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After swearing that he wouldn't send letters, or any matter of "correspondence", to anyone, the Dursleys decided that it was permissible for Hedwig, at least, to have the liberty of flying about outdoors whenever she wished. They resented the "racket" she made, and her smell. Otherwise, they would have kept her locked up, no matter how she suffer. Harry was relieved that he at least no longer had to fear that she would starve to death.

Just he. That was, after all, still their preferred punishment.

He'd expected for a great fuss to be made about how he'd suddenly vanished the year before, but apparently Mrs. Weasley had sent them a letter explaining "in case they worried". They had destroyed the envelope and letter both, fearing that they might be tainted with icky magicness. He wondered if the letter had crushed any dreams they might have had of him being abducted and murdered. He didn't ask, deciding that he was probably better off not knowing for sure.

With Hedwig free to come and go as she pleased, Harry was much less tense. He performed his usual duties without complaint, thinking to himself that it was hardly as bad, slaving out here, as being shunned by half the school, or tortured.

He sent off the rings whenever Errol came around, and considered himself bound by the promise he made not to send Hedwig to tell the Weasleys that there was no need to exhaust Errol thus. Hedwig was a free bird, after all.

And then, two weeks before his thirteenth birthday, he awoke from a sound slumber to the sound of something hitting his window. There were no tree branches close enough to disturb it—and as their sole gardener, he would know. It might have been a bird. It might have been a Death Eater. He sat straight up, and looked at the window, sighing in relief as the automatic wariness left him.

It was neither bird nor Death Eater. It was Ron, hanging from the window again. That couldn't be good for you. He thought of those metal beams that muggles used for chin-ups, wondering how long the average person could extend himself thus. Of course, Ron was far from average, but….

Shaking his head clear of absurd speculation, he slid open the window, and cocked his head.

"Ron? What are you doing here? Did Errol fail to return with the latest ring? Because I'm fine—as fine as I ever am at the Dursleys, anyway. They're allowing me to eat things; that's a definite improvement over last summer. Oh, and Hedwig is allowed to fly around outside, as long as I don't use her for correspondence; you can stop sending Errol."

Ron stared at him. "…Indeed," he began. He looked around the room. "May I come in?"

Harry stood aside, in lieu of a reply, thinking back to Ron's last visit to Number Four, at about the same time last year. He'd needed rescuing then, but…well, Ron seemed unsurprised by his explanation… why was he here, now?

Ron climbed in, with silent caution, and peered around the room, as he had the year before. There was little observable difference. Harry had prised up a loose floorboard under his bed, wherein he kept those few things that would fit that he wanted the Dursleys to remain ignorant of. The list was small, thus far, as they were already aware of all of his school supplies. It was serving more as a failsafe than anything else. Although he had picked the lock of his bedroom, and then the cupboard, during the first week of break, and smuggled out some schoolbooks before locking them both again. He was busy working on his essays by flashlight (or, more often, that purer white light that he still practiced making, lest he fall behind in his practice of the other magic; he still needed to build his reserves…).

"They are kinder to you than last year?" Ron asked, as if he now felt the need to stall.

"I have yet to sufficiently anger them to merit punishment. For now, all is well," Harry said, tilting his head back to look at the boring ceiling. "Or, rather, they don't know that I learnt how to pick locks from Fred and George, and brought some of my textbooks up to work on homework. But as they allow Hedwig to fly free, now…well, I've done my best to fit their idea of 'well-behaved'."

He glanced down at the floor, but Ron would never guess which floorboard it was; it was one among many, and under his bed. He couldn't see it from here.

"You are well?" Ron asked in confirmation, and Harry huffed. Mother hen.

"Perfectly. May I ask why you are so fixated on that?"

Ron looked down and away. "…I bring…news. You will not have heard, as no wizarding communication is permitted. You are…unaware…. Every year, the Ministry holds a five hundred galleon draw. One employee a year earns this bonus money, and this year, it was Dad. The Daily Prophet always has a small piece announcing the winner…but you do not receive The Daily Prophet…."

He looked up, and over at Harry. "What I mean to say, Harry, is that Mum and Dad have decided to spend the money on, among other things, a small stay with my older brother, Bill, in Egypt. Hermione has already written to inform me that she wishes that she could go to Egypt…something about adding the information to her History of Magic essay—but I wished to ensure that you would be well for the remainder of the summer. Had I the choice, I would remain—"

Harry shook his head, beaming. "Oh, that's wonderful news, Ron! Don't worry about me. I'm sure I can stay out of trouble for another month and a half—particularly if Dumbledore has made some sort of arrangement. And if not, I'll run away before I can become trapped, as I was last summer. Although, I don't think the Dursleys will try that again…no one ever explained what became of those bars on my window, after all…. Have fun in Egypt, and be sure to tell Hermione and me all about it!"

Hedwig hooted, possibly in agreement, from her open cage door. Ron glanced at her, and then away. He seemed…somewhat ashamed.

"Really, Ron, I'll be fine! Are you going to get a new wand? Because while that old one had its uses, I'm glad you saw sense and decided to use Malfoy's for the final exams, but it would be even better if you got your own—"

"We will return to Britain…two weeks before the start of term. Dad intends to stay in Diagon Alley. If need be, we will come find you at that time. Be careful, Harry."

"When am I ever not careful?" Harry asked, spreading his hands wide, still grinning.

"…You have died twice in the past two years, Harry," Ron just had to remind him. Harry frowned, and folded his arms.

"Extenuating circumstances," he said, waving his right hand in dismissal. "But as there are no basilisks or Dark Lords allowed on Privet Drive—and I have asked the local snakes to keep a lookout—I think I'm fine. Just forget about having to worry about me for a while, okay? And thank you for coming to tell me. I appreciate it."

He bowed his head, looking down at the floor again. "All the same…it is best not to tempt Fate. The Dursleys are fairly heavy sleepers, but…well, I waited until they were out of the house before picking the lock on the cupboard door. You should not push things by staying here much longer. It is good to see you, however. Don't think I don't appreciate the visit, or anything. And thank you for the rescue last year. But…if you've said your piece—hang on, did you use the Knight Bus, again?"

His eyes narrowed. Ron gave a strained half-smile, and Harry, cocking his head, nodded, reaching under his bed to pull up the loose floorboard, shoving a handful of coins into Ron's hands. When Ron opened his mouth to protest, Harry cut him off.

"Don't. I mean it. You came here to visit me, and, as I said last year, that constitutes doing me a favour, for which I have every right to compensate you. And no, I don't care about the five hundred galleon draw that means that you can, temporarily, afford the visit."

"Friendship and family are not possessions, to be bartered or sold—"

Harry rolled his eyes. Sometimes, with Ron, you just had to. "I never said they were. Just take the money, Ron, and get out of here. Perhaps I'm paying you to leave."

He wanted to take the words back even as he spoke them. He swallowed, looking down, and the familiar thought of why did I have to say that? fluttered across his mind.

But Ron seemed to understand. He walked over to Harry, crushed him in a hug, and then, before Harry could think of pushing him away, returned to the window.

"Well…I shall see you again in a month, then," he said, and Harry, still looking down, nodded. "Be careful, little brother," Ron said, and Harry's gaze lifted again, as if against his will. Fred and George had started the use of the term, and said it often, but Ron rarely did. It almost made it seem more sincere, as if it meant more to Ron than it did to Fred and George. But that was ridiculous.

Harry raised a hand to wave a half-hearted goodbye.

His birthday, he was beginning to think, was inevitably a call for disaster. Even before the sun rose, he had to ponder how he was going to get Uncle Vernon to sign his permission form for Hogsmeade. He was sure that there were spells to detect forgery, and it wasn't worth using the other magic—suppose that was just accidental magic? Then, they'd be suspicious.

Hagrid had, for whatever reason, ignored his polite requests for no mail, to send him a violent book which he'd promptly frozen solid and bound with old shoelaces and tape. He was nevertheless a bit leery of it straining against its bindings under the floorboard under his bed.

He had come down to cook breakfast and begin his chores for the day, and was still thinking fervently about any plan to persuade Uncle Vernon to commit an act of kindness concerning him, when he overheard the news.

Aunt Marge. Arriving in less than an hour. He would have to clean the entire house, doubtless, to prepare for her arrival, despite there not being a spec of dust left in it.

And Aunt Marge…she was a nasty piece of work. He was surprised he hadn't developed cynophobia after all his encounters with her favourite old bulldog, Ripper. But she didn't even genuinely love her dogs—just Ripper, perhaps. She was one of those people for whom animals were just possessions—not an investment of love and companionship. Ripper was the only exception to the rule, seemingly, for she clearly favoured him. But on the whole, he pitied any dog given or born into the care of Marjorie Dursley.

This did not mean that he liked Aunt Marge's dogs, however. Pity them he might, but they were merciless and cruel as they'd been bred and raised to be. He was not sure he trusted himself not to magic his way out of the inevitable calamity that Marge would make of her stay. He didn't need to have taken a single class of Divination to foresee great suffering in his immediate future.

Then, he sensed an opportunity, which extricated his mind from foreboding thoughts of how he might react to Marge now he had two years of Hogwarts and knowledge of an entire branch of magic to fall back on. Would he do something he would later regret? But….

"I'm not taking you," said Uncle Vernon, his animosity towards Harry nothing diminished by Harry's "best behaviour".

"Did I ask to come?" asked Harry, a slight bite to his voice. He closed his eyes, counting down from ten. "I wished to ask a favour from you, before you left."

"Well? Out with it, then," Uncle Vernon snapped, fiddling with his car keys. Red flooded his face, as it generally did when Harry initiated any manner of conversation. Harry sighed, looking down.

"Third years at—at my school are allowed to leave grounds to visit the nearby town. But we need to have permission slips signed by our guardians. It would only take a moment of your time, and, while I know you don't like to do anything for me—"

He might have lied about some of the details if the information weren't written on the permission form itself, and he hadn't further known that, much as Vernon disapproved of "boring" activities such as reading, he would read the slip to ensure that…what, he wasn't signing away his soul? Who knew, with the likes of the Dursleys.

Vernon, far from being shamed by this observation, interrupted, "Damn right I don't. You live here, in this house, wearing clothes we put on your ungrateful back, and dare to ask—"

"Some people might say that I have more than paid for my room and board by virtue of the work you have set me to—my chores, I mean. Cooking, cleaning, gardening—"

"Only in the summer—" Uncle Vernon grunted. Harry was pleased with himself for not pointing out that he could hardly be expected to pay room and board when he was living elsewhere.

Instead, he gave a tight smile, and said, "There are no expenses associated with these excursions. And I would not be kicked out of school or otherwise any worse off for not going. However, if I were one of the few to stay behind, my fellow classmates might think…incorrect, and rather unkind things about you."

"Is that a threat, boy?" asked Uncle Vernon, his face approaching magenta, now, eyes narrowed so much that he seemed to be squinting.

Harry waved his arms in surrender—or as if fending off a blow. He half-expected that the conversation was tending in that direction. "Oh, no sir! I just meant to say that the élites and well-to-do of my society might think that I was raised by…people of less discrimination and refinement, if they saw that I could not even keep up in such a small matter."

Uncle Vernon frowned, considering the matter further. He didn't want anyone—even wizards—to think that he was low-class. At the same time, signing the permission form might make Harry happy, something he'd done his best to avoid the past twelve years.

"I have told Marge that you attend St. Brutus's Secure Centre for Incurably Criminal Boys," he began, and Harry's eyes narrowed. That was the sort of name you gave to reform schools and schools for troubled teens. He didn't like the thought of his appearing to be a delinquent, or a criminal—it brought to mind painful maybe-memories of a certain prince being arrested and dragged back home in metaphorical chains. He would have no reputation at all, at this point, in the neighbourhood—not if Vernon had been spreading those lies about him around prior to this hour, and by the casual way he said the name, he'd spoken it often. Harry frowned, looking down.

"Well, that is a very long and complicated name," he said, in his mildest voice. "Quite difficult to remember, too, and you have given me no time in which to acclimate, or to rehearse. This could be tricky—"

Now Vernon had gone purple. "Well, you'd best remember it, boy!"

"But it will be hard work, pretending I go to this…St. Whatsits—"

"St. Brutus's Secure Centre for Incurably Criminal Boys!" Uncle Vernon shouted, and, in the back of his mind, Harry wondered what any eavesdropping neighbours—and there were always at least one or two, in this neighbourhood—thought about that sudden outburst.

But outwardly, he just raised an eyebrow, and folded his arms. "Exactly," he said. "Very long, very complicated, and if I've been going there for two years, supposedly…I should be more familiar with it. Suppose I mess up?"

"Then you'll have the stuffing beat out of you, won't you?" Uncle Vernon hissed, leaning forwards so that spittle flying from his mouth hit Harry's face. He grimaced, but stood his ground. The things he put up with!

"That won't make Aunt Marge forget what I might say," he said, shaking his head in feigned sorrow and regret. Mocking sorrow and regret. "But…if you sign my permission form, I think my mind will be clear enough that I can remember the name and feed her whatever information you wish of me."

Uncle Vernon glanced down at his watch. Harry had no compunction about making Uncle Vernon run late. Every minute he stalled Uncle Vernon was another minute added to his freedom from Aunt Marge. But Uncle Vernon was actually fond of his sister, and looking forward to her visit, despite his and Aunt Petunia's mutual hatred of all animals, including dogs.

"Fine," he said, eyes still narrowed into slits. "If you toe the line, at the end of her stay, I'll sign your ruddy form."

And he ripped the piece of paper out of Harry's hands so that Harry was surprised to only have one papercut. Uncle Vernon opened the door of the car, and slammed it with such violence that Harry thought the glass ought to have broken.

He waved to Uncle Vernon, and then turned on his heel to run back upstairs and send Hedwig off. The empty cage could remain—if Aunt Marge peeked into his room, there was little suspicious about having a pet bird, as long as she didn't know it was an owl—but Hedwig herself had to go.

"Perhaps you might find the Weasleys out in Egypt, but I think Hermione might be a safer bet," he whispered to her. "Unfortunately, you must leave. It is the only shadow of a chance I have of having that permission slip signed. You're a smart, resourceful girl. I'm sure I don't have to tell you what to do."

He let her out the window, and sighed, glancing down. He hated the thought of being alone with the Dursleys, as he now was. He was always at his worst when he was all alone. He knew that. He just hoped that he could keep himself together long enough to outlast Aunt Marge. The only thing he had to look forward to was his mother's visit, tonight, and he was sure that most of that would be spent with her instruction. Although…she was always open to simply talking to him, too.

At least he'd be able to keep up his daily practice of the other magic—he did that at night, mostly, before he went to bed, and he doubted that Aunt Marge would check in on him, then. It was some release of energy, at least.

Maybe this wouldn't be so bad. Let's see how this went.

Chapter Text

Perhaps it was the difference in climate—unfamiliar in a way he couldn't bring himself to appreciate, far too dry, with no clouds in sight—but his dream of the first night in Egypt, after Bill had shown them around his apartment, and everyone, struggling to stay awake, had retired for the night, was odd.

There was probably much that you could make of the psychology of the dream, if you were the sort who put stock in such things. All he knew was that it left him doubting the merits of his plan, yet again—the morality of it.

Apparently, the Mirror hadn't been bad enough. Because who was his family, now, and how would they react if he told them the truth?

And just what was the truth, anyway? That question, once so simple, was growing ever more complex. He was not much given to deep thinking, but he could think and plan when he had to. Sometimes. But he could make little of his dreams. Were they byproducts of exhaustion and a strange culture? Were they expressions of his own inner turmoil, as he sought to stay true to every part of his identity? Or was there in truth something more to them?

It was probably a very bad thing whenever a god questioned his own identity. The sort of thing that shifted and disturbed the order of all deities in his pantheon, the birth or death of an era. But he was isolated from the rest. There were probably no world-shattering differences to be found in the universe owing to his disturbance.

He would learn only later that it rained that night—a strange experience in the barren desert. That was yet another symptom, another variable, and he'd never done well with those. He had always been very direct.

Then, why was he good at chess? Was it an ability stolen from the real Ron Weasley? Or was it something he'd always been able to do, but had never realised, because he'd never pursued the subject, had given it no thought?

In his dream, they at least seemed to be two different people. Thor as himself stood in the empty Weasley household, in Ron's room (his room?), with the door closed, looking around the room, well aware of a certain distance between him, and the boy who had tacked up those posters, or collected—

There came a knock on the door. He thought it strange, knowing as he did that he was alone in the Weasley household. He was…apprehensive. Wary. But the knocking was insistent, and demanded to be answered.

"Come in," he said, remembering the manners Mrs. Weasley had instilled in him…somehow.

He was not expecting Ron Weasley to be the boy who entered. Is this your bedroom? he might have asked. Who are you? Are you an imposter?

Those were all very good questions to ask. But he could sense that this was no imposter. Was he himself the imposter, then?

He hated all the introspective thoughts the Mirror had awoken within him, the ones he'd subconsciously had all along, but had lain undisturbed, latent, until that night.

He took a moment to study the externalised Ron Weasley, where he stood in the doorway, tall and skinny, wearing a homemade maroon sweater (a horrible colour for anyone with red hair), and blue jeans. He seemed quite young, but the exact age was difficult to pinpoint—there was a strange, ageless quality to his face, and his features seemed almost to change and warp. It was disconcerting.

"Who are you?" he demanded of the red-headed boy, although Thor should know, if anyone.


"What are you?" he tried. There were ruder thing he could have said, but he'd learnt at least some notion of politeness, and what was and wasn't appropriate to say in human society, and he would use that.

Ron Weasley looked down at the frayed cuffs of his jeans, and then looked back up. He grinned, but it was not a childish, carefree grin. There was something heavy and world-weary about it, for just a second, and then it seemed as if Ron Weasley had somehow found a genuine source of amusement in this strange situation.

"Well, you keep asking questions you know the answer to. Why don't I turn that question around and ask: Who do you think I am? What do you believe I am? This is your mind, after all. Your dream."

Before then, he hadn't realised that he was dreaming. Thor frowned, because he very much was not the sort to be solving complex philosophical problems. It was even worse to be expected to when you were dreaming. Sleep was supposed to be a reprieve from deep thought and logic.

"Are you…me as I was before I remembered?" he tried. "Are you the boy I replaced, the Ron Weasley who would have been born had Father never sent me into the past? Are you just a part of my… (what was the term Hermione used?) subconscious? Identify yourself!"

When you were flustered and didn't know how to react, bluster was always a useful tool in your arsenal. If you were loud and intimidating enough, people were less likely to notice your weaknesses.

Show no weakness.

"Sure. Probably," Ron said, giving the single most unsatisfactory answer possible to these questions. "I'm probably one of those. Or I could be you from the future, you know. But aren't all those questions unimportant? Tell me: which of those do you think I am?"

He had the sense that the answer he gave to this question was very important, as if, to an extent, the answer he gave to that question dictated the answer to the question. There was a strange sort of distortion, and he realised it was rather as if Ron Weasley were only half-formed. Why couldn't anything be straightforward, the way everything once seemed?

"You must be the boy from whom I acquired the ability to play chess," Thor began, and Ron shrugged.

"Perhaps. If you say so. I was always a damn good chess player, I'll admit." Ron grinned. "Does it matter?"

"There must have been a different Ron Weasley, and a different Harry Potter, before I went back in time," Thor mused. "Are you that other Ron?"

Ron turned the question back on him. "Must there have been? Perhaps, devoid of hope, the Wizarding World collapsed in on itself, and that is why you have heard nothing of it in the future."

He began to realise that there were no concrete, absolute answers to be had in this conversation. He and The Hulk had something in common: they did best with straightforward situations, when they knew what to break, whom to smash. But, unlike The Hulk, Thor was capable of planning and thinking as well. He trusted the suspicion that Ron Weasley, here in the dream, was little more than what Thor projected onto him. Had he read Jung, he might have called Ron his shadow-self, but that term would not come up for years yet.

"Why are you here, Ronald Weasley?" he asked, leaning forwards to dangle his hands for a moment before burying his face in them. He should be ashamed of taking this boy's place. Unless this boy wouldn't have been, either, and all he'd done was to add another member to the Weasley household. Perhaps Ginny would have been born instead, and the Weasleys would have stopped with six children. There was no way of knowing.

"I came here to see what you plan to do," Ron said. "Harry is like a brother to me, too. But perhaps the Harry I speak of, and the Harry you love so much, are very different people. Perhaps the Harry I know was not as damaged by the Dursleys. Perhaps he had no connection to Thanos. Perhaps, for that, he was neither stronger nor weaker, or both at once. Or, perhaps, there never was such a Harry. What do you suppose?"

That sounded more than mere speculation. But if he said as much, he might make it true. A million possibilities, a million plans, a million moves. Perhaps he was not good at chess, after all.

"Do you wish you had told Harry who you were, already? Or do you still think you're somehow protecting him, keeping it to yourself? Your father may have told you you'd be all alone, here on Midgard, but that is already false. You have the choice to seek out allies, whom you could tell the truth of your circumstances. How could your father punish you for that, if he doesn't even know you're here? You play by the rules too much. Learn some flexibility."

Thor blinked at the mini-speech. It was the most Ron had said since his sudden appearance. The use of the word "Midgard", deliberately chosen. There was a sense of deliberation, or purpose, all about Ron, now that Thor thought of it. Every word calculated. In a strange way, it almost reminded him of Loki. But he was different again from either of them.

"No, you are using this as penance for their deaths, and making yourself miserable. Probably making Harry miserable, too, come to that," said Ron, poking at his cheek with an index finger.

"All I seek for are Harry's safety and happiness," said Thor. "Do not seek to make selfishness of my sacrifice."

"But if there were no truth to it, would I be able to say it?" asked Ron. "This year is going to be different. Harder. And I don't think you're properly prepared. So, you'd better think of everything I've said, and be ready."

And Ron turned and strode out the door.

Thor couldn't get that dream out of his mind. How much truth in "Ron"'s accusations? Had there been any reality to the dream, or was subconscious guilt eating away at him? And didn't that mean that those last accusations of Ron's were true, after all?

He was not much given to thinking deeply about complex philosophical matters, because there was never an answer to them. They were the sort of thing Loki had enjoyed trying to piece together, or pull apart, and he knew that Jane and Hermione likewise had a certain fondness for the idea of seeing if reality looked different if you tilted your head, but his own situation was a bundle of different unique circumstances bound together.

For how common were any of the pieces that made up this situation? How often did gods walk amongst mortals, anymore? How often did they travel back in time to incarnate themselves? How often did a Killing Curse rebound (never)? How often were the circumstances surrounding a proper evaluation of any of the questions shrouded in mystery, and hidden under other unanswerable questions?

He stayed with the group, for the most part, keeping an eye on Ginny to ensure that she was alright. In the absence of Harry, perhaps he did feel the need to monitor someone—for no better reason, perhaps, than because he was so used to watching and fretting. (Stop being so overprotective. You're smothering, came Harry's voice, filled with fond exasperation.)

There was something about this place, or something about the mindset the dream had put him in, that encouraged him to keep his family (they were his family, right?) in sight. Percy wandered off to explore the parts of the tombs that were only available to older students, and Fred and George were off ignoring all rules, including those only there for everyone's safety, and trying to prank Percy. Bill was in his element, talking about the history of this, or a funny incident that happened there (he kept the adventure out of it for later; Mum worried enough as it was). Ginny was adventurous enough to want to go into some tombs that had been "unsuitable for children". Ronald Weasley was not old enough, either; Thor couldn't go in, but didn't much care. Ginny resented the age limitation, and tried to get Thor on her side.

He considered just staying near Bill and listening to his stories, rather than taking the tour. Or perhaps staying at camp, where he might be able to finally sort out his thoughts concerning who he was, and was what he was doing right?

There were not many others besides them at camp. They'd situated themselves far from muggles, and behind a few muggle-repelling charms. There was just the entire immediate family bar Charlie, and some of Bill's colleagues, who all ignored the Weasley brood with polite indifference.

By now, Thor was used to a certain freedom that came of being habitually overlooked. He'd come into his memories used to it, and that had never quite been drowned out. Once, he'd been the centre of attention, Asgard's shining star, and that possibility still lurked in the future. For now, he'd take the opportunity to slip away unnoticed, and wander the relative safety of the desert at dusk. He knew that no man or beast could best him.

They were camped near the earthen, hidden tomb of one of the pharaohs' court mages. Nearby stood the iconic pyramids, within walking distance. But the tomb currently being explored was being hidden from prying muggle eyes with good reason.

He was unable to silence the part of him that wondered if the tales of Egyptian wizards were all tales of wizards. The Egyptians now might follow the new god, but there had been a time that they followed a diverse number of gods. Some of them retained associations with magic even in muggle modern lore, as his own people had. He knew just enough to know that the Egyptians claimed that their pharaohs were the living embodiment of one of their gods, descendant of a divine king and queen. It reminded him a bit of home.

Were the pharaohs embodiments—incarnations?—of their gods, or was that a mistranslation or misunderstanding? How many of the legends and myths of Egyptian mythology were true? Had their gods forsaken them? Had they forsaken their gods? Or was the whole thing a sham? If the Egyptian gods, too, were real…like the Greco-Roman pantheon, they were much older than Thor. It put things into perspective, somewhat. Shrank him down to size, maybe.

He was still thinking such thoughts, of course, as the sun began to rise, and he headed back to camp, only to be arrested by an unfamiliar voice, with an accent he couldn't place.

"Wait, child. I would speak to you, if you don't mind," the woman said. He started; he could have sworn he was alone, and almost automatically he reached for Malfoy's wand, kept in his jeans pocket for want of a better place. He turned back to face the woman. The sun rose behind her, making her difficult to see, but he was not quite as vulnerable to little things like exposure to sunlight as humans were. He could tell that she was very beautiful, dark-skinned, with an ageless quality to her face, and long, straight black hair. Her eyes seemed almost to glow, and the rising sun behind her formed something of a halo. If she had planned the moment for dramatic effect, she had chosen well.

"You seem lost," she said, stepping towards him. The light seemed to follow her, as it continued its ascent in the sky.

He had never met her before; he was sure of it. Was she a member of the camp, however? One of those who never spoke to the Weasleys? He thought he recognised and remembered all of them, but it was always possible that he had overlooked one.

"My family and I are staying in campsite A-3," he corrected her, brow furrowing. She laughed. It was not a mocking, cruel laugh, but one full of gentle amusement, as if sharing a joke with him. With a pang, he remembered Mother, always gentle, always patient, always kind. To think he'd briefly forgotten the overwhelming power of his grief. Half of his family, gone in the space of a mortal day. Their deaths close together even by mortal standards. He had to look away.

It was his fault that they'd died.

"I did not mean to say that you did not know where you were, although a more sarcastic person might have said, 'Well, I am in Egypt, and the Egyptians are never far from their River Nile. I shall follow it north to a town or to the sea', But that is not your way, is it, child?"

Would she call him "child " if she knew what he really was? Or did she know?

What was a lone woman doing out in the middle of the desert, anyway, all alone? Despite his parents' attempts to shelter him from such knowledge, he knew the dangers women especially faced, and yet she stood here, resplendent, full of calm and poise.

Perhaps the light was following her. He stood stock still, wishing that he knew Loki's means of assessing a person's sincerity. To judge a man's character.

"There is no greater vantage point in this part of the desert than the summit of a pyramid. From there, you can look out over miles and miles of open sand. But it will not show you the details you will see if you walk upon the sand."

Her raiment was all of white linen and gold, but simple, with no fancy patterns, no complicated design. Just a simple sleeveless dress, and some jewelry. Her eyes were outlined in kohl, or perhaps they naturally had that appearance. Her features were striking, eyes dark. She went barefoot. She smiled at him, holding out her hands in a gesture of welcome.

"Well met, son of Odin," she said, with a vague sort of smile. There was a moment when he froze, unable to comprehend what he was hearing. How long had it been since he'd answered to that name? Just who was this woman?

Not a woman at all, was she? Hadn't he been recently thinking about the Egyptian Gods? To them, he must truly seem to be a child. It was an odd thought, one among many such recently to hound him.

He remembered his manners, and, after a moment's hesitation, favoured caution (Loki would have been proud) over pride. He gave a half-bow, one to a superior, and the woman's smile widened.

"We do not often walk these lands anymore, where so few respect and acknowledge us. It is disheartening, trying, to look around the desert, and to remember what was. The world has moved on without us. Perhaps you know the feeling."

She tilted her head back, so that her face could more readily soak in the light of the still-rising sun.

"Patience and tolerance come with time. Millennia march by, and a single year becomes trivial. We shall wait for the world to remember us once more. It will happen. And in the meantime, perhaps you might speak favourably of us to your father."

Thor bowed his head. "I may never see him again. Not him, nor the rest of my family—"

"Such gloom! They said that you were the merriest of your father's family, always flexible, with a ready smile and good cheer, a geniality bordering on naïveté."

"That was before my mother and brother were killed in an assault on Asgard," he said. "I seek for a means to prevent their deaths, and meanwhile, struggle to protect those I have come to care about of this world."

The woman smiled, a smile that was somehow vague yet reassuring. "Even in our place of exile, word reaches us from Egypt, the tale of the Boy-Who-Lived, whose fate is in the stars to vanquish a Lord of Black Magic. Perhaps you know that the brother of my husband was also skilled in such magic. But my husband and I were the ones to triumph in the end, and that was long ago. The world has mellowed since then, as have we, worn smooth by the passage of years. But I have heard tales told of a monster who exists beyond the reach of our knowledge, a lord of war, whose currency is slaughter. They say that in the future, he will come to this world. And thinking to that time, I extend a hand to you, friend. I sense that Earth will need many allies when that time comes, and that her gods should stand united."

"An alliance?" he repeated. Was she speaking of Thanos? He didn't want to think of that one, but it was the inevitable conclusion. But the way she'd led into it…did she know about Harry?

"If I ever have the liberty of speaking freely with my father again, I will extend your offer to him," he promised.

She smiled, and nodded. "And you are a man of your word," she said. "Once, I think, they said similar of your brother. Then, they said 'but you must be very cautious what his word is'. But you tell me he is dead. A pity, for I too was a great wielder of magic, in my time. I would like to have met him. Someday, I hope you will bring him hither, but in the meantime, please take this, as proof of the sincerity of my offer."

She held out her left hand, and something as big as her hand, and dark, appeared there. He saw that it was a rock in the shape of an insect, but hadn't the background to understand the significance.

"It is not much, but I possess the ability to call souls back from death. If ever his death seems irreversible, press this amulet into his chest, and invoke his name. But take care: it will only work once. Death is not a game, to be cheated at. If I were you, from what I have heard of the exploits of Harry Potter, I would not give this relic to him. Do not let him know of its existence, that there exists even a chance to escape certain death. Nor should you use it in the presence of others…but perhaps you realised that, yourself."

She reached out to take his arm, and to lift it, and to press the stone beetle into it. She gave him a mysterious smile. "May it bring you and Harry Potter good fortune. Do not forget my offer of aid," she said, and, spreading her arms wide again, was again shrouded in light. As the light died down, Thor saw that she was no longer there.

The sun seemed to rise much more quickly after she left, as if to atone for the ridiculous slowing it seemed to have undertaken whilst they had spoken. He was late back to camp.

Chapter Text

Yes, he should have seen it coming. Aunt Marge hated him quite as much as Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia, but visited so seldom that she had little opportunity to vent her loathing of him. In her opinion, evidently, he should have been drowned as an infant…as should his mother.

If she knew the truth, he thought to himself, but took little solace from the thought. Maybe Lily Evans was a goddess bound into mortality; maybe she wasn't. But she was his mother, and right now, he was leaning towards whatever view painted her in the best light.

And he needed no one to tell him what that was. Regardless of what it signified for him, his mind was pursuing unfamiliar paths, seldom trod, the lodgings of that part of himself he usually disavowed. It was the only way not to lash out spectacularly at his "family", possibly resulting in one or more murders. He was wroth. The other magic hummed just beneath the surface, clear temptation, inviting its use. And the Ministry shall never know. How could they? They are only human….

Rather than commit mass murder, he stormed out of the dining room, kicked the door of the cupboard so hard that the wood splintered, and then finished by kicking it down. He pulled out his trunk, stuffed still with most of his school supplies, placing his wand into his pocket for ready access, and then marched upstairs to retrieve the rest of his belongings, and, of course, Hedwig's cage, which he, after a moment's thought about how ungainly it was to carry, did as he should have done last year, and shrunk it to fit into his trunk.

Uncle Vernon did not catch up to him to confront him before he'd already retrieved everything and was striding out the door.

"You come back here!" he roared, but Harry was unfazed. He'd seen Uncle Vernon's wrath before, and he remembered other beings more terrifying than this one. "Come back here and set her right!"

It occurred to him that perhaps Uncle Vernon's anger was merely a front for fear.

Are you afraid? Do you fear me? You still have little knowledge of the power I possess, but perhaps a glimmer of that knowledge—

He shook his head, both to clear away those unhelpful thoughts, and as a refusal. "No. She deserved it. You heard what she said. No one has a right to speak thus about the dead."

He slunk out of the house, and marched down the street at a good pace, ignoring the great weight of his trunk full of possessions. He walked for quite a while. But his anger, once roused, was slow to ebb. He should have known. He should have seen it coming…but he had thought that he had more self-control—

Where was he, again? He frowned, looking around for street signs, and then he saw it. A dark figure, bulky but low-set, coming perhaps to his shoulders, lurked in the bushes. His sixth sense warned against using the other magic here and now, and he trusted it. But that left wizarding magic…he might have performed accidental magic back at the Dursleys, but casting a spell deliberately, here and now, seemed foolhardy. All the same…he wanted to know what that shape was. Perhaps it was something innocuous, but a quick glance was enough to show him that it was alive, and his sixth sense warned that it could be anything…friend or foe.

What to do? Perhaps he could focus the other magic through his wand, and make it resemble wizarding magic. That idea seemed to satisfy his sixth sense, but no sooner had he held out his hand did he have to fall to the side, rolling to his feet as a strange, triple-decker purple bus appeared where he'd just been. It took him a moment to see that it bore the label The Knight Bus.

Oh. Well, he never had asked Ron just how you went about calling the Bus. He guessed that this was his answer. But it had sort of appeared out of nowhere unexpectedly, nearly run him over.

A boy slightly older than he stepped off the bus, and began to speak in a professional, formal way, declaring the purpose and usage of The Knight Bus. Harry paid him no heed, thinking of the shape he'd seen in the bushes.

"Whatcha looking at there?" asked the boy, who had dropped the formal demeanour. Harry frowned, glancing back at the hedge.

"Nothing. I just thought I saw something there. Like a dog, but massive…."

The boy's eyes widened, but he said nothing.

"See here now, you did flag us down, didn't you?" asked the boy, eyes narrowing in sudden suspicion.

Harry shrugged. He supposed he had, after a fashion. "This bus goes anywhere on land?" he confirmed, remembering what Ron had said. It had seemed strange at the time…but he was realising that that oddity was nothing next to the bus itself.

"Yup," said the boy. He seemed a bit proud of this, as if personally responsible. Harry fought the urge to roll his eyes.

"How much, then, would it cost to be dropped off at Diagon Alley?"

Several hours, or perhaps several years, later, The Knight Bus stopped in Diagon Alley, raising the question of how Harry could possibly never have encountered it before. Also, he was fairly sure that taking it was not for the faint of heart, and constituted taking your own life into your hands. Why had Ron never mentioned any of this? He would have to up his reimbursement; when calculating monetary reimbursement, he hadn't realised that you would also need to pay for emotional, physical, and mental scarring.

Ah, well, time for that later. He hadn't had the time to pull himself together from the harrying bus ride before he'd run right into the Minister for Magic, Cornelius Fudge. Not that he was supposed to know that, he supposed. Although…surely the man must appear in the Daily Prophet occasionally, at the very least?

Better to feign ignorance. Safer. But just why had he lain in wait for Harry here, anyway? He must have been waiting for Harry (did they have some means of tracking an underage wizard?), because the moment Harry climbed off the bus, dizzy, the world spinning in a most inappropriate way, and trying to recover his land legs, Fudge clapped a hand on his shoulder, and steered him toward the Leaky Cauldron.

"Who?" he managed to say, although whether he was pretending still to be Neville Longbottom for Stan Shunpike's sake, or whether he was trying to ask who Fudge was, even he himself wasn't sure.

"What did you call Neville, sir?" Stan asked, and Harry sighed. He felt that he would be justified if he pouted, here. He'd gone the entire bus ride with "Ern" and Stan none the wiser. He'd learnt quite a bit, too, despite it being a constant struggle to hang onto his stomach. Sirius Black, the fugitive, was in truth a wizard, who escaped from Azkaban, where he'd been imprisoned for killing thirteen people with one curse.

His name sounded familiar, but Harry couldn't place it whilst being dressed down by Minister Fudge. Fudge took him into the Leaky Cauldron's pub bar area, requested private seating, and then proceeded, in said private seating arrangements, to give a Harry a rundown of all the unimportant stuff he'd missed: Marge had been deflated and restored to normal (as had the cupboard door, sadly), Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia had, begrudgingly and even less fortunately, been persuaded to take him back the following summer (Harry swallowed his protests and tried to look pleased by recent events), and Harry was a clever boy for taking The Knight Bus and coming straight to Diagon Alley.

Harry did not say that he'd come here because it was a part of the Wizarding World, that they'd have a harder time of finding and catching him, let alone kicking him out, if he were there, and besides, Diagon Alley was one of the central wizarding hubs. He didn't say that he'd planned on going into hiding, if need be, at least temporarily, until he'd found some means of contacting Dumbledore and pleading his case.

He nodded, protested, and made grudging agreements in all the right places, wishing that Fudge would shut up and go away already. He was sure that the Knight Bus was bad for your health, or at least he himself seemed to have misplaced a few vital organs. Also, he needed to spend some time alone, and think exhaustively over all the information he now had. And also, maybe, get some work done on his summer work, now he could do it in the open.

He was not to leave Diagon Alley to go out into London, which was galling, but Fudge had made him promise, and he had order forms, still, from the bookstore he'd found. But there was still plenty to do in Diagon Alley. He recalled all the shops that he'd wanted to see last year, and the year before that, but Mrs. Weasley and Hagrid had prevented it. Sure, he might have brought Ginny along, but by then, he'd felt he'd stayed out of eyesight long enough, and Mrs. Weasley was sure to be wondering where he was.

Still, Fudge managed to extract his promise from Harry, and then off he went, to do whatever bungling ministers did when they weren't inexplicably waiting for famous teenage boys.

The barman gave him the key to his room, and Harry brought his trunk and owl cage with him, to find Hedwig waiting for him. He smiled at her as he entered, glad just to be rid of Fudge and the Dursleys. You couldn't shoot the messenger, he knew, or rather, that wasn't just (although he was no Hufflepuff), but the fact was and remained that he'd come in person to the school to take away Hagrid and Dumbledore. He did not make a very good first impression on Harry.

Now, of course, he was inclined to be much more generous. There were still three weeks left in the summer vacation, and they'd be Dursley-free. Hermione was off…somewhere, doing something, but Ron had promised that he'd be staying at Diagon Alley too, before he and his siblings left for Hogwarts. All in all, things were looking up.

Freedom was an experience that never grew old. Florean Fortescue seemed quite fond of him, although Harry had never been polite (or rather, foolish) enough to risk introducing himself in their first meeting, he seemed to take pity on the boy who sat by himself working his way through his summer homework in silence, and bothering no one. He gave him free ice cream, and was glad to talk about what he knew about magic (and magic history, perhaps more importantly).

Quality Quidditch Supplies unfortunately had put in stock for a new brand of broomstick, but Harry, after analysing it, shrugged, knowing that there was no point in staring at a broom so expensive that it was marked "price on request". He needed to spend his funds on paying for his textbooks and other school supplies predominantly. There was no point tormenting himself; he gave the shop a wide berth after that. He had great faith in Ron to bring him to the store, anyway, so that they could discuss the Firebolt.

Oh, well.

Harry went to Flourish and Blotts first, as he was taking new subjects. There was a wizard specially in charge of handling the store copies of the Monster Book of Monsters, and he seemed to be at his wits' end. In striking contrast to their usual demeanour, the man was short and rude to him, shoving him aside to reach for heavy-duty protective mitts.

"Hang on, I've already got one of those," Harry said, holding out a hand to grab the man's arm before he could do something pointlessly stupid. Internally, he breathed a sigh of relief. The book had, after all, been a gift from Hagrid, who had once smuggled a Norwegian Ridgeback into his cabin (as if that could be forgotten).

The wizard manning the display heaved an audible sigh of relief. "Oh, thank goodness! I've been bitten twelve times already… no one else want to handle them, consumer liability and all… and the mess—stop that! Stop that!" he yelled, distracted by two of the books seizing a third and beginning to pull it apart. He seized a nearby poker and began to separate the two.

Harry shook his head, entering the arena and freezing the two offending books, almost wishing for his mother's armour, because he was starting to realise that although they were small, they were vicious, and he was heavily outnumbered. He expanded a sheet of ice out in a wave, and it froze everything it touched.

"Sorry," he said, feeling a bit sheepish. "But if you have any twine or ribbon or something, perhaps we could use that. I'll make sure the ice doesn't ruin the books…."

The man hurried away, looking slightly awed, and came back with a spool of twine. Harry set to a difficult task of dispersing the ice he'd formed into pure magic, without letting it melt, and then, casting a reparo, bound the book shut with the twine, and then turned to the next. And the next. And the next. Before he got too far in, the wizard in charge (watching with evident fascination), cast a multiplying spell on the twine, ensuring that Harry never run out. Harry worked his way through the rest of the books in silence.

"You know," the wizard said at the end. "These are books and therefore meant to be read. How are our customers going to read them if they're sealed shut?"

"How are they going to read them if they're vicious and violent, and missing pages besides?" asked Harry. "You can give them the twine for a fee, or for free, warn them as to why they were bound shut, and remind them that these are books, and therefore meant for reading, not kept bound on a bookshelf somewhere. Do you want me to look for your invisible books?"

The man blinked, but was beyond questioning whether or not Harry thought he could find those.

"What year are you in?" he asked, still with that odd look of awe, as he surveyed the now fairly peaceful monster book pen.

"Third year," said Harry, in a would-be casual voice. "Say, just how many of these books did you order, anyway?"

The man was clearly about to say "far too many", but he stopped himself. "A couple hundred, I think."

Harry looked back at him. "That many third years chose 'Care of Magical Creatures'?"

The man was more than happy to explain. "There aren't that many third years taking it, no. But all the upper years have to buy a copy of the book, too, because it's the new text for the course. We buy a few extra copies, too, from the publisher, to account for accidents, and the like. Smart enough to up that number by five before purchasing this lot."

Harry's face lit up. "You have extra textbooks? Say…would you mind if I bought the course books for Arithmancy, and Ancient Runes? Just for side study…."

The man beamed at him. "Oh, far be it for me to complain about those books seeing use…are you taking Divination or Muggle Studies?"

Harry smiled back. "Divination," he said.

Harry thought he might have made a friend. The man was even kind enough to look the other way when Harry decided to purchase the book on death omens, despite being warned against it, after he'd seen a picture of a black dog on the cover….

It was odd, how much freedom he now had, come to that. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had the liberty to go where he wished, and do as he pleased (within a small area, of course, but still…). The answer was probably one he wouldn't like, something to do with the prince's life, and not his own. Since that entire area of his mind was best left avoided, he left the analysis alone, for the moment.

He had explored Diagon Alley quite thoroughly, and read quite a bit of his school material (and his non-school material side-interests) by the time Hermione and the Weasleys arrived, a week before the start of term. Well, a week and a half before (on Sunday the Twentieth). He'd finished all of his schoolwork, and was sure that Hermione had, too, but Ron was a different matter. Still, maybe…. But did he even have time to, in Egypt?

