a little more time, your writing might even be legible."

"Yes, Mum."

Harry picked up the self-inking quill that Remus and Sirius had bought him and began to write in the journal. He thought it was likely a good idea to change the topic, before Ron and Hermione got into one of their infamous arguments.

"What did you guys do over the summer?"

The two stopped bickering, and Harry looked up to find that they were looking at each other with uncertain expressions on their faces. Harry frowned and wrote in the journal again.

"What is it?"

There was a long pause, the two of them not saying a word, before Hermione finally spoke up. He could just imagine her tone by the way she spoke – a careful, uncertain note in her voice, with her enunciation as crisp as she spoke when performing research.

"Harry. How much do you know of what happened after you, Sirius, and Professor Lupin disappeared?"

"He probably knows more than we do, Hermione."

"Not alot," Harry admitted, scratching out the words with his quill. "I know Dumbledore was looking for us, but couldn't find us. I didn't really ask about anything else."

"You didn't even ask what we were doing?"

"Oh, Ron, why would he? Harry's never gotten to know what we were doing unless we could write to him or he came to the Burrow, and he didn't get to do that often."

"Yeah, well, that's gonna change."

"Yes, I hope so, too." Harry saw her turn her head back to look at him. "You're right that Professor Dumbledore was looking for you, Harry, except that it wasn't just him. He had a lot of people out searching for where the three of you had gonea lot more people than I thought the headmaster had working for him."

"He's not just the Headmaster, Hermione. He has a ton of other jobs."

"I know, Ron…" Hermione shook her head. "Anyway. Harry. They spent over a month looking for you, but no one could find you and he had to call off the search. Ron doesn't think he called off all of it, though."

"My parents were in a right bloody fit, mate. I've never seen Dad so mad, and none of us stuck around where Mum was. I think they made sure Dumbledore had some people keep looking for you. Not that it helped, of course."

"We thought maybe you weren't coming back."

"Sirius didn't want me to." Harry hesitated a moment, but then put his quill back on the page. "Part of me didn't want to, either."

"Why not?" Harry could see Ron's temper flare up. "Why would you even think of never coming back?"

"Don't be angry with him, Ron." Harry flicked his eyes to Hermione to find her face bore the scolding expression she occasionally used on the redhead. "He was probably happy where he was, with people who cared about him." She turned her head and met his eyes. "That's it, isn't it, Harry?"

Harry gave something of a sheepish smile. "It was nice to spend a summer with family. I love coming over to the Burrow, Ronyour family makes me feel like I'm part of the family—"

"You are, mate."

"But Sirius and RemusSirius is my godfather. I should have been living with him from the start, not with the Dursleys. It was nice to have a summer that is the way things were meant to be." Harry considered the one glaring difference between the way things should have been and the way they were. "Mostly, at least."

"Oh, Harry. Is it hard, not being able to hear?"

Harry frowned in thought. "It's confusing. It's not like it's quiet, because there's no sound at all. It's like there's nothing there. I didn't realize how much I used my hearing before. Not being able to speak is annoying, but not as difficult."

"What about classes, though? Will you still be able to attend Hogwarts if you can't cast spells?"

"Hermione! Only you would worry about classes above everything else!"

"Honestly, Ron, I am not. I'm just saying, you won't get kicked out of school, will you?"

"They can't expel you, Harry. It's against some law – it has to be."

"It'fine, I can still attend classes," Harry wrote quickly, because he could see the two of them working themselves into a frenzy – Hermione a panic, and Ron a rage. "Sirius and Remus have been teaching me how to silently cast spells."

"Wait, so you've been learning Sign Language and silent spell casting?"

"Lip-reading, and some other stuff, too."

"Ugh, it's like school over break!"

"Oh, that sounds so exciting, Harry!"

"Maybe they'll let you join, Hermione. Lupin can be the professor, and Sirius can be the Headmaster."

The thought of Sirius as the Headmaster had all three of them laughing, and Harry knocked his journal to the floor. Calming down and retrieving the book, he saw words appearing in it, in Hermione's hand.

"There have been some strange things happening this summer, Harry." He glanced up at Hermione to find her expression had sobered. "We're not allowed to tell you about where we stayed…"

"Everyone just calls it Headquarters."

Harry perked up. Remus had mentioned something about that. Hadn't he said that Harry would be shown it later?

"Do you know about it, Harry?" Hermione must have picked up on his surprise.

"Remus mentioned something, that's all."

"Oh, well, maybe you'll get to see it, too. Bit of a dreadful place, though."

"Oh, get on with it,Hermione," Ron interrupted. "There's something secret that's been going onsome kind of meeting that no one but the members are allowed to know about. Fred and George know something, I'm sure, but Mum and Dad swore them to secrecy, and Mum must have threatened them with something pretty bad if they're not even gloating about it."

"We don't know what it is, other than they have a lot of meetings, and we think Professor Dumbledore is the leader. There are a lot of people that show up at Headquarters when it's time for meetings. Some of the people are very… diverse, too."

"George told me one of the guys at Headquarters was a vampire!"

"And I think George was lying to you." Hermione shook her head to disperse the thought. "There's something else that's happened, too, Harry." She looked a little uncomfortable with what she was about to say. "I think we must have had a spell cast on us or something, because it doesn't make any sense, otherwise—"

"A bunch of us have had some pretty wicked dreams lately."

Harry's hand tightened on his quill. A dream about a strange artifact had been haunting his sleep for weeks now. He hadn't said anything to Sirius or Remus; when he woke up, the dreams and what he learned it them didn't seem to matter nearly as much as they did when he was asleep, and he never wanted to break the moments that they were in with discussion about Voldemort and what may have to be done to stop him, if his dreams were telling him the truth.

He remembered back over a month ago, though, when he was still in the hospital wing, the dream that he'd had about the tree that bore his soul, and the branches that were his connections to his friends. Every time he faced some danger, since he had started coming to Hogwarts, he had faced it with a friend by his side. They were his strength, so perhaps some creature, divine or not, was ascertaining that he had some strength with him when he faced something that would wish him weakened.

A hand on his shoulder pulled him from his thoughts and he looked up to find Hermione and Ron both giving him concerned looks. He glanced down at the book and saw that the two of them had continued talking, but he hadn't been paying attention. He skimmed through what they had said, but they didn't mention anything by name. He placed the tip of his quill to the page.

"Lapis Verim."

The sound of a gasp cannot be properly spelled out in words, but Harry could see the sound on Hermione's face as she and Ron read the two simple words he had written. He met her gaze when she lifted her head, and he could see her eyes were filling with regretful tears. She didn't want her dreams to have been true.

"Cor," Hermione whispered, and Harry read the word on her lips.

Nor did he need to read the word "Turris" scrawled in Ron's untidy hand.

"Do you know who the others are?"

"Ginny's been dreaming about Orbis," Ron admitted. "She always wakes up crying…"

"We're not sure about the others. I don't know who to ask, and I'm not certain we should be writing in the post about it."

"No. This needs to stay secret." Harry pulled his wand out of his pocket and placed the tip against the page. In his mind, he thought of an empty white canvas on which no marks had ever been made…

The visible pages of the journal rippled like a puddle, outward from where the point of Harry's wand had touched. The black ink the words were scrawled in ran as though wet, carried by the rippling pages until they seemed to be driven off of the page. When the spell ended and the rippling was done, the pages were blank.

"That was incredible!"

"Bloody hell."

Harry grinned at his friends, picking his quill back up and pressing it to the page again. "So what else has been going on?"


Learning that Snape would be staying at the school for the time that they were there had made something of a dent in Harry's mood. Even the knowledge that Snape was actually married and even had a son hadn't been enough to make him feel better; confused, yes, since he found it incredibly hard to believe that someone was willing to marry the snarky bastard, much less have a kid with him. And Snape didn't like children – that was obvious from the way he treated his students – so how in the world would he handle caring for a child of his own?

It made absolutely no sense to Harry, and he wasn't looking forward to eating dinner with the snarky git himself.

The other professors staying at the school would be there, as well, which made things a little better. Harry was glad that the headmaster wasn't staying at the school. He could tell Sirius and Remus weren't at all pleased about planning on dining with Snape (although Remus looked more worried about how Sirius would react than about being around Snape), and he knew the two of them wouldn't have been able to handle being around Dumbledore.

The Great Hall was set up like it usually was during breaks, with a single large table around which the appropriate number of chairs had been placed. Harry had been worried, briefly, about who he was supposed to sit by, but Remus had solved the problem by dragging Sirius off to sit next to Minerva, leaving Ron and Hermione to sit on either side of Harry. He'd glanced over at his godfather to see the dark-haired man wink at him, before saying something to Minerva that made her slap him lightly on the arm, looking falsely affronted. Harry could only grin in response.

There weren't a lot of people staying at Hogwarts, and the absence of the headmaster was an odd thing to get over. Ron sat on Harry's left, while Hermione was to his right. Remus sat next to her, followed by Sirius, then Minerva, and then an olive-skinned woman with long, wavy hair and dark eyes. A young boy sat next to her, and between the two of them, it wasn't hard to discover who they were.

Harry hadn't previously met Elena Morely, as he had been asleep when she visited the Hospital Wing before they'd left Hogwarts. Remus had made sure to tell Harry about her, however, and the fact that she had signed papers that named her his secondary guardian, so that Remus could remain as Harry's primary guardian. Sirius had been moping about the whole thing the entire time that Remus was explaining it, and Harry had to agree that he didn't like it either, though he did understand the need for it.

That didn't stop him from wishing that Sirius' name was cleared so that the three of them could be a family without any complications. And having any connection to Snape's family wasn't something that made Harry feel any easier about the situation. He knew how much Snape hated him, and he had no doubts the man would attempt to use this to his advantage in any way he could think to. Only the knowledge that the document was done up to sate the Ministry kept Harry from throwing a fit about it. As far as he was concerned, Remus and Sirius were his only guardians, and as long as he had them, nothing else mattered.

As he studied them, the woman looked over the table at Harry and smiled, offering him a small nod of acknowledgement. Her dark eyes were kind, and Harry couldn't resist the smile that stole his face in response. The young boy beside her turned his head, as well, dark hair flopping, but seemed to find nothing overly interesting about Harry and turned back to his mother right after, continuing a conversation that they had been having. One less person mooning over his name was perfectly fine with Harry, and he looked to the boy's right.

That seat was no doubt reserved for Snape, but was currently empty. Next to it sat Professor Flitwick, the diminutive man sitting on a pile of books so that his head peered over the table. Ron looked extremely relieved that the man was sitting between him and the chair that would hold Snape when he arrived.

The house elves had clearly been told not to wait on everyone to arrive, and food had appeared on the table to everyone's relief. People passed dishes back and forth, the adults often doing so with a mere flick of their wands, much to the delight of both Hermione and the young boy sitting next to Elena. Harry wasn't sure he had ever learned the boy's name.

Harry had a spoonful of steak and kidney pie halfway to his mouth when Snape arrived, all billowing robes and dark glower. The man paused in his action of pulling out a chair when he caught sight of Harry staring warily in his direction.

Swallowing thickly, Harry looked down and shoved the spoon in his mouth. His eyes remained steadfastly not on the professor, so he missed the man swiping at his mouth with a hand and the look he passed to his wife when she muttered something under her breath in another language.

Between the two of them, Conan giggled and rattled something off in the same language which made Snape glare at the younger boy. Harry lifted his head in time enough to see the dark look he had become so familiar with over his years at Hogwarts, only to be surprised to see the large grin on the boy's face in response.

The long-fingered hand that settled so gently on the boy's dark head caused Harry to pause in his chewing, and he watched as Snape pulled his chair out the rest of the way and took a graceful seat. His lips moved in a manner that Harry was unfamiliar with, and he could not read the boy's response, either, but he saw the way the boy's eyes lit up and the smile that curled his lips and he was surprised to feel a part of him relax.

This was… new. Harry returned to eating his dinner as he considered the hand that Snape had placed on the younger man's head. It was strange to see such a simple gesture performed, but Harry knew he only thought so because he had never expected to see Snape as the one doing it.

After all, that was the exact same gesture that Sirius used on him, and though no words had ever been spoken to define it, Harry didn't need to hear anything to know what they meant.

He loved Sirius, too.

Chapter Text

THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AND DEATH

XVI

The Weeks Gone By


If Sirius was truly honest with himself, Harry was not at all what he had expected.

He had, of course, had contact with his godson at points throughout his fourth year, but that was not the same as spending actual time in the presence of the boy, living with him. During their conversations after their reunion two years prior, and especially during the time they had been working together on an errand for Dumbledore after Voldemort's return, Sirius and Remus had been discussing Harry.

Sirius had wanted to know everything that Remus knew about the younger man – every little detail that he had learned from the first moment he had set eyes on the third year on the Hogwarts Express until the present moment at which they were speaking. Remus had obliged Sirius, of course – how could he not?

And he had told Sirius that Harry was so much like James; so very much. Except, Remus had not been specific, and so some small – and stupid, he would admit – part of him had expected to be living with a godson who was cracking jokes and pulling pranks and more oft than not wedging his foot in his mouth – less so now, of course, circumstances being what they were.

The person whom Sirius had met, and had been happy to, of course, was indeed very much like James. But Harry was not like his father had been in school, oh no. Harry was very much like James had been years after they'd graduated. In fact, Harry acted a great deal like James had after he and Sirius had spent a few years as Aurors and had... seen things.

Horrible things.

There was a look he could sometimes catch in those emerald eyes; one he would find directed at nothing presently there, but which always gazed far off, into the recesses of some distant place. It was a look he knew from having been an Auror – a look of someone who had seen things that left him afraid, burned.

Haunted.

It was a look that had been present in James' eyes, after extremely bad cases, in the dark moments when the two of them sat around a bottle of Firewhiskey, trying to outstare the alcohol, or drink enough to burn away the memories. He knew he had borne the gaze then, himself, and knew, too, that he wore it sometimes now, when the memories of Azkaban would become too much to ignore and he would fall again into that dark place where all he could remember was cold and fear and regret…

Harry wasn't at all like Sirius had expected, because he had expected to live with a child, and that wasn't the case. Harry wasn't a child, and damn Albus Dumbledore and the Dursleys and Voldemort and Wormtail, and damn Sirius himself for good measure, for causing Harry's childhood to be torn from him years – years – before it should have been.

What little time they'd had him – and looking back now, it seemed like such a short amount of time – Sirius and Remus had done all they could to help Harry, while giving him the childhood he so desperately deserved, and needed. It would never make up for what had been stripped from him, no, but Sirius was glad they were able to give him a little of what had been lost, just the same.

Standing in Dumbledore's Office now, Sirius looked at the hearth with regret. The students of Hogwarts would be returning to the school in a few days and the new term would begin. Sirius didn't want to leave Harry, but he knew he needed to. Not all of the professors at Hogwarts were aware of his innocence, and many were returning later today. The Headmaster had arrived only a week ago, though Sirius and Remus had done their best to avoid him up until this point. Neither of them had truly forgiven him yet for his failings, despite his apology, and Sirius didn't think it would take much from the old man to set Sirius on such an edge that he stole Harry away again, with no intention of ever bringing him back. It was only because of the Order and the knowledge that Sirius and Remus would be staying at Grimmauld Place, where the meetings were taking place, that the two were forcing themselves to endure the Headmaster's presence now.

For his part, he didn't look like he was enjoying it much, either. Of course, they weren't exactly being warm toward him, and he shouldn't dare to expect it any time soon.

"I take it Harry has had time to sufficiently recover over these last few months?"

Dumbledore's voice was sincere in its curiosity, and Sirius was sure that the man really did care, but he couldn't bring himself to be kind to the man who had caused his godson so much unnecessary pain.

"As much as he can recover." Sirius was aware of Remus looking at him from the corner of his right eye. The werewolf looked a little like he expected Sirius to lunge at Dumbledore, but that was Remus' job, being the furry-inclined member of their duo. Sirius was happy to launch his attack upon the headmaster verbally. Wasn't that why the damned old man was so fond of his pet Slytherin? Damn Snape to Hel, too.

That had not been pleasant, running into the greasy bat of the Hogwarts dungeons, who chose to linger within the stone walls long after he was supposed to be up and gone. Hadn't the Marauders succeeded in driving the foul man from a place that had better washing facilities than his hair tended to suggest?

Learning that the greasy git had been staying at the castle had been yet another unpleasant revelation on top of a high stack of the same. The first time he had seen Snape had been when they'd all eaten lunch together that first day at Hogwarts, but Sirius had run into him later in the week. It was strange, he had to admit, how one's view of another person could change when they were seen doing something unexpected. Sirius wasn't about to start thinking that Snape was the kind of person he'd want as a friend, but there was no way in hell he would be able to look at the dour Potions Master and think for a moment that he was as heartless a bastard as he pretended to be.

For some reason, Sirius couldn't even bring himself to be angry about the loss of this perspective.

With Ron and Hermione at the castle, Harry was spending a lot of his time with his two friends. Remus and Sirius had been spending most of their time around the three of them previously, just in case things didn't go as well as they had hoped. After all, while Harry was no different despite his disabilities, it certainly wasn't a cakewalk trying to communicate sometimes, with a boy who could neither hear nor speak. The journal helped, yes, but sometimes taking the time to write out responses to his friends' automatically-appearing comments was an inconvenience.

Having had both James Potter and Remus Lupin as his own best friends at Hogwarts, Sirius really should have expected better of Harry's two friends.

Watching the three of them interact was very telling. The three were still developing into themselves, yes, and they would change over time as teenagers were meant to, but four years in each others' company had clearly had an effect on each of them.

They could read each other.

It wasn't perfect, of course. Sirius would have been demanding to know which of them knew Legilimency, and which was a Telepath, were that the case. No, it wasn't perfect, but it was impressive. Remus and Sirius had watched the three for a few days, staying in the Gryffindor Common Room where the trio spent most of their time when they weren't at dinner, reminiscing over school days gone by, when a different trio could hold conversations that required no words at all.

It became apparent that they didn't need to be there to supervise. Harry was in good hands with his friends, so the two had decided to find their own means of entertainment. For Remus, this was visiting Professor Flitwick and scouring through the library. For Sirius, it was wandering the halls on the whims of nostalgia and thinking of his days as a student, when life was so much simpler, even though it hadn't seemed so at the time.

He was making his way down a corridor rather out of the way of the main halls when he heard a childish squeal echo up the stone walls, and then the pounding of trainers on stone as a black-haired child bolted into view, waving a letter in his hand like it was the severed head of some defeated enemy.

For just a moment, Sirius was eleven again, running down the corridor at Grimmauld Place, a thick letter in his hand that he had just taken off the leg of a tawny owl. There was a grin plastered to his face that could not be removed, and he was screaming in delight at the top of his lungs, not caring how much trouble he would get into for it later, "I'm going to Hogwarts! I'm going to Hogwarts!"

"I'm going to Hogwarts!"

Sirius blinked away the memory at the same words, repeated in the voice of a different child. He looked again at the small boy racing down the hall, black slacks and green sweater declaring his Slytherin loyalties despite not having yet been sorted. A moment later, a tall, thin creature slid out of the shadows and into view, managing to catch up to the boy despite moving with an ethereal grace that could never be mistaken for running. Hands swooped down under the child, lifting him off his feet with an involuntary squeal, and then leaving him hanging somewhat haphazardly in parallel with the stone floor, his captor's right arm around his stomach as the boy's legs kicked slowly behind him and his hands jerked, searching for balance.

"Daa-aad," the boy declared in a whine.

"William," Severus Snape intoned severely, plucking the Hogwarts letter from his son's clenched hand with the swift delicacy that a chameleon uses when snapping flies from the air. "As I recall, you are presently located at Hogwarts, and therefore, running down the halls and screeching like a crazed banshee that the Headmaster has kindly agreed to permit you entrance is foolish and more than slightly asinine."

The stupid grin that appeared on the younger boy's face could not be ignored, and Sirius found himself smirking despite the fact that one of his mortal enemies stood not ten feet away. "Bet you did the same thing when you got your letter."

"That is besides the point." Snape swung his arm forward, propelling the boy's feet toward the floor and letting him catch his balance, before releasing his hold of the eleven-year-old. "Some form of dignity is expected of those who will have their names synonymous with the House of Slytherin."

The black-haired youth straightened the green sweater he was wearing, the grin now gone and an uncertain expression on his face, even as he refused to meet his father's eyes. "The hat…" The boy licked his lips and managed a glance at his father's face before finding something entertaining in the stones of the corridor floor. "The Sorting Hat might not place me in Slytherin."

From his place at the corner of the corridor, half-hidden in shadows, Sirius could see the eyebrow on Snape's face rise. The gesture was not unfamiliar, but it seemed different – less cold – when done to an eleven-year-old boy who looked remarkably similar to the man standing across from him.

"Did you believe that I was unaware of this?" Snape asked, an incredulous tone in his voice. "I assure you, William, that I have been teaching at this school long enough to know that blood means very little where the Sorting Hat is concerned."

Sirius was reminded rather sharply of his own sorting, which had been a monumental moment in his life that had been both wonderful and disastrous in the same incident. He doubted, of course, that it was the same sorting that Snape was thinking of, but the idea was the same.

"But won't you be… disappointed?" The in me was left unsaid, but it rang as clearly in the hall as if the boy had screamed it despairingly.

Snape scoffed, and the sweeping of his hand through the air seemed an attempt to cut the concern the boy held from his shoulders as one would sever a puppet's strings with the sweep of a sword. "You are my son, William—"

"But you just said blood—"

"William." The boy closed his mouth with a soft click of his jaws and stared at his father with wide eyes. Sirius swallowed convulsively as the tall man in black robes who had come to be known as a plague upon the dungeons of Hogwarts, knelt down on his knee in front of the boy, so that their eyes were level. "William, you are my son. You will be placed in whatever House would best suit you so that you may be around those who will understand you. No matter where you find yourself housed, William, because you are my child, you will always have a part of you who holds a place in Slytherin. Even if it makes its appearance as nothing more than your fondness for snakes." He plucked his fingers at the sweater his son wore. "And the color green."

The younger boy smiled, though it was a shy, almost wary grin as he murmured his next query. "Even if I end up in Gryffindor?"

The Potions Master sneered in contempt, but there was no lie in his pitch eyes. "Yes, William. Even if, through some tragic lack of proper parenting on my part, you manage end up in the pitiful hovel that is the House of the Lions."

That had occurred weeks ago, and Sirius had not yet informed even Remus of what he had witnessed down the not-quite-empty corridor that he had been using to spar with his memories. Neither of the two had seen him, so engrossed were they in each other, and Sirius was content to let them both believe that such a moment had been spent only in the company of one another. Had it been he and Harry in that hall, instead, Sirius would not like to have known that someone had borne witness to such a private moment.

That thought had been passing through Sirius' mind with disturbing frequency over the past few weeks. Sirius did not know for certain, had he been in that position, if he could have honestly told Harry that he would be proud even if he had not been in Gryffindor. It was viscerally disturbing, to suddenly be so self-aware of one of his greatest faults, especially considering it was one that could so easily hurt his godson.

Sirius had been prejudiced against the Slytherin House since he was a young child. He knew this was because of his family and the fact that every one of them who was a Slytherin was also an ass-kissing Death Eater. His hatred of Slytherin had followed him to Hogwarts and, had all else not been sufficient, would certainly have been the deciding factor in making sure he was not in the same House as the rest of his family. His brother's and cousin's reactions, both verbal and physical, to his treason at becoming a Gryffindor, backed up by green and silver housemates, had spurred a seven-year rivalry exacerbated by pranks that ranged from harmless fun to borderline attempted-homicide.

Had Harry been a fellow student of Sirius' instead of his best friend's son and his godson, and had been sorted into Slytherin, Sirius knew how he would have reacted then. The boy would have become one of them, been labeled an enemy, a Slytherin, and loathed and pranked until the hatred Sirius felt was returned in equal measure, as he had made certain to do with every other member of that House.

Times change people, however, and it was more than just twelve years in Azkaban that caused Sirius' views to shift. Harry had told him and Remus that the Sorting Hat had originally tried to put him into Slytherin. Sirius was still glad that Remus had managed to respond first – to Sirius, by casting a silent Silencing Spell on him to shut him the fuck up before he said something that he would not be able to take back.

After thinking over it, Sirius had calmed down enough that he and Remus were able to talk about it once Harry had gone to bed. With Remus' logic and his over-sized brain working in tireless circles, he had made Sirius see what the man had never been able to as a child: what exactly the Slytherins were.

It never really struck Sirius as odd that Remus had no views of the different Houses as negative. At the start, it had been because Remus was Remus – pure-hearted Gryffindor, unable to hate anyone. Once Sirius had been knocked arse over teakettle by the truth, and had realized that Remus was a werewolf, it still came as no surprise. Why would Remus, who had spent almost his entire life as a creature feared and hated, look at others with prejudiced views that labeled them for something that was decided by a hat?

Sirius wondered if it would be so easy to change his ways. He could say that it wouldn't bother him now if Harry was a Slytherin, but Harry was a Gryffindor, and it wasn't possible for him to be resorted. He thought back to the young boy who had been running down the corridor, yelling about his Hogwarts letter. Sirius had been introduced to him first as Padfoot, and then later as himself. Both times, he had been told that the young boy's name was Conan, and he didn't know why Snape would call the boy William. That aside, if the young boy, who had been cheerful and kind (if a little overly exuberant), were sorted into Slytherin, would Sirius hate him based on principle?

He had no reason to like the child, save for the fact that Remus seemed fond of him, and vice versa. In fact, he had more reason to hate the young boy, being the son of his greatest school rival.

But that wasn't fair, to hate the child for who his father was. Sirius had met Elena Morely, as well, the supposed wife of Severus Snape, and she had been as kind as her son, if more refined, and quite beautiful. If those two people could balance out his biased opinion of Conan or William Morely, then would he hate the child for being a Slytherin?

Would he?

Sirius had no actual answer to the question, and that bothered him. What if Harry had been sorted as a Slytherin? Would Sirius have escaped Azkaban and come to Hogwarts, only to turn his back on his godson because of his House?

No. No, I wouldn't have.

Right?

Sirius had always liked to think that he was in the right. In school, he was a member of Gryffindor, the House that Godric Gryffindor had founded, from which great wizards had graduated. The House, it was thought, that Albus Dumbledore himself had graduated from. He had made great friends, and together, they had given the Slytherins what they deserved, pranking them extensively. The rest of the school, even some of the teachers, had laughed at their pranks, they were so grand, and such just desserts.

But, looking back, Sirius was beginning to wonder if the pranks weren't deserved – if the actions of the Marauders were, in fact, quite cruel.

When he and Remus had been talking after Harry went to bed (read: arguing), Remus had brought to light precisely what he thought of the four Houses, analyzing them in-depth for Sirius to see. And he had seen.

The Sorting Hat told them, every year, what kind of people each House held, but to the casual listener, the song was sometimes easy to ignore. Remus had laid it out for him.

Gryffindor, the brave, the daring, and the chivalrous.

Ravenclaw, the intelligent, witty, wise, and creative.

Hufflepuff, the loyal, dedicated, patient, and fair.

Slytherin, the ambitious, cunning, resourceful, seeking power.

"There, see! You've just said it yourself – Slytherins are all about power!"

"I said no such thing, Sirius, and don't you dare go putting words in my mouth. Slytherins often seek out power, yes, but they are also ambitious in their endeavors, resourceful with all that they have, and possess the cunning to achieve what they desire."

"No matter the means," Sirius growled.

"Yes, you're right. No matter the means." Remus gave him a long look. "What makes a person want power, Sirius? It's not evil. I want power."

Sirius scoffed. "You don't want power, Moony—"

"Don't assume so much, Padfoot; I assure you, I do. Everyday I wake up, I wish I were more powerful. Every night when I go to sleep, I wish I held more power than I do. There is little I wouldn't give for the power, Sirius, to control the wolf within me. Were it possible to attain a cure for Lycanthropy, I can likely name on one hand what I wouldn't give up, and who I wouldn't use to attain that cure. Were it necessary to achieve my goals, I, myself, could show the same cunning and resourcefulness as a Slytherin. Were it necessary.

"But it's not, because there is no cure for Lycanthropy. I have no need to be resourceful and cunning to achieve what cannot be achieved. I have no need to use ambition to seek a power that is not to be found. I do not. But those children – and they are children, Sirius; do not forget that. Those children may have need still to be cunning. They may have arrived at school with ambition, with an innate resourcefulness, seeking some form of power. Would it not make sense, that in mind, that Harry could have possibly been sorted in Slytherin? After all, what has he been doing for the past fourteen years but being resourceful and cunning? Do you think for one moment that he did not wish he had the power to escape from under the Dursley's roof? Sirius?"

Sirius swallowed thickly and raised his eyes from the floor to meet the green-gold gaze of his best friend. "I… never thought of it that way."

"I know. You're not the only one, Sirius. Most people don't look at it like that. They see the word Slytherin, and they think Dark Wizard. Just like they see the word Werewolf, and they think Monster."

Put in perspective like that, Sirius could understand, clearly, where Remus was coming from. He could never look at Remus and think he was a monster. Could he then look at a Slytherin and think they were bound to be Dark Wizards?

It's not fair.

No. It's a cruel thought – a line of thinking that ruined people's lives. How many wizards and witches who had been sorted into Slytherin had been turned dark, not by the House or by their own initial goals, but by the way they were treated by others? How many had shied from the Light simply because of who it was that dwelled there? How many had wanted to be a part of something great, who had wanted to stand against Voldemort those years ago, and had been driven off by the people who claimed to be in the right.

No, Sirius thought, his eyes widening in surprise at himself, I won't judge Conan if he becomes a Slytherin, or anyone else, for that matter. I won't. He peeked a glance at Remus, who was talking to Dumbledore. Because I choose not to.

"If you're ready, Sirius, we'll floo to Grimmauld Place." Dumbledore ignored Sirius' grimace of distaste. "At the moment, only a few people are present and it should be safe for us to continue our discussions there."

Sirius resisted the urge to sigh as he pinched a bit of floo powder and tossed it into the fire, calling out the dreaded name of his old home. He was whisked away in green fire and stepped out of the hearth a moment later, taking a seat at the kitchen table and waving his borrowed wand.

The floo flared twice more, depositing Dumbledore and Remus into the kitchen, as a tea tray with three cups, a steaming kettle, and a small plate of biscuits floated over to settle on the table.

"Ah, how lovely," Dumbledore said, plucking a tea cup from the tray and holding it aloft as the charmed kettle tipped and poured steaming water into it. Dumbledore stirred in a lemon drop he'd pulled from his pocket and sipped carefully.

"Now, where were we? Ah, yes." He set the tea cup down and returned his attention to Remus. "I know you are concerned, but I promise you have nothing to worry about. The Slumber of Ages potion has been used before on those with Lycanthropy, and asides from a minor difference in the way the potion releases one from its effects, everything should occur with you just as it will with the others."

"It's not just the effect on me that I am worried about, Headmaster," Remus said, clutching his tea cup in his hands. "You're sending seven people into another world – a world they access through their minds – to retrieve something that Voldemort is also sending people after. If you knew they would be searching for something, why did you not have us take the potion a week ago and keep these artifacts from Voldemort's hands completely?"

"Voldemort is aware of what he is looking for, Remus."

"And we are not." The flat tone Remus was using was a dangerous one.

"Not completely, no."

"I would be very interested to know, Headmaster, how that's any better."

Sirius tuned the two of them out. He thought Remus was being too generous, using Dumbledore's title, but he wasn't going to say anything. He was too angry. He didn't want Remus to take the Slumber of Ages potion. Not only was it brewed by that slimy—

Not only was it brewed by Snape, but the potion itself was dangerous, no matter how safe Dumbledore assured them it was. Despite what he had said, however, Remus had made his decision, and Sirius didn't want the two of them to get into another fight over it. They had tried that already, and some awful things were said, and when they were finished, nothing had changed. Remus was still taking the potion, Sirius was still forbidden to, and they were both still mad at Dumbledore.

Sirius was grateful that, at least, Remus didn't seem to be angry with him over some of the things that had been said, and he certainly wasn't angry at Remus, just worried for him. He turned his mind toward other things, however, not wanting to think on that anymore. The conversation the two were having didn't even involve him.

He allowed his mind to wander, thinking back to a few days prior, when the Hogwarts letters had arrived. Even while staying at Hogwarts, the letters were still delivered to Harry and his friends by the school's tawny owls. Sirius had never thought to meet someone as book-crazy as Remus, but he found that person in Hermione Granger, who went absolutely nuts over the booklist for classes, much to the apparent horror of Ron Weasley.

Sirius couldn't restrain the small smile that appeared on his face at the memory of Ron Weasley's face when the prefect badge came tumbling out of his letter, right after he had finished talking about how Percy how gotten bigheaded and pompous about his prefect status, in regards to the badge that Hermione had received in her letter. Sirius had seen Harry smile widely, and then quickly write down something in his journal and show it to Ron. It was quite a feat, in Sirius' opinion, for someone's face to turn as red as their hair.

It didn't appear that Harry was overly bothered by not being chosen as a prefect, and Sirius couldn't blame him a bit. While he was in school, he had done nothing worthy of earning the position of prefect, and he was, to this day, quite happy with that. Remus had been the good boy of their group and had probably been named prefect in a mere attempt to keep the rest of them in line. It had failed miserably, of course. Sirius wondered if that was why Dumbledore seemed to give up in seventh year, and just made James Head Boy, regardless?

Sirius glanced to the clock behind him. Ten o'clock. Harry, Ron, and Hermione had planned a trip to Diagon Alley to buy their schoolbooks. Ron had mentioned, more than once, that he was glad they were already at Hogwarts and he hadn't received his letter while at the Burrow. Apparently, all of his older siblings, save the twins, Fred and George, had been prefects in the family, and Ron's mother had a habit of making a scene when someone received such an honor. Or, as Ron called it, a shiny pain in the arse.

Because they were at school and, with Remus and Sirius being forced to leave, without any of their guardians, Elena Morely had offered to escort them, as she needed to take her son to Diagon Alley to get all of his supplies, as well. As she told it, the boy could hardly sit still, he was so excited; this would be the trip during which he picked out his wand. Elena should be meeting them in the Great Hall in half an hour, from where they would take a portkey to the Leaky Cauldron. Sirius was a little disappointed. He had been hoping that he could go to Diagon Alley with Harry, as Padfoot, but Remus had expressly forbidden such a thing. Sirius knew he was right; it would be playing with fire, wandering out in public, even when under the guise of his animagus form. Still, despite knowing that it was too dangerous, Sirius was sad to miss it. He had missed so much of Harry's life, and he had to miss this, as well.

"Sirius?"

Sirius glanced up to see that Remus was staring at him, and the spot across the table where Dumbledore had been sitting was empty. He frowned at his friend. "Where'd the old man run off to?"

Remus gave him a look of gentle reprimanding, but Sirius ignored it.

"He went to go talk to the others who would be taking the potion."

"And who is that again?"

"Not that you'd been told the first time, but asides myself, there will be Alastor Moody—"

"Mad-Eye?" Sirius declared, sitting forward in his chair abruptly so it rocked off its feet. He crowed with laughter. "Is the old codger gonna lay off the paranoia long enough to take the potion?"

"Siri," Remus said with fond exasperation. The animagus merely grinned at him. "Bill Weasley, and Nymphadora Tonks."

"Wait, Nymphadora? As in my cousin?"

"One in the same."

"And Bill Weasley. Does Molly know that her oldest son is being sent on a secret mission?"

"I don't know, but regardless, you will not be the one to tell her."

"If I was her—"

"You're not, and I'm sure all seven of her children are happy for that." He rolled his eyes when Sirius stuck out his tongue. "Kingsley Shacklebolt." He ignored Sirius' loud groan. "Severus Snape and Mundungus Fletcher."

Sirius snorted. "I hope Dumbledore plans to be around when everyone's taking this potion, or you all might pop off to Dreamland, and Dung will be off pawning that potion to someone. How much does the Slumber of Ages potion go for?"

"I'm not telling you," Remus said pointedly, "because if I do, you'll try to steal the potions and sell them to Dung. And he would cheat you. You're a shitty haggler."

"Bite me."

"Not on your life."

Sirius crumbled a biscuit between his hand, scattering the tabletop with crumbs. He kept his eyes down and wouldn't look up at Remus. "When are you taking it?"

A hand settled on his shoulder and Sirius glanced up on instinct, into a pair of gold-green eyes. "It'll be all right, Sirius."

"But you were telling Dumbledore—"

"I was being difficult on purpose. I have no intention of making things easy on him." He patted Sirius' shoulder gently. "I wanted to go to Diagon Alley with Harry and bring you with me, Pads." Sirius gave him a confused look. "The-Boy-Who-Lived doesn't have a dog, Sirius, but the media doesn't follow my every move like clockwork." He shrugged at Sirius' surprised look and offered him a playful smile. "Don't look so surprised. The Sorting Hat considered me for all Houses – even Slytherin."

Sirius shook his head. "That doesn't surprise me in the least." He glanced down at the table, and then back up at his friend. "Are you worried?"

Remus shrugged and removed his hand from Sirius' shoulder. "As much as is normal before a mission. There's danger, yes, but we know the potion has been brewed properly, and we have everything planned out. And I have a feeling that Dumbledore knows more than he's telling us. He probably doesn't want anyone to know that isn't taking the potion."

"As if I would tell anyone."

"I know, Pads, but Dumbledore is determined to remain close-mouthed about this. Considering that he's finally told us all that has happened to Harry these past years, I think maybe we should give him his secrets in this. He'll have to tell me when we go to take the potion, and even if he told you, there's nothing you could do to help."

"And I'll be stuck in Boscastle." Sirius wasn't at all happy about having to spend the next week by himself in Remus' cottage in Cornwall. Some members of the Order of the Phoenix were unaware that he was innocent of the crimes he had been imprisoned for, and so he wouldn't be able to spend the next week at Grimmauld Place. Instead, he would be counties away from his best friend, alone.

"It'll go by quickly, Sirius."

Sirius grunted, deeply doubting that. He flicked grey eyes toward his best friend, who was looking like he felt guilty. "When do you take the potion?"

"Tonight," Remus said quietly. "Nine o'clock."

Sirius nodded. "Seven days, right?" Remus nodded. "All right. I can handle seven days." Sirius grabbed another biscuit and began to crumble it in his hands. I can handle it.

Chapter Text

THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AND DEATH

XVII

The Dementors


Harry, Hermione, and Ron were walking together toward the Great Hall. They had been already this morning for breakfast, but had returned to the Gryffindor common room in order to prepare for their trip to Diagon Alley, while Remus and Sirius went to the Headmaster's office in order to leave for Headquarters.

Unable to hear their footsteps, Harry kept both of his friends in his peripheral vision as they walked. He wished he could speak to them as they strolled down the stone corridors, instead of his ears being bound by a silence that left him floundering in instances that were once so easy. Even with that, Harry was glad he was here, walking beside his two best friends.

Although, he had to admit, he wasn't too keen on the idea of going to Diagon Alley with the son and wife of his least favorite professor. Especially when he stepped into the Great Hall to find that Severus Snape and Draco Malfoy were there, as well.

Harry felt himself falter, though he didn't realize he had hesitated in step until Hermione's hand tightened on his arm and she urged him onward. Harry followed with reluctance, and the three of them stepped up to the group of four with wary eyes watching the Potions Master.

"Potter," Severus growled softly, though it was pointless for him to even shout. The boy would not hear him. He turned his attention to the closed-off expression on Weasley's face and the over-intelligent gaze of the know-it-all. "You can rest assured that I will not be placing myself in the horrid possession of needing to escort you in public." The professor sneered at both of them, before turned to his wife.

"Το βρίσκω αυτό το οικόπεδο να απουσιάζει στη νοημοσύνη."

Έτσι έχετε πει. Αντιτίθεμαι στην αναφορά σας σε αυτό ως ένα οικόπεδο, όμως." Elena gave him a reprimanding look that he only recognized from having known her for years. "Αυτό δεν είναι τέτοιο πράγμα, σας διαβεβαιώ."

"Έχετε παντρεμένη με Σλίθεριν. Είμαι πιεσμένοι για να πιστέψει τέτοια ψέματα."

"Έχω τους λόγους μου. Εσείς απλά θα πρέπει να με εμπιστεύονται."

"Είμαι ένα φίδι. Έχω εμπιστοσύνη σε κανέναν."

Elena merely smiled at him, as though she were smiling at a very stupid child, and leaning forward to kiss him gently on the lips. "Back to your dungeons, Φίδι μου. We shall be back in time for dinner."

Severus grunted. "Παρακολουθήστε Πότερ." He turned to his son and gave the boy a warning look that the eleven-year-old only grinned at. "Behave yourself, William." Without waiting for a response, he turned on his heel and, with a glare at Harry and his cloak swirling dramatically behind him, stormed gracefully from the hall.

Harry and Hermione watched Snape sweep from the hall, but Ron's eyes were on Malfoy. This wasn't the first time that the trio had encountered the pale blonde Slytherin. Malfoy had apparently been in the castle since before even Hermione and Ron had arrived, as he was staying with Snape, but they hadn't seen him at all since he had been absent from meals. They walked into the Great Hall for dinner one night to find an extra chair around the table and Draco Malfoy sitting in it.

The three of them had frozen on the spot, but Malfoy had neither looked at them nor spoken a word. He sat between Snape and Conan, and only when he was asked a question by the Potions Master would he nod or shake his head; the boy never spoke and never looked at anyone.

This had been a vast change from what the three of them were used to. They had expected Malfoy to sneer and strut around insulting them the moment he was out of sight of any of the teachers who would do anything, but since seeing him at dinner, they had only run into him a few times at Hogwarts, and he never reacted any differently. The three were perplexed.

Of the three of them, Hermione was the most outspoken toward Malfoy, which was surprising considering that she was the one who usually had to bring Ron or Harry back from their fits of rage against the Slytherin. Hermione, however, could only think of all the times that Malfoy had insulted her friends or tried to get them into trouble or called her a Mudblood, and she refused to think that he had changed because he was acting differently. He was a Slytherin – a sneaky snake, just like Snape, who would attack them the moment that their backs were turned. She refused to be a target for him, and she wouldn't let her guard down. She didn't trust him in the least.

"Good morning," Elena said, smiling at the three of them.

Hermione and Ron greeted her back politely, while Harry nodded. The three of them kept straying their gazes toward Malfoy, uncertain.

Elena saw this and spoke up. "I know you were told that I need to take Conan to pick up his school supplies, but Draco will also need his supplies for this year, and unfortunately, his plans to go with Severus were cancelled. I was sure you wouldn't mind if he came along. You're classmates, after all."

None of them could forget that they were classmates, but that fact didn't make it any easier. Elena's tone was kind, but her words were also firm. It was quite clear that Malfoy would be coming to Diagon Alley with them, like it or not.

"We'll be traveling by Portkey," Elena explained, beginning to walk toward the doors that led outside. The five students followed after.

Conan was nearly skipping in excitement. "We have to go outside of the wards around the school for the Portkey to activate," he explained knowledgably. "Headmaster Dumbledore can make Portkeys that go in and out of Hogwarts, but he's not here right now, and he's the only one who can."

Harry had opened his journal to allow him to see what was being said, and as he read these words, his breath hitched and he dropped the book from his fingers. Hermione grabbed Harry's hand and squeezed tightly, while Ron picked up the journal and shut it, stuffing it in his own pocket before grabbing Harry's shoulder and squeezing.

Harry knew that Conan was wrong. He knew that Dumbledore wasn't the only one who could make a Portkey that allowed travel directly from Hogwarts. After all, he had been one of the travelers on such a Portkey – one of two travelers, who took the Tri-Wizard Tournament trophy in their hands and was whisked away to a graveyard, where the other trophy's traveler was murdered in front of his eyes. It was possible for someone other than Dumbledore to make a Portkey leaving Hogwarts. Of course it was.

If anyone spoke on the walk to Hogsmeade, Harry didn't know of it. He kept his head down, eyes shut, and concentrated on the pressure in his left hand and right shoulder. Hermione and Ron had refused to let go of him, and he was grateful for their support. They had known instantly that he needed them.

"All right, here we are." Elena pulled a thick tome from the bag at her side and opened it so she had a hand under one cover, and Conan came over and put his hand under the other, so they both held the book aloft. "One to each corner," she instructed, and didn't say anything as Hermione guided Harry's left hand to the bottom right corner. She gripped the bottom left corner and glared at Draco as he gripped the top left. Ron, standing between Conan and Harry, gripped the top right corner.

"We're all ready, then? Miss Granger, who wrote The Three Musketeers?"

Hermione looked at the Greek woman in confusion for the question, but obediently answered her. "Alexander Dumas." Despite having a hold of a Portkey, the jerk behind her navel was completely unexpected.


They landed in the center of a crowded street, Harry and Ron both hitting the ground on their backs. Hermione stumbled slightly but managed to keep her balance, while Malfoy, Elena, and Conan stood perfectly still.

"Very good, Miss Granger," Elena said, closing the book. Hermione caught a glimpse at the cover as she was slipping it into her bag. It was written in Greek, but she was able to recognize the image of four musketeers on the front of the tome.

"Are Portkeys different in Greece?" she couldn't help but ask? Ron was helping a shivering Harry to his feet, and Hermione grabbed his hand as he stood up. He sighed in relief and seemed to relax.

"We have Portkeys that can be made and activated just as in Britain, but there are also other ways of doing things. Often, these are the older ways that stretch back through tradition. The Portkey that I just used is often referred to as a TomeKey. It allows for only six people to travel at a time, due to the fact that one person must hold on to each corner, and then two can be split between the covers, as with Conan and I."

"Is there a benefit with using one over the other?"

Conan's giggle interrupted the answer his mother was about to give and she smiled at him. "Why don't you tell her, Conan?"

The younger boy grinned. "Have you read The Three Musketeers?" he asked.

Perplexed by a question that didn't seem to have any merit in the conversation, Hermione still needed. "Yes, of course, it's a classic."

"Have you read it in Greek?" Conan asked, and his grin got still wider.

"No, I can't read—" Hermione stopped speaking, her eyes widening suddenly. Harry looked at her in alarm. Hermione squeezed his hand reassuringly. "I can remember the words… in Greek." She looked up, wide eyes meeting Elena's amused ones. "I don't speak Greek. I've only just heard it spoken this year."

"TomeKeys let you read books really fast!" Conan declared excitedly.

Elena smiled at his enthusiasm. "It's an ancient version of Wizarding travel from which the Portkey spell was created. It was used when time was short but someone needed to learn a lot of material. It's unknown if it was created initially for purposes of court or theatre."

"Why would anyone want to create the Portkey spell from that? The TomeKey seems to be a perfect version."

Elena smiled. "While I would agree with you, the Portkey was created specifically for travel, when the learning of material was unnecessary. It might seem like a loss, but a Portkey is much faster. The TomeKey actually takes thirty minutes to send someone to their destination." Hermione's stunned look had the woman grinning. "It's eleven thirty in the morning."

"Can we use a different TomeKey to get back to Hogwarts?"

Ron groaned. "Like you need any help learning the material."

"Come on, Ron – you've just read an entire novel in another language!"

"Yes, and it's all Greek to me," he groused. He flicked his eyes to Hermione's. She was giving him a deeply considering look. "What?"

"Nothing," she said. "I thought you meant something different, but—nevermind." She turned back to Elena and couldn't resist bouncing on the balls of her feet. "Can we?"

Elena laughed. "I don't see why not, but you'll have to all agree on the book." She turned around to find Conan and saw him grinning. There was no doubt in her mind that he was excited at the possibility of "reading" a fifth year text while taking the TomeKey.

"Can I get my wand first, Mum?" Conan asked excitedly.

Elena turned back to the others. "I'm going to take Conan off to get his things. You four can go together to get your things, and we'll all meet at Madam Malkin's to fetch our robes at two o'clock. Does that sound all right to everyone?."

Harry was looking at Ron, who nodded, and he followed suit. Malfoy caught Elena looking in his direction and gave an almost imperceptible nod, but Hermione was biting her lip. "I was wondering if I might be able to come with you, Miss Morely?"

"Just Elena's fine, dear," she replied quietly, "and why would you want to come with me? I'll be going around to fetch Conan all his first year things."

"I have a lot of questions about the way the Wizarding World works in other countries, and as you're from Greece, I was wondering if you would mind if I asked you about how that was different from Britain? And maybe you could tell me how to make a TomeKey, because they're amazing and I would love to be able to make them myself, and are there any other types of travel magic that allow us to gather information at the same time?"

By the end of the long-winded explanation, Ron was snickering, and Elena was laughing outright. "Very well. I would be more than happy to explain to you about how the Wizarding World works in Greece. It's wonderful to meet people who are interested in that sort of thing. So long as you're okay with this, Conan."

The younger boy nodded enthusiastically. Of course he was okay with it! Here was a fifth year who loved to learn as much as he did, and maybe she wouldn't mind if Conan asked her some questions, too!

"All right, then I'll take Hermione and Conan with me. You three stay together, and we'll meet up at Madam Malkin's at two."

Elena left with Hermione already prattling off a series of questions, and Ron and Harry were left standing opposite Malfoy, looking at him suspiciously.

"Right," Ron said suddenly. "We're stuck together, so we might as well get this done quick. You don't give us trouble and we won't cause any for you, all right, Malfoy?"

The pale boy's grey eyes flicked upward briefly and he nodded the smallest of nods. Harry and Ron returned it. "All right, then. Let's go to Gringott's. Then we can get the bloody Potions shit done first."


Conan was holding the box containing his wand like it was a prized golden calf. Swishy willow with a unicorn tail core, it was longer than his forearm but felt perfect in his hand. It'd shot out green and blue sparks when he waved it through the air, and he couldn't wait to tell his Dad. Slytherin in his colors! His father would be so proud!

"Conan?" The younger boy looked back at Hermione, smiling. She had managed to stop talking in Ollivander's. Partly, Conan thought, because the wandmaker was so creepy. During their walk here, however, she had constantly been asking Elena questions, though his mum had allowed him to answer a few, as well. "Why did Snape call you William?"

Conan ignored the fact that Hermione had called his dad by his surname. "William's my middle name," he explained quietly. "Mum can use my given name, because everyone knows she's my mum, but Dad has to keep it secret, so when he's talking to his son, his son is William. If he addressed me as a student, he could call me Conan, but he won't. Dad doesn't use first names very often."

Hermione stored the last part of that away for thought later. "Is there some sort of spell on you?"

Conan frowned and then looked at Elena. "Of a sort," the woman explained quietly, running a hand over her son's hair. "My husband and I are not married." She smiled softly at Hermione's confused look. "I can call him my husband because we're bonded – it's an older style of marital status not recognized in Britain except by the older pureblood families, those known as the Ancient and Noble Houses. Because of this, we can be bonded without people recognizing that we are, while if we brought it to the attention of others, at least in other countries, it would be treated the same as a marriage, or in some cases, as even deeper than marriage.

"Had we gotten married, it would have been recorded, and this would have put Conan and I in more danger than my husband would allow with his job. Once his duties are completed and we are all free, he and I will be married, and we'll be able to live our lives without worrying about the repercussions that we can't avoid at this moment."

"My dad's very brave," Conan said solemnly.

Hermione looked down at him, surprised to find that the excited little boy had been replaced by an eleven year old young man who at least had a very good idea of what his father did.

"Yes, I suppose he is."

They walked in silence for a while, before Conan abruptly said, "My parents named me after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Have you read The Hound of the Baskervilles?"


Ron and Harry were stepping out of the Magical Menagerie when someone wrapped an arm around Ron's neck and began choking him.

He let out a yell, muffled by someone's arm squashed over his mouth, and felt a fist descend on his head, drilling into his skull. "Ickle Ronniekins, we never knew you had it in you!"

"Mum is so proud of her youngest son!"

"Prefect, what an honor!"

"Dumbledore sent a letter."

"Mum was in tears."

"We think you're off the hook for every bad thing you ever did."

"Wrestling a troll."

"Joining an army of giant chessmen."

"Stealing Dad's flying car."

"Sneaking into the Chamber of Secrets."

"Helping free a criminal."

"Helping free a werewolf."

"Becoming a damsel in distress in the Tournament."

"Geroff!" Ron roared, and snapped his teeth in a failed attempt to bite his brother's arm. He straightened when he was released, tugging his shirt down. "I was not a damsel in distress!"

"You're right, of course, dear brother – how rude of us."

"You were a damsel in the Black Lake!"

Ron lunged at them, but Fred, who had made the initial "damsel in distress" comment, drew his wand. "Now, now, dear brother, forgetting something?"

"Bugger," Ron muttered.

"That's right, Ronniekins – we can do magic—"

"Outside of Hogwarts—"

"Not that the rules ever stopped you before." Ginny came up to step between her twins, giving them both looks that demanded they admit it.

"You never let us finish, Gin!"

"Legally!" George said firmly, and then grinned. "Okay, we're done."

Ginny rolled her eyes and turned to Ron. "You better hide if you don't want to run into Mum. She didn't know you were coming to Diagon Alley today, but she does now."

"Did she see us?" Ron asked, looking around worriedly. He really didn't want to deal with his mother fawning all over him in public because he was now a Prefect. He wasn't quite sure how to deal with it himself.

"No," Fred said, grinning like a cat.

"We told her," George added, matching his twin's grin.

"We really hope she gets to see you before you go back to Hogwarts."

"We think you deserve all of the attention you can get."

"Arseholes," Ron growled at the both of them, though it didn't appear to faze either one.

"Our little brother's growing up."

"To be just like Percy!"

"Oi, don't even!"

"Shh!" Ginny hissed. "Where have you been so far?"

"Apothecary, Quidditch Through the Ages, Zonko's." He jerked a thumb at the store they just walked out of.

Ginny glanced behind him at the store and the pale young man waiting in the threshold. She turned back to Ron. "You should get your school things before you go wasting time."

"Yes, Mum," Ron said snidely.

Ginny just rolled her eyes at him. "Mum was coming to meet us at the Apothecary, then we're going to Flourish and Blott's. The twins can stall her a bit so you can get your books and get out of there before she comes in."

Ron looked at his little sister in surprise. "Thanks, Ginny."

"You'll owe me one," she replied, grinning.

"Hey, wait a minute," George said.

"What's all this about the twins stalling Mum?"

"Why aren't you going to be stalling Mum?"

"I'll be with Ron and Harry," Ginny said in a no-nonsense tone. "Tell Mum where I am, and have fun in the Apothecary." She grabbed Harry's hand and without waiting for the twins or Ron to come up with a word of complaint, pulled the raven-haired boy toward the large bookstore. Ron kept close to Harry and, behind him, Malfoy followed.

Once Ginny had gotten far enough away from the twins that she felt safe, she slowed down and let Ron move to walk beside her. "All right, I'm not blind. That bloody ferret is following us. What's his deal?"

Ron was impressed with his sister. Normally she kept a civil tongue in her mouth at home, but then, Mum would wash their mouths out if they didn't. Still, he hadn't expected her to swear, and he hadn't known her nickname for Malfoy.

Ron removed Harry's journal from his pocket and handed it to him. Gratefully, Harry opened it and read over some of what had been said with the twins, and kept moving his eyes to the page so that he could know what Ron and Ginny were talking about.

"He's living at Hogwarts with Snape," Ron said. "I don't know what happened with his parents, but I guess Snape's his guardian now. He doesn't talk to anyone anymore; just nods and shakes his head. He hardly looks at anyone. It's weird."

Ginny narrowed her eyes and looked back at the following boy. He wasn't close enough to be listening in without the aid of magic, and he didn't even look up at her. "Do you think the sneaky bastard is playing you?"

"I always think Snape's playing us," Ron said, causing Ginny to twist her head back to look at him with a grin. "And I think Malfoy's a sneak, too, but… there's something with the way he's acting that's more than just a game to try and put us off-guard. It's too well-done. It's like he's… I dunno…"

"Broken."

"Yeah." Ron frowned. "I don't know what happened, but did you see the scar on his face?"

"No, I didn't." She twisted around to try and see, but Ron elbowed her lightly.

"Don't."

"Why not?" she demanded.

"He keeps his head down, so you're not gonna be able to see it, most likely. We only know about it because we've been running into him at Hogwarts the last few weeks. Just leave him alone, Ginny."

"Are you honestly protecting the ferret?"

"I am not."

"Good, then." Ginny let go of Harry's hand and turned on her heel, storming back toward the blonde haired youth. He apparently caught sight of her coming, because he stopped abruptly and she walked right up to him.

"All right, ferret, out with it." Draco didn't say anything, but his shoulders rose a little, as though he were trying to protect himself. "You've never made it a secret that you hate my family, and this is the first time I've ever run into you without an insult coming out of your mouth, so don't stop now, ferret; I might miss the attention."

He still didn't say anything, so Ginny stomped her foot and was about to yell at him, when Ron hissed, "Malfoy."

Ginny turned around at the strange tone, and Draco raised his head slightly. What he saw made him twitch in terror, and freeze up.

Lucius Malfoy was walking with swift determination down the center of Diagon Alley, his robes billowing behind him and his long locks of platinum hair falling in perfect place on his shoulders. He was headed toward Flourish and Blotts, and only the fact that the four of them hadn't yet reached the store had kept them from being seen.

"Oh, look, ferret, there's your daddy now." Ginny turned to look at the boy, only to frown upon seeing his face. He was paler than usual, which was definitely saying something. "Malfoy?"

Ron and Harry turned to look at Draco, as well, but it was Ron who moved first. He stepped forward, nudging Ginny away, and grabbed the wide-eyed boy by the arm. "Come on, Malfoy. Move." He pulled on the boy's arm and the Slytherin followed without complaint, letting Ron drag him away from the store and into a small space between two shops. The four of them moved halfway back the alleyway, until they were far enough back that they were sure they wouldn't be seen in the darkness, before watching Lucius Malfoy continue down the street.

Ron could feel Draco quivering under his arm, but he didn't let go. Instead, he looked at the pale boy's face, and the blinded eye over which there was a long, evil-looking gash that would never heal. He spoke without thinking.

"Did your dad do that to you?"

Draco stiffened at the words, and looked down, ashamed. He didn't say anything to confirm or deny Ron's question, but that motion had been enough. Ron's grip tightened just slightly on the other boy's arm, and he spoke in a firm tone that was not to be argued with.

"Your dad's a bloody tosser."

Draco didn't say anything, but he couldn't disagree with the redhead.

"How long do you think he'll be in there?" Ginny asked. She wasn't quite sure what had just happened between her brother and the ferret, but Ron had yet to release the boy's arm, so she decided to postpone further antagonizing the other boy.

"I dunno," Ron muttered. "I really don't want to go in there if that git's gonna be there." It went without saying that Draco didn't want to encounter his father.

The scratching of a quill had Ron and Ginny looking over at Harry, and he held up his journal. The handwriting \was sloppy, there not being anything for him to lay the book on, but the words were legible.

"I'll go and get them."

"I'll go, too, Harry," Ginny said. "You shouldn't go in there alone if that arsehole's in there. Especially if you can't talk." Harry shrugged one shoulder. "I need to get my schoolbooks, anyway." She turned to her brother. "Do you have any money for your books?"

Harry saw Draco reach for his money pouch and scribbled a quick message.

"I'll get them. Pay me back."

That halted Ron's hand, too, but his ears burned. "Harry…"

"Really don't want to deal with Lucius Malfoy. Let me."

"Fine!" Ron snapped. "But I'm paying you back this time. No leprechaun gold." He muttered a few curse words, crossing his arms over his chest. He ignored Harry's grin before the boy tucked away his journal and turned to leave the alleyway.

Ginny followed him and grabbed his hand as they headed toward Flourish and Blotts. Since he couldn't hear where she was, Harry didn't think this was too bad of an idea, but his cheeks did warm just a little. He'd never held a girl's hand in public before, even if it was his best friend's little sister.

Ginny maneuvered through the crowd of people in the store with Harry right behind her, connected at their hands. She walked up to the clerk's desk and Ginny spoke with him quickly. Harry couldn't see what she was saying, but was pretty sure she was ordering all four book orders. He dug his hand into his pocket and pulled out his money pouch.

A sharp rap on his shoulder and Harry found himself being spun around and shoved back into the clerk's desk, the edge of the counter digging hard into his back. He stared up into the face of Lucius Malfoy.

"Well, well, well, if it isn't the Boy-Who-Lived." He tugged on his cane and the silver head of it jerked sharply into Harry's shoulder. He smiled darkly. "I daresay I know someone who would be just thrilled to see you, Potter. Perhaps I should take you to meet them."

"Get off him!"

Lucius turned to see the smallest Weasley brat with her wand out and pointed at his face. His left eyebrow rose and he grinned at her. "Really, now? Do you honestly think a little Mudblood-loving fourth year could do me any harm? Just try and I'll have that wand of yours snapped in half and see your family on the streets. Takes a lot to feed a family as fat as yours, I'm sure. How well do you think you'd do with your father out of a job?"

The sharp end of a stick stabbed him in the side, and Lucius turned back, surprised, to lay his eyes on Harry. The emerald eyes were narrowed into slits and the younger man gave him a look that clearly said, "I just dueled your Master and lived. Want to see how good I am?"

The idea of being beaten by a fifth year child was ludicrous, but there were other things that could handle Potter without him needing to waste his time. His Mark twinged, and he knew it was time to go.

"I'll see you out like your parents yet, Potter," Lucius hissed, and shoved the boy back into the counter as he turned and strolled from the store.

Harry rubbed his shoulder as he turned around. He narrowed his eyes when he saw the shopkeeper standing there with a pile of books in his arms, looking down at the floor and clearly ignoring what had been happening in front of him.

He took out his money bag and tried very hard not to slam it on the counter. By the man's slight flinch, he figured he must have failed.

The shopkeeper totaled up the cost of the books and Harry paid him, while Ginny had the man shrink the books so they could stuff them in their pockets. Harry was so annoyed at the shopkeeper and Malfoy that he was chilled, his body covered in goosebumps. He looked over to see if Ginny was ready, only to see her breath as she exhaled. He frowned, and then his eyes widened as the distant sound of a scream rippled through his mind.

Dementors!


Ron and Draco were watching the street when they saw Lucius Malfoy storm from Flourish and Blotts. The man looked angry, but he didn't spare any time looking around. Once he'd made it out into the street, his disapparated, and Ron felt Draco relax beside him.

That lasted only a moment before the cold set in.

Ron recognized the sensation from the train ride in third year. It was something he would never be able to forget. Beside him, Draco started shivering, and Ron wondered briefly if it was from the cold, or if it was the memories. What did Draco see when the Dementors took the happiness away?

Ron felt miserable. A wave of frozen depression settled over his mind. He tried to think about Harry's stag patronus, but the cold misery that settled over him washed it away. He felt the ground beneath his knees, and a burning, pushing sensation in his throat, like he wanted to be sick. The cold and misery pounded against his back and he felt the ground slam hard against his chest as he collapsed. He didn't have the energy to be sick.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see dark blurs of ragged cloaks swimming through the air. How many dementors were in Diagon Alley, he couldn't be sure, but even through the haze of sorrow, the screams reached his ears. Even through a fog of emptiness, he heard a familiar voice cry out, "Harry!"

Ron lifted his head with difficulty, his eyes seeking out the girl he had heard screaming. Harry was lying on the ground just outside of Flourish and Blotts, with dementors swooping down at him, sucking at the air around him with lungs that squealed in relish. Ginny stood weakly in front of him, wand raised as though she had planned to cast a spell against the dementors, but now couldn't recall the incantation. And the dementors swooped down at her, too, making her legs shake and her already pale face drain of color as they sucked at the air around her.

Ron grit his teeth together, as Ginny's knees hit the ground. As the next dementor swooped down at them, Ron surged to his feet on pure rage, roaring like a wild animal.

"Get away from my sister!"

Charging forward, leaping, Ron hit the dementor hard, scrabbling for a hold at whatever lay beneath the ragged cloak the creature wore.

There was a shrieking cry from the dementor, and then Ron screamed as his arms began to burn. The dementor tried to swoop away, twisting, and Ron fell from where he had been clutching the creature, dragging the cloak with him. Ron hit the ground and curled into a ball, clutching his arms as tears rolled down his cheeks.

The dementor let out a foul hiss, like steam rolling off suddenly-soaked hot coals. There was a flash of rotting, grey leather and hazy white orbs, and then the spinning form of a black cloak, and the dementor that had been unmasked, however briefly, fled, leaving the scene to his brothers.


Elena was standing in the Apothecary watching Conan run around looking at everything and trying to name it before reading the label. Her son didn't like Potions, which was always a matter of some aggravation when it came to Severus, but the boy was determined to please his father. The fact that he had appropriately named nearly fifty ingredients so far had him pleased to burst, and Elena knew that Severus would be proud of him. He would be proud of Conan if the boy could name only five, though he would have bemoaned his horrible skills as a Potions Master while the young boy giggled profusely. The image made Elena smile.

That smile faded from her lips as the cold sensation fell over her, goosebumps rippling up her arms. She saw Hermione by the shopkeeper's desk spin around, gasping, her breath coming from her mouth in a visible cloud.

"Elena!" the girl cried.

But Elena already knew. She was not unfamiliar with the feeling the Dementors forced upon people, though she desperately wished she was. Moving forward, she grabbed Conan's arm and pulled him to her.

"Mum—"

"Hush, Conan," she whispered, pulling him with her toward Hermione. "Get behind the counter, both of you." Hermione grabbed Conan's hand and the two moved behind the clerk's counter, ducking down beneath it. It wouldn't keep the Dementors from knowing the two of them were there, but even a small shield could change the way things went.

Elena brandished her wand before her, calling out a spell Hermione had heard a number of times before, but had never been able to perform herself. "Expecto Patronum!"

Peeking over the top of the counter, Hermione saw the silver cloud issue from Elena's wand, forming into an animal that snapped long jaws toward the door.

The door burst open and a ragged-cloaked form rushed in, swooping toward Elena.

The crocodile moved faster than Hermione would have though such a large animal could. It nearly swam across the floor, legs moving swiftly, tail whipping back and forth, snapping teeth at the Dementor.

Screeching, the Dementor retreated from the Patronus and swooped out of the store, back into the alley. Hermione could hear screams over the dull wave of depression that settled down on her shoulders. She tried to think of something happy, but nothing came to mind. All she could think about were her friends, and a stag Patronus that wouldn't appear with its wizard unable to speak the incantation.


The air around him was cold, but Harry had sunk beneath the consciousness that allowed him to recognize this. He was somewhere else entirely. He was being held in someone's arms, safe and at home, surrounded by pale flesh and fiery red hair. The arms around him tightened, however, and he could feel the terror that came with the sensation as someone other than the woman that held him spoke quickly.

"Lily, he's here! Take Harry and go! I'll hold him off."

They were moving away from the other, and Harry felt himself bouncing lightly in the arms that held him tightly. The house around him was blurry and indistinct, immaterial to such a young mind. A door shut behind them and he was released from the arms that held him, placed in a crib. He wanted back in that embrace, back where he was safe, but the woman had turned away from him and was brandishing a wand at the door they had passed through, casting spells quickly with words spoken under her breath.

Whatever she had been doing, it failed. A moment later, the door exploded open to reveal a tall, imposing figure. Dark hair and eyes that seemed to glimmer crimson, Lord Voldemort's wand was twisted and warped.

"James," the woman whispered brokenly, but refused to run from the dark wizard standing before her. He glanced back down the hall lazily, as though looking for her husband, and then smiled at her.

"I've no use for you, Mudblood. Give me the child."

"No. Not Harry." The woman shook her head desperately back and forth. "Please, not Harry. Take me." She fought against the hands of the man as he tried to push her away. "Kill me instead."

"Stand aside, you silly girl. Stand aside now."

"Please, no, not Harry. No!"

Voldemort growled low in his throat and stepped back from the woman. She fell into place protectively in front of the crib, as Voldemort raised his wand.

"As you wish, Mudblood. Avada Kedavra!"

Green light erupted from the end of the wand and struck the woman. She let out a terrified scream and collapsed to the ground.

Harry stared down at the redheaded woman, but there were no tears in his eyes. He could feel the warmth of an embrace around him, and in it he was warm, and safe, and at home, and he wasn't afraid. He stared with deep green eyes at the man in front of him, as Lord Voldemort raised his wand.

"You'll not be around to stop me, Harry Potter. Avada Kedavra!"

The green light flashed sharply, blinding him, and Harry screamed, the memory of his cries as a child merging with his screams as a fifteen year old, lying on the street in Diagon Alley with a Dementor bent down over his body, the great void that was its mouth making gasping, sucking sounds as its face hovered over Harry's.

There was a flash of silver light, and the Dementor jerked back. A howl erupted from down the street and a wolf patronus raced through the air, leaping toward the Dementor with a vengeance.

With a screech, the Dementor turned and fled, chased by the glowing silver canine. Sirius slid down next to Harry, ignoring the fact that he was currently a convicted criminal and anyone who saw him in the alley could identify him. He wrapped an arm under Harry's shoulders and another under his knees, scooping him up into his arms. A series of pops around him alerted him to the arrival of others, and he spotted Dumbledore as the Headmaster moved toward him.

"Sirius," the Headmaster said, handing him a Lemon Drop. "It'll take you to Poppy. Hurry now; the activation's your other name."

Sirius nodded his thanks. "Padfoot." A jerk behind his navel and he and Harry were whisked away.


The world around him was spinning oddly when Harry felt some semblance of balance return. He was being held tightly against someone's chest, and he could feel them moving beneath him, their chest rising and falling quickly. He felt weary, bogged down in a chasm of despair so deep there was no light to be seen. The darkness and depression around him was a suffocating force, and he struggled to climb out of it as he struggled to draw breath.

"What happened?"

"Dementors attacked Diagon Alley." The chest beneath him rumbled as the person spoke. He knew that voice, didn't he?

"Put him over here. Has he responded yet?"

Harry felt himself lowered onto something soft. "No. We came in by Portkey. He hasn't had any chocolate yet."

"Help me here, Mr. Black."

An arm behind his back lifted him up and something smooth and hard was placed against his lips. Hot liquid filled his mouth and Harry gagged on it, but gentle fingers on his throat massaged his muscles until he swallowed convulsively. Warmth filled his stomach, spreading outward from his center and driving away the chill that had deadened his limbs.

The arm left his shoulders and he sank back into something soft, as something heavy covered him. There was a tingling sensation over his body.

"He'll be fine. The Dementors weakened him severely, and I wouldn't be surprised if he was in here for a few days, but he should recover fully from exposure to them. Rotten creatures."

A hand smoothed his hair back from his head as someone sighed. "I was worried. I remembered when they attacked a few years ago, but I… I never saw him like this."

Voices speaking over each other interrupted whatever the woman might have been about to say, and Harry could only hear bits and pieces of what was being said.

"Dementors in Dia—"

"… thought he was about to—"

"… lucky he wasn't Kissed—"

"… thinking of… separated like that—"

"… some chocolate—"

"You'll be all right, Harry." The hand was still smoothing out his hair, and his godfather's voice in his ear pulled Harry's attention away from the others who had been speaking. He felt himself calm as Sirius' voice began to fill his mind, letting him relax into the hospital bed. "We'll have to make sure you can wandlessly cast the Patronus before you go anywhere again, but Remus said you were incredible at it, so that shouldn't be a problem. I may find some way to get Dumbledore to let me stay here so I never have to leave your side, what with you being determined to scare me like that."

"Sirius? How is he?"

"Madam Pomfrey says he'll be fine, Headmaster. It might take a few days, though. I was just telling him I may never leave him alone, though."

"I'm afraid I can't allow you to remain, Sirius, and you know that. Molly and Arthur are coming in to see their children, so I think it would be wise for you to leave."

Sirius sighed. "You know, I think there's something to be said about one family being viewed as more important than another."

"I am sorry, Sirius."

"Yes. You've said that." Sirius didn't sound as though he believed a bit of it. "Of course, I suppose it matters less that I'm here, since my godson can't hear me, doesn't it?"

He couldn't hear Sirius? Oh, that's right… he couldn't hear…

The silence settled over Harry's ears again and, trapped in that void of nothingness, he felt himself floating away.

 

Chapter Text

THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AND DEATH

XVIII

Into the Realm


"Oh, Ginny, dear, are you sure you're all right?"

"I'm fine, Mum." Ginny hugged her mother back when the woman squeezed her tightly. "The dementors just made me… it all came back, but I'm okay now. Really."

In truth, the dementors had brought to the forefront of her mind every miserable thought of her first year at Hogwarts. Every moment of doubt, every instance of fear, and the growing comprehension that she had been the one attacking people. It had made her sick with fear all over again. A good long hug from both of her parents and a large chunk of chocolate had gone a long way to making her feel better, but she couldn't deny that the guilt and fear were still lingering. Worry over her brother and Harry, however, eclipsed those old feelings. Both of them were still unconscious even though it had been hours since the attack on Diagon Alley.

Of all of them, those that had gone with Elena and the Weasleys whom had also been present in Diagon Alley, Harry and Ron had suffered the worst from the attack. It was hard to remember what had actually happened, because the dementors had done such a fine job of taking her back into her first year, but Ginny did recall Harry's collapse, how his body had twitched and jerked. She could still see the dementor, face inches from Harry's, reaching for its hood with long, scaly fingers. It's mouth had moved closer, almost touching Harry's...

And then Ron had come leaping out of nowhere, screaming like a madman – he had been saying something but Ginny couldn't remember what it was, if she had even understood it at the time. She only remembered the dementor swooping away with a shriek after Ron had leapt upon it, and then wizards apparating into Diagon Alley by the dozens.

She had briefly seen Sirius, a look of terrific horror on his face as he had whisked Harry into his arms and disappeared. And then Dumbledore had appeared by her side and used a Portkey to transfer her and Ron to the Hospital Wing. It had all been a blur of movement after that; people coming and going in the infirmary, chocolate being passed around, potions administered, and then her parents appearing.

Ginny was glad her mum and dad were with her, but part of her wished that she hadn't been released from the Hospital Wing. Stuck in Gryffindor Tower, she couldn't see how Ron and Harry were doing. Her parents meant well, she was sure, but they refused to tell her anything and it was infuriating.

She remembered how worried Sirius had looked, bent over the hospital bed in which an unconscious Harry lay. He hadn't stayed, however, instead choosing to leave not long after Ginny and Ron had arrived in the Hospital Wing. She wondered where he was now, and if someone was keeping him informed on Harry's condition, and if Harry or Ron's conditions had changed.

She didn't dare mention her thoughts to her mother. Although her father had been angry when they heard about Remus and Sirius disappearing with Harry, her mother had been furious. And Ron, first not telling them his suspicions, and then being so flippant with them, had not lessened their mother's temper. Ginny had rarely seen her blow up at her youngest brother like that, but she had held nothing back when it came to ranting about Remus and Sirius being unfit guardians. Ginny couldn't claim to know either Remus or Sirius very well, but she thought her mum was being far too harsh. She wondered if her parents' opinion of the two was what had kept the man from staying with Harry in the infirmary. If it was, that was very unfair and she really hoped it wasn't the case.

Ginny looked over at her father, sitting in an armchair across from the couch she and her mother were sitting on. Upon entering the Common Room, Ginny had found the seat closest to the fireplace. Despite the chocolate that she had received a moment after appearing in the infirmary, she still felt cold. Part of her didn't want to leave the warmth of the couch and her parents' presence, but a larger part wanted to be alone with her thoughts. Wrapping herself up in her blankets sounded comfortable and warm, and with Ron in the hospital wing yet, Ginny doubted her parents would be far off come morning.

"Mum, is it okay if I go to bed?" 

"Of course, dear." Mrs. Weasley ran her hand over Ginny's hair and smiled down at her slightly. Ginny felt a little guilty for wishing to be away from them, but the part of her that desired a quiet space to think didn't let her guilt get too great of a hold.

"You lie down and get some rest. Your father and I are going to see how Ron and Harry are doing."

Ginny nodded and climbed the stairs to the Gryffindor fourth year girls' dormitory. As she stepped inside, she found that the house elves had been busy moving her trunk from the Burrow to Hogwarts, and everything, including her text books, was already at the base of one of the four poster beds. 

Ginny opened her trunk and pulled out a thick blanket that her mother had made for her. It was done in Gryffindor colors, striped across and continually alternating red, gold, red, gold, red, gold. Ginny remembered that her mother had started knitting the blanket the week prior to her starting her second year. She had suffered a particularly vicious nightmare about Tom Riddle, the diary, and her brothers. Ginny hadn't actually told her parents (or anyone) all that had occurred in the dream, but what she had said had been enough to reveal how troubled she had been over what had happened. They had thought that she had overcome it, but Ginny had only been doing her best to hide it and distract herself over the summer. She had been doing fairly well, but the imminent return to school had triggered her fears full-force. 

Unfolding the blanket, Ginny tossed it across her bed. The pattern was very tight, the yarn her mother had used thick but very soft, and the blanket was warm. Ginny kept it folded on the end of her bed at home when she wasn't using it, but she had packed it in her trunk along with the rest of her things this year. She was glad she had. 

She opened her trunk once more, pulled out an old tome that she had "borrowed" from the library at Grimmauld Place over the summer, while her parents were in one of those meetings and she had been trying to find out who Aceso was. 

She slid under the covers, pulling the blankets around her and opened the book as she lay back against her pillows. Some of the chapters were very boring and didn't seem at all useful, but others were very intriguing and Ginny found that she was learning quite a lot she didn't know about the Wizarding World that had existed long before even Hogwarts had been built. In a way, it was very humbling. She, like all pure-blood wizards, was aware that the Wizarding World stretched back generations and generations, years and decades and centuries and millennia. Back far enough that magic and human knowledge of it had been lost. There was a lot that wizards didn't know, but Ginny had thought she was fairly knowledgeable about history. The Ageless Arte of Borrowing Magick, however, was proving her wrong. 

Turning to the chapter that she had marked when she last closed the book, Ginny began to read. 

 

The common wizard has oft been known to make the mistake of thinking that his magick is the most powerful. The foolish wizard has often been mistaken in believing that his magick is the only magick. Both the beliefs of the common and the foolish wizard are incorrect. The magick of the wizard is neither the only magick, nor the most powerful. 

The most powerful of magicks will never belong to a wizard, for man does not have the strength to house them. Wizards are creatures of flesh and bone. It is this that limits them from full power, for flesh can bear magick, but it is itself not magick. This same limitation comes to those other creatures who once claimed superiority. Goblin, dwarf, and elven-kind each bear this limitation, for they, too, are creatures of flesh and bone. Even the immortal elves are non-exempt, for it is not immortality that grants power, but the magick.

Only three species hold the power that men and mer both have attempted to claim. Although they appear as creatures of flesh and bone as the rest, and indeed they have bodies, the Three's magick is their life. Men and mer and lesser creatures all will succumb to death should their souls be torn from their bodies. The Three do not claim this weakness. Their souls are housed within their forms of flesh and bone, but not bound. Should their body being destroyed, the soul may live on, and magick with it, for the magick is the soul, in the Three and in the men and mer and lesser creatures all. 

It is only the Three who can claim themselves to be the most powerful of magicks, for they do not bear the magick, but are. Luck be with us that the Three can grant the bearing to men and mer alike, so that we are not granted the state of them, but may be granted the power. It is this, and only this, that has preserved the existence of our kind and our cousin-kind throughout the disasters of our past. May it continue on through our future and we be blessed evermore by the Three.


"Frostbite?"

"That is what Poppy has discovered is causing young Mister Weasley so much pain," Dumbledore commented lightly. It was clear he was trying to use his easy tone of voice to reassure Molly Weasley that her son was in no great danger, but he might have known it wouldn't be that simple.

"How in the world did Ronald manage to get frostbite on both of his arms?"

"I daresay it is an unexpected occurrence," Dumbledore said, and glanced toward Madam Pomfrey's office. "Poppy has informed me that she detected no magical residue from a curse, and that this is easily taken care of with a salve that Severus is currently finishing as we speak."

"But how do you explain something like this, Headmaster?" Arthur asked, putting an arm around his wife to try and calm her.

"I would like to give you a simple explanation, Arthur, but I was not present in Diagon Alley when this occurred, and Elena was not with the boys when the dementors attacked."

Molly Weasley opened her mouth, surely to say something about that, but Arthur squeezed his arm around her and quickly said, "Well, of course, none of us were expecting an attack. Fred and George were running around, as well. I suppose we're lucky they were in Zonko's and away from the initial attack or we might have had two more boys in here."

His words seemed to have swept Molly's anger out from beneath her and the woman shuddered slightly at the thought of more of her children being in the infirmary because of those wretched creatures.

"How in the world, though… dementors in Diagon Alley?"

Dumbledore shook his head. "I'm afraid I do not have an answer for you, Arthur. I've made some inquiries with some friends at the Ministry, but as yet, I've received nothing to tell us how they managed to get there."

"It'll be in the papers."

"Oh, yes. I imagine the press has its hands full at the moment, preparing for tomorrow's edition of the Daily Prophet. I'm afraid we will have to consider the consequences this will have on those returning to the school. There are students who still need to buy their things."

"Yes. We need to get the rest of everyone's school supplies," Arthur noted, glancing toward the beds where his son and Harry were sleeping.

"I'm afraid I've gone and gotten ahead of myself in that regard." The headmaster glanced down at his long beard, appearing quite sheepish, though his words were not quite as believably so. "You see, I was already in Diagon Alley, searching for anything that might suggest the reasons for the attack, and I got it into my head to get the rest of the supplies young misters and miss Weasley and mister Potter needed."

Arthur and Molly both looked startled by this, but Arthur began to stammer, his ears turning red. "He-headmaster, you didn't have to—"

"Oh, it's an old man's folly, I'm afraid. When I get these ideas in my head, I simply can't shake them. I suppose it's a sign of old age, but there's little to be done about it. The shopkeepers in Diagon Alley do have a no return policy, and I'd hate for these supplies to go to waste, so I'm afraid I'll have to ask your children to take them off my hands for me. I've had Minerva package them and she'll be delivering them to everyone's room tomorrow morning."

Molly and Arthur looked like they wanted to argue, but were a little afraid to, and so didn't know what to say. Dumbledore, for his part, looked completely oblivious to their predicament and was gaily studying a bird fluttering outside of the Infirmary windows.

"I suppose… thank you, Headmaster."

"No, Arthur, Molly, thank you. I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have people like you to take these things off my hands. Why, my office would be even more cluttered than it is at the moment, and I can't help but think I'm already testing the weight limits of the tower's floor…"

The sound of the Headmaster's voice eventually faded away like the footsteps moving with them, and the sound of a door closing told Ron that he could open his eyes safely, without being seen. Had his brothers been there, he might have made an excuse about not wanting to deal with his mother's fawning over him about his Prefect badge, but only because he was fairly sure that Harry had been unconscious since he arrived and hadn't heard anything his mother had said. He'd rather it stay that way.

Whether he had been conscious and Madam Pomfrey had chosen not to say anything, or if he had been in that halfway state between consciousness and slumber, Ron didn't know. What he did know was that he had heard his mum arguing with his dad about Sirius and Remus. He had heard a good bit of things, actually, some of which didn't make a whole lot of sense to him, like their talking about some sort of potion a bunch of people were taking that night and having Dumbledore oversee. But his mum's rant about Sirius and Remus and what she would do if Sirius dared to show up to see Harry had made him glad that his best friend wasn't awake to hear it. Ron was pretty sure the only reason he hadn't reacted like he had before was because he was just too tired to get worked up about it, and his arms hurt far too much to move.

Frostbite, Madam Pomfrey had said.

Ron looked down at his arms. They looked like he had been cooked over a fire, not frozen. His skin was dark, almost black, bubbled and charred and sick looking. Ron tried not to stare too long, as he imagined he could smell burning flesh (even though that didn't make a bit of sense) and it made his stomach roil. There was a spell surrounding his arms, faintly blue in color. Ron found that he couldn't move his arms and he realized it must be some kind of stasis spell Madam Pomfrey was using until Snape was finished making whatever that salve was that he would need. He wished the spell relieved the pain a little better. There was a prickling sensation that dotted his arms, like red-hot needles were being poked into every pore and kept hot, making his arms ache and burn from the inside out.

The Frostbite must have been a result of jumping on that dementor. Ron remembered the pain that had shot through his arms when he'd done it, but he never would have expected to get Frostbite from it. He'd never heard of such a thing happening before. What exactly were the dementors that they could cause that kind of reaction? 

"A mystery for another time, my young friend."

What? Ron gasped as the Hospital Wing around him began to fade, the color of the world around him dissolving. There was a light glowing in the center of his vision and it began to grow brighter and larger, taking up his entire vision. 

"Be not afraid, my chosen. Only seek that which you have been called to seek."

"Turris…"


Come, my chosen. It is time.

Fall into a world divine.

Follow me to the Realm of Dreams

And seek and find by any means

That which I know your heart desires.

Sleep peacefully, as it all transpires…

There were nine children who heard these words echoing in their minds. Nine children, who felt the magic reverberate like a cymbal in their soul and drag them down, down, down, into a world of slumber and light.

Lying in her bed in the fourth year Gryffindor girls' dormitory, Ginny's hand slipped on the pages of The Ageless Arte of Borrowing Magick, and she blinked sleepily. Beneath her cheek, a page displayed a young witch with wand held aloft. The woman pointed her wand at the sky and shouted mutely at the clouds. A stream of magic swirled downward, coalescing at her wand tip. Behind her, lightning flashed, turning the picture a brilliant, glowing white.

Ginny saw none of this display, and after a few moments, the image stopped repeating itself and went still. Ginny Weasley slept on.

Sitting on her bed in the fifth year Gryffindor girl's dormitory, Hermione hugged Crookshank's to her chest tightly, as she thought of Ron and Harry, still in the Infirmary. The large, fluffy cat purred loudly in her arms, and dropped gracefully on his feet when Hermione's grip went slack and she relaxed against the wall. Purring, the half-kneazle circled lazily, before settling down next to the sleeping girl and taking a nap himself.

Fred and George were standing in the secret passage that ran to the back room in Honeydukes, trying to figure out if there was any way for a dementor to use the secret passage to gain access to Hogwarts the way that they were able to get out. Both of them yawned loudly at the same time, but were determined not to fall asleep, just as they had been determined to keep themselves busy in order to avoid worrying about their little brother.

A moment later, Fred collapsed to the ground, and George fell on top of them. George grumbled lightly under his breath, and Fred let out a great snore.

Draco, for all his great talk about being better than Potter, especially during third year after the dementors attacked the train, had no idea what to do with himself now that he was alone in the Slytherin Common Room. Potter was in the Infirmary due to the dementors, and Weasley… Weasley was there, too, though Draco was still more hung up on the fact that the weasel had been quite decent to him in Diagon Alley. More than decent, in fact.

He didn't have long to ponder this fact. A moment later, a light settled over him and Draco slipped sideways off the arm he had been sitting on and collapsed onto the couch cushions, fast asleep.

Neville was smiling to himself as he knelt in front of one of the newest additions to his greenhouse. The small plant had thin, tentacle-like vines that waved aimlessly. They would flower on the Winter Solstice and Neville couldn't wait to see them. For the moment, however, he was gently moving the rich soil with his hands, being sure that the plant was aptly covered.

A wave of drowsiness overcame him and Neville yawned widely. He briefly wondered if the soporific effects of the plant were actually active beyond its flowering stage, but hadn't time to consider it further, before he let out a loud snore and fell back on the grassy floor.

Lying on her back in the middle of a field, Luna smiled absently at the darkening sky. Around her, she could hear the wind blowing, birds chirping, and a soft chanting, echoing with the power of multiple voices speaking at once.

Luna let out a soft, happy laugh, and slipped off to sleep.

Lying unconscious in the Hospital Wing, Harry distantly felt his body take on a weightlessness, and then a bright light lit up his vision. A moment later, it faded, and Harry found himself standing in a circle of nine people. Ron, Hermione, Neville, Ginny, Fred, George, Luna, and Malfoy all looked as confused as he did.

"The hunt… begins."

Chapter Text

THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AND DEATH

Chapter XIX

The Search Begins


 The world around them was white, as though they were all standing on the blank canvas of an unsure artist. There was nothing to differentiate the ground from the sky except where they were standing, but only their stillness suggested that they were standing at all. They cast no shadows upon the world around them. It all seemed so… unreal.

Harry looked around at the others who were standing with him, surprised to find that there were quite a few people here. When he dreamed, he was almost always alone, but Ron and Hermione were here this time. Fred and George were here, as well, along with Ginny, Luna, Neville, and Malfoy.

This had to be the strangest dream he’d ever had. He was in a white world surrounded by people he went to school with. What in the world?

“Harry?” Dream-Ron asked, catching sight of him and hurrying over to his side. Dream-Hermione did the same thing, and they flanked Harry on either side, eyeing each other in confusion. “What’s going on?”

Harry shook his head. He could hear Ron perfectly well, and it really did sound like Ron. Looked like him, too. Harry reached out and grabbed Ron’s wrist, startling the redhead, who glanced down at his arm in confusion.

“All right, Harry?”

“This is a really weird dream,” Harry muttered, and was briefly flummoxed by his ability to speak. Of course, he remembered being able to before, so he supposed it made sense that he could speak in his dreams.

Hermione’s hand found his and she squeezed it gently. “I don’t think you’re dreaming, Harry, not really. I’m certain I’m real, and I’m here, so we can’t really be dreaming.” She frowned a little, as though she hadn’t explained what she had meant in quite the convincing manner she had hoped. Harry, however, had spent the last four years learning not to be stunned by Hermione’s intellect, and while this still seemed very dream-like to him, he suspected she was probably right. She usually was.

“How are we having all the same dream, then?” Ron asked, voicing the question they had all been thinking. “Last I remember, I was in the hospital wing, drinking something foul.” He made a face at the memory.

“I-I was in the greenhouses,” Neville said, sounding nervous as he wrung his hands. “I was planting.” Harry watched in concern as that nervousness turned into distress. “I fell asleep. That plant has to be in soil or it’ll die.”

Luna stepped over to Neville, a vague expression on her face as she patted his shoulder. “I’m sure the Solstice Vein is well-covered, Neville,” she said in that absent-minded voice of hers. “I suspect we were brought here with our safety in mind.”

“I suspect the little Raven knows more than she’s saying, Fred,” George declared, studying the strange blonde girl.

“I suspect the little Claw might share her findings with some prompting, George,” Fred replied, also watching Luna.

For her part, Luna ignored the fact that they had spoken at all and continued to pat Neville’s shoulder. Neville glanced at her, his distress fading in the face of mild confusion and some concern for the odd girl.

“Well, if we all fell asleep,” Hermione said, eyeing everyone to see if anyone objected to that having happened, “then I suspect we must be dreaming. We’re just all dreaming the same dream.” She glanced at Luna briefly. “Apparently caused by an outside force, so there has to be a reason we were brought here.”

"A wise hypothesis, Cor's chosen." There was a breeze that brushed against their faces, the voice whispering like a song in the air, and they could all tell that there was someone else, a tenth presence, there with them.

Harry, who recognized the voice as belonging to the creature who has spoken to him at times before, tilted his head to the side. His eyes scanned the area around him out of instinct more than any thought to find the creature with his eyes. He'd never been able to before. "Who are you?" he asked, even as the others were still turning their heads, searching for someone they would not find.

"Who? Not what?" The creature sounded amused... or perhaps felt. There was a sensation against their skin, pressing against their bones, like the air was squeezing them, shaking in silent laughter.

"Would you tell us if we did ask?" Hermione demanded. She barely resisted stamping a foot in aggravation as she looked around but could find no face to focus on. The shaking of the world around them made her uncomfortable, and that made her angry.

There was a bright laugh and the release of it stilled the world. "No. You're not ready to know what I am. Not yet. But you will be. Eventually." The breeze fluttered again. "As for who I am, that, too, is beyond you for now. You may call me Phoenix, and you may know that I mean only to help you, and to help you help yourselves."

And each other, Harry thought, his mind finding the memory of his previous conversation with this creature, about the Tree of Bonds.

"Yes," the creature said, and Harry knew, somehow, it was replying to his thoughts. "In time, you will learn more about me. You may find some answers in your journeys within the Realm, for it is here that I have brought you, to search for your artifacts."

"You mean Orbis, the ring I've been dreaming about?" Ginny asked, clutching her hands together tightly.

"For you, Ginerva Weasley, yes – Orbis is the artifact you are meant to seek. Harry Potter will seek Lapis Verim, Ronald Weasley will seek Turris, and Hermione Granger will seek Cor. Frederick and George Weasley together will seek Paelius, Neville Longbottom will seek Gladius, and Draco Malfoy will seek Afa."

Ginny glanced over at her friend and then stepped over to put her hand on the blonde girl's shoulder. "What about Luna?" She looked around even though she knew she would not find a pair of eyes to meet.

Luna didn’t appear concerned. She gave Neville’s shoulder a final pat and then let her arms hang loosely at her sides. She was gazing at a spot just to her left as though she could see something there. The others looked, but there was nothing and they didn't bother to wonder what the girl thought she was seeing.

"I did not expect you to be brought here, Luna Lovegood. It was not my intention for you to follow, and I do not know for what reasons those who dwell Below have sent you into this Realm."

Luna smiled vaguely and her unfocused eyes moved, tracking something in the air that the others could not see. "I must be here for some reason," she said sagely.

"Indeed. You are welcome to stay and seek what you will. Each of you has your duty to perform, your artifact to find, but it is not only you who seek them. The Dark Lord Voldemort, too, has sent out his seven followers to find the artifacts, as well as Albus Dumbledore."

"Dumbledore's looking for the artifacts?" Ron asked loudly.

"He has sent seven of his own chosen to find them, but he himself has not come. He knows that the Dark Lord Voldemort seeks these artifacts and wishes to keep them from him, but those he has chosen do not have the strength to stand alone against this monster. This is why I have chosen you, for the artifacts call out to you. I hear them, as you each must surely hear them."

Ginny found herself nodding absently. In her mind, there was a gentle ringing, like bells tingling just beyond the reach of her conscious senses, drawing her in another direction. She wanted desperately to follow. As she looked around, she found that most of the others were nodding, as well.

“Albus Dumbledore and the Dark Lord Voldemort have sent their chosen into the Realm through use of a potion meant to limit their search to seven days, but they were not prepared for interference from outside forces.”

“Outside forces?” Hermione asked, concerned by the implications. “You mean your interference?”

“In part, but not entirely. The potion brewed for the Dark Lord Voldemort’s use has been altered by his own hand. In his attempts to increase the potency of the potion, he has negated the limitation. His chosen will seek for these artifacts for as long as it takes to find them, but Albus Dumbledore’s potion still bears the seven-day limitation. Meaning that you must not fail in your search for the artifacts, for once the seven days are up, only the Dark Lord Voldemort’s chosen and you will remain in the search.”

“Can’t you just take the limitation from Dumbledore’s potion?”

“Not without risking the death of his chosen. The Dark Lord Voldemort cares not for those he sends into an endless hunt. Like Albus Dumbledore’s chosen, his will remain trapped in the Realm until they are freed from the potion. There will be no time for them to care for themselves. There will be only the hunt.”

Ron swallowed thickly. He couldn’t imagine going seven days without being able to eat, among other necessities. He wondered how Dumbledore was going to handle those issues.

“And what about us?” Hermione demanded.

“You are my chosen, and thus under my protection. You will search until all seven artifacts have been found, but your search will be limited to your sleeping moments. When you are awake, you will go through life normally. You will eat, you will go to classes, you will keep yourself strong so that when you are in the Realm, you can continue in your duty.

“This is my first gift to you, the ability to continue your lives even as you search. My second gift is anonymity. You will be able to see the chosen of Albus Dumbledore and the Dark Lord Voldemort and they will be able to see you, but not as you are. Instead, you will make for yourself a new appearance, a mask to hide away your identity, so that you may encounter those you know and be unknown to them.

“This is all that I can give you, for my powers are limited while the artifacts and loose and free for the taking. All the rest – the strength, the will, the wit – must come from you as you seek and battle for your artifact. Good luck, my chosen, and seek swiftly, for time, though endless, is growing so very short."

There was another breeze, this one more powerful than the last, that blew against their backs and threw their hair into their faces. It was like a farewell, the presence leaving them, until the nine were alone in a world of white.

"Well, that was bloody useful," Ron growled, shaking his hair out of his face. "What are we supposed to do now?"

"We follow the song," Ginny said, as though it were obvious.

"What song?" Neville asked, looking at her curiously.

"Can't you hear your artifact singing to you?" She clutched her hands beneath her chin and her voice came out as a whisper as she spoke again. "I can hear bells."

Neville shook his head. "All I can hear is ringing, like metal hitting something hard. Stone, maybe."

"I hear a steady beating," Hermione said, and then her thoughtful expression turned to understanding, "a heartbeat!"

"It sounds like bubbling to me," Fred said, glancing at his twin. "And you, brother?"

"Definitely something brewing," George said, nodding as though they'd had this conversation before.

"I can hear a whipping sound, like something flying through the air." Ron scratched his head. "Broomsticks, maybe?"

"I can hear someone whispering," Harry muttered. "It's too low to make out, but it's obvious they're saying something."

"What do you hear, Draco?"

The others looked at Ron in surprise, though Ginny's eyes had narrowed and she looked pissed off that Ron had even dared to ask the other boy. Nevermind that he was being so familiar with the bastard, using his given name. She didn't say anything, though, and Draco lifted his head slightly to glance at the red-head from under bangs that had begun to grow longer and hide his eyes.