He'd skimmed through the omens book, looking for information on the dog on the cover. What he found was…disconcerting. It was easy to see why many of these omens of death found their way into the book, from the banshee to the Grim. But it had been weeks since he'd seen that creature—if it even had been a dog—and there had been nothing terribly spectral about it. He figured it was just a stray. Its hair had been shaggy and long, but it had looked…abandoned. Uncared-for. And its eyes had been neither glowing nor red. He was certain he would have noticed that, even in the brief span of time.

Not a death omen, then, he decided, and put the matter to bed.

It was a couple of days later that Ron had arrived, and he'd been pretty successful in forgetting the encounter altogether. Were it not for the fact that all of his worldly possessions were being kept with him in his trunk (and could hardly be entrusted to the Dursleys), he would have left the book at home. As it was, he was bringing it, along with his course books for the previous two years, with him to Hogwarts. This meant that he now had quite a few textbooks in his trunk, and was grateful for Hagrid's economy and intelligence in picking out his trunk, which was sturdy, and roomy enough for the entire seven-year course set. He suspected that there was also a feather-light charm on it, but he couldn't quite recall hearing it mentioned.

Still, it had stayed him in good stead, as they said. Much better than the Weasleys' supplies, which, as with everything else they owned, were frayed and patched and old, third and fourth-hand.

Speaking of the Weasleys, there they quite suddenly were, a week and a half before term started. He found Ron first, eating an ice cream with enthusiasm, whilst talking to Hermione. The overflowing carry-tote from Flourish and Blotts showed where Hermione had been for the past few hours. Ron had probably gone too, although…hadn't he said his whole family was coming to stay at the Leaky Cauldron? Perhaps it was the same situation as last year, with Mrs. Weasley and Mr. Weasley rushing about gathering school supplies.

Harry, slightly wary of their enthusiasm, approached the table, looking around to ensure no one was watching him approach. Hermione was passionately discussing some subject that Harry would probably find boring, and which Ron definitely did—he seemed to be casting about for a reprieve.

Harry could have used the invisibility cloak to sneak up on them, but decided against it. There weren't that many people out and about anyway, at this time of day, and he didn't much feel like returning to his room to retrieve it. By now, he was sure that the mere sight of it would incite yet another lecture from Ron, and that was hardly the mood for a reunion. Besides, there was structure to these things: they went to Hogwarts, near the end of the year, he was dragged deep under the school, where the Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher would try to kill him, or worse, and he'd be forced to rely on his wits, having given the invisibility cloak over to Ron.

Somewhere over the course of the ensuing battle, he'd die, and after his recovery stay in the Hospital Wing, Ron would come over, hand back over the invisibility cloak, and lecture him, scolding him particularly harshly for dying. A few days later, they boarded the train to return home, where after a period of suffering under the Dursleys, they'd return to Hogwarts, and the cycle would begin again.

By now, surely even Ron had noticed the trend—even if he didn't connect the sight of the invisibility cloak with their end-of-year adventures, somehow.

As if was, Ron's face lit up as he caught sight of Harry, and then he was very nearly crushed to death yet again by the joint might of Ron and Hermione, either of whom, working alone, had hugs that would kill the average human. It was a miracle that he was neither suffocated by Hermione, nor compacted by Ron. But, although he had every reason to, he didn't flinch or draw back. He just shook his head, and bore through it with as much poise as he could muster. He might have made more protestation had he been able to breathe.

"Harry!" Ron cried. "You do look much better now than you did last year."

"I've been talking with Ron about my new classes," Hermione gushed, "But we can talk about Ron's trip to Egypt, instead. I've wanted to go ever since I read in A History of Magic that—"

"It's good to see the two of you, too," Harry said, with the most sincere smile he could muster. His stay in Diagon Alley had been good for him, he had to admit. He'd been able to eat a decent amount of food a day (preparation for Hogwarts), and the lack of necessity, the freedom and safety of not to have to constantly watch his back, and watch his step, had made him lower his guard a bit.

Part of the reason he hadn't flinched or withdrawn. Still, the Dursleys had left an indelible mark on him. He knew it, could feel their brand burnt down deep. Ugh. No, he was not going to think about them just now.

"Ah, yes. It is good to see you again," Ron agreed. "And, with my apologies for being late, might I wish you a happy birthday? Fred and George helped me to buy you a present. It never ceases to amaze me that you have somehow earned your way into their good graces…or what passes for them. Happy birthday, Harry."

He was reaching into a bag at his side as he spoke (he must have brought it with him just in case he ran into Harry. But Ron's dad worked at the Ministry, so he had more cause than most to know Harry's whereabouts).

He pulled out an odd looking mirror, indistinct shapes swirling at it. Harry cocked his head, brow furrowed in confusion as he studied it.

"…A broken mirror? Seven years' bad luck?"

"As if you need any more of that," Hermione said, shuddering. Harry nodded an acknowledgement. She was wringing her hands. "I'm sorry, Harry…my gift was too big…I left it back at the Leaky Cauldron."

"That's alright," Harry said, beaming at them both. "Really. I'm not used to getting gifts…just seeing you two again is enough."

Why did he mean it? That was a strange thought.

He looked down at the not-mirror in his hands.

"It's called a 'Foe-Glass'," Ron began, and Hermione's eyes lit up. She was about to interject, but Harry frowned at her, and she thought better of it. "It shows you the whereabouts of your enemies—how close they are to finding you. Given our past two years at Hogwarts, I thought it apt. It comes with instructions!"

He seemed quite pleased with this fact, as if personally responsible. Harry decided to overlook it.

"Oh! That does sound useful—" The instructions were hidden in a cavity of the base, for safe-keeping, as he would later discover. It detailed the usage of Foe-Glasses, giving recommendations on placement, and a detailed warranty. It did seem rather useful—but you'd have to watch it a lot. Still, better some warning than none.

He thanked Ron, and Hermione later, when she handed over the Broomstick Servicing Kit she'd bought for him. By then, they'd already reunited with the rest of the Weasley clan.

They stopped at the Leaky Cauldron, primarily so that Hermione could drop off her books, with Harry surreptitiously glancing at them, to see that, in fact, she seemed to have taken absolutely every elective Hogwarts offered, including, inexplicably, Muggle Studies. Harry would never understand her. Ever.

Ginny, by contrast, seemed thrilled to see him, if still a bit flustered over the events of last year. She seemed torn between trying to corner him to ask him how his summer had been in private, and avoiding him, as she had last summer.

He ended up cornering her to ask her how she had liked Egypt. She could, at least, empathise a bit more about Ron being an overprotective big brother, and despite how heartwarming their reunion had been, and no matter how glad he'd been to see Ron and Hermione again, he spent quite some time exchanging complaints with Ginny.

But that, of course, was not the end of his summer. His could never have such a peaceful ending…now could it?

Chapter Text

One of the benefits of the Weasleys winning the equivalent of the lottery was that Harry didn't have to drag Ron into Ollivander's to get a new wand (he wasn't even sure he could; Ron was incredibly strong). Instead, the Weasleys had taken him to Ollivander's themselves, and Ron's new willow wand was amongst the things the three of them discussed before heading back out to Diagon Alley. Ron said something about getting his pet rat, Scabbers, checked over, and Hermione claimed that her parents had given her some money to buy herself a gift for her birthday. Harry noted down to himself that Hermione's birthday was in September (September Nineteenth? He'd have to ask her later).

Although Hermione wanted an owl, the local pet store Magical Menagerie, true to its name, sold all manner of pets, including owls, but they were also the closest thing Diagon Alley had to a vet. It was the logical first stop. Harry'd had no way of knowing what was waiting for them there.

Crookshanks had the face and long hair of a domestic Persian, but was bandy-legged (probably the source of his name), and a burnt orange colour. He made a grand entrance launching himself off Ron's head trying to get to Scabbers. Harry was a bit perplexed at that behaviour—there were plenty of other rats in the store that the cat seemed content to leave alone: why fixate on Scabbers? But then, Scabbers was a different kind of rat.

He was, the lady behind the counter said, a common garden rat, and twelve years was an impossibly long time for them to live. The Weasleys must have been taking very good care of him indeed—or, perhaps, longevity was one of his super secret special magic powers the woman was going on about.

Ron showed an admirable degree of loyalty to the pet he already had by taking the rat tonic instead of a new rat—although Harry doubted the stuff would do any good. He kept it to himself, but he suspected that Scabbers had just about hit the end of his luck.

"I can't justify replacing Scabbers just because his health is declining," Ron told the shop witch in his firmest, most unshakable voice. But then he'd had to chase Scabbers out of the store, and Harry, glancing back and forth between the last known whereabouts of Hermione, and Ron, opted to follow the latter.

"Perhaps heatstroke?" Harry asked, knowing absolutely nothing about medicine, and even less, somehow, about the veterinary kind.

Ron frowned, that considering, contemplative frown people get when they were trying to remember something. Harry gave him the time and space to think of it. "He has been looking off ever since Egypt…but it is possible that he has been unwell for longer than that, and I did not—"

Harry waved a dismissive hand. "I'm sure you would have noticed, Ron. You're the most overbearing person I know."

For once, that was meant as a compliment.

"Where is Hermione, do you think?" asked Ron, glancing back to the store, and raising himself to his feet. Harry shrugged.

"There are no books in the Magical Menagerie. But they do have owls. Perhaps she thought it best to make the most of our stop here."

It was to both of their surprise (and Ron's quiet dismay) that Hermione emerged from the store a few seconds later with a basket slung over her shoulder. Sticking out of the basket were a ginger claw, and a squashed feline face. Ron seemed at a loss for words for a moment.

"You forgot your rat tonic, Ron," said Hermione, slapping the bottle she was carrying in her free hand into Ron's. "And don't look that way. He was just a bit overexcited; he didn't mean to land on your head."

Ron reached up to run his fingers through his hair. They came away red, and Harry winced in sympathy. Ron seemed to still be trying to find an appropriate response, but his fists were starting to clench. Unfortunately, even if Harry tried to warn Hermione to stop, she was just as stubborn as the two of them. There would be no stopping her until she'd made her point. Harry braced himself for the impending explosion, instead.

"Poor Crookshanks…the shop witch said he'd been locked up in there for ages…no one wanted him," she continued, scratching the head sticking out of the basket under what Harry assumed was its chin.

"And did you not think to question why that might be? Perhaps there is good reason that he—"

"Oh, leave off, Ron!" Hermione snapped, as Harry facepalmed in the background. Well, he couldn't remember a time the two of them had had a fight. It was bound to happen eventually.

"And what of Scabbers? How is he to recover his energy and strength with a cat around?" Ron demanded, folding his arms and even seeming to brace his feet in a battle stance. Watch out, Hermione!

Harry tried to think of a way to stop this before it turned too ugly.

"There are plenty of cats in the gryffindor dorms. This is hardly a new problem. No one has yet lost a pet…I assume there are some sort of wards—"

Harry sighed. She probably shouldn't have used the word "assume" when it came to the welfare of someone under Ron's protection—even a pet rat.

"Scabbers was better able to hide before he fell ill. Furthermore, none of the cats have shown interest in him before, unlike your new cat—"

"But he'll be in the girls dorm, with me, and Scabbers will be in the boys dorm, with you," she began, but this argument was stupid enough that Harry was almost personally offended.

"You have said yourself that while the staircase leading to the girls dorms prevents boys from climbing it, the reverse is not true. Christmas, I think, of our first year. There are no doors barring Crookshanks from entering or leaving as he pleases. Scabbers, therefore, has less recourse, and is more vulnerable."

Ron glanced at Harry, as if wondering why Harry would speak on his behalf. Hermione's eyes flooded with tears.


Harry decided to say something more before she could start crying. She didn't often do that anymore, and he couldn't blame her for not wanting to part with Crookshanks. He wouldn't want to give up Hedwig, even if her wings had been clipped and she could no longer fly. He'd heard people call it "falling in love". Pets were members of the family, too, a bit like children. And Hermione clearly already adored Crookshanks.

"I don't think you have to get rid of him. Perhaps if we got a terrarium, or something, to keep Scabbers in, something cat proof, with some sort of protective or warning spells on it…."

"And why should Scabbers not be free to go where he pleases?" Ron asked, rounding on Harry. Harry sighed, one hand over his face, as if he could prevent the inevitable headache from arising.

"Just until he's recovered," Harry said. "For his own protection. There are more dangers than merely cats for a creature as small as Scabbers."

To his relief, that seemed to settle the current argument. Ron and Hermione nodded their agreement to this new plan, and Ron returned to the Magical Menagerie to attempt to find a cage with a handle that he could afford, Harry following.

Harry sighed, rolling his eyes, and said, "That reminds me. I ought to have given you more reimbursement for the cost of your visits. I took the Knight Bus here, and I'm not sure how I survived."

As usual, Ron took umbrage to Harry making light of his own demise, and Harry shrugged, smiling, and said, "Anyway, this was my idea. You shouldn't have to pay for it."

He picked out a cage, himself, and then spent fifteen minutes pestering the witch behind the counter for details about it, and whether or not any spells had been put on it. Ron stood back, aghast, as Harry somehow managed to talk down the price, which was still more than a simple cage ought to be, and then handed the cage over to Ron. It fell to the floor with a clatter, and then Ron seemed to thaw, perhaps at the sudden noise, reaching down to grab the ring-hold.

They discovered that Scabbers did not like the cage, but there was little to be done about that fact. He'd just have to suffer it, at least in his convalescence.

Hermione was decent enough to have waited outside for the two of them. She carried the hefty load that was her new cat with stolid patience, as the three of them wandered Diagon Alley, looking into the various shops. Harry felt only a bit the odd man out for not having his pet with him, but he shrugged. They couldn't enter any eatery, nor most of the shops, but they could window shop.

Ron found the Firebolt. There was still quite the crowd of admirers drooling over the glass. Harry frowned, huffed, folded his arms, and looked away.

"I do have a Nimbus Two Thousand," he said. "That has served me well. I shouldn't complain."

Ron looked slightly wistful for a moment. But by that point they'd been out wandering the streets for over an hour, and Harry thought that they should go check in with the rest of the Weasleys.

The Drs. Granger were also there, that first night, perfectly polite, if somewhat horrified when they learnt that Hermione was the only one present (except for the doctors themselves) who had ever had a dental checkup. They seemed inclined to make appointments for the lot, until they came to themselves and realised their current surroundings.

Did wizards perhaps not get cavities or gingivitis? Harry very much wanted to know, for a few minutes, as he listened to the talk around the table. But he forgot about it, of course, over the fuss of Percy being made Head Boy. If there were any way to make him smugger….

At least Harry was stationed at the other end of the table from Percy. He'd chosen to sit with Ron and Hermione, which also saved them (although Hermione might not have minded, come to it).

Dinner was a pleasant affair, and Mrs. Weasley seemed in a very good mood, perhaps because she didn't have to cook. Or perhaps her holiday had done her good.

The Grangers minus Hermione left the next day, leaving Hermione at the mercy of almost the entire Weasley clan. Her only ally was Harry, who was hardly reliable as a bulwark. As seemed only a necessary precaution, they avoided Percy for the rest of their stay, which was easy enough to do; he was most often to be found upstairs in his room, polishing his Head Boy badge, or reading a book he'd bought during their trip to Diagon Alley. It was called Prefects Who Gained Power, which seemed a bit…slytherin, but Fred and George pointed this out often enough that Harry felt no need to do the same.

Time seemed to run at triple speed, and it seemed that the very next day was September First. Everyone was packing in a frenzy, even Hermione, and missing belongings were being sought for all over the place. The bustle was a bit much for Harry, and he decided to go for a walk to clear his head a bit.

It had the opposite effect, as he'd overheard a heated argument between Mr. and Mrs. Weasley. Mr. Weasley argued that Harry should be told that Sirius Black had escaped Azkaban to kill him. "You don't understand, Molly. The guards say he's been talking over and over again in his sleep, always the same words: 'he's at Hogwarts', 'he's at Hogwarts'. They say Black is insane—if he wasn't when he went to Azkaban, he will be now. Black lost everything the night You-Know-Who fell, and if you ask me, he's hoping that killing Harry will somehow resurrect his master…."

Mrs. Weasley, by contrast, firmly insisted that he was still "just a child", and needed protecting. "For God's sake, he's happy not knowing!" she cried.

Happiness was transitory. Harry was well-aware of that fact. He now had reason to begrudge Mrs. Weasley for keeping vital information from him, but Mr. Weasley was hardly better, talking about him and Ron heading into the Forbidden Forest as if they'd done it on a lark, slightly more justified in recalling to mind that Harry had run away from home (but he didn't know Harry's reasoning for running away). Still…although Mr. Weasley seemed of the mind that Harry sought for trouble, at least he wasn't advocating that Harry be kept in the dark.

Whispers. Rumours. Not one hint. Devastation. Destruction. Ruin. Shame. Pain. Revenge. The three linked together, now the cycle was set in motion.

This is different, he told himself.

Is it? asked the part of his mind he had disavowed. Until now, he hadn't realised how tightly clenched his fists were.

Oh, yes, an infamous criminal had escaped Azkaban, and the current consensus amongst the most knowledgeable was that he must have done so to kill Harry….

But why tell Harry of that fact?

He pressed himself into the wall, as if to meld into the wood. They did not notice him there as they walked past, still arguing. Harry had long since mastered the art of escaping notice.

He continued on his way, his mind now in turmoil, thinking at a rapid pace through all he had just heard. He knew that there would be no avoiding telling Ron, at the very least, and Hermione was also his best friend.

This complicated matters.

August Thirty-First was confusing, giving him yet another angle, yet another viewpoint, into the entire mess, further muddying the waters. Had he been certain that his Mother was real, he would have taken her word for the facts of what had occurred, twelve years ago, even though she had not herself been present; she made a strong case, based on her familiarity with Sirius Black, and other knowledge that she would not share with him for months, yet. He'd made the mistake of telling Mother what Mr. Weasley had said, and then had had to backtrack, to explain the escape of Sirius Black from Azkaban, a feat that none before had accomplished.

"Azkaban…" she said, tone grim as she stared into nothing. "Abode of the Azkaban guards, that they rightly call 'dementors', beings of vile countenance, the embodiment of despair. 'Dementors', they call them, for they instil madness in those too long exposed. Demons. Wraiths. Creatures of evil, they infest the darkest places, and feed off the happiness of men. Yet the Wizarding World decided to make use of them, to give them prey that could not escape. That is why men fear Azkaban—not only that it is said to be inescapable, located on a remote island, far out, in the bitter cold of the great North Sea. Azkaban. Yes, I know of that place. Severus told me of it first. But that was long ago. Before."

"Sirius Black escaped," Harry said, voice very soft. "It is, therefore, possible. I wonder how—"

"I would rather know why he was there at all!" Mother said, eyes blazing with indignation. "I can think of no crime he might have committed warranting such a sentence."

"The murder of thirteen people—with a single curse, I was told," Harry offered, and she shook her head with great force.

"No, it does not fit. It is all wrong. Sirius would never murder the innocent. He had his faults—including a raging temper, he was impulsive, rash, quick to anger, but brilliant. If he had murdered twenty people in cold blood, he had the skill with which to escape undetected, and with none the wiser. He was clever—perhaps too clever for his own good. When I reflect back on it, that friendship, the affection I had for him, perhaps stems from forgotten memories of another boy who was impulsive and rash, quick to anger, but steadfast and loyal. But Sirius was also sharp-tongued, witty, thinking readily on his feet, and he wrought more havoc with his friends in his first year in Hogwarts than I believe the school has seen in any pupils, before or since. He reminded me of both of my sons, of happier times, although I did not at the time recall them. Tell me, my son: would Thor have indiscriminately slaughtered defenceless bystanders, thus?"

Perhaps, in certain situations, Harry thought, but did not say aloud. Once Thor had learnt that his actions had consequences…he'd channeled his violence into productive outlets. And it was that tempered, smelted Thor that Mother spoke of.

"No," he said, glancing down. "He defended the innocent. He put himself in harm's way, that they be spared. He is a protector."

"And Sirius is a loyal friend, and a member of the Order of the Phoenix. James and he were as close as brothers. They were very similar. Both of them were much too smart for any ordinary education; they found the curriculum at Hogwarts unchallenging—boring, you might say—and, as you have yourself, turned to teaching themselves other magics, delving into the secrets of magic that lay behind what we were taught in school. Then tell me, my son, as they now say that you are the protector of Hogwarts: would you then kill those who have done no harm, who pose no threat?"

Again, he answered the question she meant, instead of the question she asked. "No, Mother," he said. His head was bowed. He didn't know what to say, but couldn't meet her eyes.

If she was real, then she was correct about his identity. And if she were correct, then, willing or not, mind-controlled or not, he had innocent blood on his hands. A distasteful thought. Was it more painful to be mistaken for a murderer, or to be one?

"Somehow, somewhere, you are missing vital information. Something to make this situation plausible. I will tell you this: the crimes that they say Sirius committed he did not. Who the true culprit is I cannot say for sure, but I have my suspicions. Do not set yourself against Sirius Black, my son. Stay your hand, and hear him out, if ever your paths should cross. By contrast, if you should ever meet the wizard they name Peter Pettigrew…keep your guard up, and give no quarter. Azkaban is where he belongs, although he may have the means to escape, if Sirius has managed. Do not judge on outward appearance, my son. You of all people should know that rarely are people or situations what they appear."

Harry bowed his head. The main obstacle to the effect of her words was that he believed, still, as he must to retain his sanity (as he told himself) that, as he was convinced of the unreality of his dreams, none of the information thus acquired was trustworthy, either. Had he believed, he might have spared himself—and those he loved—much pain. But such knowledge is difficult to ascertain until after the fact.

Perhaps, in the end, his delusion, too, was for the best.

Chapter Text

There were a few commonalities about the day Harry would return to Hogwarts that would remain immutable from year to year. September First was always the day the train left the station for Hogwarts, even when it fell on a Sunday. This year it fell on a Wednesday. But because it was September First, the previous night was always the last night of August, August Thirty-First, and Harry, therefore, always had a chance to speak with his mother, to discuss matters, important and not, concerning the upcoming year, the past, the future, whatever. Sometimes, this left him rather more tired than he would otherwise have been, but he wouldn't give it up for anything (as he rather thought he'd demonstrated first year).

After the consistent, immutable facts about the train ride, there were then a few that Harry thought he could call reliable facts: he would ride it with Ron and Hermione in a compartment to themselves, Malfoy would show up halfway through to torment them, the shop witch pushing the trolley cart showing up an hour or so before Malfoy did.

This year was already not one for consistency. Harry, looking back, would consider this foreshadowing for the rest of his rather odd year, for that was not the only "constant" set awry this year.

The first sign, therefore, might be when the only "unoccupied" compartment that they could find was occupied by an adult, hair prematurely grey, with a tattered brown suitcase emblazoned with peeling letters forming the name: Professor R. J. Lupin.

Harry had to wonder whether the trunk was second-hand, or whether the man had bought it new, and it had just seen much wear since. Was he Professor R. J. Lupin?

He frowned to himself. He was pretty sure that Mother had mentioned a "Lupin", or rather somebody-or-other Lupin, whose name might have begun with an "r". Or maybe a "b". He couldn't quite recall. If it had even been Lupin.

Perhaps he should pay more attention to the words of his mother. Perhaps he'd heard the name of "Lupin" elsewhere, and misattributed it. But if he hadn't, it lent credence to his mother's words, and therefore her arguments….

Harry was, perhaps, a bit moodier than usual after this. But he managed to inform Ron and Hermione of Mr. Weasley's warning without snapping too much. Poor, poor Mr. Weasley. He should have cut the man some slack by admitting he'd (accidentally) eavesdropped on the man's conversation. But old habits died hard, and if the man was that incautious…well, there might be an occasion later on when Harry overheard something important.

Of course, it had come at the cost of almost missing the train. But he'd been obliged to leave before he could give Mr. Weasley his word that he wouldn't seek out Black…whatever that was about. If his mother was right, then he should seek out Sirius Black, if for no other reason than to get to the bottom of the real story. As it was, it was almost inevitable that he'd end up having to do the detective work and solve the case just to survive this year.

Happy thoughts, right?

Ron and Hermione seemed rather more alarmed than he at the news that Black was (supposedly) escaped from Azkaban just to kill Harry. Hermione began shaking, as if she were this close to wringing her hands, blabbering on about how she'd heard that Azkaban was impregnable, and inescapable. Only a powerful wizard could have broken in or out, it was like Hogwarts, etc. etc.. Harry was almost in a bad enough mood to remind her that Hogwarts had a regular supply of "dark wizards", the sort who might even be able to escape from Azkaban. Quirrell, after all, had broken into Gringotts, and that was supposed to be quite as secure as Hogwarts and Azkaban.

Ron seemed to be grieving already, judging by the tightness of his expression, the pain, as if already mourning. Harry considered asking why no one had informed him that he was mortally wounded and about to die.

"Dumbledore's there, though," Harry said. "Even Riddle himself didn't try to kill Ginny, last year, until Dumbledore was sent away from Hogwarts."

While he'd somehow managed to talk Ron into calling Voldemort "Riddle" instead of "You-Know-Who", at least in the sort of company who knew the name, Hermione had taken to flinching at the mention of "Riddle" instead.

He'd already had all the internal debate he felt necessary to decide whether or not it made sense to stick with calling the man "You-Know-Who". But, since he knew Riddle's actual name now, why not use it? Dumbledore could no longer make complaints about slander, or whatever his objection at the end of first year had been.

It was just Hermione who was complicating things. She resolved to complicate things even further, evidently, because even as Harry had been explaining, she'd started fiddling with the straps holding her cat carrier basket closed. Scabbers squeaked in fright in his cage, Ron shot Hermione a decidedly reproachful glare, and Harry sighed. Time to mediate, then.

"Surely, you don't intend to let Crookshanks out on the train?" Ron demanded, as the unnaturally large cat crawled out of the basket, stalking over to Scabbers's cage, set in the corner. Hermione was convinced that Crookshanks was a kitty genius, but he nevertheless seemed a bit stymied by the locking mechanism on the cage.

"What of Scabbers?" Ron continued, with quiet intensity, but with a warning edge to his voice that assured Harry that he was about to grow twenty times louder. Usually, he tried to keep his voice down, owing to Harry's sensitivity, but….

"It would seem that the cage serves its intended purpose of protecting Scabbers," Harry said, with false levity.

Ron rounded on Harry. "You can't believe that it is fair for Crookshanks to roam free whilst Scabbers must remain in his cage for his own protection."

Harry sighed. He really didn't want to get drawn into their quarrel. "'Fair'? Probably not. But this way, he is safer. I know that he usually lies around and sleeps anyway. At least this way he doesn't have to worry about anyone stepping on him…and there's no danger of his running away, like Trevor, Neville's toad. He doesn't even seem that upset, do you think?"

He cocked his head, studying Scabbers. His health was not at all improved for the tonic, but perhaps, as Ron suggested, that was the stress of Crookshanks's presence, added on to whatever had first caused his…malady.

"But we—" Ron said, a bit louder, and Harry cut him off, with a finger to his lips. He jerked his head in maybe-Lupin's direction, just as the man gave a mighty snore.

They turned as one to glance at him, Ron looking slightly chagrined.

"Hmm…doesn't look too well, either, does he?" Harry mused, staring at the man as if he could see what it was that ailed him. There was something almost familiar about him…as if he'd seen him before… but, then, Wizarding Britain was not that large. Perhaps he'd run into him on the street?

He shook his head. "I think we ought to keep our voices down, as a courtesy to the new professor, if nothing else."

"But the Defence post is supposed to be curst," whispered Hermione in a strangled whisper. "He'll need to keep his wits about him, and he doesn't look as if he could handle any setbacks, does he?"

Ron nodded. "If he is as ill as you would have us believe, then it seems impossible that he should have any less trouble teaching at Hogwarts than here and now."

Harry frowned. "Perhaps he'll feel better, tomorrow. Perhaps it's just a cold? Whatever the wizarding equivalent is…. Perhaps if we just let him recover…all this excitement can't be good for his health…. Of course," he said, realisation and memory returning to him, "he'll almost certainly attempt to kill me at the end of the year. Perhaps I shouldn't reproach you, or urge you to 'stay your hand!'."

Ron tensed, and Hermione frowned at Harry. "You can't jump to conclusions thus, Harry," she said. "Just because our first two Defence professors had questionable ideas about right and wrong—"

"Because one tried to kill us, and the other worse, did you mean?" Harry interjected. Hermione seemed to know better than to take the bait, or perhaps she just didn't hear, ploughing right on, regardless.

"—But we're only in our third year, and none of the older years have anything bad to say about their own professors. Perhaps he isn't a professor at all, but even if he is, that doesn't make him evil. Also, as Ron says: stop making light of your own death."

The end of her speech was given in the abrupt manner of the afterthought. Perhaps her way of trying to make peace. Harry wouldn't hold his breath. They'd already had a few arguments about Scabbers versus Crookshanks. Harry tried to edge out of them, as much as he could. They were mostly all the same.

Hermione had already scolded him for blowing up his aunt, but somehow hadn't put two and two together to realise that this meant that his Hogsmeade permission form wasn't signed yet, and therefore, he would not be going to Hogsmeade. As the topic drifted in that direction, Ron shot Harry an apologetic look. Harry pretended that it didn't bother him, one way or the other. Perhaps he could go next year? If he asked Professor McGonagall, she might give him another form. But what were the odds that Uncle Vernon would sign that one, either?

"Harry, are you alright?" Hermione said, voice hesitant. He flinched, already miserable enough to see danger everywhere, and it wasn't yet early enough even for Malfoy to appear.

Harry gave her a distant, forced smile that he hoped didn't seem too bitter. "Uncle Vernon is, technically speaking, my guardian," Harry said. "There was never a chance that I could go to Hogsmeade."

Perhaps the Twins would know a way. He hated to fall back on such drastic recourse: quite apart from them being prankster-tricksters, and therefore inherently untrustworthy (here he managed to squash a thought before it could be born), he also did not like the thought of giving them any manner of leverage over him. If he sought for the assistance of the Twins, it was as a last resort.

Hermione's eyes widened, and her mouth rounded, a silent exclamation of comprehension.

Ron was picking at the nap of the fabric under his hands. Harry was fairly sure that Ron wasn't even aware that he was doing that. He was quite deliberately not looking at Hermione as her eyes filled with tears. He'd done his part to steer the conversation away from Hogsmeade, but had failed. There was little more that he could do.

"Oh, Harry, I'm so sorry!" Hermione cried. "I didn't think—"

People often seemed to forget to think around Harry. He wondered if he should hang a sign around his neck reminding people not to forget their thinking caps. He decided that probably very few people would understand what he meant. It wasn't worth it.

"Don't worry about it, Hermione," he said, looking down at the floor, right fist clenched on his lap. "It's not that big of a deal, anyway."

Harry decided that he was glad that they'd decided to share the compartment of the new Defence teacher (although he knew he would later regret it when "Lupin" tried to kill him at year's end), when Malfoy showed up, almost right on schedule, and tried to pick a fight. Professor Lupin stirred then, making an odd, snorting sort of noise, and that called Malfoy's attention to the presence of the new professor.

They left soon thereafter, without the usual argument-that-turned-into-a-brawl. This was an odd stroke of luck. Harry wondered what sort of candy they should have bought for the Professor, or what they might still order for him, to thank him for that. It must be the first time that Malfoy had shown up that a fight hadn't ensued.

Of course, when life throws you a bone, you should expect a pile of lemons to follow. They'd managed, for the first time ever, to avoid the confrontation with Malfoy, which meant that something far worse had to take his place.

Although, not right away. There were a few more hours (two?) of peaceful, amiable quiet, and then the things in cloaks arrived.

Harry hadn't been in his best state of mind when he'd boarded the train, and his mood had worsened as Hermione had gone on about Hogsmeade's fascinating history. Usually, it was good to have a fellow bookworm to compare notes with (although she was more of a nerd than he), but it also had its drawbacks. She'd clearly brought up the topic expecting him to have opinions to contribute, but he'd not felt the need to torment himself by learning all the details of the special village he wouldn't catch a glimpse of…at least not until he reached age of majority at seventeen, and the permission slip was no longer necessary.

His mood had improved, though, as they'd discussed other things (Hermione was keen on all of her new subjects, and wanted to know Harry's opinions, even though he'd already told her his thoughts when they'd been picking courses last year). This had led to the admission that he'd picked up spare textbooks for two of the other courses he wasn't taking. ("I shouldn't think I'd need ones for Muggle Studies, Hermione. The Dursleys are the quintessential magic-hating muggles.")

Ron had kept out of that conversation, probably keeping an eye on Harry to ensure he didn't spontaneously combust, or something, Two or three hours had passed without Harry consciously being aware of it, and he and Ron had had plenty to discuss. They'd also spoken of the warning that Mr. Weasley had given to Harry about Black breaking out of prison to kill him. Hermione sought out his advice about breaking out of Azkaban, while Ron contributed thoughts that were by turns surprisingly intelligent, and utterly unworkable.

As the halfway point approached, and the trolley witch came and went, they tensed as a unit, at the thought of the coming confrontation with Malfoy that was sure to follow. Their avoidance of such a confrontation was a pleasant surprise. Indeed, it put Harry in rather a good mood, which he should have known was just begging the universe to punish him.

Returning to the case in point: the beings that Harry would later learn were called "dementors". These were the selfsame Azkaban guards who had reported Sirius Black's mumbled hypnologia to the Minister. These were the guards Lily Evans had decried only last night.

And Harry was sure that, no matter how widely they were discussed, and no matter how thoroughly written of, no one would ever be able to do justice to the horror they brought with them. Light and warmth fled from them (fitting for you, is it not? asked the part of Harry's mind that he had disavowed, which in their presence could be silenced only by far worse…). Before their feet, he was sure, flowers would have wilted, grass brittled and died, water dried up, turning all they touched into a barren, lifeless, familiar wasteland.

In short, they were bad for his mental health, which was never reliable anyway. Still, he hadn't felt he was that…vulnerable. Weak. He'd fought and defeated Lockhart, Quirrell, a basilisk. He'd faced off against Riddle twice, and twice held his own. He'd thought he'd been improving….

But light and hope fled before the dementors, filling the train with a primordial chill, the chill of a world without light. Wasn't there a myth that that should make him think of? But there was no time for that.

He thought that those first few moments (Hours. Days. Years.) of their presence would remain permanently seared into his memory. Some things were transitory, fleeting, temporary, but dementors stretched time out, as only suffering (Pain. Torture) could. Theirs the halting gasps of the moribund, at death's door, theirs whose was not a peaceful death, but a lament to crown the other sorrows of their miserable lives. He'd heard such breathing before. He knew it.

They brought with them the fetid reek of decay, and they had the grey, clammy skin of a corpse. But although they bore the trappings of Death, it was not death they brought. Harry had said it to Riddle last year: death was no stranger to him. Not a companion, either, but not a force to be shunned and avoided at all costs. There were other, worse things, that he would prefer death to.

They came to the door of the compartment, huge and towering, wearing the black cloaks that artists favoured for Death, complete with hooded cowl. And for a moment, one in which Harry took pains to study the new arrivals for far better cause than mere curiosity, he analysed them. But then, it was as if they became aware of his existence, and Ron's, and Hermione's.

Their arrival had plunged the train into darkness, but there were windows on the train, letting in muted light from outside (what manner of light, Harry never thought to check). But when their focus turned to Harry, Ron, and Hermione, even these far-distant lights seemed to go out. In that absolute darkness, the figures approached, and it was, for a moment, utter guesswork to divine their location.

But only for a moment. Then, he quite forgot about them. A voice, at once familiar and strange, was shouting, screaming, begging someone to spare him.

Not Harry, not Harry, please not Harry—

Stand aside. you silly girl. Stand aside, now.

He knew that voice, too, but where—? He couldn't think. What was going on? Where was he?

Not Harry. Please…. Take me, kill me instead. Have mercy.

There. That word again, like a curse….

Avada Kedavra!

Green light.


A familiar nightmare, retold in vivid detail, but viewed from afar (for now). Where was Mother, to protect him? That had been her voice. He was almost sure… but it hadn't been her as he knew her.

Pain (grief). Loss. Regret.

Were those his Mother's last moments? But he—

It was as if there were a force in his mind, a canker, a worm. It dug deeper into his mind, brought forth older memories.

Pain (physical). Violence. A choice. Had he chosen well? Had there been such a choice?

The world stripped to its bones, and he was being stripped down to the same. Would he like what he found, if he saw his own essence, laid bare? Of course not. That was why he had—

The only way not to break, is—

Anything but that. Physical pain he could handle, could hold at bay, could work through. He knew it, had seen evidence of it before, perhaps all his life. A distant, fleeting knowledge.

Pitched combat against a legendary monster. Against Quirrell. But those were in the future—or in the past. He couldn't tell the difference anymore. He just wanted the pain to stop.

He could work through pain. Only the weak yielded to pain. He would work through it. He had to.

The only way—

Don't use the mantra, something seemed to warn him. A voice he trusted, from only slightly deeper in his own mind than he now was. There was someone else here, too, someone trying to drive out the worm, to keep him safe. He could almost think, and it was only because of her.

They were trying to take her away! They couldn't do that! He wouldn't let them!

What was that? Light? A cessation, salvation, safety. Rescue from pain, or only a brief reprieve?

Light was returning to his mind. Something had driven out the worm. Mother was safe. He was safe.

He was not conscious.

He awoke several hours(?) later, to someone slapping his face. Hard.

Pain, he could deal with. He tried to drag his tattered mind back around him, but the safety it had once provided was all in pieces. It would take months for him to put himself back together the way he was supposed to be.

Or perhaps it wasn't even possible. Who was he, again?

Someone was calling to him. They were very loud; he wished they would stop. He wanted to rest.

"Harry, come on! Wake up!" Hermione's voice said in the background. Hermione. He knew her….

It all came rushing back to him, and he launched himself back to his feet, from where he lay on the ground. Or, well, he tried. He managed to sit up, at least, and look around the compartment. Ron, of course, was the one who'd slapped him into consciousness, looking rather pale and weary himself.

"That voice…" Harry began. No, that wasn't the place to begin. "Those things…what were they?"

"Dementors," said an unfamiliar voice. It was ragged, and hoarse, and sounded world-weary and feeble, which was a good summary of how Harry felt right now. He could sympathise. He turned to face it, and blinked. A man with greying blond hair, holding out a chunk of chocolate in his direction.

"Eat it," he said, shoving the chunk into Harry's hands. "It will help mitigate the effects somewhat. You had rather an extreme reaction…."

"Right, what happened?" asked Harry, staring at the chocolate. He was immediately suspicious of it. It wasn't wrapt, or anything. The professor could have done anything to it. Perhaps it was poisoned.

Ron, by contrast, took his with something that might be considered politeness by some, and shoved it into his mouth. Harry facepalmed at the lack of caution thus displayed, and watched Ron carefully, even as, with a sigh, he opened his seventh sense anyway, to try and figure out whether or not any magic was present on the chocolate. It seemed quite ordinary, and, unlike Riddle's diary, there was no partial soul lurking out of sight, hiding from him.

He sensed no enchantments about the chocolate, which was somewhat suspicious itself. But he shook his head, and turned to watch Ron for adverse reactions, instead. Ron blinked, as if awakening from a dream, and smiled. Harry's suspicion was piqued. He couldn't think of the last time he'd seen Ron grin…had it been in first year? A long time ago. He always seemed so…dour. Grim. Uptight, even. But right now, he looked laid back, relaxed.

A moment's jealousy, that in the space of a few seconds Lupin had managed to take better care of Harry's friends than Harry had, himself, these past two years.

"What happened?" he demanded, again.

"Eat the chocolate. It will help," the Defence professor assured them, and then scurried out of the compartment, saying, "Excuse me, I just have to go speak to the conductor…."

Effectively leaving those who remained to explain the situation to Harry.

"Well—well, those things came into the compartment," Hermione began,"and it was just awful…cold, and dark, and I felt—" She shivered, apparently at a loss for words for once in her life. If Harry had had to choose someone to explain what had happened to him, he would have chosen Hermione. She put in all the details, and was very smart, and observant. Ron's explanation would have been much more disjointed.

"I found myself dwelling on the worst moments in my life… and then you…passed out, and Ron even started looking unsteady on his feet…you know how strong he is…." Harry glanced at Ron, who looked away. "I wanted to know what was wrong with the two of you, but Ron seemed to be hanging on a bit better. He seemed a bit distant, but…well, the longer they stayed, the worse it got. It was like they were draining all the happiness out of the world….

"But Neville and Ginny had come towards our compartment, seeking for shelter, I guess…they didn't quite make it. Ginny was white as hell and shaking, outside, by the time I managed to leave the compartment, and Neville looked about the same as I felt. But Professor Lupin woke up…I guess the dementors were affecting him, too…. I wonder what he's so afraid of? I mean, he would have been alive during You-Know-Who's reign. Do you suppose that's it? I mean, he clearly isn't one of the rich purebloods who follow You-Know-Who—"

"Hermione, focus," Harry said, glancing at the door to the compartment, half-expecting Lupin to reappear at any moment. "Also, breathe."

She gave him a half-hearted glare, and took a deliberate, slow breath in and out. Harry began to regret giving such an order.

"Well, as I was saying, when they opened the compartment door, Lupin told us to be quiet, and not to make so much noise—Neville and Ginny were in a state of panic outside our compartment—and then he turned to the things, and said 'None of us is hiding Sirius Black under our cloaks. Go!'. But they wouldn't leave, and meanwhile, you seemed to be convulsing, and Ron was unsteady on his feet, and you know how he is…. Well, Lupin seemed to realise that they weren't going to leave without being forced…he muttered something I couldn't hear under his breath, and a jet of white light erupted from it, and the dementors sort of glided away…warmth returned to the world…I knew everything would be okay, then, even though I wasn't watching Ron the whole time. He might have passed out, or something, and I didn't know."

Harry was still watching Ron out of the corner of his eyes. Ron was still smiling, just a little, but he seemed to have mostly returned to normal. "They were no worse than Wanda Maximoff," he muttered under his breath.

"Than who?" asked Harry. Ron blinked, as if he'd just realised he'd said anything at all, and gave a vigorous shake of his head.

"No one," Ron said, too quickly. Harry sighed, and rolled his eyes. Without a ready source of torment, his self-loathing and despair were returning to their usual levels. "Eat the chocolate, Harry."

Harry stared at the chocolate, and took a tiny bite, trying to identify any traces of muggle poisoning. He knew he wouldn't recognise them, but it was a worthwhile delusion.

"You're terrible at lying, Ron," he told Ron, voice matter-of-fact. Ron blinked, stared, brow furrowed, as if a puzzle had appeared before him, and he had to solve it within five minutes or die. Harry looked away from Ron.

"You know," said Hermione, "if Lupin were going to poison us, he would hardly have done so in such suspicious circumstances, where there were no other ready suspects. He didn't strike me as that stupid."

Harry thought back to first year—how different he'd been back then!—when he'd made his defence of Professor Snape. He could argue with her logic, but right now, the thought was…unsettling. He was still all in pieces, and who knew what he'd be if he ever put himself back together—just see how much he'd changed since coming to Hogwarts!

It was high quality dark chocolate, at least.

If Hermione thought it suspicious that he ceded the argument without a fuss, she wisely made no mention of it.