"I don't hear anything," he said, his voice almost too quiet to be heard.

"You mean it's not calling you?" Fred asked, crossing his arms and getting a thoughtful expression on his face.

"Oh, no, it's calling me," Draco said, and shivered slightly. "It's… it's song is a void… a sound of nothing I can hear… very clearly."

There were a series of grimaces all around. None of them spoke the fact, they were perhaps not even fully aware of it, but the call of their individual artifacts was a siren song they longed to hear. It seemed, almost, to be a part of them that did not want to be parted, and so called to them so that they would come and find this missing piece of themselves. No one fancied being in Draco's position and following an empty call to find his artifact.

“We better get moving,” Ginny said after the silence dragged on for a while. “I want to get to Orbis before anyone else does.”

There were a series of nods all around, but Hermione said, “We need to disguise ourselves, too. Create a new identity, like Phoenix said.”

“And how are we supposed to do that?” Ron asked. “It’s not like he explained.”

“It’s quite simple,” Luna said, and the sudden clarity to her usually-vague voice startled them all to attention. “If I want to be someone else, then I simply stop being Luna Lovegood and I become… Pari Auttenberg.”

And suddenly, Luna was gone.

In place of the tiny Ravenclaw, there was a tall woman with wrinkled skin and wise, strangely-golden eyes. Luna’s messy blonde locks were gone. In their place was long white hair that reached nearly to her waist and fell over her face. She was dressed in dark grey robes with tattered edges and held a tall walking stick. Her wand still stuck out from behind her ear - a distinctly-Luna trait - but when she smiled, she was missing half of her teeth.

“Bloody hell!” Ron yelled, and Luna laughed a raspy cackling laugh.

“How did you do that?” Hermione asked, awed.

“I just decided to be Pari,” Luna said, and her voice was as raspy as her laugh suggested. She gave a rather disturbing-looking grin, and then Pari was gone and Luna was back, looking the same as always and not even smug. She shrugged as though it really wasn’t that big of a deal. “It’s not hard.”

There erupted a clamor of voices as they all tried to talk at once, discussing the amazing opportunity this offered them to interact with adults without being treated like children, or to confront Voldemort’s lackeys without concern of being recognized. There was a rush of ideas about who they should disguise themselves as. More than one person mentioned Merlin and someone who wasn’t Draco even suggested Salazar Slytherin. Other names, famous and not, were bandied about, and Ron eventually silenced everyone by suggesting they all disguise themselves as Harry. This earned him a swat from said suggestion, and then a bunch of them dissolved into laughter.

“I think we’re going to have to think about it carefully,” Hermione said. “The way Phoenix spoke, we only get one costume, so it will have to be something we’re satisfied with, and something we can act convincingly. We don’t want to give ourselves away or we’ll have trouble outside of the Realm.”

Harry nodded, thinking. He didn’t know who he was going to disguise himself as.

Ginny was frowning when she turned to Luna and asked, “Who is Pari Auttenberg.”

Luna shrugged with a smile. “Nobody. I made her up.”

This silences the lot of them. Hermione, who had been thinking they needed to disguise themselves as someone specific, was suddenly confronted with an endless source of possibility. She very nearly squealed in delight.

“Definitely going to have to think about it,” Ron murmured.

“We can think about it while we’re searching,” Ginny said, staring off into the distance as though looking at something. There was nothing but the vast white landscape. “I think we need to start going.”

Draco nodded softly in agreement but didn’t say anything. That sound of silence seemed to growing louder. The artifacts were calling almost desperately.

“All right,” Harry said, “let’s get started. Do you all know which way you’re going?”

Everyone pointed in the direction the call seemed to be coming from. Fred and George obviously pointed in the same direction, but Neville was also pointing that way.

Hermione pulled out her wand and performed her Point Me spell, noting that the three of them were pointing south. She herself pointed west, same as Ron. Ginny pointed east and Harry nodded at her that his call was also coming from that direction. Draco pointed north.

Harry nodded. “Phoenix said we’ll all be here until all of the artifacts are found. Why don’t we meet back here once we’ve found ours? That way we know who is finished. Maybe we can help anyone who hasn’t found theirs yet.”

“A wise idea, Harry,” George said, rubbing his chin.

“We went right with you somewhere,” Fred said.

“How are we supposed to know where this spot is, though?” Ron asked. “Everything looks the same.”

Hermione pulled out her wand and aimed it at the white space a few inches in front of her feet. “Incendio!” she shouted, and a flash of fire struck the white ground. A dirty soot mark marred the ground for a moment, and then faded away.

Hermione’s mouth fell open in surprise and then she glared at the ground. “Incendio!” She demanded, but this soot mark fared no better.

“Perhaps all of us together could make it last,” Luna said, and the vagueness was back in her voice.

Hermione glanced at her suspiciously, then shrugged. Taking their cue, everyone drew their wand and stepped over, forming a circle around the area Hermione had been intending to mark. “Ready?” she asked, glancing at all of them. “Now.”

“INCENDIO!” they all shouted.

The combined flaring of fire was enough to make some of them skitter back, slapping at the burning hem of their robes. Ron sighed at the great hole in his robes where the flames had begun to eat away at it. He was distracted by Hermione’s “Aha!”

“It worked,” she said, and they all looked back to find a great black mark on the ground where their spells had struck. It didn’t look like soot, however. It looked more like a crater they had dug in the white world, a mark that wouldn’t - couldn’t - fade.

“Right,” Harry said, taking charge again. “So we’ll all meet back here when we’ve found our artifact.”

“Does everyone know Hermione’s Point Me spell?” Ron asked suddenly, thinking of how they would manage to find their way back.

As it happened, only Harry, Ron, and Ginny knew the spell besides Hermione, so they took a few moments to teach the others.

“Pay attention to which direction you’re going in and you should be able to find your way back,” Ron said.

“We’ll work on disguising ourselves as we go, and we can talk about this in classes, if we need any help.” Harry eyes glanced briefly at Malfoy, thinking of him going his own way and not having anyone to walk with. He frowned, then looked at Luna. He was surprised to find that she was staring blatantly at him, and when he glanced at her, she nodded.

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s go.” With a final glance around, he and Ginny turned and headed east. Fred and George each grabbed one of Neville’s arms and ignored the boy’s startled protests as they headed off. Hermione and Ron turned and went their own way, he giving Draco a brief nod that the reticent boy returned. Hermione didn’t glance back.

Draco turned and headed north in silence, expecting no company. Behind him, Luna watched the others walk away before making her way over to the crater they had made in the ground. She crouched down in front of it and smiled.

Inside the small crater, at the center of the mark, there was a tiny little sprout. It was barely two inches high, thin and weak-looking, but it hadn’t been there before. It was only just starting to grow, but if they nurtured it, it would become so strong.

Luna reached out and touched it briefly, a soft smile on her face, before she stood and went after Draco. She caught up to him with ease and ignored the startled look on his face by adopting her signature vague expression.

Her tone of voice was equally naive as she asked, "Do you suspect that Phoenix might be a Wrackspurt in disguise?"


Harry -

I’m penning this as I prepare to undergo a mission set by the headmaster. We’re due to begin here in another hour. Sirius has just returned from visiting you in the Hospital Wing following the incident in Diagon Alley. We are both furious with the Ministry for not keeping a better hold on the Dementors, but neither of us are particularly surprised, to be honest. As you well know, they are foul creatures and I doubt anyone has sufficient power to keep them completely contained.

I am sorry that I was unable to come see you myself. Dumbledore has us all locked down tight in preparation for the mission. I can’t go into detail about it, but know that I am not going into it alone. There are seven of us, though your godfather has not been permitted on this mission. He escaped briefly when news of Diagon Alley reached us, and I am glad he did. You may not remember that he was there, but we’re always keeping an eye on you.

He is somewhere safe and you needn’t worry for him. Nor for myself. I want you to focus on your schoolwork and remember what we talked about.

And one more thing. I want you to visit Madam Pomfrey and ask her to perform a diagnostic on your vision. Talk to her about getting new glasses. I’ve already spoken to her about this and she knows to expect you. Do this before the other students arrive. A new pair of glasses could mean a new look, if you want.

I will likely be unable to respond to any mail for some time, but you can keep Sirius company with a few letters. I am sure he would enjoy them. You would do well to employ a charm or two to protect against wandering eyes, however. You might ask Professor Flitwick if you have any trouble with it, but I think you could manage it yourself if you tried.

I want you to have a good term, Harry. Enjoy spending time with your friends and have fun. We will see you soon.

Love, Remus

Remus set the quill back in the ink bottle and read over the letter once more before waving his wand and quickly drying the ink. He then cast a spell over it so that no one save Harry and those he allowed could read the letter, and folded it. He then tucked it into an envelope on which Harry’s name had been scrawled and sealed it to open at Harry’s magical signature. Mentioning Sirius in the post was perhaps not the brightest of decisions, but not mentioning him would likely only hurt Harry more. Bad enough that the three of them were separated, Harry at Hogwarts (at least with his friends), Remus in Grimmauld Place preparing for his mission, and Sirius stuck in Remus’ old family cottage, all alone.

The large owl that had settled itself with patience on the back of his chair gave a rather pointed hoot and Remus jumped, then shook his head. “Yes, yes.”

The owl belonged to Sirius. She had arrived with a letter from him saying that he had arrived safely and unfollowed at Remus’ cabin, and he promised to remain there until Remus joined him after the fulfillment of the mission for Dumbledore. Her name was Arianrhod and she was a large Grey Owl, with tiny golden eyes and a small curved beak set in a massive, round face. Striped black and white, she was a massive creature, even for her species, which seemed juxtaposed against her quiet demeanor. Sirius had purchased her “because he needed an owl to send letters to Harry” and she had made him think of Padfoot. The only thing she seemed to share with Sirius’ animagus form was a gargantuan head, but Remus had long since stopped trying to understand his strange friend. Instead, he had simply accepted Arianrhod’s place in his life, and decided to call her Hod for short, instead of Ari. This annoyed Sirius to never-before-reached levels, so Remus employed the nickname whenever he could while in Sirius’ presence.

Sadly, Sirius wasn’t here at the moment. He would have to send him a letter back, detailing how efficient Hod was in delivering letters.

“This goes to Harry, at Hogwarts,” Remus said, no doubt unnecessarily, as he tied the letter to Hod’s leg. The owl lifted the leg, checking that the letter was tied, and then took off with barely a sound. Remus watched her go quietly, thinking longingly of a restaurant set in a muggle city and the two people he loved most in the world.

A knock on the door startled him and Dumbledore poked his head in. “Remus, we’re ready to begin.”

Standing up, Remus nodded and followed Dumbledore into the room. The others were there, getting ready. Seven beds had been prepared in the room, set side by side against one wall like an infirmary. Remus found his, situated on the end, and sat down on it. Madam Pomfrey came over, her lips pressed in a thin line, and handed him a vial filled with what he knew to be the Slumber of Ages potion.

“Drink it all in one swallow, Mister Lupin,” she said quietly.

Remus nodded and settled back on the bed until he was lying against the pillows. He glanced to his right, finding the others were situating themselves similarly. Nearest him was Nymphadora Tonks, a young auror and Sirius’ cousin, who nearly shattered her potion when she tripped and crashed face-first into her bed. Remus smiled softly.

“Don’t tell Siri about that,” she murmured to him, grinning, and he laughed.

Settled properly, she raised the vial at him in a toast, and said, “See you in Dreamland,” and downed it. Uncorking his own vial, Remus followed suit.

The potion burned.

Remus had suffered through SkeleGro twice in his youth, but they had nothing on this. The potion was liquid fire, scalding his throat as it went down until he was sure he was following strips of his own shredded skin along with the potion. The burning lit up his nostrils and he felt himself rear back in an attempt to escape the pain.

Someone was yelling, he realized, and he heard swearing voices. Someone else retched and he sympathized. He had the vaguest sensation of pained tears on his cheeks, and then the fires cooled, the potion becoming a balm against his burning throat, chilling and becoming the soft of pillow-down, and Remus felt himself ease back until he was lying on the bed.

There were feathers in his throat, goose-down, and someone was singing a lullaby. Remus sighed softly in contentment, rubbed his face against the pillow, and was asleep.


 

Harry stepped through the door to the Hospital Wing nervously. He had just been released the day before and was not too keen on returning so soon, but Remus had said he ought to ask about new glasses and that was something new. He’d never had a new pair of glasses in his life.

“Mister Potter,” Madam Pomfrey said, stepping out of her office as briskly as she managed all of her actions. “It’s nice to see you coming in here while conscious for once.”

Harry grinned sheepishly, feeling a bit of a blush at his attraction for trouble and hospital-inducing accidents. He glanced down at the journal in his hands as Madam Pomfrey spoke again.

“I received a letter from Mister Lupin explaining that you needed to have your eyes checked again, and a better prescription on glasses. I must admit, I was somewhat surprised, as I checked your eyes when you were first brought in here. I was sorry to see how badly your vision has been affected by… recent events.”

Harry frowned and glanced up at the matron, confused. His vision was fine. Well, no, not fine, obviously, but it was certainly no worse than it had ever been. Madam Pomfrey seemed to read this confused admittance on his face, because she said “Your glasses are nowhere near the prescription your eyesight requires, Mister Potter.”

Understanding, Harry nodded, and fished his self-inking quill from his pocket. He scribbled quickly in his journal.

My aunt never bought me glasses to fit my prescription. She just picked up a used pair.

Madam Pomfrey read this messily-scrawled note with the practiced eye of someone who has spent years treating children with deplorable handwriting, and working among healers, who have even worse.

“Used?” she asked, almost to herself. “You’ve never had a replacement pair?”

Harry, catching sight of this question, shook his head even as she continued with “How are they still functional? As many of your bones as you have broken, Mister Potter, surely you should have broken your glasses at least once.”

Harry thought that writing Hermione’s name would probably have been sufficient to explain, but out of politeness, he wrote, Hermione fixed them on the train before my first year. After the fourth time she fixed them, she taught me the spell to do it myself.

“I see. I suppose I should have guessed such a thing. May I?” Madam Pomfrey held her hands out for the glasses and Harry handed them over. Immediately, the whole world went fuzzy and he realized with some annoyance that he couldn’t even read what was in the journal. He hoped Madam Pomfrey wasn’t asking him anything, because he wouldn’t know it to answer.

Madam Pomfrey was busy waving her wand over the glasses, analyzing them as she hadn’t when she had previously checked Harry’s vision. She had thought that the glasses had been given to Harry based on the prescription that he’d needed and that his deplorable eyesight had been caused by the head trauma he had suffered at his uncle’s hands not long before. If he was being honest and his eyes were in fact no worse than they had been prior to this summer, then that gave her hope that he might yet recover from this.

She glanced at him and noted the very minute shaking of his hands. Her spirits fell a little. Perhaps it would just be delayed in the long run.

She could hope.

Madam Pomfrey waved her hand at the lenses and then flicked her wand at Harry. A small field flashed into being before his eyes like a window with prescription glass. Harry blinked in surprise at suddenly being able to see properly again.

“Now, Harry, I’m going to alter your lenses to match the prescription you require. Would you like me to make an alteration to the frames, as well?”

Harry read the words in his journal quickly and blushed, nodding emphatically and thinking on Remus’ words in the letter about a possible new look. Harry hated those thick glasses. They were a constant reminder of being punched in the face by Dudley. He’d love to have a pair that he picked out.

“Do you want circular frames or rectangular?”

“Rectangular,” Harry mouthed, feeling a thrill at the idea of glasses that were completely different. Something that he was able to choose, instead of something chosen for him.

Madam Pomfrey asked him a few more questions as her wand flicked and danced and tapped the frames, changing shape and size and color until what she held in her hands looked nothing like the glasses he had walked into the Hospital Wing with. She handed them back to Harry, who studied them through the prescription window.

They were rectangular, but the edges were rounded instead of sharp. The wire frame was thin and Gryffindor-gold, the edges that tucked behind his ears the crimson of his House’s other color.

Stomach quivering in excitement, Harry slipped the glasses on in the same instant that Madam Pomfrey cancelled the prescription window. And then he stared around in awe.

Everything was different!

Not really different, no, but it all looked so much clearer, sharper. Suddenly, Harry could see like he had never realize was possible. Colors seemed brighter, things against the far wall were clear, everything was in incredible focus. How hadn’t he realized he was missing out on so much?

Harry only realized he was missing Madam Pomfrey speaking to him when she touched his shoulder. He glanced back to find her smiling at him, holding a small mirror in her hand. He glanced into the mirror.

He looked so different with these new glasses. The light-colored frames didn’t stand out so starkly against his skin and the rectangular frames made him look less like a child of twelve. He glanced up at Madam Pomfrey with a grateful (and probably somewhat goofy) smile on his face, emphatically signing “thank you” to her.

“You’re welcome,” she said, still smiling. “They may take some getting used to and you may have a headache tonight, but if you have any problems, come back and I’ll see what I can do.” She made a shooing motion. “Now go on, and do me a favor. Stay out of the Hospital Wing this year if you can help it.”

Harry sighed a quick “sorry” in advance, thinking of the unlikelihood of that, and saw Madam Pomfrey roll her eyes. He was still grinning when he stepped out of the Hospital Wing, and his good mood followed him through the portrait hole into Gryffindor Tower, where Hermione and Ron were both surprised by his new look.

“Harry!” Hermione exclaimed, startled. “Is that why you had to go see Madam Pomfrey?” She hopped up from where she had been sitting and came over to meet Harry, studying the glasses.

Harry nodded, letting her look before coming over to sit next to Ron on the couch so he could see. The redhead was half-asleep, still drowsy from the potion he had been given for the pain he was in. His arms had been dipped in a thick blue potion and wrapped in bandages up to his elbows, which were then hardened with a spell to keep from being jostled too badly. He was allowed out of the Hospital Wing provided someone was with him at all times. Hermione had stayed with him while Harry ran down to the Hospital Wing, but for the most part, the three of them were almost always together, along with Ginny.

Harry glanced around the Common Room, surprised that the girl wasn’t present, and frowned at Hermione. Ron, who could barely focus through his potion-induced wooziness, said, “I love the new look, Harry. Seekers’re gonna be after your glasses.”

Hermione rolled her eyes and ignored Ron’s drugged mumbling. “Ginny ran to the kitchens to get some sandwiches.” She made a face at the thought of house elves but decided not to bring it back up yet. S.P.E.W. hadn’t gone well last year and she needed to rethink her approach. “She should be back soon.”

Just then, the portrait hole opened and Ginny walked back in, a large picnic basket in her arms. She peeked her head around it. “Who wants to have a picnic outside? Oh, Harry! I love your new glasses!” She then blushed crimson and hid her head back behind the basket. “So… picnic by the lake?”

“That sounds like fun,” Hermione agreed, and between her and Harry, they dragged Ron to his feet. “Come on, Ronald. The fresh air will do you good.” They’d have to keep an eye on him to make sure he didn’t drown himself, though. 


Voldemort sat on his throne-like chair, staring out at nothing and going over his plans. The day was drawing to an end and with the Sturgeon Moon on the rise, his chosen followers would be slipping into the Realm of Dreams and find him his artifacts. He wasn’t concerned with their taking of the potion. That was being overseen by Wormtail and the rat was much too afraid of him to risk failure in this.

With seven members of his circle indisposed and the artifacts all but in his hand, Voldemort determined that he could move on to the next stage in his plan. That was getting rid of some of the competition.

The door opened and the rat squeaked nervously as he entered. “M-Master?”

“Report, Wormtail.”

“They have t-taken the potion, Master. All of them are asleep. E-Everything went according to plan.”

“Good,” Voldemort murmured, fingering his wand. “You’ve done well, Wormtail. For your services, I have a gift for you.”

The rat shivered in fear. “A-a gift, Master?”

“Yes. A mission, Wormtail, just for yourself.” Wormtail swallowed and looked expectant, not daring to interrupt. “I want you to find your old friends, Wormtail, the blood traitor and the half-breed. And I want you to kill them.” He smiled, making the color drain from Wormtail’s face. “Does this opportunity please you, Wormtail?”

“Y-yes, M-Master,” Wormtail quavered, not sounding pleased at all.

“Good. Don’t come back until it’s done.”

Wormtail looked ready to faint for fear. Instead, he turned and skittered out of the room, to quake and wet himself in private.

Confront Sirius and Remus and kill them. Suicide! But if he didn’t manage… either they would kill him, or his master would.

Wormtail glanced down at his silver hand, his only boon on this mission. It would serve as the perfect weapon against Remus, easily able to kill him even in human form. It would have to be enough, and if he could surprise the werewolf…

Sirius would be the greatest problem. Asides from having an animagus form fully capable of ripping him to shreds, the man was a superb dueler and Wormtail doubted those skills had been extremely dulled by Azkaban. Not to mention how much Sirius hated him.

But he had to succeed. If he wanted to live, he would have to succeed. So the first thing he had to do was find out where Remus and Sirius were.

The best thing about rats, Wormtail thought, was that they didn’t have any problems with slipping into the tiny cracks and searching through the dirtiest of trash. Finding Sirius and Remus wouldn’t be hard, really. He just had to know where to look.

And rats were good at finding things.

Chapter Text

THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AND DEATH

Chapter XX

The Unexpected Party


Hermione and Ron were acting... strange. Ron had finally metabilized the last of the pain potion he had been given that had been making him drowsy and was back to himself. Madam Pomfrey had checked him out that morning and determined that, unless he started to suffer intense pain, he wouldn't need to take a similar potion. His arms, however, had been dipped again in a viscous blue potion and rewrapped with bandages that were hardened to the likeness of casts. Madam Pomfrey had even fashioned him a double-sling, so that his bandaged arms were tucked against his chest and thus less likely to be smacked against things as he moved around. He could still move his fingers a little, but they didn't allow the normal dexterity that Ron exhibited, making him clumsy when he attempted to maneuver something like a quill. He still managed to play chess without a problem, though, easily picking up bits of crumbled stone that were once chess pieces under Harry's command and moving them to the side.

Harry supposed Madam Pomfrey hadn't any illusions that Ron would keep his arms in the slings, but despite her pursed lips and obvious disagreement with his desire to be out of the hospital wing, she had left him leave through the door again. The four of them - Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Ginny - were not confined to Gryffindor Tower, but free to roam around the castle as they pleased, so long as they made their way to the Great Hall for dinner. The previous day had them eating a picnic lunch out by the lake, where a still-drowsy Ron had dozed off as the others played Exploding Snap.

Dinner the previous night had been interesting, since Ron didn't have the power to hold utensils and make the food reach his mouth. He had outright refused Ginny's teasing offer to spoonfeed him, but Professor McGonagall had solved the issue.

She had come over to the table where they sat together holding a handful of golden utensils - four sets, one for each of them. She had tapped one of each utensil and then one of their heads with her wand. Then, with a small, amused smile, she had given them each a set and left without explanation, returning to the staff table where she and the rest of the heads of houses were eating.

The four of them had pondered over the utensils for some time until Ron, starving and with food taunting him from the plate, had thought about how lovely it would be to scoop up a bit of mashed potatoes. And then the golden spoon he had been given did just that.

It hadn't taken long for Hermione to figure out that the utensils they had been given were keyed to respond to their thoughts. This started well, with them finding out exactly how to think to control the utensils, which took some doing but ended up not being too difficult. It devolved, however, quite rapidly, into a "swordfight" between Harry and Ginny, which she had started by stealing bits of Harry's treacle fudge from his plate. It ended when Ron flung mashed potatoes at the both of them and the utensils were taken away by Professor McGonagall, before a full-fledged food fight could break out.

The four of them had left the Great Hall, still grinning at each other, not noticing Professor McGonagall's smile or Snape's rolling eyes at her amused expression. They had spent the remainder of the day hanging out in the Common Room, playing Exploding Snap and Chess, or just reading. Ginny, who had never spent much time with them before, seemed to have found herself an empty place in their group that Harry hadn't realized was there before. He suspected if she left, he would notice the space all the more, so he was hoping she would continue to hang out with them even once the school year started. She was a lot of fun, he was beginning to realize, and after his initial complaints, Ron really didn't seem to mind her presence. Harry wondered if Hermione appreciated having another girl around.

But today, Harry was beginning to notice the strange things that had been happening ever since he returned to Hogwarts. Hermione and Ron were speaking together in voices too low, themselves too far away, for his journal to pick up on them. He would catch sight of them out of the corner of his eye while Ginny was talking to him, distracting him. Or he would see them share a look here and there, or pass a roll of parchment between the two of them that was quickly hidden before he could see. He might have thought they were keeping this secret from Ginny, as well, but he had seen she and Hermione speaking together quietly. He hadn't put it together before today, but it was suddenly glaringly obvious that they were keeping something from him, and that hurt a lot. He was dealing with his inability to hear as best he could, but with them purposefully going out of their way to keep him from finding out what they were talking about…

He didn't know what to do. He could confront them about it, but if they lied to his face, that would be somehow worse than him catching them being sneaky. He didn't think he could handle it if they lied right to him. The three of them had been so close ever since the troll incident in first year, barring a few issues throughout the years. Was it what had happened to him? Was that tearing them apart?

If they didn't want to be friends with him anymore, why didn't they just say so?

Harry was sitting on a couch in the Common Room, thinking about this, when Ginny bounded in. She had a book in her hand and a grin on her face, and he briefly looked up to acknowledge her presence and then returned to staring at his open journal.

Ron and Hermione were in the far corner, quietly discussing whatever it was they didn't want him to know. They had been over there since they had returned from the Hospital Wing, and Harry had sat down and gave himself the appearance of reading his journal, but mostly he was just thinking about how hopeless this all seemed.

They were supposed to go down to Hagrid's for lunch, having not seen the half-giant since coming to Hogwarts, but Harry was starting to feel like he didn't really want to go anywhere. In fact, crawling back into bed sounded like a really great idea. He hadn't been feeling very well the past couple of days. He wasn't sure what was wrong. It wasn't always noticeable to him, especially when he was distracted by something else, but in the moments when he was alone or it was quiet, or especially at night, his stomach would start to ache and he would feel almost nervous. He didn't know what it was. He didn't want to go to Madam Pomfrey for something as ridiculous as an aching stomach he only had half the time, but he did wish it would go away.

Closing his journal, Harry decided lying down for a while sounded like a good idea, and he retreated up to the dormitory. Crawling into bed, Harry glanced at the door. He had closed it behind him and it remained closed. For a brief moment, he thought maybe Ron or Hermione would follow him up, or even Ginny, but no. No one was coming. Whatever they were discussing, they were happy to do it without him.

Harry closed his eyes and buried his face against the pillow. He wasn't sure when he started to cry, but once it began, there was no stopping it, and he sobbed soundlessly into his pillow, wishing he was back with Remus and Sirius. Somewhere where he was wanted.


Ron glanced up at movement from the corner of his eye and caught sight of Harry entering their dorm. Last time he had looked, Harry had been sitting on the couch, reading his journal. Ron knew he couldn't read what he and Hermione were talking about because she had put up a silencing charm she discovered worked against Harry's journal, but he had suspected Harry was just reading over a conversation he'd had with Sirius and Remus. Or maybe one he'd had with Ginny. Harry seemed happy to have her here.

He glanced back at the couch where Harry had been sitting to see Ginny sitting in a chair opposite said couch. She had a book open in her lap but her eyes were on the staircase Harry had just walked up. As he watched, she turned and looked at him, saw him looking, and stood up.

Hermione canceled the silencing charm.

"I think we may need to alter our plans," Ginny said.

"Does Harry suspect something?" Hermione asked. She didn't sound worried. They had been really careful.

Ginny shook her head. "No, and that's the problem, I think. He doesn't suspect a thing."

Ron opened his mouth to ask what she meant and then groaned.

"Yeah," Ginny said. "It's not like there are classes and Quidditch to distract him from the fact that you two have been off talking secretly."

"Oh," Hermione said, sounding as though she had been chastised. "I… didn't think about that."

"Not the greatest of friends, are we?" Ron asked, catching sight of something over by the couch and walking over to it. He picked up Harry's journal, which had been left on an end table. "Maybe we could move things ahead? When it everyone supposed to get here?"

Hermione checked the clock. "In about an hour. It's too late to tell them to come now. I suppose we could head down to Hagrid's early."

"Yeah," Ron said. That sounded like the best plan. He turned to his sister. "Gin, can you run down to Hagrid's and tell them we're going to bring Harry down early?"

She looked like she might mutiny, not liking them sending her off when Harry was clearly hurting, but then she nodded. Those two had been friends with Harry for longer than she had.

"Yeah. I'll help them get anything together they don't have, yet." She left through the portrait hole, thinking a stop at the kitchens first might be in order. There was a certain house elf in residence who liked to go on about how great Harry was. Dobby was surely be a great help.

With Ginny gone, Ron turned to Hermione briefly, before the two of them went up the stairs to the fifth year boys' dormitory. Ron grimaced as he opened the door, the sound of Harry crying reaching him easily. It was especially painful because Harry didn't often cry. Perhaps the only time they had seen him do so was after discovering the information that Sirius had betrayed his parents to Voldemort. Even then, the tears had given way to anger. This… this was just sorrow.

"Maybe we shouldn't have been so sneaky," Hermione whispered sadly.

Ron didn't answer, moving quietly over to the bed, Hermione behind him. Ron knelt down and put his bandaged hand on Harry's shoulder, and the boy jumped, nearly knocking them both to the floor.

"Easy, mate," Ron said, uselessly. Harry's glasses were on the nightstand and his journal was in Ron's pocket. Hermione reached over Ron and grabbed Harry's glasses, unfolding them and placing them gently on Harry's face. She swallowed the lump in her throat as he pulled away from her hands, fixing his glasses and wiping the tears from his ears with the long sleeves of his shirt.

Ron handed Harry his journal, but the boy didn't open it. Instead he stared at the both of them, and unsure, almost distrustful look on his face.

Ron and Hermione shared a look, then turned their attention back to Harry. He had a disgusted look on his face. Ron didn't know if it was aimed at them for their shared look, or aimed at himself.

Opening the journal, Ron pushed it under Harry's nose so he was forced to grab it. Before he could say anything, Hermione spoke.

"Harry, I'm sorry we've been neglecting you. We didn't think about how it would look to you. We were just trying to… we were…" She faltered.

"We have a surprise for you," Ron said. "We were trying to keep you from figuring out what it was. We just realized today that we were sort of being bad friends, keeping you in the dark and not telling you anything. I didn't mean to hurt you, Harry. You're just… not easy to keep a secret from." He poked the pages of the journal where his words were appearing in his own shoddy handwriting. "And this thing picks up on everything. It's hard to get away from."

Harry cracked a grin at that and Ron sighed in relief.

"We weren't supposed to show you the surprise for another hour, but I think we can head down early, if that's okay with you?"

Harry frowned, then mouthed "Hagrid?"

"Yeah, it's at Hagrid's. He helped us plan the whole thing. Professor McGonagall, too." He stood up and Harry climbed out of the bed after him. When he was standing in front of Ron, the redhead surprised him by hugging him.

Startled, it took Harry a moment before he brought his arms up and hugged his friend back. After a moment, they pulled away.

"You're my best friend, Harry," Ron said, knowing Harry could read his lips. "You know that, right?"

Harry smiled and nodded, mouthing "Mine too."

He glanced at Hermione, who had tears in her eyes. With a squeal, she hugged him tightly, whispering in his ear "I love you, Harry," even though he couldn't hear it. When she pulled away, she had to wipe the tears from her eyes.

"Are you okay?" Ron asked him. Harry nodded softly as he fixed his tangled robes.

"We didn't mean to upset you," Hermione said.

Harry nodded. He understood.

Hermione frowned. "Was there… something else?" Harry flicked his eyes up to her and away, shrugging. "Harry," she said, "you can talk to us if you need to. You do know that, right?"

He nodded, opened his mouth, closed it again, and hesitantly fished his quill from his pocket. The feather was ratty from being in his pocket while he was lying down, but it still worked well. He wrote in his journal "I haven't been feeling well."

"Do you need to go to Madam Pomfrey?" Hermione asked, concerned.

Harry shook his head. "Just a stomach ache. I don't notice it all the time."

"When does it bother you?"

Harry shrugged.

Hermione had a calculating look on her face, the sort of expression she usually gained when she was mentally sorting through the library's catalog and picking out what books would be best borrowed to solve their current mystery. Ron didn't really think this particular mystery required a trip to the library. He suspected Hermione was aware of that.

"Have you been able to talk to Remus and Sirius?" he asked before Hermione could say anything. He caught her looking at him and returned her gaze. She did understand.

"Remus sent me a letter. He's on a mission for Dumbledore and won't be able to talk for a while. I can owl Sirius, but he's in hiding."

Ron licked his lips. He glanced at Hermione again briefly, then said, "Harry. You do know it's normal to be homesick when you come to school, right?"

Harry frowned at them. "I've never been homesick."

"Well, you've never had a home before, really," Hermione said softly, thinking of the Dursleys. She remembered that first time they left Hogwarts, when Harry had said he wasn't really going home, not really. Hogwarts had always been home. "Now you have Sirius and Remus."

Harry was staring at her and she smiled at him. "You miss your family, Harry. It's perfectly normal. I miss mine, too."

Harry glanced at his journal, then at Ron, who flushed with embarrassment. "Yeah, I… of course I miss my family. I even missed Ginny in my first year. We'd always been together when everyone else went off to Hogwarts." He shrugged, looking away. "Like Hermione said, it's normal."

"Ron, it's nothing to be embarrassed about."

"Yeah, well, you don't have Fred and George for brothers."

Harry grinned as Hermione seemed to realize this was a good point. She looked back at Harry. "Let's get ready and go down to Hagrid's. Ginny's already gone down." She hugged Harry again. "You might want to go wash your face."

Harry rubbed at his eyes and nodded, leaving to go to the bathroom. Hermione decided to run down to the girls' and wash her own face, since she had been unable to keep from crying. Ron made his way down the Common Room to wait for them, and a moment later, they headed off to Hagrid's together.


Draco Malfoy was sitting on the edge of the Astronomy Tower, staring out across the grounds as the Golden Trio made their way down to Hagrid's shack. He tried to sneer at the thought of the half giant but couldn't bring himself to put forth the effort. He remembered all of his father's words against the groundskeeper and sneering at the man just seemed like a way of keeping his father's shadow looming over him. It was hard, though. He wished he could escape the feeling of those silver eyes on his back all the time.

"I hope you have a plan in the case that you topple off that perch," a soft voice spoke behind him.

Draco didn't move from where his head was leaning gently against the stone wall, legs dangling out over the turrets. "Scream, I suppose," he said casually. How high were the towers? High enough that there would be no surviving the fall, of course. He was surprised his godfather had let him come up here. Verus seemed to be watching him closely, perhaps worried Draco might try to off himself. The final finger to Lucius Malfoy.

"Surely you have a means of saving yourself, should you fall?"

Draco shrugged, watching as the three Gryffindors trotted across the grounds, side-by-side. He thought of Crabbe and Goyle, always following him around, flanking him like Granger and Weasley did to Potter. Crabbe and Goyle never treated him the way that Granger and Weasley treated Potter, though. They were servants. Bodyguards. Not friends.

"I suppose I could do what Potter did last year," he said, speaking absently. "At the tournament. He summoned his broomstick to him." The fight with the dragon. That had been, Draco could admit, impressive. He'd seen Potter fly before, of course. They were opponents on the Quidditch pitch. It was one thing to dodge Bludgers and dive after Snitches, however, and another thing entirely to dodge a dragon and dive after her eggs.

"That would be an impressive feat, summoning and mounting a broomstick in midair. As impressive as it would be, however, I hope you don't intend to try it anytime soon." A hand settled on his shoulder, an offer at comfort. Draco didn't shrug it away.

"And if you dropped your wand?"

"Screaming is still an option." I suppose Potter might save me. He's saved everyone else who's been in trouble, he thought, and laughed internally. Potter wouldn't save him. Not a Malfoy. Well, no. Not Draco. He wasn't a Malfoy anymore. His father had legally filed papers to reject him from the family. Draco was an orphan now, cast out from his family. He didn't have a last name anymore.

He watched as the three Gryffindors stood outside of Hagrid's shack for a moment before being invited inside. He had seen another Weasley, the girl, not long ago come out by herself and enter.

"What's going on down there?" he asked before he could stop himself.

"They're having a birthday party for Mister Potter," Elena said, lifting her hand from his shoulder and startling him by running it through his hair. "I guess they've been planning it for a few days."

"Oh."

Potter's birthday was July 31st, he knew. Everyone knew that. It was in most history books, listed on a number of calendars. He thought about Harry's friends throwing him a birthday party and felt a sudden, intense upsurge of jealousy. He bet none of them even knew what month he was born in.

"You could go down and join them," Elena suggested softly, still playing with his hair. It was getting longer.

Draco shook his head violently, pulling his legs up and dropping back to the floor of the tower. He headed toward the door. "No, they wouldn't want me there," he said bitterly. "I'm going back to my room."

He left the tower before she could say anything else to him, making his way back to the Slytherin dungeons at a quick walk.

The following day was the first of September and the rest of the students would return to the school. This was the last day Draco would have the Slytherin dungeons all to himself. He better enjoy the peace while it lasted.

He made his way through the halls, down to the dungeons and toward the wall that hid the entrance to the Slytherin Common Room. "Boonslang," he said, causing the door to open and let him into the Common Room, where he flopped gracelessly onto the couch and closed his eyes.

He wasn't looking forward to the other Slytherins returning. Draco was aware that he had used his father's status to raise his own at the school. It had been a conscious act and it had gotten him pretty high up the ladder of the Slytherin social hierarchy, but it hadn't made him friends. Sure, he had Crabbe and Goyle, but they weren't friends. And there was Pansy, but since his father had disowned him, she was probably out, which he wasn't really saddened by. He knew his parents had been trying to work with the Parkinson family to get the two of them engaged, but he wouldn't be disappointed to see Pansy leave him. She wasn't the kind of person that Draco was really interested in. He didn't really have anyone in mind, but if he was engaged to be married, he hoped it would be with someone who had a brain cell or two of their own.

Not that he would have to worry about that. No one was going to want to marry him now that he didn't have a name to give them.

He didn't know how bad it was going to be once the other Slytherins came back. He wasn't the only orphan in Slytherin House, but as far as he knew, he was the only one who had been disowned. And after everything that he had used his father's position to attain… things could get bad. Granted, Severus would do what he could to make it less painful, but he needed to stay on the good side of the Slytherins. Draco knew that, even if he didn't know entirely why.

He put his arm over his eyes to shield the light from his eyelids and sighed. He would have to work with whatever he was given, but he didn't think it would be easy. He wasn't sure what was going to happen with Crabbe and Goyle, if they would stay at his side or move on to someone else.

He was still thinking about how he was going to approach the rest of Slytherin House as Draco instead of Malfoy when he fell asleep.

He opened his eyes in the White World and swore loudly.

"I forgot!" he yelled, running both hands through his hair and sending it in every direction. "Fuck!"

He had spent all day worrying about the Slytherins coming back and thinking about his father and how everything was changing, but he had never once thought about the artifact or this white world or their search. He hadn't thought of it once.

We forgot, he mumbled. All of them must have. Granger had said about them getting together and talking, all of them, about the artifacts outside of the dream. If she had remembered saying that, he didn't think she would have refrained from coming and finding him. Especially as hell-bent on research as rumors said she said. Meaning, they had probably all forgotten everything as soon as they woke up.

Draco groaned and sat down, putting his head in his hands. The call had already begun again, the moment he had arrived here. That sound of silence that burned in his mind like noise.

He really was on his own, would be no help outside of the Realm. After everything that he had done, the Gryffindors wouldn't talk to him even if he could remember to approach them. He would just have to find Afa and hope he didn't need help along the way.

He stood up, thinking. He did, of course, have a little bit of help. The disguise they could each make for themselves, the one that let them come up with a second identity. He still hadn't decided what he wanted to do.

Draco held his hand in front of his face and imagined crimson leather wrapped his arm from shoulder to wrist. He watched in fascination as leather coated the arm, stopping just at his wrist, turning the crimson of lifeblood.

He thought again and it faded away.

This, at least, would be useful. Draco turned his attention to the call and began to walk toward Afa, thinking about the kind of person he would want to be if he didn't have to be Draco.


"Surprise!" Ginny raced over and wrapped Harry in a tight hug. She pulled away from his, practically bouncing in excitement. "Harry birthday, Harry!"

Harry grinned back at her, looking around. The small one room house had a few balloons that were floating around, shaped like various animals. As he watched, they changed shape every so often and would race around for a moment in this new form, before returning to floating aimlessly. Some streamers hung from the ceiling, and there was a great banner against the far wall that read HAPPY BIRTHDAY HARRY in gold and scarlet letters.

Ron gripped his shoulder and gave him a shaking side-hug. "Surprised?" he asked, grinning, and Harry nodded. "Come on out back. That's where everyone's supposed to be."

The four of them made their way outside and around the back of the building, where the decorations had been thrown up without abandon. Streamers and balloons and little twinkling lights and glitter were tossed every which way and, in some cases, simply hanging in midair. The whole back garden practically glowed with birthday wishes and Harry gaped at it.

"I had a little help from Dobby," Ginny admitted, and Ron let out a great guffaw of laughter, while Hermione looked like she couldn't decide whether to protest or roll her eyes at the obviously Dobby-decorated scene.

Professor McGonagall was there, as well as Professor Flitwick, Professor Sprout, Madam Pomfrey, Professor Dumbledore and, of course, Hagrid. The half-giant spotted him right away and came over, his face set in a large grin.

"Happy birthday, 'Arry," he said, and Harry hugged him tight. Hagrid returned the hug. "'ard t' believe you're already fifteen!" he said.

Professor McGonagall came over then, giving Hagrid a moment to not-so-discreetly blow his nose into a handkerchief. She smiled at Harry and said softly, "We have a few other people who should be here in a few minutes." She reached out and briefly touched a hand to Harry's hair. "Happy belated birthday, Mister Potter. I believe you've already received my gift."

Harry grinned at her and nodded, thinking of the golden snitch he had been given when he first arrived back to Hogwarts.

Professor McGonagall smiled. "Well, you have a few others you will need to open, and then the house elves have a lovely lunch prepared for us." She leaned down close to him and whispered, "I brought those utensils with me so you and Miss Weasley can continue your sword fight."

Harry read the words in his journal and grinned widely, before showing them to Ginny, who giggled.

A few minutes later, there was a flash as a portkey discharged, depositing a group of people on the ground a few feet from the garden.

"Bill!" Ginny cried, dashing over to hug her brother.

Mr. and Mrs. Weasley had come, along with Bill, Charlie, Fred and George. They had brought with them Neville Longbottom and Luna Lovegood, who hurried over to wish Harry happy birthday. Harry, who had never met Bill, was introduced to him and Charlie by their mother. Ron and Ginny, who hadn't known that their eldest brothers were coming, were happily chatting with them about how things were going at their respective jobs. Harry watched the conversation in his journal and occasionally broke in with his own questions, written quickly in his journal. He had never had a chance before to speak with Charlie for any length of time and was fascinated with the idea of working with dragons, even if he wasn't sure it was a job he himself would enjoy.

"Harry still have the miniature Hungarian Horntail he got in the first task," Ron said to Charlie, who looked at Harry, impressed.

"Does it still function?"

Frowning in disappointment, Harry shook his head. "It stopped moving that night, but I still have it in my trunk."

Charlie nodded. "The charm connected the miniatures with the actual dragons in the tournament. Close proximity is required for that charm to activate and we had to leave to return the dragons to the preserve later that day, but the miniatures should still be connected to their dragon counterparts. Morana had to give up one of her scales to made the miniature."

"Morana? Is that the horntail?" Hermione asked.

Charlie nodded. "The horntail is Morana. The Common Welsh Green is named Shiri. The Swedish Short-Snout is Gormlaith." He grinned. "And the Chinese Fireball is Gryffindora."

Hermione gaped at him while Ron and Ginny laughed. The two of them had clearly known this already but still found it funny.

"Do all of the dragons have names?"

"Yeah. The older dragons were often named by people who have since left the reserve, but if a dragon is born to one of those in our care, we get to name it." He chuckled. "I named Gryffindora and Shiri. My drakemaster, Tawney, named Gormlaith. Morana was named by Adrian, who retired a couple years after she was born." He grimaced, suggesting that the retirement hadn't been either pleasant or entirely Adrian's choice.

"It's too bad ye couldn't keep 'em 'ere a bit longer," Hagrid said, looking disappointed. "Tha' Common Welsh Green had a good temperament. Coulda used 'er in a lesson, introduced the students t' dragons."

Harry, Ron, and Hermione shared a look, thinking of Norbert, the Norwegian Ridgeback who Hagrid had introduced them to in their first year.

"Shiri would have been the best choice," Charlie agreed, "but we had to get them away as soon as possible. That's why I had to leave right away."

Hermione was frowning. "I don't understand. I know you needed to get them back to the preserve, but you must have had them well contained."

Charlie shook his head. "Before the task, yeah, we didn't have any problems. We were able to keep up a shield that kept the dragons from moving beyond it, even if they managed to escape their bonds. Once they were defeated in the task, though, we had to get them away from the champions." He noticed Hermione's still-confused look. "You see, in dragon culture, if a human succeeds in a task against a dragon, it's considered a form of slaying. Only because the dragon is still alive, the slaying hasn't been finished and there is a battle yet ongoing between the dragon and the human who bested it. Because of that, the shields wouldn't have held the dragons back and they were extremely aggravated and becoming increasingly violent in their attempts to escape and go after the champions." He grimaced, rubbing his upper arm, which was covered by the sleeve of his dragonhide coat. "Morana was a particular problem, so we had to get them away as quickly as possible. Technically, the battle is still ongoing with…" He cleared his throat. "Well, the distance helps calm the agitation."

Harry stared at the ground. Charlie had started to say something but had stopped. It didn't take a genius to figure it out. The battle was still ongoing with three of the dragons, but it would have stopped for the fourth, since Cedric was dead. His dragon won that round.

Someone bumped his shoulder and he looked up to see Ron giving him a concerned look. Harry tried a smile for him but it came out half-hearted, he knew. Ron looked like he wasn't sure what to do, and Harry just opened his journal and looked at what was going on. Hermione and Charlie had continued speaking, her curiosity peaked over his mentioning dragon culture.

Charlie went on to explain that, millennia ago, dragons had been able to speak just like humans and were extremely powerful creatures, ruling the skies with none who could best them. There were some who fell to humans, true, but there were so many dragons and they were so powerful that many ruled the humans like kings and gods, receiving sacrifices and bribes for protection and safety.

"Then, one day, that simply stopped. No one knows what happened or why. There are no records to explain it. Dragons just stopped talking, and they lost their place as gods and kings. Humans took over and dragons became just another magical creature they had command over."

Hermione looked absolutely fascinated with the mystery and Ron, who apparently knew a bit more about dragons than Harry had realized, was grinning at her. Before he could say anything, however, Dumbledore came over to them.

"I apologize for interrupting such an interesting conversation," he said, "but Harry does have some gifts to open and there is a cake that will need eating."

Harry glanced at the headmaster. He was peering down at him, blue eyes twinkling behind half-moon spectacles, and Harry smiled and nodded. With a smile of his own, Dumbledore turned and wandered back over to where the other teachers were standing, discussing something with Mr. and Mrs. Weasley and Bill.

"I can give you a few recommendations for books on the subject if you're interested," Charlie said, moving over toward his parents and the professors.

"Oh, could you?" Hermione asked. "That would be wonderful!"

Harry and Ron shared a look behind the two of them while Ginny giggled. Beside them, Neville smiled quietly. Everyone in Gryffindor knew about Hermione's proclivity for research. Luna, who had disappeared around the same time as Fred and George, followed them over toward the adults, quietly commenting "Wouldn't it be more accurate to just ask a dragon?"

Any response to her question was interrupted by the reappearance of Fred and George, who immediately started ribbing Ron about Hermione picking up on one of his favorite topics, and how if he spent hours and hours in the library, at least he wouldn't be as bored.

"You're interested in dragons?" Hermione asked, somewhat startled.

Ron jerked a thumb at Charlie. "I grew up with him. How couldn't I be?"

"Ah, presents!" Dumbledore said, clapping his hands together as the group of them reached the adults. "There is quite a load for you to sort through, Harry, but I think, perhaps, you should open the gifts from your professors first. I imagine your friends might exchange gifts with you later, in private." His eyes flicked briefly to Fred and George, who attempted to look innocent. Their mother looked at them suspiciously.

Harry, who hadn't been expecting gifts from his professors, barring Professor McGonagall, who had already given him a snitch, looked at his professors shyly.

"How about I go first?" Flitwick asked excitedly, hopping up and rushing over to fetch his gift from the pile. It was a thick rectangular gift wrapped in dark blue wrapping paper that seemed to reflect every ray of sunlight. Harry took the gift with a shy smile and glanced at the diminutive professor before tearing the paper off nervously.

The gift was a thick book, about the width of Hermione's favorite tome (Hogwarts: A History), though not quite as large. It had a salmon-colored binding with black words on the front that spelled out the title: A Charming Encyclopedia.

Harry, who had tucked his journal into his pocket in order to hold the gift, was not aware that Hermione had gasped beside him. Ron, who realized his friend was missing out on an explanation (whether that was to come from Hermione or Flitwick, he didn't know, though he could guess), pulled Harry's journal from his back pocket, startling the boy. He grinned at Harry's look and opened the journal, holding it out so Harry could read it without having to put down the book.

"This is a charms book you're unlikely to find in the library or a regular bookstore," the journal spelled out in Flitwick's sharp cursive. "It is an encyclopedia of charms that stretches back quite a few centuries. I daresay you're quite likely to master a good number of them if Mister Lupin is to be trusted."

Harry glanced at the Charms professor and blushed at the proud look on the man's face.

"He has a lot to say about your Patronus. I look forward to seeing what you can manage in my class, and out of it."

Harry smiled, face red, and signed "thank you" even as he mouthed it. Flitwick seemed very pleased, and laughed along with the rest of the professors when Hermione generously took the tome from Harry so he could open up the next present.

Professor Sprout was the next to come forward, holding a potted plant in her hands that she hadn't wrapped, for obvious reasons. She hadn't it to Harry, who took it and studied the plant.

The plant was grey-green, sprouting up from the soil with so many branches it was nearly falling out of the pot. The leaves were oval-shaped and covered with white fuzz, and Harry thought that he should know what the plant was, but he couldn't place it.

Instead of looking to Professor Sprout for an answer, Harry turned to Neville, who everyone knew did incredible in Herbology – perhaps the only class in which he didn't spend most of the time a nervous wreck.

"That's Origanum dictamnus," he said excitedly. "Dittany of Crete. It has a lot of great benefits, even besides being able to make Essence of Dittany from it." He stepped forward and fingered the leaves. "This is a really great specimen." He glanced at Professor Sprout. "I mean, of course it is. You take care of all of your plants very well, Professor."

"Thank you, Neville," Professor Sprout said, and proudly added, "Ten points to Gryffindor for such a wonderful display of Herbological knowledge."

Neville blushed to his ears but smiled, taking the plant carefully from Harry as the boy thanked Professor Sprout and took the next gift from Professor Dumbledore.

The package was square and rather heavy. Dumbledore conjured a small table so that Harry could set it down to unwrap it. As he worked at the bright yellow wrapping paper on which were images of various types of muggle candies, Dumbledore said, "I believe you will recognize this kind of item." Harry only caught this once he looked up from unwrapping the package, and by then he had recognized what was in it. It was a penseive, much like the one he had seen the previous year, only this one was currently empty. Harry glanced up at Dumbledore.

"As you know, I find penseives to be very useful magical objects and I'm quite sure you'll be able to put this one to good use. In fact, Remus and Sirius have given me a gift that goes along with this." He handed Harry a much smaller package, which Harry unwrapped to find a vial filled with silvery liquid, which he recognized as the stuff usually present in penseives.

"These are memories, Harry, that Remus and Sirius wanted to share with you of their time at Hogwarts. They are very private moments and so, though I helped them to copy the memories, I myself have no recollection of what they are about." He smiled at Harry's stunned expression. "I'm certain you will find them to be both enjoyable and educational."

Harry carefully placed the vials into the penseive, which Dumbledore moved to a larger table, and moved on to the other gifts.

Mrs. Weasley presented Harry with a hat, scarf, and pair of gloves, all done in emerald green and gold, which he knew had been knitted with as much love as every sweater he had ever received. Mr. Weasley gave him a muggle radio that had been charmed to work at Hogwarts, despite the presence of so much magic, and pick up the magical channels. Harry briefly wondered what else the radio might have been charmed to do that Mr. Weasley didn't dare mention in front of his wife.

Charlie, grinning, presented Harry with a wand holster made of dragonhide that fastened to his wrist, straps encircling his forearm. He explained that the holster had been made from the scales of a Hungarian Horntail named Morana (causing Harry to gape at him) and would, because of her breed, be especially difficult to damage. He also gave Harry a dragon fang.

"This is Morana's," he said, standing in front of Harry and speaking so softly that only Ron could hear because he was standing close enough for the journal to pick up on the words. The book was closed so that no one else could read what was being said, and Harry could read it later. Ron listened in silence as Charlie explained. "She lost it during her attempts to escape after the first task, making its loss a direct result of your defeat of her. By rights, then, I can't really give this as a gift. It's a trophy you have earned and I'm simply returning it to you."

The fang was tied with a long strip of leather that Charlie wrapped around Harry's neck and then tied in the back as a necklace. The dragonfang was the length of his index finger, gleaming white and sharp. "Wearing this lets anyone who sees it know that you succeeded in slaying a dragon, despite the battle being ongoing. Wizards don't put much stock in it anymore, but a lot of magical creatures take it into account when judging someone. It's considered a sign of strength and can be very useful when dealing with… less than savory types."

He grinned. "It also makes you look completely badass."

Ron laughed loudly and Charlie went over to join Fred and George, who nagged him about what he had said to Harry, while Bill stepped forward. The eldest Weasley glanced at Ron, who opened the journal to a blank page and held it up for Harry to read.

"I'm probably going to get into trouble for giving you this," he admitted, not even bothering to keep his voice down. "If my parents don't give me hell for it, I'm pretty sure Professor McGonagall will, but it's dead useful and I'm not sorry."

Confused, Harry took the two small packages he was handed. He opened the rectangular one first to find a small, well-worn book. There was no title listed, but the purple cover was decorated with white silhouettes of various animals. Confused, Harry opened the second package, which was simply a small vial containing an incredibly purple potion that seemed to glow.

"MISTER WEASLEY!" Professor McGonagall shouted, at the same time as Mrs. Weasley screeched "WILLIAM ARTHUR WEASLEY!"

Ron jumped, making Harry's eyes dart to the journal. He winced at the large, encapsulated bold letters of Bill's name and turned his head to look at Mrs. Weasley.

"What do you think you are doing giving a minor a potion like that?" Professor McGonagall asked, her lips pursed in a thin line.

"You know as well as I do that the potion isn't dangerous, merely informational."

"Regardless, you should have said something to us before you went and gave him that sort of gift."

Bill frowned at his former professor disapprovingly. "I gave him the gift in full view of you, so that you would know precisely what it was he would be receiving. If I had intended to hide it from you, I would have given it to him in private, or given it to Ron to give to him. I'm well aware of what the potion can do, having used it myself, and the book is my old copy, which I no longer need. I suspect you'll be able to help him, Professor McGonagall. In fact, I hope you will, since I think having an animagus form is one of the most useful talents a wizard can have. Especially considering as much trouble as he gets in every year. I know my form has saved my life more than once."

"Bill!" Mrs. Weasley cried.

"I didn't know you were an animagus," Ron said, sounding betrayed.

"It's a recent development," Bill admitted. "Within the last year. I haven't even managed to register yet since I couldn't get out of Egypt. I'll finally be able to get to the Ministry today to put myself on the registry, though I've been tempted not to." He didn't even look apologetic when Mrs. Weasley started lecturing him.

Harry looked back at the potion, then to Bill.

Seeing Harry's confused look, Bill frowned at his mother, who quieted when Arthur placed a hand on her shoulder.

"You can lecture me later, Mum. Right now, we're celebrating Harry's birthday." He turned back to Harry and explained. "The potion is called the Anima Revelio. It allows the drinker to enter a trance-like state and seek out their inner animal, discovering what the form would take. It's a way for a wizard to discover his animagus form before attempting the transformation process, in case their animagus form is something that wouldn't be much use. Say a whale, which would be dangerous to attempt outside of the ocean and about as useless unless you lived on the coast."

Harry looked back at the potion, studying the glow coming from the purple liquid.

"The book," Bill went on to explain, "is an instruction manual on how to become an animagus. I've had the copy for a few years now, but as I've successfully achieved my form, I don't have use for it any longer. The book was also given to me by someone else, who asked that I pass it on once I'd finished with it. I'd like to continue that, if I could. Once you're done with it, whether you try the transformation process or not, it would be good if you could pass the book on to someone else."

Harry looked up at Bill and nodded seriously. Bill smiled. "Thank you, Harry. I appreciate it."

Harry didn't really understand why Bill appreciated it, but he nodded just the same, thanking him.

Fred and George gave Harry a large, rather heavy package which they asked him not to open in public, but once he got back to his dorms. Harry, curious and a little concerned, nodded in agreement and set the package next to the penseive he had received from Dumbledore.

Luna was the next to come forward, surprising Harry. He had only met her a few times and didn't know her that well, so he really wasn't sure why she had come. Although he knew she was friends with Ginny, he still hadn't expected her to give him a gift.

"Hello, Harry," she said in her vague-sounding voice.

Harry nodded in greeting, reading her lips. Her eyes were staring off at some spot behind his right shoulder and he was very tempted to look behind him to see what she was looking at, but didn't want to miss anything she said.

"I'm very sorry that you're still have trouble hearing things, but it will get better. I thought you might like to focus on your other senses, though, so I asked Daddy to get you a better pair of glasses." She handed over a strange-looking pair of glasses made from what appeared to be thick cardboard. They were shaped like strange hands, fingers splayed outward, and painted a splattering mess of colors.

"They should be useful, I think," Luna said, and ignored the sound of Ron laughing behind her.

"I also think she would have wanted you to have this," Luna said ambiquously, and snapped something tightly over Harry's right wrist. He looked down at it in surprise. It was a silver band of metal that was laid over top of a thick strip of leather, fashioned as a type of decorative manacle. A shape had been inlaid in the silver of a large feather Harry recognized immediately as belonging to an owl. How could he not? He'd cleaned them up enough whenever Hedwig was molting. Looking at it, he could even almost see the white color of the feather. It was… it was one of Hedwig's.

He looked up to ask Luna, only she wasn't standing in front of him anymore. In fact, she wasn't anywhere near them. He looked at Ron who, apparently also confused, pointed toward the school. Harry looked to see Luna making her way back to Hogwarts, clearly deciding her part in the party was finished, having handed over her very strange gifts.

Harry stared at the bracelet for a long moment, and then placed the strange spectacles inside his penseive and received a heavy package from Neville that seemed to slosh as he held it.

"You might want to set it down," Neville suggested, and helped Harry place it on the table where he had opened his penseive.

"Mister Longbottom?" Professor Sprout asked, clearly realized what the gift was, or suspected, and surprised by it. Neville smiled nervously at her, then turned back to Harry.

"This is a plant I think you're going to recognize," he said, grinning. "It grows in the water, so you'll have to make sure not to remove it unless you're going to use it."

Confused, Harry knelt down so he could peer through the glass of the cylinder. He studied the strange plant growing inside. It looked like a bunch of thick branches with strange bulbous flowers that looked like a tangle of worms-

Harry jerked his head up, staring at Neville, and mouthed "Gillyweed?!"

Neville grinned. "Yeah. I kind of got the idea that you liked being able to breathe underwater." His smile turned sheepish. "I have a larger plant at home. This is just a clipping of it, but if you take care of it, it could get pretty bit. The tank has an expansion charm on it so it's bigger on the inside."

Harry surprised both Neville and himself by hugging the boy.

"Um…" Neville patted Harry awkwardly on the back. "I'm glad you like it?"

Harry pulled away, grinning. He grabbed his journal from Ron, who was laughing, and quickly wrote "Thank you so much. This is amazing. I really love it, Neville. Thank you."

Neville blushed until his whole face was crimson and ducked his head. "I'm glad you like it," he murmured. "Happy Birthday, Harry."

Ron and Hermione were somewhat predictable in their gifts. Ron gave Harry a package of Chocolate Frogs, from which one was missing, the empty box clearly visible (prompting an eyeroll from Hermione and a grin from Harry). Hermione gave Harry a package that he knew right away was a book.

"It's not just a normal book, though," she explained. "Do you remember the tomekey we used to go to Diagon Alley?"

Harry nodded. Hard to forget, considering what had happened that day. "Miss Morely helped me get it. This is a tomekey that will let you travel somewhere, but the destination isn't preset, so you'll be able to decide where. And you can see what the book is that you'll be able to learn."

Harry could. It wasn't, as he would have suspected, a book of spells or potions, but a language book. A very thick book, in fact, that not only explained how to properly form sentences, but also a complete language to language dictionary. It was for Greek.

"I think it will be really useful," Hermione said. What she didn't say, but what Harry knew, was that this was the language Snape spoke with Elena, and if they used this tomekey, whoever used it, would learn the language. They would be able to understand, and presumably speak, Greek.

He looked up at her.

"I wanted to get you more than one, but they're really hard to find." She grinned at him. "Good thing I have a few months until Christmas."

Harry hugged her and she hugged him tightly back. He knew he wouldn't be able to hear or speak the words, but he would be able to read them in his journal and that was something. And he knew, as Hermione knew, that she and Ron would be using the tomekey with him. Maybe Ginny, too.

Hermione held onto the book, rather than setting it down in full view of the teachers, while Ginny came over. She smiled softly at Harry, looking a little nervous. Hagrid was standing a little ways behind her, a box in his arms.

"Harry, Hagrid and I worked together to get you a gift. I wasn't sure what to get you and he needed help finding what he was looking for." She smiled and looked back at Hagrid nervously.

"Yer parents had a couple pets durin' their schoolyears," Hagrid said. "Yer dad had an owl when he first came 'ere, and later, he go' permission t' bring a crup."

Behind Harry, Professor McGonagall groaned in remembered horror.

"I wasn' allowed t' get you a crup, since yer dad caused a lot of havoc with his. Pity, since they're dead smart."

Harry had the sudden flash of terror that Hagrid had gotten him a three-headed puppy, and the idea of an ankle-biting version of Fluffy caused enough of a panic that he was tempted to run back to the castle and hide in his dormitory. Ron was apparently having a similar worrying thought, because his face was a little green and he looked about like he did when faced with a spider.

Ginny, however, didn't appear worried about what Hagrid had in the box in his arms, but just a little nervous. She kept sneaking glances at Harry and he wondered why she was so concerned.

"Yer mum didn' have an owl when she was at school. She always used the school owls or one o' her friends'. When she left school, though, yer dad came t' me because he wanted my help finding a gift for her. She'd always wanted a cat, y'see, and couldn't have one at home."

Aunt Petunia is allergic, Harry thought, remembering her mentioning it once, he didn't remember to whom.

"He wanted a real special cat, not just an ordinary one, but something that wouldn't be too hard to blend in with the muggle world. Tha' meant a kneazle was out and half-kneazles are hard t' get if people know yer looking fer one. So I found him something else."

Hagrid looked down into the crate, his expression turning sad. "Yer mum loved him and she 'ad 'im for years. When yer parents died, I thought he had died too, except there wasn't no records o' him and I looked." Hagrid sniffed loudly. "And Miss Weasley helped me look." There were tears in Hagrid's eyes.

Ginny nodded and smiled gently at Hagrid. "I helped him check the records and there wasn't a record of the cat's death, and there would have been, because your mum registered him as her familiar. He would have been treated just like a person if he had died – given a grave and everything – but there wasn't any. We looked for places that housed lost familiars. They're recognized by their magical signature and collected until their owner comes to retrieve them. Of course, you didn't know about him, so no one came to retrieve him. He's been taken care of for fourteen years by a really nice family who were very happy they could reunite him with his owner. That's you, Harry."

Harry was confused. He knew cats could live long lives – Mrs. Figg had told him long stories about her many long-lived cats – but if the cat had been alive before he was even born, it was at least fifteen. Even for a cat, that was old.

"I am not an ordinary cat, Potter boy," whispered a voice in his head.

Harry jumped and looked up. A cat face was peering out of the box in Hagrid's arms. As he watched, the feline jumped up and balanced on the edge of the crate, displayed his shiny black fur and long, slender twin tails. Harry stared at him.

"He's a bakaneko, Harry," Ginny said quietly. "And he was your mother's familiar. That means he can become yours by inheritance, if you want him."

Harry didn't know what to say. This cat, this bakaneko, had belonged to his mother. It was a piece of his life before he had lost his parents. A piece of everything that he had lost that had somehow, magically, found its way back to him.

"The choice is yours, Potter boy. If you don't want me, I'll go back to the family who has been caring for me. They liked to give me fish. I'm very fond of fish, you know. It's a cat thing."

Yes, I want him, Harry thought. He's speaking into my head.

The bakaneko rolled his eyes. "You don't know anything, do you? I suppose I'll just have to teach you. But for starters, my name is Zinnia."

Harry swallowed and took his journal from Ron, writing shakily. He handed the journal back to Ron, who opened it and read the words aloud to Ginny and Hagrid. Harry wasn't paying attention. He had stepped forward and held out his arms, into which the cat leapt gracefully, curling up against his chest and beginning to lick his forepaws. Harry hugged the cat tight, eliciting a purr from the creature, and a double-tail slap to the face.

"Not so tight, Potter boy. I'm not a stuffed toy."

My name is Harry, Harry thought, loosening his grip.

"You'll earn your name, and I'll be the one to give it to you. It's a cat thing."

You can hear my thoughts?

"I'm your inherited familiar, silly boy. Of course I can hear your thoughts. Now, the house elves have made a lovely lunch for me in a nice little silver bowl. It's fish. I want you to find it for me. I like fish." He licked between his toes.

Harry looked up to find Hagrid watching him, tears in his eyes. "Ye remember 'im?" he asked, and Harry instinctively knew it was because of what he wrote in the book, but he didn't bother confirming or denying it. He buried his face in the cat's fur and listened to the sound of its purr. It was soothing. It felt, he realized, like home.

"Yes, I want to keep Zinnia," he had written. "Thank you for finding him for me."

Ginny closed the journal and handed it back to Ron, wiping the tears from her eyes. This, she thought, was the best idea that Hagrid had ever had.

Ron and Hermione privately agreed.

Chapter Text

THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AND DEATH

 

Chapter XXI

 

The Train

 


 

The ride on the Hogwarts Express was a traditional start to every term. It was a way to both physically and mentally carry someone from the care of their family and into the care of Hogwarts. For that reason, the students who had spent the last two weeks at Hogwarts were heading down to the Great Hall to take a portkey to King’s Cross Station.

Zinnia had been left in the dormitory, along with all of their luggage. Harry had his journal and Ron had a chess set shrunk in his pocket. Ginny was carrying a book under her arm. Only Hermione carried a bag. Much to Ron’s exasperation, she had stuffed it full of books for her to read on the train.

“I’m surprised you didn’t shove Hogwarts: A History in there, as well,” he teased her as they walked into the Great Hall.

“I tried, but I couldn’t fit that and the Defense Against the Dark Arts, Charms, and Transfiguration texts for this year.”

“I thought you would have read them all by now.”

“I did.”

“Then why did you bring them?”

“Good morning, Mister Weasley, Miss Weasley, Miss Granger, Mister Potter,” Elena greeted. She was standing at the entrance doors of the Great Hall, a book in her hands. Beside her stood her son, Conan, and Draco Malfoy.

“Good morning, Miss Morely,” Hermione greeted, her voice a rush of excitement. Ron rolled his eyes. She had spotted the book in Elena’s hands and correctly guessed it to be another tomekey.

“I heard about your birthday party yesterday, Mister Potter. I wanted to wish you a happy belated birthday myself, and hope that you had a good time.”

Harry smiled softly at her, which Elena returned.

“It’s nearing half past nine, so we shouldn’t risk being late.” She held out the book and they each grabbed a corner as they had before. This time, Elena didn’t ask any of them a question, but instead murmured something in Greek that none of them could understand and the tomekey whisked them away.

They arrived in an empty section of King’s Cross not far from the locomotive just as the train whistle was blowing, announcing last call for boarding.

“Ah, that was good timing,” Elena said.

Hermione had a confused look on her face and opened her mouth, intent on asking Elena what book it was they had used, as she didn’t feel she knew anything new, when Ginny’s shout distracted her.

“Mum!” Having spotted Mrs. Weasley, Ginny and Ron hurried over to see her before they left on the train. Hermione and Harry followed more sedately, Hermione still with a slightly confused expression.

Mrs. Weasley greeted them all warmly, for which Harry was grateful. He had been a little surprised that she and Mr. Weasley had shown up at his surprise party the night before. He shouldn’t have been, since they had always been so welcoming to him and treated him as a part of their family, but there had been some issues between them and Sirius and Remus. Harry didn’t know a great deal about it, since Sirius and Remus didn’t think it was important to bother him with (Harry disagreed with this but couldn’t sway them), but Ron had revealed a few things. He’d had a row with his parents after Harry had disappeared with Remus and Sirius and they found out that Ron had kept this impending vanishing act from them. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley had argued with the wisdom of allowing Harry to remain with Remus and Sirius, and although they included both of them in this argument, Harry was pretty sure it was referring mostly to Sirius. Of the two of them, Remus was definitely more level-headed, with the exception of that one day of the month.

Mrs. Weasley fawned over the four of them for a few minutes, though Harry didn’t think he imagined her eyeing him up and seeming to check him over more than she usually did. It made him a little uncomfortable and he was glad that the train whistle blew again and they were forced to leave. He, Hermione, Ron, and Ginny were each given a last quick hug before they ran to jump onto the train before it left the station without them. Conan, Draco, and Elena had disappeared, presumably already making their own way onto the train, and the four slipped on and went in search of a compartment.

Near the back of the train, they found one. It was occupied by Luna and Neville, whom they had said goodbye to only the day before. Luna they hadn’t seen leave, since she had walked off from the party after giving Harry his gift and it hadn’t been made clear whether she had left the castle or remained, and if it were the former, how.

“Hey, Neville,” Ron greeted as they entered the compartment.

Neville greeted them in turn. He was holding a small plant in his lap. Luna, sitting next to him, though “sitting” would be a very light use of the term, was reading a copy of the Quibbler. It was right-side-up, the direct opposite of Luna herself, whose back was supporting her on the seat as her head dangled, hair sprawled across the floor beneath her, and legs stuck straight up in the air, crossed at the ankles. She was wearing a pair of the very colorful eyeglasses that she had given Harry at his birthday party and appeared to be engrossed in her magazine, even though it was not being held in the correct way.

“Hi, Luna,” Ginny greeted, not the least bit put off by her strange position. She sat down in the empty seat next to the girl.

“Hello, Ginerva,” Luna greeted in her vague, distant voice. “Hello, Ronald.” She leaned her legs toward her face and rolled off of the seat, landing with surprising grace on the balls of her feet. “Hello, Hermione Granger. Hello, Harry Potter,” she said, and held out her hand, as though she had never met them before.

“Um, hello, Luna,” Hermione said, shaking her hand with some confusion. “We met yesterday.”

“Yes, I remember,” Luna said, “but we hadn’t really met, since we weren’t introduced. I suppose we should treat yesterday as tomorrow since we are only just meeting today and it’s best to do things in order.” She shook Harry’s hand. “It’s very nice to meet you. I look forward to seeing you at your birthday party, Harry Potter.”

Hermione looked at Ginny with some concern but the redhead smiled at her reassuringly. Hermione sat down in her seat, with Ron and Harry taking a seat on either side of her, and Luna took her own seat, properly this time.

“You’re in Ravenclaw, right, Luna?” Hermione asked politely.

“Yes. And you’re all in Gryffindor. I have always wondered why the Gryffindor symbol is a lion when it should really be a gryphon.”

“Godric Gryffindor was a lion animagus,” Hermione answered automatically.

“I can guess which book you read that in,” Ron said, and then raised his voice to indicate he was speaking as Hermione. “I found it in Hogwarts: A History.”

Hermione smacked him. “For your information, I read it in The Founders Four, and I do not sound like that.”

Ron rubbed his arm where she had hit him and merely grumbled in response.

The compartment was a little crowded with all six of them inside, but their number was reduced to four when Hermione and Ron had to leave for the front of the train. Both of them had been chosen as Prefects for that year, which they had discussed with Harry during the time they spent together at Hogwarts. Hermione’s becoming a Prefect was to be expected, but they were all still flabbergasted at Ron’s choice - Ron himself was still somewhat shocked by it. Nonetheless, the two of them left soon after, leaving Harry, Ginny, Luna, and Neville alone in the compartment.

“What did you do this summer, Neville?” Ginny asked, moving to take the seat next to Harry so that she wasn’t squishing Luna in between herself and the other boy.

Neville shrugged, looking down at his lap, where a small plant was resting against his thighs. “I have a greenhouse at home that my gran lets me work on in the summer if I’ve done well enough in my classes. She wasn’t best pleased at my grades this year, but she never is.”

Harry frowned at seeing these words scribble themselves across the page of his journal. Neville had a hard time in a number of his classes, to be fair, but Harry didn’t think he was an idiot. It didn’t take someone of Hermione’s intellect to see that Neville had incredibly low confidence in his abilities, and with the constant bullying by students and professors alike, it really wasn’t much of a surprise that Neville didn’t do well. He was never given the chance!

“I managed to sneak out a few times each week, though,” Neville admitted, a soft smile curling across his lips. “She might have guessed but never said anything, so I spent what time I could working with my plants. Otherwise, I just did homework.”

Harry was frowning at his book. Neville’s summer life didn’t sound much more exciting than his life at the Dursley’s. Being forced to hide away, managing brief moments of pleasure amidst just trying to wait the summer out. He didn’t know Neville’s grandmother, though, so maybe it wasn’t as bad as all that, but Neville sounded like he spent all of his time at home and never went anywhere with friends during the summer. But then, Neville also didn’t seem to have many friends. Although they spoke and they shared a dormitory, Harry couldn’t really admit to having spent a great amount of time with Neville over the years. He felt a deep sensation of guilt at that and resolved to do better this year.

Leaning forward, Harry caught Neville’s attention when he made a curious motion toward the plant he was holding. It was a small cactus, only instead of spines it had what looked like boils covering it. It was an ugly thing, as far as Harry was concerned, but Neville was cradling it with clear fondness and, knowing Neville’s talent with plants, Harry had to admit to being curious.

“This was a gift from my great Uncle Algie. It’s a Mimbulus Mimbletonia, the plant that produces stink sap. See, if I poked the plant, it would squirt out the sap. It smells awful, like manure, so I won’t do it here, but it’s a really useful defense mechanism. I’m excited, because I’ve thought about trying to breed it with other plants.”

Harry watched, amused, as Neville’s shyness and uncertainty faded away in the face of his excitement over discussing plants. The boy clearly knew what he was talking about and enjoyed herbology, and Harry read what he was saying in the journal he had resting in his lap, all the while thinking that he would definitely make an effort to be better friends with Neville this year.

The four of them spent the majority of the train ride talking about their respective summers. Harry revealed, through writing in his journal and some explanation from Ginny (who had heard some of this already), that he had spent the summer learning from Sirius and Remus how to cast spells non-verbally, communicate using sign language, and even read lips. He wasn’t an expert on any of the three by any means, but practice was helping him get better. Once he was back in school and using the talents every day, he suspected his ability in them would grow.

The others expressed interest in the ability to cast non-verbally, which wasn’t taught to students as young as them but which could be useful. After admitting that Sirius had been teaching him to duel, as well, the others thought this was very interesting and Ginny admitted she might like to try learning that herself. Considering that Hermione had already resolved to attempt non-verbal casting herself, Harry had no problem with his other friends trying to learn this ability as well and resolved to teach them what he could.

Once they ran out of summer happenings to discuss, they spent the rest of the train ride playing Exploding Snap and eating snacks they bought off the snack lady’s cart. Harry spent the latter half of the ride feeling like something was missing. The ride had gone smoothly and they arrived at Hogwarts without an issue. It wouldn’t occur to Harry until later that Draco hadn’t made his annual visit to their compartment, but he was dealing with issues more important than Harry during the ride and couldn’t be bothered to put in an appearance.


“Well, well, look who’s decided to come back to Hogwarts,” Pansy Parkinson said upon pushing open the compartment door. “Draco! I wasn’t sure we’d see your ugly face this year. How was your summer?”

Tucked in the pockets of his robes, Draco’s hands clenched into fists but he otherwise made no reaction to Pansy’s words, pretending that she wasn’t there. This didn’t appear to distress Pansy, who stepped into the compartment and took a seat across from the silent Slytherin, grinning a cruel little smile.

“I hear your mum and dad had a row early in the summer. Didn’t pan out well for her, did it? Nor you, by the look of your face.” She giggled a high-pitched little laugh that made Draco grimace internally. “Does it hurt terribly, Draco?”

Before Draco could react, and he had been tempted to, the compartment door slid open again. Pansy glanced over but Draco merely moved his eyes, continuing to sit straight-backed with his face pointed forward, as though he was unaware of anything going on around him.

It was Crabbe and Goyle in the doorway, looking confused, which wasn’t an unusual expression on either of their faces. The apparent hesitation as they decided what to do, however, was. Seeing either of the Slytherins attempting to decide something for themselves was an unusual enough occurrence to mark on a calendar.

“Malfoy?” Goyle finally ventured in his gruff voice.

“He’s not a Malfoy anymore, you idiot!” Pansy snapped. “Even a family full of as many morons as yours ought to know the Outcast Laws.”

Both of them looked confused again and Pansy rolled her eyes. “Draco’s daddy cast him from the family, disowned him. He took his name from him. He’s not a Malfoy anymore, he’s just Draco. Merlin, didn’t your parents teach you anything?”

Crabbe and Goyle hesitated a moment longer, sharing a look between the two of them. After a long moment of thought, however, Goyle finally turned and left the compartment. Pansy watched him go without a hint of surprise. The Goyles and Crabbes had always been followers, standing behind those with higher power (and higher brain power) and acting on orders, rather than making any decisions themselves.

What did surprise her, however, was Crabbe stepping into the compartment and taking a seat next to Draco. He didn’t say anything, didn’t even acknowledge Draco’s presence, but the fact that he hadn’t left said wonders.

Had Vincent Crabbe really just allied himself with an outcast? That was something she would be best to keep an eye on. 


 

The four of them grabbed a carriage together and Harry was glad, as it made its way toward to school, that Remus had taken him aside before he left and warned him that he would be able to see the creatures that pulled the carriages because of seeing Cedric die last year. Thestrals, they were called, and while they looked dark and vicious, Remus explained that they had a truly bad reputation because they could only be seen by those who had watched someone die. There was a sort of grace to them, Harry had to admit, even if they did look like the zombie versions of pegasi.

None of the others reacted to the thestrals so he didn’t make a point of mentioning it, sitting quietly in the carriage and watching what the others said appear in his journal. He was excited that he would be able to spend this year at the Feast. It was always something of a question whether he would attend the Feast or suffer interrogation for flying a car into the Whomping Willow, or deal with Madam Pomfrey for passing out on the train. Any chance he had for a semi-normal school year, Harry intended to grab at it. He suspected all moments of normalcy would be short, few, and far between. He would take what he could get.

The carriage took them to the school and they made their way into the Great Hall. They said their farewells to Luna, who made her way to the Ravenclaw table, and took their seats together at the Gryffindor table. They were joined in short order by Hermione and Ron, who took a seat beside and across from Harry respectively. Fred and George Weasley arrived moments later, squeezing in on either side of their brother and making a point of fawning over Ron the Prefect, much to the amusement of the rest of Gryffindor.

Ginny was sitting on the other side of Harry from Hermione, and Neville was sitting on the opposite side of one of the twins from Ron, having moved a spot down to make room for him to sit next to his brother. The seven of them took up a decent portion of the table and Fred and George’s antics entertained the majority of Gryffindor, and some of Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff, until the First Years were brought into the Hall and the headmaster called for silence.

Harry rested his journal on his empty plate, watching the names of new students appear in McGonagall’s script as she called out for the first years to come up and try on the Sorting Hat. The names of the House’s, to his surprise, appeared in four varying scripts. Gryffindor’s name was written in sharp, tight letters, as though the word had been scribbled quickly and without much thought. Ravenclaw’s was carefully written, every letter the same size as the last, with all the strokes seeming to be very deliberate and purposeful. Hufflepuff had a soft look to it, curly and almost wistful. Slytherin had sharp letters, like Gryffindor, but didn’t seem to have been written with the same speed as the former’s name.

Harry studied these four varying scripts with interest, his brief flash of confusion giving way to surprise and then fascination. Could it be that these were the handwriting styles of the four founders? It wouldn’t be beyond Remus and Sirius to create something capable of that. After all, the Marauders’ Map was an incredible piece of magic capable of showing everyone present in the castle, regardless of any means by which they attempted to hide themselves. The only thing it didn’t show was the Chamber of Secrets, and the Marauders hadn’t been aware of the actual existence of the chamber.

The truly fascinating thing was that the Sorting Hat seemed to have some manner of the personalities of all four founders, but he remembered from the first song he had heard the hat sing that it had mentioned having a bit of the founders’ brains put inside it. If that was the case, Harry wondered exactly how much of the founders was still alive within the hat.

The last of the students was sorted and Professor McGonagall came and collected the hat and stool. It was then that Dumbledore stood up to give his annual start of term speech.

“Welcome back to another year at Hogwarts,” the headmaster said, looking around at all of them with fondness. “We are pleased to welcome two new professors this year. Professor Umbridge will be taking the position of Defense Against the Dark Arts.”

A woman in violently-pink robes with short curly hair stood up and looked around at them. Harry frowned. She had a look of superiority on her face that he usually saw on the faces of Slytherin House and he didn’t care to see it here. There was also the fact that all of his Defense Against the Dark Arts professors had, at one point in time, tried to kill him. He really hoped this year was different but he wasn’t going to hold his breath.

There was polite applause from the students and the woman took her seat again with some reluctance as Dumbledore resumed speaking.

“Professor Morely will be taking over the teaching of Potions-”

The applause was explosive, interrupting Dumbledore mid-speech. He smiled with amusement as three of the Houses practically roared with happy cheers. Slytherin House looked annoyed, but no one else really cared what they thought of Snape being gone.

It was only then that Harry noticed that Snape wasn’t at the Head Table - something that Ron muttered to Hermione a moment later, the words appearing in Harry’s journal.

Harry scanned the Head Table again, seeing no one else missing and no new faces besides Umbridge, who looked annoyed, and Miss- Professor Morely, who he was startled to see was smothering her laughter into a hand.

“Yes, yes,” Professor Dumbledore said, waving his hands to quiet the students. It took a few minutes for the cheers and applause to wane and Dumbledore could be heard chuckling good-naturedly. Harry saw Professor McGonagall handing Professor Morely a handkerchief, with which the laughing woman wiped her streaming eyes. For her part, McGonagall also appeared to be in good humor, though whether that was because of the students’ reactions or Professor Morely’s, Harry couldn’t be sure.

“We’re all pleased to see how serious you all are about your Potions grades,” Professor Dumbledore continued. A few students laughed. “Rest assured that Professor Snape’s arrival is merely delayed and he shall be returned to you in good health very soon.”

Dumbledore pretended not to hear the groans from the student body.

“As with every year, the Forbidden Forest is aptly named, being forbidden to students. The Whomping Willow is, likewise, a tree best left to its own devices. Your professors are here to help you should you need it, and the Prefects of your House can always be turned to should you need help, which you should never hesitate to ask for.

“And lastly,” he said, spreading his arms, “enjoy your meal.”

Harry watched the food miraculously appear on the table and, like always, he was thrilled with the display of magic. Unlike most years, however, he had spent the summer in good company and being well-fed, so he did not feel as though the Hogwarts feast was the first bit of good food he had in months. Still, he reached for the mashed potatoes with excitement. House elves really did know how to serve a good meal. 


 

“That was odd,” Hermione said, sitting down on the couch next to Harry.

Sitting in the chair across from them, Ginny nodded. “I don’t think McGonagall has ever given us a start of term speech. I know some of the other Heads do…”

“Things changed after last year,” Harry wrote in his journal.

Hermione nodded. “I guess it would be better for the first years to hear something so awful as Voldemort being back from their Heads of Houses. It’s more personal than being told at the same time as the rest of the school.”

“Do you suppose that’s what Dumbledore meant by students being able to go to their professors about anything they might need?”

Ron grimaced a little. “Maybe he means about… you know…” He gestured at Harry.

“My disappearing.”

“Yeah. I mean, I figured Remus and Sirius were taking you. I didn’t say anything because I knew they wanted to get away before anyone knew about it. Maybe Dumbledore’s mad that I didn’t say anything.” He shrugged, like this fact didn’t bother him. “I hope he doesn’t think that would change anything.”

Ginny laughed suddenly. “Yeah, if Mum’s yelling couldn’t change your mind, I doubt Dumbledore could do a thing.”

Ron grimaced at the memory.

“Was it really bad?” Hermione asked. None of them had talked too much about Mrs. Weasley’s reaction to Ron essentially lying about Harry disappearing, except to mention that there had been some problems.

“Ron’s still grounded,” Ginny said, grinning. Rather than the expected teasing expression, Ginny had a proud look on her face. “Mum kept extending his grounding period by weeks at a time and Ron refused to say a thing against Remus or Sirius. I think she got it up to five months before she finally gave up.”

Hermione was staring at him open-mouthed, and Harry himself was a little shocked. Ron, blushing from his nose to the tips of his ears, shrugged. “It’s not a big deal.”

“I have seen your mum angry, you know,” Harry scrawled. “She’s a little frightening.”

“A little?” Hermione asked. Ron and Ginny laughed.

“Oh, Ronniekins is a regular knight in shining armor,” Fred said, sitting on the arm of Ginny’s chair.

“He’ll keep your secrets and your virtue safe, Harry, no worries,” George said, sitting on the other arm.

“You two shut it,” Ron snarled.

“Ah, now, be nice or we won’t be nice back,” Fred said.

“Yeah, we could always use another guinea pig for our pranks.”

“We’ve just been holding off because you’re being so noble.”

“You two better watch it,” Ron warned. “I’m a Prefect now.”

“Oh, Ronnie’s a Prefect, Fred. Did you know that?”

“I had no idea, George. What are we going to do?”

“Charm his badge to read Percy, methinks.”

“Now that’s just cruel, brother mine.”

“Don’t worry, Ron. We’ll think of something.”

The two left, leaving Ron to lean back into the cushions and sigh. “I’m doomed,” he muttered.

“It’s not that bad,” Ginny said. “Besides, you know they’ll get distracted by something soon enough and not have time to prank you.”

Neville, who had been sitting nearby but not joining in on the conversation, said, “I bet you would throw them off if you suddenly started pranking them.”

It was almost comical, the slow turn of Harry, Ginny, Hermione, and Ron’s heads as they regarded Neville with shock and surprise. The boy blushed, embarrassed, as Ron muttered, “It’s always the quiet ones.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Hermione added quietly.

“I’m dreaming!” Ron shouted, startled the unsuspecting common room. He ignored the sudden quiet, which faded back into normal chatter soon after, as he turned to Hermione. “Who are you and what have you done with our Hermione?”

Hermione grinned at him, a sly little smile that worried him a little. “Your brothers aren’t near as dumb as they would like everyone to believe. The sorts of pranks they come up with require a high level of intelligence in a number of magical fields, not the least of which is Potions. That could be really useful if they ever put their minds to something other than pulling pranks on unsuspecting classmates.”

“And you’re suggesting we prank them and draw their fire? What have I said about you being the smartest witch of your age? I might have to take it back.”

Ginny grinned, leaning forward in her chair. “No, I see. You’re suggesting a Prank War.”

“Exactly. Only there are stakes in this war, and one of them is that if we win, Fred and George actually have to put effort into their schoolwork this year.”

“It is their last year,” Ginny admitted.

“And if they win?” Ron asked nervously.

“That would be on them to decide,” Hermione said, “but we have to declare war first, don’t we?”

“I can’t believe you,” Ron said, looking at Neville. “You’ve created a monster.”

Neville smiled shyly. “Where did this idea come from, Hermione?”

“It’s something I’ve been thinking about since last year,” she admitted. “You-Know-Who might be keeping quiet now, but it won’t stay that way forever. I’ve read about the last war and it was bad. If another one starts up, we’re going to need people to fight, and I bet no one would expect the sort of fighting Fred and George could do if they got in on it. Their creativity alone…”

“You’ve been thinking about preparing for a war?” Ron asked, startled. Granted, he’d heard enough of the last war that another coming war had crossed his mind, as well, but he’d not really thought of doing anything for it. He was a kid, after all, and therefore not seen as someone who could do anything about it.

“Once I finished my schoolwork, I needed something to focus on this summer,” Hermione admitted.

“So she starts planning for a war,” Ron muttered.

“Your first thoughts are Fred and George?”  Harry asked.

Hermione smiled. “No. They were my second thought, but I still have some stuff to look into about what first came to mind. I’ll let you guys know when I figure everything out.”

“Please do,” Ron said, more intrigued than anything. “In the meantime, how do you expect us to come up with a prank big enough to fool Fred and George, the princes of pranking?”

“Easy,” Hermione said, “we ask the kings for help.” She looked at Harry. “I bet Sirius can’t wait to hear how the train ride went.”

Harry grinned at the thought of Sirius’ reaction to him asking about pranks, but he was distracted by Ron, who had started laughing so hard he fell off the couch.

Oh, he couldn’t wait to write that letter.

 

Chapter Text


THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AND DEATH

Chapter XXII

Interlude 1 - What Else Is Happening


The house was too quiet.

Sirius didn’t like the quiet. For all that Azkaban had been filled with moaning and mad screams, the place had been silent of conversation, silent of life. The only noise there had been misery and memories, and here in this house, he was reminded of that silence.

But he was in Remus’ house! This was Remus’ house! He tried to remind himself that the floors were not made of stone but wooden boards. The walls weren’t grey but a lovely shade of cream, accented by a red paper border across the center. There were many windows and though they were spelled to allow no one from outside to see him on the inside, they still let in an ample amount of light, making the rooms seem open and inviting. Absolutely nothing like Azkaban.

Except for the silence.

Sirius was lying on his back beneath the window, right where a wide splash of sunlight was crafting a block of gold upon the hardwood floor. His eyes were open and he was staring up into the blinding rays, watching the dust motes dance through the air, and doing his best to note every bit of warmth the sun was caressing him with. It wasn’t the same as being outside, standing beneath the sun and smelling the chill of coming winter on a cool breeze, but it was a fair sight better than an island in the middle of a relentless sea.

I’m lying in the sun, Sirius thought to himself. He shut his eyes, staring instead at the back of his eyelids, turned pink from the light. I’m lying in the sun and it’s bright and warm. There are birds singing outside and there is a breeze blowing in, bringing with it the scent of pine and wildflowers. I am outside. I’m lying in a field. The grass is tickling my bare arms and Moony is there.

A smile curled across his face at the thought and he could see Remus in his mind, stretched out on his back. They were schoolchildren again, lying in a field surrounded by the trees of the Forbidden Forest. They’d ditched their cloaks over by the trees, and their trainers. Sirius had taken off his shirt and tossed it over the limb of a tree and Remus had rolled up his sleeves to his elbows.

As he watched, Remus rolled over onto his stomach and crossed his arms in front of him, the better to talk to Sirius. He didn’t know what they were talking about, but it must have been something good, because Remus was smiling that honest smile, the one he didn’t give very often and only with those people he knew he could trust with his secrets. He had undone his tie and the loose ends dangled from either side of his neck as he pushed himself up to lean over Sirius.

Sirius said something and Remus laughed, his eyes brightening in that way they did, and he bent down over Sirius, whispering something. His hair was dangling around his face and there was this adorable blush on his cheeks. Sirius’ eyes moved to his lips and he thought that Remus was almost close enough that Sirius could kiss him if he wanted to.

And he wanted to.

He wrapped an arm around the back of his neck to hold him in place and sat up quickly, lips seeking out Remus’.

He met only thin air, rising up out of his dream as he caught his balance in a sitting position. Sirius blinked, startled, and looked around. He saw hardwood floor, dusted grey in the moonlight, the cream walls faintly silver. He sighed and let his head fall into his hands.

Sometimes he missed the dementors. At least when he woke from one of their nightmare-fueled visions, he was relieved, not disappointed.


Reanna Garda* removed her glasses and pinched the bridge of her nose with a weary hand. It had been a long day and an even longer month. She was working through eleven high priority cases at the moment and a few lesser on the side. It was all beginning to take its toll on her and she was very tired.

The seasons were changing, the days already beginning to grow shorter. She needed a vacation, somewhere sunny and warm, where she could lay on a beach and forget about how cruel people were.

Replacing her glasses, Reanna turned back to her desk with a sigh, eyes scanning over the paperwork. She had just received official confirmation of one Dudley Dursley’s successful obliviation. There had been a brief consideration on what to do with the boy past that and it was decided that he would undergo a series of health treatments, consisting of a strict diet and potion regiment, among other aspects, to bring his weight down to a less dangerous level. He would then be placed with one of the couples who were on file as foster families for obliviated witness protectees, of which Dudley Dursley was now one. Reanna had dealt with other such cases in the past, but rarely ones so disturbing.

Vernon and Petunia Dursley were both in prison, although that situation was likely temporary at least for Petunia. It had been discussed and appeared likely that she, too, would be obliviated and sent off with the memories to begin an entirely new life, possibly with restrictions to remain in America. Vernon Dursley, despite the success of the Obliviated Witness Protection Program, was very likely to remain in prison and well away from any chance of his ever getting back to Britain.

Reanna was somewhat ashamed to admit even to herself that she knew contacts that could have him killed and that she had considered forking over the money to have such a man removed from the planet. She had a son of her own and the idea of someone like that breathing the same air as her little boy terrified her.

You’re in the wrong job, Rea, she thought to herself. Why did you ever think this was a good idea?

Because she’d wanted to protect children the way she and her brother hadn’t been, she reminded herself. Because she knew what it was like to feel like everyone was against you, to be scared and alone and have no one on your side. She’d wanted to be there for the kids who didn’t have anyone else. Kids in situations just like the one she had been in when she was little, with just her older brother there to protect her against a family of monsters.

When she’d started this job, she’d thought there would be a lot more interaction with the children, and as a trainee there had been. Once she’d been promoted and given her own office, however, all she seemed to deal with was paperwork and the monsters who had hurt the kids. It just kept hammering against her, the darkness of the world, and she was finding it harder and harder to want to stick with it. It was no wonder these kids never had anyone. The people who wanted to be there for them were locked up in cubicles and hidden away.

Speaking of cubicles, the Dursley house was still tucked neatly inside the corner cubicle of the office. No one had figured out how to return it to its original size or how to remove it from the office, so it had so far remained. Reanna wasn’t overly concerned other than she thought the house likely contained evidence that could be used to convict Vernon and Petunia Dursley and shouldn’t be lost, even if they were both hanging by their toes on the guilty edge of the knife.

And she certainly didn’t want someone other than her department or law enforcement coming upon such information, like a reporter. Wouldn’t that be a treat?

Flipping the file closed, Reanna massaged her left temple. “Mari,” she called out, “where are we on compensation?”

Mari, a thin, short woman with light brown hair and hazel eyes swept into the office with a file in one hand and a cup of coffee in another.

“It hasn’t been officially decided yet,” she said, dropping the file in front of her boss and setting the steaming cup of coffee next to her left hand as she continued to talk, “but they’re calling the thirteen years he’s spent in their care torture, for which the compensation is quite high. The house is probably beyond fixing for him.”

Not that he would likely want to return to that place, Reanna thought, picking up the coffee and taking a large gulp.

“But the lot has been placed on the realtor’s market. Arguments have been made by the commiserations department that the lot should belong to the boy, as well as a monetary satisfaction fee.”

“Harry.”

“Sorry?” Mari asked, confused.

“Harry,” Reanna repeated with a frown. “Don’t call him “the boy.” It’s worse than recognizing him by case number. His name is Harry. Harry Potter.”

“I… yes, ma’am,” Mari replied, chastised. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right, you’ll get it,” Reanna reassured the younger woman. She hadn’t been at the position long and still had a lot to learn, but she was picking up on things quickly. She always seemed eager to learn something new.

“Now,” Reanna said, “if those boys down in compensations need a tie-breaker, then I suggest they combine their ideas and just liquidate the whole shebang. Ignore the house as an aspect at all, no one would want to return to the place where they’d suffered so many bad memories. Sell the lot, sell the Dursley’s stocks, and combine them with the rest of their assets. Award Harry with the lot of it as compensation for what he’s gone through.” She thought for a moment. “On second thought, split the mass in two. Half goes to Harry, the other half to his cousin, Dudley.”

“Dudley?”

“Umm… Bruce, I believe, was his new name. Bruce Thompkins.”