Chapter Text

Harry was still rather vague and out-of-sorts when the train arrived at Hogwarts. He barely had the presence of mind to bid the mysterious black skeletal horses that he now knew to be called thestrals his customary hellos, before stepping into the carriage with Ron and Hermione. Hermione had dismissed this habit as an odd peculiarity of Harry's, possibly even before the ride to Hogwarts last year, but Ron clearly could see the horses, too.

Which was an odd thought, and one for another time, when his thoughts were less disjointed and hazy. He'd wondered why Hermione had been the odd one out, before, but now he knew that thestrals were "omens of death", visible only to "those who have seen death"….

Well, now he knew he should be wondering why it was that Ron could see them. Perhaps a death in the family? He'd have to make subtle enquiries later, with the Twins. and maybe (he shuddered at the mere thought; were it not for the lingering effects of the dementors which even continued to plague her, Hermione would have thought him cold) Percy.

But there wasn't much energy to draw up plans, to try to chain his thoughts together (he shied away from thoughts of chains, remembering a cold metal room, and a giant of a man, with none of Hagrid's "warmth").

His thoughts came in fits and starts; under duress, he thought he might be able to string together enough to occupy several minutes of his time, before they dissipated in the manner of smoke. The dementors had scrambled his already shard-of-glass mind. They'd broken apart the pieces. He thought maybe some were missing, even, or had been replaced with pieces from elsewhere.

He hated that he could guess where the "elsewhere" would be.

Hermione and Ron were keeping almost a constant eye on him. They watched him stumble out of the carriage, with nothing that might even be mistaken for poise. His fists barely tried to clench as Malfoy breezed past, full of snide comments about dementors.

Anger tried to flare in response—how dared he? If he only knew!—but those thoughts had no more staying power than anything else. A night's rest would do him good, perhaps. Or perhaps not. Perhaps he must wait for the end of the month, and his mother would be able to help him. He would try to endure until then. But first, he must get through the Sorting.

No one he knew was getting sorted this year, and his greatest thought to protest against missing the Sorting, as McGonagall pulled him and Hermione aside, was that he would miss that year's song. It was difficult to build an exhaustive list of the Sorting Hat's criteria for picking amongst the houses if he missed a song

When he voiced such complaints, Professor McGonagall only huffed, and told him that he had her permission to visit Dumbledore's office on the morrow, if he must, and speak with the Sorting Hat then.

He remembered that there were other matters that he wished to discuss with the Hat, but that thought, too, was fleeting.

Maybe it could help him?

Another fleeting thought across his mostly-empty mind was the question of who was dressing down the first years, and calling out the names from the roll, if not McGonagall.

This thought lasted for even less time than its predecessors before passing away into the fog that was Harry's mind.

It did not occur to him to protest his treatment, and when Madame Pomfrey bustled in, already fretting over his current state, he thought she might have a point, when she called him delicate and fragile. He felt it, down to his bones, still steeped in the toxic dread of a being that might not exist—surely did exist—must not exist.

"What is wrong with me?" he demanded, in something that might be mistaken for impatience, but in truth had more in common with desperation—the grasping hand of the man going under the third time, about to drown. Does he care if his weight pulls you down too? Does he care if his nails are sharp?

Oh, not that word again. "Care".

He saw by the dimness of her eyes that his reaction was unusually severe, even before she turned to address McGonagall in low tones that he nevertheless heard. Perhaps he should curse the acute hearing the Dursleys had left him with as a matter of necessity—basic survival skills.

The Dursleys, and maybe something else.

"…never seen such a severe reaction before. I will have to think about it more. Perhaps a Cheering Charm…Dreamless Sleep Potion—"

"Not that—"he managed to interject. He suspected that he would need his dreams to help him sort himself out. And if his state lasted… he would not give up his mother's visits for anything.

Belatedly, it occurred to him that revealing that he had been eavesdropping was a bad idea. He glanced at the two women, arguing off to the side, as Hermione stared down at the floor, clearly wondering why she had been summoned, too. They didn't seem to realise that he was listening. They didn't seem to hear him.

He hated being ignored. And his tolerance and patience were stretched to the end of their tethers.

"—bed rest—perhaps he should stay the night at the Hospital Wing for observation. And we had best send for some more chocolate."

Harry sensed that he would come to loathe chocolate before the end of term. After all, if the dementors had appeared on the train…well, if they were the guards of Azkaban, the ones that Dumbledore hadn't wanted to be allowed to guard Hogwarts (nor did Harry blame him; he quite agreed), then he suspected that he would be encountering them often, even if they were not allowed on the grounds per se. And that meant…weakness. Vulnerability. Danger, he the threat. How long before he again broke, beyond any hope of salvation?

Not "again". How long before it happened for the first time?

"If you have no further questions for me, perhaps you should speak with Hermione, and then we might be able to return to the Great Hall without missing the entirety of the Sorting," he snapped.

He was very rarely ever rude to the professors. But McGonagall, to his surprise, seemed to soften at his tone. Perhaps she sensed that he was more like a wounded animal than a steel trap, all bared teeth and sharp voice as a show of strength, that you were not to be trifled with. He was used to being in a cage. He no longer cared if they gawked. He only wanted….

The thought dropped off, there. He wondered what he'd been thinking about. He was sure the memory was there, nearby. He needed to find some way to recover from whatever the dementors had done to him. But even Madame Pomfrey had no idea—

"And what of Hermione?" he asked, and then faintly recalled that he'd already asked something like enough. He frowned. That would never do.

But no one commented. They seemed to decide to set aside their concerns about him, for the moment, in order to address Hermione. They wanted him to wait outside, and he saw no use in arguing.

He gave a half-hearted effort to avoid an overnight stay in the Hospital Wing, waiting just beyond the door of the abandoned classroom for McGonagall to say whatever she had to say to Hermione. He tried to decide whether or not he thought a stay in the Hospital Wing would help. His preoccupation only jarred loose the memory of Ron's explanation of his death at the hospital at the end of first year. Hospitals—and infirmaries—were empty, soulless places, much too similar to prisons. He was going to have to find a way to get out of spending the night there, he decided.

"I think," he said, his voice small in a way he'd forgot it could be. Hesitant. He was the Harry who had rushed through his explanation at the library. The one who had been terrified to explain that he'd somehow accidentally turned his teacher's wig blue. The one who had regrown his hair overnight. Harry Harry. No confidence to be found here!

He tried again, but didn't try to find any sort of confidence or strength within himself. He suspected that "Harry Harry" was just weak. Too weak to defend himself. Too weak to stand up for himself.

"That is to say—" he shuffled his feet. He tried a third and final time. They did say that "third time's the charm", and this was a school of magic. "I mean, I think that I'd be better off spending the night in Gryffindor Tower. See how I do. If something goes wrong, I could always go to the Hospital Wing, but I need to at least try…. I can't spend the whole year in the Hospital Wing, and after that scare… I need something familiar. Something reassuring. And I need my friends."

He made the mistake of turning to Hermione, then, who was gawping at him. He could tell, just by the narrowing of her eyes, that she thought he was putting on an act. But, he wasn't. This was Harry Potter, with all his defences stripped away. Perhaps it was all he really was: a scared little boy.

Sorry to disappoint, Hermione.

He turned away from her, a brief flare of irritation enough to cover the hurt, the sting that she thought so little of him. Would Ron be any better? Did he perhaps have no friends at all? No friends…no family…all alone.

He remembered Mother. He had her, if everyone else in the world turned their backs again.

Again. But by that he surely was referring to what had happened last year, when everyone had thought him the Heir of Slytherin.

But: Hermione and Ron had not forsaken him then. He had not been utterly alone. And—

They were quick to label you as evil and a monster, however, were they not?

Ah. Good. The most unreliable part of his mind was back at the fore, whispering bad advice in his ear. It gave him something to steer far clear of, a path to avoid.

He'd told Ron that he trusted him, when Ron had asked at the end of first year. They'd been through bitter peril and worse together, and Ron had not failed him. He'd just need to trust in him again, now.

McGonagall's gaze softened, as if she were aware of his inner turmoil. Perhaps she knew that he had some, but misunderstood its nature. Harry gave Hermione the hollow, fake smile that she expected, and was perplexed at her wide-eyed, horrified response. Was there no consistency with this girl?

Show no weakness, said the part of him that he had disavowed. Unfortunately, it seemed to have the loudest voice. Was that surprising, given how many centuries of experience it held to Harry's mere decade?

In other circumstances, he might have pestered Hermione to tell him why she had been called to speak with McGonagall, when all accounts agreed that, other than he himself, the only other two who might be able to compete for title of "worst affected by the dementors" were Ron and Ginny. There must have been a reason, and it probably had little to do with dementors. It would be good to think of something else than fractured minds and souls, and soul-sucking fiends. But instead, they walked back to the Great Hall in silence.

Harry no longer recalled his reasons for insisting that the classroom in which they spoke be near the Great Hall, but if he had to guess at his reasoning, now, it would be so that they weren't as far away—less travel time—meaning that they would miss less of the ceremony.

And they did. The last few students were being called to the stool by Dumbledore when he and Hermione returned. Harry automatically stumbled over to his accustomed space at the table, not even considering that a new first-year might have taken it. He needed the familiarity of routine. He needed the reassurance of familiar faces, of friends who cared about him. He saw Ron relax when he noticed Harry and Hermione, saw it even across the Hall, but Ron had recovered whatever passed for poise with him, in time to clap Harry on the back as if nothing had ever been wrong.

Ron was a better actor than he thought. Go figure. Right now, it felt as if all of Harry's comfortable illusions were being laid bare, revealed for what they were. He'd have to conquer a hundred of his own personal demons before he could settle into the usual routine of the school year, as he imagined those dementors pulling more skeletons out of his mind's closet to throw at him.

He shivered.

"Harry?" Ron asked, brows furrowed, arms folded, frowning. Harry saw that pose too often. He gave a sigh that expressed just how world-weary he was at the moment, and then an attempt at a bright smile.

"I'm fine, Ron," he said.

"I think not," Ron retorted. McGonagall was glaring at them for making noise during the Sorting, but Ron just thought it better than trying to talk over Dumbledore.

Harry couldn't meet his eyes.

Show no weakness.

"Well, you can't exactly get rid of all the dementors, now can you?" asked Harry lightly. "I suppose this is how I'll feel this entire year. I'll just have to deal with it."

"You shouldn't have to—" Ron began. Harry scoffed. His life was brimming with things he "shouldn't have to" deal with. That didn't stop more of them from coming.

"I'm fine, Ron," he lied, instead.

This year, he was not going to drag his friends down with him. And if that vow sounded suspiciously familiar, too similar to another vow, not yet made, made years ago, Harry nevertheless managed not to think about it hard enough to realise that fact.

He felt only marginally improved, however, come morning. He forewent breakfast, having his own priorities. He'd skipped the "most important meal of the day" often enough, he decided, to be used to it. What he couldn't get used to was his mind's current state of fragmentation.

He sought out the headmaster's office, instead, remembering the route twice taken well enough on his own.

He should have known to expect the particular obstacle he met at the other end, but planning ahead was quite difficult for him at the moment. What would Dumbledore's password be? Probably something involving sweets, if the previous two instances were any guess. But he might as well try the password from the end of last year….

"Lemon drop?" he asked the gargoyle guarding the tower stairs. Then he sighed, huffed, and crossed his arms at the lack of response.

"Bertie Bott's Every-Flavoured Beans?" he asked, five minutes later. "Really?"

He turned his gaze skyward, as if asking some god for their opinion on the matter, and then caught his own actions and thoughts, subdued.

He shrugged, as if none of it mattered, and set to climbing the spiral stairs.

When he knocked on the door, it opened. By this, he naturally assumed that Dumbledore was in. But he wasn't. Whether he was still in bed, or downstairs having breakfast, could not be known. There was a bit of a feeling of misbehaviour—as if he were doing something wrong, that came of being there when its rightful occupant was out.

He turned to Fawkes, as if for permission.

"I just—McGonagall gave me permission to speak with the Sorting Hat," he said, one eye on the phoenix, the other scanning Dumbledore's desk, and then his bookshelves. "Dumbledore won't mind, will he, Guy?"

Yes, he knew he wasn't usually that bashful. But he remembered Ginny's lecture about people's private and personal areas the previous year. Still…this was an office, not a bedroom. And he had received permission from McGonagall. Surely, that counted.

It still felt wrong, criminal, even, sneaking in—breaking and entering, the muggle term. He spotted the black, battered Hat, and turned to Fawkes, and then back to the Hat.

"I need its help, Guy. I know you have phenomenal healing powers, but I need something that can work with minds," he said, tapping his own temple. Fawkes cocked his head, and trilled, watching Harry with beady eyes, but making no move to stop him. Harry took heart from that.

He picked up the Hat, and sat down in the chair before the headmaster's desk before putting it on, half-remembering his original observations on why this was usually necessary as he did. Of course, he hadn't fallen over last year….

Back again, Your Grace? the Hat asked, sounding amused, if an inanimate object could. Harry was once more inclined to protest this particular moniker, the use of any and all epithet and title. He knew he was, technically, "the Boy-Who-Lived", but even that title didn't feel like him, let alone this nonsense about past lives and gods—

Ah, said the Hat, sounding a bit put out. And we seemed to be making such progress, last year—

I have quite enough problems without being lectured by an inanimate object, thank you, Harry thought, knowing the Hat would hear it, grateful that his thoughts managed to stay attached to one another long enough to finish a sentence. A complete sentence, at that!

Ah… ah, I see, the Hat said, quite suddenly on the same page as Harry himself. "Discretion is the better part of valour", indeed! Perhaps you're right to try to stabilise yourself before tackling that particular thorny bush. Oh, all right. Why have you come here, then…Mr. Potter?

Harry leant back in the chair, which at least had a back to it, unlike most of Dumbledore's choices in furniture. Beanbag chairs, hmm?

Originally, I thought to ask you what you wished to have done with the Sword of Gryffindor (and thank you for telling me what it was, by the way), but I— He paused, frowning, as something that sounded suspiciously like a chuckle reached him from the vicinity of the Sorting Hat's consciousness. The Hat was laughing at him? Can you sink any lower than to have inanimate objects laugh at you?

The Hat silenced itself, although traces of amusement remained in its voice as it answered.

The Sword is yours to bear, for the time being. I chose you as the guardian of Hogwarts, and the Wizarding World has chosen you for its protector. Combine that with matters you are determined not to address, and I think you might be destined to bear it for…longer than any other bearers, I suppose I shall just say.

Harry's curiosity was piqued, despite his lack of coherence. An auspicious sign. Once before, he'd sought for assistance from the Hat in matters of the mind only to find that it was already working on just that. Perhaps, again…?

Have there been many other bearers? he asked, something like hope finally kindling in his chest. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, he was not beyond repair.

Oh, no, not many at all, the Hat answered, sounding a bit distracted, which suggested that Harry might be right. Two others only since Lord Gryffindor. Upon their deaths, the Sword returned to me. I was Gryffindor's trusty fail-safe. It chuckled at an almost non-existent pun, sulked for a moment when Harry didn't join in, and then continued, You see, as the Hat who judges the character of those who wear me, and as the sole means of access for the Sword…only the worthy can possess it—at least as long as it is in my grasp. But those I choose almost never fail to keep it from the hands of those unworthy, and those of ill intent find that it is just too hot for them to handle. Love is fire, remember? But perhaps you also read that fire was associated with a certain god of—

Harry did his best to tune the Hat out, again, and the Hat relented, switching topics again.

Why did you come, then? You are clever enough to make your own sheath for the sword, although I see that question in your mind, somewhere…perhaps from last year? Your mind really is quite jumbled, now.

That is why, Harry interjected, before the Hat could wander off topic again. The dementors—the guards of Azkaban, reduced me to this. Try as I might, I have little knowledge of how to reassemble myself, and what's the use, if I'll be dashed to pieces again the very next time they appear?

The Hat tutted at him, sounding almost patronising as it did. Harry became aware that his arms were already folded only when he thought to fold them. Then he noticed the hard back of the seat behind him, the plush cushion that dipped down only slightly to bear his weight, and the angle at which his knees were bent, as they almost-unconsciously curled around the legs of the chair, as if he would otherwise tumble off. He unhooked them, scowled, and somehow maintained his awareness of his surroundings for several more minutes, even as the Hat continued to speak.

You know of one already with the power to drive them off—and he is one of your new teachers. You have his class Monday , as a matter of fact. Swallow your pride, and ask his assistance.

But the dementors will hardly be wandering the halls of the school, sucking the life from all they pass. Dumbledore, quite sensibly , has forbidden them to enter the grounds, remember. But they are not quite as obedient to the whims of wizards as the Ministry wishes to think. Hmm…yes. I will say what I said at the end of last year, Your Grace: you must learn Occlumency, and not for those two reasons only.

It occurred to Harry to ask "what two reasons?", but then he realised that he didn't care.

He winced.

Psychological scars run deeper than any other, no matter what trite little sayings about "sticks and stones" might say. Occlumency comes from the Latin obs , and cluo . As you are one of the few students who still sees fit to teach himself Latin, I see that I need hardly tell you what those mean. That "c losing against" is very apt for its purpose—it defends the mind from the influences of others, although it is far from sufficient against the Imperius Curse. But it will suffice for your current purposes—it will give you at least a small measure, a pittance, of defence, and the circumstances are few in which you will need greater.

Although…given your luck…perhaps I speak too quickly . Learn every defence you can get your hands on; you'll need it. Occlumency, the shielding of the mind. The Patronus Charm, that Remus Lupin used to ward off the dementor. Any knowledge you might have of… before , shall I say. You will need it all. I forgot to whom I was speaking. Never, in all my years—

What is the Imperius Curse? Harry demanded. There was an odd whirring noise, almost mechanical, produced by the Hat, as if it were a character in a cartoon. He realised that it was doing it deliberately to feign malfunction, and frowned. But it was still reading his mind. The noise caught his attention, and he lost awareness of his body again.

Ah…you will learn that in good time. Not a good topic of discussion for today, my lord. Ask me later. I'm sure you'll hear mention of it soon enough. It is one of the three Unforgivable Curses, after all…not terribly obscure. I've done what I can for your mind. You will just have to try to hold yourself together until your Mother can do more for you, and try to avoid the dementors, hmm? Was there anything else?

His thoughts were mostly coherent, now, but stretched out, thin as the wire of a net. He knew that they were barely held together, as if woven out of thread. Still, it would have to do for now.

Just the one, I suppose. Can I hear this year's Sorting song?

The Hat laughed, but obliged.

Chapter Text

His first Divination class was absolutely no help in keeping him sane and coherent—not when Professor Trelawney practically introduced the class with a prediction or three of Harry's imminent demise. A Grim in his teacup? But how could you tell? Even if it were some sort of dog, how could you tell whether it were a shepherd or a retriever or a Grim? It wasn't as if tea leaves could (in the ordinary way of things, at least) have shaggy black fur, or glowing red eyes. Reading tea leaves struck Harry as more of a game of word association than anything else, perhaps saying more of the reader than of the subject.

This was not the branch of divination that had caused him to take that subject. He wondered when they would speak of prophecy, the history of foretelling the future, of great prophets of old and their methods. Perhaps he was in the wrong class. Hermione certainly seemed to feel that she was, judging by her furious incessant muttering under her breath. Ron applied himself with a sort of casual apathy. He would spend the next three years trying his best to fulfil the homework assignments correctly, only to shrug and concede that he'd had no success, a sort of honesty that seemed to intrigue Trelawney. Harry, on the other hand, kept her busy with the sort of gruesome nastiness that he knew she would eat up, waiting for something to come about that interested him, and applying himself in those areas, only. It was just enough genuine effort that Trelawney never caught on.

Whenever Hermione chastised either of them, he would point out that she had no room to talk, what with how she'd cut out in their first year of Divination. This remained something of a sore spot for her for some time. She really didn't like not being good at everything she tried her hand at.

If the irrelevance of the subject matter weren't bad enough, Harry had also to contend with Professor Trelawney's melodramatic "panic", as she warned him that the Grim was the "worst omen—of death!" She seemed to think that he didn't already know just what the Grim represented, when in fact his lack of response to her pronouncement had causes twofold: first was the fact that his recent repeated brushes with death had resigned him to the conclusion that he was bound to die once a year, at least until school was finished; second was that he had already come to the conclusion that tea-leaf reading was a matter of word association.

If death and death omens were always at the fore of her mind, she could hardly be faulted. But, neither could she be readily believed without question. Perhaps she was a true seer, perhaps not, but her flair for dramatics suggested that perhaps her familiarity with her subject was all cold and hot reading, smoke and mirrors.

Accordingly, her predictions troubled him little. Far more important was his fractured, slowly unwinding mind. But, the prophecy, if such it could be called, clearly haunted most of the rest of the class. Ron glanced his way more often than usual, as if to check that he hadn't keeled over whilst Ron wasn't looking. Hermione was fuming over Trelawney's behaviour and melodramatics, and the rest of the class was discussing recent events in low whispers. That was why the reunited gryffindor class paid so little heed as Professor McGonagall transformed herself into a cat, and back. Only Harry was watching, with a somewhat wistful fascination. It appeared that Transfiguration had suddenly decided to be a useful class. He resolved to learn how to become an animagus…once Black was caught and his mind reassembled.

Despite assigning them a violent and aggressive book, Hagrid, as Harry was already painfully aware, knew his stuff. Hippogriffs were surprisingly tame for someone like Hagrid, and quite as impressive as Harry's friend had clearly been aiming for.

That didn't mean Harry envied Ron's opportunity of riding the hippogriff named "Buckbeak" for himself; it merely meant that he was rather more irked than he might have been, had Malfoy's senseless barbs had justice.

Being the soulless bastard that he was, he'd already gotten a few jibes in at Harry at the news that had somehow reached him of Harry's "fainting spell" (i.e. his extremely adverse reaction to the presence of dementors). Combined with the catastrophe he'd managed to turn Hagrid's first lesson into, Harry was, for once, more fed up with Malfoy's nonsense than Ron, and readier to action about it.

"I don't understand why we just don't kill him and have done with it. Put him out of his misery, and everyone else's," he said, so matter-of-fact that Hermione turned to stare at him over their unusually broody lunch hour, as if she weren't sure that she'd heard him quite right. Eventually, she seemed to realise that his statement wasn't merely a rhetorical question, and she said, sounding rather hesitant,

"Because that would be murder, and murder is a crime." She seemed to feel the need to take on a half-patronising, excessively gentle voice of the sort usually used with very young children when explaining basic concepts.

"Nonsense," Harry said, waving an arm dismissively. The Hat had just stitched his mind back together, so he had rather more energy and mental strength than he would later on in the month. "It's not murder if it's Malfoy. Think about it: his father is a Death Eater, as well as most of his extended family. His mother probably isn't only because he was a baby when Riddle kicked it, and she knew that Death Eater responsibilities would get in the way of child-rearing. He's headed exactly the right way to becoming a Death Eater himself, because, let's face it, it's only a matter of time before You-Know-Who finds some way of returning. Maybe this year. They say that 'third time's a charm' even in muggle circles, and he's made an attempt the last two years!"

Ron was studiously avoiding the conversation, so Harry ignored him to watch Hermione bury her head in her hands. "I—You don't know that! Just give him another chance! We're still just kids—"

Harry scoffed. "Riddle was sixteen when he murdered Moaning Myrtle. Unless, because I'm only thirteen, it wouldn't be murder if I killed Malfoy, anyway. In which case, what's stopping me?"

He wasn't even sure whether or not he meant it, but talking about ways to kill Malfoy at least vented some frustration. Not that Hermione seemed to appreciate that fact. There was a thought, somewhere towards the back of his mind, that perhaps he would have murdered Malfoy for real, but for that outlet. There was an almost-sense of that almost-familiar sensation of detachment between plan and act. Between what he meant to do, and what he did. That put him further on edge, making him even warier and more paranoid, which in turn made him lash out with greater force at perceived threats.

Malfoy was always near the top of that list—he might not have the power or intellect necessary to become a true threat, but he was a constant thorn in the side, a distraction when Harry could afford no distractions, a fatal nuisance that might grow into a genuine threat if not handled properly.

Murder might not be the proper way to handle things, but talking of it was cathartic. Especially given Malfoy's glee at the thought of Buckbeak's impending doom. Well, less than impending—there would be a trial (whether real, or just for show, was hard to tell of yet, but Harry was already favouring the latter interpretation). Harry wondered how Malfoy could be so utterly indifferent to the idea of the death of such a noble creature, when he knew that he was the cause. It wasn't as if he were raised in some sort of warrior culture, or some society that valued death.

Well, except for the fact that his family was almost exclusively populated with Death Eaters. Perhaps that counted.

Hermione struggled to find a good rebuttal, and Harry, somewhat diminished nonetheless, said, "Someday, you'll see things my way. But in the meantime: sure, let's give Malfoy another chance to be a good person, and see how long it takes for him to blow it."

Owing to Harry's lenity, it took a surprisingly long time. He lasted all the way until next Potions class, where, in the course of bragging about his father's influence, he boasted about how he was pretending to be injured much worse than he was to drive Buckbeak for the gallows. For no better reason than because he hated Hagrid…for rather mystifying reasons. Was it because Hagrid had snatched away any chance of Malfoy currying favour with the famous Potter by accompanying Harry to Diagon Alley? That would require a rather skewed interpretation of events, but Malfoy's mind was nothing if not skewed. No, Malfoy's hatred of Hagrid was something Harry suspected he would never understand. Perhaps it was merely that he was one of Harry's Friends, and Malfoy was out of that inner circle with any clout or influence over the Boy-Who-Lived.

Who knew? All Harry knew was that Malfoy was petty enough to stoop to anything to get in even a weak hit. Pathetic, senseless, and cruel. Malfoy would never be a key player; he didn't have the skill to be anything but a nuisance. but that, he did very well.

Hagrid's fretting that Buckbeak would have to be put down (because, apparently, the Ministry "has it out for interesting creatures") just added even more to dwell on. Harry, quite frankly, had neither the focus nor the energy. He was too busy trying to keep himself together (in pretty much the most literal sense possible), until September Thirtieth came. The end of month had never seemed quite so far away, before.

The Potions class after that disastrous first Care of Magical Creatures threatened to overcome what remained of Harry's usually rigid self-control—for once it was Ron and Hermione holding him back—but he couldn't help it. The general lack of any sense of fair-play shown by Snape made the entire situation a hundred times worse, heating Harry's anger to something of a boiling point. He clenched his fists tightly, and studiously avoided Malfoy's gaze. Still, it was a bit of a blessing in disguise (if you'll excuse the irony): the constant itch of Malfoy's imperious gloating ensured that Harry stayed focused on the task at hand, giving an underlying coherence to his otherwise errant thoughts.

Snape's senseless cruelty was also a mitigating factor in his current struggle. With enemies like these, who needs friends?

And then, cast into stark relief (Stark relief?), their first new Defence Against the Dark Arts class with Professor Lupin. There was an itching familiarity about the man that Harry wished that he could scratch, even if what lay beneath were somehow raw and painful. He knew that name, he thought to himself. Where had he heard that name, outside of perhaps a mention in his Mother's cottage in the woods? It ate away at precious attention he should be using on the lesson, but it held his thoughts together in a constant thread.

Were it later in the month, after the Sorting Hat's careful stitches had mostly unraveled, it might not have been enough, but as it was, his difficulty in focusing combined with his fragile mind seemed to produce a sort of ideal environment for enabling Harry to focus and remember things. The continuity of thought acted as a lifeline for him to cling through, as in Potions. He felt rather more like himself—whatever that meant—than usual.

"Today's will be a practical lesson," Professor Lupin said, in a cheerful voice. "You will need only your wands."

Harry knew that Hermione would be bringing her notes, anyway, just in case they were useful somehow. Harry quietly hoped that this lesson was very different from last year's first Defence Against the Dark Arts lesson, with the pixies wreaking havoc in the classroom, and the class, those that remained, having to teach themselves how to defend themselves, and secure the perimeter.

Several corridors and a poltergeist later (what sort of a spell was waddiwasi? Spells were usually Latinish, but that didn't sound like Latin) found them in the staff room. Ron and Harry turned, in tandem, to the cupboard in which they'd hidden only a few months ago, thinking that when all was said and done (quite literally) in the staff room, they could enlist some help from whomever remained.

Which had turned out to be Lockhart, the previous Defence professor. Remembering his treachery served to firm Harry's resolve, to give him a cold reminder to be careful whom he trusted, and what evidences he accepted.

"Not to worry," Lupin (he would have to earn the respect that came with a title like "Professor") said cheerfully, as the class shifted anxiously in response to the wobbling wardrobe on the far end of the room. "There's just a boggart in there."

Cheeriness should never accompany such a statement. In lieu of reading the Monster Book of Monsters assigned by Hagrid, Harry had sought out a few volumes dealing with similar material at Flourish and Blotts. He knew what a boggart was, and wondered what Lupin could possibly be thinking. He hadn't even conducted a survey of what his students' greatest fears were—not that everyone would know, necessarily.

If you had asked just-turned-ten Harry Potter what his greatest fear was, it might well have been Uncle Vernon. He briefly humoured the thought of Vernon appearing in the classroom, wondering as he did what could possibly be done to make him less frightening, but the fear that Vernon had once provoked in him was now much diminished. There were a hundred ways to make Vernon less threatening, and at least ten to make him downright comic—there was something of the air of a caricature or parody about him, when Harry could look at it through eyes not misled by fear.

He listened with half an ear to the tale of how the boggart had come to be here in the staff room, paying less heed when Lupin asked for information on the boggart, even if it was Hermione to answer—it usually was, anyway, and Harry had done his research. No, he had better thoughts to occupy his mind. Such as figuring out what his greatest fear was, to start preparing for it early. Knowing him, it would be spectacularly dangerous and devastating. Although….

Boggarts were just living beings, weren't they? There had to be a limit to their power. Suppose his greatest fear were one they couldn't imitate?

As if to prevent his proper preparation, Lupin called Harry out of his thoughts, saying, "This means that we have a great advantage over the boggart. Have you spotted it, Harry?"

Harry gave the room a cursory glance over. Limited powers. Not enough to accommodate the small crowd of Gryffindor third-years.

"There are too many of us. It won't know what to transform into. Unless several of us fear the same thing, I suppose—"

Lupin cut him off before he could make everyone else even more terrified than they already were. A pity. Fear exists for a reason, after all. It urges caution, and against the unknown, caution is usually a good thing.

Ron sent him a sharp look, something of a warning to silence mixed with the ever-present concern for Harry's well-being.

Well enough that he did that, if people would just let Harry think, and plan.

He could plan and listen to Lupin at the same time, with half his attention here, and half elsewhere, half a thought given to what apparitions were likely to visit this room in the next hour. An acromantula for Ron, sure, but what of Hermione?

What of Harry himself? What was his greatest fear?

An illusory chill crept over him, as he thought of a cold metal room. A being too tall to be human, with none of Hagrid's warmth. Turned in on himself, he remembered thinking on the train. Stripped bare, to the essence of who he was. Bent backwards like a boomerang, returning with violence to its originator. The one who threw it away.

That wasn't me! he silently protested, shivering as he did. But the voice he usually considered his own was drained and haggard from recent experience. The dementors of the train had definitely left their mark, as had all those he had passed on the carriage ride to the castle. Perhaps it was just as well that he wasn't going to Hogsmeade….

The dementors….

He shivered again, more violently, this time, glancing around the room, self-conscious, as if the others had a lens into his mind, although he knew they didn't.

He suddenly remembered the Hat urging him to learn occlumency, and to ask Lupin to teach him—what was it called?—the Patronus Charm.

He needed it, with the effects the dementors had on him. Effects more rapid and devastating even than the torture of Thanos, for they bore the memory of that torture with them, refreshed, and with renewed vibrancy, as if it were happening again for the first time….

All the sorrows and despairs of a thousand lives, compressed into a single moment that stretched on into eternity. A second that was a hundred years.

Not Thanos, then. But how to make them comic, as Lupin's spell required?

He paid rapt attention to Neville's admirable display. (See, Neville? Worthy of Gryffindor after all, aren't you? Are you not?) It provided no guidance for him. Dementors weren't human. Even Thanos would have been easier to make riddikulus than the scabrous things in cloaks. The things that brought out the worst in people, drained them of all goodness, slew hope and sowed despair.

"I want you to take a moment to think of what you fear most, and a way to make it amusing," Lupin said.

I have been trying to do just that for the past few minutes, Harry silently protested. It seems a hopeless task.

A bitter laugh rose up in his throat. But…

Could the boggart mimic the effects of a dementor? Or would it merely be a superficial resemblance? He wished, to his horror, that Boggart-Snape had cast a spell. He would have dearly loved to see whether or not it succeeded.

Could a boggart mimic abilities, as well? He knew there must be limits to its abilities; they weren't gods, after all—

He cut that thought short, desperately seeking for any means by which he could render a dementor harmless. The Patronus Charm, the one he didn't know. Occlumency, which he had yet to research. But those were superficial, stopgap protections. Treating the symptoms, as the saying went. How to take the fight to them?

Lupin gave them only a few minutes, as if figuring out how to take the thing that had haunted your nightmares and dogged your days, and make it into something silly and light was something anyone could do with a snap of the fingers.

And yet, only he and Ron started, as if completely unprepared. Ron glanced at him, eyes downcast in silent apology, and Harry could follow his thoughts in that split-second, what Ron guessed and assumed. I can't protect you from this, was the silent message. I have failed you.

Harry shrugged, and smiled, and waved a hand, as if nothing were wrong.

He'd forgotten Ron didn't fall for that. Ron frowned, but, with great reluctance, returned his attention to the wardrobe, where Seamus Finnigan was dragging his steps, as if to buy himself more time, as a man on his way to the gallows.

What do I do? Harry asked himself, but no answer was forthcoming. At this point, he would have been glad for a response even from the part of his mind that he'd disavowed. Some way of making the boggart look ridiculous, assuming it had no power to mimic abilities.

The banshee opened her mouth wide to wail and moan, and then clutched at her throat, eyes wide in realisation that Finnigan had robbed her of her voice.

Well, okay then. You didn't have to make it amusing, per se. Just…less threatening. Maybe he could work with that.

How to go about making a dementor less threatening, then?

He sighed, crossing his arms, as he watched his classmates, galvanised by Neville's success, followed by Finnigan's, march forwards, one after the other, to confront their personal demons.

Or, maybe his fear was—

Single-minded focus it was, then, he thought, watching but paying little attention.

If only he knew what the Patronus Charm did, perhaps that would help. Whatever it was, it was the key to fighting dementors, and therefore his boggart. Hermione had described the spell as a jet of light. Perhaps dementors were afraid of light? If he could put it on the retreat….

He thought of the clearing ruled by Aragog, how he'd poured magic into the lumos spell to illumine the clearing, the way it had thrown the acromantulai off, long enough to begin his escape.

It would have to do.

"It's getting confused! We're getting there! Ron!"

It took Harry a moment to realise that Ron was being called forwards. Talk about appropriate timing. Ron's greatest fear was bound to be an acromantula. Unless….

Harry fixed an unblinking stare upon the boggart, watching as it reduced into a vaporous cloud, condensing into itself. Preparing to become, Harry was almost sure, an acromantula.

Instead, it hesitated, as Ron clutched the new-bought willow wand so tight his knuckles turned bone white, and waited. His back was to Harry; no one in the class, in fact, could see his expression. And Harry had no memory of ever being in the presence of a terrified Ron.

The boggart extended shadows in vague shapes from a central, spherical nexus, as if trying to become this or that. Harry understood what was happening. The initial pause—it had had trouble getting into Ron's thoughts.

And now it was having trouble manifesting his greatest fear. It was only a living creature, after all. Even the most powerful shapeshifter had his limits. But what did Ron so fear that couldn't be given form?

At length, it resolved itself into an acromantula, as Harry had expected from the start. A flick of the wrist and a roar of "Riddikulus!" did away with the legs, turning it into a sort of hairy beach ball, rolling over and over on itself…heading towards Harry.

He thought of the light he'd cast before, and braced himself, but then Lupin was there, standing before the creature, as it condensed itself into a glowing white orb. Lupin tossed it towards the wall (and towards the armoire) with a flick of the wrist holding his wand, and, without glancing at his audience, said, "Forwards, Neville, and finish it off!"

Lupin made a very good first impression, but why had he come between Harry and the boggart? What had his thoughts been? He'd seemed almost in a panicked rush. It couldn't be that he thought they shared a common fear—he'd stood in front of Harry to force the boggart to assume the shape that he, Lupin, found most frightening (a white ball? wondered a small corner of his mind that could concern itself with such things).

Neville strode forward, then, and Professor Snape's illusory visage returned to the classroom. Neville waved his wand with greater assurance than before, cried, "Riddikulus!" and laughed at the illusion of Snape in Augusta Longbottom's clothes. Harry watched with little heed as it exploded like a firework, with a small, almost inaudible pop, and Lupin cheered.

"Alright! Very well done! Yes, let's see, five points to everyone who tackled the boggart—ten for Neville, because he did it twice—and five each to Harry and Hermione—"

"But I didn't do anything," Harry protested, unable to keep a certain undercurrent of resentment from his voice.

"You two answered my questions correctly at the start of class."

He seemed not to notice Harry's tone, but Harry suspected (perhaps it was the slight narrowing of Lupin's eyes) that he did. It reminded him of someone, although he couldn't think of whom. Harry let himself dwell upon recent events as they headed off to a celebratory triumphal lunch.

Chapter Text

Lupin seemed to be no readier to forget about recent events than Harry, who kept pondering the matter. The only justification for Lupin's actions that made sense to Harry was that, for whatever reason, he believed that Harry's fear would be too much for other people to handle. If Lupin knew Harry's history—the more in-depth history of his schooling, which probably he did—he would know that Harry had been through rather more harrowing of ordeals than was standard for the average teen. It was true that none of the options Harry had considered likely for his boggart were of the sort that even an entire class would cope well with.

Part of him chafed, nonetheless, at the lost opportunity to test his limits, to know his weaknesses, to improve, to learn. Perhaps it cast something of a shadow over his Defence work. And, perhaps, Lupin noticed.

Lupin kept him after, a week after the events had occurred, detaining him with an offhanded comment, a casual request that he stay after class for a little bit, that Lupin might speak with him. Ron's misgivings were plain, but Hermione reassured him that Lupin was a Hogwarts professor, and besides that, they were witnesses to Harry's last known whereabouts; Lupin wouldn't dare harm Harry.

For some reason, Hermione seemed a bit more irritable, and much more reckless, than she had been last year. Perhaps she'd decided that, if she could be petrified merely walking the Hogwarts halls, she might as well live life to the fullest. But something seemed off about her, nevertheless. Maybe it was just puberty, or some such.

"You have lunch after this class," Lupin said, still with that casual air, as if he were paying no heed to Harry whatever.

"Ron and Hermione will notice if I fail to show up," he said, still sitting at his desk, notes out. "May I ask why you decided to postpone my break?"

He tried to keep his voice equally light, but perhaps a bit of bite showed through, because Lupin winced, or rather, gave something of a jerk, where he was setting papers with care into his briefcase.

"I noticed that you seemed a bit…distracted in lessons. I have it on good authority that you are ordinarily a very good student, and you are clearly talented in magic. I thought your distraction might have something to do with the boggart last week, and I thought I would talk about it now, while the memory is still fresh in your mind."

Harry shrugged, glancing down at his notes as if they were some sort of script that he could follow. Why was Lupin singling him out?

"I think a good teacher cares about his students, and makes the effort to be, if not a friend, at least an impartial figure who earns their respect. I don't like to think that I've been a bad teacher, that I've failed one of my students," Lupin said, putting Harry further on edge by seeming to read his mind. He knew that such a skill, called legilimency, was part of wizarding magic, if not exactly common.

Lupin leant against the desk in the front of the room, in a far too casual way. He was trying too hard.

"I only wondered why you didn't let me fight the boggart, as everyone else did," Harry said, the admission difficult to make. He had to follow it with something of a dismissal. "I don't have the best history with past Defence teachers. My trust is not so easily gained, after the last two."

He looked up, finally meeting Lupin's eyes, with a bitter, weary smile. Lupin drew back, just slightly, frowning as if trying to remember something, and by his silence let Harry speak. "I rather prefer not to be patronised, so I hope you didn't pass me by thinking me incapable of handling it." He spread his arms wide, and Lupin stared for a moment, wide-eyed, before he shook his head, and his eyes narrowed again.

"I'm sorry to hear about previous bad experience, but understand that this position is said to be curst. Usually only the foolhardy or those with ulterior motives take this position. And I suppose I, too, have something of an ulterior motive: to see that you all are safe, and capable of protecting yourselves. I mean to do the best I can over this next year."

He sounded distracted, as if he were still trying to remember something, and was not paying full heed to his words.

"Is something the matter, professor, sir?" asked Harry, with a voice that, on its surface, sounded quite pleasant and polite, but Lupin seemed to hear the undertone to it, wariness, but also warning.

Again he shook his head, as if to clear it of some recurring thought.

"It's nothing," he said, back to his light-as-air, breezy voice. "You just reminded me of someone—"

My dad? Harry wondered, clinging to the faint memory that Mother might have listed a "Remus Lupin" as an old friend of his dad's. Of course, that presupposed that there were any weight to what she said, which presupposed the truth of her statements, their reality hinting at an external validity to the history described to him in that cpttage in the woods.

This was a chance to test it, again. He was not the sort to dismiss any possibility, however unwelcome, outright. He was gathering evidences, still. If Remus Lupin was a friend of his dad, then perhaps Sirius Black also was. In which case, Sirius Black might well be innocent, and this whole thing a means of prolonging a miscarriage of justice.

"Oh?" he asked, not bothering to disguise his sudden interest. "May I ask whom I reminded you of?"

He cocked his head, analysing Lupin's sincerity, and Lupin froze, just briefly, seeming unnerved and a bit out of sorts for whatever reason. "It's nothing. I'm seeing ghosts. It's no one you'd know. An old friend, from back when I was at school. But back to the topic at hand: why I didn't let you fight the boggart."

Harry had a brief moment of surprise here, himself; he had expected Lupin to deny he had done any such thing, and the admission that Lupin had deliberately intervened spoke well of his character.

Lupin shook his head. "I would have thought that was obvious, Harry. They tell me you're one of the brightest students in your year. I'm sure you've guessed why I thought I had to prevent the confrontation: I assumed that that boggart would assume the shape of Lord Voldemort."

It was Harry's turn to stare, rather taken aback. It was the first time he had ever heard anyone other than Dumbledore call Riddle Lord Voldemort. He'd almost forgotten his old tally board, not that it mattered. He stuck to calling the ex-human "You-Know-Who" and "Riddle". But also, it was with something like an actual electric shock to realise that Riddle had never even crossed his mind during the exercise.

"Riddle?" he asked, leaning his head on his hand in an attitude that screamed "boredom!"—his attempt to seem apathetic to this entire meeting. It came to him, then, that this would be an opportune time to ask to be taught the Patronus Charm—if he could just lead into it properly. "I didn't even think of him. Regardless, why would someone whom I have defeated and thwarted every time we crossed paths be my greatest fear?"

"…'Riddle'?" repeated Lupin, with a perplexed frown. "Is that Lord Voldemort?"

"Tom Marvolo Riddle. His real name," said Harry, holding out his hands as if the name were a physical gift. "If you neither serve him, nor wish me ill, perhaps you appreciate such knowledge."

Lupin seemed a bit unnerved, again, but he shook his head yet again (Harry was beginning to think that he'd manage to dislodge his brain with all that shaking).

"Well, clearly I was wrong, but I thought it would be bad if Lord Voldemort were to appear in the staff room of Hogwarts. I imagined that people might panic."

There was a hint of humour, of all things, to his tone. Harry continued before he could speak again, which he was clearly about to.