“Right, the protectee.” Reanna nodded as Mari jotted this down on her notepad. “That’s a good idea and might solve some of the arguments about him getting nothing. Split the lot fifty-fifty?”

“They’ve both suffered, just on opposite sides of the spectrum. Compensate them both. The Dursley certainly won’t have a use for the funds where they’re going.”

Mari nodded. “I’ll take this suggestions down to compensations immediately. Is there anything else I can do for you, ma’am?”

Reanna eyed the clock for a moment, thinking of how her son would soon be getting up to get ready for school, and how his father would drive him because she was stuck here at work dealing with wackos who liked to hit their kids.

She glanced back at the pile of files on her desk, the ones with the names Harry Potter and Dudley Dursley sitting on top of ten other files with thirteen more children’s names on them.

She sighed.

“Another cup of coffee when you have a minute, Mari. I’m going to be here a while.”


The Slumber of Ages potion was an incredibly old potion, having ostensibly been crafted around the time of the Hogwarts Founders. As such, a lot of the records about it had been lost, including most of the notes on how (and why) it was initially created. A talented Potions Master, such as Severus Snape, would be able to recreate and even, possibly, alter the potion based on what few notes still remained.

This was what he had done for both Dumbledore and Voldemort, although the two leaders of their sides did not receive the same type of potion.

It was the Slumber of Ages potion, to be sure, but both of them received slightly altered versions to the original. Voldemort received the version of the potion most well-known, which limited the drinker’s time in the Realm decided to seven days before negative effects like starvation began to kick in. The potion that Voldemort received was also not altered to equip creatures beyond normal witches and wizards, so Snape had no idea how it was going to react to Fenrir Greyback.

Frankly, he hoped the potion turned the werewolf’s insides to mucus.

Dumbledore’s Slumber of Ages potion had been altered in a number of aspects. For one, it wouldn’t kill the drinker’s after seven days or if they were unsuccessful in their mission. It had also been altered to accommodate Remus Lupin’s unique brain chemistry and physiology, especially considering that the potion was to be drunk on the evening of the full moon. Snape had needed to make sure the potion could mix well with the Wolfsbane Potion.

There had been other minor alterations made, mostly to make the potion more stable and less dangerous to take. Unfortunately, that had given it a somewhat acidic disposition, which caused it to burn the throat and sinuses of its drinker as it made its way into their system, only ceasing this sensation once the body had begun to metabolize its effects. It was one of the reactions that Snape, due to the time constraints he was working under, was unable to circumvent. He hadn’t appreciated it himself, disliking feeling like his throat was being scrubbed raw.

There were other side effects to the potion that no one had become aware of until after it had been taken. For one thing, it affected people differently if their brain chemistry was altered in any way. For instance, if one was a natural Occlumens or, say, an Animagus. They didn't stay in a constant slumber during the potion's active period, but woke up and fell asleep at completely random intervals. This was, of course, even more dangerous than being unconscious the whole time, as they couldn't go about their regular lives with the potion's effects potentially activating at any given moment. For the most part, they had been confined to Grimmauld Place even during their conscious moments. The only exception had been when Bill and Charlie had snuck out to attend Harry Potter's belated birthday party, for which they had received a stern lecture from Madam Pomfrey.

It had been worth it, though, even if they had been grounded by the medi-witch and forced to remain in Grimmauld Place for the duration of their mission.

It was for this reason that Charlie, Bill, and Severus were sitting at the kitchen table in Grimmauld Place, playing cards. They each had a handful of cards in hand and a bottle of firewhiskey and were doing their best to avoid going stir crazy.

Charlie threw his handful of cards at the table with a snarled, “I fold.”

The not going stir crazy bit wasn’t going so well.

“I’m done, too,” Bill said, flattening his sour hand to the table and pushing the handful of galleons they had been betting across the table to Snape. “You win, O Dungeon Bat.”

Severus’ lip curled in response to the moniker as he swept the galleons in his palm and pocketed them. “If you were still a student of mine…”

“I suspect I would have fled the castle in terror at this point,” Bill interrupted, his lips quirking at his former Potions professor. “You were right terrifying when I was in school.”

Charlie snorted, nodding in agreement. “I was never happier to escape having to take my NEWTs with you,” he admitted. “I hear you’re still scaring the pants off Gryffindors.” He raised an eyebrow, daring the man to lie.

“Your brothers keep you well-informed, I see.”

Bill snorted. “They don’t need to. When it comes to Gryffindor, you’re fairly easy to predict. Although rumor has it the twin terrors have been known to linger in the dungeons even when they don’t have a detention. Imagine that.”

Severus scowled at the two Hogwarts graduates before him. He remembered both of them well - a Weasley was hard to forget. Bill had been one of his best students, completing all seven years of Potions with high scores and going on to gain a prestigious job as a cursebreaker working for Gringotts and traveling the world. Charlie had dropped Potions after completing his OWLs, successfully getting an OWL in the subject but declining continuing his education on the subject. He had gone on to become a dragon handler, a job that, while not as prestigious in the professional world as Gringotts cursebreaker, was still a job viewed with no small amount of awe, especially as there was a level of mystery to be had by those who “wrestled dragons” for a living.

Both of them had been good students who were followed by Percy Weasley, who was not bad at Potions but whom Severus did not like because of the holier-than-thou attitude he carried with him everywhere. Of course, Severus generally handled Percy Weasley by ignoring him whenever possible and this seemed to work well for them both.

It hadn’t worked for the Weasley twins.

Fred and George Weasley, the twin terrors of Hogwarts, were a bane upon Severus Snape the moment they were sorted.

Severus had never liked pranksters. James Potter and his lot of pranking Gryffindors had turned him off of that type of behavior sharply, nevermind that Severus had always been a very serious person, even as a child, having little time for pranking as he focused on his studies and tried not to draw too much attention to himself - a plan which hadn’t worked very well, considering he was the main focus of the Marauders’ humiliations.

When he discovered that is was the Weasley twins who had been pranking the school students (and professors), Severus had very nearly lost his temper completely. It was only halted by the fact that he had never been subjected to one of these pranks and by the fact that the house to suffer the majority of the pranks had been Gryffindor, the twins’ own.

Instead of confronting the two pranksters, Severus had watched, waiting for the opportunity to come when the twin terrors would perform a prank that they would need to be immediately reprimanded for and their prankster habits dealt with swiftly and decisively.

But it was third year before Severus had any interaction with the twins outside of the Potions classroom and brief passings in the halls.

The two had come to his office one day after lunch to ask if they could use the potions labs to practice some potions they weren’t sure of. Severus hadn’t been certain of how to respond. Yes, the duo were a couple of pranksters, a fact well-known throughout the school by this point, but three years of watching the two of them and listening to rumor mills and hearsay had told the professor that though the twins pranked people constantly, they did so under the limitations of a sort of code.

For one thing, they pranked everyone. Teachers, students, first years, seventh years, regardless of House or age or blood status. They even pranked ghosts, though how they had managed to turn the Bloody Baron yellow and make him smell like banana muffins flummoxed Severus to this day.

They never pranked someone while they were on the Quidditch pitch, that seeming to be sacred ground to the two Gryffindor Beaters. They never pranked anyone who was in the middle of anything delicate, like trying to tame a beast in Care of Magical Creatures, hold a spell steady in class, or brew a potion, all of which could be dangerous if something was added incorrectly or the delicacies of the brew upset. They also seemed to take a perverse pleasure in using their pranking as a means of conditioning against bad behavior. Severus had heard numerous tales in the staff room of students coming to them because a fifth year Ravenclaw or a fourth year Gryffindor was teasing one of the younger years and for the professors to seek out these bullies, only to find that they had been pranked in the most interesting of ways.

One person, who had insisted on calling one of the first year Hufflepuffs a rather foul word, had been hexed to sprout white feathers all over their body and to only be able to speak for a few seconds before their speech dissolved into clucking and crowing.

In another instance, a Slytherin third year who had hit a second year in the head with a textbook, causing a concussion, had found his own head attracting every textbook they passed within three feet. It became so bad that the student ended up hiding in a disused broom cupboard for two days before Professor Flitwick finally found them and removed the attraction charm.

In both instances, the bullying habits had ceased abruptly after the prank, and while Severus had never cared for pranking, he liked bullying even less. If he had to choose between the two, he knew which one he would prefer.

There was also the fact that, with everyone else in the school being pranked regularly, Severus and his Potions classroom had never once suffered in three years.

He had chosen to make a deal with the terrors, that they could use Potions Lab 3 whenever they wished, so long as they promised that Severus and his classroom would remain beyond the reach of their pranks. The twins had agreed and Severus had never had a problem with their pranking, as per their agreement. In fact, the only problem he had with the twins was the fact that while their classwork was acceptable, their pranking prowess and successful brewing in Lab 3 suggested that they could have taken their NEWT Potions exam in fifth year and passed with Os.

No amount of his badgering would change their actions, however. Not if rumor of the Weasley matriarch’s temper was true and she had failed to budge them. There was no animosity between Severus and the twin terrors, unlike between he and the youngest Weasley boy and his group of Gryffindor miscreants, like Potter. Severus had no intention of upsetting this delicate balance he had going for him and setting another set of Marauders loose on Slytherin.

This was the twin terror’s final year at Hogwarts, after all. He hoped it would be a calm one.


Rita Skeeter had not been having a good summer. It had begun, after all, when she was captured by a fourth year Gryffindor and imprisoned in a jar, trapped in her beetle form. It might have gotten better if she hadn’t been kept in that jar all summer, forced to eat the leaves and sprouts dropped in for her and to be treated like a bug that a small child had captured and was keeping as a pet, instead of as the highly-successful reporter that she was.

Worse than that, however, was the fact that Rita’s plans for after her release from her prison were quickly being wiped from possibility. The girl who had captured her, Hermione, had tried to strike a deal with Rita - she would release the beetle animagus on the condition that the reporter never write another scathing and untrue article about her friend, Harry Potter, The-Boy-Who-Lived.

Of course, Rita refused. How could the girl expect her to give up her rights to write juicy articles about such a goldmine of a child? The boy was practically a blank slate just waiting for people to fill in the blanks, and filling in the blanks was what Rita was good at. Awkward silences during interviews were nothing when you had a mind like hers. She knew how to make an interview shine.

Except now, with Rita having refused the deal, it seemed unlikely that she would be turning out any more shining articles. In fact, from the look on Hermione Granger’s face, Rita wouldn’t be coming out of that unbreakable jar anytime soon.

The beetle animagus shook her forelegs as another leaf was dropped into the jar for her to eat. She had never wanted a cheeseburger more than right this moment.

“It looks like I’m going to have to find a better home for you than this,” Hermione said thoughtfully, and Rita really wished she could speak in this form. She had a few choice words for the stupid muggleborn.

But Rita had been given her chance to say the right thing and she had refused, so now the plans had changed. She was still and beetle in a jar and Hermione was a girl with a wand in one hand and a quill in the other.

Rita knew from personal experience that the latter was the more powerful weapon, and knowing someone else was aware of that scared her half to death.

Rita took a contemptuous bite out of the leaf. If she ever got out of this stupid jar, the first thing she was getting was a cheeseburger.

The second thing was revenge on a certain muggleborn.

Chapter Text


THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AND DEATH

Chapter XXIII

The Defense Teacher


 

September 2nd occurred on a Friday that year and so the Gryffindor fifth year’s began their new term with Double Potions in the afternoon and nothing else for the rest of the day. Ron spent the day having a long lie-in and not bothering to get up until his stomach woke him for lunch. Hermione, predictably, was up early and in the Common Room, studying her text books, which she had already read at least once each time. Neville had immediately gone out to the greenhouses, forgoing breakfast entirely, while the Weasley Twins hid themselves in a corner of the Common Room and plotted.

Harry, having grown accustomed over the summer to getting up early and working at the Crooked House and training with Remus and Sirius, made his way down to the Common Room and joined Hermione on the couch near the fireplace. He ignored his text books in favor of the Animagus Book that Bill had given him. The potion was upstairs in his trunk, along with most of his other presents, with the exception of the Gillyweed, which Professor Sprout was temporarily housing in one of the greenhouses, and Zinnia, who was walking back and forth across the back of Harry’s chair, searching for a comfortable position.

The training manual for becoming an animagus was fascinating. It didn’t just have directions on how the process worked but the theory behind it, and it delved into different controversies, like why a wizard’s Patronus sometimes matched their Animagus form, what determined whether someone gained a mammal, avian, insect, or other form, why there were so few insect animagus in comparison to mammalian animagus. It even briefly touched on the rarity of wizards and witches who had a magical animagus form, like a gryffin or a kelpie. It said that only The Three were known to be beyond the reach of an animagus transformation, though Harry had no idea what creatures The Three referred to and any curiosity he had about it was temporarily overshadowed by his surprise when he read that very few people had an animagus form at all. The talent apparently ran in families, but most people did not have a form to turn into and some that did have a form did not have the magical strength to complete the transformation.

His father being an animagus, Harry thought it was highly likely that he would have a form but he had no idea what that form might be. If he were an animal, what sort of creature would he most affiliate himself with?

He had no idea, but he did have the potion that would reveal his form to him. All he had to do was drink the potion before he went to bed and he would discover his form during a dream, if he had one. Harry desperately wanted to drink the potion and discover his form, but he also knew that Hermione was interested in learning to become an animagus and discovering that Bill was one had peaked Ron’s interest. Hermione had planned to spend the weekend researching the potion that would reveal their forms, so she could make enough for her and Ron. Anxious though he was, Harry was willing to wait for his friends so they could take the potion at the same time.

He contented himself Friday morning with the animagus manual, breakfast, the charms text he had received from Professor Flitwick, lunch, and then Double Potions with the Slytherins. The class, which he had dreaded since that first class all those years ago when Snape had singled him out, went far smoother than anyone could have anticipated. Mis- Professor Morely was a fair woman who was clearly a perfect fit for a teaching position. None of them even touched their cauldrons during the first period, instead going over a review of different types of potions, the different ways to cut, mash, slice, and otherwise prepare ingredients, the varying strokes one needs to do with a stirring rod, like clockwise, counter-clockwise, turning a handle versus stirring, stroking, or whisking, though none of the potions they had used prior to this year had called for that last instruction.

Only once the second period started did Professor Morely assign a potion and what she assigned was a simple first year level potion. She wrote the directions on the board, told them what page in their texts listed the potion, and sat at her desk to let them work. When someone seemed to be having trouble, she would briefly visit with them and help them work through their struggle, but she otherwise remained quiet and kept a careful eye on her students. Surprisingly, the Slytherins didn’t try anything, perhaps waiting to learn more about this new professor, and Harry, pairing with Ron while Hermione paired with Neville, was surprised to discover that the review of various techniques for preparing ingredients had been very helpful. With quick hands accustomed to preparing ingredients for cooking, Harry dealt with the potion ingredients while Ron carefully stirred, turning, twisted, and otherwise manipulated the stirring rod.

At the end of the class, they had a perfect boil cure potion, much to his and Ron’s shock, and no one had melted a cauldron or otherwise done all that poorly. Professor Morely collected a sample of everyone’s potions and dismissed them, thus releasing the fifth year Gryffindors into their weekend.

Hermione spent the weekend as she had planned - looking up the Animagus Revelio potion. Ron and Harry alternated between playing Chess, flying on the Quidditch pitch, and spending time in the library with Hermione or in the Common Room. All in all, it was a very pleasant start to the new school year, which by no means prepared them for the week that followed.

When Harry, Ron, and Hermione had returned to Hogwarts for their second year, they discovered that they retained the same schedule as they’d had the year before. Their third year consisted of the elective classes they had chosen at the end of the previous year and so was different. Unfortunately, after third year, the schedules didn’t stay the same every year that followed and so they were forced to memorize their new schedule at the beginning of every year.

Harry started off the year learning he was going to be dead by the end of it, and things just went downhill from there.

Like always, breakfast ran from six until nine in the morning. Monday consisted of Divination at ten, where Trelawney predicted Harry’s death, then lunch from eleven to one. Harry and Ron had a free period at one while Hermione went to Ancient Runes (they spent this playing Chess), and then the three of them met for Transfiguration at two, followed by another surprisingly pleasant Potions class. Dinner ran from five to eight at night, and then they spent most of the rest of the night in the Common Room until they retired to bed.

Like Friday, Tuesday was a very quiet day, with the only classes being Care of Magical Creatures at one and Astronomy from midnight until one Wednesday morning. Wednesday was slightly less pleasant, with another Divination class in the afternoon, stuck between Herbology at one and History of Magic at three. History of Magic wasn’t too bad, since Harry and Ron managed a rather pleasant nap, while Hermione struggled to pay attention but only succeeded in take notes for five minutes before her mind wandered.

With Professor Morely teaching Potions, the biggest issues were Divination and History of Magic. Up until Thursday, when they had Transfiguration right after lunch, followed by their first Defense Against the Dark Arts class. Not even Charms with cheerful Professor Flitwick, which followed DADA, could ease the discomfort the fifth year Gryffindors suffered in that class.

Delores Umbridge. Harry had never particularly liked Trevor, Neville’s toad he got from his great uncle, but he thought referring to the woman as a toad was insulting to his housemate’s pet. That being said, there was little else he could think to describe the woman. Dressed all in pink, with mannerisms that suggested a patronizing attitude and (according to Hermione) a high-pitched, simpering voice, Umbridge gave off a vibe that triggered the desire within Harry to either draw his wand or run away. He couldn’t seem to decide on which one and, since both actions would get him in trouble, chose to do neither. Instead, he spent the entirety of the class with his shoulders tensed for bolting and his heart hammering in his chest while he tried to mentally talk himself down from doing something not-good.

He didn’t understand the reaction that she caused in him, he only knew that he did not like the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, and he wasn’t alone in that.

Employed by the Ministry, Umbridge broke the news in the first class that they would not be learning the practical side of defensive magics. Instead, they would be taking notes word for word directly from the text book that they had been given, making DADA a joke on par with History of Magic.

By the end of the first week, all of the students having so suffered Umbridge, the students were very ready for the weekend and took advantage of the time they had to gossip about the awful new DADA teacher.

What they didn’t know what that this was mild in comparison to how very bad the woman could, and no doubt would, get before the end of the year.

Fifth year was likely going to be very interesting, and not in a good way.


 

Slytherin House was known as the House of Snakes for more reasons than the crest they bore and Salazar’s parseltongue abilities. Slytherin was home to a great many of the pureblood families of Britain, the old families, whose children were raised from a young age to know how to act in proper pureblood society, and how to understand and survive the politics that came with being an heir to a House.

Thus, it was no surprise to anyone who was sorted there that Slytherin House was a place that required one to learn to perform the political dance that would follow them all through life.

And there had been a shift in this year’s candidates. Draco Malfoy was no longer the Prince of Slytherin.

That he had been before had only been by stint of his family name - all of Slytherin knew that, including Draco himself. With his father’s sundering of Draco from the Malfoy Family, that name was gone and all of his status with it. Draco was lower than the lowest of the Slytherins. Lower even than the little mudblood firsties that everyone pretending they either didn’t hear or didn’t know was the sort of filth that shouldn’t be allowed in Hogwarts.

His arriving to the castle before any of the other Slytherins and claiming a bed made no difference to them. His stuff was removed from the bed he had chosen and dumped unceremoniously in a corner of the room. His bed was disassembled by some higher year’s crafty wandwork and Draco was given a child-sized mattress in his corner of the room, and a ratty blanket he was no doubt lucky to have been graced with.

He was not permitted into the bath before all the rest of the boys in his year, and some of the other years, had gone. He was not passed food at the table in the Great Hall if he requested it and was often shunned from the presence of all in the hall and took to filching meals and eating them in an abandoned classroom or a quiet part of the castle corridors. Sometimes, he would leave really early and get to breakfast before anyone else, but this required him to forego showering since the other boys were not finished with that task and the occasional curious look from the other Houses often had him avoiding that option.

Sometimes his housemates were cruel to him, hitting him with spells or jinxes, tripping him in the halls or stealing his things. Draco had taken to keeping anything he thought precious on him at all times, for fear of it being taken or broken. Much to his relief, he was mostly ignored by his fellow Slytherins, who viewed him as less than they and thus not worth their time. This was a vast change in his life from the previous year and Draco found himself adrift in uncertainty much of the time, but the shunning of his person was preferable when it involved people not bothering to even look his way, as opposed to being randomly attacked.

The only person who made it a regular habit of speaking to Draco was Crabbe. Vincent. Draco hadn’t used the boy’s first name, yet - rarely did he speak at all - but when Crabbe spoke to him, he addressed him by his first name. This was natural, of course, for he had been stripped of his surname and thus calling him Malfoy could get Crabbe ostracized at best, and at worst, killed.

Every morning, Crabbe greeted Draco. When he sat at the house table, Crabbe sat with him. The same in the Common Room, whether he sat on the couch (a rarity, as that was a favored place of his housemates) or at a table. Crabbe would walk with him to class, keeping up a quiet but steady conversation, almost always one-sided.

It was the most that Draco had ever heard the other boy speak. He had heard more words come out of Crabbe’s mouth in the past week than he had heard in all four of his previous Hogwarts years. And Draco was learning more about the other boy than he had thought there ever was to learn.

Crabbe’s father, a Death Eater like Draco’s (this, Draco had known), was the only child of two Swedish fisherman. His grandfather, one Pontus Crabbe, had died in a fishing accident when a krakken destroyed his ship and, presumably, ate all of the crew and most of the wreckage. His grandmother, Sigrid Crabbe, continued the fishing business, which she had inherited from her mother, who had inherited it from her mother, because Crabbe’s family was matriarchal, as opposed to the common patriarchal family of Britain.

This had fascinated Draco (not that he said so), because he had grown up being dragged by his parents to events of the wealthy and well-to-do, where the men ruled the family and the women were to be seen and not heard, unless spoken to first by a man. Granted, some families, even those of the older lineages, allowed more freedom for their feminine members, but never enough that the family might become ruled by a woman.

Vincent, Draco learned, would not inherit his grandmother’s fishing business, just as his father would have only held it as regent, not inheriting it. The business would pass, as the family would, to Crabbe’s younger sister (nine years old and at home with the family servants), Lovisa. Crabbe’s mother had died giving birth to the younger girl and, as his father was far too busy licking Draco’s father’s boots, Lovisa was being raised by the family servant, Svea, an old Swedish woman who had being a servant of the Crabbe family since she was a child and who treated Vincent and Lovisa as if they were her own children.

Draco had not known any of this about the boy who had followed him around since they entered Hogwarts together - since before they even boarded the train. He had known almost nothing, he was beginning to realize. Crabbe had so rarely spoken, often only grunting at whoever spoke to him, that Draco (and everyone else) had so often mistaken him as an imbecile. He had never bothered to pay attention to him or Goyle during classes, too busy being the prince of the Slytherins and leading them with whatever story or game he chose to play at the point in time.

Speaking little as he did now, Draco was beginning to see many things that he had ignored before. Instead of attempting to be in the spotlight, he watched people, and he was coming to see its appeal. Was this why Crabbe had so rarely spoken? Was he just watching people, discovering all that there was to learn? People revealed so much without apparently ever realizing the amount of information such simple actions were telling those who were watching.

One of the most interesting things Draco found to watch was the dynamic in the rest of Slytherin House. With his fall, there had been a great shift, culminating in the entire House splitting into factions.

On one side, you had your Death Eater children who clearly followed in their father’s footsteps, flaunting the wants and ideals of pureblooded wizards seeking purification of wizardkind in total.

On the other side, you had the wizards and witches who didn’t seem to care overmuch about the blood status. They didn’t stand in favor of immersion of mudbloods with the rest - not openly, at least - but many of the faces that Draco saw in this faction belonged to those who were not purebloods.

And there was a third faction that Draco just couldn’t quite figure out. Smaller than the others, this faction seemed to be led by Blaise Zabini, of all people. The quiet Slytherin, the one who said almost nothing but moved like a shark, his face like a hawk’s, was at the head of a faction that did not outright reveal their intentions. In fact, they almost seemed to be holding back, as though they were waiting to discover who had the better argument, or who the winner would be, before they chose sides. It was this group, Draco thought, that was the most Slytherin of them all.

He was surprised to find he could not place himself. Certainly, he was not part of the Death Eater crowd, but he didn’t think he would fit in well with those that opposed him. While waiting to see who would win had its appeal, Draco wasn’t sure he would be accepted into any faction with people who would look at him and see one who had lost their name.

Crabbe, too, kept his preferences quiet, only staying close to Draco, as though that was his faction. It was a loyal move and one that flabbergasted Draco. The train had been one thing, but Draco had not been surprised by Goyle’s abandonment. He had expected Crabbe to follow suit and still found himself stunned to listen to the boy as they walked through the halls, being spoken to as though they were equals.

As though they were friends.

This was a new concept for Draco, who had had servants and minders and muscle, but never friends. He couldn’t decide how he felt about it because his emotions were as wild as his mind was frenzied, but there was certainly emotion there - beyond the confusion and the uncertainty. Beyond the fear, Draco thought there just might be… something else.

Because he had always followed his father’s instructions, always done as he was told, always tried to be the perfect son, the perfect little Malfoy heir, there were a lot of things that Draco had never experienced before. The rebellion of youth, the pride of being told he’d done a good job, the embarrassment of his parents making fun in front of his friends. Because he had never truly experienced it before, Draco could not place that this emotion hidden behind his fear was happiness, but given time, he would learn.


 

Ron sucked in a sharp breath as he opened his eyes. The scarlet bed hangings of Gryffindor dangled above him, but Ron found nothing about them reassuring. He threw the covers off himself and crawled out of bed, moving over to Harry’s bed. Grabbing the curtains, he thrust them aside with no concern over whether he woke any of the other boys.

For just a moment, Harry’s skin was charred black and his whole body was covered in blood. Ron shook his head, dashing away the nighmare.

Harry was asleep, his face pressed into his pillow, mouth half open and breathing quietly, as he always did. Ron slid the hangings shut with a relieved breath. He turned around, staring longingly at his bed, but he knew there would be no more sleep tonight. If he did manage to doze of, his mind would only be filled with fire and blood and he would wake again gasping in terror for the life of his best friend.

He’d been having trouble sleeping all summer. If he was honest with himself (Ron often wasn’t), the nightmares had started during fourth year. His realizing he was a great fat prat of a friend happened at the same time.

Ron stood in the center of the Common Room, having left the dormitory as quietly as he could, and frowned around at the couches and chairs. None of them were occupied, but he was too strung up to relax and the idea of sitting down repulsed him. There was a humming of nervous energy in his blood that he desperately wanted to shake. He thought briefly about the broom closet on the Quidditch grounds but he was sure it was rigged to alarm a professor if a student broke in at whatever insane hour this way, so flying off his troubles was out.

Turning Ron eyed the portrait hole consideringly. At home, most everyone was a heavy sleeper by necessity. During the summer when he had woken in the early hours of the morning, Ron had taken to wandering the Burrow. The only person that had woken up to his wanderings and come to check on him had been Ginny, who of course knew of his nighttime movements and their reason. She and his father were the only two light sleepers in the family (asides Bill, but he no longer lived there).

If his dad knew of Ron’s nighttime ramblings, he said nothing, which Ron felt was a relief. A discussion of a nightmare to help Harry was one thing, but these bloody dreams were caused by his own stupidity. He had no one else to blame.

With a final glance around the deserted Common Room, Ron left Gryffindor Door, climbing through the portrait hole in the hall beyond. The Fat Lady snored after him but Ron ignored her. He moved down the stairs, turned in a direction at random, and began what was likely to be just one of many nighttime wanderings of the halls of Hogwarts.


 

There was a strange tower in the distance that never seemed to get any closer no matter how far Hermione walked. The rest of the world around her was white - undetermined but for that tower. She wanted to reach it to have something around her that was more than this endless landscape of white that was so disconcerting for reasons she couldn’t quite illustrate.

She was still angry with herself for forgetting about Cor and the Realm. It was clear everyone else had forgotten, as well, but she didn’t think that excused her own mind. She could remember almost everything else that she dealt with, recalling nearly every word that she had ever read, but this eluded her? Frustrating was not the term she would use.

Besides that, she had no idea how she should disguise herself. When she had initially thought that they need disguise themselves as existing people, it had been difficult enough, but Luna proving that it could be any disguise of the imagination and Hermione didn’t know what to do. There were too many choices that her mind couldn’t settle on even a few possibilities, never mind a choice. The lack of a proper disguise was making her anxious. Along with her concern over forgetting once she fell asleep again, this had Hermione in a right state of nerves.

If she could remember this in her conscious moments, she could research different possibilities of disguising, and look into more about the Realm. But she couldn’t if she couldn’t remember!

Stomping as she walked, following the throbbing call of her artifact, Hermione struggled to calm down or she’d probably wake up in a tizzy having no idea why she was strung up so tight.

The tower stood firm in the distance, made of black stone, turrets gleaming against the white sky. Hermione focused her own on that and determinedly moved forward. She would reach it. That tower was where she wanted to be and if she couldn’t work on this artifact business outside of her dreams, then she would at least accomplish what she intended while here!


 

The Gryffindors and Slytherins filed into the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom with grim faces and clear reluctance. The rivalry between the two houses had, amazingly, dimmed in the face of mutual dislike for the Defense teacher. Neither of them had any illusions that this was fostering peace between them, but within the walls of this classroom, they could at least focus their ire elsewhere.

Umbridge, swathed in pink as usual, smiled at them all as though they were five and not fifteen, her hands clasped before her. A few of the Muggleborn children thought that a bonnet and a crook could go a long way toward making the toad look eerily like a heavyset Little Bo Peep.

“Good morning, class,” Umbridge called when they had all settled into their seats.

There were a few people who grumbled but the class remained silent for the most part.

“Now, now, that’s not the way to start the day,” she said, ignoring the fact that it was two in the afternoon. “Repeat after me. Good morning, Professor Umbridge.” She waved her hands as though conducting an orchestra.

“Good morning, Professor Umbridge,” the class repeated dutifully.

“Very good,” Umbridge simpered. “Now, I hope everyone did the required reading for today’s class. Who would like to start us off with a review? Yes, Mister Finnegan,” she called on Seamus, who had raised his hand.

Instead of reciting a summary of the homework chapter, Seamus put down his hand and asked, “Why aren’t we learning anything we can use to protect ourselves?”

“Protect yourselves?” Umbridge asked, flabbergasted. “Whatever would you need to protect yourself from?”

“Attackers,” Seamus said, as though talking to an idiot. “Magical beasts. Death Eaters.” He ignored Umbridge’s grimace. “Whacked out Azkaban escapees. Defense teachers who try to kill us.”

“Now, now,” Umbridge said, cutting him off before he could add anything more to the list. “While it is a very rare possibility that you might encounter an attacker in the streets, that can be avoided if you take the proper care to avoid unsavory places. The same with mindless beasts. Stay away from areas where they frequent and you should have no trouble.”

“What if you want to go into Dragon Handling as a career?” Ron called out.

Umbridge turned her gaze on him. “If you’re stupid enough to go into a career that will obviously lead to your early death, then it’s really your own fault you’re in that mess.”

Hermione, who had been quietly listening, felt her mouth drop open at this and Ron himself stared. Umbridge had just called his brother a suicidal idiot, along with every other dragon handler in the world.

“As for Death Eaters,” Umbridge continued on, giggling in a high-pitched tone that made many of her students wince, “there are no such thing. There haven’t been Death Eaters about since the first war with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. They were all destroyed when he was and so are no concern.”

Ron opened his mouth to make a comment, but Hermione grabbed his wrist in a clear shut-up motion and he refrained from saying anything. There was a nervous energy in the classroom that hadn’t been there at the start, though, as something was just waiting to come to light.

Harry was sitting quietly, eyes on his journal as he followed along with the conversation. Making his own opinion known wouldn’t work as well with him reduced to writing it, so he didn’t bother to offer it. He was more than a little concerned, however, with this woman’s obvious dismissal of Voldemort and his Death Eaters as a threat - or any dark wizard who might choose to attack others. He knew the Ministry had hired her, but he hadn’t realized she was an idiot on par with Fudge!

“No one can escape from Azkaban prison,” she said, talking over Ron, who had tried to speak again. “This incident with Sirius Black was a hoax and has long since been proven as such.”

WHAT?

“And a Defense teacher would never try to kill you. We’re here to protect you. You don’t need to learn to defend yourself, because that is what the Ministry is for. If you ever have any sort of problem, you can go to them and they will help you. The Ministry can be trusted.

“There will be no more relying on school children to defend the world against the monsters under the bed.” Harry looked up in time to see Umbridge staring right at him as she said that, her eyes suspicious. “Now open your books to the chapter you read for homework and let’s go over what we learned. Mister Finnegan, begin.”

 


 

“I can’t believe that idiotic toad of a woman!” Hermione shrieked, stomping into the Common Room and throwing her bag at the couch furiously. “She’s just so… so… argh!”

“Go on, Hermione. Tell us how you really feel,” Ron said, grinning at her temper.

“Oh hush, Ronald.”

“I don’t think she likes me,” Harry wrote. “She was glaring at me through half the class.”

“Well, you did announce that Voldemort is back last year and obviously she wants to pretend that didn’t happen,” Hermione huffed, sitting down on the couch.

“She and the Minister both,” Ron muttered. “We’re not going to learn anything in this class.” He shook his head. “I wish we had Professor Lupin again. He was the best Defense teacher we ever had.”

Hermione sighed as she leaned back against the couch cushions. “You got to train with Professor Lupin and… Snuffles all summer,” she said wistfully to Harry. “I wish we had been able to do that.”

Harry stared at her words in his journal, his mind racing. With Sirius in hiding and Remus on a mission, it wasn’t possible for the two of them to train his friends, but… maybe that wasn’t the only option.

 

Chapter Text

THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AND DEATH

 Chapter XXIV

 The Secretive and Sinful


 

“Are you frightened?” Ginny asked.

Harry looked over at her, startled by the words. “What?”

“Are you frightened?” she asked again, nodding her head forward at the white nothing that stretched for as far as they could see. They had been walking for what seemed like hours, but it was impossible to tell while trapped here in this realm, in a dream. It was the third night that they had fallen asleep and slipped into the Realm. They had spent most of the time walking, and very little of it talking. The silence was beginning to get on Ginny’s nerves.

“No,” Harry said, after some time thinking. “I don’t think so.”

“I suppose you wouldn’t be,” Ginny admitted. “Everything that you, Ron, and Hermione have been through, it’d be hard to find this frightening.”

Harry cocked his head to the side, thinking. Their footsteps made no sound as they moved through the white world.

“I wasn’t really scared then, either,” Harry said. “Not for me.” He glanced at her briefly, thinking of the Chamber of Secrets and seeing her lying on the floor in front of the head of Salazar Slytherin. He had been frightened then, but for Ginny. “I suppose I don’t really get scared for my own life when it comes down to it.”

“Why not?” Ginny asked, looking at him.

Harry shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s never really been something to worry about. I mean, before Hogwarts, there was no one that really cared about whether or not I got hurt. It just didn’t seem to matter.”

“But it does matter. Your life does matter, Harry.” She reached out and grabbed his hand. “You should be frightened for yourself, too. Not just your friends.”

“You’re all that matters to me,” Harry said, meeting her earnest gaze.

Ginny felt her cheeks flush with heat. She knew he meant his friends, that he meant Ron and Hermione most of all, and Remus and Sirius, but the way he had said it made her blush until she was sure her whole body was as red as her hair.

Harry seemed to realize what he had said because his own cheeks flushed and he looked away from her. He didn’t say anything more, but he also didn’t let go of her hand.


The students were back!

Hogwarts was aflutter with activity of all sorts now that the new school year had begun. The creatures that lurked behind the scenes or in quiet corners rushed about in excitement, performing their required tasks.

Ghosts floated about, keeping an eye on things, though often getting distracted, as the dead are wont to do, for the goings-on of living beings did not interest them as much as it had when they were alive.

The paintings were a different story as they flitted amongst their frames and moved about the school, gossiping and trading tales. News abounded from student to student in Hogwarts, but it was the paintings who truly spread the word so fast. They were thrilled to have students in their halls again, to watch them as they grew in strength, and as they danced the precarious dance of the teenager, becoming girlfriend and boyfriend as quickly as they became ex-girlfriend and ex-boyfriend. It was almost too early in the year for such things, but the paintings had become good at reading students over these many years and some were giving off signs. And some who had been together the previous year were no longer. They could not wait for those stories to unfold. The paintings would spread the tale out across the grapevine and soon everyone would drink in the drama. What fun!

The creatures most excited that the students were back, however, were less noticeable than the ghosts and paintings both. The house elves who lived and worked in Hogwarts leapt with joy at having their children back in their halls, for nothing pleased a house elf greater than to have families to tend to and masters to serve.

“Breakfast time! Breakfast time!” shrieked Loppy, a tiny little house elf with massive ears that seemed to dwarf her head. She skipped frantically through the kitchen, shrieking the call to arms, and a group of twenty house elves followed her.

These house elves split into three groups. The first group, of seven, moved to a long line of brick ovens that lay stretched out on one side of the kitchen, each oven set above a small counter. The seven house elves needed no direction as they began to prepare ingredients and make breads and pastries for the breakfast table.

The second group of house elves moved to stoves, where they began to cook eggs and fry up bacon, bangers, and the like. 

The third group of elves split themselves into smaller groups, two of them setting the House tables with plates and silverware, another taking care of the Head table. Two elves cleaned the floors of the Great Hall, while another gathered serving bowls and utensils and putting stasis charms on them to keep every piece of food fresh and warm (or cold) until it was removed by a student to be eaten. Cereal was poured into large serving bowls, milk placed in a jug, jam and butter and clotted cream put into small dishes and set to the side.

Soon, the kitchen was filled with the smell of breakfast - eggs and sausages, bacon, scones and oatmeal and all the rest. Pumpkin juice was poured, tea was steeped, coffee was made, goblets were shined, and along with all of this came the sound of singing.

Twenty-one house elves, less than a quarter of the number who served at Hogwarts, began to sing a song as they prepared breakfast. It was not a song in English, nor in any language that had been used in over three thousand years. The words were ancient, they were beautiful, and they were beyond meaning.

The house elves sang, as they always sang when they worked in the places where humans could not hear them, but none of them knew the meaning of the words they used. They knew the tune, knew the words, but the meaning had long been lost to them long ago.

Dobby the house elf, whose job this morning had been to polish the floors of the Great Hall, found tears dripping from his tennis ball sized eyes. He struggled to choke out words that he had hummed along to as a house elf babe, wrapped up in his mother’s arms as she taught him the words.

If someone had asked him, Dobby would have said that he was sad. He was sad because the song he was singing was sad. He did not know the meaning of the words, could not have said what story they painted, but he knew somehow that it was a sad one, and he could not help but cry great tears at the thought of such sadness. If he had explained this to any of the other elves, they might have also realized how sad the song was, but none of them asked Dobby. In fact, very few of them spoke to Dobby, because Dobby was a perverted creature, an elf that was paid, and this was a horrible, horrible thing and Dobby was so strange, too strange, and the others would not consort with him. They would work with him, but they would not talk to him. They did not want to become strange.

Dobby did not let this bother him on most days. He was a strange elf, but also a happy elf, usually. Except he suddenly found himself wishing that he had never been taught the words to this song, because he did not want to sing along with the others. He did not want to hear this beautiful words, which spelled out so much doom.

But Dobby said nothing to the other elves and continued shining the floor, scrubbing at the stone with soapy water and salty tears, all the while singing softly under his breath.


“Would you look at this bright country, Gred.”

“Bright indeed, Forge. White as Merlin’s shining bottom, it is.”

“Oh? And you know this how, I wonder.” George said, looking at his twin.

“Polished it meself,” Fred said, puffing out his chest proudly.

Neville didn’t know whether to laugh at their antics or sob at the obstacle before them. They had wandered through the white world for three days, off and on as they woke and went to classes and went to bed at night, and they had seen nothing but the great expanse of white. Neville had begged in his head for something to appear, something to cut the endless blankness from the world, and he had received an answer to his wish, but now he didn’t know how to deal with it.

Before the three of them sat a lake as large and as vast as the lake on Hogwarts grounds. It was not blue, however, or green with algae or even clear. The water was viscous, thick and slow, and as silver as the blade of a knife.

“We’ll have to go around it, I think,” Neville said before he could think to stop himself.

“Eh, you’re right,” Fred said, sounding disappointed. “Might be different if there was a tree in sight. I wouldn’t mind testing my hand at making a raft.”

“A broomstick’d be better, though,” George said. “Not that we have one of those, either.”

The three of them stared out across the lake for a long time, and then Neville finally started walking, heading around the left side of the lake, wondering how far it stretched.

He had been walking for probably about ten minutes before he registered that he could hear footsteps behind him. He stopped and turned to fine the Weasley Twins following him.

“What are you doing? You’ll have to circle the other way.”

Fred and George glanced at each other. “You’d think he’d be more grateful for the company,” one admitted, though Neville didn’t bother to suss out which.

“I think he’s just confused,” the other said. He looked at Neville. “Y’think we’re just gonna let you wander off without help? Be a bit nasty of us, wouldn’t it?”

“You said Paelius was to the right of the lake,” Neville said, remembering clearly how they had mentioned their artifact called them down the opposite side as his.

“We did,” one twin said.

“And that’s not gonna change if we follow you for a while.”

“But-”

“You can’t tell me you want to be alone.”

Neville opened his mouth, then closed it. “No,” he said, confused. “I don’t.”

“Yeah, well, us neither. We’ve got each other, mind, so we’re never really on our own.”

“Not so long as we’re together.”

“But another person about isn’t nothing to shake a wand at.”

“Unless it’s a pretty girl. Then I’ll shake my wand at her.”

“But you’re not a pretty girl-”

“So please keep your pants buttoned,” Neville said, interrupting them with a look of pleading horror on his face. Both twins laughed uproariously.

“We’re coming with you, Neville. We’ll keep you company. At least, so far as we can.”

“And if we can go the whole way with you, the better for us. Then you can come with us to get our artifact. Sounds like a good deal, yeah?”

“Why are you doing this?” Neville asked, even as one of the twins put an arm around his shoulders and started him walking again.

“We like you, Neville, me lad. We think you’re the right proper sort of bloke to do decent by us.”

“You took our sister to the Yule ball last year and gave her a good time, after all.”

Neville shook his head. This couldn’t be about that, not now.

“But really, that’s just a good example of your character. No, Neville, you’re a resource we two have realized has gone untapped.”

“Four years in the same House and we never even considered that you might be someone we could trust with our secrets, with our trade.”

“Your… trade?”

“We’re pranksters, Neville.”

Purveyors of mischief and maraudering.”

“Tricks and games and all manner of fun.”

“And wasn’t it a surprise to learn that quiet little Neville had a side of himself that leaned toward that, as well?”

“Indeed, brother mine, it was a shock. Why, to hear the suggestion come out of your mouth to prank us, the Weasley Twins extraordinaire. Why, we were shocked.”

“Awed.”

“Flabbergasted.”

“And, we admit, charmed by this secret side of you, Longbottom, dear boy. Why, we’d like to bring you into the fold.”

“Make you one of us.”

“And if, by chance, bringing you into the fold of the Weasley Marauders gets you to tell us what sort of pranks Little Miss Granger is planning to hit us with ahead of time, well, we would be grateful. Wouldn’t we, Forge?”

“Indeed, Gred. Indebted, even.”

“Certainly, we would have to repay that person for all their kindness.”

“And for sparing us the humiliation of being reduced to acing our exams.”

“What a travesty that would be.”

“So what do you say, Neville?” Fred asked, one arm around Neville’s shoulders and the other hand held out for him to shake. “Partners?” 


 

Draco was taking advantage of the abandoned Common Room to finish up a Potions assignment. Most of Slytherin House was away from the dungeons, either in classes or taking their free period and enjoying time outside or at least elsewhere. Some students were in their dormitories, but as they were not bothering Draco, he was not concerned with them.

He had just put the finishing touches on his essay on how one would go about collecting and using a bezoar when Theodore Nott came trotting into the room with a sly smile on his face. “Well, well, what have we here?”

Draco grimaced as he rolled up his homework and stuffed it into a pocket of his robes. He would probably get points off for it being smudged and wrinkled.

“I thought you’d be run off and hiding from all the big bad Slytherins, Nameless. But here you are, sitting out in the open.” He twirled his wand in his fingers as he moved through the Common Room. “It’s like you want someone to come along and find you.”

This was how it had been since school started. Although Draco had been rescued by the aurors and taken to St. Mungo’s, his father had escaped and it was his father who made it to the Ministry first. Lucius had spoken to the Minister and he had had his son erased from the Malfoy line. He had also reported his wife attacked and murdered by an unknown assailant, and though he had not said, he had implied that it was Draco’s doing, that whoever had done it had been following Draco’s orders.

He was a minor (and that was probably the only thing that saved him from true harm) and so could not be tried as an adult under the circumstances, the Ministry lacking proof of his involvement, but it was no doubt enough for Lucius to have taken all of the Malfoy power from Draco so it could not be used against him. Not just the money and the fame, but a name. Any name. Even a child with the name of a Muggle-born would be listened to before a Nameless. Lucius had taken away any and all chance that Draco might have had to be heard, to claim his father murderer of his wife, maimer of his son.

Draco is left scarred, abandoned, nameless and alone, and Lucius Malfoy walks free because he has a name and Cornelius Fudge in his pocket.

Draco never thought he would claim to hate the Malfoys, and yet here he was, hating them. He hated them so much.

Nott stepped up to Draco, barely a foot between them (and when had Draco risen to his feet?), and the twirling stopped. Nott pointed his wand at Draco’s face. “Didn’t your father teach you anything? I mean, I thought that last lesson finally would have knocked some sense into you.”

Draco clenched his teeth and his hands tightened on his Potions textbook, but he said nothing. Nott was too thin and physically weaker than most of Slytherin House, even for a wizard, but the boy made up for it with a strong magical talent that few of the other Slytherins in their year could best. Draco was not one of them. He’d never win a fight against the other boy.

“Not talking, I see.” Nott started twirling his wand in his fingers again as he began to circle Draco and the table he stood in front of, like a predator circling his prey, or a vulture his piece of carcass.

“We’ve had quite a good bit of excitement lately, haven’t we, Draco? Your mum’s copped it, and your dad’s disowned you. He’s left a pretty mark on your face, but that’s just a testament to your refusal, isn’t it?”

He leaned his hip against the table in front of Draco, bending forward so he could whisper into Draco’s ear. “Our master is back. He’s returned and he’s ready to take back this world for our kind. Are you really going to let that opportunity slip by? Hmm?” He tilted his head, peering into Draco’s eyes despite the fierce glare aimed at him. “You could be so much more than what you are, Draco. You could make your father so proud. I know you’ve always wanted to be like Lucius.”

“Theodore.”

Nott jerked up at his name and Draco barely managed to not leap away from the other boy in his shock. He hadn’t heard anyone enter the room, but he turned to see Blaise Zabini standing not five feet away, regarding Nott with those hunter’s eyes.

A sneer curled across Nott’s mouth. “Zabini. Are you here to save the day? Little Draco’s knight in shining green and silver.”

He didn’t sound concerned, but Draco wondered if he might be a little frightened underneath the sarcasm. Whether Zabini or Nott was better with a wand, Draco couldn’t say. They were both better than he was and he wasn’t ashamed to admit that.

Well, maybe a little ashamed when it came to Nott.

But if Draco had to choose, he would rather face Nott than Zabini. It had nothing to do with magical power. Nott made Draco nervous, but Zabini scared the hell of out him. He’d never seen Blaise fight before and part of him hoped he never did. He expected the boy was as much a shark in his wandwork as he was in his movements. Zabini was a predator, one that, if at all possible, Draco would avoid being the prey of.

Zabini had his wand out, a steady hand holding it at chest level with Nott. “Draco,” the darker boy drawled, “you have other places to be.”

Draco didn’t argue. He turned and left the room, trying very hard to keep his pace a casual walk and not flee. He thought he just might avoid going back to the dormitory tonight. It would probably be safer.

Any place was safer than in the line of fire.


Zabini waited until Draco had left the Common Room to advance. Although Nott tried to appear unconcerned, the way he immediately tensed gave him away. Zabini didn’t say anything, but moved closer, his wand still held steadily in his hand.

He was within a foot of Nott when he finally spoke.

“What was that you were saying about a knight in green and silver?”

Nott whipped his wand out, a spell already flying from the tip of it in an arc. Zabini deflected it with a shield spell, as well as the second spell that came flying at him. The third one he dodged by leaning to his left, at the same time flicking his own wand.

A disarming spell sent Nott’s wand flying from his hand. It struck against the floor somewhere behind the far chair. As Nott glanced toward where it had landed, Zabini sent off three spells in quick succession: a tripping jinx, a striking curse, and leg-locking jinx.

Nott fell to the floor, groaned as something struck him sharply in the head, and his legs snapped together.

Zabini raised a slender eyebrow at the boy before him, remaining quiet until Nott regained his senses enough to focus on his face. He crouched down next to the dazed Slytherin, face impassive and eyes unblinking in their stare.

“I’m not overly fond of Death Eaters. Or their spawn, for that matter. On a normal day, I’d like you no less than I like Draco, but I have an even larger distaste for hypocrisy. As someone who lost their mother, I thought you might appreciate Draco’s delicate situation.” He studied Nott as the boy began to sneer. “I supposed wrong. Your father mauled you with presents, gifts, and attention, buying your loyalty to the Dark Lord before he even began to rise again.” He leaned closer. “You’re nothing more than a whore.”

The leg-locking jinx snapped and Nott jerked his legs apart. He raised his hand and his wand shot into his hand, a banishing charm cast at the far wall sending him skidding across the carpet and away from Zabini. He pushed himself to his feet and raised his wand, protego charm deflecting the full body bind that flew in his direction. He sent a second banishing charm, this time at Zabini, but it was redirected at the far wall with a gaping wave of his wand, sending the decorations on the mantle flying about the Common Room.

The third banishing spell made a loud cracking sound against a raised shield. Zabini’s hand shook as he struggled to hold his protego charm up against a prolonged banishment spell. The cracking sound came again, like the ice over a lake breaking, and then a sound like fabric tearing.

The shield spell shattered into pieces and Zabini let out a startled sound in the back of his throat as the banishing spell flung him backward. He grunted when he hit the far wall.

Nott steadied his feet and walked over to the wall where Zabini had struck. He’d fallen down behind the sofa and lay there, groaning.

“My father,” he said, “taught me the truth about our kind. Wizards are meant to be pure. They’re meant to breed pure. My father knows that magic is tainted by the filthy mudbloods this school lets walk through the doors every year, and once the Dark Lord is back in control, this will be one of the first places we clean up. We’ll kill every mudblood in this place, and every filthy little mudblood supporter.

“And you, Zabini.” Nott grinned, twirling his wand excitedly in his fingers. “You’ll be mine. When the time comes, I’m going to hunt you down and I’m going to banish your balls, right into the Dark Lord’s hands. Then guess who will be the whore!”

Zabini lunged off of the floor with too much strength for someone who had been dizzily groaning a moment ago. Nott yelled as he was tackled to the ground, but the sound was cut off as Zabini’s hands circled around his throat.

Wand still in hand, Nott tried to shout a spell but could get no words out. He bucked and writhed, fighting to dislodge his attacker, but he wasn’t strong enough and his feet scrabbled uselessly against the carpet, trying to find purchase. The hands tightened their grip.

Zabini was straddling the weedy boy, his weight holding him down. There was an almost bored expression on his face as he watched Nott’s face turn red. He watched impassively as the boy’s cheeks began to gain a tinge of blue, his pale lips quickly darkening with color.

Nott beat against Zabini’s face, shoulders, chest with his arms, but the weight around his throat remained. His chest ached and his head was pounding, and the whole world was beginning to take on a light, dizzy feeling, a bit like he was falling asleep. His limbs were beginning to feel heavy and Nott felt his wand slip from his hand. His fingers dug against the hands at his throat, trying to pry them off, but they held fast. He tried kicking, hitting, bucking, but he was trapped.

His head jerked up and down, the back of his skull striking the floor and making everything spin. He could feel his arms striking anything within reach, but he couldn’t stop them moving. His legs, too, were kicking and he couldn’t seem to still them. There was a hollow feeling growing in his chest, replacing the pain there, and he could feel his heartbeat racing, hammering a panicked tattoo against his left temple. There was a pressure somewhere below his stomach, but then the world seemed to tilt, and he thought for a moment that he was falling, spinning backward, over and over, no ground beneath him. He felt himself blink, the movement seeming too slow, and when he opened his eyes again, he could barely see Zabini above him. There was just a blur of grey and green, and beyond that, a light. It was soft at first, but it began to grow and get brighter, until it consumed Zabini and drove his face from sight. All Theodore could see was the light, and it was warm. He thought he could see someone’s face there, a woman, smiling back at him. He reached out a hand for her.

Warm fingers curled around his, and then an arm slipped around his back, pulling him close. Two arms held him gently and he leaned his head against a warm shoulder as he was rocked. Theodore breathed in a scent that was both foreign and familiar, and wrapped in comfort, he sighed softly.

Then the arms around him slipped away. He lamented their loss in the back of his mind, but the greatest part of him was distracted by the spasm that rocked his body. He couldn’t seem to control his own movements, but his body was quivering. The light around him pulsed and began to dim, sliding away like water back into the ocean.

Theodore tried to follow it, a desperate sound escaping from his throat. He felt something release and he choked on a throbbing exhalation of pressure, the strangeness sending him staggering. He felt himself falling backward, back, over and around, and the floor was suddenly beneath him again.

His back arched, even as his body continued to spasm, and then a sound, half-squeal, half-gag, came from his mouth as air struck the back of his throat, burning its way down to his lungs. Then he was gasping and coughing, his head screaming in agony as the dimmed torches in the Common Room seared his unfocused eyes.

There was a presence above him, a pressure on his waist, but all he could see was a blur of grey and green. He thought that was important somehow - that it was dangerous - but he couldn’t put it together in his mind why. There was a movement above him, and then the pressure released, the blur moved to his side. Theodore gazed blearily at it.

“What?” he tried to asked, but the words slurred unintelligibly in his mouth, his lips feeling limp. He didn’t waste time on trying to articulate the word better. Speaking even that small amount left him feeling breathless and he focused on breathing. It seemed so difficult for some reason, and the air stung his throat with every inhalation.

“Hmph,” the blur murmured, sounding bored, or maybe disappointed. “Look how quickly the fight went out of you.”

The blur waved an arm. Nott thought it was an arm. He blinked, his vision beginning to clear. He watched the blur become a boy. Zabini. His wand in hand. A fight. A trick. Hands on him, on his throat. Legs around his. Being unable to breathe. The world ending around him, then returning. His body not reacting to his commands.

He caught the movement of Zabini’s wand, watched one of the pillows on the sofa change into a towel. He flinched when Zabini tossed it over and it landed on his chest.

“Clean yourself up.”

The boy rose to his feet gracefully, robes swishing around his body as he turned like water. He moved with quiet speed, out of the Common Room and up the stairs to the dormitories.

Nott grabbed the towel with a weak hand. He struggled to pull himself into a sitting position, his limbs feeling floppy and useless. He managed to slide back a few feet and slumped, exhausted, against the couch, his whole body aching. His skull was pounding and his throat was on fire, and it felt like his head flopped listlessly when he tried to move it, as though it was too large and heavy for his neck. He glanced down at himself, lips numb and feeling as though they were dangling open.

His eyebrows curved down in a frown as he saw that his robes had been sliced open from top to bottom, the edges burned, as though they had been severed with a hot poker. His trousers, too, were open, the button undone. The crotch of his trousers was soaked.

Theodore swallowed what felt like glass. His penis was bared for all the world to see, hanging in a state of clear satisfaction, cum still leaking from the tip.

He remembered suddenly the feeling of pressure against his crotch, the warmth that filled him. He recalled, too, the feeling of release that came later, and the spasms that had rocked his body, quivering through him. He remembered being unable to still himself.

Bile rose up in his throat and he rolled over quickly. Theodore heaved, his stomach rolling and churning.

He staggered to his feet, fell the first time he tried to walk, and found his balance. He dragged his arm across his mouth, trying to wipe away the taste of sick. His legs were mush and his body ached and the word whore kept echoing through his head in Zabini’s voice.

He glared at the towel in his hand and threw it violently at the couch with a snarl.

Oh, he was going to kill that bastard. He was going to cut off his balls and make him eat them, and he was going to kill him.

Theodore staggered around the Common Room, eyes scanning the floor, the furniture. He even looked in the fireplace. He couldn’t find it. His hands curled into fists, dull fingernails digging into his palms. Of course, Zabini would have taken his wand while he was lying prone and gasping on the floor. The bastard.

He would kill him slowly.

Chapter Text

THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AND DEATH

Chapter XXV

The Skip Back


"WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU'VE BEEN HOLDING BACK IN CLASS?!"

Hermione ignored the wincing of her two best friends as she grabbed Harry's arm and dragged him over to an empty table in the Common Room. At this point, most of Gryffindor Tower, barring the first years and some second years, had grown accustomed to the antics of the Golden Trio, as they were known by many. This included Hermione's penchant for ranting and rushing off to the library in a storm of excited realization.

There was far less storming today, but she made up for it in sheer volume.

Hermione pushed a slightly concerned Harry into a chair and fell into one across from him. She noticed out of the corner of her eye a head of red hair attempting to slink off.

"Ronald!"

With a groan, Ron threw himself into another chair and sighed in resignation.

"Now," Hermione said calmly, folding her hands in front of her on the tabletop as she spoke in a faux calm, "what exactly do you mean you've been holding back in class?"

Hermione had never taken an IQ test. Her parents hadn't agreed that they were a true judge of anything beyond an ability to test well. And anyway, there was no denying that Hermione was intelligent - that had been a fact throughout the entirety of her life. She had begun reading at a very young age and she hadn't stayed with children's books for very long before she moved onto the higher levels. To be fair, she didn't remember much of her younger years and remembered very little of the time during which she was still reading children's books, so Hermione couldn't even say she had a favorite book from her childhood.

The problem with being a child genius like Hermione was that the intelligence develops so much faster than the maturity. This was a large part of the reason that Hermione had never had friends.

She had tried, of course, but while she was reading Beowulf and Homer, other children were playing with clay and learning to write their ABCs. While Hermione was researching reasons why the world ran as it did, from the British government to the rotation of the planets, girls and boys were fleeing from each others' cooties. Hermione had tried to be a part of that crowd, but she'd known her alphabet since she was two and the other children, even young as they were, didn't like a show-off. And she had tried to join in with the girls, but she had tried to understand, from their perspective, how cooties were supposed to exist. After all, Science said…

No one ever wanted to hear what Science had to say.

In the end, she had given it up as a bad job. She had slipped into her books, finding friends in those that dwelled within. She rode on horseback, armored and bearing a sword along King Arthur and his knights. She sailed the seas with Odysseus, marveling at his defeat of Polyphemus. She listened to the song of the sirens, unaffected, of course, because she was a girl, and she was there in the final chapters of Oliver Twist, when her dear friend Oliver finally found a family.

She found it an immense source of irony that her best friend, Harry, had a very similar story to one Oliver Twist. Where one had been a book character who never knew of her existence, however, the other had been a very true friend. Her second friend, the first her own age, and so very special to her. He had stopped being just a friend years ago, become family instead, and Hermione felt as though he was like a brother to her. She never told him this, of course. Hermione, despite her lack of friends, had grown up with two loving parents. While a little eccentric at times, they had been a fierce source of love in her life - something that Harry had never known.

She worried about him. She didn't tell him she felt of him as a brother because how was he to process that? He only had his aunt and uncle to compare to parents, only his cousin to consider as anything remotely similar to a sibling. The Dursleys. A bigger triad of bastards Hermione had never known. She hated them. There was a part of her, a part not so deep down as she would like, that wouldn't flinch at hurting them for all they had done to Harry. They had been dealt with, though. He wouldn't say how, but earlier in the summer, the problem of the Dursleys had been handled. Hermione didn't know what she wished for more - that they could never come back to Britain, or that they'd try.

Punishing a child if he received better grades than his cousin. Bastards. What kind of sick people limited a child's development like that? It was no wonder that Harry did just enough in classes to get by. He'd been conditioned his entire life to do poorly. It was probably only his self-preservation at trying not to be forced back at the Dursleys - or perhaps a bid at receiving as little attention as possible - that kept his grades passing and not dipping down into failure and putting him lowest on the board.

Hermione shoved her textbook into her satchel far more viciously than it deserved. She was so angry! Harry wasn't stupid. She had picked up on that right away. For all his mediocre grades, he was highly observant and capable of making split second decisions and giant leaps of logic and instinct that left even her in the dust. Not that such characteristics spoke well of his homelife. A child being able to read people and make quick self-preservative decisions was a good telltale of a violent homelife.

Why had no one ever seen it before? Did they just not want to?

Harry and Ron were waiting for her in the Common Room when she headed down the staircase. Harry had promised that he was going to try to do his best in class, to not hold back. This issue had already been discussed between Harry, Remus, and Sirius over the summer and they had done what they could to encourage Harry to do better. It was up to him now to break the conditioning.

Hermione knew he could do it. He broke through everything else that had ever tried to beat him. The Dursleys would not win.

It was Monday and that meant their schedules were busy. The trio had been up late talking (or Harry and Ron had been up late being ranted at), and they had decided to have a bit of a lie-in. Since their first class was Divination (a free period for Hermione, since she'd dropped the class third year) and that wasn't until ten o'clock, they had slept in until eight and then got around to head down to breakfast, intent on leaving for class right after the meal.

The three of them walked down together in silence, something that was becoming increasingly normal around them. Where before they would converse as they walked, with Harry unable to participate without his journal or at least being able to read their lips as they moved, Hermione and Ron tended to keep silent until they were at a place where those options were available to him. It seemed such a large thing, but it hadn't been all that hard a decision to make. Harry was an integral part of their group, the glue that held them together. If he couldn't join in, conversations just didn't sound right.

Not that they spoke much at breakfast, at least to start. Ron, as per custom, piled his plate with food and dug in. Harry put some jam on toast and sat nibbling on it, studying the Great Hall's occupants, as Hermione poured herself a cup of tea and mixed some fruit into her oatmeal. They were halfway through the meal when the owls swept in, bearing the Daily Prophet and bad news.

"At least it's not Skeeter," Ron said, when Hermione opened the paper and scowled viciously at the headline before bringing it to their attention.

"I don't recognize the name," Hermione said, before reading the article aloud.

Champion Liar Returns to Hogwarts

by J. Drivelle

September first has come again and with it, a new year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The teachers have again taken their places as masters of learning, passing their knowledge and skills to our youngsters. The students have returned, their minds well-rested and open, ready to absorb all the knowledge offered them, and all of the lies.

Oh yes, dear readers, the lies are a great concern in Hogwarts, for within those hallowed halls dwell more than teachers and students. There also lurks the Hogwarts Champion, winner of the TriWizard Tournament which was hosted the previous year at Hogwarts. A tournament in which a participant died under mysterious circumstances.

Oh, our Champion tells us that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has returned to our world, but we know this to be false. We were not toddlers the day that the creature who once plagued our lives was destroyed. We remember! We remember his reign of terror and we remember his fall.

One questions why. Why does the Champion of Hogwarts insist that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has returned? Why does he insist, with no evidence to support his claim, that it was He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named who killed the poor unsuspecting Cedric Diggory, beloved son and friend to many? Why is it that no one calls out for the truth from the Champion of Hogwarts? Who was it that killed Cedric Diggory?

It wasn't He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. We know this. If it wasn't him, then let us ask the only other person who was there when a poor Hufflepuff fell. Tell us, Champion of Lies, who killed the real Hogwarts Champion? Tell us, Harry Potter, how Cedric Diggory really died.

"The Prophet got a new gossip-liner, I see," Hermione growled, crumpling the paper up into a ball and throwing it at a plate of bacon.

"Hey!" Ron cried, rescuing the bacon. "It's not that bad."

"Not that bad?" Hermione hissed. "Look around!"

They weren't the only ones that had read the Prophet. All around the Great Hall, people were looking up the paper and finding the trio with their eyes. Hermione saw mixed expressions - sorrow at the loss of Cedric, confusion, anger, and then the nodding, quiet words exchanged between people as they discussed the paper, as they agreed with the paper.

"Let's get out of here," Hermione said, getting up from the table. Ron gave his plate of bacon a morose look but got up to follow after Hermione and Harry. A moment later, Neville and Ginny followed. They left the Great Hall buzzing behind them.

"I hate reporters," Ginny grumbled, as the five of them walked down the hall together.

"Me too," Hermione said. "Argh! I thought with Skeeter gone we wouldn't have to deal with this anymore!"

"There will always be some press covering a story," Neville said quietly. "In the Wizarding World, it's not considered immoral to report with a bias, as it is in the Muggle world."

Hermione was about to ask Neville how he knew how the Muggle world worked in comparison to the Wizarding, but she was interrupted by Ron's bitter response.

"It's not like we can do anything against them." His voice dropped to a mutter and Hermione thought he said something that sounded like "Checkmate." She frowned.

"You know," Ginny said thoughtfully, "Luna's father owns The Quibbler. We could talk to him about doing an interview or something."

"No one would believe it. And I'm not just saying that because it's The Quibbler."

Hermione had stopped listening when she heard Ron say "checkmate." Chess. Chess was Ron's game, but Hermione did know how to play. It was all about setting things up, playing three moves ahead of your opponent so no matter what they did, you always had the upper hand.

Briefly, Hermione wondered if Ron had used Chess terminology before in common conversation and she'd just never noticed it or if that was something new. But her mind was more sternly focused on an idea that had begun to form. The press had the upper hand because nearly everyone read the Daily Prophet and the people who worked for the paper wrote what they wanted. Hermione had no illusions that they didn't publish the articles that they did simply for greater readership. Drama sold, and what was more dramatic than bringing back the tragedy of the year before and not-so-subtly calling the Boy-Who-Lived a murderer?

For the second time that day, Hermione heard her own inner voice snarl "Bastards."

But that idea nibbled and gnawed and she found herself wondering if it would work. What the Daily Prophet wrote, the people believed, no matter how outlandish…

"I need to use the toilet," Hermione murmured, slipping away from the group and down the hall to the public restroom on this floor. She felt a sudden spark of relief when she realized which one this was.

The furthest stall in this restroom had an out of order sign on it. It had been there since the middle of third year. Hermione knew this because she had put it there, as well as the Notice Me Not charm that kept professors from making sure whatever was wrong with the toilet was fixed.

Glad that there was no one else in the bathroom, but aware that Ginny might well be following behind, Hermione walked the length of the bathroom and slipped into the last stall. She felt the familiar whispering sensation of a Notice Me Not charm enveloping her. She closed and locked the stall door and turned around to come face to face with herself.

Hermione grimaced at the smile on her other's face. "This never stops being weird."

"Oh, I know," the other Hermione said. "In fact, I knew before you."

"So… does it work?" Hermione asked, nervously playing with the collar of her robes.

Other Hermione grinned that feral little smile she got when she'd found something devilishly good in a book. "Spin back and find out for yourself. Mind Madam Pince, though. Someone ripped out a page from the history section. She's in a foul mood."

With that, Other Hemione unlocked the stall door and slipped out, just as Ginny entered the bathroom, asking if she was there. Hermione remained silent while her doppelganger washed her hands in the sink and chatted idly with the youngest Weasley. She sighed when they both left and she was alone again.

Slipping her fingers under the collar of her shirt, Hermione pulled out the long golden chain she had worn since the beginning of third year, when she had needed to get to numerous classes that occurred at the same time.

Hermione gripped the time turner in her hands and wondered at how far she should go back. It was nearly ten now and her future self would walk with Harry and Ron to Divination before going off to find something else to do. Officially, the library opened at five during this time of the year, although nothing stopped her from sneaking in earlier than that beyond the ire of Madam Pince if she found someone was nosing around her library when she wasn't there to supervise.

Not that such worries had stopped her before.

Deciding not to take a risk with the librarian this early in the term, Hermione spun the time turner back four times.

The world around her blurred momentarily as time rushed around her. She didn't close her eyes, finding the stillness in the center of a temporal hurricane far more disconcerting when she couldn't see, but she tried not to focus too much on the lines of time rushing by. It made her want to be sick.

When the world stopped moving around her, Hermione quietly tucked the time turner back under her shirt, made sure she had everything, and quietly left the bathroom. The halls were empty this early in the morning and Hermione made good use of the bare hallways to move toward the library.

In all honesty, Hermione should not have still had the time turner. It had been given to her at the start of term in third year by Professor McGonagall on the condition that she kept her grades up, didn't abuse the privilege, and the time turner was turned back in at the end of the school year. Hermione had only managed to maintain the first condition, unless you considered her dropping Divination so abruptly as failing her grades, although she hadn't been concerned, considering Professor McGonagall's views on prophecy and its related branches.

When she had used the time turner at the end of the year to take her and Harry back in time enough to rescue Buckbeak and Sirius, Hermione had known that she was breaking the second condition. Even with Professor Dumbledore's permission, the unlawful use of a time turner was punishable by time in Azkaban.

At the time, it hadn't mattered, though. An innocent man was to be given a fate worse than death - a man who had already suffered and who her best friend, Harry, cared about deeply. Even without Professor Dumbledore's permission, Hermione wasn't certain she wouldn't have gone back in time anyway. She couldn't be sure, though. Even then, after everything that had happened that night, she had still been worried about the rules.

The time turner had been marked as returned, Hermione knew, because Professor McGonagall had spoken to her that morning, before the rescue, about returning the time turner that night. She had invited Hermione into her office to remind her that the device needed to be returned. There had been someone else there, but they had been wearing a cloak with a deep hood that shadowed their face, keeping Hermione from even telling if they were male or female. Professor McGonagall had introduced them only as Hermes, a strange choice of name, but that combined with the black cloak lined with what she only realized later were tiny runes sewn into the sleeves like a border, told Hermione that Hermes was an Unspeakable - one of the groups of the Ministry that controlled the distribution of time turners.

Hermione had agreed to return the time turner that evening, somewhat confused about why they weren't collecting it then during the meeting, but not wishing to argue. Hermes had only nodded, never speaking, and marked a book Hermione hadn't noticed before, noting the date and time of the device's return. Hermione had been intending to ask why they were marking the time turner's return when she still had it when they had been interrupted by a floo call from someone who called themselves Mercury, and Hermione had been escorted from the room.

After the term was over and Hermione had been on the train heading home, she had finally realized that she still had the time turner. Professor McGonagall had never come to her asking for it back and she had received no nasty letters from the Unspeakables like she sometimes got from Madam Pince when she got distracted and forgot to return a book on time. In all the fury and panic of Sirius Black's escape, the time turner had been forgotten.

She had fretted about it during the beginning of summer, thinking about going to London to use the owl service to send a message to Professor McGonagall, but every time she went to do it, something happened to interrupt her. Old friends who hadn't been around for years showed up to visit with her parents, her father's brother, who he hadn't spoken with in five years after a massive falling out, turned up with an apology and three little nephews to introduce. Once, a water main had broken in the middle of the road just outside their house and Hermione had been stuck at home because they couldn't get out of the garage. Completely random things, but they kept happening every time she moved to go inform Professor McGonagall.

When her father ended up falling down the stairs and needing to go to the hospital, Hermione had panicked. Instead of doing nothing, of just ceasing her attempts to go to Diagon Alley, she had used the time turner to spin back in an attempt to prevent her father falling down the stairs.

Instead, she ended up causing his fall by accident, the incident reminding her rather forcefully that time turners didn't work the way she had been attempting. It was the first rule of temporal travel: certainty equals immutability.

She had learned more than that, though. Hermione had gone back in time with the time turner, but neither Ministry owls proclaiming underaged magic nor the Unspeakables showed up. She had used magic outside of school and no one knew.

Hermione had resolved that it was a bad idea. She couldn't turn the time turner in without causing bad events to occur, so she wouldn't do that, but she wasn't going to use it, either. It was wrong. She wouldn't abuse it like that because the time turner no longer belonged to her. She would be good.

Her resolve lasted all of three days.

The possibility for knowledge had been too great for Hermione to ignore. She was extremely cautious at the start, nervous that the first use was a fluke and the second one would have wizards portkeying in on top of her. She'd only gone back one hour the first few times, spending that time working on homework assignments in her room while her future self was either elsewhere or distracting her parents. Her attempts became braver, however, the longer she went without drawing attention and by the middle of August, Hermione was spinning back a full twelve hours, spending her days at the library, researching whatever she desired, or going to London and browsing through Flourish and Blotts and wandering Diagon Alley. Once she had stopped trying to go the owl office, the bad events had ceased occurring. Hermione could wander the Alley all day without tripping over her own feet, and there was no way she could give up the time turner on her own merit. Not now. She was addicted to the chance she had before her.

Sometimes Hermione wondered why she wasn't in Ravenclaw.

She had stopped using the time turner at the end of August in preparation for the return to Hogwarts. She didn't want to muck up her journey to the school and once she was there, she waited a couple days, unsure of whether or not she should attempt to use the device while back within the Hogwarts wards. But the temptation was too great to ignore for long and Hermione had spun back, invading the Hogwarts library and spending long hours in her empty dorm room with the curtains pulled around her bed while future Hermione went to classes and lunch and continued on with daily life. Eventually, she'd meet up with her past self and then she would become future Hermione and get to go to classes and learn.

And then the TriWizard Tournament had happened.

After Harry's name had been pulled from the Goblet (and how had none of them seen that coming?), Hermione had spun back in an attempt to discover who had put it there, even though she knew she couldn't prevent it - certainty equals immutability. No matter her attempts at getting to the Goblet, however, she could never do it. The Bad Events had started again, beginning with staircases moving her out of the correct path to walls shifting to her bag's bottom shredding open like wet newspaper to one poor Hufflepuff's sleeve spontaneously catching fire next to her. Leery of someone else falling down the stairs, Hermione had given up her attempts at playing detective and had instead used her ability to spin back to scour the library for information that could help Harry. Spells, curses, hexes, anything she could come up with she wrote down in order to teach him. It was during one of her spin backs in the library that she overheard some Quidditch fanatics talking about the ruination of the Quidditch field by the tournament's stupid maze - their words, not hers. Hermione was by far the furthest thing from an idiot and the only thing you did with a maze was get people lost in it so they had to find their way out. She began scouring the library for some sort of spell to help Harry keep his bearings in the maze, eventually resorting to asking Madam Pince, only to discover there was no such spell.

Knowing that such a spell would be beyond useful, furious that one didn't already exist, Hermione had set out to make one. That was how she spent two weeks spinning back to lock herself behind shielded bed hangings and work out the arithmancy needed. It took her a week and a half alone to get the calculations correct and she surprised herself by linking them with the constellations, but she could see why sailors used the stars to navigate, though she'd never thought she would ever use Astronomy so practically.

In the end, she successfully created the Point Me spell, or Compass Spell, depending on what you used it for. Compass Spell because it would point you North if used basically, but she'd calculated in perspective searching, as well, and that allowed for the Point Me feature, to direct the user to a specific person or thing. It made much more sense for Harry to use the spell to direct him to the TriWizard Cup than simply to supply him a direction. If he really needed that, he'd taken the same classes in Astronomy as she had.

When he'd disappeared from the maze, Hermione had nearly had a breakdown. Her desperation to spin back and do something foolish, likely causing a paradox in the process, was halted only by Professor McGonagall's hand on her shoulder and the briefest of glimpses at a cloaked figure with rune-bordered robes.

There had been no explanations, no questions, but Hermione had been, in that moment, almost completely certain Professor McGonagall knew she still had the time turner. That the Unspeakables knew and were content not to take it from her.

Since then, doubts had surfaced again. She was sure McGonagall had only been offering comfort in that moment, that she couldn't know Hermione had the time turner and not feel obligated to remove it from her. And of course she hadn't seen the Unspeakable. Probably just some kid's parents in a weird cloak.

Then Harry came back, injured, in shock, with Cedric dead and the whole audience in an uproar. He had spent time in the hospital wing but the end of the year seemed to go by so quickly, and suddenly it was summer again and Hermione wasn't sure what to do.

She finished her homework without the use of the time turner, her mind wandering constantly. She'd tried to reassure her parents that she was okay and, when that didn't work, she spoke with them plainly.

Hermione had never lied to her parents. She had never even toned down her stories, with the exception of her crush on Lockhart, because that had been beyond embarrassing considering how big a fraud he turned out to be. Not that her parents didn't see right through that anyway.

They had been disturbed, of course. Hogwarts wasn't as safe a place as they had hoped, but then, they weren't foolish. Magic wasn't all turning things different colors and making trainers smell like roses. McGonagall had tried some little magics like that, cosmetic magic, when she introduced Hermione and her parents to the truth of magic existing, but she had also vanished a table and transfigured a vase into a pig.

Hermione hadn't come by her intelligence from nothing. Both of her parents were geniuses and it didn't take one to realize that if you could vanish a table, you could vanish a person. If you could turn a vase into a pig, it stood to reason you could turn a lamp into a rattlesnake. Magic was just a tool like any other, and Hermione and her parents both realized it could be used as weapon if the wielder chose to do so.

Hermione had been nearly eleven when she received her letter, her birthday too late in the year for her to start until the following, but once Professor McGonagall introduced her to magic, Hermione spent that year learning about it. Books were wonderful things and Hermione, who had always been close with her parents, shared what she learned with them.

If she didn't go to Hogwarts (or another magic school), she could become a danger to herself and those around her. Because untrained magic was naturally unstable, it would grow as she matured and become even moreso. They really didn't have an option to not go, and both of her parents knew that Hermione really wanted to go. Here was a whole new world for her to explore where she might not be as complete an outcast as she was in this one.

And it had been dangerous. Perhaps more dangerous than they had anticipated. Hermione had written home during the year and over the summer told her parents of what had happened, and of her friends, and of the apparent underlying danger that still existed in the Wizarding World, just below the surface.

Hermione confided in her parents that summer after fourth year, about the death of her classmate, Cedric, about the return of the dark lord whose name people feared to speak. About her best friend, Harry, who had the worst luck imaginable.

And about the time turner.

That's when Hermione, who had always been mature for her age, was suddenly in a very adult discussion with her parents about using what she had against those who would seek to harm her or her friends. And then Hermione had started to make some changes.

For starters, it wasn't just about reading and gaining knowledge anymore. Voldemort was back. A classmate was dead. Harry was being actively hunted and it didn't appear that anyone spent much time bothering to help or even believe him, asides from her and Ron, so she would just have to make sure that they were prepared. In short, Hermione started planning for a war, and she used the time turner liberally to get ready for it.

Hermione stepped through the archway that led to the library and saw what her future self had meant about Madam Pince. Her head snapped up like a tiger scenting danger and she looked Hermione over like she was trying to find a reason to ban her from the library for the rest of her time at Hogwarts.

"Bit early for you to be wandering around, isn't it?" she asked sharply.

"I just have some things I needed to look up for an essay, Madam," Hermione said politely, not slowing her walk over to the bookshelves. She heard Madam Pince huff but her lack of verbal response was permission enough. Besides, the two of them had had a sort of working relationship ever since first year, when Hermione spent the majority of her first two months at Hogwarts in classes or the library. Madam Pince wasn't a friendly, approachable woman by any means, but if you showed her and her library respect, she reciprocated. Mostly.

Hermione wandered the bookshelves for a few minutes, just in case Pince was keeping a wary eye on her, stopping and looking at this or that text. After a few minutes, she wandered over to her favorite part of the library. It was a corner blocked off by two shelves of parchment no one ever seemed to have any use for. Hermione had discovered it early in her second year, when she had been scouring the library for answers to the Chamber of Secrets. She began to slip back into this corner when she wanted to be left alone, and eventually, some large pillow had materialized, no doubt thanks to the house elves.

Right, there was another thing she needed to deal with. But not now.

Hermione sat down on the large cushions and settled her bag in front of her. It was loaded up with far too many books, even with the mild expanding charm it had on it, and Hermione was beginning to feel the weight of it again. She appreciated that the shops in Diagon Alley sold such bags, but she wished they weren't so expensive, and offered a bit more room. She had already resolved to charm her own bag, however. She simply needed to get a new one and find the proper charm. So many things to do…

Hermione pulled a small journal and a self-inking quill out of her bag. The journal looked similar to the one that Harry had to help him communicate, but hers was a dark blue instead of black and had a mild Notice Me Not charm on it so people like Draco Malfoy would bother with it if they came across her using it. She also didn't want anyone reading what was in it over her shoulder, as it was full of her plans.

Hermione briefly considered letting Ron and Harry in on what she had planned, but she didn't think that would be a very good idea. Ron, to start, was notoriously bad about keeping his mouth shut when he was angry. While they wouldn't have that problem with Harry - she cringed at the thought - she wasn't sure he would approve. Better to get what she had in mind going and then bring them in later, and ask forgiveness if she needed to. Beg forgiveness.

"It's a good idea," she told herself quietly. Ron was right, the press held all the cards at the moment. They could do an interview with another reporter in a different paper, but it would be reactionary at best and people wouldn't listen to it. No, what they needed was a reporter on their side. Someone who would report what they wanted and needed them to report. The truth. Hermione had yet to meet a reporter like that in the Wizarding World, but she did happen to have a reporter in her pocket.

Or in her magically-expanded bag, to be more precise.


Almost four hours later, Hermione packed up her things and made her way back to the bathroom and into the stall with the out of order sign. She stood there in silence, thinking over what she had worked out in the past few hours, waiting for her past self to show up so she could walk her friends to the Divination classroom.

A few minutes later, she heard the sound of her own footsteps and she walked into the stall, locking it behind her. She took a moment to marvel at her own obvious excitement, her face flushed with the rush of an idea. That look faded for a moment, replaced with a grimace, and Past Hermione grumbled, "This never stops being weird."

"Oh, I know," Hermione said in complete agreement. There was something enormously creepy about watching yourself out of synch with your own body. She suspected the reason that time travelers were not supposed to approach themselves was because some people might get violent and attack themselves on instinct, potentially creating a paradox. If she encountered herself without planning to, without expecting to… Hermione restrained a shiver. "In face, I knew before you."

"So…. does it work?" Past Hermione asked. She was playing with the collar of her robes, no doubt itching to reach for the time turner, that expectant look on her face, eyes burning with excitement and nervousness.

Hermione grinned at the thought of all she had accomplished this morning, aware that her smile was just a little this side of feral. If Skeeter had just agreed to work with her, Hermione wouldn't have needed to go this far, but what's done was done. The Certainty Principle was already at work. There was no going back.

"Spin back and find out for yourself." And get that work done. Can't have me erasing my own accomplishments by not getting it all done in time. Oh, right. "Mind Madam Pince, though." She had been a thorn in Hermione's side this morning, never mind their working relationship. Apparently Hermione had been quiet too long and Pince had come looking for her, worried she was doing something nasty to the books. As if Hermione would ever. "Someone ripped out a page from the history section. She's in a foul mood."

With a final encouraging smile at herself, Hermione slipped out of the stall just in time to encounter an arriving Ginny. The two chatted aimlessly as Hermione washed the scent of beetle from her hands. Ginny had Ancient Runes next and was worried about being able to keep up this year. Hermione offered to lend the younger girl the notes she still had from her previous years. That should help her keep up if she was having problems. Not that Hermione thought Ginny would. She was a lot smarter than her brothers gave her credit for, though like Hermione, Ginny was better at Arithmancy than Ancient Runes. If the two had to test combatively, Hermione was mildly concerned that Ginny would beat her score in Arithmancy. After all, she had created the Bat Bogey Hex before she even started Hogwarts.

I guess I need to practice more on spell creation. Well, I do have those on the list.

The two left the bathroom and rejoined Harry, Ron, and Neville. Hermione was aware that her past self would be spinning back to six o'clock, but that part of her day was over and she put it out of her mind.

While she had been in the bathroom, the topic had been switched from their issues with the Daily Prophet to Quidditch. Ron and Neville, who was a closet supporter of the Falmouth Falcons, were arguing over the best Quidditch tricks. Ron, of course, was taking all of his examples from the Chudley Cannons, who had not had a decent game in years, never mind a decent player to do stunts. Neville, far more knowledgeable about Quidditch than any of them would have given him credit for before the truth came out over the weekend (when he reacted to Ron's exclamation that the Chudley Cannons would have a comeback, just you wait), was taking his examples from any and all teams, with the exception of the Tutshill Tornados, who he disliked because they had a habit of cheating.

Their pace had slowed because Harry had taken out his journal to keep up with the conversation. He was fine with not participating, as, for all his love of playing Quidditch, he knew next to nothing about professional Quidditch, asides from the Chudley Cannons. Thanks to Ron, Harry knew just about all there was to know about the Chudley Cannons.

The friendly argument continued until the four of them reached the Divination Tower, Ginny had waved a farewell as she broke off from them for Ancient Runes. As Hermione had hoped, Lavender was waiting outside the classroom, talking to Pavarti. Hermione walked over to her.

"Morning, Lavender."

"Oh, hello, Hermione," the other girl said. The two had a sort of mild friendship. They weren't really close, but since they lived in the same dorm for the past four years, going on five, they needed to get along, so they chitchat now and then about little things. "What class do you have now?"

"Free period," Hermione said. "I was actually wondering if I could borrow your Hogsmeade catalogue? I need to order some new robes and I know you keep yours updated."

"Oh, sure," Lavender said, smiling. She pulled a thin pamphlet from her bag. "You can give it back to me tonight after dinner."

"Thanks," Hermione said, putting the pamphlet carefully in her bag. "Enjoy class."

She waved to Ron, Harry, and Neville as she left, heading back to the Gryffindor dorms, deciding not to go back to the library and tempt Madam Pince's ire.

When she made it into her dormitory, blissfully empty, she climbed onto her bed and closed the hanging, casting sticking and silencing spells on them. She sat crosslegged in the middle of her bed and took out the pamphlet Lavender had given her. Like most Wizarding catalogues, it looked small, but wasn't.

The catalogue worked by continually flipping it to browse through various products. When you found the type of product you wanted, you flipped the pamphlet upward and the opposing side would show various kinds. You could then specify, flip it upward again, and browse through available products. Hermione had said she needed new robes because she knew wearable fashion would excite Lavender and give her a greater chance of letting Hermione use the pamphlet. As opposed to bags, which Lavender really had no interest in beyond the one she carried to classes.

Hermione tapped the image of a bag on the front of the pamphlet with her wand and flipped it upward. The side she looked down at showed various kinds of bags. Some looked like briefcases, some like messenger bags. There were even ones that had a similar appearance to duffle bags. Hermione caught sight of some smaller bags tied with string which were meant to hook to your belt or the inside of your robes. Small enough to even be a money bag. She tapped that section with her wand and flipped the pamphlet.

In the end, Hermione chose a small drawstring bag woven with multicolored threads in darker shades. She would be able to clip it to the inside of her robes, and no one would need to know it was there even while she charmed it to carry everything she could conceivably think of.

That done, Hermione began to sort through her bag, pulling out everything except her textbooks for Ancient Runes, Transfiguration, and Potions, the three classes she had after lunch. She then put some spare parchment, quills, and ink into her bag and set it to the side.

Taking her extra books, Hermione put them in her trunk, along with the empty unbreakable jar she had used to house Skeeter.

Hermione was glad she had gone against her initial thoughts and not told Harry and Ron about catching Rita Skeeter in her animagus form. She wouldn't have been able to pull this off if they had known Skeeter was under lock and key in her hands. She just hoped it worked out like she was planning.

Performing a quick tempus spell, Hermione realized it was only half after ten. Harry and Ron would make their way back to the tower to drop their Divination book off before heading to lunch, so she had time to get a little reading done.

With a smile on her face, Hermione pulled her Potions book out of her bag and lay on the bed to skim through the potions they would be working on this year. She'd already read through the book, of course, but she didn't have a perfect memory no matter how much she wished. Settling her head against the pillow, Hermione propped the book against her chest and began to read.

She was asleep within ten minutes.


Hermione opened her eyes in the White World. For a moment, she simply stared around, mouth open. Then she grabbed her hair and made a sound in the back of her throat like a snarl as she stomped in rage. "Why did you make us forget?" she shouted, but no one answered her.

She stomped around for a few minutes in anger, but the rhythmic thrumming of Cor wouldn't let her deviate long from her duty. With a harsh sigh, she turned and followed the steady beating, her mind whirling over the trouble this daytime amnesia would cause.

We don't remember while we're awake. Why don't we remember? It's surely Phoenix making us forget but I don't understand the purpose of doing so. How can we prepare if we don't know what's going on?

Hermione ran her hands through her hair in frustration.

What about the things we learn here? How are we supposed to help?

Maybe we're not supposed to. She shook her head sharply, tossing her hair side to side. No, I don't believe that. Voldemort keeps coming after Harry and Ron and I'll be there when he has to face him again. I'll just have to find a way to make us remember.

Arooooooooo!

Hermione staggered to a stop, her heart racing in her chest and the chill of ice settling deep in her stomach. She knew that sound. The howl of a werewolf… she'd never forget it.

""But it's not the full moon," she whispered.

A long-limbed creature, covered with fur and with a long snout appeared over a rise Hermione hadn't realized was there. Its body was riddled with scars and its golden eyes were fixed firmly on her.

Hermione's breath shuddered in her throat.

The werewolf, for it was most assuredly a werewolf, let out another long howl and bolted down the hill in her direction. With a sound in the back of her throat like a whine, Hermione turned and ran, knowing full well even as she tried to put distance between her and the beast behind her that no human could dare hope to outrun a werewolf.

Chapter Text


THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AND DEATH

Chapter XXV

The Team


"You're not focusing enough attention!" Zinnia let out an angry hiss as he leapt from the bed to Harry's end table. "How can you hope to bond if you cannot even focus your mind enough to find me?"

I'm trying! Harry thought loudly. Zinnia had explained that the reason he and Harry could speak mentally even though they weren't yet bonded was because baka neko, like all cats but especially magical cats, had some psychic ability. It was why they were so revered as familiars to witches, and so known to muggles as creatures of less than benevolent intentions. Harry only had to think loudly for Zinnia to catch his thoughts, and the cat, as he explained it, barely had to put forth any effort. His telepathic abilities were simply that strong.

"You've been trying for days now," Zinnia snapped at him. "Your mother managed in an hour what you have yet to even glimpse."

I'm not my mother!

"Clearly!"

Harry stood up abruptly from where he had been sitting on the bed and left the room, nearly running into Ginny, who was coming up the stairs.

"Hey, Harry, I wanted to see if you'd like to go flying for a bit?"

Harry, who had been getting more and more practice reading lips but still struggled quite a bit, managed to catch the gist of what she was asking. He nodded and went back to his trunk to fetch his Firebolt, then headed down toward the Common Room. As he wasn't looking behind him, he didn't see the glare Ginny sent Zinnia, or the way the cat turned around and lifted his tail into the air in a clearly rude gesture. With a huff, the redhead followed Harry down the stairs. They left for the Quidditch pitch together.

It had been a discussion for the night before whether or not Harry would be able to play on the team this year, due to the loss of his hearing. Professor McGonagall had summoned the entire team together in her office and admitted her own sense of uncertainty. Harry wanted to play, that had been made known within the first few minutes by the boy in question, but Madam Pomfrey had expressed her concerns to McGonagall and the Deputy Headmistress had some of her own.

"There's the team itself to consider," she said, her voice less stern than usual. "This is not a decision I feel right making on my own, as I generally allow you all to work things out on your own unless someone expressly comes to me. As you are no doubt aware, a team captain has not yet been chosen for this year."

This hadn't been noticed, as each player had been waiting for the new team captain, taking over the position from the newly-graduated Oliver Wood, to announce a practice or at least a meeting. None of them had considered that no one had yet been named captain.

"As my original choices for captain are no longer available, I would like to leave this decision up to you."

The team members looked around at each other, not certain what they wanted to do.

"Who was your choice, Professor?" Katie Bell asked.

McGonagall looked at Harry. "I was hoping Mister Potter would take up the position, but I'm afraid the role he would need to play would not be well fulfilled considering the circumstances."

Harry nodded, quickly writing in his journal "I don't know that much about Quidditch or making plays, anyway." Even if he had been able to speak and hear as well as he had the year prior, he didn't think he would have been comfortable in the position.

The Chasers revealed that all three of them would be busy this year with classes and testing and not all that comfortable with the idea of adding the Quidditch captaincy on top of it. McGonagall reluctantly looked at the twins, who both grinned eerily, before laughing.

"We're a bit like Harrikins in this," George said.

"Don't know about making plays too much."

"We just fly about-"

"-and smack a couple of balls around."

McGonagall, ignoring the gailing laughter of the twins, tried not to show her relief at avoiding handing either of them the captaincy. Unfortunately, that didn't leave them with any choices.

"We still need a new Keeper," Angelina pointed out. "Fred, didn't you say your brother's a fair Keeper?"

"Bit more than fair," George admitted. "Ronniekins has the makings of being a better Keeper than Oliver."

"Plus he knows more about Quidditch than anyone I've ever known," Fred added.

"And far too much about the Chudley Cannons."

McGonagall grimaced. "His horrible taste in professional teams aside, I'm wary of giving your brother the captaincy while he also holds his position as Prefect. Especially considering that his appointment to Prefect was an attempt to see if he can't be drawn into a higher standard of learning."

Fred and George shared a long look between them, appearing to Harry as though they were having a conversation that required no words. It took a moment before the two of them turned back to McGonagall with startlingly serious looks on their faces.

"Ron's seemed to have a bit of a change of heart-"

"And mind, dear brother."

"Yes, of course. He seems to have had a change of heart and mind this year, Professor. He's always been a bit lazy, we'll admit, but this summer he took far less prompting to finish his homework than he ever has before and to be honest…"

"Something's changed," George continued. "We're not entirely sure what prompted it, but he seems to have matured over the summer."

"Bit disappointing, really."

"I do agree."

"Boys," McGonagall interrupted.

"Right."

"What we're trying to say, Professor, is that if you give Ron a chance-"

"-he just might surprise you."

McGonagall nodded slowly. "I'll take that into consideration." She turned to Harry. "Our concerns for your safety are genuine, Mister Potter, so if the team agrees that they still want you to play, and if you're confident that you can without anymore harm to yourself than there was previously, and less so if you can manage it, Madam Pomfrey and I have agreed to give you a test. This Saturday, the entire team will be brought out to the Quidditch field to face a test to see if it is safe for you to continue to play. During that time, you may also test any Keepers who wish to sign up for the position. I will personally be placing a sign in the Common Room. Do you have any questions?"

Harry had been out flying a few times with Ginny, Ron, and even the twins. When Harry, Ron, and Ginny were all occupied, Hermione would often sit in the stands with a book while they were flying. Harry felt at peace astride his Firebolt, zipping through the air at insane speeds, making sharp turns and tearing across the Quidditch field. As much fun as he had, and as much ease with which he flew, Harry failed to take into consideration the additional dangers Quidditch offered. For that reason, he was completely unprepared when Saturday dawned bright and clear, the weather perfect for flying, and the test proceeded as planned, where he was deemed unfit to play.

"I'm sorry, Mister Potter," McGonagall had said, shaking her head, "but without the ability to detect the bludgers, it's just not safe."

Harry was walking briskly back toward the castle, trying to contain his disappointment. He was gripping his Firebolt tightly, as though not being able to play Quidditch might result in the broom being taken away from him. He was unaware of his friends chasing after him, Ron calling his name uselessly, until the redhead grabbed his shoulder and Harry jerked around, startled.

Ron was talking, but he was talking too fast for Harry's mediocre ability to read lips to be of any use. He felt a rush of self-pity, wondering what else would be taken away from him, and then anger at Uncle Vernon for doing this to him. But that faded too and Harry was left with stinging eyes and blurry vision as he tried to wipe the tears away before anyone else noticed. Ron had stopped talking and Harry looked at him as he replaced his glasses.

"I'm not playing."

Harry's eyes went wide. That, he had read clearly on Ron's lips. He mouthed "Why?," certain that it would pass clearly.

Ron shook his head and reached for Harry's journal, which he passed over. In his sloppy script, Ron wrote "Why would I want to play without my best friend?"

Harry grabbed the journal back. "Ron, you have to play. I know you want to."

"No, I bloody well don't!" Ron shouted, before Harry had even handed the journal over.

Frustrated that he couldn't respond verbally, that he had to write everything down and so delay it, Harry scribbled in his journal as words appeared in a script he wasn't completely familiar with.

"Hey, I have an idea."

Harry turned, confused, to find Ginny coming from the direction of the castle. In her arms was a very unhappy Zinnia, the baka neko's ears pinned flat to its head and its long tail slashing back and forth through the air.

"Now," Ginny's script appeared across the journal, "if you can't be nice, you can at least be useful."

"Despicable human girl!" Zinnia hissed.

"Whoa!" came Ron's voice, echoing in Harry's mind and his eyes widened. "How can I hear him?"

"Baka neko are telepathic," Ginny's voice informed. "Which means he can act as a link between our minds and let us all talk like this."

"Don't get used to it," Zinnia snarled. "Cats never do this for humans. You want something like this, then learn how to do it yourself!"

"Be nice," Ginny said, squeezing the cat a little tighter, "or I'll give you a bath."