"No, I remembered the dementors," Harry said, voice very soft. He elected not to share his first thoughts of what his boggart might be. That was a very long story, one which he had shared with no one (or was that "no one in the physical world"?) and he didn't trust Lupin quite yet.

Lupin by now had finished stowing away his papers, somehow, despite a constant distraction, and returned, with dogged persistence, to the topic at hand.

"'The dementors'?" repeated Lupin, with a small, but quite sincere, smile. Even Harry was almost touched. "I see. Very smart indeed. That suggests that what you fear most of all is—fear. Impressive."

Harry had no idea how to react to this statement. He was vaguely aware that he was late for lunch, but, aside from a notion that Ron might decide to check up on him, deciding that Lupin must have hurt him, and the attendant admission that Lupin had made no such move thus far, and therefore was thoroughly unworthy of Ron's wrath, he did not regret the loss of a meal. This was a subject needing pursuit.

"I've a particular vulnerability to dementors, it would seem," Harry said, and this time couldn't restrain the bitter laugh that accompanied his statement. "Or at least, I'm the only person I know of to have fainted at their mere presence."

"You are not weak," Lupin said, his words almost a rebuke, they were spoken with such vehemence. "The only reason you fainted was that no one else has experienced the same horrors that you have."

That, Harry thought with a shiver, was putting it mildly. There were a thousand nightmares lurking in his subconscious memories, and many of them, far beyond human ken, had thus no human name to them. His mind flitted from one of them to the next, and, whilst he could repress his shivers, he couldn't keep the blood from draining from his face at the memory.

Pull yourself together! one part of his mind urged. And perhaps it was, and perhaps it wasn't, a different part that shouted, Show no weakness!

"You're right," Harry said, rather subdued by the recent turn the conversation had taken, despite any attempts at an outward display of strength. "When the dementors came too close—when they seemed to be breathing in something more than air from their surroundings, it brought me back to the time—it made me remember the night my parents died."

He couldn't look at Lupin, but had to know what his reaction would be. Pity? Guilt? Sympathy?

From the corners of his eyes, he saw Lupin start, watched a hand reach out towards Harry, as if to show camaraderie by clapping him on the shoulder, as Ron sometimes did, but no other had. He flinched on reflex, and Lupin withdrew, with a heavy sigh. "Harry," he began, voice laced with pain. But he cut himself off, didn't let himself continue, and Harry refused to press him to say more.

Harry remembered that maybe-Lupin had been, according to his mother, at least, one of his Dad's close friends. And thus, one of his mum's as well. He wanted, or rather, felt he needed to ask. But instead, his gaze dropped to the desk. There was a moment of silence for the dead, as perhaps each of them wandered, lost in his own personal grief, rather than seeking for the quiet solace of shared misery.

Harry affected not to notice Lupin's aborted sentence. Then he pressed on, thinking of the Sorting Hat's advice. He meant to be one of those rare few who heeded its well-intentioned warnings. "But there are ways to defend yourself against them, I know."

Lupin sighed, as he closed up the briefcase, with the papers all settled within.

"Dementors are among the foulest creatures ever to walk the earth," he said, without looking at Harry. "They thrive on decay and despair, draining hope, happiness, and even calm from the very air they breathe, leaving despair and gloom in their wake. Muggles, too, feel their effects, although they cannot see them. Stay too long near a dementor, and everything good about you, every happy memory and thought, the capacity for joy, will be sucked out of you. If it can, a dementor will feed on its victim long enough to reduce him to something like itself—soulless and evil. He'd be left with only the worst memories and thoughts in his life. There is nothing to be ashamed about. Your classmates are too young to have the sort of memories that would make a strong man faint—for the most part."

There was a certain fragility to the accompanying smile, and with it came the feeling of familiarity, stronger than ever. Harry was too distracted (for rather a lot of reasons) to follow up on the obvious question: had there been another, to make Lupin's statement "for the most part" not account for a universal—or was it a way to soften the blow of Harry being the only one to faint, at the possibility that others might do the same, in his shoes?

He didn't even quite know what to think of Lupin's (alarming, but rather dramatic) explanation of the creatures. He could believe everything Lupin had said. These were the sorts of creatures for which, when describing them, what would ordinarily be hyperbole became understatement. They had a certain primordial feel to them. Some part of him wondered if they were the embodiment of evil, its source, a holdover whose power had been forgotten to the Wizarding World's sorrow in this modern day-and-age, where there was now a dichotomy between magic and technology, and old fears were re-evaluated, sometimes quite incorrectly, in the light shed by the torch of Reason.

He should probably give some sort of response. Even a "…wow" would be something, at this point.

"And these are the guards of the famed prison, Azkaban?" he demanded, thinking again of his mother's words about Sirius Black. Human beings weren't infallible—even gods weren't infallible—and there were always the falsely accused. He remembered Hagrid last year. And perhaps Sirius Black was another innocent. How could they justify sentencing any but the very worst of criminals to a place guarded by such things?

Lupin was, understandably, a bit nonplussed. Harry elaborated, filling Lupin in on part of the story of last year, when they had taken Hagrid away—and, he thought, it had certainly seemed they had wanted to take in Dumbledore, too.

Lupin nodded his understanding. "There are flaws in such practices—I will not pretend that our legal system is perfect—but no appeals to the Ministry to remove the dementors has ever yet gained any traction. Perhaps people are sadists, or perhaps they don't think of the innocent, or the petty criminals, who must suffer similar fates to serial killers and terrorists. And it does act as a deterrent. Azkaban may be located on a small island, far from land in the middle of the North Sea, but the real reason no one ever escapes—other than that the spells on the fortress prevent the use of magic—is the dementors. Dementors are said to drain away the magic of a wizard too long exposed, so it would seem that there's little use in stripping away a prisoner's magic after the first few weeks."

Harry shifted uncomfortably, thinking of shackles in another world meant to do just that. The smartest thing about the prison system was the redundant security measures—it would never do to leave a weakness that you were aware existed. But he didn't like thinking of it, of course, regardless.

Lupin was not looking at him. He seemed to be looking out the window, but was instead lost deep in thought. "They don't need those extra protections—not when most of the prisoners are trapped within their own minds, incapable of having a single cheerful thought. Most of them go mad within weeks…."

Harry cocked his head, and considered the new information. For whatever reason, information on dementors was hard to come by. He imagined a younger Lupin either had much experience with the monsters. or he'd spent quite a bit of time scouring bookstores for more information.

His mind drifted to Sirius Black. It would keep returning there—the truth of his past was Harry's newest unscratched itch. No matter how badly scratching it turns out, an unscratched itch is always difficult to resist.

Lupin closed the clasps of his briefcase, one after the other. The bright light of the noonday sun illumined a youthful face framed by blond hair swiftly turning grey, the direct impact deepening the bags under his eyes as it struck all the angles of his face. He made a striking profile, and Harry could almost swear he'd seen this scene before—déjà vu, as Harry remembered it was called. It was a highly disorienting feeling when he could afford no disorientation. He lost track of his own thoughts, for a moment.

Then he remembered to say, "But Black escaped them, didn't he?" and Lupin, with a sigh and a slower shake of the head, came back to the moment, and his briefcase.

"Yes. I wouldn't have thought it possible, but it seems that Black found a way to resist them, without magic—or with whatever limited magic he had left after exposure had taken its toll on him. Not many wizards would be up to such. Pity he was a Death Eater."

"But you—you made them back off, on the train. Hermione said you muttered a spell, and a jet of white light—"

"There are…certain defences you can use," Lupin conceded, turning back to face Harry at last. "If you have a wand, and have put the effort into training yourself with the spell. But it is far too advanced for most wizards—it took me years—"

"Teach me!" Harry said, leaning forwards with sudden rapt focus. He stared at Lupin, and if he blinked at all, neither of them recognised it. He hesitated, and realised that being rude would not serve him. "Please," he tacked on, as an afterthought. He let his gaze fall. There was a long pause, even after that.

"Harry," Lupin began, in that special tone reserved for bad news and disappointment. "I don't meant of get your hopes up—it is quite a difficult spell, and has the potential to be quite dangerous—"

"Incendio was on the curriculum last year," Harry said, with a shrug. "Don't give me that nonsense about it being too difficult for me. I'm one of the best students in my year, right?"

He thought he might have gone too far with this—he was rather horrified at his own rudeness, and wished he could take his words back, but alas, it isn't in the nature of words to return once spoken.

Lupin paused, seeming thrown, but not inclined to punish Harry for his flagrant disrespect. He sat back down behind his desk, head turned towards the window.

"I don't think you quite understand," he said. "As your professor, I am responsible for your safety. The only way to practice would be to expose you to a dementor—"

"—or a boggart—" Harry couldn't help interjecting, fascinated by the odd atmosphere, a shift in ambience, as if he and Lupin were two friends hanging out and comparing notes on something of no great consequence. Perhaps Lupin fell into the role, remembering Harry's dad, James. Or perhaps they'd never met.

Lupin affected not to hear him, and for once, Harry didn't mind. Lupin had a way of pretending not to listen, whilst showing he was listening, that gratified Harry whilst not giving him more than his due. If Lupin weren't the Defence teacher, Harry would probably have liked Lupin—both as a professor, and as a person. Perhaps he should give him a chance.

"—and your reaction to dementors suggests that that might be devastating for your well-being. I can't in good conscience—"

Harry shrugged, and Lupin stilled in his seat, glancing sidelong in Harry's direction. "The Sorting Hat itself suggested that I ask you to teach me how to use the Patronus Charm. 'With your luck, you'll need all the training you can get', it told me.

"And it's absolutely right. Every year there's some covert danger at Hogwarts, and every year, I come up against it on my own. I'd at least like to have some sort of defence against the threat I know exists, even if I'll inevitably be less prepared for the surprise villain at end of spring term." He paused, just a moment, for effect. "Unless, of course, you're yet another of those Defence teachers who is secretly out to kill me. In which case, I suppose it makes sense that you don't want me to learn how to defend myself."

Lupin winced, and Harry pretended to be unperturbed. Yes, he was turning Lupin's earlier words back on him. Whatever it took. His explanation was completely accurate.

Another protracted pause.

"Well—I suppose we could give it a try," Lupin said, as if not even paying attention to his own words. His brow was furrowed as if he were trying his hardest to remember something, again, but he glanced up with his heavily baggy eyes in Harry's direction. Harry's conscience twinged.

Victory was more important. No one could afford for him to go to pieces—not if there were even a grain of truth in Ron's depiction of events at the end of first year. He could not risk that happening again.

Lupin ran a hand through his hair, an unconscious mannerism, and reached for the handle of his briefcase, again.

"Very well. We'll give it a shot." The congenial air of the room vanished, as if penetrated and broken up by the feeble sunlight still breaking through the window. The Autumnal Equinox was still a week away, but Britain was growing progressively more convinced that it was already winter. Go figure.

"I suppose I have some time next week. I'll see about finding a boggart for you."

There seemed to be no hard feelings despite Harry's earlier words, which puzzled him, rather. Still…one down, one to go. He hoped that books on occlumency weren't in the Restricted Section.

There wasn't much time to give to wondering where Lupin had managed to procure another boggart. If he said that Filch had helped him look for them, Harry believed him. Perhaps there was some sort of spell to help with finding something like that—the sort of monster that no one would want to find, in the ordinary way of things. The story of how the boggart had come to be here, in this classroom, was far less important than the purpose for which it had brought. Just as long as Lupin wasn't some sort of illegal creature trafficker. And even if he were, Harry would overlook it, as long as Lupin pulled through on this.

"Exspecto patronum," Harry muttered to himself for the fifth time, gaze seeming fixed on the floor, when in fact he was looking at nothing at all, too busy engraining the spell into his memory. "Exspecto patronum. Exspecto patronum. Exspecto patronum." He paid special attention to the length of syllables and the pronunciation, remembering Hermione's advice to Ron in first year. Then, he worked on synchronising the wand movements to the words. Part of him wondered if he were going over it so thoroughly to avoid confronting the boggart at all.

The air in the classroom was warm—it was hot out, today, one of the last feeble kicks of the dying Dog Days of summer. The lack of freezing cold meant that there were no true dementors nearby. Which meant that Lupin was trustworthy enough, or smart enough, not to exploit a known weakness.

I must be mad, to willingly expose such weakness, Harry thought, the old refrain ringing in his mind. He silenced the voice of caution by filling his mind with the spell. Exspecto patronum, exspecto patronum, exspecto patronum.

"Very good," Lupin said, from the side of the room. He seemed to understand Harry's delay; after the first wisp of light had escaped Harry's wand, Lupin had stopped commenting, even as the wisps grew progressively solider, beginning to take shape with each try.

A vague silvery form touched down on the floor, and as Harry raised his wand to try casting again, Lupin said, "Wait, look!"

Harry gave him a half-hearted glare that he knew would go unnoticed, and followed Lupin's pointing finger to the vague animalistic white light standing protectively before him. It dissipated even as Harry's eyes landed on it, as if its sole function had been to catch Harry's attention.

"That's quite enough practice, I think, Harry. You've done very well thus far, and—"

"I need to try it on a dementor," Harry said, voice quite firm and brooking no argument. Perhaps Lupin had been about to suggest that they quit for the day; perhaps he was about to suggest just what Harry had. It couldn't be known, now Harry had cut him off. Lupin hesitated, turning to the rattling trunk, and then back to Harry.

"Now, I don't want you to be disappointed if nothing happens," Lupin began, seeming a bit at a loss, wrong-footed. Students were probably not supposed to take charge of their own learning in quite such a manner. "It's quite draining to try to use the spell against a real dementor—but even a boggart would be quite taxing. We may need to stop this lesson before—"

"Please, sir," Harry said. Lupin sighed, and turned to the trunk, a non-verbal word of opening at the front of his mind, ready to be cast.

Harry waited with bated breath, staring at the trunk, which suddenly sprang open, and then a dementor floated in the air over the trunk. It began to glide towards him, and as it did, it breathed.

"Exspecto patronum!" Harry cried, gritting his teeth as an unnatural chill began to creep through him, starting with his lungs and spreading. Why was it always the cold, he wondered, as if to give a constant reminder of the god who fell?

And is that you?

In something like a response, Harry clung more fervently to the memory he had been using, under the assumption that the fault was that he wasn't fixating hard enough on the memory of being accepted to Hogwarts.

But somehow, that usually powerful memory seemed feeble and distant compared to his current situation. Yes, Hogwarts is a lovely place, but see what it has brought you, in the end.

Harry cast about for another memory, and thought of his mother, that first meeting, before the experience had been tainted by later revelations.

He now realised that his happiest memories were all tied up in his dreams. A tragic, depressing thought. That meant he would need to rely on his dubious dreams to find a memory strong enough to pull him through.

The feeble haze that was his patronus fizzled out, just then, and Harry discovered a partial answer to his earlier question—that, at the very least, a boggart had some ability to mimic the powers of those whose shape it took. He could hear the screaming begin—he'd held them off with that wispy patronus for a minute or so, just barely intercepting the pseudo-dementor before things could reach this stage. He'd been hasty and less skilful than usual, knowing that he needed to head off the assault, because if it reached the point where he could start hearing the screams….

Yes, one experience with proximity to a dementor was probably not enough to jump to such conclusions, but he refused to take the risk. But now, the patronus had failed, and the last words of Lily Evans flooded his mind, tearing away his memory of self, the knowledge that he was safe in Lupin's classroom, and that this wasn't even a real dementor.

That last fact might, indeed, have been the only reason he'd lasted as long as he had.

"Harry," a desperate, urgent voice said, what seemed a moment later. Of course, it was difficult to tell. Had his own mind betrayed him, deciding that cutting out was preferable to reliving that horrible memory of that once-forgotten Hallowe'en night?

He immediately sat up. "I'm fine," he lied. "That first round was just a bit too much—I suppose I wasn't thinking of something happy enough. But I just about had it when the screaming started. Let me try again."

He cursed his voice for shaking despite his best attempts at keeping it level. Lupin looked uncertain, and then shook his head.

"This is very advanced magic—it's not usually taught in school. Many full-grown wizards haven't even managed to produce a mist without a dementor, let alone—"

There was something to his fragmentation—and he knew he'd made it worse, pushing himself through this training, but it would all be worth it, if he succeed. In the meantime, he was continuing to lose pieces of himself—he knew it for what it was, now, with it described by Lupin last week. But while dementors—even boggart-dementors—were more than up to the task of draining away the shards-of-glass that were his mortal soul, if there truly were something older, something… divine, it perhaps made sense that it was beyond a dementor's ability to consume.

And maybe it was his fragmentation, or perhaps it was this shifting of the scales, that drove him to his feet, swaying slightly, exhausted emotionally but in no danger of draining himself to death, and made him turn to Lupin.

"Professor, sir," he said, his voice level and commanding, now. "Let me try again."

A command, not a request. Lupin took a step back, a literal step back, perhaps a literal expression of his metaphorical response. He blinked as if stricken, turned back to the trunk, then back to Harry.

"Harry, are you sure—?"

With every other authority figure, Harry was unfailingly polite, bar the odd occasion when under extreme stress or pressure, he lashed out, as he had last year at McGonagall. But, somehow, Lupin was an exception. He told himself that it was only because he had had enough bad experience with previous Defence professors to last at least one human lifetime.

Perhaps it was trying to accommodate the lifespan of a god, in which case he'd never have a decent Defence professor ever.

He cocked his head, taking in the whole scene. He understood Lupin's reaction, even. He wanted to ask whom he reminded Lupin of this time, but knew that he'd received as much information on that front as he was liable to, for the moment. Most likely, it was his Dad. But who knew? Lupin's answer to the last bout of questions was thoroughly vague.

Almost as if he were hiding something. Internally, Harry shrugged, but he thought it best not to move—there was something stronger than a spell in the air here—a sort of ambiance of camaraderie, as he'd felt last week in Lupin's office. If he moved too much, it might break before he'd had a chance to get what he was after.

"I'm fine," he lied, again, and, with a glance back over his shoulder, brows knitted in evident concern, Lupin returned to face the boggart-dementor's trunk-prison.

Harry hung on tightly to his memory and knowledge of his mother, alive still (after a fashion) in her cottage in the woods, and reached further afield, to the knowledge of a different world. He hadn't had a chance to study occlumency yet—it was being painfully elusive, as Flamel had in first year—but the Sorting Hat had also told him to fall back on the other magic, and he knew that he needed all the tools he could get.

He, Harry Potter, had too few happy memories of his own. Why hadn't he noticed before?

The boggart rose up as a shadow, and then formed itself into the familiar hooded cloak. Here came the feeling of cold—Harry refused to shiver—and he reacted swiftly, waving the holly-and-phoenix-feather wand, crying "Exspecto patronum!"

He stood his ground, as he heard the rattling breaths that signified the boggart trying to breach his defences. But its powers couldn't bypass the hazy mist that was his patronus. He grit his teeth, and focused on the happy memory.

Sweat poured down his face at the toll this was taking on him—it was almost physically exhausting, now, to try to keep up the white light, even though he wasn't moving.

He could feel his knees trying to buckle as he stood there, unable to understand why. All he knew was that he refused to be distracted.

As the light began to die, the pressure weighing down on him (how hadn't he noticed it before?) suddenly lifted, as Lupin threw the boggart-dementor back into its box. He crossed the room in three strides, what could only be described as a chunk of chocolate in his hand.

"Eat it," he said, as Harry stared at it in overt suspicion.

Ron and Hermione knew where he was. And he couldn't deny that the chocolate had helped before. He took a bite, hesitant.

It was high quality dark chocolate, at least. He frowned, certain he'd had that thought before, and turned to Lupin.

"I think that's quite enough for the day," Lupin said, tone quite as firm as Harry's had been, edged with steel. Which, come to think of it, might also be how Harry's had been.

"Next week, then," Harry said, trying to force his lips to draw up in the corners. Who knew smiles were such work?

"Don't you have any stronger happy memories?" Lupin asked, in a much softer voice. Harry couldn't look at him. He fiddled instead with the chocolate, convinced that it wouldn't melt in his hands. Freezing. Frozen. What was the melting point of chocolate, anyway?

"No," he admitted. Loki had happy memories, but they were tainted, and besides, they weren't Harry's. Really.

Lupin gave a very heavy sigh, and the air seemed full of tension as he cast about for something appropriate to say.

"Do I need a happy memory?" Harry asked. "What exactly is a patronus made of? You said something about positive emotions. Does it need to be happiness?"

Because if the emotion had to be happiness, he was doomed. But happiness was only one positive emotion of many. The Sorting Hat had once told him that his guiding force was love. He knew what it was to be loved—in various ways, none of them romantic, yet—had felt the powerful love of his mother in the cottage in the woods. And his mother's love—

Silver fire.

His eyes opened wide, as the blatantly obvious occurred to him for the first time. Two years he'd known this force, and not stopped to think about what connection it might have to the Patronus Charm when he'd first learnt of it. He was a fool.

Instead of the wand, he held out his hand, tracing the familiar motions, and cried, "Exspecto patronum!"

Light burst forth from his finger, a brighter white than he'd managed thus far. A haze of fog encompassed it, softening the form, like a blurry picture, but Harry could make out antlers, and a triangular head that turned back to look at him.

Lupin gasped, and sat down very abruptly.

"It can't be…" he muttered. A small corner of Harry's mind questioned this reaction. What couldn't be? Was it so impossible that a mere third year might produce an actual patronus, instead of mere mist? Or was it the form the patronus had taken, perhaps? Or….

Harry stared down at his outstretched hand, and frowned. Ah. There was also that.

He took one step back. Two.

"Well, thank you for the lessons. Same time next week good?" he asked. And then, without waiting for an answer, he ran out the door.

He really didn't look forward to having to explain what he'd just done.

Chapter Text

Remus Lupin stared after the closed door, wondering if Harry had even heard him call out for him to wait. Next week was far too close to the full moon.

The full moon…. There was something about the juxtaposition of a dementor's ability to dredge up a man's worst memories—which, although he'd tried his best not to show it, had affected Remus, too—combined with that particular patronus. Perhaps he was wrong, perhaps that hadn't been Prongs…but it sure brought him to mind, regardless. Remus found himself wandering memory lane, as the saying went.

Try as he might to be impartial, he was finding it difficult to not favour Gryffindor, and particularly Harry—all that remained, as Remus thought it, of the Marauders. He tallied off the four friends on his fingers: two dead, one a traitor, and the last—he himself.

Perhaps it was this sense, the keenly cutting knowledge that he was the last—that drove Remus to humour Harry Potter to a dangerous degree. Perhaps a longing for times past, even though Harry seemed to have little in common with Remus's long-lost sort-of brother, James. There wasn't even that strong of a physical resemblance—growing his hair out had helped to mask the similarity of their facial structures to an extent that only Snape still saw it—and in his demeanour, Harry seemed much more as how Remus remembered Lily.

Except Lily had never had that aura about her, an air of command that usually ran only in pureblood families, although James and Peter had lacked it, and Remus could think of one other who also possessed it.

Remus sighed, and put his head in his hands, the dissipating energy of the patronus seeming to take away that happy memory of family and camaraderie with it. He began to feel the sharp pangs of grief, again, although James would have teased him until anger and irritation replaced the grief, Peter would have voiced complaints to make Remus's seem trivial by comparison, and even the boy Black had once been would have been quick to drag him out of it. What happened to the loyal dog? What had gone wrong? Everyone should have been a traitor before Sirius turned. Loyal to light and friends, filled with contempt for his family's ideology—or had that been a ruse?

Sirius had once said he thought that knowing how to lie was one of the most important skills a boy could possess. Had he been faking it, planning a betrayal even then?

No. Remus refused to believe that. Somewhere along the way, they must have—James, and Peter, and Remus must have—failed him. So badly that even a devoted follower of what was pure and good went to the bad.

Such were the thoughts that sometimes kept Remus up at night. What sort of friend was he, if he hadn't realised how badly Sirius (no, Black) must have been hurting, to turn his back on his family in all but blood?

Then, I suppose I deserve this grief, Remus thought, realising that he was staring at the place where maybe-Prongs had stood.

There was a sort of powerful, wistful longing hanging in the air. Remus was almost sure it came from that last patronus of Harry's. The one he'd cast using wandless magic. Remus knew he'd have to speak with Harry about it, but the boy clearly seemed to believe that wandless magic was a mistake, something that Remus would have to fix. He didn't seem to recognise it for what it was: a rare talent.

Brilliant as his father, then, Remus thought, remembering that James and Black had been the brightest students in their time at Hogwarts—too clever for the curriculum, and Remus had always felt that he was running after them, struggling to catch up. He'd spent much of his time poring over old books, looking up the duo's obscure and sometimes outlandish theories, researching this or that that they'd casually mentioned. Without trying, only Black and James whizzed through their classes, minds focused on what they deemed more important: pranks. Remus and Peter had mostly only been along for the ride.

And what a ride it had been. He still remembered the pure shock when Sirius and James had, almost matter-of-factly, informed him that they'd succeeded in becoming animagi—a phenomenally difficult feat, particularly as they were both still underage. And phenomenally dangerous.

But only a corner of his mind had even considered scolding them for their dangerous undertaking. He had recognised the gesture for what it was, even then. And ever after, he'd turned a blind eye too often to their antics, even when it put people in danger, especially when it was Snape—and now Snape was helping him, and part of him felt as if Snape were trying to replace Remus's old friends, which was absurd, but—

How? Where had it all gone wrong? What should he have done?

He considered asking the empty classroom that, but knew that whatever answers it might hold, it would keep to itself.

He was in worse shape than he had thought. He acknowledged this fact, leaning against one of Hogwarts's many stone corridors, taking a break on the way to the Headmaster's Office. He hoped that Dumbledore hadn't changed the password again, which meant he probably had. Still, it was a bit cumbersome. Suppose there were an actual emergency?

Realising that leaning against the wall wasn't doing him any good—and that the wasted time might be doing him some harm, he forced himself back to his feet, and set off, again, at a swifter pace, as if to make up for the time he'd wasted.

You made it, said the part of his mind he had disavowed, in a sort of disinterested drawl, only a few minutes later. And without forgetting your intent. Does that not suggest to you that perhaps your situation is not as dire as you believe it to be?

Shut up, Harry's main internal voice shot back, thinking that how loud that other voice was, was evidence enough of his dire straits. Besides, no one trusts a liar, right?

"Bertie Bott's Every-Flavour Beans!" he cried, and then threw his hands up in frustration when nothing happened. Of course.

"Lemon drops! Licorice Wands! Pumpkin Pasties! Droobles Best Chewing Gum! Acid Pops!"

He sighed. At least that one was short. He glared at the gargoyle, which didn't even dignify him with a look. Which was just as well, as he was here without permission.

He stopped at the top of the spiral stairs, and knocked.

"Come in," said a familiar voice, somewhat distorted through the thick wood. And here he'd been hoping that the door was unlocked, but no one was in. He sighed, and turned the knob, throwing the door open.

Dumbledore sat behind his desk, looking through piles of parchment that were probably something administrative for Hogwarts—although he was also Supreme Mugwump, and a common correspondent of the Minister; who knew? Harry glanced over at Fawkes, trying to keep Dumbledore in his peripheral vision. He felt wary and hunted. It was not a good feeling. He was liable to jump at even small noises, which was embarrassing.

"Ah, Harry Potter," said Dumbledore. Even his voice was smiling. "To what do I owe the pleasure of your company, particularly during one of your breaks? Not many students choose to spend their free time with this particular old man."

Harry glanced around the room, seeking for the Sorting Hat, and turned to face Dumbledore, as if he'd only just noticed him. His expression was carefully blank.

"I need to borrow the Sorting Hat," he said. "Dementors seem to take a toll on my mental stability, and it's helped before."

He tried to sound as if this didn't bother him in the slightest, but knew that Dumbledore saw right through him. Still, Dumbledore was usually understanding enough—

"And where have you encountered a dementor?" asked Dumbledore swiftly, all his usual twinkling mirth gone. There was a fierce anger to his tone. Harry was a bit taken aback, despite himself. "Have you tried to sneak off the grounds, Harry?"

He did not sound as if he thought this idea had much credence, which was at once insulting and gratifying. Loki would have balked at the idea of being a teacher's pet, but the strange, avuncular connection he and Dumbledore seemed to have had its perks.

"In the school," he said, with a dismissive wave of his hand, as he made his way over to the Sorting Hat. Fawkes gave a reproachful chirp, and Harry hesitated. "Good to see you're feeling well, Guy," he told the phoenix, who seemed placated by Harry's acknowledgement.

He turned back to Dumbledore, who had stood up, looking twenty feet tall and quite imposing. Harry had to force himself to add, although he was shaking all over from sudden nerves, "It wasn't even a real dementor. Just a boggart. Professor Lupin is teaching me the Patronus Charm. Knowing my luck, I'll need it before the year is out. But it does take its toll like a real dementor…."

Dumbledore diminished, became life-sized again, and gave a heavy exhale. "Yes, it's probably best," he agreed. "Few wizards manage to learn the charm, however—don't be disappointed if it takes a while."

Harry said nothing. He was not about to brag that he'd managed to create a full-fledged patronus not fifteen minutes ago. He shrugged, and continued to the Sorting Hat. He chose to interpret Dumbledore's lack of protest as permission. He needed this. If luck were on his side, for once, his mother might come up with a more permanent solution, but for now this was all he had.

If he were unlucky, which seemed rather more likely, he was broken, in the manner of Humpty Dumpty, beyond mending.

He glanced again at Dumbledore, before picking the Sorting Hat up. Even though the Sorting Hat almost never spoke aloud, this still seemed a very personal experience. He felt particularly exposed and vulnerable with the Hat on his head, and now was not a good time for that. This was why he glanced again at Dumbledore before taking a seat. There was, unfortunately, only one such seat in the room unoccupied, and Harry hadn't researched how to make his own.

Back again, Your Grace? asked the Hat, and Harry started, and then sighed. Talking Hats were impossible to get used to, although he sensed that he must do just that. He frowned.

How many times must I tell you that I am not a god? Harry demanded. He folded his arms, and then pressed one hand against his forehead, under the brim of the Hat.

You would be able to convince yourself that that is true, the Hat mused. Although it is not.

Harry was not in the best mental frame of mind to begin with, and the Sorting Hat wasn't helping in that respect. Doubtless, it had already begun trying to repair his mind, such as it was, but Harry wished it didn't have to prod that particular issue. Did every conversation with the Sorting Hat have to come back to that?

The Sorting Hat made a vague, soothing noise, of the sort Harry would have expected from Madam Pomfrey. There is only so much that I can do for you, it informed Harry, sounding regretful. The dementors attack your soul far more than your mind. Occlumency would help you to fend them off, however; although it is generally a mind magic, it has its place in defending the soul from external influence, as well. I see that you've neglected your search for information on it, to learn the Patronus Charm.

You were the one to suggest that I do that! Harry said. If looks could kill, the Hat would have been very lucky to be an inanimate object.

I suggested that you pursue all of the means that lay before you, the Hat corrected him, in an overly gentle voice. At least it was treating Harry like an ordinary, human child, and not dropping in titles or epithets.

I had some trouble, Harry said, in his most indifferent mind-voice. Even though the Hat in his head could see right through that. Do you have any suggestions for books on occlumency?

The Hat responded with some manner of comment about how, although it was a mind-reading Hat, it couldn't read the words on actual parchment. What did Harry want from it?

Well, it might have encountered someone who had researched the subject before coming here—or perhaps there were other higher-year students who, as Harry was doing now, returned to speak with the Hat again. He didn't know.

Harry wondered again what Dumbledore made of his presence, and that thought returned him to awareness of his own body, which had been cut when the Hat had settled on his head. Now, he began to wonder if he weren't running past his break, into his next class. Would Dumbledore give him some sort of note explaining his delay? Would anyone accept such a note?

The Hat was suspiciously silent.

He hated having to rely on one person for his salvation, but at least if he couldn't save himself—no matter how he try—that one person was his mother. He trusted Ron, Hermione, and his mother absolutely. Everyone else was suspect. Still, even he had trouble figuring out what to make of the scene he walked in on on the Thirtieth. His mother had failed to answer the door because she was sitting on the familiar sofa, sewing together huge swathes of what looked to be tapestry.

He stared, and she glanced up at him, a knowing smile on her face. Behind that, however, her brows were slightly furrowed, a slight downward quirk to her lips, and she seemed unusually tense.

He had tripped over boots that he'd never before noticed himself wearing in these dreams. Or perhaps they were new boots—one that he'd never worn before. If that were the case, then they might be evidence of the effect the dementors had had on him. He was fairly sure that always before, he'd worn his trainers, and Dudley's old cast-offs. He was still wearing those, but he was a bit unnerved by even a slight change in his appearance. This was his subconscious. It was supposed to be stabler and less dynamic than his conscious self.

Mother may or may not have noticed the new boots. She seemed rather preoccupied with the dagger-sized needle in her hand, with which she was using thread as thick as yarn to sew together the torn seams of the tapestry. He rather suspected that he knew what she was doing.

"Is it September Thirtieth already?" she asked, with a little laugh. He noticed dark rings under her eyes, as if she'd lost sleep, whether because of the dementors, or owing to the less immediate need to sew the tapestry back together, he couldn't tell. He felt a pang of guilt, at all the extra work he'd given her, taking his Patronus lessons with Lupin. But she seemed genuinely glad to see him (And what mother would not?), beckoning him over with the hand holding the needle. With some misgiving, and much remorse, he picked his way across the room.

"I did wonder at your absence when you failed to answer the door," he said, as he approached her. "That seems to be quite the task you have set yourself. Is there something I might do to assist you?"

It was his soul, after all. But she shook her head.

"Come. Sit beside me as you can, and speak to me of what has happened this month past. What warning do you have of coming threats?"

He had to concede that that was the most pressing issue, but wished that there were a time when his life wasn't in danger, and that they could just talk, again, as they once did. Perhaps, when Riddle was defeated. Until then, between the renewed fury of the Dursleys, and the constant danger that seemed to follow him wherever he went, he had too much else that he more desperately needed to speak with her about. Advice on how to survive the Dursleys. Advice on occlumency, perhaps? It was worth asking.

He glanced over to the tapestry to see that it was covered with highly realistic trees. He raised an eyebrow at Mother, who, despite her distraction, understood the unasked question.

"These are trees from just outside the cottage," she said. "The dementors destroyed some parts of your soul—but do not fret, my son. Souls are flexible things. They regenerate, to a degree. As long as you give them enough time to do so."

He swallowed, and looked down at his hands, swallowed as they were by folds of grey cloth.

"I see," he said, and there was a moment of silence. But, as he had observed before, his mother had boundless patience. She could outwait him, he knew. The delay was the need to gather his thoughts, along with the attendant difficulty of doing that, caused by the dementors.

"They consume the soul, and not the mind," he murmured. He was thinking of what the Sorting Hat had said. He glanced at his Mother, who seemed utterly absorbed in her work. But she was listening. She always had. "The greatest threat thus far, regardless of other recent events, would seem to be the inundation of dementors, stationed at all the exits of the school grounds. Professor Lupin is teaching me the Patronus Charm. Thus…."

He spread his hand to encompass the kilometres of tapestry blocking the window and pooling on the sofa.

"Professor Lupin?" his mother asked, looking up towards him so quickly that he privately thought it a miracle that she hadn't impaled herself on the giant needle. Miracles, hmm?

The part of his mind that his waking self disavowed was always louder in his dreams—but never this loud, before. He sighed, and looked away.

"Remus J. Lupin," he said, running a hand through his bangs. "Do you know that name?"

She returned to her work, nodding. "Do I know that name?" she repeated. "Have you forgot what I told you on the eve of your departure for Hogwarts? Three good friends James had: Sirius Black, naturally; Peter Pettigrew, who betrayed us all; and Remus Lupin, whose unfortunate ailment helped to bind them together, when their bond was strong. Before…."

Harry shuddered, thinking of another shattered bond, the betrayal born of its breaking, and fixed his eyes upon the not-quite-fabric trees. He knew that they were supposed to be out the window, and down the way, mostly by the way he could follow a line of fabric heading back out through the window and out into the woods. He thought he'd wandered that particular path before. It was visible from his Mother's garden. The dementors had penetrated deep, indeed.

"Four loyal friends, bound together by fate and friendship, brothers in all but name and blood. One dead, one forsaken, one broken, one apostate. And I am to remember their names, as well."

She nodded. "It is best you recognise them, if you hear them again. I will say it again: if your path should cross with that of Sirius Black, for my sake, I urge you to hear him out, and heed his tale. But if you should encounter Peter Pettigrew instead…turn him in to the Ministry, if you can, but regardless, be very careful. He is tricky in the worst sense of the word. I fear we all underestimated him—and Sirius and James were the brightest students of our generation. Do not give him opportunity to harm you. Your safety is paramount."

He was still not sure of the reality of any of this—or at least, that was what he told himself in the Waking World. But if his mother were his mother, then what she was saying must be true. He should heed her words. He resolved, despite his misgivings, to keep an eye out for any mention of a "Peter Pettigrew", particularly in conjunction with the other three names.

It was time to change the subject. "Tell me, Mother: What do you know of occlumency? The Sorting Hat suggested I learn both that and the Patronus Charm, but research in the library proves…frustrating."

And perhaps he wasn't the only one who recalled one of those earliest memories, when she'd first begun to teach him magic, finding him in the Royal Library, and—

She wouldn't look at him. "It is a very difficult discipline," she said, her voice slow and ponderous. "Learning it requires a numbing of emotion, and the clearing of the mind. Eventually, with enough practice and skill, the skilled practitioner is able to keep his mental walls intact even under pressure, in times of great emotion. Not everyone has the capacity to reach such a level of skill, but anyone may start to learn."

"…How?" he asked. This was about as much information as he'd found in his research in the library. It was not much to go on.

"You are more vulnerable than most to legilimency—and anything that assaults the mind—owing to your past experiences." He did not contest that statement. "It is best that you begin such training as soon as possible. I wish that you had mentioned it to me earlier, my son. Dementors will never be welcome visitors at my place of refuge."

Harry sighed, and leant back into the sofa. His mother would lead into topics with a reprimand, and too much background information. He shouldn't have expected anything else.

"Will you teach me?" he asked, and she sighed.

"Occlumency was not a subject that drew my attention whilst I was a student at Hogwarts. I too little understand its finer workings. However, I know that Professor Snape, and Headmaster Dumbledore, are both master legilimens. However—"

There was a protracted, ominous pause. "You must understand that any teacher who would have the skill in legilimency to help you learn occlumency would become privy to your thoughts and memories. You might consider that too great of a risk."

He would. He frowned, trying to find a third path. "What, then?" he asked, wondering if this were a hopeless task. His mother lay down the tapestry to tap at her chin, thoughtfully.

"The Sorting Hat," she said. "Legilimency is a function of its magic—it is the means by which it sorts students. Between the need to continue to repair your mind, and the threat of encountering more dementors, you should have cause to ask Dumbledore to ask the Hat to instruct you on that, at least. But you ought to start on your own. Clear your mind, and imagine a barrier around your mind—thick, impenetrable, and all-encompassing. Practice maintaining that wall, and try to make it ever stronger and enduring. That is what I would do if you were to use the magic of home to attempt to mimic occlumency."

That hadn't occurred to him. Nor had he done much practice of the other magic—despite how much simpler it would have been than to try to teach himself wizarding means of defending his mind. Why had it not occurred to him? Was it merely his distraction and fragmentation, or was there something else, too—the sense that if he used the other magic instead of wizarding magic when he knew that he was replacing a very specific skill, it would make all that he was trying to deny seem more valid?

Self-sabotage, he chided himself. He needed all the help he could get.

"And where is Thor, Mother?" he asked, with sudden urgency that had her looking up again. "Not even for my sake. Is he near enough for the dementors to affect him? What do you suppose he would be forced to recall?"

Surely not the night he had almost died, but perhaps…perhaps…if Harry were Loki and Lily Evans, Frigga…they would have died, and perhaps….

He shivered at the image of Thor trapped within those memories that had come to him in the last months before the dreams had stopped—the Chitauri Invasion, the Rainbow Bridge, the aborted coronation…so much loss, in so little time. And then, other, unknown, hidden memories—the certainty that if there were any true connection between him and Loki, or his mother the witch, and his mother the queen, it entailed their deaths. All in what, to an Asgardian, would seem almost the blink of an eye.

And Thor would not have the Patronus Charm to defend him. He would not have occlumency to shield his mind. That which had brought Harry to his knees would have crippled even Thor. But he didn't know why he even asked. She never gave a true answer.

Until now.

"He is near," she said, with great assurance. She studied the tapestry in her hands. "More than that, I do not know. Were I to walk this mortal plane, if our paths would cross, I am certain that I would know him. But my confinement in this cottage mutes my connection to the outside world. It is why I rely upon you for information. All I know is that he is near. He may, indeed, be somewhere in this very school—for if you and I, why not he? And I am sure that—if separated you are—it shall not last much longer. You will not have noticed it—a tension, anticipation, even the stars forecast a great change in the future. War is almost upon us, and I find it difficult to believe that your brother would be far behind."

Harry huffed. Maybe instead of taking Divination, he should have talked to his mother about foretelling the future instead. He'd forgotten she sometimes seemed to have knowledge of coming events.

"Then…I shall perforce save him again from charging into battle unprepared?" he asked, throwing his hands in the air. "Is that how it must always be, Mother?"

It wasn't fair to ask her to predict such specifics, he knew. He didn't begrudge her her inevitable renewed silence.

Chapter Text

It seemed to want to be a very wet October, even by Hogwarts standards. That didn't stop Wood from dragging them out to practice nearly every day of the week. But Harry could hardly blame him; Wood was absolutely right: this was Harry's third year on the team, and, by the contortions more than the vicissitudes of fate, contrivance had stolen the Quidditch Cup from them. First year Harry had been laid out in the Hospital Wing—but the alternative was a resurrected Lord Voldemort; second year, the cup had been canceled altogether following Hermione's petrification. Wood was understandably a bit frantic—he was taking out his pre-exam jitters through exercise, on the one hand, and on the other, he knew, and took pains to underscore, lest the rest of them forget it, that this year was his very last chance at the thing.

Harry silently crossed his fingers, glancing upwards with raised eyebrows, wondering if anyone were watching, and then, with a sigh, settled for just hoping for the best. There was something ultimately unsatisfying with potential connections to godhead—especially if they carried with them suggestions of unrealised access to divine power. To whom did you appeal for assistance, if you were all or part god?

The good thing was that Wood had listened to Harry's entreaties, that Ron be allowed to try out, and then had listened again when Ginny had (having followed them) demanded her own fair shot. He'd called her reserve seeker, and put Ron into the reserve chaser line, which meant that they had a failsafe or two—and to Harry's mind, there could never be enough of those. Unless it was in the opposing force's preparations—then it was overkill.

With September past, talk of the first Hogsmeade visit of the year began to filter through the school—the date was set for Hallowe'en, naturally. That day couldn't pass without making Harry miserable, and putting him in danger. He wondered what catastrophe awaited him this year. And how Lupin would be involved. Quirrell had been the threat in first year, Lockhart a bystander in second—what remaining role was there to play? He supposed he'd see, come Hallowe'en.

Truth be told, he was grateful for the Quidditch practices to wear him down somewhat physically, to match his emotional and mental strain. He was slowly pulling himself back together, but the time he spent mimicking and researching occlumency didn't help matters. Madam Pince refused to believe his intentions in seeking out books on mind magic, so he was on his own, scouring the shelves as best he could. Good thing he had some training to fall back on.

Why couldn't wizards use the card catalogue?

The first game of the season was in November, but Wood was frantic in his pursuit of success, and drilled them mercilessly, getting them up early so that they could mimic the conditions under which they would play as best he could. Harry was low on sleep, anyway, and perhaps a bit shorter with Ron and especially Hermione, who had no need to suffer the practices, than he should have been.

He might now be draining himself to death, but what choice did he have? He needed some sort of defence against the dementors, and were it a choice between losing his life, and losing his soul….

The only person who looked as harried and frazzled as Harry was Hermione—and she was taking literally every course Hogwarts had on offer, including, as Harry and Ron pointed out more than once, Muggle Studies. Harry would stick to useful subjects, thank you.

He told himself that his fatigue had nothing to do with the impending threat and disappointment lurking in the near future, but even he had a hard time convincing himself of that.

Dean Thomas, ever a good friend, despite the scant social interaction Harry'd had with him, offered to forge Uncle Vernon's signature, but Harry admitted, with some regret, that he'd left his form at home—and who knew what manner of spells were on the things to detect just such tricks as forgeries and promises under duress? He didn't want Dean to get into trouble—not when Dean was one of the few people in the school who had never forsaken him. Dean gave a nod of understanding to Harry's explanation, and tried for a reassuring smile.

"Maybe next time, then," he said, turning back to the sketch he was working on instead of homework.

Percy's attempts to reassure him that Hogsmeade was nothing special had the opposite effect, because he was Percy, who understood Harry the least of all the members of the Weasley clan, was the least fond of him of the Weasleys-at-Hogwarts, and who, furthermore, was just bad with people in general. He could do bossy; he could not do reassuring. Even Hermione's half-hearted attempts to comfort Lavender Brown after she received news that her rabbit had died back home met with more success—and Lavender was glaring at Hermione by the end of that confrontation.

He conceded that Hermione was giving her best shot at this whole "social interaction" thing, and that hanging out with Ron and Harry probably hadn't helped to strengthen this ability, for opposite reasons. He was just glad it hadn't turned into yet another argument between Hermione and Ron about whether or not Crookshanks was trying to figure out how to unlock Scabbers's cage so that he could catch and eat him. Somehow, he suspected that the arguments would be frequenter and more heated, were not Scabbers safe in his cage.

The real problem was that Scabbers did not seem to be recovering, for which Ron seemed inclined to blame himself, and then to blame Crookshanks. Harry did his best to stay out of their arguments. He had the sense that Hermione's resolve was waning, and that her main reason for continuing to argue was that she didn't have any idea what else to do. Nor did Harry. Unfortunately, other, more pressing matters, were occupying his mind.

He seemed to be making decent progress on occlumency, at least, perhaps because he was mostly just using the other magic, which came more easily to him anyway, in a different way. Or perhaps it was that he already had most of the rigid self-control that formed the foundation of the skill. Half to spite Madam Pince, for refusing to help him, and half because he felt it would genuinely come in useful, he studied legilimency, as well. If occlumency and legilimency were opposites, that learning about the other would also teach him about the one.

The second week of October, Lupin conceded to being ready to give him another lesson on forming a Patronus. This, too, seemed to be progressing. At the end of his first lesson, he'd managed to form a patronus, when there was no external threat to drain and to distract him. Now, Lupin set him to fighting a boggart-dementor from the get-go, without even a review. Harry was, despite everything, up to the challenge.

Lupin must have ordered an entire candy shop's worth of chocolate to prepare for their lessons, well aware that Harry would need it. But Harry was improving—he knew he was. The patronus that formed under duress grew progressively brighter and more distinct, approaching the form he'd seen at the end of his last session in appearance. He remembered Lupin's reaction, and questioned whether the man might just be trying to avoid seeing that animal again. But if so, why?

Lupin seemed to be a very private person. There was no readily apparent way of asking.

Not until Hallowe'en came, at least, and the school drained of students of third year and up (although some remained, particularly those in their fifth and seventh years, as those contained end of year cumulatives). Filch checked each student as they passed, standing with a clipboard, comparing those departing with his list of students with permission. Ron and Hermione united in their efforts to cheer Harry up, by bringing him mementos from Hogsmeade that they thought he might like. He wondered if that would make him feel better, but acknowledged the purity of their intentions.

He was on his way to the library, thinking he might get some studying in, when he heard Lupin call out to him as he passed the Defence Against the Dark Arts professor's office. It was the same one that Lockhart had occupied last year, but far less garishly ornamented now. Really, especially in comparison to Lockhart, Lupin was fully deserving of the title of professor. The only reason Harry was still remiss was a lingering suspicion about Lupin's motives, being here, with the current climate what it was. But if Mother were right….

"Is there something you needed assistance with, Professor?" he asked, standing in the doorway, head tilted to the side.

"Ah, no," Professor Lupin said, with a smile. "I was just feeling a bit lonely, and in need of company, and you happened to pass by. If you're busy, of course, feel free to leave. But if not…I was just thinking of making a pot of tea."

Harry stepped across the threshold with some caution, remembering the last time he'd come this way. He glanced around the walls, but hadn't really expected to see framed photographs of the new Defence professor covering them. That tank on the table, however, was definitely new, and infinitely more interesting than anything in Lockhart's headquarters.

"Ah, you noticed the grindylow," said Lupin, pouring a cup of tea. "They shouldn't be too much of a problem, after the kappa we covered. The trick is to break their grip. See those long fingers—strong, but very brittle. Tea, Harry?"

"Yes, please," Harry said, paying little heed to his words, as he slid into his seat, half-expecting for something to come to life and attack him.

"Are you alright, Harry?" Professor Lupin asked, brow furrowed in evident concern. "I noticed that Ron and Hermione aren't around—"

"They are in Hogsmeade. However, my uncle did not see fit to sign my permission form. Perhaps you heard the story of how I blew up my Aunt Marge. He was none too pleased."

"I did hear a rumour," said Lupin, but his gaze was distant, as if he were thinking of something else entirely. There was a small, almost invisible, smile on his face. "Well, Hogsmeade grows old. It loses its novelty after a while. Not going this year just means that you appreciate it more next year. And it is for the best, after all, with Black on the loose. I, for one, prefer knowing that you are safe here in Hogwarts—particularly with dementors patrolling the streets of Hogsmeade. Going would be quite the risk."

Ah. That perhaps made sense, if Black was supposed to have broken out of Azkaban to kill him. Still, this was the first he had heard of dementors being in Hogsmeade. For the first time, he was relieved that he hadn't gone. A weight seemed to lift off his shoulders. Of course, there was still the fact that today was Hallowe'en to consider. He wouldn't put it past this holiday to sneak a dementor into the school.

Perhaps his thoughts showed on his face, because Lupin (Professor Lupin) asked, still in a quite mild voice, "Is something bothering you, Harry?"

Harry frowned, trying to figure out how much it made sense to say. But he wouldn't be surprised if everyone but he had come to Hogwarts already knowing the date of Riddle's defeat. Because he knew that that was how most of wizarding society thought of it—the day that the light triumphed over the Dark Lord. A day to celebrate. Not the day that a baby's entire world came crashing down around him.

But…if Mother were right, and Professor Lupin was one of his parents' old friends, he'd be one of the exceptions to that rule, wouldn't he?

For the sake of solving the mystery, he decided to take a risk, and trust Lupin. The decision had only a little to do with the slight fragmentation of his mind that remained, after all the Sorting Hat's work, and all the work he'd put into fake-occlumency. Or, at least, he told himself that this was not a stupid mistake made due to lack of focus.

He glanced down at his tea, barely aware of its flavour. Too much else was occupying his mind. "It's today," he admitted, keeping his eyes downcast, and then staring earnestly at Lupin. "Hallowe'en is never a good day for me, anymore. Not since I learnt what happened on this day…and besides that… my first year here, our Defence professor let in a mountain troll that Ron and I had to fight to protect Hermione. And last year, the Chamber of Secrets opened for the first time in fifty years. Everyone else sees it as a day of celebration, however I—"

Lupin's face grew incredibly taut, as if all his facial muscles had clenched.

"I know what you mean," he conceded. "Ironically, Hallowe'en is supposed to be a day for honouring the dead who have passed. Your parents were good people, and they deserve such recognition, but I have no power to change people's minds…."

Harry leant forwards, his main point at last accessible. "Did you know my parents, then, Professor?"

Lupin paused, taking a sip of tea, and then pushed it away from himself, with a sigh. "I did indeed. In the interest of respecting the dead, although some might consider it unprofessional of me, I think that I ought to tell you that much, at least. Your father was one of my best friends, at Hogwarts. I can't help but think of him every time I pass by the Whomping Willow—"

"The Whomping Willow?" Harry repeated, with an inquisitive cocking of his head.

"The tree that stands by itself in the middle of the grounds. It attacks anything that comes near it. I daresay I needn't warn you to stay well away from it. It was transplanted here the year I started at Hogwarts—a boy in our year nearly lost an eye, and we were forbidden to go near it. It only seems right to pass that warning on to you, no matter how often your Dad ignored just those warnings, but James and Sirius never made much of warnings—"

His eyes widened, as if he realised suddenly just how much he'd said. He glanced at his teacup as if Harry had slipped veritaserum into it when he wasn't looking.

"You knew Sirius Black?" Harry pressed, deciding to let go of the far less important question of why the school would acquire such a dangerous tree, and then plant it where anyone could get to it.

Lupin closed his eyes, his expression pained. "I did. Or, I thought I did." His eyes opened a crack, his expression looking incredibly weary…and, as he had said before, lonely. "But I can't have known him very well, after all. The Sirius Black I thought I knew would not have done what this one has. He was no traitor."

Harry frowned, brows furrowed in confusion. "'Traitor'?" he repeated. "Whom did he betray?"

Lupin's eyes opened wide, as if only now realising he'd said that aloud. He glanced down at his tea again. "I must be tired…. Nothing. I made a mistake, is all."

Lie. But the issue was clearly sensitive, and Harry rather suspected he'd pushed his luck enough as it was. He pretended to accept Professor Lupin's explanation, all the while filing that away to mull over, later.

"I'm sorry. It must be tough, talking about such painful memories," Harry said, with a sympathetic smile, instead.

Lupin paused. He turned away, looking at the window, which served to make him more difficult to read. It was only that sixth sense for when people were lying that had let him know that Lupin's words of before were a lie—that and common sense. Lupin had had no outward tells—he must have a great deal of self-awareness, and rigid control over his emotions. How had Harry not noticed before? Did Professor Lupin hide it all under a pleasant façade?

"Being back at Hogwarts has made me a bit retrospective, I suppose," Lupin said, again in that light, pleasant voice.

Harry was just about to respond, when the door opened, and Snape entered, carrying a silver goblet from which steam or smoke wafted so thick that it blocked vision. Harry frowned, as Snape, still with casual care, as if this were not difficult for him at all to have carried this cup all this way without spilling a drop, set the goblet down before Professor Lupin on the table. He did not acknowledge Harry's existence, which was hardly surprising.

"You should drink that directly," Snape said, when Professor Lupin did not immediately pick it up and drink it down.

"Ah, yes. thank you, Severus. I was just showing Harry my grindylow," he said, with that same pleasant voice.

Snape still did not so much as twitch an eye to look at either.

"Fascinating. I have made an entire cauldronful, if you need more, Lupin."

Professor Lupin paused, and smiled. "That's very kind of you, Severus," said Professor Lupin, with a smile that looked rather forced. "I shall need some more tomorrow, I think, and then I should be fine."

Without giving further response, Professor Snape turned on his heel, and left. Harry had to wonder what that confrontation was about.

"What is that?" he asked, standing to peer at the misty contents within the cup. Lupin grimaced, and picked the cup up, eyeing it warily, before taking a deep drink, and shuddering.

"Disgusting. Pity sugar makes it useless." He looked back at Harry, and gave a small smile. "I have been feeling a bit under the weather, as you might have noticed—it's why I canceled our last lesson. This potion that Professor Snape makes is the only thing that helps. I'm quite fortunate to be working with him: it is a difficult potion to make; not many wizards are up to the task."

Harry very much doubted that the potion was brewed out of the goodness of Snape's heart. More likely, Dumbledore had demanded it of him, and Snape, who, for all his faults, was loyal to Dumbledore, had begrudgingly betaken himself to the task.

"What were we talking about, now?" asked Professor Lupin, leaning his elbows on the table and steepling his hands together. "Something about Black?"

Harry nodded, unsure whether or not to bring back up Lupin's earlier words. He watched Professor Lupin drink the cup of what was evidently a revolting medicine down, making faces as he did.

"My tea will get cold by the time I can have anything with sugar in it. I don't know what I was thinking, having a cup of tea when Professor Snape was about to come 'round. I suppose he came early to keep me on my toes…. Well, Harry, you seem much better than you were at the beginning of term. Finally recovered from the dementors on the train?"

"Perhaps," Harry said, with a shrug. "With the help of occlumency and the Sorting Hat."

Professor Lupin's eyebrows rose. "Occlumency?"

Harry smiled. "The Sorting Hat's idea. It said that they siphon off pieces of people's soul—that's their food source, right? I pity the prisoners in Azkaban."

Lupin's gaze turned steely. "Don't. Azkaban is the place of the worst of society. I'll admit, I'm none too fond of dementors, myself, and I quite object to their use, but you have to understand that those subjected to them have earned the punishment—"

"Not always," Harry reminded him, in his softest, quietest voice. Professor Lupin managed not to look as though he were leaning forwards to listen, which was fairly impressive all on its own. "Hagrid was sent there, last year, for unleashing the monster of Slytherin on the school. But in reality, it's Riddle was the Heir of Slytherin. He controlled the basilisk." Harry ploughed right through Lupin's attempts to get more information, to come to his point: "And if Hagrid, who was innocent, could be sent there for two months, who knows what other prisoners there might be innocents suffering, too?"

Who knows if Sirius Black suffered wrongly too? was the question he was really asking, but Professor Lupin didn't cotton on, which was probably just as well.

"Perhaps. But Azkaban makes everyone the same, in the end."

"But not Black," Harry pressed, determined to keep the conversation centred upon the man that he was starting to realise must have been his dad's schoolboy friend—Professor Lupin had just confirmed it.

Lupin sighed, looking down, folding his hands in his lap, and looking haggard and older than he was.

"They won't be sending him back to Azkaban," Lupin said, looking down at his table instead of at Harry. Harry opened his mouth to interrupt, but Lupin continued, seeming unaware of this fact. "There is worse than merely stealing away a man's good memories, forcing them to relive the worst moments of their lives, and draining away all happiness from a person. The dementors have a special ability—it's something of the wizarding world's idea of capital punishment—irreversible and absolute. They call it the Dementor's Kiss, and, as disgusting as it would be merely to have to kiss a dementor, that is a bit of a misnomer. No kissing is involved."

Harry stayed very still, and held his breath, waiting. "It is what they call it when a dementor sucks out a person's entire soul through the mouth."

"They kill—"

Lupin gave a bitter laugh. "Oh, no. You can survive without your soul, you know, as long as your brain and heart are intact. But that essence of who you are, the thing that makes you you, will be gone. They're like muggle ideas of zombies, in the original conception of the term. Essentially, animated corpses."

Harry shuddered. Lupin saw, and nodded. He couldn't know all the turmoil this talk of souls and bodies devoid of a will of their own dredged up for Harry.

"Exactly," said Professor Lupin, with a grim smile. "And unlike you, he has no means by which to defend himself."

Harry thought it most prudent not to point out that he'd managed to protect himself just fine thus far with no such defences. That was why they were in this mess to begin with.

The Hallowe'en Feast was always entertaining, although it didn't quite take off the edge the holiday naturally had. Ron and Hermione had set aside their differences, and splurged on samples of what Hogsmeade had to offer. Hermione gushed about an antique bookshop—Hogsmeade was the only wizarding settlement in Britain, which meant that all off the books were of wizarding origin…bar the odd muggle curiosity or two. She claimed that she didn't know him well enough to shop for him, but this lie was so blatant he didn't need that voice in the back of his mind identifying it as such. He suspected that Hermione now had a one-stop shop for gifts—both for him, and for Ron.

Ron seemed to have brought him a sample of every sweet in Honeydukes—but Ron assured him that there were, in fact, a great many that he suspected that Harry wouldn't like. Given names like "cockroach clusters" and "blood pops", Harry conceded the point. They'd also brought back a crate of something called "butterbeer" for Harry to try. He found it made a refreshing change from pumpkin juice, and felt much better for drinking it, as if it had been laced with heavy quantities of cheering charm. Perhaps that was the reason for Ron's big smile, and easy air.

Pressed, he told them that he'd done some studying and homework, and spent some time talking to Professor Lupin, on a number of rather personal subjects.

"Hermione," Ron said, voice stern and commanding, as Hermione opened her mouth to press for details. "If the new professor is not our new villain, than we ought to allow him the privacy of his own secrets."

Harry smiled his approval of Ron's decision. "It was mostly all about my parents, anyway," Harry said, with a shrug, as if it weren't important. "He did mention something about a violent tree on the middle of the grounds, however. The 'Whomping Willow'."

Hermione frowned. "That's not mentioned in Hogwarts: A History."

Harry wondered if she slept with that book under pillow. Someday, when he found a way to circumvent the spell preventing boys from accessing the girls dorms, he'd have to check.


They wandered back to Gryffindor Tower, late again, rather tired from good food, and the late hour, to find that quite a crowd had gathered before the entrance.

"What's going on?" someone asked.

"You can't all have forgotten the password!" Percy cried, pushing his way through the crowd with mutters of, "excuse me, I'm the prefect."

Harry rolled his eyes. Talk about being full of yourself.

Then, tension rippled through the crowd, starting at the front and rippling backwards, as Percy said, in a tight, strained voice, "Someone get Professor Dumbledore. Now."

A silence so complete that you could hear a pin drop settled, as if everyone were holding their breaths. Harry realised that he was. He glanced at Hermione, and then Ron, unable to mask his confusion. Today was just too much. Now what had happened?

Dumbledore parted the throng before him with messianic ease. Everyone deferred to him—or almost everyone. Harry, Ron, and Hermione were a bit too curious, and a bit too well-acquainted with the headmaster, to simply bow out.

In the gap he left in his wake, Harry caught a glimpse of three deep slashes in the fabric of the canvas of the Fat Lady's empty portrait. He sucked in a breath, sure that Hallowe'en had struck again—only he hadn't been witness, this time.

"Call Filch, have him search the school for the Fat Lady. We need to find out what did—"

"You'll be lucky," said a malevolent, crackling cackle of a voice. Harry closed his eyes, hoping against hope that that wasn't who he thought it was.

But yes, it was, indeed, Peeves.

"What do you mean, Peeves?" Dumbledore asked, in a laudably level voice.

"I've just run into her—running through the portraits on the third floor. Scared and shaking, she is. Poor thing," Peeves added the last as an obvious afterthought. Not even the first years believed him, by this point.

"Did she say who did this?" Dumbledore asked, an undercurrent of steel in his voice.

"Oh, yes," said Peeves, in what passed for a delicate, careful voice. "He got quite upset when she wouldn't let him into the Tower without a password, and attacked. Nasty temper he's got, does Sirius Black."


Chapter Text

Recent events recalled something Harry had forgotten, with an uncomfortable twinge, to his mind. The Foe-Glass Ron had given him—he'd gone through the trouble of imprinting himself on it, but then he'd never set it up in the dorms. The immediate threat of the dementors had put it in the very back of his mind. Now, he wondered—if he had set it up, would it have recognised that Sirius Black would invade the Tower tonight?

There was a nagging suspicion that he was at least partly to blame for recent events. He resolved to set it up as soon as they could return to the Tower—whenever that would be. Hallowe'en fell on a Sunday this year, which was probably why it had been chosen as a Hogsmeade weekend, but they still had classes tomorrow.

He, Hermione, and Ron pulled themselves into an out-of-the-way corner, and began to discuss Black amongst themselves in low whispers, Harry throwing out suggestions without giving much attention or credit to any of them. The entire school was engaged in the same activity—or at least, everyone nearby was. For some reason, a section of Ravenclaw was talking about Tony Stark, which might, or might not, be pertinent to the discussions around the rest of the room.

Oh. Cloaking technology. Did that exist, and if it did, did it fall under weapons tech?

Rumours of Stark's latest affair definitely didn't, however, so Harry tuned that section out again.

"You can't apparate or disapparate inside Hogwarts!" Hermione practically shrieked at the nearby Dean Thomas, who had been unfortunate enough to suggest it.

"Just a suggestion, Hermione! He was supposed to be a brilliant wizard, though…do you suppose he might have found a way to—?"

Hermione was probably about to point out to Dean exactly what she later whispered to Ron and Harry about the Founders themselves setting up the protections that prevented such trivial magics as apparation from working, but at that moment Percy called for silence. He was in his element bossing people around, and Harry didn't feel a great urge to spoil it for him. Let him have his fun. He, Ron, and Hermione were out of the way, and could continue to discuss the matter in near-silence—

Oh, wait. He, Ron, and Hermione. Well, they could do that tomorrow as well as today. They might as well get some sleep, for the moment. But just as he was about to fall asleep, he came awake again, the near-silence interrupted by the sound of nearby voices. Dumbledore, Snape, and Professors McGonagall and Lupin clearly hadn't seen the three of them there. A surreptitious glance at Hermione and Ron showed that they were also wide-awake and listening.

Of course, it made sense that Dumbledore had had the grounds thoroughly searched, and it made even more sense that a man as smart as Black hadn't lingered, but why was Snape insinuating that Lupin was behind it all? Hadn't he heard what Lupin thought of Black? Lupin saw Black as an irredeemable traitor; he was the last person who would let Black into the castle!

Of course, he'd also said that Harry reminded him a lot of Sirius Black ("or at least, the man I thought I knew, back when we were in school together"), and his tone then had definitely been one of melancholy wistfulness. Still….

Wait, was Harry actually thinking of defending the defence professor against accusations that he sought for Harry's death? It was official: Hallowe'en was insane.

There was a lot less tapestry lying about, tonight. How much of that was his Mother's industry, and how much his own work on occlumency, he couldn't say for sure. Mother seemed very tired. He questioned when she'd last rested. This time, she stood as he entered the living room, setting down her needle and rushing over to throw her arms around him.

"My son! Forgive your mother her rudeness the last time we met. There was much to be done—"

"Mother, have you slept at all this month?" he asked, glancing around the room. You could see out the window, now—Mother seemed to be working on the last piece of tapestry. He hadn't seen any stitches in the garden or the forest; he rather suspected that, once sewn together, they melded back into a coherent whole with no sign of the stitches visible. But what did he know of souls, or sewing, or the like?

Still, he rather suspected her erratic behaviour was a result of sleep-derivation, if indeed souls suffered such.

"Never mind that," she said, smiling at him, through eyes full of tears. That was not a very good answer, and he considered telling her just that, but…tonight was the night of Hallowe'en. He wanted to at least have tonight go right. Besides, she was much older than he (he vacillated on just how much), and could doubtless take care of herself. "It must be Hallowe'en. What do you want to do?"

He blinked. "I think you should get some rest, Mum," he said, and she frowned.

"We only have one night a month in which to speak with one another. We should've had much more than that. I bet you have a lot of news to share."

He hesitated. "Well, I have made some progress in teaching myself occlumency," he said, looking around the room again. "But mostly, I come bearing news."

She reached down to rest a hand lightly upon his shoulder. She always had the kindest of smiles. "Then come, sit, tell me everything." She made for the sofa with her sewing still on it, and he grabbed her arm before she could get very far.

"Outside," he said, eyes narrowing. "You need rest—or at the very least, a reprieve. I wish to see the fruits of your labours, besides."

She shook her head, but in resignation, and followed him outside.

He told her much of what had happened—there was perhaps not as much as he would like, to tell, but he told her that he had forgotten to set up the Foe-Glass, and then why this was important. The break-in didn't seem to fit at all—not with her description of Black's personality, nor his innocence. She frowned, pensive, her mind sharp despite her fatigue. But she had few more answers than he.

"But you told me he tried to access Gryffindor Tower on the night of Hallowe'en—when everyone in the castle would be at the Feast. Does that not suggest that his designs are not for your murder?"

Harry paused. "He may have forgotten the day—"

She shook her head fiercely. "No. Do you think it possible, with the castle bedecked for the holiday as it always is—and no less Hogsmeade, I would assume. Some even go a-souling in Hogsmeade. If he had forgotten the date, a quick glance inside Hogwarts would have reminded him"

Harry hadn't considered it. "That is true," he conceded. "But I do not understand his motivations, Mother! What does he hope to achieve?"

And though they discussed it throughout the rest of Harry's visit, he awoke with no more answers to this end than before.

The break-in was all anyone would talk about for the next week, at the very least. It was a very good thing that no one seemed to know that Black had allegedly broken out of Azkaban to kill Harry; he'd expected to be the pariah-whose-presence-endangers-our-students after the break-in, but no one seemed to connect Black with Harry in any way.

Except for his friends. And his mother. And Professor Lupin. And Professor McGonagall, who wanted to ban him from quidditch.

Quidditch! Really, the quidditch pitch was hardly the place where anyone could lie in wait for him—although he had to admit he was rather exposed, in the middle of the air, thus.

He managed to talk her down to a reduced sentence of having the flight instructor accompany them, which…why didn't they do that anyway?

Wood didn't even seem to register her presence. He was fixated on the coming match against Slytherin.

Slytherin being Slytherin, and Malfoy being a complete and utter soulless bastard, still (had a dementor moved into the Malfoy estate in Draco Malfoy's early childhood, or something?), the match between Slytherin and Gryffindor, historically the inaugural match of the season, was rearranged at the last minute into Hufflepuff versus Gryffindor. Wood was justifiably incensed, and drilled them harder than ever.

It was clear to absolutely everyone that Malfoy was faking the injury that (allegedly) prevented him from playing the first match. Harry wondered how long he'd keep it up—he knew from experience what a skilled healer Madam Pomfrey was; there was no chance of Malfoy still being injured, or in any pain at all, bar the usual bumps and bruises that came with life, and adolescence in general (Harry had yet to hit his growth spurt, himself, and wasn't sure when it started).

Still, Wood's fanatic fervour didn't justify making Harry late to Defence Against the Dark Arts class. Had it been Professor Lupin in charge, he would have been fine, but as it was….

Well, he had had forewarning—Lupin had canceled their Patronus session, after all. But if he'd expected a substitute teacher, he still wouldn't have expected Snape.

He would, however, have expected Snape's nasty attitude, had he known Snape was going to be the sub for Defence. And, of course, Snape wouldn't be Snape if he didn't single out Harry for special torment. Harry had plenty of incentive to work on the other magic as it was, but a way to keep his mother in the physical world long enough to have a chat with Snape was quite a boost to his resolve. Also, he thought perhaps that Snape could read minds, making occlumency somehow all the more critical, even if his primary objective was to build a rampart around his soul. To keep it from being sucked out by the dementors.

The entire class turned to watch him enter, and he had to make a great effort not to scowl at them for making this even more of a scene than it was liable to become. Still, he probably deserved it; Snape was inevitably about to dock points "on account of tardiness", and for once he'd be somewhat justified. The world was a twisted place when Snape had justification for his vindictiveness.

"You are ten minutes late, so I think I'll make it ten points from Gryffindor," Snape said, daring him to protest.

Harry made his way to his seat, asking, "And where is Professor Lupin, if I may ask."

"He is feeling unwell," Snape repeated. "It is nothing serious, and I'm sure he'll be back next week. Now, if Potter is quite satisfied, let us begin."

And he ordered them to turn to the back of the book, to the chapter on werewolves. He must have known, Lupin's mind being linear as it was, that they wouldn't have covered that chapter yet. Or, perhaps, he had other motives. He was rather inscrutable.

"Who can tell me the differences between the werewolf, and the true wolf?" he asked, next, stabbing his finger into the illumination of the introductory page as if slaying an actual werewolf. There was a certain savage cruelty that Harry rarely saw—not that Snape was ordinarily nice, but he was more the one for subtle malice and barbed words—a bit like Loki, Harry thought in something like horror. To see an overt display of aggression—it put Harry in mind of the time he'd embedded porcelain in his hands at the end of last year, when he'd figured out what was really going on with Ginny.

In short, this was not good, and now was a time to keep his head down, and stay quiet. Ideally moving as little as possible as he did.

Ron and Hermione had not gotten this memo.

"No one?" asked Snape, ignoring Hermione's hand stretching to the ceiling as—to Harry's experience—only Snape could. It was rather distracting even for those on the edges of the room far away from her, the way her hand trembled and waved spasmodically. A malevolent smile curved Snape's lips.

Harry looked down at his textbook to keep from reacting. Ron was not the type to overlook such a confrontation, and Harry could almost see Ron building himself up to do something. He grabbed hold of Ron's arm under the desk, to keep him seated, considering hissing a warning, but sure that Snape would hear and punish them anyway—just look what he did in the first lesson with Neville's toad. Although he might just have guessed that Hermione were helping Neville, in which case he'd probably guess that Harry was restraining Ron, now.

For the moment, however, Snape was too busy pursuing his first line of attack. "Well, well. I never thought I'd see the third-year class that wouldn't recognise a werewolf when it saw one—"

"Please, sir!" Hermione cried, dropping her hand, knowing he wouldn't call on her, and speaking in a quivery rush. Harry remembered his suspicion that her usual self-control seemed somewhat diminished, as if she'd resolved to "live life to the fullest". This would not end well.

Ignoring Snape's accomplished smirk, she pressed on, sounding, as usual, as if she'd swallowed the textbook, and it had disagreed with her stomach. "The werewolf differs from the true wolf in several ways. the snout of the werewolf is—"

"I don't recall asking you to show off, Miss Granger—"

"You asked if anyone knew the answer to your question, and ignored her attempts to respond. Why ask a question and refuse to let the person who knows answer it?" Ron demanded, leaping to his feet, throwing off Harry's hand. Harry buried his head in his hands, and sighed.

"Sit down, at least, Ron!" he hissed.

"Sit down, Mr. Weasley!" Snape echoed, in a considerably louder voice. "I will not have my authority questioned in my own classroom!"

"This is Professor Lupin's classroom, not yours!" Ron argued right back. He was still on his feet.

"Sit down!" Snape repeated. Third time was supposed to be the charm, and Ron, sure enough, slowly sat back down. Harry immediately, without taking his eyes off his textbook, clamped his hand down hard on Ron's arm to keep him from rising again. He'd sooner fall over. Ron glanced at him. Fury still radiated off of him. Well, at least Ron was loyal….

"Detention, Weasley. And ten points from Miss Granger, for her inability to respect authority. No one wants to listen to an insufferable know-it-all!"

Hermione burst into a flood of tears, which was telling—perhaps it was the added stress of taking so many classes, or her new resolution to live her life with no regrets, but she seemed a bit more emotional and unhinged than in previous years, anyway. But to be bullied thus by a teacher….

Harry bit his lip to keep from responding. Ron was still seething, arms crossed, and if looks could kill, Snape would be at least eighteen feet under.

"I expect for you to take your education seriously. Do the reading, while I hand back your work."

As the class finally stopped grumbling and set to reading the chapter, Snape stirred them back into aggravation by walking amongst them, commenting on their past marks, and how lenient Lupin had been. Either Lupin was Riddle's left-hand, and Dumbledore somehow didn't know it, or he was suffering the burden that only came of close association with James Potter.

Harry ignored all attempts Ron made to catch his attention, but eventually let go Ron's arm to the more easily take notes on the chapter. He wasn't exactly pleased that Ron had ignored all of his warnings.

Class couldn't let out early enough, and Snape made it no better by assigning them two rolls of parchment on the subject of how to identify and kill werewolves. A suspicion had taken root in Harry's mind, but he silenced it by telling himself that even Snape wouldn't go that far—would he?

Hermione met his eyes as they left the classroom, and he could tell by her nod that she had come to the same conclusion as he.

Well, so much for that hope.

The first real chance Harry had for payback would probably be the Gryffindor versus Slytherin match—and who knew when that would be? Right now, Hermione was a mess, and Ron seemed somewhat resentful of Harry not leaping to Hermione's defence—and his attempts to stop Ron. Harry sighed, and tried to explain it.

"Look, you should know Professor Snape by now," he said, adding in the "professor" through sheer force of habit, rather than any genuine respect, by now. "The only reason he: one, gave you detention; two, called Hermione—what he called her; and, three, goaded you both until you gave the reaction you did; was so that you would do what you did. You played right into his hands!" Harry cried, spreading his own. Ron was about to say something more, but Harry waved a hand, and silenced him with a look. "Yes, what he did was unfair, and wrong, and we were thoroughly unprepared, but the only reason things escalated is that the two of you played to type and did exactly what he expected you to! If you could have just stayed calm—"

"It is not in my nature to overlook injury done to those I consider family or friends," Ron said. There was a warning tone to his voice that Harry summarily dismissed. "If it is in yours, the perhaps you should rethink your own priorities."

Harry stumbled back against the wall, wishing he'd waited for Ron's anger to abate before he confronted him. That had been really, really stupid. Ron hesitated, seeing the distress that Harry was trying so hard to hide. He took a deep breath, closing his eyes.

"I apologise. I understand that you mean well, Harry, but there are people worth serving detentions for." He smiled at Hermione, who looked a bit startled, and then blushed, looking down at her feet. Ron frowned, brow furrowed, as he turned back to Harry. "However, I know that you were, in your own way, trying to protect us. Thank you. Yours was doubtless the wiser course of action, and I know that I don't always make the wisest choices."

But Ron didn't often stay angry long, so maybe it was alright.

The day of their first match of the season dawned bright and clear—if by "bright and clear", you meant "so dark it looks as if it's still night", and "lashing rain so cold it's almost sleet".

It might have counted as miraculous that the storm hadn't woken Harry. He was still rather drained and uncoordinated from his self-taught occlumency, and his professor-taught Patronus Charm. He hoped that it wouldn't affect the match. Wood was terrible enough as it was. Losing the quidditch cup this year might incite him to acts of violence, for all Harry knew—he seemed the type. At least, he did when he was escorting members of the team through the halls, hissing last minute pointers at them, or on the pitch, urging them to take the match seriously, with wild eyes and exaggerated gesticulations.

If nothing else, Harry would be glad to see the back of this match. In the ordinary way of things, quidditch was a release, but, this year being what it was, he was too on edge. His concern was not an attempt on his life by Sirius Black, but rather, the dementors. Somehow, being outside made him all the more aware of their presence, and his seventh sense kept trying to open, to pinpoint the threat. Only, they were many. It was a bit distracting.

Ginny and Ron went to sit in the stands with Hermione, with the understanding that they needed to be able to get down to the field quickly, and without much notice, if something should happen to one of the chasers, or Harry.

Harry privately admitted that the latter was the more likely of the two scenarios. Danger seemed to home in on him. He hadn't forgot last year's match, where Lockhart had removed the bones of his arm.

It came of something of a surprise to see that "Cedric Diggory", the captain and seeker of the Hufflepuff Team, was the same boy who had told off his fellow hufflepuffs for their whispered comments about him last year, during the "Heir of Slytherin" debacle. He probably questioned why Oliver Wood was being quite so stiff and rude. Aside from the threat of a manic Oliver Wood, Harry thought he mightn't mind too much if Diggory caught the snitch. But there was Wood to consider.

Now was one of those few matches where being the slight (and therefore speedy) member of the team had its disadvantages. Diggory had enough muscle and weight to be less hindered by the heavy winds accompanying this particular storm. Ah, well. Harry would just have to make the best of it.

One thing he didn't understand (while completely understanding, mind) was why quidditch players couldn't cast spells on themselves or other members of their team. Indeed, the use of wands at all during quidditch was forbidden.

Everyone on the field could have used a bubblehead charm, and maybe an impervius, to keep off the rain. Surely, it had to be a violation of health regulations of some sort to put students out in such weather without even providing them protection from the storm. The Wizarding World and its sport.

Lucky for Harry that he was essentially impervious to the cold, himself (for whatever reason). It was the only thing about him that came close to an advantage, in this weather. Visibility was low, and the storm was only still in its early phases.

As it built, it grew progressively harder to hear Lee Jordan's commentary over the roar of the wind and the beating of the rain. He tried to glance back at the field every so often, straining his ears to hear what Jordan had to say. The more shots Gryffindor put through before he caught the snitch, the greater their lead, and the more they could afford to make mistakes, later. Not that he wouldn't go for the snitch if he saw it.

Once or twice, he intervened in the proceedings of the chasers, when Fred and George were busy or distracted, or just didn't see through all the rain. But he always returned to high above the stands.

With the sun invisible above the clouds, and unwilling to look at his wristwatch, which was too small and non-electronic for the magic of Hogwarts to affect much, it was difficult to know how long the storm (or the match) had gone on, before the thunder and lightning commenced. This year being as it had, and Harry being in rather a vulnerable state and place, it brought back to mind his memories of the dreams. That fractured, fragmented part at the end.

He thought of Thor. In first year, he had thought of the sky as Thor's domain—that this was a borrowed arena. It was difficult not to further consider the violence of this storm a warning of impending doom. It was hard not to consider it a final warning, before vengeance would be exacted upon him by a force greater than he could possibly withstand.

At least, as he now was.

But Thor, he told himself, could not possibly know he was here (And how did he find you, in New York? demanded that horrible voice that represented the part of him that he'd disavowed). Even if he knew that Harry were here, Harry had done nothing wrong.

Electricity crackled through the air, unceasing. He tried to focus on the game, he did, but it was difficult.

Oliver Wood called a time-out, urged him, in much less polite terms than these, to get his act together and do his job, and Harry took to the sky, almost ablaze with an awareness of all the energy around him (he hadn't been able to keep his seventh sense closed). It was hard to focus when a part of him half-expected any given bolt of lightning might strike him, particularly.

What's the matter? Scared of a little lightning?

I'm not overly fond of what follows.

He'd never been closer to agreeing, even as he fiercely disagreed. His mind seemed to want to tear itself in half with indecision. The early memories of Loki's life were the best memories Harry had, even were they borrowed. But now, he understood that Thor was…well, more than a bit frightening, too.

Especially if you were only mortal.

Something odd, an unfamiliar sort of magic, tugged at his attention, and he glanced towards the stands. A flash of lightning, as if timed for dramatic effect, lit up the stands just as he looked, and there, in the empty top seats, was the form of a great black dog. It was huge, but dripping wet—or possibly possessed of long, shaggy fur. Its eyes were not glowing red—or they were closed. In that brief second that he had to look, it was difficult to know, and unlike the last time, a stray dog was not liable to just show up in the middle of the grounds at Hogwarts, with none aware of its passing, even.

Harry's grip on the Nimbus Two Thousand tightened. It might have been a death omen. In that case, it was doubtless intended to foreshadow what immediately followed it.

Cedric Diggory raced for the snitch, which he was only aware of when someone (it was hard to tell whom) called out, "Harry, look!" and pointed. But there were only a couple of seconds to redirect the broom, and his attention, before he felt the beginnings of a piercing cold settling in his lungs, and he had to look away, to try to find the source. He imagined a solid wall around him, one that operated outside the physical world; it surrounded what some books might call his aura, invisibly following him, shielding his soul from some of the dementor's effects.

Except that there wasn't just one dementor. No, indeed, there were far more than that—an innumerable amount, and it made him realise, with the abruptness of a blow, just how much more difficult it was to work any magic at all, the way that it became so very much harder, the more dementors there were.

Tens? Hundreds? Thousands?

He tried to draw the wand from the holster he carried it in, but he could feel it slipping through his numbing fingers. He could feel his occlumency shield breaking, and he fortified it, wishing that servo stellas were the sort of spell that could be used on mind magics. But he hadn't even been aware of the existence of those, when he'd created it. Besides, his occlumency was (particularly now, when he was under so much duress) still mostly made of the other kind of magic—and that would never be a sort of magic compatible with such a spell. After all, the other kind of magic was always exactly as strong as he made it. There was nothing for servo stellas to do with it. Which meant that he had to funnel magic into his occlumency shields directly, and stay focused.

He needed another time-out.

But his thoughts were growing distorted, jagged, coming in-and-out of focus, although in a different way from how his awareness had woven in and out in those last dreams.

The screams had begun, and they were growing louder. Now, for the first time, he heard a new voice—not Riddle, nor yet Lily Evans. It was a male voice, and by the words it spoke, he knew it.

Lily, it's him . Take Harry, and run!

It was James Potter. His dad. Never before, that Harry could recall, had he heard his voice. There was a vague sort of familiarity to it nonetheless, as if, deep down, part of him had stored it in his memories of infancy, now being accessed.

Avada Kedavra! cried Riddle.

A thud, and then the swishing of robes as Riddle walked away. A soft creaking of stairs, and slight squeal as a door opened, and then Riddle was addressing Lily Evans.

Not Harry, not Harry, please not Harry!

Stand aside, you silly girl…stand aside, now.

Not Harry, please! Take me; kill me instead…have mercy, have mercy….

That word again. "Mercy".

Another memory tried to form, but Harry managed to stop it—or rather, to hold it off, for the moment.

Avada Kedavra!

Green light. Badness. A thud. And then….

Avada Kedavra!

Another flash of green light, and…. Pain. So much pain, he couldn't think straight, and he had no idea where he was.

The only way not to break—

No! cried a voice that he shouldn't be able to hear. He'd heard its owner die, just a little while ago. It is only a memory of pain! You are stronger than this. The people who love you have faith in you. The Patronus Charm! Hurry!

His happy memories were all used up. And he had no idea where the swarm of dementors even were, now. He didn't even know where he was, only that, wherever it was, his mother was near. But love. He could use love.

But his awareness of his body, his physical self, was gone. He'd been driven too deeply within. It had happened before—the first time he'd encountered a dementor—but not this quickly, and not this deep. He could feel a sharp pain, although he couldn't attach it to any part of his body, flooding his senses, precluding any attempts to return. He could feel where it was that chunks and pieces were being torn from his soul. He remembered being told that a soul could only regenerate so much at a time. It was a slow process.

He thought of Mother, sewing together the torn shreds of his soul. Now, he could see them being torn apart, but they didn't look like trees or grass or sky anymore. They were just colour, and shape, indescribable, ineffable. He was almost certain that none of those parts belonged to the part of him that he'd disavowed. No, that was over there, looking somehow solid—a long, sharp, shard of glass amidst a clear pool of formless water. Or melted glass.

But he had only a couple of seconds to take all this in, before he was drawn into another, older memory.

Chapter Text

Naturally, Thor managed to be the first one down to the pitch when Harry began to fall, outpaced only by Dumbledore, who oozed power such as Thor had seen only from his father. Although, even Dumbledore wasn't that powerful. Dumbledore waved his wand at Harry, first, and Harry's momentum slowed. Then, he turned blazing eyes upon the dementors. Even here on the ground, their power was overwhelming. Thor swayed on his feet, righted himself, and continued running towards the place that, given Harry's current trajectory, would most likely be his point of impact.

It made for slow going. It wasn't the storm—not the rain—that hindered Thor. Even a storm he hadn't called, like this one, deferred to him if he pushed at it; although he couldn't send it away, it drew aside around him to let him pass. No, the problem was the dementors. Running was very difficult with dementors sucking all the strength out of you. Gritting his teeth, he managed to stave off the bad memories straining to reach the surface.

Perhaps they were as bad as Wanda Maximoff.

Dumbledore somehow (how, Thor didn't know; he had more pressing concerns) caused the dementors to stop draining the happiness out of everything around them.

Running became easier after that. Due to Harry's staggered rate of descent, Thor reached him before he could crash into the ground, managing to mostly catch him, and then to lay him gently down in the grass. There was no sign that Harry was aware of any of it, and Thor half-expected him to open his eyes, apologise for everything he'd done, and then….