Zinnia let out a huff but they continued to be able to hear each others' voices. "What did you mean learn it yourself?" Hermione asked.

Harry, however, didn't think that was important right now. He turned to his best friend. "Ron, you have to play on the team. You're the best Keeper that tried."

"I'm not playing without you. It's bollocks you can't play!"

"Ronald! Language!"

"Ron, I… I can't hear the bludgers," Harry said. "The only reason I wasn't knocked off my broom was because Fred was watching me like a hawk. If he hadn't intercepted that bludger, I'd be in the Hospital Wing, and this was just a practice! In the middle of the game, they can't watch me like that. And- And I can still fly." He hefted his Firebolt. "We'll just have to take time to fly around sometimes, and I can watch the games. Maybe…" He shook his head. "I don't want to lose Gryffindor the House Cup because I needed Fred or George to guard me. I'm okay with it."

He wasn't, not really. Oh, he wanted Ron to play, he wasn't lying about that, but he really wanted to play too. He'd been on the team since first year, the only year he couldn't play being the previous, but he had expected that he'd be back to Quidditch this year and now…

Just once he'd like to gain something that didn't come at a huge cost, but having Ron so outraged on his behalf that he didn't want to play on the team… it was selfish but it made Harry feel better. And he knew he'd feel even better if Ron played and helped Gryffindor take the House Cup this year. He wouldn't be alone just watching, anyway.

"Besides, McGonagall's thinking about making you Team Captain."

Ron's eyes went wide. "What?!"

"Yeah." Harry grinned. "''Course, you'll have to keep your grades up and take your Prefect duties seriously, but Fred and George said you'd matured this year and she should give you a chance to prove it."

Ron stared at Harry, as though waiting for the catch, because surely Fred and George were using Harry to prank him, but Harry's smile was sincere.

"The captaincy…" Ron swallowed. "Are you sure, Harry? Because if you're not… if you don't want me to play, I won't."

"I want you to play, Ron. I want you to be the best Keeper that Gryffindor House has ever seen."

"I think I can do that. Thanks, Harry."

Harry smiled. "You bet, Ron. Let's go talk to McGonagall, all right?"

McGonagall was mildly disappointed in Ron for rushing off in the middle of her talking to him, but his reasoning became clear and she didn't take points. She spoke to him about the captaincy, the others standing some distance away to offer privacy, but surreptitiously reading the conversation in Harry's journal. They'd decided to keep the neat trick of mind linking through Zinnia a secret, although Hermione's mind was only very vaguely on the journal as she considered what branch of magic could help them communicate despite Harry's disability.

When Ron came back to join them, he was very nearly skipping.

"I'm Captain," he hissed fiercely through the link. "Bloody hell!"

Hermione, too deep into her considerations, or leaving off him in a sort of quiet congratulations, didn't reprimand Ron for his language. Harry and Ginny offered their own congratulations.

"Ginny," Ron said, turning to his little sister, his face a mask of seriousness that would later be known as his Captain Face, "are you going to try out for Seeker?"

Ginny looked at Harry, uncertain. Rather than jealous, however, he appeared interested. "You play Seeker?"

"I'm a better Chaser," she admitted.

"All right, enough!" Zinnia shouted, interrupting Ron's claims about Ginny's Quidditch abilities. "I'm not going to be the reason for this useless conversation continuing. Put me down and find someone else to maul!" He kicked his rear paws, scratching Ginny's arm. With a cry, she dropped him and he bolted for the castle.

"Ow," Ginny muttered, bending her arms up so she could see the deep scratches. Blood began to run down her arms and she pulled her rolled-up robe sleeves down and pressed them tightly to catch the blood. "I'm going to the Hospital Wing."

I'm sorry, Ginny, Harry tried to say, but the link was gone. He signed the apology quickly but she flapped her hand in dismissal.

"Not your fault. When are Seeker tryouts, Ron?"

Her brother's eyes widened. "Right. Um… I'll put a sign up, yeah? I have to go talk to the team. Will you…"

"I'll be fine. Go, go." She waved him off.

Harry grinned at his friend and moved over by Ginny, signifying that he would be going with her to the Hospital Wing.

Ron's shoulders eased slightly and he nodded. Hermione, who had been very quiet while she was thinking, grabbed Ron's arm. "Come on, Captain. You have to talk to your troops." She waved at Ginny and Harry, who shared a grin as she led Ron back to the Quidditch team. Harry and Ginny headed off to the castle to get Ginny's arms fixed up.


Harry was trying very hard to be happy for Ron, he really was. He even hoped Ginny would do well in the Seeker tryouts on Tuesday. He wanted Gryffindor to win the House Cup, but Harry also wanted to be the one to catch the Snitch.

He was sitting by the lake, arms wrapped around his knees. He wanted to be happy for his friends. It was great that Ron was Captain. Harry didn't want that job. And he was glad that he had made Keeper - he had been the best of the three applicants. Ginny was small and quick on a broom, two characteristics that made a good Seeker. Harry couldn't think of anyone else that he would rather take the spot, but he didn't think he could go to tryouts and watch people try out for the spot he'd been playing since first year.

Harry ran his hands through his hair and pressed his forehead against his knees. Why? Why couldn't he hear? He knew Uncle Vernon had beat him badly, but why did it have to affect his hearing? If it was just his voice, Harry could deal with it. He didn't need to talk.

He lifted his arms in front of his face, watching as his hands shook with intermittent tremors. He felt the sting behind his eyes as tears slid down his cheeks. What was wrong with him? Why couldn't Madam Pomfrey, who had been able to fix everything before, not be able to fix this?

What was he going to do now? He couldn't play Quidditch. He couldn't speak. He couldn't hear. Any chances he'd had of being an Auror were gone now. If he couldn't play Quidditch because he couldn't hear the Bludgers coming, they'd never let him go up against dark wizards. What was he supposed to do?

Harry wiped the tears from his cheeks and wrapped his arms back around his knees, shivering from more than just the shaking of his hands.


Sirius stared gloomily out of the window from his perch on top of the kitchen table. He had pushed the table through the living room and up against the largest window in Remus' quaint cottage so he could sit comfortably on its surface and gaze outside. It did little to shake his morose thoughts.

It was so damn quiet in this house!

He'd tried to keep himself busy, but there was only so much he could do. Remus didn't spend a great amount of time in this cottage, so while there were books (of course there were books, this was Remus), they weren't up to date and many of them were old school texts that he had kept and which Sirius had already read. He'd conjured himself a record player in an attempt to fill the house with music but his thoughts simply overrode his hearing and he found himself slipping back in time to days gone by and losses long lost.

Remus didn't have a television and Sirius didn't know enough about the internal components of one to perform a conjuring spell. He'd tried talking to himself but that just made him sound crazy, and nervous because he sounded crazy, and he'd stopped.

Gripping his hair in his hands, Sirius looked at the calendar on the wall. Time was up for the potion and Remus would be coming to meet him. He'd said not to leave until he got back and Sirius was fine to wait, he was fine. The cupboards were stocked and maybe he could reread Remus' sixth year charms text. That would keep him busy while he waited for Remus to finish up talking to Dumbledore about whatever happened in the Realm of Dreams and then he would come to the cottage and they could… do whatever. Sirius didn't care what, so long as there was someone else here to talk to.

It was just too damn quiet in this house!


Kingsley Shacklebolt believed in doing what was needed to keep the world on this side of hell. There was no stopping the world from going to shit. Too much greed, too much hate, a whole slew of people who were sure they knew how the world should be working and who would do anything to make it into the world they believed was right. Kingsley would never admit to knowing what was right, but he knew what was wrong. Murdering people who couldn't defend themselves was wrong. Standing idly by while people murdered innocents who couldn't defend themselves was wrong. Working for a vigilante group to combat people who murdered defenseless innocents was probably wrong, he was willing to admit, but when a massive war killed so many people and there was evidence that it wasn't over yet, just postponed…

Sometimes you had to do the wrong thing to do the right thing.

Albus Dumbledore was a good man trying to do the right thing, but Kingsley was aware that he had faults. Albus didn't trust other people to know as much as he did. He didn't trust them with the information that he had on hand and so he told them only what he thought they needed to know in order to get them to do what he needed them to do. Albus Dumbledore was a man playing a game of chess and everyone around him was a piece he was manipulating. He cared about them, of that Kingsley was sure, but he manipulated them just the same. It was perhaps worse because he cared about them, and because that made people care about him.

Kingsley shared information that he got from his job as an Auror with the Order of the Phoenix. What Albus didn't know was that Kingsley shared the information he gained from the Order with his superior, Amelia Bones.

The Order of the Phoenix wasn't quite as secret as Albus Dumbledore thought it was.

"It's nice to see you back, Shacklebolt," Director Bones said from behind her large oak desk. She folded her hands on the desk in front of her. "Did you enjoy your vacation?"

Kingsley smiled tightly. "I spent it sleeping."

"Indeed. I'm surprised to see you. You weren't due back until Monday."

"Perhaps I missed you," he said as he sat down.

Director Bones laughed, a sound that the majority of her aurors would be surprised to hear, but she and Kingsley went way back.

"What do you have for me?"

"The majority of those who took the potion for Albus Dumbledore have awoken."

"The majority?" Amelia asked. "Not all of them?"

"It appears that there were some complications. Remus Lupin has not yet woken. It is believed that his lycanthropy has somehow interfered with the potion and locked him in a comatose state.

"William and Charlie Weasley and Severus Snape are awake, for the moment. The potion reacted adversely to their Occlumency abilities and left them with a narcoleptic reaction. They're waiting a few days to be certain they aren't still affected before releasing them back to their jobs."

"My niece will be happy to hear that," Amelia said. "I've heard horror stories about Severus Snape's teaching methods."

Kingsley chuckled. "Having met him, I daresay they're not exaggerated. The man's skills as a Potions Master are unparalleled, but he has the worst social skills I have ever seen. Why Dumbledore believes he's a fit man to be put in charge of children, I will never know."

Amelia hummed in agreement, leaning back in her seat. "All that aside, how did the actual mission go?"

"With varying results. Whatever we were meant to find, I saw nothing." He shook his head. "I didn't even encounter anyone. The same wasn't reported by the others, though. We were meant to be facing up against Voldemort's lackeys?"

Amelia nodded that she remembered him telling her this before.

"Some of the others admitted to running afoul of not only a known Death Eater, but also a second individual."

Amelia sat up straight in her seat. "There's a third party we were unaware of?

Kingsley nodded. "No one could place faces to anyone that we might know. Worse still, Dumbledore looked flabbergasted when he was told. Whoever else is working on finding these artifacts, we don't know a thing about them, what their aim is, or…"

Amelia rubbed her face tiredly with a hand. "Or whose side they're on."

Chapter Text


THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AND DEATH

Chapter XXVI

The Sword


The world was a prison of silence.

Draco was no stranger to the quiet. Malfoy Manor was large and it was not rare that he was left alone with only the elves for company whilst his parents paraded themselves about social functions.

The house elves had known better than to speak around him, so more often than not, Draco had found himself amongst silent halls. He would not say that he had grown accustomed to it. One does not become accustomed to the unnatural quiet, to being completely alone. Humans were not meant for such confinement, even if the walls that imprisoned them were made of silence.

Sometimes, when it became too much, too quiet, Draco would knock the books from the shelves in the library - the ones that screamed when the pages were bared. The ones filled with the sounds of children sobbing and men yelling. He would punish a house elf or two, just to hear their cries as they beat themselves. Anything to make some noise, to make the house sound less empty.

He remembered it was better to punish the younger house elves - the newer ones. The old house elves that had been with them for years were quiet when they punished themselves. It was the ones who hadn't learned their place yet that were the loudest. Draco remembered one house elf in particular. It had been his father's house elf and he didn't remember the creature's name, but he never failed to grunt and squeal every time it hit itself in the head or shut its fingers in a door.

But even that hadn't always been enough. Or maybe it hadn't been the right kind of noise. More than once, Draco had been on the receiving end of a lecture from his father for flying his broom in the mansion. The lectures had always been worse following him having knocked some precious, expensive artifact to the floor and breaking it. After standing in front of his father throughout the lecture, it was hard to imagine that the mansion had ever been quiet.

Draco had done a fair bit of flying through the house while his parents were away.

This world was different. It was hard to imagine any sound had ever existed in this world, with Afa ringing in his ears. It was not a quiet, but an emptiness. The sound of a nothing so strong that it drew everything else into it and made that a nothing, too.

It frightened him.

A large part of Draco wanted to leave this strange world. He wanted to fall asleep in his bed with a dream in his head of winning the House Cup, of his father's proud glance, his mother's soft smile. He didn't want to be here, wandering through another world, on a search that pitted him against Voldemort and Dumbledore both. As if he didn't have enough trouble deciding where he should stand.

He didn't want to be a part of this… this quest. It was too much. He'd heard of Potter and his friends facing up against monsters - the Hogwarts rumor mill was never silent, especially about Gryffindor's Golden Trio. He'd never believed them, though. People liked to talk about it, but most people hadn't believed.

But here he was, facing a reality he'd never thought possible. If everything the rumor mills had said was true, Potter could sue the school and ask for anything. He could be Headmaster. He could own Hogwarts.

Draco had always thought that he wanted the fame Potter had. He'd always been jealous. But if this was the sort of thing that he had gone through every year since coming to Hogwarts, Draco didn't want any part of it. He didn't even want what he was doing now. He wanted to go home. He wanted his mother to be there. He wanted things to go back to the way they had been before.

Draco sighed. He walked on.


The Realm of Dreams was only occasionally a land of white for Neville.

When he woke there first in the White Room where the others appeared, Neville saw nothing but white around him, and the barren expanse had continued while he traveled with the Weasley twins.

But they had disappeared now, or perhaps they weren't asleep at the moment, and that meant that Neville was alone. And when Neville was alone, the white of the world disappeared and Neville began to see people.

They weren't actually there, yet they were. Images, like photographs, would appear alongside him as he walked, slightly blurred as though by age. They were colored, but the colors were more subdued than those he could see in reality – the color of his own skin was much brighter than that of the people he could see. As he walked, the images would start to move, but unlike wizarding photographs, he would hear the sounds associated with what was happening, as though he were watching one of those picture boxes that the muggles had.

The people in the scenes weren't always the same. In fact, they were often never the same, but as the people changed, so did the style of clothing they were wearing and the tools around them. Time progressed forward.

The only thing that remained the same was the sword.

It was a long weapon and Neville was sure it must be heavy. The blade was silver in color and seemed to refract every tiny ray of light that touched it. The rain guard (a small part of the hilt in front of the crossguard that overlapped the blade) of the sword was embedded with a crimson jewel that shone in the light. From what Neville could see, there was one on both sides of the sword, placed in mirror of the other.

The crossguard, a horizontal part of the hilt behind the rain guard that protected the hands that would be folded around the grip of the sword, was a shining silver on the out- and underside, but red in the center of the top, which faced the blade. It was still quite shiny where it was red, and so clearly still metal, but the color contrast seemed significant.

The grip of the sword was thick and long, obviously meant to be held in two hands instead of just one. Neville didn't know a great deal about swords, but he had grown up in a pureblooded family and thus had heard the old tales of wizard princes rescuing damsels and claiming them in marriage for their troubles. Because of these stories, he was able to place the sword as being a Claymore, due to the length of the blade and hilt. The grip was a dark black in color, striking in the fact that it seemed to shine as though projecting a light from within. It was rather odd, actually.

The pommel of the sword, a round base that sat beneath the grip, was as silver as the blade on the outside, but the inside of the metal sphere was transparent, glittering, catching every ray of light and reflecting it better than the shining blade. After a while, Neville recognized that it was a diamond, perfectly crafted into the exact center of the pommel of the sword.

The person holding this blade changed frequently. Sometimes it was a tall man wearing a brown long-coat with long, windswept locks. Other times it was a shorter man with close-cropped white hair and a scarred face. Once he had even seen a woman, her hair golden and flowing down her back, eyes shining ethereally, staring at him as though she could see right through him. The person changed continuously, but they all asked him the same thing.

"Will you take up the sword?"

And each time he was asked, the whispers would start again.

He heard them constantly, murmuring in his ear constant truths, keeping him awake at night or haunting him as he walked the halls on his way to class. They were words he had heard spoken at one time or another and never forgotten, because they were not the sort of words that could be forgotten. Every word was like a blade itself, tipping the tongues of the people in his life that should never want to hurt him, but who were so adept at it.

"Madame Longbottom, your grandson is barely more than a squib." A mediwizard had come to the manor to give him an annual check-up two summers before he turned eleven. He had scanned Neville with his wand as he had every year before that, and turned to his gran to inform her that Neville was little more than an embarrassment to the Longbottom name.

"I don't imagine he has enough magic to be accepted to Hogwarts."

"Surely there must be something you can do," his gran said, her voice still stern but radiating disappointment. "I know he'll never be half the wizard his father was, but surely you can do something to assure he gets an acceptance letter."

"I am sorry, Madame Longbottom. Were his lack of magic due to an illness or accident, I could give him some potions to help him regain what has been lost. This is not due to an outside force. Your grandson simply doesn't have enough magic. I am sorry, but there is nothing I can do."

Neville pulled back his hand from where it had been reaching for the hilt of the blade. He closed his eyes and turned away. No, he couldn't take up the sword. He wasn't strong enough.

He wasn't worthy.

He glanced back in time to see the disappointed look on the face of the man who had been holding it, before the man vanished in a swirl of smoke and disappeared.

The sword clattered to the ground where he had been standing and lay there, waiting for someone to pick it up.

Neville turned and walked away.

The next person who would fashion the blade, sharpen it, and make it better was due to appear. They would take up the sword.

They were worthy.


Neville woke up all at once.

He stayed still for a long moment, listening. The only sounds that came to him were the snores of his dorm mates, and he released a quiet sigh at the realization that he was in his dormitory and not in his room at Longbottom Manor.

Blinking his eyes open, he wasn't surprised to see that the curtains surrounding his bed were dark, revealing that the sun hadn't risen yet. He idly wondered what time it was, but it didn't really matter.

Sitting up, he quietly pushed his curtains aside and padded out of bed, across the dormitory floor, careful to not bump into anyone's nightstand or trip over shoes or robes left lying about. He didn't want to wake anyone else up.

The Common Room was still and silent, the fire in the hearth having burned down to mere coals that gleamed eerily in the darkness. Neville made his way over to the fire and found one of the iron pokers hidden to the right of the hearth. He prodded the hot coals, shifting ash around, and didn't jump when two fresh logs appeared with a quiet crack, settling in the racks and quickly catching flame. House elves could always be counted on to know the simple things people hoped for.

The poker lying across his knees rather than returned to its holder, Neville settled crosslegged on the floor in front of the fireplace. He wasn't allowed to sit like this at home. At Longbottom Manor, one sat in a chair, back straight, head up, feet flat on the ground. One did not slouch, one did not cross his legs or his ankles, and one did not sit on the floor like a dog.

Neville smiled into the flames that flickered lazily across the two logs, merrily burning them at an easy pace. He liked it at Hogwarts.

Neville loved his gran – she had raised him and taught him well – but it was nice sometimes to be out from under her ever-watching eyes. After a while, the continuous staring, the unimpressed noises that told him he was doing something wrong, the looks of disappointment, and the low expectations all became too much for him to handle.

The fact of the matter was, Augusta Longbottom wanted Frank, her son. She didn't want Neville.

He sighed and leaned back against the leg of a chair, gazing sadly into the flames. Knowing that, and being accustomed to it, didn't make dealing with it any easier. Because no matter how hard he tried, he would never be Frank.

He'd always be Neville.

Just Neville.


"Do you have any idea why it didn't work properly?"

Severus Snape shook his head from where he sat at the table, nursing a cup of tea. "I couldn't say for certain. I utilized my notes from when I created the Wolfsbane potion to help make adjustments to suit the Lycanthropy, so it should have kept him only for the seven days." He took a tentative sip of his tea, burning his upper lip. "However, I obviously made a miscalculation with myself as well as the elder Weasley children. I was acting on the physicality of the wolf, not the mentality."

Dumbledore sat down across from his Potions Master, nursing his own cup. "You said you cannot say for certain. You have a theory."

He didn't answer right away. Snape watched the steam curl up from his cup and thought about the effects the Slumber of Ages potion had had. He, Charlie Weasley and William Weasley remained confined to Headquarters. William was in the library last he was made aware, and Charlie was sleeping in one of the guest bedrooms, having collapsed during dinner.

It happened without warning. They fell asleep, pulled back into the Realm of Dreams, where they continued walking through a strange world that changed its shape at a moment's notice. Severus himself had wandered through castle, wasteland, and a place of shadows that looked suspiciously like the park he had spent time in as a child. He suspected others had faced different settings, but didn't know if they had found any of them linked to their own pasts or if he was grasping at ghosts, trying to find life.

Lupin was the only one who remained asleep, practically comatose and showing no signs of waking. Pomfrey had stopped by at some point and performed spells to keep him hydrated and cleaned up, so they didn't need to fuss with constantly emptying his bowels. The only concern was routinely giving him a nutrient potion so the wolf didn't starve to death, but Dumbledore had called in one of the Hogwarts house elves for the task.

Severus glanced back at his tea, not realizing his eyes had wandered away, and noted that the curling steam had finally given up. He took a sip of the lukewarm drink and sighed appreciatively. A mild calming draught did wonders for frayed nerves. He should start implementing a regimen during times he was forced to teach.

"I suspect," he said, lowering the cup back to the table, "that it has something to do with the Dark Lord choosing to use Greyback in his ritual."

Dumbledore leaned back slightly, which was manipulative-old-man language for "I'm very interested but I'm not saying anything so I appear aloof and mysterious." Severus narrowed his eyes but went on.

"Wolves are pack animals, after all. They no doubt call to each other in the Realm, helped along by who they are to each other."

"I doubt Remus would have any desire to run with the man who bit him."

Severus sneered at the word "man" being used to describe a werewolf. "I doubt that matters. They are werewolves and who knows what the Realm has done to their heads. I still haven't determined why Lupin didn't change on the Full Moon."

That had been a huge shock. They'd had chains ready to hold the wolf down while he was in his transformed state, but when the full moon rose he had never shifted. There was no explanation for it other than the potion somehow managing to affect him to the point of nullifying the disease's effects. Severus would have to go over the ingredients. Perhaps he could surpass his own prowess in the creation of the Wolfsbane Potion by crafting a cure. He would certainly sleep better at night knowing the beasts weren't running around biting people.

"You could be right, my boy," Dumbledore said. "I suppose we won't be certain until Remus wakes up, and perhaps not even then." He sighed. "Ah, life's great mysteries."

Severus rolled his eyes.

"Well, I must be getting back to the school. I left a letter from Cornelius unanswered concerning his desire for Dolores to evaluate all of the professors during their teaching hours. Once you return to Hogwarts, I'll have to have you set up an appointed time with her." He turned to bid Severus farewell, only to find the man facedown on the table.

Albus Dumbledore sighed. Potions mishaps could be much worse than this, but as far as annoyances went, this was right up there with running out of lemon drops.


"Will you take up the sword?"

Neville stared at the hilt of the blade. The man holding it out to him was dressed in dark brown robes with narrow sleeves with the ends singed from the forge he had been using. His hair was dark and pulled back tightly, tied with a ribbon into a ponytail at the nape of his neck. He had a Van Dyke beard that included a large, fluffy moustache that curled up slightly at the corners. It might have looked ridiculous on another person, but it seemed to fit the man perfectly.

The dark green eyes that gazed out of the memory were bright with life and stared directly at him, and the expectant look on the man's face was not an illusion of Neville's mind. He waited with the same patience the others had shown for Neville to take the sword, and once again, Neville considered it.

How easy would it be to step forward and grasp the hilt? How simple a task.

Neville took a step forward, hand reaching.

"Madame Longbottom, surely you can't be serious!"

Neville's hand jerked back as though from the heat of the forge's flames and not the ready hilt of the sword.

"I have no reservations, Claudia. He is the only child of my son and I am his guardian. I have every right to decide what to make of his future."

"But a muggle orphanage? The boy cannot be completely lacking in magical talent, he is of Frank's blood. What happens when he begins showing signs?"

"That will hardly be my problem if I am rid of it now." His gran's voice was crisp and direct, as it always was. The familiarity did nothing to stem the ache in Neville's heart. She was sending him away.

She was sending him away because he was worthless.

"Don't you think you might be making a mistake? Augusta, he's your grandson!"

"My great grandfather swore upon the soul of his late wife that we would never have a squib in the family and I shan't break his promise to her for pity's sake. We'll not have a squib in the family, whether I have to take him to the orphanage or drop him down a—What was that?"

A great rattling sound was coming from the kitchen. It sounded like all of his gran's china dishes shaking in the glass cabinet, and Neville didn't fancy hearing whoever it was causing the problem get the sharp end of his gran's whipping tongue. He stood from his hiding spot on the stairs and quickly retreated to his room, where he would be out of reach of his gran's voice.

He never did figure out why she hadn't sent him to an orphanage.

Neville's lip quivered and his eyes burned. He clutched his hand to his chest as though it were wounded and he refused to look at the blade still held before him.

"Will you take up the sword?"

He squeezed his eyes shut tighter still to keep out the offending sight of that damnable blade. But no matter how many times he was asked, he never said no.


When Neville woke up in the Realm, he was alone again. He hadn't seen the Weasley twins since they had told him they were going to travel with him for as long as they could and help him find his artifact. After he had woken up that time (and forgotten completely about the Realm, because he forgot everything), he hadn't seen them again. He didn't know if they simply weren't sleeping at the same time as he was or if the world he was in was fixing it so they weren't together.

He hoped it was one of the two. Neville hated the idea that they had realized he wasn't worth wasting time on, even though he knew it was true.

"You won't take up the sword, will you, son?"

The voice was familiar from pensieve memories, but too impossible, and Neville spun on his heel, hopeful and despairing at once.

Frank Longbottom stood behind him, healthy, whole, but with a sad smile on his face as he stared at his son.

"Dad?" Neville asked, his voice cracking on a dream.

"Hey, Nev," Frank said, standing in front of a workbench Neville hadn't noticed was there a moment ago. In fact, now that he looked, his father was standing in the center of the workshop he had seen in his every vision. And like all the others, the sword was in his hands.

Frank held it by the hilt, however, loosely, the tip resting on the ground.

Neville frowned, his eyebrows crinkling in confusion. He looked back up at his father's face. "I don't… why are you here?"

"Because you need me to be," Frank said, leaning his hip against the workbench and regarding Neville with eyes that seemed to stare right into his soul. "You won't let any of the others speak to you, so I came. I told them they should have let me come from the start. You didn't know them and your mother always told you not to talk to strangers." He flashed a teasing grin, but it faded slightly when Neville didn't return the gesture.

"Mum never told me that. You were gone by the time I would have needed to know—"

"Even one-year-olds need advice sometimes, Nev." Frank's voice was soft, reassuring and admonishing at once. "Your mother wanted to cram all the information she could into your poor head in as short a time as possible. I think she wanted to speed up the learning process so you'd have more time to play Quidditch, but she would never admit how addicted she was to the game. It's a sickness, you know." He grinned at Neville, and this time, the boy's lips did quirk up into a smile.

"There we are," he said, pleased. "I was wondering where you'd gotten to, Neville. You were such a happy baby. It's hard to see you sad all the time."

"You don't—"

"Just because we can't respond when you come to visit us doesn't mean we don't know you're there. It's hard to explain, how separate our minds are from our bodies. We're always aware of your presence, Neville. It's… comforting." His smile had turned sad. "But don't let us hold you back, us or anyone else. You have such potential, Neville. You need to realize that."

Neville looked down, shaking his head. He crossed his arms over his chest and tried to fight the tears, but they came anyway. "I tried to be like you, Dad, but I can't. I'm not good enough."

Frank huffed. "You'll never be like me, Neville. Stop trying to follow your grandmother's stories."

The tears slipped down his cheeks and he wanted so badly to run away.

"Neville."

He sniffled, but dutifully raised his head. Frank had shifted his grip on the blade and held the hilt out to him.

"Will you take up the sword?"

"I can't."

"That isn't an answer. I don't want to know whether or not you can. I want to know if you will. When the time comes, when you're needed, when only you can stop it all from happening, will you take up the sword?"

Neville stared at his father and wondered at the words. He wanted to ask a million questions. He wanted to know if his father was really here or if this was a trick of his mind. He wanted to know if Phoenix was just playing games with him, or giving him what he wanted so badly just to make sure Neville worked to succeed. He wanted to know if his dad was proud of him, if he still loved Neville just as much, even if he was clumsy and overweight and not good at anything.

He wanted to know if his father would want to call him his son, even if he was worthless.

But he couldn't ask any of those questions. There wasn't time to even answer his father's own question. There was suddenly light, as green as envy, which arched by Neville's head. He screamed and threw himself to the ground as the Killing Curse erupted across the chest of his father and sent the man crashing to the ground.

"Dad!"

The sword arched out of Frank's grasp and tumbled through the air. A spell caught it halfway, and then long, thin fingers were curling around it, and Neville stared into the face of the woman who had twice now wrecked his chances of having a father.

Bellatrix Lestrange sneered at him around the glinting edge of the blade. "Is the wittle Longbottom baby gonna cwy?" She poked her bottom lip out mockingly at him and laughed.

Neville let out another scream, this one of rage and pain and sorrow, and lunged for the woman, planning to rip her apart with his bare hands.

Bellatrix raised her wand with a bored, languid motion and waved it once.

Pain erupted across his body and Neville saw fire everywhere. He screamed and screamed and screamed.

And when he woke up in his bed in Gryffindor Tower, he was still screaming, and tears were still coursing down his cheeks, and he was still on fire.


The first time she hears the voices, Ginny thinks Dumbledore has finally lost his mind completely and picked her mother as one of his Chosen. But, of course, that didn't make any sense. Molly Weasley didn't lack power or talent, but she would surely have been too emotionally distraught after the Dementor attack to handle the act of searching for an artifact.

Thinking through it dimmed the voice that sounded so much like her mother's. The doubt drove it back until only silence remained. But the silence eventually faded as another voice appeared.

"Stop, go back."

Ginny froze. Her eyes widened. "Bill?"

She looked around, eyes scanning the landscape, knowing she had heard his voice. And that made sense. Bill would have been a perfect choice to search for the artifacts. And if Bill was looking for the same artifact as she was, they could look together.

"Go back, Gin."

Go back? "Why? Bill?"

"Go back."

It was dangerous here.

She had good intentions. They all had good intentions, but they were just children. How could they possibly hope to find the artifacts when Albus Dumbledore himself had people looking for them – people who were trained to fight and to find things? Mere children could never hope to outwit them, and wasn't it bad enough that they were already racing against Voldemort's Chosen? They should let Dumbledore's people handle it. Ginny should let Bill handle it.

But despite her thoughts, Ginny didn't move. She didn't turn in the other direction and head back the way she had come. The skin between her eyebrows crinkled slightly as she frowned, then her eyes scanned the world again.

"Bill?" she called, less certain this time.

There was no answer.

Not even his voice, telling her to go back.

Silence.

Her disappointment was real, but she ignored it. Ginny walked on.

Chapter Text

THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AND DEATH

Chapter XXVII

The Gauntlet


Defense Against the Dark Arts was a joke.

If Fred and George hadn't known that their uncles, Gideon and Fabian Prewitt, had died at the hands of Death Eaters, they would have thought that the class must have been unnecessary, since the headmaster didn't seem to bother hiring competent professors.

Now, Fred and George had great respect for Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore. Asides from having the longest name of anyone they knew, the headmaster of Hogwarts also had a great sense of humor and eyes that sometimes just seemed to go blind when they skirted over one of the twins' in-progress pranks. That is, of course, when the man didn't stop and offer his own suggestions on the project.

Even so, with all the respect they had for the man, they had to admit that he was more than slightly barmy, and that he picked the worst Defense teachers.

"Not including Lupin, of course."

"Of course. Remus is a good chap."

Because, yes, of course the twins were well aware that certain moments of their lives were being narrated by a third party.

Umbridge, however, was probably the worst Defense professor they had ever had, and Fred and George had been in school two years longer than our Golden Trio. They had been present for Professor Rumple, who had short-term memory loss and was worse than Professor Binns at knowing students' names, and who often cast the stunning spell when trying to teach students the tripping hex.

And before that, there was Professor Biggles, the animagus who, when spooked, would transform abruptly into a Scottish terrier and spend ten minutes barking at whoever had frightened him. The most memorable day, of course, had been in the middle of winter, after days of snowball fights outside, when half of the Defense class had the sniffles. Every time someone would sneeze, Professor Biggles would jump in fright and transform, standing on his desk, barking at the student. When he regained control of himself almost ten minutes later, it would not be long before another student would sneeze and the cycle would renew.

Of course, despite the sentimentality of that day, Fred and George still remembered fondly their first major prank of first year, when they had unleashed a series of firecrackers beneath Professor Biggles' chair in the Great Hall during dinner. The Scottish terrier chased a certain startled cat animagus out of the Great Hall and down the main corridor. Their mum was so mad she sent her very first Fred and George-induced Weasley Howler. It was a memory to power a Patronus for sure!

Umbridge topped them all, of course. She was worse than Quirrell, who stuttered something fierce when you didn't know he had a Dark Lord strapped to the back of his head. She topped Lockhart, who might have brought pixies in for the second years to work with, but who informed the fourth years that he had their worst nemesis hidden under a drape, and then removed said drape to display – GASP! – a mirror. Yes, it was terrifying. And after Lupin, who had been awesome even with the werewolf bit, there had been Moody, who wasn't actually Mad-Eye, but even before they'd known that, had been completely terrifying. Casting Unforgivables, and in front of a bunch of kids!

Yes, Umbridge was the worst so far. After all, she had them reading, right out of the book.

"This is such a waste of time," George said, flicking the page in his text and pretending to read while he fiddled with his wand under the desk.

"I think it's a perfectly good idea," Fred argued quietly back, staring down at the pages of his book.

"Yes, well, you're the dumber one of the two of us."

"And you're the uglier one, which is why you're more likely to be assumed the dumber one, and therefore will get off scot-free!"

"I still think the firecrackers would have been time much more well spent."

"Yes, but how cliché."

"True."

And with that, George made a stabbing motion with his wand, and the desk Umbridge was sitting behind turned into a giant blob of purple gelatin and swallowed her.


"Hey, Neville, you okay?" Hermione asked as she sat down at the Gryffindor table. Neville was hunched in on himself more than usual, rubbing his hands over his arms as though to warm himself.

"Wha- oh, hi, Hermione." He shivered. "I'm okay, I guess. I have a weird feeling."

"A weird feeling? What from?" Ron asked. He was piling his plate high with everything within reach.

"I don't know," Neville admitted. "I just woke up feeling off."

"Maybe you're getting sick," Hermione suggested. "You should probably go see Madam Pomfrey before class."

Neville nodded. "Yeah, maybe." He started to say something else when a great horned owl he recognized as his gran's stern Telemachus swooped into the Hall and headed over to him.

"Bit late for mail," Ron commented before shoving a huge spoonful of mashed potatoes into his mouth.

"Honestly, Ron," Hermione huffed.

Telemachus landed on a space Neville had quickly cleared on the table and held out a large clawed foot for him to take the letter from. After he did so, the owl flapped his large wings once and rose into the air, swooping out of the Hall without a moment of hesitation for a considered reply.

Neville didn't pay attention to this, completely accustomed to the mannerisms of the owl that was as brusque as his gran's. He opened the envelope and pulled out a short letter, scanning it with a small smile on his face that disappeared as his eyes trailed down the page. His fingers dug into the parchment, crinkling it, and he stood up abruptly, nearly tripping over the bench, and dashed from the Hall.

"Neville!" Hermione cried, startled by this odd reaction. She quickly dashed off after him, followed by Ron and Harry. They had barely made it out of the Hall when they were stopped by Professor McGonagall. Neville was just a few paces away, tears running down his face as he was quietly spoken to by a solemn-faced Dumbledore.

"This is a personal matter that Mister Longbottom needs to speak to the headmaster about."

"But… is Neville okay, Professor?" Hermione asked, her eyes never leaving the clearly distraught boy.

"In time he will be, but this is for him to tell you if he chooses. For now, please return to the Great Hall and finish your lunch. Mr. Longbottom will be unlikely to join you for the remainder of the day."


They didn't see Neville for the rest of the day. It was strange to not see him in Herbology, quietly dominating the class that he was the best in. Harry and Ron sat through Divination and rejoined Hermione in History of Magic, where they spoke in undertones, wondering what had happened to their quiet friend before the droning of Professor Binns put them all to sleep.

As it was, their questions were answered that night at dinner, when the Great Hall was filled with an uncharacteristic number of owls for so late in the day. As a brown owl landed in front of Hermione, it became clear that the rush was due to an evening issue of the Daily Prophet – a rarity unless there was a large stirring of news.

Hermione unfolded the paper and scowled at the front page. "It's that Drivelle again. What have they-" She gasped as she scanned the paper quickly.

"What is it?" Ron asked, leaning over her shoulder to look at the article.

Lost Auror Finally Passes

by J. Drivelle

It is with great sadness that we must record this day the day that Franklin Longbottom finally passes from this world. A well-remembered auror of skill renowned even outside of Britain, Frank Longbottom and his wife, Alice, were understandably removed from their positions in the DMLE after an attack by Death Eater Bellatrix Lestrange in their home.

Driven to insanity by the horror of the Cruciatus Curse, Frank and Alice Longbottom have spent the past fourteen years as helpless patients in the long-term care ward of St. Mungo's. It has been said that while Alice Longbottom is capable of wandering the hospital to some degree, she and her husband are both without their wits, and he is known to mumble incomprehensible phrases from time to time, particularly during visits from their only child, Hogwarts student Neville Longbottom.

Neville, a Gryffindor fifth year of, reportedly, questionable skill, has spent the past fourteen years of his life being raised by Frank Longbottom's mother, the Dowager Augusta Longbottom. He visits his parents frequently.

"He comes in and talks to them like he thinks they can understand him. It's heartbreaking, really, that he's allowed to have that much hope," says a mediwitch on duty in the long-term ward.

While young mister Longbottom's dedication to his parents is applauded, this reporter has to ask why he has been allowed to entertain this false hope. Wouldn't it be better for all involved if the Longbottoms, who gave all they could to protect their son that fateful night, were allowed some measure of peace.

"It's good to know he is in a better place now," says Gilderoy Lockhart, renowned dark creature expert and author of many books.

Truly, we at the Daily Prophet weep for such a loss as we have all suffered today, but we have to wonder if it isn't better to let go of the past and move on. Certainly, it will be a quiet day in St. Mungo's long-term ward without the utterings of former-auror Frank Longbottom, and our condolences to Alice, who must suffer the rest of her time there alone. We only hope her son is there to keep her company through whatever time she has left.

"That... that bitch," Hermione swore.

"Hermione!" Fred and George declared in shock. Both of them were grinning widely at the unexpected scandal of Hermione Granger cursing in public. In response, Hermione practically threw the newspaper at them. After glancing at the article, their smiles quickly slipped from their faces.

Hermione was furious. She was very tempted - very, very tempted - to run out of the Great Hall and find a secluded place to skip back twelve hours and handle this, but no. That wouldn't work. She glared at the newspaper Fred and George were reading. The front page didn't have anything else about Neville's parents besides Drivelle's slop of an article.

Hermione stabbed a fork into her dinner and resisted the urge to try and fight against certainty. Even as she scrapped one plan, another was formulating in her mind as she ate. She would be pressed for time even with the use of the Time Turner, but it would be worth it.

Dinner finished quickly for Hermione, her mind too wrapped up in plans and calculations to notice the meager passing of time. So it was that she failed to notice Luna Lovegood sitting at the Ravenclaw table, talking to someone dressed in a dark hooded cloak decorated with golden runes.


Luna Lovegood had always been odd. Most people thought her strangeness had been caused by the death of her mother when she was a child of nine years, but she had been strange by normal standards long before then. Born with silvery-blue eyes that seemed too large and to see too far, people naturally shied away from her. Luna did not blame them. It was human nature to fear that which you didn't understand, to rise against in en masse. It saddened her that humans so limited themselves, but it wasn't their fault that they were so very young. Only time could change the measure of a man. Or mankind, rather.

Of course, not all humans were like that. They might have thought her strange, but that didn't mean they hated her, or even feared her. Sometimes, Luna thought, staring after a departing Hermione, they were almost as weird as she was.

Almost.


It was strange to be at Longbottom Manor so early in the school year.

He was accustomed to going home for the holidays, spending Christmas Day with his gran and his great uncle and all the strangers who made up their social circle. It had never been pleasant for him, but it had become a part of his routine. This, though, was not.

Neville lay in his bed, staring at the ceiling. Professor Dumbledore had escorted him to St. Mungo's by floo, where his gran had apparently spent the majority of the day. She was in a state he hadn't expected: distraught and with a lost expression on her face which didn't fit the severe temperament she usually held so well. He hadn't been sure what to do, watching as she talked with mediwitches and wizards, or at them, demanding answers and reason and a fix - all things they couldn't give her. Her son was gone. He had been gone, really, for years, but now finally, all hope had gone with him.

Neville had made his way into the room that had once held two people and now held just one. His mother was not distraught, not like his grandmother, but there was a confused look on her face as she lingered by her bed, shuffling lightly from foot to foot. She looked as though she had forgotten something, and forgotten what it was she had forgotten. Neville could commiserate with the feeling.

He'd held her hand with a deep ache in his heart, offering what comfort he could, talking quietly to her and trying not to look at the empty bed on the other side of the room.

His gran had eventually retrieved him, her own sense of pain and loss locked up tight again behind severity and a sharp tongue. They'd returned to Longbottom Manor by floo, and she had left him to find dinner by means of the house elves, disappearing deep into the manor and leaving him to his own devices. This, of course, was also routine, but there was a sick feeling in his stomach that he was unaccustomed to dealing with.

He'd skipped eating, not feeling as though he could manage it without throwing up, and found his bedroom as he had left it the morning of September the first. He'd slid into bed, intent on sleeping.

Seven hours later and he was still awake, staring at the ceiling, his stomach aching. He felt sick and tired and lost, yet like nothing had really changed at all.

His mind drifted back to the article that had been in the Daily Prophet and he wondered if maybe J. Drivelle wasn't right and he wasn't just a selfish child who couldn't stand the idea of letting go of his parents, even if they were already gone.

Parent, he thought. Singular.

Neville rolled over and sobbed into his pillow.


With the exception of strange dreams he'd had growing up about flying motorcycles and flashes of light, Harry had never had any recollection of his parents prior to the Dementors dragging up their last moments in his third year. He had never had anyone to fear losing before he started Hogwarts and made friends for the first time. Harry knew there was no way he could truly understand what Neville was feeling at the moment. His parents had been dead for years, but Neville's had been alive, if injured beyond healing, and now one of them was gone.

Harry tried to imagine what it would be like to lose Sirius, but his mind shied away from the thought and he let it scramble from the reach of the consideration. He couldn't fathom how Neville must be hurting, but he knew he would be. Harry had determined at the beginning of the year to be a better friend to Neville, and he planned on keeping that promise.

But he had no idea what he could do to help with this.


The worst thing about the time turner that Hermione was given was that it was so limited. There existed numerous time turners of various strengths, but as they were being given to students, even responsible students, the time turner that Hermione had been given couldn't go back any further than one day. This was a pity because she suspected she would have been able to perform better research if she could spin back to a point where she was able to leave Hogwarts.

Then again, that might have been pushing it. And a long wait, besides.

So it was that Hermione retired to bed that evening and fell asleep with the time turner tucked inside her pajama top. She woke with a startled yelp as a stinging hex hit her on the bum. She sat up abruptly and pointed a wand at herself.

"I can't risk touching… you."

"Oh, right."

It was not a proven fact that two versions of the same person making physical contact across a spacial rift in time would cause a paradox. It was merely a hypothesis, but one that further hypothesized that, rather than unravel the world, a paradox caused by two exact objects attempting to occupy the same space would cancel the other out. It might not unravel time back to the beginning of that person's existence, but may, instead, simply cause them to cease to exist from that point on. Obviously, it couldn't be proven, because if it had ever happened to anyone before, they were no longer around to talk about it.

In either case, Hermione couldn't risk physically touching herself. That didn't mean she was overly pleased about getting a stinging hex in the arse, though.

"You're in a foul mood," she remarked to herself as she changed her clothes. She was keeping her voice low so as not to wake her roommates, although she was lucky in that all of them were pretty heavy sleepers.

"You're in for a long day," Future Hermione said. She tossed a robe at Hermione, who pulled it on over her clothes and slipped on her trainers.

"Any advice?" she asked, pulling the long chain of the time turner out from under her shirt.

Future Hermione rubbed the inside of her right arm. "Find a way to move more quietly." She crawled under the blankets without even bothering to remove her trainers and rolled over so she was facing away from herself.

Hermione stared at her future self's back for a moment before she sighed and started twisting the time turner. She counted to twenty-four. The world around her lit up with color as she spun back.

Twenty-four hours in the past, Hermione opened her eyes, not realizing she had closed them, to find herself in the shadow of a great tower, in a world she couldn't remember when awake.

"What?" she whispered.

A howl broke the silence of the world and Hermione spun to see a frizzy-haired girl running from a werewolf who was swiftly gaining on her.

"I have no idea how this is even possible, but REDUCTO!" The crimson curse streaked past her younger self, only missing the werewolf's face because he had the presence of mind to dodge. Even so, the blasting curse struck the ground and sent the werewolf sprawling.

"This doesn't make any sense!" Hermione shouted as the other version of her raced up to her. "You're… this hasn't… that hasn't happened to me yet!"

"I'm your future," the other Hermione said.

"But I've already seen him!" She pointed at the werewolf, who was back on his feet. "Oh dear."

"Argument for another time, I think. Come on!" The other Hermione grabbed her hand and started dragging her into the tower. The tower that Hermione had been trying so hard to reach, and woke up under? What?

"I'm so confused," she muttered, as her future self (which she was sure should be her past self) pulled her inside the tower and up on a staircase.

"Just wait," her other self said. "You think you're having trouble with it now." She stopped on the staircase and Hermione stumbled to a halt.

"What are we waiting for?"

A howl broke the silence and Hermione's head whipped around just in time to see a werewolf race through the tower, in one door and out the other. She gaped for a moment, then bolted for the door.

"Right," the other Hermione muttered. "Curiosity."

Hermione caught herself on the doorjamb and stared out of it, watching as the two werewolves collided in an explosion of fur, limbs, and snarls.

"Professor Lupin," she murmured. Then her eyes went wide. "Oh crap oh crap oh crap I still look like me!" She looked down at herself, studying her form. She was dressed in her usual pristine black school robes over a comfortable blouse and pants. Her hair was its natural frizzy mess and everything about her said Hermione Jean Granger, because she hadn't yet decided who it was she should be instead. Such a hard decision! But she was out of time now.

Yelping and snarls and the two werewolves were fighting, but that wouldn't last for long and whoever stuck around, Hermione couldn't be Hermione where they would see.

She tried to focus her attention, tried to think about witches and wizards she'd read about in history books, about what kind of person she wanted to be when she grew up, about what sort of person would be exactly opposite the kind she was. She tried to think about how she could hide herself, but the thought just brought up words from the past, admonishments from a beloved professor to be yourself, no matter how much it pisses people off. Hermione thought about the one professor who, prior to Hogwarts, had always stood by her, always pushed her, challenged her intellect, and demanded she do her very best.

She thought about how much she missed that kind, stern woman, and how much she had wanted to be like her, and she felt the world around her shift.

It wasn't really the world shifting, but everything within her seemed to skew for a moment, twisting her perspective, changing the way the world was in comparison, and for just a moment, Hermione was again spinning outside of time, trapped in a vortex, and then the world settled.

She looked down at herself, startled, not having expected her need to change to pick up on her thoughts of the past, but she could see that she looked different. She lifted her head, looked over at her future self, and very nearly fell over in shock.

It was like staring back through time.

She didn't look exactly like Professor Renaud. The clothing choice alone was a glaring difference, but the eyes were softer than those she had remembered, the face not as sure - Hermione shining through the illusion. Despite that, it was still like staring back six years and seeing a woman who had become a dear friend, and who was painfully missed.

A loud yelp, the sound of claws scrambling on stone, and suddenly there was a werewolf next to her, all torn fur and bleeding wounds and bared teeth dripping saliva. Hermione instinctively looked for defining marks, a slash across the muzzle of the creature, and saw none. She remembered that scar - it had been one of the clues that led her to the truth in third year of Professor Lupin being a werewolf. She remembered it later, at the end of the year, too. When one faces extreme traumatic dangers, they tend to either erase the other experience from their memory or document everything. Naturally, Hermione was part of the latter. She remembered the gleaming silver scar across the muzzle of a transformed werewolf, and this werewolf having none meant this one was not Professor Lupin.