He found his mind trying to return to the night that Loki had died in his arms, just this way. But Harry would not die. Thor refused to let him. He kept the gift from the Egyptian goddess on hand at all times, but he could see that, for the moment, at least, Harry was still breathing, albeit shallowly.

"Call off the match!" cried an unfamiliar voice, startling him. "We'll set a rematch—give Potter some time to recover. I didn't realise; I didn't know!"

"He wouldn't have caught the snitch, anyway," said a sullen Wood. "Wasn't in his game mind, today. Wonder why that was?"

Thor had noticed it too, had wondered the same thing. He'd seen, with his unusually sharp vision, the way Harry started and flinched at each bolt of lightning. He'd even humoured the idea that it might be a remnant of memory. But he didn't like to think that his brother might be afraid of him. Perhaps he had cause.

"The dementors must count as extenuating circumstances. Everyone knows that Potter's more sensitive to them than most; they skewed the odds!"

"You won fair and square, Diggory!" Wood snapped. "Just take it and shut up about it!"

He stormed off.

"How is he?" asked "Diggory", now at Harry's side. Thor blinked. He hadn't expected quite so much concern from a complete stranger. Diggory wasn't even a doctor—at least Stephen's reaction had had that explanation. Still….

"He needs to see Madam Pomfrey," Thor said, as if he had any idea.

"Will he be okay?" asked Ginny, kneeling down at Harry's side. He wasn't sure—there was still so much rain—but he thought she might be crying. Her voice was something of a quiet warble.

He wished that he at least knew the answer to her question.

"Madam Pomfrey will know better," he said. Angelina Johnson touched down nearby, joined by the Twins.

"I'll help; let me help," said Diggory, who looked as if he could probably lift a great deal more than the average seeker. Thor gave a strained smile.

"You may help me carry him to the Hospital Wing," he conceded. Diggory had no idea how much trust Thor was showing in him.

Diggory conjured a stretcher, and helped lift Harry onto it. As they bent down to help lift Harry onto it, he noticed a familiar polished stick lying in the grass. Harry had tried to defend himself. Thor picked the wand up, and put it in his own pocket for temporary storage.

A quick ferula decreased the chances that Harry would slide off, by binding him in place. Just for the moment. Thor did not want to think what might happen if Harry awoke to find that he couldn't move.

Just what had the dementors done to him? He looked far worse than he had the first time. If he woke…would it be as it had been in the hospital? Could he fight Harry, at Hogwarts, whilst still keeping both of their secrets?

He'd just have to cross that bridge when he came to it.

The world was a mess of colourful, swirling fog, that he pressed through only with much difficulty. It helped that he knew his intended destination. On his way, he passed a homogenous, empty landscape. And it took longer to reach Mother's cottage than he liked. Still, it was with no small amount of relief that he came upon it at last, an island of reality within his otherwise much-tattered mind. Well, at least Mother was alright. He hoped.

He threw the door open with a bang, and peered around at what he could see of the cottage. It looked much as it always had. That was good. Again, this was the last bastion against the dementors. This time, however, the damage was far more extensive than the last.

"Mother?" he called, despite knowing full well where she would be: on the sofa, sewing with the dagger-needle. He gave a slight wince when he saw the window again filled with fabric, the opaque sky and trees barring his vision

Outside of the house, he knew, the tapestry was blank. As it entered the house, it gained substance and identity. Mother reattached ideas to one another, and as she repaired those connections, they returned to their original tasks. He watched her for a moment, seventh sense wide open, as he approached. She did not cease from her labours, nor even look up. He sighed, walking past the fireplace and the table, to her sofa. Perhaps she would look up, then.

"How are you here, now, my son?" she asked him, still with that unwavering focus directed towards her work. He had the feel of what she was doing, now. She should not have to work so hard, to save him. He said nothing, watching her work, which perhaps roused her suspicion. But she could outwait him; that fact, he knew well.

He sighed, considering the merits of sitting on the table instead of a sofa covered with "cloth".

"The dementors—they attacked at the quidditch match." And it had to have been an attack, he knew—their mere presence was not enough to drain away a man's essence the way they had. They inhaled positive emotions, stirring up memories good and bad, but leaving the bad to rise and then fall—silt in disturbed waters, tea leaves stirred by a spoon. The tea is drunk, the water rushes onwards. The refuse of silt and leaves remain behind.

"They drove me into the centre of my mind. I suppose that I am still alive, merely unconscious. Dumbledore's doing, no doubt." He gave a rather sharp, bitter laugh, and Mother at last cast a sharp glance in his direction. He knew that her glance was a sort of reflex—to see if he looked different, if he'd changed (as with the addition of the boots, before), or whether he might be an impostor. But he knew that he looked just as he always did, in Dudley's overlarge grey sweater, and pants that only stayed put through tight cinching of the belt. There were no visible clues for her to pursue. He pretended not to notice the swift glance in his direction, or the stinging flash of relief that followed. He just kept on with the thought he'd started: "For all the good it did."

"He may have saved your soul," Mother said, her voice stern as he had rarely heard it, had rarely had cause to hear it. The unspoken words: you should be grateful.

"Regardless, I am not, as you might think, really here," he said, content with having most of her attention, for the moment. A puzzled frown creased her brows. "I mean to say that the dementors have done quite a bit of damage here. I am not my conscious self. I am the part that my conscious self generally pretends to prefer doesn't exist."

Her hands began to shake. She knew what that meant, even without being privy to the occasional arguments he and the part of his mind that was active during the day usually engaged in. She opened her mouth to speak, and before she could, he took the needle and thread from her.

"You ought to have reminded me that you no longer possess much magic of your own. You do not have the magic to use thus, and therefore have been forced to borrow mine, and to use what little remains to you." He shook his head. "I refuse to allow you to drain yourself to death, Mother."

He focused energy into his hands, full of intent, and reached for her now empty hand, with his right, which had grabbed hold of the tapestry, and was therefore just as empty, now. Pure energy flowed from him—from his soul, into hers. He poured it into her as he once had his brother. As he had Ginny. But now, there was no injury to siphon the life right back out.

"If you had told me, I would have done this before. You needn't have suffered as you did, Mother. You should have told me."

Tears trembled in the corners of her eyes. She looked much better, if still rather tired, and haggard, and, of course, worried for him. Nevertheless, she attempted to conceal it under a stern veneer of reprimand.

"You should not waste your energy thus, Loki."

He smiled, spreading his hands wide. He frowned at the folds of grey fabric that fell down to his elbows at the motion, but all it took was a thought to make the clothes he was now wearing fit. What would his conscious self make of that, he wondered. "I would not consider restoring your energy to be a waste, Mother. I am in no danger of running out of energy, even now. In fact—" he looked at the window, all that fabric threaded through it as through the eye of a needle. Then, he glanced at the sharp needle still in his hand. He gathered his thoughts, and his will, thought hard about what he wanted, and brought his will to bear on the problem at hand. "—I think I might be better suited to resolving this problem."

He couldn't restore the entire thing, and doing what he had, had sapped most of his energy, but he'd cured a large swathe of the area that was supposed to be his soul. Even he wasn't sure exactly how much—ten percent, perhaps. But it was much more work than his mother had accomplished.

It was pointless to pretend that his recent efforts had not drained most of the energy he'd just claimed to have, but his mother seemed to sense the effects it had at once—perhaps, as a permanent resident, and his guardian, she was more aware than he of the state of his soul.

Loki frowned. He didn't much care for that thought. It brought back some rather bitter memories. Thankfully, Mother was there to distract him.

"How—?" she asked, leaning back. She blinked, and as her eyes closed, she kept them shut, seeming pensive. "How were you able to do these things, and yet the dementors were able to force their way through the protections that you have spent months in practicing? Whence comes all of this energy, Loki?"

He sat down, in the most casual manner imaginable, right next to her on the sofa, giving a look of feigned apathy over his shoulder to the leagues of destroyed fabric still behind him. The amount of material streaming through the window was still so great that you couldn't look out through the blankness of the fabric to the probable blankness of outside. But Mother believed he'd made some progress. He would need to rest and recover before trying that again, however.

At least Mother was restored—as much as he could restore her, anyway. She still needed rest. Wasn't that what the dead were supposed to do: rest in peace?

"I am what my conscious self refuses to acknowledge about himself. It is not only a matter of memories, and culpability. What mortal man could hold an army of dementors at bay single-handed?" He glanced at her, askance, where she sat upon the sofa, hands in her lap, as she considered his words. She seemed to start to understand what he meant. "Would one laid low by such men as the Dursleys stand a chance against those? My conscious self thinks himself weak, and therefore weak is what he is, in a moment of crisis. He thinks Loki strong, and hands over most of the strength he possesses to me."

The realisation hitting his mother bore most of the external indications of a physical blow. She curled an arm around herself, as if cushioning a blow, sucking in a great gasp of air, as she looked over at him.

"You could have died!" she said, perhaps somewhere between Lily Evans and the queen. The dementors had wrought havoc and overturned his internal sense of order—although chaos was, fortunately for him, something of a strength of his. But his conscious self….

"That which the conscious mind denies…a dangerous thing to be. Wouldn't you agree, Mother? I think my conscious self may have done its best to evict me. And then where would I be?"

She put her head in her hands, and he knew by that to back off.

"Why hasn't he woken up, yet?" asked Hermione, fretting and wringing her hands. "He had by now, the last time. You should hit him, Ron. That's what brought him back—"

Thor shook his head. "No," he said, turning to face her. She was already mourning. "It will do no good—you heard Madam Pomfrey. The number of dementors that came to this quidditch match was far more than the two we encountered on the train. It is more impressive that he did not lose his soul—or perish from the strain of attempting to hold them back. He will wake when he will."

He reached down to set the holly-and-phoenix-feather wand in between Harry's fingers. There was no reaction, but he liked to think that Harry might at least be able to channel its power even from whatever depths of his mind he'd sunken into. He had gone beyond their hearing—a place near worse-than-death. The gift of the Egyptian goddess would not avail him against this threat.

Katie Bell entered the Hospital Wing after peering around the slightly-opened doorway, as if she might have mistaken the location.

"Still out like a light, eh?" she asked.


"I'll tell the others," she said, slinking back away in defeat, and closing the door. By others, of course, she meant the rest of the quidditch team, as well as several members of gryffindor house whom McGonagall was less willing to allow to remain in the Hospital Wing for such a protracted time: Ginny, Neville, Dean, and Seamus. Diggory—whose given name was "Cedric", evidently—occasionally appeared, as well, to see whether or not Harry had yet regained consciousness.

It had, after all, been several hours.

"Where, then, is your conscious self?" Mother hazarded to ask an unknown time later. The seasons around Mother's cottage changed throughout the year, but the hour remained the same. She must rely upon some internal means of time-keeping to know when they would meet or part. He thought that she had waited for less than an hour before resuming her self-appointed task of sewing his soul back together.

He might have been inclined to say "what of him?", but he knew how dire this situation was. This was not an instance of a schism of consciousness. But even still…if he were all that remained of Harry Potter, did he have enough soul, was he whole enough, to go about pretending that nothing was wrong?

He recalled, in a dim memory amongst a jumbled myriad belonging to this life alone, that a fragment of Voldemort's soul might be lurking here, also. He had found no sign of it, but was almost inclined to go looking. If Mother's soul had protected him from Voldemort, it might follow that Voldemort's soul would not have gone far. However, it might just as likely have been isolated, or semi-isolated, on the spiritual equivalent of another plane of existence. It could not be completely isolated—Dumbledore was a brilliant wizard, and he believed that Harry's ability of parseltongue came from Voldemort. But it might be only tenuously connected to Harry's own soul-space, in which case, it was, first of all, doubtless safe from the effects of dementors—or at least, free from anything less than the Kiss—and, for two, attached by some symbol that even Loki would have a hard time locating amongst everything else.

"Might he not be trapped out there—in the mist?" she asked, turning her head briefly to look out the other window of the room.

"He might," Loki conceded, still a bit haggard from a second bout of widespread soul repair. The difference in the flow of material coming through the window was becoming noticeable. He thought he might have repaired a third of his soul, by now. This was very slow going, but it was necessary to rest and to recover, both for him, and for his mother. And there was always a need to keep enough magic in reserve, in case of some nebulous manner of emergency.

He knew what point she was approaching, and was therefore unsurprised when she continued, "Then, should you not be out there, looking for it?"

"No," he said, with great conviction. "My primary objective should be precisely what it is: repairing my soul. If it is out there, lost in the mist, it will be incorporated as my magic reaches it. When that happens, I will have the less distance to travel, being closer to the surface. The immediate threat has gone."

He could tell she didn't approve, but she didn't fight him, either.

"Are you sure he's unconscious?" Wood demanded, as if everyone in the room might have made a joint mistake.

"The last thing he needs is your attitude," snapped Hermione. "It wasn't his fault, you know! He didn't ask for dementors to affect him worse than everyone else! He didn't throw the match!"

Wood blinked, staring at her as if she'd sprouted a second head. He had never encountered this version of Hermione Granger before, and clearly was at a loss as to how to respond.

"I know that! I—I—er, you know what, I think I'll just come back later."

He beat a hasty retreat. Ginny made a noise somewhere between a laugh and a sniffle, and blew her nose. She'd come early in the morning of the second day, and was still here. McGonagall had at last conceded defeat, and given her permission to stay. She seemed quite as bewildered as Thor as to when Ginny had grown this fond of Harry. Was it on account of what had happened in the Chamber of Secrets?

He had to wonder how much soul needed to be sewn back together before he could regain consciousness. If he had repaired roughly half of his soul—as he thought he had, now—and, perhaps fifteen percent had remained unaffected, which was perhaps a bit generous—that was nevertheless over half-repaired. Was it just that there was a specific part of his soul responsible for consciousness, and that still needed work? Then his thoughts stalled, and redirected themselves.

Was he truly considering having over a third of his soul in disarray, still, a negligible setback?

He hadn't even left the cottage since his arrival. Perhaps he should go, and see for himself how much they had accomplished. He turned back around, and headed back to Mother's sofa. The window was a little over half-full of the fabric coming from outside. She continued to work with great industry, no matter what he tried. He had developed the habit of reserving at least some energy to replenish hers, whenever he suspected that she might be tiring. This seemed to be the most that he could do for her.

Occasionally, she relaxed enough to speak with him more of her memories of her life as Lily Evans—of his dad, James Potter, and of Sirius Black, in particular, although not-yet-Professor Lupin featured in some of the tales as well. Incorrigible pranksters, she had called them, and far too smart for their own good.

Does that perhaps remind you of someone? did not need to be said. He remembered again the comparison she had made of Sirius Black to both him and Thor, when she'd pled his innocence at the start of the school year.

"I remind Professor Lupin of Sirius Black, also," he mused. "Perhaps that similarity is what gives him pause when speaking to me."

"He has lost much, has poor Remus, between his malady, and losing all three of his best friends in various wise. Close as brothers, they were."

He started at the sound of his Mother's voice; he hadn't expected her to contribute anything to his current thoughts, but she relaxed more and more often, as the flood of damaged fabric began to ebb.

"Do you know what became of them?" he asked. She never seemed willing to talk about it on her own, and now he resorted to asking flat out.

"Pettigrew always had a sort of feeling of inferiority to James and Sirius, I think," she said, voice gentle and coaxing, as if she knew the effect the words would have on him. "I suppose he felt overlooked in their presence, and jealousy drove him to do what he did. But only he knows for sure. You should seek him out."

Jealousy, again! There must be some sort of force that wove the fates of men and gods, or that theme would not appear quite so often in his life.

"Yes," she said. "I thought you might take that news badly. Forgive me."

She returned to her sewing.

"He is going to wake up, isn't he?" asked Ginny, again. She hadn't asked since the Incident had first happened. Only the steadfast kept coming after the second day. Thor clenched his hands into tight fists, and thought of the long-ago night when he had himself nearly died. Then, he thought of the time he had snuck into the muggle hospital. But how could he do that again, if indeed it were required? Last time, he had succeeded only because Harry had lent him the invisibility cloak, already. He was sure that Harry had continued with his practise of keeping it on his person at all times, but that didn't mean that Thor would be able to borrow it.

"He is suffering from persistently low magical reserves, along with whatever the dementors did to him. He shows all the signs of prolonged exposure to dementors. He just needs time to replenish his energy, and to recover from the attack. These things take time, and with him already sensitive—" Madam Pomfrey sniffed, tears in her eyes, and moved away from them.

Perhaps she'd thought that that would reassure them. However, only Hermione seemed to have any idea what she was talking about, although Thor thought he'd heard Loki mention magical reserves once or twice.

How could Harry be using magic whilst unconscious—or for what other reason were his reserves remaining low?

"Excuse me," said a voice at the entrance to the Hospital Wing. All four of them jumped, as if they were doing something they weren't supposed to, as a figure in shabby black robes entered the room, standing a respectful distance from Harry's bed. "I only thought I would check up on him. How is he doing?"

There did seem to be genuine concern in his voice.

"Magical exhaustion," Hermione said. "That on top of the dementors, I suppose…."

Lupin sighed, and hung his head, and looked so sorry that Ginny pulled up a chair for him.

And from then on, Lupin joined them whenever he had the time.

With Mother always occupied, there was little to do in the cottage. He seemed to feel himself constrained to the ground level, and refused to move far from his mother. But there was no need for food in this place, which meant that he spent his waking hours pacing, and thinking. He thought there was another time when such pursuits had occupied most of his thought, but it was either in the muddle outside, or beyond recall, and therefore after the Chitauri Invasion—not worth thinking about.

He thought that perhaps only a fifth of his soul remained in such tattered disarray—there was a sort of knowledge there, in the part of him that was open to his sixth sense—which was most of him, in truth. As only a fragment of his self, he was essentially a being of only mind and soul.

Just where was the piece of his mind tarnished by Thanos? he wondered. But he knew that his mind was a rather different place from his soul. "He" spent most of his time there, after all. Knowledge that "Harry" refused to admit he possessed, memories (which in truth straddled the line between mind and soul) he refused to consider. Thanos's taint was located somewhere in his mind; it made sense not to see it here. All the same, he kept returning to the question whether it had been let loose, and whether or not it was at large in the Waking World.

Really, for that knowledge alone, it was imperative that he wake, soon.

"And where is Thor, Mother?" he asked, leaning against the arm of the sofa. He was beginning to recover his strength, but as he recovered it, it flowed back out to repair his soul. By now, he'd mastered this. It hadn't taken long to understand the ebb and flow, although his style was quite different from his Mother's. She brought the substance into her sanctuary, transfigured it back into what it should be, and as a result of her doing so, it returned to where it had been. He, on the other hand, sent energy out into the externality of his internal world, and as it reached something damaged, it repaired it. They were both slow processes, one visible, one invisible, one external, one internal. The duality of it made him feel certain that this was the best way to go about things.

She sent him another sharp look. "I have said before that I am ignorant of his precise whereabouts. Do you mean to suggest that you know where he is?"

She almost sounded suspicious.

He gave a small smile, and an offhanded wave of a hand. "Perhaps I have my suspicions. But my conscious self would never hear them. Shall I tell you of what I suspect, Mother?"

For once, she had no ready answer.

Chapter Text

His first thought was that someone had set him on fire, which, in retrospect, was a foolish thought to have, but it was the only way to explain the way that everything seemed to hurt. Then the pain vanished—or rather, diminished to a degree that he could think and function, and he realised just how silly it was. He was sensible enough to sit up slowly, and with great care. The last thing he remembered was the dementors swarming the air above the quidditch pitch.

"Oh! You're awake! Thank God!" said a voice to his right, and his head snapped in that direction before he could help it. A wave of pain, a rather nasty headache, accompanied his motion, and his hand shot to his head, applying pressure, as if that ever helps. It just made him realise that his hand and arm still hurt, too.

"Not exactly," he said to her, in response. "And, please, keep it down. My head still hurts."

Ginny sniffed in response, as if this was far too much to ask, but then she smiled.

"Your adoring fans will want to know the news," Hermione said, rolling her eyes.

"…'Fans'?" Harry repeated. "I rather thought I'd be the gryffindor house pariah again. It is the right time of year for it, going by last year. And I lost the match."

"Diggory wanted a rematch, but Wood concedes that he won fair and square," Ginny said, her voice barely above a whisper, for which he was grateful.

Only one of his guests had yet to say anything, and he was clearly building himself up for it. Harry, resigned to it, braced for impact.

"It is good to see you awake again, little brother," said Ron, with a bright smile, instead. "We feared the worst for awhile."

"…'For awhile'?" Harry repeated. Had he been turned into a parrot, or something?

"You have been unconscious for over four days," Ron said, in confirmation.

Harry pretended to pout. "Then, I beat my old record! Fah!"

Hermione and Ginny looked back and forth between the two of them in evident confusion as Ron's mood soured.

"Harry, I have told you before, you—"

"—shouldn't make light of my own death. I know, I know!" Harry cried, waving his hands. "Someone tell me what happened. And by 'someone', I mean 'Hermione'," he hastened to add when Ron opened his mouth again.

Ron's eyes narrowed, but he kept quiet, as Hermione began to relate what had happened after the dementors swarmed the field. She had seen Dumbledore's confrontation with the dementors. She knew what spell he had used to slow Harry's fall.

"I think I may have developed a universal fear of heights," he said, aiming for levity.

"Do you want me to tell you what happened, or no?" Hermione snapped. He blinked as if she had just slapped him.

"Ah, no, go on! Forget I said anything!" he said, eyes wide. He had no idea how to deal with this version of Hermione Granger.

She related the aftermath of the quidditch match—how Diggory had caught the snitch before realising that the dementors were there (you had to admire his focus), and then demanded a rematch, and the way Wood had, in the most unsporting fashion, conceded defeat.

"The quidditch team will want to know that you finally woke up," Hermione mused.

"What happened to my wand?" Harry demanded. Ron frowned, and then handed it over, for what he explained was at least the tenth time. With Harry unconscious, the wood kept slipping from his grasp. Only the suspicion that it was somehow helping Harry to recover had kept Ron at it. Harry took a moment to marvel at that level of persistence. Harry stared at it, as if he'd not expected to ever see it again, and then slid it into the holster. Invisibility cloak? Check. Wand? Check. Broom?

"And my broomstick? If I fell off, did it fall after me?" he asked. Neville's hadn't, first year, he didn't think, but then, that was an old, school broom.

A pause.

"It flew into the Forbidden Forest, after Neville's?" he asked. Hermione frowned, confused, clearly not remembering that first lesson. A glance around the room showed that neither Ginny (of course) nor Ron seemed to know what he meant, either. It was Ron who answered, as if it were his solemn duty.

"Ah, no. It hit the Whomping Willow. That is a tree in the centre of the grounds that—"

"—that attacks anything that comes near it," Harry finished for him, moving his hand still pressing his head to cover his face. "Right. A violent tree that nearly cost a student an eye. Surely, it couldn't do much damage to a broomstick."

He couldn't readily identify what he was feeling. Resignation mixed with hope, perhaps.

"Where have you heard of—?" Hermione began.

"Professor Lupin told me. Go on, Ron, what were you saying?"

"The Whomping Willow is—violent."

"We did manage to find the pieces," Ginny offered, in a tremulous voice. She held up a suspiciously compact opaque bag. She handed it over to him as if she expected for him to be angry with her. He mustered a reassuring smile for her, instead. No hard feelings for the messenger. See!

He knew by the way the contents had settled that there was no chance of restoring the broomstick, but he also knew that he'd keep the pieces and look at them anyway, when no one was around to watch. Just when had he become so sentimental?

"Is he awake, yet?" asked another voice, as its owner entered the Wing.

"Okay, and what is Professor Lupin doing here?" Harry asked.

The others sighed, almost as a unit. Clearly, this would be a complicated story.

Harry's convalescence was swift, once he awoke—most of the tedious, prolonged healing processes had already happened in the days he'd been unconscious. He'd missed quite a few classes, but not even Snape made a fuss over this—he rather suspected that Dumbledore had somehow silenced him, because he still received sour looks. Besides, this was Snape. On the other hand, Malfoy had celebrated Harry's defeat by finally removing his cast and admitting that he could use both of his arms, again.

It took two days before his body stopped hurting enough for it not to overwhelm his emotional responses. He discovered that he seemed to have been in something like shock for the first two days, or something, a period of numbness where he just thought, which was, comparatively, much easier to handle. However, now that his body was pronounced good as new by Madam Pomfrey (barring the lingering effects of life at the Dursleys, and his harrowing near-death experiences), he had to deal with the emotional fallout of what had happened.

He was remembering more and more of what had happened every day. He'd made a special stop by Professor Lupin's office to talk to him about what he'd overheard, for which knowledge Lupin seemed at once grateful and resentful. Nevertheless, he agreed to continue their dementor lessons, after that evidence of how urgent the matter was, with the acknowledgement that term was drawing to a close (it was November, after all) and that he needed time to prepare for the winter exams.

And, of course, he needed some time off to recover from the full moon, Harry thought to himself. But Professor Lupin didn't mention it, and he followed Lupin's lead.

He entered a period of mourning for his faithful broomstick, and postponed the thought of finding another one. How could he? The next match wasn't until after Christmas, but McGonagall was already putting pressure on him to pick a new one. As if there were anyone who would buy him a broomstick for Christmas! What few people he knew of who would be willing to spend such money on him couldn't afford it—it wasn't as if he were best friends with Malfoy, who could buy Hogsmeade if he wanted.

And speaking of Christmas, it was coming, and right before it, another Hogsmeade trip. Consideration of Christmas, and how he ought to relate to it, had completely slipped his mind. He was more concerned about the solidifying form of a mysterious figure in his Foe-Glass, a coming, but unknown, threat. The instructions said that only a foe whose identity was known would have a distinct image reflected—everyone else was a generic shadow, warning of an unknown incoming threat. It was probably better than nothing, but he had to admit that he had already known that there was a threat coming. Still, he took heart, despite himself, from the fact that the figure did not in any way resemble Professor Lupin.

He looked through the photo album Hagrid had made for him at the end of first year, to familiarise himself with Sirius Black's face, and found that he had too little data to positively identify the man, despite all his mother's tales. But…Professor Lupin had said they looked somewhat similar, similar hair, at least (although Sirius had not been small and scrawny), and had rather similar attitudes. Perhaps he could use that…?

Mother said that Peter Pettigrew was the real threat, but Harry didn't even know if there were any pictures of him at all in the photo album—he hadn't noticed any that looked too much like Professor Lupin, after all, and neither Pettigrew nor Professor Lupin had been as close to Lily and James Potter as Sirius Black.

He'd just have to learn more. Perhaps Mother had photo albums upstairs…?

He slowly recovered from the disastrous match, easing back into his normal schedule, and trying not to think about Professor Trelawney's frequent predictions of his impending demise. There was suddenly quite a lot to think about. He realised he'd quite forgotten about Scabbers, and Hermione and Ron's ongoing feud over Crookshanks's designs, until, staring out the window, lost in thought, he happened to see an odd duo—a great black dog, and a much smaller, if unwontedly large of a specimen of a red cat, strolling together across the grounds. A stray, after all, then, he thought, and then frowned. Something about that didn't seem correct, but he had far too much else to think on.

The end of November approached, came, and went, before he had recovered enough to work on his patronus lessons, which was a shame, because between that, end of term, and the full moon, it meant that Harry would have to wait until next term to continue, and he knew how desperately he needed them. He understood as he hadn't, properly, before.

He and Hermione spent much time poring over subjects in the library. Hermione was working on Buckbeak's case. Harry wished he could help, although he rather resented the fact that he hadn't seen Hagrid outside of lessons since the first week; for some reason he hadn't thought Hagrid would treat him as a little kid. Besides, he had his hands full, researching occlumency and information on Sirius Black and Peter Pettigrew, whilst making up the work and classes he'd missed, practicing the occlumency he'd already learnt, reproducing what he could of the Patronus Charm, studying for the end of fall term exams, and trying to reassure Ron that he was not about to keel over.

He could use a break from it all. There was only so far he could spread himself before he began to crack under the pressure, and such thoughts were not good to have.

The last exam was on the seventeenth—two days before the Hogsmeade trip, and with it out of the way, he could relax somewhat. Finishing off with Potions was not the ideal way to end the semester—it meant that the tension that comes with tests naturally was stretched taut as a bowstring, because no one was looking forward to a test with Snape, bar the Slytherins. Despite this, he did not sleep in the next day, instead getting up to go back to the library.

Really, he deserved the break he received the day after that (Sunday the nineteenth, the day of the Hogsmeade trip). The Twins had never seen fit to give him a Christmas gift before, let alone an early one, but he had to appreciate the sentiment. Rather odd that they would choose him, of all people, but they were a bit quirky, and probably had their reasons. Perhaps they sensed his restlessness. Perhaps they knew he would put it to good use.

Perhaps they were just hoping he'd use it to sneak into Hogsmeade, and hadn't put thought into what he'd do with it after that. They could be inscrutable, at times, and he knew better than to take everything they said at face value. Nonetheless, he slowly realised that he seemed to have earned their respect, at some point, and that it was paying off, now. The tale of how they had acquired the Marauder's Map was a gift all on its own, and had him grinning so hard that his mouth hurt. His jaw was rather tighter than it should be, he reflected. When had he last relaxed at all?

"Sometime before the Quidditch Match of Doom", seemed to be the answer. Back before Wood had grown restless and snippy and prone to stalking the common room as a tiger waiting to pounce (or like Crookshanks, which was essentially the same thing). Back before Ron had taken to watching him like a hawk to make sure he didn't overexert himself, and Hermione hadn't spent all of her time either studying, in the library, or studying in the library. Back when he'd had something he could do about the dangers he knew he was about to face—skills he could teach himself, knowledge he could acquire, and things were not quite so much of a dead end.

Even his visit with his Mother had been full of tension. She'd still been sewing together the last of the tapestry, although she looked much better than she had the last time he'd seen her—as if she'd gotten some sleep. And she'd shared some information, to try to help him find Black and Pettigrew in the album. This year was crescendoing awfully fast.

He couldn't believe it at first, watching the lines spread out from the point of impact, thin veins of black ink, a calligraphist's level of finesse displayed in how the lines divided up the rooms of the castle, never a moment's confusion as to whether this was a room or a corridor or a storage closet, except for a room on the seventh floor marked only with an exclamation point. Four thick black walls surrounded it, attracting his attention, but there was little time to devote to wondering about it, when the Twins were instructing him on the use of the Marauder's Map.

Harry stared at the calligraphy above the map, the little introduction followed by the title, all in green ink, and thought that the map had probably been made by slytherins. He did not, of course, say this aloud. But slytherin was notorious for its dismissal of rules (unlike the ordinary gryffindor), and besides that, green was a slytherin colour.

It was also, the part of his mind he used to disavow (although now he was much more on the fence, what with how he was aware that it had used knowledge he would otherwise claim he didn't possess, to pull him back together) gently reminded him, one of Loki's signature colours. Loki, who was the God of Mischief and Lies.

But that can't have any relevance, he told that part of his mind, mystified. Sure, the map claimed to be "a guide for magical mischief-makers", but that didn't mean that they'd ever even heard of Loki, let alone knew his signature colours. Wizarding Britain was Christian—as if anyone could forget that.

This was, however, the most intuitive part of his mind. Was it possible? He wished he knew where prophets came by their knowledge, yet again, but that did not seem to be a subject covered in Divination this year, or in any other class at all.

The Twins left, with a cheeky grin, and a wave. Or, rather, with a synchronised pair of grins and waves that most people would have trouble differentiating from double vision.

He stood there for a moment, staring at the map, considering the whole matter. It was rather strange. It was also his only chance of visiting Hogsmeade this year—or, more like, before he reached age of majority. The lure was incredibly strong. The only wizarding settlement in Britain? A variety of shops, including a bookstore that sold only wizarding books, and a sweetshops that would be dead useful in surviving dementors? The mysterious Shrieking Shack, haunted by an entity so mysterious that the best experts hadn't been able to identify or exorcise it, which had mysteriously vanished, nonetheless, twenty years ago? He admitted to being intrigued. But, perhaps more than that, he didn't trust himself alone right now. He needed his friends, although he'd feigned indifference to the whole thing, and claimed he'd be just fine on his own (Ron had bought it, for once).

He stared at the one-eyed witch, watching his tiny representative, vague and formless as an unknown enemy in a foe-glass, stand there, outside the statue, and tap it with the wand that was little more than a tiny black line, and say, "dissendium". Harry followed its lead, and climbed down into a secret passage.

Sometimes, he forgot just how amazing of a place Hogwarts was. Things like this, its strangely wondrous mysteries, reminded him of why he considered it his Palace-on-Earth. He hardly even noticed how dark and dirty the place was—and a quick lumos took care of the former well enough. Not that there was that much to see, down here, except for the path weaving to and fro.

He stopped at the other end, and put on the invisibility cloak (no sense in risking being seen, after all). Time to relax and have some fun.

Chapter Text

He should have known better than to think that his visit to Hogsmeade would be stress-free fun. He didn't even have a chance to visit the Shrieking Shack. He'd had to have Hermione and Ron buy anything for him—and first, he'd had to ensure both of their silence. He would tell them about the Map later, where the coast was clear.

There were so many students here that it was more suspicious for him to wear the cloak, and he'd therefore taken it off, feeling horribly exposed. He remembered, then, Lupin's warning about the dementors, which he'd been too eager to heed before.

Then, Ron had pointed out a sign explaining the presence of the dementors to Hermione, and he'd almost sagged in relief, realising that there was no threat of coming across them, as he would leave long before sundown—as would the rest of the students. Of course, that meant that Sirius Black was free to wander through the city as he pleased, if he had the skill Mother claimed he had. And everyone seemed to concur that he did.

Including the professors and Minster Fudge, whom they accidentally eavesdropped on whilst stopping in at the Three Broomsticks for butterbeer (which they'd brought back bottles of last time, but which was best served hot).

Well, the eavesdropping wasn't itself accidental—although it might have been for other patrons of the tavern. Hagrid was not known for being quiet any more than was Thor. But Minister Fudge was determined to speak in a low whisper, and Madam Rosmerta, the proprietress and serving lady of the establishment, sensibly followed his lead. but that only served to make their top-secret conversation all the more interesting.

Hermione had noticed them first—they'd come in soon after Harry, Ron, and Hermione had. She tried to shove him under the table, but he ducked out of her reach.

"They can't find you here!" she hissed, urgency and fear thick in her voice.

"People tend to overlook me, when I wish to be overlooked," he said, ignoring Ron's rather odd expression at this admission. "And as long as I don't make any sudden movements. Madam Rosmerta might find my sudden disappearance suspicious, don't you think? Besides, if all else fails, I have the invisibility cloak."

He gave her a pointed look, and she took his point with a huff, crossing her arms and pouting. Then, she pointed her vine wand at a nearby tree, whispering, "mobiliarbus!" and a decorative Christmas tree helped to block them from sight.

He nodded to her, and they sat for a moment in silence, listening as the bartender brought the adults their drinks, and Fudge offered to let her join them. Just how was public opinion of the minister, right now, anyway? But she took him up on the offer with an unreadable cordiality.

Once again, it occurred to Harry to question whether or not he could tell if someone were lying or not, when he couldn't see them speak. He suspected that he probably could—unless they were a Riddle, or a Dumbledore. Those were few and far between.

The adults sat for a moment in silence, before Rosmerta broke it: "So, what brings you to this neck of the woods, Minister?" she asked, voice still quite polite, but suspiciously upbeat, as if putting on a show of cheer.

Or, he was overanalysing her.

"Sirius Black, what else?" asked Minister Fudge, sounding rather harassed, with a bite of impatience to his tone. But Harry barely noticed that. Sirius Black. They must think he was in the area, and that meant—

"Are you sure he's in the area, Minster?" asked Madam Rosmerta. She couldn't have made it more obvious that she was trying to be polite whilst still making clear her own disbelief.

Fudge sighed. "Quite sure. I suppose you've heard the recent news, about Black breaking in to Hogwarts last Hallowe'en—"

"I did hear a rumour to that effect, yes," Rosmerta admitted, sounding a bit sheepish. She must hear rather a lot of rumours, in her line of work.

"Did you tell the entire pub, Hagrid?" asked McGonagall, and Harry, despite his current umbrage at the way Hagrid refused to spend time with the trio anymore, nevertheless bristled at the assumption that Hagrid must have said something. But then again, who would have had the opportunity?

He remembered the Map, in the possession of the Twins, showed how to sneak out of Hogwarts, but—

McGonagall didn't know that. Nor did Hagrid deny the accusation.

"The dementors have searched Hogsmeade twice already!" Rosmerta at last cried, a bit of actual feeling coming through despite herself. "It's very bad for custom!"

"Now, now, Rosmerta, m'dear. I know it's hard, but think of what they're there to protect you from!"

Harry considered the merits of holding his breath, but decided that lightheadedness would not help him to focus. He had a hard enough time of it, despite having encountered no dementors—real or otherwise—since the quidditch match. They'd done extensive damage, and his soul was still regenerating soul stuff to replace what it had lost. But between Mother's best efforts, his own, and the Sorting Hat's, he was mostly coherent and functioning. Except when he got sidetracked, as he was starting to become now.

He felt restless and trapped, and more than a bit paranoid, itching to hasten to get back to the school before anyone could notice his absence. Why hadn't they gotten three bottles, and wandered Hogsmeade with them?

But then, he'd have missed the current conversation on Sirius Black, which turned out to be crucially important, as if life had finally decided to throw him a bone.

"Sirius Black," said Rosmerta softly, with an almost wistful undercurrent to her voice. "Do you know…when they told me, I could hardly believe it. Out of all the people to go over to the Dark Side, he was the last one I would have expected. I still remember him from his time in Hogwarts…he used to come in here all the time. If you'd told me then what he'd grow up to do—that he'd murder all those poor muggles, I'd have said that you had too much mead."

Fudge gave a bitter, sharp laugh. "The worst he did is not widely known."

"Worst?" she repeated, and he could picture her eyes widening at the promise of gossip. He sat up straighter, interested for far more personal reasons. This seemed suddenly a promising lead. "Worse than murdering all those poor muggles, you mean?"

"Indeed," said the Minister, and Harry's mind supplied a grave and suitably dramatic and pompous nod.

Professor McGonagall seemed to think it necessary to lead in. "You say you remember him at Hogwarts, Rosmerta. Do you remember who his best friend was?"

Harry rolled his eyes, and glanced at Ron and Hermione. Ron was looking down at the table, arms folded, seeming deep in thought, but probably listening. Hermione, on the other hand, might have forgotten to breathe. Her eyes were alight, and she was very, very still. He considered standing up to poke her, just to see if she twitched. But that would almost certainly give him away. He glanced back at the tree blocking them from sight, as if he would suddenly gain the ability to see through it through sheer force of will.

"Of course, I remember!" cried Rosmerta, with a little laugh, with that sort of melancholy wistfulness that usually indicates the presence of nostalgia. "A worse pair of troublemakers I've never seen!"

Harry's eyebrows both rose at that—this was the first he was hearing of that. Funny how that had been left out of both Lupin's (rare) and his mother's (more common) reminiscences.

"Oh, I don't know," Hagrid chuckled. "I think Fred and George Weasley could give them a run for their money."

"You never saw one with out the other! The number of times I had them in here…they used to make me laugh. Quite the double act they were: James Potter and Sirius Black!"

Harry felt someone's gaze land upon him, but it was only Ron. He smiled, and nodded, and then raised a finger to his lips, knowing that Ron, always the impulsive type, was going to bombard him with questions—or at least ask the most obvious one.

McGonagall's first addition to this new topic trod a familiar path—James Potter and Sirius Black, the dynamic duo, far too smart for the good of either.

"Exactly. Sirius Black and James Potter were among the brightest students I ever taught—ringleaders of their little gang. They must have been among the brightest students of their year, at the very least, and their was quite a close-knit group. They were inseparable, as close as brothers. James Potter trusted Sirius Black above all of his other friends at school. And nothing changed when they left school. Sirius Black was best man at James and Lily's wedding. James even named Black Harry's godfather—he has no idea, of course, but you can imagine how the idea would torment him."

Harry trusted an incredulous raised eyebrow to be a temporary sufficient show of this statement's inaccuracy, particularly when Mother's explanation seemed more plausible with every word spoken. But, no, unless he'd forgotten the mention, somehow (and that struck him as unlikely), somehow everyone seemed to have avoided mentioning that little detail of Sirius Black being his godfather. Something in his chest constricted at the realisation—growing up, he could have had a home, a family who loved him, not for his fame, but just for who he was, but it had been stolen from him by…something.

His gaze fell to the table, speculative. He took a swig of butterbeer, as if that would help. Perhaps he felt tormented, after all, but not for the reason McGonagall supposed.

"Because Black was in league with—with You-Know-Who?" asked Rosmerta in a horrified, yet eager murmur. Harry thought she was at the edge of her seat with interest in the tale. He frowned, resolving to analyse it later, and, for now, to just pay attention, and commit what he could to memory.

"Even worse than that, I'm afraid," said the Minister, and then paused. "Not many people know this, either, but the Potters were aware that You-Know-Who was after them. Dumbledore had spies in his ranks, you know, and one of them warned him that You-Know-Who was after the Potters. He told them to go into hiding, told them that their best bet was the Fidelius Charm."

The what, now? But it couldn't have been common knowledge that he'd somehow never encountered, because Rosmerta echoed his query, in much politer tones. Harry already didn't like where this was going. He was hardly aware that Ron and Hermione were listening, too.

"The Fidelius Charm is a complicated charm of protection," Flitwick said, in that special tone of lecture that only professors seem to have. "It involves the concealment of the whereabouts of an individual or individuals within a single, living soul.

"This Secret Keeper accept willingly for the spell to take, but once it has, the individuals protected by the charm can only be found by the Secret Keeper, and those whom he informs of the location. The secret is unable to be extracted through any means, from standard practices like veritaserum and legilimency, to less…savoury methods, such as threats, blackmail, and torture."

Harry shivered. He felt Ron's gaze shift to him, briefly, but all of them were listening very hard, now.

"You see, it is the ultimate defense. I would have said that Dumbledore was quite right to pick it."

"And Sirius Black was their Secret Keeper?" asked Rosmerta in a hushed rush. Something seemed to sink in Harry's stomach. This was it. How Malfoy knew, he might never know. But this was why Professor Lupin had once slipped, calling Black a "traitor".

"Of course. Potter told Dumbledore that Black would have died before he betrayed them… he said that Black was planning on going into hiding himself. But Dumbledore strongly advised against choosing Black…I remember him offering to be their Secret Keeper, himself." McGonagall's voice was sharp, as if warning away any enquiry on her last statement, and there was a distinct edge to her voice overall. She seemed to have taken over the Minister's tale, which perhaps made sense—they hadn't yet reached the point of his own involvement, if he was involved at all. Those who worked at Hogwarts were nearer Dumbledore, and therefore more liable to have learnt about what was going on, what Dumbledore planned.

Why would he do that? Harry had time to wonder about Dumbledore's offer, before Rosmerta said, in a much slower, cautious sort of voice, "Dumbledore suspected Black?"

"Not Black specifically. But he was convinced that someone close to the Potters was passing information to You-Know-Who—a double agent, if you will. He didn't know it was Black, or he would never have accepted James's choice."

"And Black betrayed them?"

McGonagall sighed. "Not long after they went into hiding, before rumours of their disappearance could spread."

"He was tiring of his role as double agent," Fudge said, with great certainty. "He was ready to openly declare his allegiance to You-Know-Who, with the attack on the Potters. But then, well, everyone knows what happened: little Harry Potter defeated You-Know-Who, just when Black had shown his true colours. He had to run…."