She tried to move. Really, she did. But just as no one could hope to outrun a werewolf, they were equally impossible to dodge. She went down under the force of at least twelve stone, her head hitting the floor and making her vision dance. There was a snarl above her, teeth that flashed, and then a fierce pain as something clamped down hard on the inside of her right arm. Hermione let out a scream…

She sat up, blinking.

She was sitting on the floor of her dorm, not far from her bed, and there was a pale light streaming in through the window. The sun was starting to rise. She had fallen asleep… apparently right after skipping back.

She didn't know how she had managed that feat, not remembering falling asleep or, possibly, collapsing, but the sun was rising and her roommates (and her past self) would be waking soon. Hermione made sure she was dressed appropriately, then slipped out of the dorm and out of the Common Room before someone could see her and remember that she had already been up.

Her stomach grumbled and she flicked her wand, checking the time. She would fetch some toast from the Great Hall and then find somewhere to hole up for a few hours. She had work to do.


Ginny was sitting at the Gryffindor table when Hermione walked into the Great Hall. Facing the entrance doors, she noticed the slight pause the fifth year made before she continued on, taking the seat across from her.

"Good morning, Hermione," Ginny greeted, scooping up another spoonful of scrambled eggs.

"Hi, Ginny. You're up early."

"Oh, I always get up early in the morning." Was that why she'd hesitated? Ginny supposed she rarely saw Hermione in the Great Hall this early in the morning. Usually, she went to breakfast with Ron and Harry. "Otherwise, I'm not likely to eat considering Ron's appetite."

"That makes sense," Hermione said. She laughed nervously as she grabbed two pieces of toast.

Ginny watched for a moment as Hermione began to butter her toast quite a bit more violently than usual. She knew the other girl could be extreme at times and had a habit of becoming frazzled but it seemed too early in the year for that.

"Hermione, are you okay?"

"Fine, fine," she responded, taking a Ron-sized bite of toast.

"Are you sure?"

Hermione nodded emphatically and stood up, one piece of toast in her hand and the other dangling from her clenched teeth as she slung her bag over her shoulder and made her way out of the Great Hall. The half-hearted wave she sent in Ginny's direction seemed a secondary thought.

"I believe the wrackspurts infesting her hair are evolving to disturbing proportions."

"Hello, Luna," Ginny said, turning to the blonde girl who had suddenly appeared standing on the other side of the table. "Would you like to join me for breakfast?"

"Good morning, Ginevra," Luna said, taking Hermione's vacated seat. "I would like that very much, thank you."

The two of them were silent for a few minutes, Ginny busy thinking as Luna dished herself chunks of fresh fruit and slathered them with a thick cream. As she was covering the cream with sprinkles the elves knew she enjoyed, Ginny said, "Luna, do you think the wrackspurts around Hermione are dangerous?"

"Hm," Luna said thoughtfully as she shook some nutmeg over her sprinkle-covered fruit and cream. "That depends on who you are concerned she is a danger to."

"Well... herself, mostly."

"Not immediately." Luna stuck a creamy pineapple chunk into her mouth and chewed with delight. "Although, I suspect she must be getting quite tired with all that extra running around."

"Yeah," Ginny said, grabbing a few extra pieces of bacon before she passed the plate down the table to a new arrival. "I knew fourth year was going to be more taxing but I didn't expect to be so exhausted this early." She nibbled on a scone before pausing. "What do you mean extra running around?"

"With all of the extra time she's been spending on each day. I'm surprised you haven't noticed."

She returned to her breakfast, the real expression of delight on her face overcoming the normally vague contentedness she wore. Ginny let Luna bask in what she knew was her favorite meal of the day. Her mind was going over the girl's words. She knew what she thought Hermione might be doing but she was loathe to even think about it too strongly, because if she was right, Hermione was breaking the law. Not just school rules but Wizarding Law, and for Hermione to do that...

"Not immediately, Luna?"

Luna licked the cream off her spoon. "Hermione Granger has proven to be quite resilient in the past, as well as stubborn, so I suspect she will manage to handle her-admittedly erratic-schedule for quite some time. Then again, she received her necklace in third year and that was further past for her than us even without her extra dancing, so perhaps my judgment is cloudy." For a moment, she appeared concerned. "Oh dear. Ginevra, how does one go about clearing up a cloudy judgment?"

"Tea always works for me," Ginny said, hopping up from the table. She dashed out of the Hall, calling back "Thanks, Luna!"

"Of course," Luna said in relief, as a mug appeared before her filled with steaming tea, "a super-heated infusion of free radicals and tannins. Just what the doctor ordered."


I can't believe Hermione still has the Time Turner! Ginny thought as she raced out of the castle in the direction she had thought she'd seen the other girl go. She told me she had to return it at the end of third year when she warned me that it was more pressure than she'd feel good about advocating. If she lied, I'm going to have to Bat Bogey her, female solidarity or not! Now where—there.

Ginny caught sight of a head of bushy hair out by the lake – probably the only thing that distinguished Hermione at this distance – and made her way out there. She fumed as she walked, wondering why Hermione had lied to her and if she, Ron, and Harry were all traveling back in time and getting extra time to sleep and do homework while Ginny was left behind.

Again, her mind whispered, the voice sounding too much like Tom's for comfort and Ginny broke into a run. She hated his voice in her head, whispering every doubt into her ear, and she wondered if she would never be rid of it.

"Ginny?"

The surprise in Hermione's voice startled her out of her reverie and she realized that she had arrived at the lake. She fell to a stop, nearly actually falling, and took a few minutes to catch her breath. She didn't think she'd been lost in her thoughts that long, but apparently she had been.

Hermione was staring at her from where she was sitting cross-legged on the dock and Ginny saw that she was surrounded by open books and parchment. With a flurry of anger, she remembered what she'd realized on the way to the lake and Ginny whipped out her wand and pointed it at Hermione's startled face.

"... Ginny?"

"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't Bat Bogey both nostrils for lying to me for two years."

"Because I have no idea what you're talking about," Hermione said slowly, raising her hands up in the universal sign of "please don't hurt me."

"Two words," Ginny said through gritted teeth. "Time. Turner."

The color drained out of Hermione's face.

"Uh-huh," Ginny said, and began to mutter an incantation.

"I didn't lie!" Hermione said quickly.

Ginny waved her wand to the side in the slashing motion that negated the half-uttered spell. "Really?" she drawled skeptically.

Hermione nodded. "When I talked to you about the... extra classes I took, it was a couple days before I was due to... talk to Professor McGonagall. I had planned to return it but..."

"But what?"

Hermione hesitated. "Can you keep a secret?"

Ginny was pretty sure the look she gave Hermione could have put Snape's "you're all dunderheads" expression to shame. She sat down next to her on the dock and listened as Hermione explained how the time turner had been forgotten in the mess with Sirius Black and the dementors and how Time itself had seemed to interfere every chance she found to try and return it. She sat and she listened as Hermione bared the secret to her of what she had been doing these past two years, and what she had planned for this one.

And where one time traveler had sat before, there now sat two.

Hermione and Ginny Time Poster


It was the following morning during breakfast when the Daily Prophet made noise again. Hermione and Ginny were sitting together, across from a sleepy Harry and Ron, who had been dragged out of bed far too early for their liking. They ate their breakfast with mild grumbling as Hermione and Ginny read the article on the front page with barely-restrained nerves.

A Farewell to Arms

It was not this reporter's intention to return to the Daily Prophet so soon into her leave, but a travesty has occurred that is too great for this reporter to bear in silence and she must return to right a wrong that has been done.

As was revealed in last night's emergency release of the Daily Prophet , we are forced to say a final farewell to a man of great deeds, great friendship, and great love. That man's name was Franklin Augustus Longbottom.

Many will remember Frank Longbottom as Head Boy during his seventh year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, or Captain of the Quidditch team during his fourth year and only year playing as Chaser for Gryffindor. Still others will remember (some jealously, I am told) that he was in the top five bracket in all seven of his school years for his skills in Care of Magical Creatures and Herbology - skills he clearly passed on to his son, Neville Longbottom, who this humble reporter is told takes the highest grade in Herbology seen in the past fifty years.

It is well remembered that Frank Longbottom left Hogwarts and immediately joined the Auror Academy, alongside his long-time sweetheart and would-be wife, Alice Fawley. He was trained by retired auror Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody, known to be one of the most effective aurors to ever stand in service. That Frank and Alice Longbottom became known as the two best aurors to ever graduate the Academy since Moody himself speaks volumes of their skills and promises that they will be remembered for their years in service to the Ministry, the Wizarding World, and justice.

But Frank Longbottom was more than just a student at Hogwarts and an auror - even an extraordinary one. He was also a friend to many - a "Hufflepuff among Gryffindors," says a former classmate of Frank's who wishes to remain anonymous. "He was easy to get along with and friendly with everyone so long as you were decent. And if you needed something, well... Frank was always there."

Exemplary student, fantastic Auror, and dear friend. All of these are titles that a man would be proud to bear as they passed through this world and into the next, but this reporter suspects that none of those are the title that Frank Longbottom would be most proud of.

Neville Longbottom, born July 30, 1980, is the surviving son of two of the greatest aurors - no, two of the greatest people - to ever live. The love and pride Frank Longbottom had for his son makes the tragedy that struck them November 1st, 1981 all the more horrific. It was that day that four Death Eaters, servants under the Dark Lord whose name must not be spoken, attacked the Longbottoms in their home. There, they tortured these two people so loved by many with a curse too vile to name, driving them into a state of pain so deep they lost the ability to function. Worse still is that they did so in the presence of their beloved son, who has been left these past fourteen years to mourn their absence.

There are no memories of this night to be found that might reveal the truth of the happenings in Longbottom Mansion, but it is this reporter's belief that those Death Eaters only managed to hurt two people that night because of the efforts of Frank and Alice themselves. Two of the best aurors against four Death Eaters whose master had vanished into smoke? There is no doubt in the minds of all who take a moment to consider that even anti-apparition and anti-portkey wards could keep the two from escaping, unless their intention had been to remain. Not for glory of skill or notability as aurors, but as parents. There is no doubt in this reporter's mind that Frank and Alice Longbottom stood between their son and death and said NO .

Hogwarts professors remember those who graduated well. Students remember peers who did better than them on tests or beat them in Quidditch. Perhaps fellow aurors remember the ones who topped them in training exercises or who were chosen to train under certain mentors. But a son remembers the sacrifice that his parents made for him.

Yesterday there was an article saying farewell to Frank Longbottom and lamenting the years his son held hope. This reporter has returned early from a leave of absence to offer a heartfelt apology to Neville Longbottom, on behalf of all the staff at the Daily Prophet . It can only be assumed that the reporter who wrote said article spent their life prior to journalism living under a rock, never holding a dream in their heart or a child in their arms.

Frank Longbottom had hope. He stood between his son and death and held the hope in his heart that his actions would make a difference, and they did. Today, Neville Longbottom holds the number one spot in Herbology and is well-loved by his friends. It is this reporter's hope that he accepts the deepest of apologies for cruel words written by ignorant fools, and that he continues to hold onto hope for his mother, who survives her late husband and who must be missing him just as much as her son.

Hearing the kind of person that Frank Longbottom was, it is this humble reporter's belief that his son will carry with him the bravery his father's actions taught him that night fourteen years ago.

We must bid a farewell today to a man who was auror, student, son, friend, and father. We will bow our heads in sorrow and mourn the loss of a life cut short, but we will remember what it has taught us. Frank Longbottom never gave up hope. His son, Neville Longbottom, has never given up hope.

We, the Wizarding World, can do no less. We will never give up hope.

Hold on tight, Neville. We're here with you, and you'll get through this.

Sincerely yours,

Rita Skeeter

Chapter Text

THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AND DEATH

XXVIII

The Lie


 

The voices persisted.

They were rarely silent for long. They were constant, stubborn in how they returned, whispering in her mind. Bill's voice had not returned, but she had heard all of her brothers' and her father's. Each tried to tell her to go back. Ron had tried to convince her that he agreed they were being foolish. She had ignored all of them. They were merely voices. She hadn't seen anyone, and it just didn't seem right that they try to make her stop.


 

"So Buckbeak was never killed?"

"That's not certain," Hermione said, "which is why we could change it. If we had known for certain that he was killed, like we had seen it, then we wouldn't have been able to change it. Doing so would have created a paradox."

Hermione and Ginny were tucked in Hermione's hidden corner of the library. They had skipped back to early morning and had planned to do some research. Hermione had decided to explain the rules of time travel to Ginny, since she would be joining her on her temporal excursions.

"Yeah, you've mentioned paradoxes before. What happens if you cause one accidentally?"

Hermione exhaled slowly, fighting down a sudden sensation of panic at the thought. "Well, creating a paradox is really difficult to do on accident. Time automatically tries to correct itself, so even if you managed to affect something that didn't want to be changed, things can orient themselves so that it happens anyway. For instance, if Harry, Ron, and I had seen Buckbeak killed but we went back in time to try and save him anyway, it's possible something would have happened to have him killed later. Like Professor Lupin might have attacked him in his werewolf form or the Dementors might have gotten to him. That would have corrected the paradox.

"If it hadn't corrected, though… that connects back to why we don't age faster using the time turner."

"Oh, right. You'd said something… locks you?"

"Your body is quantum-locked," Hermione explained. "The moment that you use the time turner, your body is locked into the age you are at the moment in time when you've used it. Once time has progressed, when you reach that moment again, time restarts for your aging process. It's like pausing a video but going back…" She noticed Ginny's look of confusion at the muggle reference. "Nevermind.

"Anyway, if you created a paradox, it interrupts the quantum-locking process. Time has been scrambled so it won't unlock properly and you'll remain trapped at the age you were when you used the time turner."

"For how long?" Ginny asked.

"Forever. Or until you find a way to fix the paradox, if that's even possible."

"Oh," Ginny whispered. Her eyes were wide and her complexion had paled a little.

Hermione had tried to soften the knowledge without holding anything back. She remembered when she had been told the rules and the consequences of a paradox. Professor McGonagall had been very blunt and Hermione hadn't been able to sleep those first two nights back to the school. Every time she fell asleep, she would dream about being locked at thirteen years old forever as everyone around her died and the world burned up to dust.

"So we have to be careful," Hermione said softly, trying to coax Ginny out of the horror. "But I've been using it since third year and I haven't had any problems."

It took a moment, but Ginny nodded. "Okay." She promised herself to be extremely careful. She could have chosen not to go along with Hermione in her jaunts through time, but the prospect of having so much extra time to get things done, and the idea of being free to research what she wanted, made resisting impossible. "How do you keep everything straight?"

"Well, I have a very good memory," Hermione admitted. It wasn't eidetic, much to her consternation, but her memory was quite good and very useful for keeping track of everything as she moved back and forth through time. "To be honest, though, I've been thinking about trying to find a way to keep a journal, without having to be concerned about someone else reading it."

"I can ask Bill when I send him a letter on Saturday. I bet he knows some good charms to keep information to yourself."

Bill, the eldest of the Weasley children, had always been Ginny's favorite brother, when she admitted she was allowed to have a favorite. Even though he was the eldest and had moved out of the house years ago, he still made time for all of his younger siblings. He had been something of a hero to Ginny when she was younger, her brother who went off on grand adventures, sneaking into tombs and liberating artifacts while fighting off nasty beasts and destroying traps. When she was little, Bill would write letters home talking about his latest conquest, and her father would read her the letters like they were a story (leaving out all the really scary parts, of course), detailing her adventures like Bill Weasley and the Golden Sphinx, Bill Weasley the Lost City of Mithril, and her personal favorite, Bill Weasley and the Word of the Thu'um. Her father had kept all of the letters, bundled up and tucked away in a box, and Ginny liked to spend her summers rereading old adventures that she remembered safer versions of as a child.

When she was ten and alone at home without any of her brothers, Ginny had tried to write to Ron and Percy and the twins, but they had been so busy. Even Ron, who had always been close with her because they were the two youngest and close in age, had struggled to write her as often as she would like. He did send letters now and then, of course, but for a ten-year-old girl stuck in an unnaturally quiet house, it wasn't enough.

It was difficult to get mail to Charlie. Working on the dragon preserve, Charlie and his fellows knew how to handle themselves, but the same couldn't be said for any owls swooping in to deliver mail. Poor Errol wouldn't have survived a trip, although now and then, Charlie sent letters home that they were able to reply to.

Despite his busy schedule as a cursebreaker and tomb raider, as he liked to call himself, Bill always made time to write letters to Ginny. She was fairly sure that he was the reason she didn't blow up the Burrow with accidental magic after her mother tried to get her take up knitting once again. And, she admitted quietly in her heart, it was probably her letters with Bill, never filled with the right information on her part, that had kept her from giving up her fight against Tom in her first year.

More than once, she looked back wishing she had just told Bill what was going on. She'd not heard from him after the events were all over with and she'd been terrified that he was so disappointed in her he planned to refuse to write her anymore letters. And then he simply appeared at the Burrow a couple days after they got home, saying he'd gotten an international portkey as fast as he could. Ginny remembered how he swept her up into his arms and how he'd begged her to tell him why she hadn't just told him, because he'd have come right home, by broom if he'd had to, and torn that stupid diary to pieces himself. Ginny had burst into tears, babbling out an explanation she couldn't remember and he probably couldn't half understand, but it had been such a relief to have him there. Her father was a great man and yes, he worked with cursed muggle objects, but Bill was a cursebreaker and Ginny knew that if there was anything still left in her that wasn't her, Bill would know and he would fix it.

"Are you all right, Ginny?"

Ginny shook herself from her memories, looking up at Hermione, who appeared concerned. "Just thinking," she said, smiling.

Hermione nodded but she looked unsure.

"Hermione?"

The older girl hesitated a moment, then spoke in a tone quieter than she had used before. "Are you okay… in your dormitory by yourself?"

Ginny opened her mouth to say she was fine, the immediate, instinctive response, and hesitated.

When she had been Sorted in her first year, she had expected there to be smaller dorms, like there had been in recent years. Not like when her parents were in school and the Houses received fifty or sixty new kids each year. The war had diminished the population and things were only struggling back up, hesitantly and with a lot of uncertainty for their future.

But Ginny had expected a small group of girls to share a dorm with. What had not expected was being the only girl Sorted into Gryffindor in her year. She hadn't realized at the Sorting or the feast, but when she'd gotten to the dorm and there had only been one bed, it had hit her. And then all that year… things might have been different if she had had some dorm mates there to keep an eye on her, but Ginny had been all alone, and she knew Tom had used that. He was good at using every little thing.

"It can get lonely," Ginny said quietly. "And at night, it's really quiet." Not like at home where there's a house full of people, a ghoul that rattles pipes in the attic when he's bored, brothers that snore and a pair of twins that like to blow stuff up.

Hermione had a pensive look on her face and she kept opening her mouth like she wanted to say something but was afraid to. Finally, she seemed to gather up that Gryffindor courage.

"Would you mind if I asked Professor McGonagall if I could room with you?"

Ginny stared at the older girl, startled. Then she thought for a moment. "Hermione, are you okay in your dorm?"

Hermione shrugged. "I make due." She winced at the look on Ginny's face. "I don't really get along with the other girls. Lavender and Parvati like to gossip so much and sometimes… they can be a little mean. I'm used to it, of course," she added the last part quickly. "But it does get tiresome after a while."

"What about Fay?" Ginny asked. Fay Dunbar was a short, stocky blonde girl with amber eyes and a love of Quidditch that rivaled Ron's. Ginny wasn't really friends with the girl but they had spoken a few times. She seemed nice.

"She's nice," Hermione said, "but we don't talk. We don't really have anything in common. She hasn't been spending a lot of time in the dormitory, anyway."

"What? Not even at nights?"

Hermione shook her head. "Not unless she come back in after I've fallen asleep, but I'm usually up pretty late. I don't know where she goes."

"There's some rumors floating around she has a boyfriend in Slytherin," Ginny said, then shrugged at Hermione surprised look. "Trust me, I know Lavender and Parvati gossip. They always seem to pick a table near me when I'm trying to do homework. I never knew the love lives of Hogwarts students were so interesting to people."

"Only when you have nothing better to do." Hermione picked up one of the books in her lap to give herself something to do with her hands. "Anyway, it seems silly to have you all alone and I wouldn't mind moving in with you, I mean, if you wanted…"

"Hermione, stop worrying." Ginny grinned at her. "That'd be really great. Besides, it will probably make all of this a lot easier." She waved her hand around their general area, indicating the time traveling and all that that entailed. "Do you think Professor McGonagall would allow it?"

"She might check with the other girls to see if they'd mind, but I don't see why they would." Hermione started packing up her books and supplies and putting the books she was going to return into a stack to give to Madam Pince. You did not try to reshelve books in Madam Pince's library.

"What? Now?" Ginny asked. "But we're at breakfast!" She remembered that the two of them had gotten up early and gone down to breakfast together, skipping back halfway through the day. She was actually starting to get a little hungry for lunch, but really, it was only about seven o'clock.

"Professor McGonagall should just be able to head down to the Great Hall. We can ask her on the way."

"What if she realizes?"

"Honestly, I think she already knows," Hermione admitted. She'd been thinking about this for a few years, after all. "Professor McGonagall isn't the type of person to let things slip by her, even if there is a lot going on. I suspect she keeps lists." Hermione certainly would if she was both a teacher and the Deputy Headmistress of a school like Hogwarts.

"Well, let's not bring it up, just in case."

"Of course not."


 

McGonagall allowed the move without any fuss. She made a point to ask the other girls in Hermione''s year if anyone were against the idea, but Hermione suspected it was mostly for show. McGonagall had that soft upturn in the corner of her mouth which usually meant she was pleased with them. Hermione loved that look.

Before she even went to breakfast, McGonagall went to Gryffindor Tower with them to check with the other girls and determine if there was anything else they needed. When it was clear they just needed to move Hermione's bed and trunk to the lower dormitory, McGonagall mentioned calling a house elf.

Hermione gasped. "Winky!"

There was a pop and a little house elf appeared before the three of them, dressed in a ratty, stained tea cozy, her bulbous eyes moist and her ears drooping.

Hermione could have smacked herself. After all the fuss she put up the previous year, she'd completely forgotten about the house elves, and especially about Winky. How could she?

"Hello, Winky," Hermione said politely.

"Miss called Winky," the house elf slurred softly, then hiccuped, sending her ears flopping. "What can Winky be doing?"

"Oh dear," McGonagall murmured, then louder, said, "Winky, if you could please move Miss Granger's four poster and personal items down into this room and then see about tidying up a bit." She pursed her lips a moment, but rather than look stern, Hermione thought she looked concerned. "In fact, I would appreciate it if you would continue to assist Miss Granger and Miss Weasley through all their time here."

Winky looked up quickly, a startled and hopeful look on her face. "Winky is being made Missy Granger's and Missy Wheezy's own elf?"

Hermione's eyes widened and she looked at McGonagall, ready to put up a fight. McGonagall was apparently prepared for this, because she raised a hand in a clear motion for Hermione to be silent. Her temper warming, Hermione closed her mouth.

"You may consider yourself, from this point on, locked to Miss Granger and Miss Weasley in joint care." She hesitated a moment. "Until such a time as both have graduated Hogwarts, or Headmaster Dumbledore releases you from those duties."

Winky started jumping up and down in excitement, her eyes brightening and the slur fading from her voice. "Winky is to be having a family!" she cried in delight. "Winky is so happy! Winky must be telling Dobby!" She disappeared with a pop.

A moment later, she reappeared with another pop. "Winky is forgetting." With a snap of her long fingers, Hermione four poster bed appeared. It slid to the back right corner of the room and Ginny's slid back to the left corner. The curtains flapped, shaking off dust, which sparked and disappeared into thin air. The beds remade themselves, the pillows fluffed to colossal proportions, Hermione trunk appeared and sat neatly at the foot of her bed. The floor gained a thick red circular rug, trimmed in gold, that covered the floor between the two beds. A wardrobe appeared against the wall between their beds and their clothes flew out of their trunks, hanging themselves neatly in the wardrobe. The stone walls and floor shone with suddenly cleanliness and there was the scent of fresh cut grass in the air, like summer.

"Winky is being telling Dobby now." She popped away.

She popped back. "Missy Granger and Missy Wheezy be calling Winky if they's be needing anything." She popped away.

She popped back.

"It's okay, Winky," Professor McGonagall reassured the excited house elf before she could continue in the same fashion. "We have everything settled here for the moment. Go tell Dobby you have a new family. Miss Granger and Miss Weasley will call you when they need something."

Winky gave an excited hop and skip and popped away.

The three of them waited a moment to see if she popped back.

"Thank goodness," Professor McGonagall murmured.

"Professor," Hermione said, whirling on her favorite teacher, "I do not want a house elf!"

"Too bad," McGonagall said.

Hermione's mouth clicked shut, stunned.

"Miss Granger…" She sighed. "Hermione. Had I not done something, Winky would not have survived until the end of the year. Did you see her?"

"Of course I did, but she's been like that since Crouch sacked her last year. I've been trying to get her to realize she's better now than she was. He certainly didn't care about her."

"No, I suspect he didn't," McGonagall said, with a sound like resignation in her voice. "I hadn't realized she was here and in this state last year or I would have done something sooner. Hermione, I suspect you're taking your knowledge of house elves from what you know of Mister Potter's Dobby."

Hermione blinked at hearing Dobby referred to as Harry's. "You know Dobby?"

"Miss Granger, every professor in this school knows Dobby. And everyone knows what Dobby thinks of Mister Potter."

Ginny clapped her hands over her mouth but couldn't stifle her giggling.

"Yes, Miss Weasley, what you're thinking has most certainly come to pass."

"What?" Hermione asked, looking at Ginny.

The younger girl snickered behind her fingers, then whispered, "Snape."

The mental image that followed nearly brought Hermione to her knees with laughter. This was not helped at all by Ginny's ridiculous giggling, nor McGonagall's self-satisfied expression. For some reason, Hermione could imagine her sending Dobby on an errand that required him to encounter Professor Snape, and required him to recount precisely how he felt about how Harry Potter is the greatest wizard ever.

Their mirth eased down.

"Miss Granger, some house elves, like Dobby, can manage well enough without a family. For a creature who has suffered at the hands of people meant to be their family, this is understandable, and even a relief. Dobby and those like him never had a family, only masters. He learned how to live without the first, and did not require the second.

"Other house elves, however, cannot handle life without someone to guide them. They require the structure of a life of assisting, to be given tasks. They can survive in a house where they have a master, and for them it is better than being alone, but what they desire most of all is a family. This is where house elves like Winky thrive.

"I suspect Crouch may have once been family to Winky. Or at least he was not cruel to her. Her reaction to her lack of a family suggests she did not suffer as Dobby did while caring for him. She is not, as you are thinking, a slave, and only those who do not care for the life a house elf will treat them as such. Many witches and wizards simply treat them as a member of the family or, perhaps, as something of a butler or steward."

She gave Hermione a stern look. "I will not rescind my order to have Winky take care of you. She obviously requires a family to take care of and assisting Hogwarts as a whole will not help a house elf that requires a personal connection. She will be assigned to you until the both of you graduate. To release her would most certainly be a death sentence and, I suspect," she added, with a careful look at Hermione, "that you could use the help more than you're willing to admit." Her expression softened. "How you treat her is up to you, Hermione, although giving her tasks to do will certainly make her happier than ignoring her."

"You said only Professor Dumbledore could release her," Hermione said.

"Yes. So don't try and give her clothes. It won't work."

Hermione looked mutinous. "It isn't fair!"

"Why? Because you don't understand it?" She pursed her lips. "House elves are not human, Hermione, and even among humans, we have many differing cultures. The magic we use here at Hogwarts is very different from the magic used at the Hi Kaze Academy in Kyoto, and the culture of the Japanese Magical Society differs, as well. If you're interested, perhaps you should take some time to study the different cultures of magical society around the world. Or talk to Professor Morely. The magic she uses is different from ours, as well, having been taught in Greece."

Hermione was silent, thinking through it. Ron and Harry and some others had tried to talk her out of assisting the house elves last year, but no one had really given her any reason beyond "that's what house elves do." Hearing McGonagall admonish her over it, while slightly unpleasant (okay, more than slightly), was shocking enough to make Hermione really stop and think about it. It still seemed wrong, though.

"Why are they like that, Professor?" Hermione asked softly.

McGonagall sighed. "No one knows, Miss Granger. Although many people have tried to find out, no one has come up with anything." She smiled. "Perhaps you'll find out in your extra studying. If you do, I daresay the discovery would be worth its own journal. And you'd have the answers you're looking for."

Hermione nodded slowly. "Professor, about the-"

McGonagall shook her head. "Miss Granger, there are reasons I have refrained from mentioning anything to you about the amount of time you spend in the library. It's not my concern what you do with your free time, provided you're not causing harm to your fellow students or disrupting the school, but I understand that drawing too much attention to your extracurricular activities can cause people to pay more attention to you."

Hermione frowned. Her meaning was clear. For whatever reason, Hermione was to keep as quiet about the time turner as she could manage, even around Professor McGonagall.

"Can you tell me why, at least?"

"I would be happy to, Miss Granger, if in fact I knew. This was not my choice. If you really want answers, you'll have to talk to Hermes, and good luck finding him."


 

She walked on.

The world of white had begun to take on some color. There was ground beneath her feet – high, green grass weaved and waved in a breeze that whipped at her back and swept her hair over her face. It pressed her onward, and onward Ginny walked.

"Ginny!"

Ginny's head snapped up. "Harry?"

"Ginny!"

She spun in a circle, looking all around her. She didn't see him, but she could hear his voice clearly. Clearer, it seemed to her, than all of the others that she had heard before. She listened.

"Ginny?"

It sounded like his voice was coming from just over the hill she had been walking up. Ginny tore off up the hill, legs carrying her quickly through the grass. She puffed for breath as she neared the top, the hill growing steeper, but she didn't slow.

His voice had quieted, but she kept going. "Ha-Harry?" she gasped, as she reached the top, hands on her knees as she caught her breath.

There was no one there.

Ginny stared out over the hilltop. The ground dropped off in front of her. The cliff must have been a few hundred feet high, the drop deadly. Ginny stared over it.

"Miss Weasley."

Ginny spun. The voice of Professor Dumbledore in her ears, her heart raced. Her eyes scanned down the hill, but she saw no one.

"Really, now, Miss Weasley, you must know you won't see me if I don't wish it."

"Professor Dumbledore?" Ginny took a step forward, still looking for him. Futile.

"Yes, Miss Weasley. I need you to do something for me."

"Yes, sir?"

"I need you to jump, Miss Weasley."

Ginny's eyes widened slightly. She swallowed. "Jump?"

"Yes."

She should do as the professor told her. After all, Albus Dumbledore was a well-respected man. Her parents trusted him explicitly. He was the head of the Wizengamot, the Supreme Mugwump, never mind that he presided over her school. And for how many years had he done that?

She should do what he said.

Dumbledore was a wise man from years of living and learning, from having fought in the last war with Voldemort, and before that, when he defeated the Dark Wizard Grindelwald. He was strong and powerful; Voldemort feared him and everyone looked up to him. He took care of his students. He would never do anything to harm them. Never.

He was the headmaster, and surely he knew what he was doing when he told her to jump. She should do as he said. He must have a good reason for it. She should-

"No."

Ginny's breath came heavily. The effort in defying the voice echoing in her head was physically exhausting, but no. No, she would not jump off the cliff. No matter who demanded it of her.

The whispers of other voices that had begun to rise up in her head faltered.

No matter who told her to.

The voices went silent.

Ginny sighed.

"Anything you want me to."

Ginny turned, startled by the voice. It lacked the echoing quality she hadn't realized the ones she had just been hearing had. It sounded very present, and when she turned to look, she realized it was. There was a woman walking up the hill.

Her hair was deep violet and spiky, her eyes golden and gleaming. She was wearing black robes and had her wand drawn, but she seemed distracted.

"If that's what you want me to do," she said. The woman crested the hill and stood right next to Ginny, but she didn't seem to notice her. She stared over the edge, and Ginny blinked in surprise when the woman's hair changed from violet to bright green.

"Anything, of course."

"Um…"

"Anything you want."

"Hello?" Ginny reached forward, taking a step closer to the strange woman, but aborted the action before she touched her. The woman didn't even look her way, completely oblivious to her presence. Ginny might have thought she was invisible, but the woman didn't react to her voice, either. Were the voices echoing in her mind, as well?

"If that's what you want."

It didn't sound like she was fighting them.

The woman took a step closer to the edge, her hair curling thickly, blossoming bright blue.

"Excuse me…"

"For you."

Years later, Ginny would look back on this moment with a greater understanding of the world in which they had spent their slumbering hours. She would recall the confusion that filled her, the uncertainty, and the lingering belief of the child-minded that adults should know what to do and not falter. They should not need the help of children.

Ginny would look back and she would see that the entirety of the experience had been little more than a dream, and there was no guilt to be found in dreams you have only half-control over.

Years later.

But at the moment the woman stepped forward, beyond the event horizon, the knowledge of her own hesitation sent a guilt-swathed dagger into Ginny's chest, and she felt herself unable to look away as the woman tumbled over the edge of the cliff and fell, smiling, into the abyss.


 

The Common Room was crowded with at least a third of Gryffindor Tower, students spread out in groups, talking or doing homework. Ginny sat at a small table, her Arithmancy book open in front of her, her quill scratching across a piece of parchment.

"I thought you finished your homework already, Gin." Ron dropped into a chair across from her. Ginny glanced over toward the corner of the room where Ron had been playing Chess with one of the seventh years.

"Did you win?"

"Of course." He grinned, then poked her Arithmancy book. "You're not turning into Hermione, are you?"

Ginny gave her brother a mischievous grin and leaned forward to whisper, "Polyjuice."

Ron's eyes went wide. "Again?"

"Ha!" Ginny sat back in her seat. "So you three did make Polyjuice before. I knew it." She had thought about Snape's tirades, how they sometimes mentioned the consequences of stealing from his stores, how Hermione occasionally mentioned the Polyjuice Potion, or a book that contained the recipe for it that she wished she could find in Flourish and Blotts. She'd thought they might have but Hermione would never say. She did love when Ron gave her opportunities like this. Though it was a little disturbing how easily he thought Hermione would be impersonating her. She should probably be a little concerned about that. She actually should probably be a little surprised, but after the Time Turner revelation, well… letting her guard down around Hermione seemed a dangerous idea. Next thing, she'd find out the girl wasn't even human but some time traveling alien from a distant planet with red grass or some such nonsense such as that.

Oh, she'd been listening too closely to Luna lately.

"When?" she asked Ron, giggling as the look of realization on his face turned into a narrow-eyed glare that had nothing on their mother's.

"Cheater."

"You're just mad you fell for one of Fred and George's tricks." She poked him in the arm repeatedly until he pulled out of her reach. "Tell."

He hesitated a moment. "Second year, over Christmas." He glanced away from her widening eyes as the grin slid from her face. "We thought Malfoy was the Heir of Slytherin. Snuck into their Common Room to find out what he knew."

"Oh."

"Gin, I'm sorry."

She blinked quickly for a few minutes, then shook her head. "It's not your fault, Ron."

"Yes it is."

"Well, you've apologized enough for a thousand times." And he had. After the whole year was over and it turned out that Ginny had been possessed, Ron had apologized so many times he might have only stopped for losing his voice. Her other brothers had apologized for not being there, too, but none so much as Ron. The two of them had always been close and Ginny supposed he blamed himself extra hard for not dragging her into their group from the start of the year. Ginny had been hurt by her omission from their triad, of course, but it might have been easier to pull her in if she hadn't been so disgustingly shy, turning into a gibbering fangirl every time Harry even entered the same room.

"Well, you can make it up to me now if you want."

Ron instantly looked wary. Probably had something to do with her already using one of Fred and George's tricks on him. "How's that?"

"I need someone to test my new spell on." She waved her hand vaguely at the parchment in front of her. "Do you have a second?"

"You know what, I think Kevin wants another game," Ron said quickly, easing out of the chair. "How about you try Colin, eh, Gin?" He bolted.

Ginny, her wand already in hand, flicked it at her brother's retreating as she half-sang the spell. There was a flash of bright blue light and a yell.

"Oh, oops." Ginny glanced down at her notes. "I can't believe I missed that."

"GINNY!"

"Don't worry, Ron," Ginny said, looking back at him and trying not to laugh. "It should wear off in a day or two."

"My, my, Ginny, that is an interesting spell."

"Do you think you might be willing to share?"

Fred and George appeared out of the woodwork, as they were wont to do, gazing in interest at Ron's hair.

Rather than the wavy red mess it usually was on his head, Ron's hair had straightened completely, but in the wrong direction. It stood at attention on his head, every piece looking as though it were falling upward.

"Hey, Ron, wiggle a little around, would you?"

"What?" Ron shrieked, and Fred snickered at the high pitch of his cry.

Ginny rolled her eyes. "Move around a little. I want to see if it's stiff."

Glaring at her, Ron started walking in a circle. At every step, his hair moved, bouncing and swinging as it would have naturally, had it not been straightened the wrong way.

"Huh. Thanks, Ron." Ginny turned back to her notes.

A moment later, Fred and George slid into the chairs at either side of the table, gazing at her curiously. They were silent for a while and Ginny ignored them while she read through her Arithmancy calculations, trying to figure out where she could add the intent for the hair to obey gravity without having to rework all of her calculations.

"We notice that Ron seems considerably less angry than he would have had we been the one to do that to him," Fred finally said.

"It makes one wonder if he might have done something to deserve being used as a test subject," George added.

Ginny made a note in the margin of her parchment to add in a line for the spell to obey gravity. She frowned. Just adding Πτώση in at the end wouldn't work. It invoked the Uncertainty Principle. If the spell worked at all it would have half a chance of blowing someone's head clean off their shoulders. Not something she cared to do to one of her brothers.

She scratched out some of calculations and made some notes in the margins.

"We were talking about my first year," she said quietly to the twins, crossing out ισιώσει τα μαλλιά. Obviously that didn't work quite right, though maybe she'd share it with the twins later for a prank. It would be funny to see Dumbledore with his beard all falling the wrong way.

She glanced up at her brothers, their long silence unnerving, to see that their grins had faded into serious looks. Ginny sighed and reached into her bag, pulling out an English to Greek language dictionary. "I'm not going to fall apart, you know." She opened the book, scanning through the translations.

There was silence for a minute from the two of them. "Maybe it's not you we're worried about," George said quietly.

She looked back up at them, curious, but both of them had gotten up from their seats. "If not me, then who are you worried for?" They looked back at her. "If it's Ron, then why not say something to him?"

"It's not Ron," Fred said. "He's here and we can keep an eye on him."

"And while we're a little worried about Harry, he's here, too."

"We're worried about another brother of ours."

"One that's slipped loose and is getting into who-knows-what without his brothers there to watch over him."

Percy. They were talking about Percy.

Ginny growled a little under her breath, her quill almost tearing a hole in her parchment as she scratched Ίσια μαλλιά πτώση in too-big letters at the bottom of the page.

Ginny didn't know what to think about their wayward brother. On the one hand, Percy had been a complete berk last year during the TriWizard Tournament, taking the Ministry's side with Harry and being rude even to his family. Maybe especially to his family, talking down to them when they tried to defend Harry and Dumbledore. And now, he rarely spoke to them, and when he did it was always reluctantly, and callously.

But Ginny still loved her brother. They had never been close, of course. Percy had been close with Bill, who was also one who studied a lot, but once Bill moved out, Percy was something of a loner. Charlie had been more interested in hanging out with Hagrid at school and learning about all the dangerous animals in the Forbidden Forest, and bonding over a mutual obsession with dragons. Fred and George spoke for themselves in their pranking and rule-breaking. They had little in common with Percy, who spent most of his time in their presence lecturing them or being generally disapproving. Fred and George had learned to avoid him when they could and, when they couldn't, to pick and tease him until they got a violent reaction. It was an endless loop of growing frustration for both of them.

Ron, the youngest of the boys, had always been a little left out from the others. He was young when Bill and Charlie left and Percy had little time for his youngest brother. Fred and George spent most of their time together, joined at the hip as they were, so Ron spent the majority of his time with their dad or with Ginny. She, as the youngest and the only girl, spent the majority of her time with Ron or her mother. When she was doing something she deemed fun, it usually involved pranking Fred and George or sneaking out to the broom shed to steal one of her brother's brooms - both things that Percy would have disapproved of. She'd learned to avoid his lectures by watching her brothers' mistakes, but because of that, she'd also mostly avoided connecting with him, which was unfortunate. Ginny didn't see rules the same as Percy. As the youngest and only girl in the Weasley family, if she wanted to do anything, it involved breaking the rules more often than not. Else, her family would keep her wrapped up and smother her. As someone who enjoyed studying and who had excelled in spell creation even prior to going to Hogwarts, as seen by her infamous Bat Bogey Hex, she might have gotten on rather well with Percy when it concerned schooling and grades. His inability to let anything slide, however, and locking himself up alone in his room had prevented that.

Ginny was disappointed by the missed opportunities, and disappointed in Percy for being so rigid. She wished Bill had been around more, but as someone who had already graduated school and who worked a job that involved breaking into tombs and battling traps, it probably wouldn't have seemed to her other brothers like he was following the rules.

She tapped the tip of her quill on the tabletop, ignoring the ink that spattered across the wood and vaguely noting that Fred and George had wandered off, probably to try and sell their latest potioned candy to some unsuspecting firsties. She wondered what Percy was doing now, how things in the Ministry were going, and felt a ball of worry find the pit of her stomach and start chewing on the lining. The minister made her nervous. She knew from listening in on her father's discussions with her mother that the Minister pandered to Lucius Malfoy, and Lucius Malfoy is the one that gave her Tom's diary.

Ginny clamped her teeth down on the tip of her quill's feather and gnawed on it agitatedly. Maybe it was time she sent another letter to Cameron. That would probably make her feel better. And she could ask the woman if maybe she knew who Aceso was, because despite all this extra time she had to look, Ginny still had no idea.


 

"Ginny."

She was back at the cliff edge, staring down into the abyss. There was a churning in her stomach, like bile, unprepared to rise but considering it nonetheless.

"Ginny."

It was Harry's voice again, only it seemed strange. It lacked something, though she couldn't place it. It was less like a voice calling her name than a word her mind was calling out. Or something her mind wished to hear.

"Ginny."

In that voice.

Which probably made a lot of sense, really, if you thought about it. It was something she wanted, she could admit to herself. It was something she dreamed of, from time to time, in her own slumbering fantasies. What better place for such a fantasy to come to pass than in the Realm of Dreams? After all, didn't they always come here, every night, when they left consciousness behind? Phoenix had done nothing more than to give them a semblance of control over themselves within the world, and the knowledge of where they were. Nothing more than that.

So here, within the Realm of Dreams where she often dreamed of Harry, and had before dreamed of the Boy Who Lived, she could have her fantasy.

"Ginny."

She turned around at the voice. The world behind her, once white, had been painted with a gorgeous landscape of tall grasses, wildflowers twisting through them. There were trees, too, reaching toward the skies, coating with a thick head of leaves. All of them but one.

The one tree was nearly barren, twisted branches of varying sizes, some weak and fragile, so prone to break should any force be placed upon them. The bark had been stripped away in places, but in others it remained, holding fast. It was a stubborn tree, refusing to give up despite the obvious fact that it had been rotting for a while.

It had potential, though. She could see that. It was stubborn enough, she thought, that it might even be able to fight the rot. Given enough time, if it struggled through, it could be a beautiful tree. It'd need to be helped along. It couldn't do it alone, but Ginny could help it. She wasn't sure how yet, but she knew she could.

Ginny stepped over to the tree, studying each weak limb, every spot on the trunk where the bark had been torn away and shredded, as though by claws.

She reached out toward the tree.

"Ginny."

Startled, she turned again before she'd touched the trunk. There was a cave behind her, tucked against the mountains that bordered the grassy field. Harry stood in the entrance, watching her. She gaped at him, speechless in her surprise. What was he doing here?

"Ginny."

"You should be looking for your artifact."

His green eyes were piercing as he stared at her. Ginny swallowed as she took him in, surprised by his clothing. He was shirtless, his chest and abs showing the muscles of a well-practiced Quidditch player, his body undeniably that of a Seeker with his thin frame, long, muscular arms.

He was wearing pants that seemed to be made of gold. They sparkled in the sunlight, like ground up galleons and diamonds, clinging to his legs and showing every muscled curve. He was barefoot and his hair seemed to hang a little looser around his face.

"Your glasses are missing," she realized.

Harry glanced to the side, away from her. "I came to find you."

Ginny swallowed the saliva that had gathered in her mouth. She watched as he turned and looked at the cave behind him for a moment, before turning back and meeting her eyes again. He smiled at her, a sly little grin that she had never seen on his face before. He waved a hand, motioning her toward him, toward the cave.

Ginny licked her lips.

She'd had dreams like this before. Never ones with Harry dressed in gold and diamond-encrusted trousers, but she remembered one where he had been a pirate. He'd been bare-chested in that one, too, although his skin had been covered in a variety of tattoos and he'd had a sword clipped to his belt.

Ginny looked down. There was a sword clipped to this Harry's belt, too. She stared at it.

"Do you like it?" he asked, grabbing the hilt and lifting the sword from its scabbard. It reflected the sunlight and sent his trousers glittering again. Ginny blushed crimson as her eyes skittered across his diamond-encrusted crotch.

Harry chuckled a low, deep laugh that rumbled down her spine and settled somewhere at the her center. Ginny found herself swallowing again, a river pouring down her throat.

"Is that… your mask?" she asked, stumbling over the question. He was very distracting in that outfit… trousers. Could it be called an outfit if it was just trousers?

"I thought you'd like them."

Oh, she liked. Very much.

"We should be… searching," she murmured. She was standing much closer to Harry than she had been a moment ago, she thought. She could smell something on him. Something like cloves and summer grass.

"We could look inside the cave," he said quietly, his every word breathing up against her mouth. Ginny's breath hitched in her throat. She licked her lips, tasting his breath on her tongue.

Oh, she'd dreamed so many things like this. She'd always thought he was attractive, ever since her first year and waking up to see him covered in blood, a sword in his hand, having slain a dragon for her. Well, or close to a dragon. She'd thought he was attractive then, but it was only recently that she'd really begun to grow into her eyes and see him. It was only recently that she'd let her dreams escalate into something more than adventures where he saved her from the dragon and they ended the night with a lover's kiss. This past year especially, Ginny would sometimes think of him as her hand found that wet heat between her legs, and she'd whisper his name…

"Harry…"

"Ginny."

They were dreaming right now. They were here in the Realm of Dreams and that meant they were all dreaming, only this time, she and Harry were dreaming together. And there was no dragon to face, no Basilisk to slay. There was just Harry… and Ginny… and a cave full of possibilities… and all the time you had in a dream. A lifetime with him, the whole world, in a night's sleep.

"Ginny." His breath ghosted across her lips.

Ginny surged forward, her mouth crashing into his. His lips were soft and warm and wet and they grabbed hers and squeezed. Ginny felt her body press up against his, his chest harder than she would have imagined against her growing breasts, and she gasped into his mouth.

"Harry," she whispered, felt the flush of heat across her face and down her neck. She owed Phoenix everything for this one moment, this dream more vivid than any she'd had about him before. She kissed him as hard as she could, until her lips ached and she had to pull away, breathing hard.

He was staring at her again, his green eyes so large, so vivid they seemed to glow. His lips were swollen and hers throbbed in response.

"Ginny," he whispered, pressing his lips against her ear. He used his hand on her elbow to turn her until she was looking at the cave, the dark front of it a realm of impossibilities stretched out before them.

Anything was possible in a dream, and what could it hurt if they spent just one night ignoring the calls of the artifacts? Instead, they'd focus on a different call.

She sighed his name.

"Ginny."

They entered the cave.

There was no bed in the cave, just a pile of blankets on the floor that made a mound of pleasure. Ginny lay down among the blankets, Harry bent over her, his lips finding hers again. She moaned into his mouth, her hands crawling across his bare back, his skin smooth under her fingertips.

"Harry," she murmured as he pulled back from her lips.

"Yes, Ginny?" He bent forward, his tongue licking the side of her neck and then his lips kissing her skin. She felt him suck at the skin.

"This doesn't feel like a dream." It felt good. So good. Too good.

Her nipped her skin with his teeth, making her jump and giggle nervously. "Maybe it's not." He moved over her again until they were face-to-face. "Not a nightmare, is it?"

"Oh, no." She smiled at her, her lips pulling back from her teeth in a grin that was maybe a little too wide. "Definitely not a nightmare."

"But you're scared." He flopped down into the blankets next to her, leaning his chin on his arm. Ginny rolled over so they were facing each other. She ran