"But you caught him," said Rosmerta, with a milder sort of certainty. There was a brief moment of silence around the table, and Fudge gave a very heavy sigh.

"I wish that we had. Sadly, it was Peter Pettigrew who found him—another one of Potter's little friends—he caught up with Black in an alley. We learnt the whole thing later, from muggle witnesses. We obliviated them, of course—" Of course. "They say he cried, 'Lily and James, Sirius, how could you!' and reached for his wand…but, of course, Black was faster. He killed Pettigrew and all the muggles within a hundred feet with one spell,"

Harry's heart forgot to beat. Breathing became unnecessary. Despite himself, he tried to pull the story apart, and put it back together again in a way that made sense. Here, at last, the first mention of Peter Pettigrew.

"Stupid boy, foolish boy, he was always hopeless at dueling! Why didn't he leave it to the professionals?" McGonagall blew her nose. Her voice was very thick. Harry rather suspected that she was crying. "I was often quite hard on him…I thought he could do better, if he worked harder…you can imagine how I—how I regret my harsh words, now."

They gave her a moment to collect herself, in which Harry somehow managed not to so much as stir in his seat. He hoped no one decided to poke him.

" And then do you know what he did next?" There must have been some non-verbal cue, or else this was a pause for dramatic effect, because the Minister continued uninterrupted. "He laughed. The Minister sent in a team of top-notch hit wizards to take him in. I was brought in, too—I was Junior Assistant at the Department of Magical Calamities at the time. I still remember the scene vividly—I dream of it, sometimes. Half the street blown to rubble, bodies everywhere, and in front of Black a heap of robes and…and a few…fragments.

"They gave the Order of Merlin, First Class, to Pettigrew's mother, and his finger in a box—the biggest part of him that they could find. I hope it was some consolation to her—obviously not ideal, but it might have done her some good, knowing her son died a hero. And Black just stood there, laughing his head off, as the Hit Wizards came to take him away. He went with them quietly, without a word. I can't forget that night."

"That stinking murdering traitor!" yelled Hagrid, and Harry started, despite himself, but no one was watching except for Ron. Harry was fairly sure he could feel all the blood draining from his face. He'd only seen Hagrid this angry once before, but it wasn't even that. This was it, he realised.

"Hagrid, be quiet!" hissed Professor McGonagall in a loud voice. She was, after all, a tenured professor.

"I must've been the last person to see him before he killed all those people. Dumbledore sent me to get Harry to safety when he'd heard what happened. I was the one who pulled little Harry Potter out of the wreckage of his parents' house. I was about to leave when Black shows up, all white and shaking. And do you know what I did?"

"Hagrid, please keep it down!"

"I comforted the murdering traitor! I thought he'd heard about what had happened, and had come to see how he could help! How was I supposed to know he wasn't upset about Lily and James—that it was You-Know-Who he really cared about? But he says to me, 'Give Harry to me. I'm his godfather; I'll look after him'. Insistent, he was. But I was there on Dumbledore's orders, and at last, he gave in. 'Take my motorbike', he says. 'I won't be needing it anymore.' I should've known right then! Black loved that motorbike. What would he be giving it away for?"

A motorcycle? Harry thought. For the first time in years, since he'd met Hagrid, he remembered the dreams he'd once had, of a friendly giant carrying him whilst riding a motorcycle. Then, was that Sirius Black's bike?

Hagrid at last quietened, continuing on in a rather subdued tone, "Fact is, it's too easy to trace. He had to get rid of it. But what if I'd given Harry to him, eh?" The volume picked up again, and Harry winced. "I bet he'd have chucked him off that bike, halfway out to sea! His best friends' son! Ah, but when a wizard goes over to the Dark Side, there's nothing and no one that matter to him, anymore…."

Another moment of silence, as everyone digested this. Harry refused to look at Ron or Hermione.

"But he's mad, isn't he?" asked Madam Rosmerta, sounding tentative, for once.

Fudge sighed again. "I wish that I could say that he was. I imagine his master's defeat…unhinged him for a while, but I saw him just recently—a couple of weeks before he escaped. He seemed…normal. Even a little bored. He asked me if I'd finished my copy of the Daily Prophet, and if he could have it. Said he missed doing the crossword puzzles. It was unnerving, how little Azkaban seemed to affect him. And he was one of our most heavily-guarded prisoners, you know, dementors outside his cell day and night."

Harry shivered. How could anyone not react to dementors?

"Then…what has he broken out of Azkaban to do? Is he planning to rejoin You-Know-Who?" asked Rosmerta, hesitant, as if she knew she were pushing her luck.

"I daresay that is, er, his eventual goal. But we'll catch him long before that can happen, never you worry," said Fudge, as if he didn't notice quite how nosy she was being. Perhaps it suited his public image, to seem the concerned Everyman with an ear for the average person's voice.

"I think, if you are going to have dinner with the Headmaster, you had best leave now," said McGonagall, in a neutral tone. Perhaps she thought Rosmerta was ferreting for information, or perhaps she had just noticed the time. Harry didn't need the reminder, to exacerbate…everything.

There came the sounds of them standing up, of them pushing their chairs out, and a burst of cold air signaled their departure. Everything was completely still at their table for a moment or two even after that, except for Harry taking another swig of butterbeer as if completely unperturbed, when already his thoughts were beginning to churn.

"Harry?" asked Hermione, peering at him, wide-eyed.

He glanced out the window, confirming that snow was still falling heavily from the sky. That minimised the chances that anyone would notice him.

Ron said nothing. Nothing needed saying. His brows were furrowed in evident concern, and he might not have unfolded his arms to take a drink this entire time.

"That was…informative," Harry managed.

Now, they were both staring at him. Well, what did they want him to say? They'd want to talk about this with him, but right now wasn't a good time, regardless of other concerns.

"Look…Ron, Hermione, give me some time to think over what I just heard. I need to get back to the castle. I'll think on the way. Thank you for today, for showing me around… I'll see you back at Hogwarts."

He left some money to reimburse Ron for the drink, and, before they could stop him (they seemed to momentarily immobilised by what they'd just heard), he had put the invisibility cloak back on, and slipped back out the door.

Chapter Text

He did think about it during the return journey. He could have walked via the ordinary path—perhaps it would have been less suspicious, but the way through Honeydukes still seemed safer, and there was always a part of his mind that could give attention to such concerns. A part that insisted upon having a backup plan. Did he even know the external road from Hogsmeade to Hogwarts? Was it somehow paved and clearly marked? He didn't recall seeing such before, and thus he doubted it.

His first action, after pulling off the invisibility cloak in an unoccupied bathroom, storing it safely away, and returning to Gryffindor Tower, was to pull out the photo album, yet again. Then, he flipped rapidly through the pages, relying on sheer luck to lead him to the page for which he sought. But the photo album was filled with pictures of his mum and dad, and pictures including anyone else were few and far between.

But the pictures of their wedding….

There it was. He'd looked at that picture more often than he cared to admit, trying to imagine what sort of person his dad had been, trying to understand what little he knew, to slot vague details onto the image and try to make a person from those ingredients. Or he'd looked at his mother, trying to tell, once and for all, whether or not there were any reality to his dreams. And he'd looked through all of these pictures several times, over the course of the last few weeks. Somewhere, surely, he would find Professor Lupin, and Sirius Black. But if he hadn't recognised the former, whom he saw on a weekly basis, how could he hope to recognise a man he had no memory of ever meeting?

He removed the photograph, gently, from the four little corner-tabs holding it in place, half-expecting a secret message or something to lie beneath. That was, of course, absurd, but then, so was everything else that had happened this year. Or since he'd turned ten.

He closed his eyes, leaning back on his bed, and then thought that, as he had already pulled the photo out, he might as well turn it over. Sometimes, people wrote messages on the back.

And there was a note, indeed, in unfamiliar, rounded writing, full of soft edges.

Hey, Moron! the note began, and Harry blinked. Was the person who had given the picture to Hagrid insulting him from afar? But, no, as he read on, he saw that this picture was third-hand, having been sent to the person who later gave it to Hagrid. Somehow, that seemed promising. In full, the note read:

Hey, Moron!

I thought I'd sneak this photo into the replacement robes I gave you for Christmas. Clever of me, right? I heard the whole story about how Old Pus burnt a hole straight through the pocket of your robes, and the picture you always keep in them. I keep my copy somewhere safe , so I copied it and thought I'd give it to you as a replacement. I didn't take this picture; don't go accusing me of being vain, or something else stupid, sending a picture that has me in it to you. It's the exact same one you kept in your pocket because it "symbolised the bond among us", remember? Try not to get it destroyed, this time!

S. B.

Harry didn't know what to make of most of it—was "Old Pus" some sort of scathing moniker for Riddle, or something? But if that were true, whoever had sent the photo to its recipient (a friend?) would probably have made a bigger deal about his friend surviving Voldemort's wrath. And, if "S. B." should stand for "Sirius Black"…well, it explained why the previous owner had been eager to give it away, and helped to narrow down the potential list of previous owners.

Not that it mattered who had received it. He or she was in the picture, somewhere—as was "S. B.".

Best man at his parents' wedding, he thought to himself. That was what McGonagall had said. He flipped the image back over again, and looked through the crowd, certain, this time, that not-yet-Professor Lupin and Peter Pettigrew were somewhere in here….

There! That had to be Professor Lupin—the shape of the face was right, and the eyes, although the man in the photo looked far less world-weary and defeated than the man Harry saw in class every week. He had the familiar, warm smile, but it sometimes twitched into a surprisingly cocky smirk. As if he noticed Harry watching, he pointed in the direction of Lily and James, smiling.

Just how sentient were pictures, anyway?

Well, they couldn't hear, so they'd be no help finding Peter Pettigrew. Harry tried anyway, but Lupin's expression didn't change. Probably it was too much effort to give photos a real personality, and the magical solution Colin Creevey had mentioned last year only let them have some idea of who was currently examining them. Mild legilimency, or a little parlour trick, the one about picking a card. Street magic.

He scoured the photo himself, until his eyes alit upon a figure he recognised, despite being confident they'd never met. Chubby and short, without being stout, he had watery, almost beady eyes, and unfortunately square teeth, with a long, pointed nose. Peter Pettigrew. Harry was certain of it.

His gaze flicked back to his parents, sure that Black would be nearby. One of the men in the photo turned his head to look directly at the camera, relaxing into a sort of languid grace, hands in his pockets, although Harry thought tuxedos weren't supposed to have those. He looked at the camera askance, and gave a broad smirk. Harry stared at that face, at eyes sparkling with joy and mirth, lips spread in a grin that said he had a joke that he was dying to share, short hair nevertheless fastidiously combed and very neat, unlike James's. There was a sort of disconnect between his dress and his attitude—he was slouching. Was that allowed at formal events?

This image struck a more powerful chord of familiarity with him than the brief glimpse he'd had of an immobilised Black on the morning news, at Privet Drive, or seen in the Daily Prophet. He could almost hear his voice, speaking indecipherable words, and, to his lasting surprise, his eyes filled with tears.

He knew (or could hazard a guess) why they looked familiar, why he could identify them. His mind was a jumbled mess now, and the dementors had drawn memories from his infancy back to the fore. He recognised them all—Black and Lupin and Pettigrew—because they'd been a part of his infancy. They'd been there. He'd heard Sirius's voice, although he didn't remember it. And Professor Lupin's. And Peter Pettigrew's. And he thought that the nudge in his mind that led him to his conclusion came from those scraps of memory. That, and perhaps experience of his own with being accused for things he hadn't done: Dad! Harry set a snake on me! Dad! Harry hit me! Dad, Harry broke my new bicycle! The tyre's flat, see!

He hadn't; he hadn't; he hadn't. And neither had Sirius Black.

Mother was right. Sirius Black was innocent.

"I said 'he's innocent'!" he cried, rather at the end of his rope, after everything that had happened that day. "Peter Pettigrew betrayed my parents."

Ron was rubbing his head as if he suspected that he'd damaged it somehow, or he might have heard wrong. Harry cocked his head, momentarily distracted by something stupid. It still happened. Was Ron's hair longer than usual? He hadn't noticed. He'd been thinking of more important things, but he suspected that having long hair didn't make it harder to hear. Especially if you kept it out of your ears, as he did.

He shook his head, and dragged his fatigued mind back to bear on the problem, even though he'd been going over it nonstop for the last few hours. He was missing something. He knew that much. He'd gone to the library, looking for more information, but for some reason, it hadn't had anything to offer. Hermione would have been appalled at the thought of books failing her. Harry was just annoyed.

And he was taking it out on his friends. He took several deep, calming breaths—the sort he usually instructed Hermione to use (he saw her eyebrows rise in recognition), and unclenched his fists.

"Just trust me on this," he said. It irked him to see that neither of them did trust him on that. They wanted him to give a solid argument. The problem was that he couldn't.

"Harry," Hermione said, in a very gentle voice, as if speaking to a very small child. His irritation must have shown, because she flinched and withdrew, and he closed his eyes, trying to calm down again. She continued. It was very end-of-first-year. "You heard what they said: McGonagall, and Flitwick, and Fudge."

"Says the girl who thought Snape was out to kill me first year," he snapped, and she crossed her arms, ready to stand her ground. Ron was looking around the room, as if wishing he were anywhere else. Harry fixed his gaze upon Ron, the only neutral party.

"Look, just give him a chance, alright?" he asked, in exasperation. "Everyone deserves a chance to defend themselves, but if the Minister or professors find him—"

"It's the Dementor's Kiss. I remember; you told us," Hermione said. She did not sound as if she were even considering the possibility which, Harry conceded, was very sensible of her.

"Call it intuition—or call it reason. Look, everyone who speaks of Sirius Black says the same things: he was brilliant, they say; he was friends with my Mum and Dad (if anything, they'll omit this); he was the last person I ever thought would go over to the Dark Side. Doesn't that last clause suggest anything to you? That absolutely everyone finds it incredible that Sirius Black was a traitor—but they still believe he is? Something doesn't add up."

"They must have their reasons," said Hermione, sounding a bit subdued, which meant he was making a tiny bit of progress. Ron was watching him, as if trying to figure something out. He felt a specimen in a zoo, even though he knew it was just Ron showing that he was…you know, listening. Precisely what Harry wanted.

But they were, all three of them, quite stubborn in their own ways. He sensed Hermione wanting to dig in her heels.

"Well, of course. Everyone has their reasons for everything. Hagrid was expelled because Riddle framed him for murder. I was the 'Heir of Slytherin' last year because I could talk to snakes. And absolutely anything that didn't go Uncle Vernon's way was liable to be my fault, by way of magic. Excuse me if I don't feel like ignoring the signs pointing to Sirius's innocence!"

Sign one: his mother had told him so, in a dream. Sign two: everyone spoke highly of him before he left Hogwarts. Sign three: …there was a sign three, wasn't there?

He turned to the Foe-Glass, and studied the image continuing to form in it. Short, and somehow compressed, but vague, still, with robes hanging loosely off of it…but short hair.

Clearer than yesterday, not as clear as tomorrow.

"That is too short to be Sirius Black," he declared. Hermione shot him her most disbelieving look. Ron seemed to be considering. There was a thoughtful expression to him, as if he were silently weighing Harry's every word.

There was silence, as Hermione visibly calmed herself, and then, slowly, relaxed, heaving a great sigh.

"You're being an idiot. And you're not making any sense. I understand why. This year has been tough for all three of us, between my extra classes, and your…reactions to the dementors. Ron's had to try to keep both of us afloat. I get it. But it's almost Christmas, and I really don't want to fight with you, Harry. Let's just leave this for now, okay? We'll talk about this, later."

That was probably the best he could hope for, as he had no evidence, yet, to back up his claims. This was the risk of siding with your intuition—it rarely had proof, by definition. But he didn't want to argue with her, either, so he just nodded, and turned away.

The next day was the first true day of Christmas Break (weekends don't count, for purists). Because they now had the middle of the day free, and because both Ron and Hermione had signed up to stay over the winter to keep him company (although only Ron was willing to admit this, the mother hen), they were free to go down to visit Hagrid at a time when he couldn't protest that Harry was endangering himself.

"I should ask him why he never thought to mention that I had family—a godfather. Even if he supposedly is a Death Eater, and therefore evil, Hagrid should have told me. I hate it when people keep secrets about my life from me!" he cried, with a bitterness that surprised him. But, it was absolutely true. Usually, however, Dumbledore was the culprit. But, Hagrid had known.

Was he imagining it, or did Ron look down, rather guiltily, at this outburst?


Harry had meant to ask more about the photo album (he was not about to admit anything that suggested he had overheard yesterday's conversation), but a glance at Hagrid's tear-stained face abruptly refocused everyone's thoughts. Because the matter involved Malfoy, in Harry and Ron's case, and the life of an innocent and beautiful magical creature, in Hermione's, they volunteered themselves for the Great Buckbeak Rescue Mission. Harry privately suspected it was a hopeless task. Hagrid did have one thing very well put: the Ministry was in Lucius Malfoy's pocket. And none of the Trio had the power to go against Malfoy in that field.

"It would probably serve for sufficient distraction if I killed Draco for starting this whole mess," Harry snarled, shoving a book away across the table with more force than strictly necessary.

"But then, you'd get in trouble for murder," Hermione said, eyes wide.

"But it's not murder if it's Malfoy," he retorted. "And anyway, I think I could put up a proper defence, or make it look like an accident, or something. But I won't act until I can be sure of getting away with it, I suppose. Pity."

Ron seemed to have cottoned on that talking about killing Malfoy was nothing but a way of venting stress. Not the healthiest way, doubtless, but not a sign that Harry was about to go on a rampage, or murder someone. Hermione, however, disapproved even of that. Even if Malfoy was a nasty piece of work, she disapproved of such talk on general principle.

This did not make reading up for Hagrid's case any better. At least, if all else failed, Hagrid wasn't taking the fall for this one. That was what Harry told himself, repeatedly, to take his mind off how important the situation was.

Ron tried very hard to be helpful, but the average book would never hold his attention. Harry took pity on him, and used him as a sounding board for ideas, instead. He worked much better, thus. He could even, sort of, take notes on strategies that might prove useful. He did not seem to realise what Harry was doing, which was fine by Harry.

For some reason, Harry was making swifter progress than Hermione through his books, but Hermione's information was more useful. It must be her ridiculous thorough methodicalness in play.

Christmas morning was far too bright. Snow had fallen the night before, and, as snow does, made everything look much brighter than it was. It threw copious amounts of light into the castle, far too early to deal with in the ordinary way of things. Harry knew that returning to sleep was pointless regardless of what hour it was, and rolled out of bed with a groan. He might not be training with the Patronus Charm for the moment, but he still was practising occlumency, and fake occlumency, and then subtle uses of the other kind of magic—and not-so-subtle, when he could find time to himself. It all took quite a toll on his energy, and he refused to take a break for the holidays.

Regardless of the dementors and Sirius Black outside the castle, it was a perfectly ordinary Christmas—if you discounted the mysterious gift of a Firebolt from person or people unknown. Hermione showed why it was important to somehow convince her of Sirius Black's innocence by telling McGonagall about the broom. When McGonagall confronted him, he knew he could have lied—she might even have believed him—but that wouldn't do well for his credibility in the future. He handed the broomstick over, instead.

It was on the tip of his tongue to say that he could check for such curses well enough himself, by now.

But he didn't. He was still silent on the matter of the other magic. He didn't know what to think of it, and wished that he hadn't had to wonder about it today. Christmas Day was a very bad day to question these things as it was—as a religious holiday, the entire matter still got tangled up in his head, in a way he'd yet to untangle. The same questions of years past resurfaced in their original forms. He hated this new tradition of asking the same questions on the same day, year after year. He'd almost given his metaphysical uncertainty the slip, and then Hermione had, inadvertently, recalled it to mind.

Which meant that, for once, Harry was the one not speaking to Hermione. He made pretence of having to study for Buckbeak's case, and review all the varied magics he was currently using to defend himself in general (Patronus, occlumency, Foe-Glass, that was to say—or at least, that he was willing to say). Hermione knew that, in actual point of fact, he was angry with her, but she only knew the half of why, which did not bode well for her making amends.

But they were, all three of them, too stubborn. She refused to admit that she might have erred—which, in spirit, she hadn't—and Harry refused to overlook her unilateral action (even if it was on his behalf), or the way she'd dredged back up old insecurities.

The good thing was that she had waited until close of day before doing this, which meant that he didn't spend the entire day driving himself mad with unanswerable questions. (Will you still insist that these questions cannot be answered? said the part of his mind that was making this complicated to begin with. He'd half a mind to go back to ignoring it, again. But it was the most promising lead on proving Black's innocence—indeed, the only reason he believed in it, himself, and thus….)

Ron showed prudence by trying to mediate the conflict, which did not avail him well. He would probably have sided with Harry, anyway, given Scabbers's declining health. Hermione's awareness of this did not help matters, at all.

"Take Harry's side!" she cried, tears streaming down her face. "You always do!"

This did not seem fair to Harry, as Harry could think of several instances in which Ron had not, in fact, taken his side over Hermione's. But he knew better than to point this out to her. Hermione rarely cried, which made him suspect that she was, in truth, having a small nervous breakdown, anticipating their return to classes. It wasn't his fault she'd taken so many.

His own state of fatigue and overwork were at least due to forces out of his control.

Harry had had plenty of time to practice with the Firebolt before quidditch season resumed. He had been unsurprised by the "all-clear". Hermione, by contrast, was wringing her hands, and looking wretched. But Christmas was far removed by now, and Harry quite missed speaking to her about books. Not to mention that work on Buckbeak's case was difficult to accomplish with the team divided, thus. It was like that saying about the right hand and the left hand.

Hermione made some very tearful apologies, and Harry had, as gently as possible, admitted that it was mostly not even something she'd knowingly done wrong, and Ron had finally relaxed, with his two best friends no longer at odds with one another. They'd almost had another fight when Harry finally told them about the Map, but Hermione seemed to remember his reaction to the loss of his broomstick, and listened to his counterargument for why he needn't hand it in.

Gryffindor defeated Ravenclaw after start of term, which put Wood in a slightly better mood. Harry had followed his previous, disastrous strategy of not actively seeking for the snitch, to much better effect, this time. Cho Chang had enough skill not to fall off her broom, or crash into the ground, when Harry pulled out of his dive at the last second, which was just as well. And Malfoy, and not Harry, was punished (by McGonagall, of course), for pretending to be a dementor, with the assistance of living stilts Crabbe and Goyle. Harry wouldn't have used the Patronus Charm, except that he remembered that there always seemed to be a moment of calm before dementors started sucking the happiness from people, and that that was the only instant in which he would be reliably able to act. Better safe than sorry, even if the use of a wand during a match was worth a penalty.

There was no penalty.

Wood was teary-eyed, but beaming 'round at them, come end of match. He clapped Harry hard on the shoulder, saying, "I knew you'd come through, Harry," which was much better than when he'd visited Harry in the Hospital Wing during Harry's convalescence to tell him that he "didn't blame him at all".

Katie Bell caught Harry's eye behind Oliver's back, and rolled her eyes. But she, too, was smiling. Last time, there'd been occasion, but no opportunity. This time, there was absolutely no need for the reserves. Of course, they still needed to do extraordinarily well in the final match—there were a lot of variables that Harry had trouble keeping straight—but they were still in the running, which boded well for the health of the Gryffindor Quidditch Team as a whole.

All in all, things were going well. Harry could almost overlook the growing clarity of the Foe-Glass shadow that he checked nightly. He was unsurprised to find that it bore a striking resemblance to a thinner, more ragged-looking Peter Pettigrew.

It was just Hermione who still wouldn't listen.

Chapter Text

The celebratory party for the victory of Gryffindor over Ravenclaw lasted late into the night. Harry was exhausted, anyway, both from the match, and from all the practice he put into training himself to resist the effects of the dementors. He would probably have liked to have gone to bed much earlier than he had—he had that wary paranoia around him that made him back into corners and flinch at loud noises—but, as the guest of honour, it wasn't permitted.

Thor, remembering that Loki had never exactly been fond of parties, himself (despite dealing with them much better), wished that he had the authority to order everyone to leave his younger brother alone, and let him rest. McGonagall, as it turned out, was obliged to do this, instead.

Perhaps that engendered a certain restlessness, introspection, pensiveness. Perhaps, it was responsible for the return of another odd dream. Once again, he stood in his old bedroom at The Burrow, not doing anything in particular, except trying to decide what to do. That was when there came another knock on the door, which opened, but only when he said, "Come in".

A familiar figure entered, and Thor ran his hands through his hair, which was blond, again, and long (or what humans considered long for men, at least). It was back to the same old story; Ron and Thor, the second meeting.

"How's it going?" asked Ron. "How's Harry?"

The first statement held too much slang to make much sense for Thor—even if it turned out to have come from his own mind. But, he understood the second one.

"He is… unwell. Recent developments have left him frailer than I am accustomed to seeing him. The dementors are a particular threat."

Unsurprisingly, Ron didn't seem surprised by this news. He didn't even ask for clarification. He didn't ask "What dementors?". He only nodded, as if this were all expected. This did not help at all in narrowing down what he really was—a projection, a piece of subconscious, a displaced spirit come bearing warnings of things to come? It was difficult to know how to treat "him".

Instead, he said, "It's tonight, I think. The moment of reckoning. Maybe even the one I warned you to brace yourself for; I dunno. It was today, wasn't it? The match between Ravenclaw and Gryffindor. Harry caught the snitch, and everyone in Gryffindor breathed easier. Except for Harry: he was thinking of other things."

Uncertain how much the events Ron thought of matched those he had witnessed himself, Thor nodded, and then thought back over those words. "'Moment of reckoning'?" he repeated, turning the words over, slowly, in his mind. "What—?"

"Do you think you're helping Harry, keeping your secret from him? Don't you remember how he reacted when he learnt that Hagrid knew about Sirius Black, and had never told him? I think you may have run out of time to tell him on your own terms. It may be too late to save him."

There was a fatal finality to his words, and Thor surged to his feet, despite his earlier uncertainty, because how dared anyone to suggest that he give up on his only brother?

Ron forestalled him, saying, as if he could read Thor's thoughts (and maybe he could; who knew?), "I'm not saying that you should just give up on him. I'm saying that he is unraveling, and all around him, truths are being uncovered. Yours will probably be exposed soon, too. If you aren't the one to tell him—do you think he'll trust you ever again? You'll lose him. And then, he'll lose himself. You've seen it; you know I'm speaking the truth. He needs your help; he's convinced himself he's not strong enough on his own. Maybe, it's even true. So, have you decided? Will you tell him?"

He wanted to. He couldn't deny that he'd always wanted to, but that thought, the thought of keeping Harry safe, had stopped him.

As it had stopped Dumbledore, perhaps. Harry didn't resent Dumbledore, did he? But, he hardly had the power to sever all ties with the headmaster, and if he did, it would be through resigning from Hogwarts, giving up his friends, returning to the Dursleys—all greater sacrifices than tolerating someone who had let him down. Was it mere tolerance, then?

Why hadn't he thought about this all along? Why hadn't he decided, already? But, in this realm, time moved so swiftly, and so many things happened in rapid succession; he'd never get used to it—

"No, huh?" asked Ron, shaking his head. "I really had high hopes for this one. But, you make the same mistakes, over and over again. You know it, or I wouldn't be able to say it. You must be the ultimate masochist. But, maybe what I've said has helped you see things more clearly. You need to make a choice. Choose well."

A low, rumbling noise filled the room, coming from outside, and Ron turned back to look through the open door. His brow furrowed in concentration.

"It's on your end," he said, turning to Thor. "Something's happening in the Waking World. You need to get back there."

And just as Thor was about to protest that he didn't know how, Ron drew a wand from his jeans pocket, and cried, "Rennervate!"

And he woke up.

He awoke to the darkened dorms, to complete silence. He was unable to pinpoint anything that might have made such a noise—or any noise at all, for that matter. He slid back the curtains hanging around his bed with great care, trying to make absolutely no noise.

Someone was kneeling in front of the cage in which Scabbers was kept. It was on the far side of the room, up against a wall—the only place there had been space for it. He must have forgotten to lock the cage door in tonight's excitement. That was how Sirius Black had managed to open it without the key.

He snatched the wand off his bedside table, rolling out of bed, and to his feet, all in one motion. He was confident that he could get to Black before the man could flee, or wake the entire tower, if Black tried to threaten him.

Harry's words rang in his ears: He's innocent! Remember last year, when I was the "Heir of Slytherin"? Just give him a chance!

Give him a chance. Give him a chance.

Ron Weasley was supposed to be human, but he wasn't. If it all came down to it, he was confident that he could take Black down, alone.

"Stay where you are," he ordered Black, in a low voice, so as not to wake anyone else. It was his absolute quietest, but he knew that, but for his extreme fatigue, Harry would already be awake and moving. What he would have done, Thor couldn't know, but Harry was the lightest sleeper of them all, the most sensitive to noise. After that came Thor himself, which was a good thing. Neville could outsleep the dead, or however the saying went.

Sirius Black whirled around, eyes wide, already looking for escape routes. Thor was already approaching him, trying not to show just how little he understood what was going on.

Black was after Scabbers? Or, why else would he be hovering over the cage in the middle of the night—there was no mistaking a rat in a cage for a boy.

Somewhere, in the back of his mind, maybe, he noted that the man's first impulse was to flee—and not to attempt to silence his opponent, who was, to all appearances, a child. Either way, he risked Ron shouting a warning. Perhaps he thought it best to do as he was told.

"Just let me take the rat, and I'll leave," Black said. His voice was hoarse, and thick with some unknown emotion. His eyes seemed to shine in the dark. He was shaking. "Just let me go. I promise not to harm any of you, if you'll just let me go without calling for help."

"That is my rat," Thor thought to say. "I believe I deserve some sort of explanation. What is your purpose in coming here?"

Black glanced around the room, clearly on edge, as if expecting dementors to come swooping in at any second.

"I'll explain to you," he decided. "If you agree not to call for help. But not here."

Thor did not back down an inch. Harry believed this man. But, when it came right down to it, it wasn't even Harry's inexplicable faith that was staying Thor's hand. He couldn't help thinking of another time, another situation, other explanations for which he should have sought.

Why ask now? Why care now?

I always cared—

But you never listened.

"Harry believes that you are innocent of the crimes of which you are accused," Thor said, looking for a reaction. Black's gaze snapped, as if automatically, to the bed in which Harry lay, still asleep. Then, he'd known where Harry was. And Black's actions—going to the cage, leaving all the beds alone, was the first evidence Thor had seen that Harry might be right.

"I will hear you out, as Harry asked of me," Thor said. There were very few mortals who were able to fight him on equal footing. None of them (or at least, none of the ones he knew) were here. "What is this location, of which you speak?"

Black frowned, shooting him a puzzled glance, as if there were something about Thor that he were trying to identify—something he recognised. But at last, Black shrugged, hands in his pockets.

"…It's a top-secret room my friends and I found by accident. On the seventh floor," he admitted.

"And how do you intend for us to reach this room, without being seen?"

Black grinned. "Do you know the Disillusionment Charm?"

And that was how, five minutes later, Thor found himself sneaking through the castle in the middle of the night, yet again, risking expulsion, or arrest, yet again, all to protect his younger brother.

Have you decided whether or not you will tell him? he remembered the externalised Ron Weasley saying. It was yet another thing to think of. He couldn't help thinking about it, even despite the need for focus that came with sneaking through a place under intense guard. There was a reason S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers knew better than to send him on missions requiring subtlety.

You're running out of time.

"In here," Black hissed, as if hearing something even Thor couldn't. Perhaps paying attention to some other sense than hearing and sight. They hid in an empty classroom, waiting for Peeves to pass, and then waiting a bit longer.

And thus, it went. They spent the next several minutes sneaking through the castle corridors, only to occasionally have to hide—always with a fair amount of notice—in any room that happened to be nearby.

He was sure that the Disillusionment Charm had worn off before they reached the seventh floor corridor, with its blank stretch of wall, and an unpromising picture of dancing trolls. His eyes narrowed, suspecting a trap, but Black held out a hand to forestall any objection.

"I know there's nothing here now," he said, his voice slightly less scratchy, but still quite hoarse, as if from disuse. "That's what makes it such a great secret, after all. All I have to do is pass in front of the door three times, thinking of what I want, and…voilà!"

A door shimmered into existence in the wall. Thor stared at it, barely seeing Black flash him a smug grin, as he slipped inside. That smirk looked rather incongruous, and fairly disturbing, on Black's gaunt, emaciated face, but it also served to soften some of those hard edges. There was a spark of life in his eyes that hadn't been there when he'd first appeared. Wary of the possibility that this was a trap, Thor followed.

The door vanished, and he tensed, half-expecting an attack.

"Easy, there," Black said, holding out his hands in a placating gesture. "I just want to make sure no one interrupts. It would be awfully suspicious to anyone in the know—and I know at least one of your professors knows about this room—if this door were to remain visible in the outside hallway."

He crossed his arms, and sat down on a plush, red sofa lying a bit further into the room.

"Is this where you have been hiding?" Thor demanded.

Black frowned, crossing his legs. "No. I've been hiding in the Forest, mainly. No one who values their own life goes in there unarmed."

He grinned, as if that were a joke. Thor considered telling him about the last two years. It sounded too much a challenge, and he had never been able to resist those.

But, Harry needed him. He shook his head, and refocused, with great difficulty.

"I suppose, to make sense of my actions, I'll have to tell you a bit of a long story—how we all got here," Black mused. "But, I have trouble remembering it all…the dementors took some of it from me. Remus would remember more, but I can hardly ask him to join us here. He thinks I'm a traitor."

"And I am not convinced of your innocence," Thor said. "Tell me what happened, to your mind. Prove your innocence. I have said that I would hear you out. I am a man of my word."

Black's eyebrows rose, again, but in the backs of his eyes flickered a strange, keen, intelligence, as if he noticed something amiss that he couldn't quite put a name to. But then, he just laughed, throwing his head back.

"How eloquent! You speak better than most kids your age," was all he said. "Well, I think it might make things a bit less tense if we introduced ourselves. You already know who I am: Sirius Black, infamous alleged mass-murderer, and escapee of Azkaban. But, who are you, and how do you know Harry?"

Thor would have said that this was his place to ask questions, but for the strange, wistful tone that crept into Black's deliberately light voice toward the end of his question. It couldn't hurt to answer.

"My name is Ronald Weasley," he said, and Black nodded. "Harry is my adopted younger brother."

It was very, very strange, that something he said could be both completely true, and completely false, at the same time. The stuff of madness.

Black's eyebrows rose, again. "…I see," he said, and then fell silent, looking down, but raising his eyes, and turning his head, to keep Thor in sight. "I suppose you want my story. I'll save the best of it for later, and tell you what you need to know. I'm sure I'll be telling the story twice, after all. Harry deserves to know, too. I never thought I'd have the chance to speak with him…not after all he's heard of me. I thought he'd kill me if we ever met face-to-face, and not give me a chance to explain, and I had to live, at least long enough to get rid of the traitor endangering his life."

He spat the last phrase, as if it left an acrid taste in his mouth, which was twisted into a snarl, an expression that looked even more grotesque on his almost skeletal face. Anyone else would likely have been terrified.

Black leant back, folding his arms over his head, the picture of calm and relaxed, but there was something—an underlying tension in his posture—that told Thor that Black was ready to move at a moment's notice, unarmed though he was.

"Well, I suppose I'll start at the beginning, just to give you an idea. You're from a pureblood family, so you'll probably have heard of mine. Slytherin dark wizards, the lot of them—believed all that nonsense Voldemort spewed about pureblood supremacy, all of it. They raised my brother and me to be the perfect, muggle-hating heirs.

"Only, I didn't buy it. When I came to Hogwarts, I got sorted into gryffindor, and my mother…didn't take it well. But, I didn't care, because, for the first time in my life, I had friends. True friends, who believed the same things I did, and who stood by me, no matter what—barring a time or two when I did something exceptionally stupid. I've always had my moments of stupidity. Most smart people do—their intelligence just means they're less likely to see the flaws in their own plans. I fell prey to that, too.

"My friends and I, we decided to become animagi—you know what that is? Yeah, I thought so. McGonagall's a cat. Anyway, it's damn hard to do, you know—thrice hard for the underage, and the Ministry keeps a close eye on those making an attempt, and forbids it to anyone underage. My dear old mum wasn't about to give me permission, and my dad was almost as bad as her."

He rolled his eyes, as if exasperated, but Thor could still hear the bitter hatred in his voice. It was a creeping, familiar sensation, listening to Black. It put him in mind of a few exchanges he'd had during the Chitauri Invasion—only he couldn't help thinking Black seemed rather justified in his bitter ire. Something, perhaps that familiar wary carelessness so familiar from Harry, suggested that Black was glossing over the worst of his parents' actions—and why should he not?—and that the truth was a harsher, more violent matter.

"It took us years to figure it out. But, in the end, we managed it—well, most of us. Even Peter Pettigrew," he spat the name, his face twisting into that snarl again, and the arms at last unfolded behind his back, as he leant forwards. "My best friend, James, could turn into a stag. But Peter Pettigrew—" he leant forwards, to whisper the next words, "—is a rat."

He leant back again, folding his arms behind his head, as if that were all he were going to say. One eye cracked slightly open, watching Thor, ready to move. It took a moment for the implication to sink in.

"Do you mean to tell me—?" Thor began, but apparently Black had just wanted him to start to speak so that he could interrupt.

"I'm saying that your pet rat is my ex-friend. The traitor, Peter Pettigrew."

"But, how would you be aware of the existence of Scabbers at all?" he asked. If Black hadn't happened to finally regain the strength to break out of Azkaban to murder Harry, then why had he come to Hogwarts? How could he hope to find a rat, even assuming it remained on the island of Britain?

Black gave a careless shrug. "Minister Fudge gave me a newspaper a few weeks before I escaped. It told me all that I needed to know."

And he reached into the pocket of his tattered robes, withdrawing the article in the Daily Prophet announcing the winner of the five-hundred galleon draw. There was a strange disconnect, seeing himself in the photo, before they'd gone to Egypt. But there was Scabbers.

"Lost a toe, see?" asked Black, tapping at the relevant paw to catch Thor's attention. "Cut it off himself. I tracked him down to some alley in a muggle neighbourhood. I underestimated him—he was always the slowest among us, physically and intellectually, but this time, he'd outplanned me, and he was quicker on the draw. Drew his wand, blasted the streets to bits, killed a bunch of people, and then, in the chaos, cut off his own finger, and fled into the sewers with the other rats. He'd framed me nice and good."

Another, sharp, bitter bark of a laugh. Thor had heard the like before. It was the laugh of a man facing the weight of the world, the world turned against him, with nothing left to lose, adrift and friendless. The man on the brink. He'd had to pull Harry back from that more times than he cared to recall.

The corner of one side of Black's mouth tried to draw up into a grim smile, but it failed. "And that's all the proof I can show you without Peter here. Are you convinced enough, yet? Shall we go get him?"

This time, a slight, mocking smile, full of bitter knowledge and regret. But, Harry was the one who could judge people's sincerity. He needed Harry, to properly evaluate Black's tale. Surely, two against one, with Black unarmed—if Thor thought he could face Black alone, he'd be doubly ready, with Harry as backup. Or perhaps, he was just thinking again of the old days.

"Yes," he said. "Stay here, and I will bring him to this room—him and Harry. I am confident that Harry will hear you out. Wait for me here."

"I don't have much choice, do I?" asked Black. "You know how to get into the room." Then, his gaze seemed to soften. Something new—perhaps a nascent gratitude, or concern—shone in his eyes. "Be careful. Make sure that Peter has no idea what he's walking into. He will do whatever it takes to flee. Keep your guard up."

Thor reminded himself that Black had no idea whom he was speaking to, and just how unnecessary such a warning was.


Chapter Text

Harry was never so tired that you could get close enough for an attack. The moment his bed curtains began to slide aside, he was beginning to sit up, his eyes snapping open with alarming speed. He was reaching for the wand he kept in a protective case under his pillow when he realised just who had disturbed his rest, and relaxed, swinging his legs over the side of the bed, and stretching, as if nothing had happened.

"You do realise that it's the middle of the night, right?" he asked, cocking his head, already wide-awake and scrutinising the scene. He kept his voice down, out of courtesy to those still sleeping.

"I believe that you might consider this more important than sleep," Thor began, with greater confidence than he felt. But Harry had said that he believed Black to be innocent—and he might well be right. On that note, "Sirius Black infiltrated the Tower. He wishes to speak with you."

Whatever Harry had been expecting, this must not have even occurred to him. He blinked, twice, and then glanced around the Tower. "Ah, I see. That's how he eluded the dementors. He learnt how to turn invisible."

There was that same, careful levity to his sarcastic tone, that Thor had just heard from Black. He frowned, concerned. Had he misunderstood?

"Ah…no," he said, deciding that it was probably best to answer the unspoken question rather than to try to decipher the inner workings of his brother's mind. Attempts had never availed him, before. "There is a secret room on the seventh floor. I told him that I would return with you and Scabbers."

This statement, as Thor well knew, was very odd, taken out of context. But Harry just paused, and said, "I see."

He pulled a folded up piece of parchment out of his pocket, reached under his pillow for his wand, and tapped it, muttering, "I solemnly swear that I am up to no good. If you took the time to put on proper clothes, then you can afford me the same dignity," he continued, as the Marauder's Map began to fill with inky lines. His tone was much the same, disinterested drawl, only louder, as when he had addressed the Map. Before Thor could think of what was happening, the curtains had closed back around Harry's bed.

A few moments later, the curtains drew aside, again, as Harry reached into his other pocket to withdraw the invisibility cloak.

"I think there's room for the three of us," he said, with a small smile. "Even if you mean to keep Scabbers in his cage."

That last statement was almost a question, especially with Harry's head cocked at an inquisitive angle. Well, do you? it silently asked.

"That seems a worthy decision to me," Thor said.

Indeed, he was planning to keep Scabbers in that cage for good reason: Harry had been quite thorough when accounting for likely problems, back when they had first bought the cage. He'd wanted one that could withstand even whatever latent magic Scabbers might have—and thus, it couldn't be locked or unlocked save for with the key—not even from within. At the time, this was just to ensure that Scabbers could not simply magic himself into unwitting danger. Now, however, it served a better purpose.

Harry raised an eyebrow as if he wished to ask why Ron Weasley had now decided that the pet whose freedom he had so often advocated needed now to be kept under lock and key, and perhaps what relevance he had to the situation at all, but his only other action was to spread the invisibility cloak around the two of them, and to lead the way back down the stairs.

"I suppose Hermione will miss this entirely. Even if I had figured out a way to enter the girls dormitory, I think she needs her sleep."

This was not a pointed comment about Thor interrupting Harry's much-needed sleep, but such comparisons were inevitable.

Despite a decreased need for caution, now the invisibility cloak was hiding them from sight, they nevertheless made their way, in an infuriatingly silent, careful manner, through the empty halls of Hogwarts.

They were halfway to the seventh floor room before Thor realised that Harry was still leading.

"Harry—" he began, only for Harry to silence him with that familiar reproving expression. It was very difficult to keep talking with that expression leveled at him, and he sighed, hoping that, somehow, Harry knew precisely what he was doing.

Harry lifted up the Marauder's Map, staring back and forth between it, and the blank stretch of wall. The room surrounded by thick black lines had to be here, somewhere. Behind the tapestry of the unfortunate wizard who tried to teach trolls ballet seemed an improbable choice—it was set too high in the wall for someone to climb into it, thus. And something about how thick those lines were…it gave Harry the suspicion (justified or not) that the room was capable of changing its size. Truly, one of Hogwarts's greater mysteries. And Ron had found out about it before he had!

Ron, who at last understood the difficulty.

"All you need do is walk this stretch of floor three times, thinking as you do of what you require. As I have seen the room, perhaps you would allow me."

The corridor was empty. Harry glanced back and forth along it—but it was quite far out of the way—and then lifted up the invisibility cloak, pulling it off all three of them.

Ron, after a moment's pause, handed over Scabbers's cage, which perhaps made sense—who knew what thoughts might run through the mind of a rat as to what it required? Harry watched with narrowed eyes as Ron, to all appearances, just paced back and forth before a blank stretch of wall.

Then, he stared, momentarily stunned, as an ordinary-looking wooden door materialised there. His seventh sense hummed, trying to catch his attention. He ignored it.

And how much faith will I place in my dreams? Harry asked himself. Ought I to believe that Sirius Black is innocent—or has he cursed Ron?

He had read, some, about curses that confused or manipulated the memories of their victim. It was a possibility, but slight, to Harry's mind. And he'd known, one way or another, that the ordeal—the annual threat—would inevitably force him to confront Sirius Black.

Ron retrieved Scabbers's cage, first, and then opened the door, pausing to glance back at Harry, still standing there. Harry shook his head roughly, as Ron held open the door, that he might enter first. He had to remind himself that he trusted Ron. Ron would not send him into certain danger.

Across the room, a figure in tattered black robes leapt to his feet, crying, "Harry!" in a voice filled with desperation, and something else, something Harry couldn't identify. Harry drew the holly-and-phoenix-feather wand, in an instant, and was pointing right between the man's eyes. Despite some inner turmoil, his aim was level and steady.

He stepped forward to allow Ron to enter, barely aware that he had, as he stared, unblinking as if the man were a hippogriff, at Sirius Black.

"You are going to answer my questions," Harry announced, "and you are going to answer them honestly."

Black glanced over to behind Harry, at Ron. "I thought you said that he thought that I was innocent?" he asked, voice high-pitched in incredulity. It broke, in the middle.

It took all of Harry's self-control not to whirl around to face Ron, at this. "You told him that?" he demanded, hand beginning to shake. He frowned at the offending appendage, and concentrated on stilling his hand.

"I thought that you did," said Ron, clearly at a loss as to what was going on. "Have I said something wrong?"

The worst thing was that he knew it was utterly unjust of him to fault Ron for this, and, while he was no hufflepuff, he liked to think he at least dealt reliably with his friends. He sighed, instead of answering.

"Never mind that, Ron," he said, continuing to move forwards, towards Black.

"Will you answer my questions?" he asked Black, wand clenched tight, but aim steady. "Or must I assume that you are, in fact, guilty?"

"Fire away," Black said, his voice a hoarse croak, as he fell back onto the sofa behind him. "Just not literally, please. I have no weapon with which to defend myself, you know. You might go easy on me."

With a thrill of foreboding, Harry realised that he couldn't tell whether or not Black was telling the truth. It would come down to the evidence.

"Please, sit down," Black said, as if welcoming them to his house. He spread his hands in welcome, and gestured to the seats situated around a coffee table, reminding Harry of Mother's living room, despite himself. Black seemed unaware of the weapon trained on him. Harry and Ron slowly sat down on the sofa, Harry never taking his eyes off of Black.

"I see that you brought the rat," Black continued, glancing at Ron. "That will make things much easier. Thank you." The corners of his mouth stretched into what was almost a smile.

Harry couldn't help casting a puzzled glance at Ron, but it was gone before he returned his gaze back to Black. Ron set the cage on the table, and as Black's gaze flicked to it, he drew his own wand, pointing it at Black.

"Relax. I'm not going to hurt either of you," Black said, crossing his arms with a huff. Then he smirked. "I think the door has been there long enough."

Harry whirled around in time to see the door through which he'd entered dematerialise. Instantly, he was alert and wary once more, head whipping back around to face Black.

"You—" he began, and Black waved one arm in a careless, dismissive gesture.

"Just to make sure no one interrupts," he said. "And to prevent certain animals from escaping."

His glance at the cage before him was sufficient explanation as to whom he meant by "animals". Black leant forward, peering intently through the bars of the cage, but Harry barely noticed, feeling trapped, in a room with his best friend, sure, but also a man whose intentions remained unknown.

"I'm unarmed, you know," Black said, glancing up at him. "There's no need to threaten me."

"I will be the judge of that," Harry snapped, in return. "Where is the door?"

Black cocked his head, considering that question, and shrugged. "I dunno. I guess wherever anything that's part of this room goes whenever it isn't required. This is the 'Room of Requirement', after all. But, if it bothers you, just think about it, and it'll appear. You're not trapped here."

"Then neither is Scabbers," Harry pointed out, waving his left hand at the rat, who was squeaking madly, pushing against the bars of the cage. Black sighed.

"Only those who summoned the room can summon the door. He didn't have any part in summoning it, so—"

"Neither did I!" Harry snapped. He was half-inclined to say, "I'm leaving, and coming back through the door, myself!", but that felt a bit…silly. Ron had called the door this time. He trusted Ron. He trusted Ron.

Didn't he? Of course, he did.

"Oh," Black said. "Well, your friend has control of it, then. I suppose that makes sense. It doesn't matter, though, because the only one who's going to try to leave this room in a hurry is…what did you call him? Scabbers. You can go ahead and keep that wand leveled at me, but your arm might get a bit tired."

Harry glanced at Ron, and then at Scabbers, and finally at Black. How much did he trust his dreams? he asked himself, for what he did not realise was the last time.

Well, when he thought about it, they'd been his sole reason for believing Snape's innocence, in first year, and that had turned out to be true. He slowly lowered the wand, but kept it in his hand, ready to move at a moment's notice. He felt Ron's gaze land on him, and saw the other wand lower, out of the corner of his eye.

"What do you want with Scabbers?" asked Harry, subdued, feeling rather silly and childish. And if Sirius Black weren't the bad guy, and cared about him…had he ruined it? He thought he had overreacted, but a room without a door was a prison, and prisons naturally sent his mind scattering into dangerous depths. "Why bring us all here? Did you betray my parents, or are you innocent?"

He gave voice to his disconnected thoughts with a weary apathy. There was no threat to sharpen his mind, to make import of what he thought and did. His mind still wasn't fully recovered—or that was his excuse. He didn't know, anymore.

"Well," said Black, gaze still fixed on the cage, "the answers to those questions all lie in a rather long true story. I brought you here to explain…in the hopes that I might earn your forgiveness. I didn't sell your mum and dad to Voldemort…but it's my fault that they died."

He bowed his head, closed his eyes, and the skin of his sunken face seemed to draw tight. Harry relaxed, slightly, hearing Black utter the name "Voldemort". Only Lupin and Dumbledore did that, as far as he knew. It was an act of defiance, of disrespect. It gave him some assurance, a measure of trust, in Black.

"How do you mean?" asked Harry, considering raising the wand again, after that confession. He felt torn.

"I as good as betrayed them…I convinced them to change Secret Keepers at the last second. I thought I was so smart—everyone always told me I was. I suppose that's just the peril of being considered smart—you're more likely to do incredibly stupid things, because you're so used to being right that you don't notice the flaws in your plans as well. I thought it was the perfect plan—a ruse! Voldemort was sure to go after me, would never dream they'd use a weak, talentless thing like—

"But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me start from the beginning. When I first came to Hogwarts, I was sorted into gryffindor, and made three good friends: James, your father; Remus, your teacher; and…Peter Pettigrew. To help Remus deal with…his ailment—"

"I know Professor Lupin's big secret," Harry interrupted, with a shrug. Black glanced over at him again, finally, considering his words.

"How? How did you figure it out?" asked Black, seeming puzzled. "You're not as close to him as we were, and it took us a while—"

Harry shrugged again, as if it were no big deal. "Professor Snape assigned us an essay on how to recognise and kill werewolves. He treated Lupin with such vitriol that it didn't even take studying a lunar chart to note the regularity of his absences. And then, his boggart…." He shrugged, for a third time.

"Wait. Professor Lupin is a werewolf?" asked Ron, in a rather unreadable tone. Harry gave him time to digest the news, and didn't look at him. Black didn't seem to have heard, which was impossible; Ron had made no special effort to be quiet, and he was naturally rather loud.

"You're a very bright child, aren't you? Like your father," a fond, reminiscent smile crept across his face, softening the gaunt, haggard features. "Surely, quicker on the uptake than other kids your age."

Harry looked at the floor, but he didn't even notice what colour it was. "I've been told I'm precocious," he agreed, and then started, as he realised that it wasn't he who had been told that. Was he humouring his intuition too much?

Unaware of his inner turmoil, Black dragged the topic back to relevant matters.

"Very well, then. To help Remus with his lycanthropy, the remaining three of us decided to become animagi. By the end of our fifth year, we managed it. Your dad could turn into a stag; I could turn into a dog; and Peter could turn into a rat."

Harry's gaze shot up at the mention of the stag, eyes wide. Oh. Oh. Oh. Then, that was the reason for Lupin's reaction to his patronus. He almost missed the casual mention of Black's animagus form in the middle, but then the pieces fell into place for him. The dog in the stands at the quidditch match. The dog walking the grounds of Hogwarts after hours, with Crookshanks. Crookshanks, who must have let him into the Tower. He didn't know that animals could do that, but then…Ron had a point. Crookshanks was…unique.

And then his mind hit on the last phrase: Pettigrew was a rat. He followed Black's gaze as it returned to Scabbers, squeaking madly in the cage.

"You can't mean to tell me that—"

"The biggest piece of Pettigrew that they found, it's said, was his finger. But in truth, that was the only piece of Pettigrew they found—that, and his undamaged robes. He shouted to the whole street that I'd betrayed your parents, cut off his finger, blasted apart everyone near enough to see the truth, and turned himself into his animagus form.

"He escaped, and then sought for a wizarding family—ideally purebloods, the only sort the Death Eaters respect—to keep an ear out for news of Voldemort's front gaining strength again. He was always a coward. He wasn't about to risk people finding out he wasn't dead until he had his master's protection again. After all—if he'd lived, what else might they have gotten wrong about that night?"

Black threw back his head and laughed, long and loud. It was not a happy sound, and it had Scabbers running in circles in his cage.

"There's a spell to turn an animagus back into his human form, you know. But it won't work in that cage, or I'm sure he'd have tried it by now. He doesn't want to be anywhere near me. He knows that I'm going to kill him, for what he did."

The only person Harry had ever heard speak that casually of murder was him, himself.

Black's gaze shot to Harry's, again. "Your mum and dad were my best friends in the world. And Remus…I should have trusted Remus, but rumours of a traitor were running rampant through the Order—that's Dumbledore's top-secret group who fought Voldemort during the war. He'd been acting…different. Withdrawn, I suppose. When I look back on it, life can't have been easy for him, during the war. Dumbledore must have chosen him for some very difficult missions, and of course he couldn't talk about them. I regret it, now."

He folded his arms, rubbing his elbows through the tattered sleeves of his robes, as if to ward off a chill.

"They sent me to Azkaban. Straight to Azkaban. Dumbledore himself gave testimony that I was your parents' Secret Keeper, so they felt there was no need for a trial."

A bitter grin crept across his face. "I felt that I deserved it. All of it, right down to Pettigrew outwitting me—Pettigrew, the slowest of us, physically and intellectually, the last to grasp a difficult concept, outdrawing, and outwitting, me! It was hilarious, in a completely unfunny way. I went quietly, trusting in the Ministry to see justice carried out. Trusting in Dumbledore. I shouldn't have. Because of that trust, you were put in danger. Pettigrew was left unchecked. Only I knew that he was still alive. Only I could recognise him by his missing toe when I saw him in the paper. Remus didn't know. He came here, to Hogwarts, thinking that he would need to protect you from me."

He turned away from the cage again, to look Harry in the eyes. Harry found that he couldn't look away. "Believe me, Harry. I didn't betray your parents. I would have rather died than betray them."

As ambient white noise, there was the frantic squealing of Scabbers in the cage. Black was one of those rare people whose truths and lies he couldn't read. But he could see the picture painted for him, how everything connected. It made more sense than the picture he'd had before. His hand relaxed on the wand, and he slipped it into the holster he kept in his sleeve.

"I believe you," he said, gaze landing on the cage. "But how did you escape from Azkaban? The dementors should have driven you mad in months; Professor Lupin said so."

Sirius shot him a bitter, crooked smile, that reminded Harry, with the force of a blow, of himself. He remembered that Lupin had drawn similarities between the two, all but told Harry that he thought them very similar, similar enough for confusion. But Sirius's matted, elbow-length tangle of black hair and his starved, sunken face made it difficult to even see him as human. He looked something out of a nightmare, all haunted and hollow and pale.

"I think the only reason I didn't go mad is that I knew that I was innocent. The knowledge…it wasn't a positive thing, like happiness, that dementors could suck out of me—it isn't a happy thought, to be innocent of your charges, and have everyone believe that you committed those crimes. But it was a thought that grounded me, kept me sane and knowing who I was. It became something almost of a mantra—I don't know if you've heard of those."

A chill stole up Harry's spine. He felt the weight of Ron's gaze, and turned to face him, and then had to turn away, before he could see just what Ron's reaction was. This was getting creepy.

"I—I've heard of them," Harry managed. He had to admit that he was shaken. Sirius's face softened into a look of concern.

"Are you alright, Harry? Dementors seem to affect you badly, too; I shouldn't have—"

"I asked," Harry said, emphatic. "Please, continue."

He closed his eyes, breathing slowly in and out, trying to calm his suddenly racing heart. The only way

Shut up! he told that corrupted corner of his mind. Ron was here, and Sirius…he could become an ally, an anchor. If Harry could trust him.

He broke out of prison. He broke into Hogwarts. He did two things considered impossible—just to protect me.

Sirius looked at him, as if unsure whether or not to continue, and then he sighed.

"It wasn't a happy thought, but it grounded me. Kept me sane and knowing who I was, so that when it all became…too much—" he swallowed, looking away, running a hand through his hair and then rubbing at his forehead. "—I could transform. The dementors can't see anything, you know. They rely on some sort of sixth sense to know where people are. They can sense emotions, but they could tell that my emotions were less human…different…when I was a dog, but of course, they thought I was losing my mind, same as everyone else. But when I saw that article in the Daily Prophet that Fudge gave me—the one with the picture of your friend, and his pet—" the last word spat, naturally, "—I knew I had to do something. I was the only one who knew that he was still alive….

"I starved myself until I could fit through the bars, and swam as a dog back to the mainland. I couldn't resist checking up on you before I left for Hogwarts, although I think the sight of me might have alarmed you, somewhat."

A crooked smile. Harry gave him a small smile in return. "Perhaps a bit."

"And then I came to Hogwarts. I snuck onto the grounds as a dog, and have been hiding in the Forest ever since…although I did come onto the grounds once or twice, to make an attempt to break into Gryffindor Tower, and…and to watch you play quidditch. You're as amazing a flier as your father, Harry."

His voice was thin and crumbling with suppressed emotion. Tears glittered in his eyes.

"I'm so sorry. I convinced your parents to use Pettigrew as Secret Keeper instead of me. It never occurred to me that someone with so little to offer would join Voldemort. I thought I was being clever. And because of my foolishness—"

"We all make mistakes," Harry said, glancing back down at the cage.

"I came here to kill him. Now that you know the truth, it shouldn't be that hard. If I could just borrow one of your wands—"

"No," said Harry, in his firmest, flattest, most no-nonsense voice. "Absolutely not."

Black blinked, staring at him as if he couldn't believe what he'd heard. As if stricken.

"But Harry, this piece of filth is the reason your family died."

"I know," Harry said, still so calm he rather frightened himself. "But death is nothing but the next great adventure. He doesn't deserve such… mercy." Somehow, he forced out the dread word. "Personally, I'd rather see him suffer. And there's no way to clear your name if yet another dead rat disappears from the Hogwarts grounds. But if we speak with Dumbledore on your behalf, and hand Pettigrew over to the dementors…."

"I could be free," whispered Black, eyes widening, as hopes he'd forgotten could exist rekindled in his heart. Dreams he'd thought lost beyond recall.

"And then, perhaps…if you wouldn't mind…you could tell me what you knew. About my parents."

Sirius's face tried to decide whether to smile or twist into an expression of purest sorrow and grief. The result was rather more grotesque than usual.

"I-I know it's early, and you barely know me, but…I just had the thought—if you wanted to, you could come live with me!"

Harry bowed his head, and looked away. "…I want to, but I can't. But that's a story for later, and we have to deal with the now. Stay here. Ron and I will alert Dumbledore. He'll listen to you. I'll see to it."

"Harry—" Sirius began, but Harry silenced him with a look.

"But first—"

Before Harry could finish his sentence, there was a flash of light, and the cage containing Scabbers disintegrated. Sirius Black had no weapons, but he reached into the wreckage, anyway, to grab hold of the rat. Before he could reach him, the form buckled and distorted, expanding rapidly, until a man stood in the place of the rat.

He hadn't been able to unlock the cage, or to transform while it was intact, but he had been able to destroy the cage. And his first act was to lunge for Ron.

It appeared that they'd be having their end-of-year brawl a bit early.

Chapter Text

Ron was quicker than Pettigrew, despite his shock. He was on his feet, and reaching to restrain Pettigrew, before the man could realise. Harry glanced at the familiar shape, the same he'd seen when he glanced at the Foe-Glass before leaving Gryffindor Tower. This was most assuredly the enemy, and most assuredly Peter Pettigrew. The last vestiges of his doubts in Sirius vanished. He hadn't realised that they were there.

"Stand still, and we will go easy on you," he said, trying to keep raw fury out of his voice. He understood Sirius's desire to kill the man. It was flooding him, now, too. "You dared to betray my parents to Riddle? My dad, who was one of your closest friends, and my mother, the greatest woman to have ever lived? Do you know what I hear when dementors get too close to me? I hear You-Know-Who murdering my parents! And you—you caused that! Explain yourself! At least, tell me why!"

He had no memory of drawing his wand, but his grip on the polished wood was so tight that his knuckles had turned white and numb.

"Well?" he asked, into a ringing silence. "Did you at least have a good reason?"

Pettigrew looked around the room, as if seeking for sanctuary. If you should encounter a wizard by the name of Peter Pettigrew…give no quarter.

He remembered his mother's words. He would heed them. She was right about Sirius's innocence, and Pettigrew's guilt. And Sirius had, despite his keen intelligence, been tricked. Harry would learn from his mistakes. He kept a level aim at Pettigrew's head, so that the man did not dare to move.

"I know a hundred spells that could kill you, now that you are human again. You should not have transformed—you gave away your best defence."

Pettigrew swallowed audibly.

"You sold Lily and James to Voldemort," said Sirius, white and shaking as the night Hagrid had comforted him. The night his entire world had come crashing down, had burnt to ashes and rubble. "Do you deny it?"

Pettigrew was shaking violently. "I—I didn't mean to—! I was never brave, like you and Remus and James! He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named forced me to—"

True that he was never brave. False that Voldemort had forced him.

"Don't lie!" Sirius snarled, eyes glinting with flinty hardness. "You were the traitor—the spy who was passing information to him for a year, at least, before Lily and James died."

"You can't force someone to reveal a secret kept with the Fidelius Charm. You would have had to tell him of your own free will." Braver men than Pettigrew would have quailed at the steel in Harry's voice.

"He was taking over everywhere! What was there to be gained by resisting him? I didn't know what to do! He would have killed me, Sirius!"


"Then, you should have died! Died rather than betray your friends—as any of us would have done for you!" said Sirius, his voice suddenly so loud and so powerful that Harry wouldn't have been surprised if Dumbledore heard it, at the top of his tower. He was shaking with rage.

Pettigrew cowered, and took a step back. Sparks shot from Harry's wand—bright white ones, the byproduct of Harry's lack of control. He tried to force himself to think through this rationally, and remembered Ron, who had drawn his wand, pointing it at Pettigrew, with mounting fury of his own.

That never ended well.

Pettigrew opened his mouth to speak, and Harry shot him a glare.

"That sounds a confession to me," he said, forcing levity into his voice. He didn't know how to handle this situation at all. He couldn't afford to lose his temper, and could even less afford for Ron to lose his. "If I were you, I would shut my mouth, and do as I was told without protest. If your greatest fear is for your own life, that is. Look around you. Do you have any allies who would keep us from killing you? No. You've told me all I needed to know."

"This was easier when he was still in that cage—I should have thought, should've realised that he'd destroy it when he knew his fate was sealed. Now, how are we going to bring him in?"

"I have a map that we could use to sneak through the castle without being detected," he offered, and Sirius turned to him, giving Harry his full attention, again.

"A—a map?" Sirius asked, his tone unreadable. "It couldn't possibly be…" he murmured. Harry noticed that Pettigrew, too, had gone completely still, expression somehow distant, as if straining to hear something only he could hear.

Harry, unsure as to just what was going on, nevertheless pulled the Marauder's Map back out of his pocket, and Black's eyes flickered to the folded-up map.

"It is…that—that's the Marauder's Map!" he cried. A gleam in his eye—not a hard edge, but something like excitement—shone in them. "Ha! It figures it would come to you!"

Harry glanced at Ron, who looked to be thinking troubled thoughts. The anger that had filled him seconds before seemed to have gone without a trace.

Harry turned back to Sirius Black. "I think I may be missing something, here. You know of the Marauder's Map?"

"'Know of it'?" Sirius crowed. "I helped write it. It was a group effort, although Wormtail here didn't add that much." He kicked out at the dazed Peter Pettigrew, who stumbled and fell.

"See, now, Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs—those were our nicknames in our school days. We wrought havoc in this school—official spreaders of pranks and mayhem…those were the days…. Some people even called us the Marauders."

Vikings were marauders. Pranksters, not so much. But Harry didn't say that aloud. It was just another not-quite-innocuous oddity to this entire, twisted affair.

"Pettigrew is Wormtail—then…Moony must be Professor Lupin, on account of his lycanthropy—"

Sirius Black snickered, reminiscent nostalgia putting him in a much better mood, and nodded, muttering something that might have been, "Professor Lupin…who'd have thought?" Louder, he added. "And your dad was Prongs."

He sobered up instantaneously, and, with a little shrug, tacked on, "And I guess you can figure out Padfoot by process of elimination."

Harry clutched the Map tighter. Suddenly, the gift became much more significant, knowing that his Dad had touched it, that this had once been one of his own personal projects. A piece of him seemed to remain behind, imprinted into it—in a rather different way from Riddle's horcrux, last year.

Pettigrew stood, on shaky feet, and everyone returned their attention to the most relevant task at hand—how to bring Pettigrew to Dumbledore without him escaping—they had a way to ensure that no one hindered their quest—and he knew that Snape, for one, was sure to do just that, regardless of justice.

But, how were they to ensure that he didn't escape? Ensure it, where close quarters and a lack of door no longer served as sufficient barricades? A stunner would never last long enough, and would make Pettigrew dead weight. But, he was a coward. Unless he saw an opportunity for flight, he would come on his own...

Sirius Black was scratching his head through his thick mess of hair. Harry frowned, trying to think of what made sense. There must be some method that dark wizard catchers used that—

"I have a way," said Ron, in a level voice. There was an omen, a portent, in the way his head bowed. He looked…ashamed? Guilty? As if he had been caught, doing something he should not be doing (and it had always been Harry to expose him to such situations before). If Ron had a means, wasn't that a good thing?

Ron said nothing more. Harry realised he was waiting for a reply, and that Sirius, the outsider in all this, was waiting to see what Harry said. It wasn't as if Sirius had any personal connection to Ron—they'd met only earlier tonight….

"If it works, then what are you waiting for?" Harry asked, cocking his head inquisitively. He didn't understand Ron, sometimes. Ron glanced at him, again, and this time, seemed unable to look away, still facing Harry even as he bowed his head, and closed his eyes. Something shimmered into existence in his hands, and Harry's world ground to a halt.

He kept thinking that he could handle anything, but he couldn't. Probably, only luck had saved him last year, in the Chamber of Secrets, and this year at the Quidditch Match of Doom. He was physically and mentally exhausted, and emotionally a complete wreck, anyway. But he'd never imagined….

There was a roaring, rushing noise filling his ears, the sort of sound that accompanies being buffeted by a strong wind. His heart was racing. He ceased to notice anything that was going on—the world reduced itself to just him, and Ron, and those handcuffs. He'd seen those things before, somewhere. He was sure of it. But where? And how had they appeared in Ron's hands?

Ron's expression was nothing if not apologetic, but, after a moment, his gaze turned to Pettigrew. It was a good thing someone was paying attention, because Harry had gone numb. He couldn't have moved if he tried.

Where had he seen those, before? He was faintly aware of someone calling his name, but he was beyond turning to see who it might be. He couldn't handle this, he realised. This was too much. This was impossible. This was—

Probably just a big misunderstanding. He took a deep breath, only then realising that he'd stopped breathing. He was faintly aware that he was shaking.

"You okay, Harry?" asked a voice, hoarse and scratchy, and higher than usual with concern. He felt that he'd been turned to stone, but apparently he could move, because he managed to turn his head slightly, to see Sirius Black reaching out a hand, as Lupin had, as if he didn't quite dare to touch him.

"I'm fine," he said, automatically, his voice completely flat. Show no weakness!

"Harry?" asked Ron, just as concerned—if not more so, having had previous experience with Harry, when Harry wasn't in his right mind.

Harry managed to drag his feet over to the place where the door should have been, trying to think of what to do.

"Let's just go."

The handcuffs were secure on Pettigrew's wrists. Ron took a step back, studying his work.

"What are those?" asked Sirius. "Where did they come from?"

The most important question: Why is Harry reacting thus to them? went unasked.

Harry paused to listen. He wanted answers to those questions, too. But Ron only shook his head.

"All that you need know is that they prevent the use of any magic. He will be unable to cast any spells, even should he somehow acquire a wand, and he will be unable to transform."

The nagging sense of familiarity intensified tenfold. Harry tried to ignore it, he truly did, but it made an incessant rattling in his skull. He stepped backwards, to Sirius, without knowing what he was doing.

"Here," he said, holding out his wand. "If someone comes to arrest you—if anyone finds this place before we return—you have some measure of defence."

He pressed it into Sirius's hands, and closed his skeletal fingers gently over it. Then, he turned and strode through the doorway in front of Ron and Pettigrew. He didn't want to look at them. He didn't want to think. He didn't want to remember.

But when Ron exited the room, and the door vanished, he found himself asking,

"Well, where did you get those?" with great vehemence, a striking contrast to the emptiness within. "Will you tell me?"

Ron hesitated. It was one thing to deny a stranger, and another to refuse to answer Harry. He took shameless advantage of this fact. He needed answers. It was the only way to silence that incessant voice that kept trying to make something of all of this.

"My father gave them to me," Ron said, turning away from Harry. Harry's eyes narrowed. That was highly suspicious, but not false. His heart, for reasons unknown to, or unrecognised by, him, skipped a beat.

"'Your father'?" he repeated. "Your dad works in the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts Office. Is that what this is? An enchanted muggle item?"

"No." Ah. Now he'd hit the point of monosyllabic answers. Ron set off at a rapid pace, as if to cut him off. Harry ran to catch up, hands clutching the Map, but not looking at it.

Ron gave a haggard sigh, and turned to Pettigrew, who was listening, of course, but Harry didn't care. He winced. Not now! he snapped at the corrupted corner of his mind, as if that had ever stopped it. He thought he heard it laugh at him, in response, and stumbled. No. That was just fatigue, and the overwhelming sequence of events that was the last twenty-four hours.

"Ron, please! Where did you get those?"

Ron paused, perhaps disturbed by Harry's sudden urgency, and turned to look at him, frowning. "Do you recognise them?" he asked, in a level voice that suggested that the question were much, much more important than it sounded.

Harry gave a helpless shrug. "They look familiar," he admitted, and Ron winced.

"My father gave them to me," he said, again, in response. "He believed that I might have need of them."

His father, noted some corner of Harry's mind, a corner that would not be silenced. It whispered louder in his ear: Have you ever heard Ron speak of Arthur Weasley as his "father"? Does that not sound closer to the way you speak of Mother?

Harry stumbled, and very nearly fell, but he caught himself against the handle of a door as they passed. Ron turned back to look at him, and then retraced his steps.

"Harry, what—?"

"Are you telling me that Arthur Weasley gave you a set of handcuffs to bring to school, in case they came in useful?" he demanded, grabbing hold of Ron's arm, to pull himself back up, or to drag Ron down—he didn't know which.

He was dimly aware of Pettigrew, looking from left to right, down the long expanse of hall, with so many locked doors, and none through which he might escape. The hall was too long for him to run. He was stuck as a witness to the unfolding drama. Harry hated him for being there, even if it was against his will.

Ron's shoulders slumped. He looked…defeated. Resigned. "No," he said.

But Harry knew that he had the ability to tell when Ron was lying, and this was not a lie, but neither was anything else that Ron had said. He struggled to find an explanation, any explanation, even as the part of his mind that he had once disavowed lurked, triumphant, in its corner.

The part he'd called Loki. The part that thought it had an older brother, with access to magic unknown in the human world. The part that was strong.

I can't handle this! he cried out to it, unsure when he'd come to trust that part's judgement so much.

Then, you cannot deny the truth any longer. How poetic, that the God of Lies should lie so well to himself…and for so long!

He didn't care what it said. He remembered the dream, the one with the Rainbow Bridge breaking all around, and how he'd detached himself, then. That was the only way to handle the here and now.

Are you sure? asked that part of his mind, into the turmoil of Harry's thoughts. It almost sounded…worried. Denial will no longer avail you. You must stand your ground.

Harry closed his eyes. Later, he begged. It was too much, for the moment. Tonight was too much.

And Ron spoke, continuing his thought; unaware of Harry's internal dialogue, he laid the groundwork for the conflict to come. "You recognise it," he mused. "Then, I will tell you…I should have told you before. I understand that, now. But please, Harry, wait a little longer, until Pettigrew is arrested, and Sirius is safe. I will tell you everything…tonight. If you can wait that long."

Loki shrugged, managing to find something of mental equilibrium. "You're right. This is a more immediate concern. I will wait."

He didn't need to be told. He already knew the answers.

The next few hours were a blur, nonetheless—he was well aware that he needed sleep as much as the next person. He knew that he was mortal. He knew that he had limits. He knew that today had, one way and another, taxed him to those limits. It helped to explain the blurry rush that seemed to comprise the next hour or so.

First, they'd had to find Dumbledore. Loki had wanted to bypass the security gargoyle altogether, but Ron decided to try a handful of wizarding sweets that sounded vaguely familiar, and Loki exercised the self-restraint not to open up his seventh sense and try to see if he could find a way to take the gargoyle apart. Or something less conspicuous.

After that, they'd realised that, it being the middle of the night, the headmaster was not in his office. Rather than be made a fool of, he'd turned to Fawkes, remembering his mysterious appearance into the Chamber of Secrets, last year.

"What do you think, Guy?" he'd asked. "Will you help us to find him?"

Fawkes had disappeared in a torrent of flame, and returned, in like wise, a few minutes later, with Dumbledore, who wore a bright purple dressing gown and grey slippers. The moment he saw the occupants of his office, his usual twinkling cheer was replaced by a tired gravity. That was, most likely, a good sign. It meant that he was taking this seriously.

Then, of course, they'd had to explain the events of that night, and convince Dumbledore of the truth. By the end of the tale, he looked as if he'd aged a hundred years or more. But, he believed them. He offered to watch over Pettigrew while the two of them retrieved Sirius Black. To accompany them, and to protect them, if need be, he called in, of all people, the obvious choice: Professor Lupin.

Watching Professor Lupin being summoned was an educational experience. Harry—and by now he'd adapted more or less well enough to just be Harry, again—had had no idea that you could summon through the floo network (presumably they had to be nearby), just by saying their name, and throwing some floo powder in the grate. Presumably, they weren't called away against their will, or Professor Lupin wouldn't have been wearing his shabby everyday robes. He presumably had pyjamas, or something, that he wore to bed.

Dumbledore then gave a brief explanation of current circumstances, and Professor Lupin glared at Pettigrew, and looked seconds away from banging his head into the headmaster's desk, covered though it was in sensitive instruments. His face had gone very pale, making the deep bags under his eyes stand out all the more.

"All this time, I thought that Bl—that Sirius betrayed Lily and James. How could Sirius ever forgive me for doubting him? For not trusting him? I should have known better. He always hated pureblood politics, and his family—"

"There is no other that I can trust to retrieve him from the secret room. I would certainly not presume to send Severus on such a sensitive mission, lest certain…biases lead him to act in ways I'm sure that he would later regret."

Professor Lupin visibly steeled himself for the coming confrontation, and then glanced around the room. He looked seconds away from asking whether Harry and Ron had to come with him, but then deflated, seeming to know the answer.

"It wasn't your fault, Professor," Harry said. "Pettigrew pulled the wool over everyone's eyes. Sirius has spent the past decade blaming himself for not trusting you. I think it would do you good, to have a bit of a chat with him."

For both he and Professor Lupin had both immediately recognised this mission for what it was. Harry suspected that he and Ron would send Professor Lupin into the Room of Requirement, and then, finally wander off to some out-of-the-way corner with the Marauder's Map, looking for somewhere where they could be sure not to be disturbed, and Harry would at last get answers.

That was pretty much exactly what happened. After a brief, tense exchange of words between Sirius Black and Remus Lupin, the two seemed to come to an understanding, with a teary Lupin drawing Sirius Black into a tight hug filled with guilty apologies. It was very long-lost-brothers-reunited, and put Harry in a precarious mood that had yet to decide on which end of the balance beam it should fall.


Chapter Text

It had taken a few minutes to find a corner of the castle that no one seemed to frequent. Dawn was a couple of hours away, now, and neither had any idea how long this would take. Harry was tired, every limb in his body seemed to weigh a ton, and it was almost impossible to keep his eyes open, but he knew that this could not be postponed. He would show his commitment to learning what was truly going on by bearing through it.

He ended up using the same unlocking spell Hermione had in first year (alohomora) on a locked door in the third floor Charms Corridor, because…why not? Though different, the setting put him in mind of many other things, stirring up memories of the night he'd spoken with Mother in the physical world, having pulled her from the Mirror of Desire, and of the night he'd faced off against Quirrell, fully awakening the side of his mind that…well, perhaps he truly couldn't shut out, anymore.

It had been different, before, when he could tell himself that it was just an irrational, deluded part of his mind that didn't know what it was talking about. But it had helped him to repair his soul when the dementors had rent him into a hundred pieces, and its advice was, while often questionable by standard morality, nevertheless insightful.

It had been different, before so much evidence had been given that what Mother said, was true. It had been different before Ron had spoken as if…as if….

As if what? He didn't like to think that he was running from anything (like Pettigrew) out of simple fear. But, what other explanation was there that fit everything he knew except that Ron was somehow a part of all of this, too? Perhaps one of the characters from his dreams. Perhaps the one he'd sought for the most fervently.

He refused to sit for the coming conversation. He probably should—there would almost certainly be a number of impossible revelations, if the rest of tonight was anything to go by—but he remembered what that not-so-distant corner of his mind had said: Stand your ground. Show no weakness.

And for some reason, he'd started listening to it; might as well see this through to whatever bitter end life had contrived for him, to make up for giving him so great a gift as his godfather (family) back.

"Ron," he said, to catch his attention. Ron, fidgety as ever despite the early hour, turned back to face him. "You said that you would explain—about those handcuffs. Where they came from."

He was too tired to beg, too tired to lie, too tired to fight. Maybe he'd fought the truth for a very long time. Perhaps, he'd known all along.

"It is a long story," Ron said. "One that I would do justice, if only I knew how. And difficult to know where to begin."

"Start at the very beginning," Harry said, thinking of The Sound of Music. Then, he frowned. That was a very ambiguous, vague request. And as Harry didn't know the story himself—

"I shall start at the end," Ron decided, in typical Ron fashion. "And I shall go back and explain more, after. The end will suffice: it is the most difficult to speak of."

Harry wasn't sitting, which apparently meant that Ron wouldn't allow himself such luxury either.

"It ends with death," Ron pronounced. "The death of too many whom I held dear. My mother died, and then my younger brother died, not even a day later. I had no experience with such grief, and thus I sought out the counsel of friends with no familiarity with those whom I mourned. My mother and my brother were dead, and I had brought death upon them—unintentional, yet nevertheless, it was my burden to bear. I once swore that I would protect him with my own life; instead, forsworn, I led him to his death. And though that was not a promise broken lightly—" he paused, and Harry suspected he was thinking of that first conflict with Malfoy, years ago, "—I nevertheless broke it, to great cost. And when I came home, finding that nothing took that sting away, the heartache, the pain, I turned to my father, who knew secrets I will never be able to understand, and begged him for any recourse, a way to undo what had been done."

"Begging doesn't suit you," Harry said. He had said it before—last year, he thought, and it was as true now as it was then. He couldn't imagine Ron begging, even though he had seen it himself. But there was something else strange, because what relevance did this have? Even the part of his mind that he'd shoved aside for so long couldn't see the way it all connected.

Ron managed a grimace, but refused to look at Harry. "He told me that I might be able to save them…but that I must go back in time, be born again, live a different life, as a different person. Give up everything I knew, and everything I loved. If I were willing to sacrifice everything, he said, I might succeed. I might be able to change what had happened, for it would then be the future, and not the past."

Ron officially sucked at explaining things, Harry decided, because this story was getting incredibly convoluted and hard to follow. And wait a second: go back in time? He'd heard of means to go back in time that had been studied, but the only even somewhat stable means was the use of time turners, closely regulated by the Ministry, and they still wouldn't be able to send you back years, or to enable you to be reborn…in another body….

Oh. The two puzzle pieces clicked together, and his stomach churned. He bit his tongue to keep from interrupting. He had nothing to say, anyway.

"I agreed," Ron said. "Perhaps I wished even to forget—to set aside that grief and shame, the remorse of what a foolish choice had cost. I agreed, and he used powerful magic to send me back in time…and I was reborn as Ronald Weasley. That was not my name before, but it is now. I am accustomed to it, now. For ten years, I knew no other name."

Harry closed his eyes. This sounded all too familiar, now. Ten years. And on the tenth year—that was when he had started having the dreams.

"When I turned ten years old, I remembered everything. That suffering and pain that for a decade I had been able to set aside, came rushing back. I remembered, and I understood, why I was here, in this world, and what I must do. I sought for my brother—my younger brother, who had died—and I found you. I knew you at once—how could I not?—but I kept my silence. Father told me that you would likely remember nothing. And while you remembered nothing, I had no desire to burden you with that pain. To protect you, I resolved to face what came, and to protect you on my own."

"Because I've had such an easy life," Harry said, with a sharp, bitter laugh. "Between Riddle and the Dursleys, it's a wonder I only died twice."

Because he was protecting you. He sacrificed everything for you, protested a voice that, with a bit of a shock, he realised was the voice he usually thought of as his own mental voice. Why did it seem foreign, now?

Ron looked hurt. "I only meant—"

"I had dreams when I turned ten, too, Ron," Harry said, leaning forwards, his voice low, and far too calm. Ron, sensibly, took a step back. But then, in true gryffindor fashion, he set his feet, despite his sudden pallor and shortness of breath, and stood his ground.

"What manner of dreams?" he asked, sounding wary, as if he already knew the answer. Whither the conversation was bound.

"I dreamt of a far-off land," said Harry, wistful in remembering the early days of his dreams, before it all had soured. "Perhaps I could ask you some questions, and see if anything sounds familiar."

He still remembered why he had gone to the library to research to begin with, years ago. The research that had led him to learn all manner of things he'd prefer not to know, and warned him of the sour turn his dreams would later take.

"Go ahead," Ron said, with evident misgiving. Harry closed his eyes, and bowed his head, and searched for a fairly vague question, a way to lead in, without being quite as alarming as he was tempted to be.

"Your father," he said, keeping his eyes closed. "Was his name 'Odin'?"

Ron took another step backwards. There was a moment when Harry thought he might not answer, and that was important, because if he refused to answer this question, then he would stay silent on the others. But if he answered this one…it committed him to answering the rest. The moment of truth, ironically.

And then, Ron spoke, just a single word. All he said was "yes", and that was all that he needed to say. As with Mother on that long-ago night, a one-word answer that left open no other interpretations.

Harry's heart decided to stop beating for a few moments. It couldn't be true. It couldn't all be true…could it? But this, here….

But there was still room for doubt. There was almost a sort of vindictive pleasure to be had of stripping himself of his own delusions.

"And your mother," he whispered, thinking of Mother in her cottage, and barely able to force out the words, even in a whisper. "Was her name 'Frigga'?".

Only one of the books in the library had used that name. Here, he was narrowing things down considerably. And Ron, who could not lie, who could only even say that he was Ron Weasley because that was in a sense true, was almost merely a sounding board, a means of proving what he already knew, in a way that he could no longer deny it.

"Yes," said Ron, and his voice was tight. Harry refused to look at him, refused to see how similar they could be in their grief. Show no weakness.

"And your brother," he said, desperation creeping into his voice, despite his fatigue. He had to ask the question. It had plagued him for years. "The one who died. The one you say is me—and you did say that we were the same person, didn't you? Was his name…was his name 'Loki'?"

And there it was: the question was in the air. It couldn't be taken back, now. There was a strong urge to see Ron's reaction, that he refused to humour.

The silence seemed a lot longer this time. Harry lost his internal battle, and glanced over at Ron. Ron looked…stunned, as if this were not going at all as he'd expected, and beneath that, the ever-present grief, that Harry had recognised, and then dismissed as after-effects of the dementors.

"…Yes," Ron said. Only, his name wasn't Ron. Harry was now absolutely sure of that, but he asked anyway.

"Then you…you're Thor!" he said, and this was not even a real question. "You…you—!" Words failed him, as they so seldom did. "Three years you knew, three years since we first met, and for three years, you let me suffer alone. I thought I was going mad. That is what came of your attempts to protect me. Do you never learn?"

He'd thought his energy spent, but the sheer injustice of it all flooded him, anger reawakening his mind, draining the strain from his sore muscles. He straightened up, marching forwards to confront Ron, to confront Thor, who, after all his questioning Mother, had been here all along.

"And especially after what I said about Hagrid and Sirius Black—that I hate it when people keep secrets from me—especially when they concern me, directly! You would think that you would learn from your father's mistakes!"

Ron's eyes were very wide. It was clear that he wasn't fully processing what he was hearing.

"I trusted you!" Harry cried. "How am I ever to trust you again?"

He needed time alone. He needed to think. He needed to leave. Unlike the Room of Requirement, he could not be shut in, here. Even there, he might have been able to access his seventh sense and force the door to reappear.

And somewhere beneath, the horrible suspicion that the anger was only a front, a way of avoiding the question that he now had to ask, but which Ron couldn't answer: Who am I?

"You…remember…?" Thor asked, voice somewhat subdued, which was saying something, for him. But Harry just remembered a similar conversation, years ago, with Mother. He knew the next word, and didn't want to hear it.

"I'm leaving," he said, cutting Thor off, his voice now completely level and calm.

But in three strides, Thor had blocked the door, arms folded. "You will hear me out," he said. "Tell me truly that I have ever mistreated you."

Harry had no great desire to damage the school grounds. He would have to find a way to force Thor to move out of the way, so that he could open the door and escape.

"Just let me go," he said, his voice far too level, as it was far too often, nowadays. Anger still surged through his veins, but it didn't show, as it hadn't last year, when he had given it free rein, in the wake of Hermione's petrification.

"Forgive me, little brother. I never meant for you to suffer alone. I thought that you were happy—at least, as happy as you could be, given factors beyond my control. I was only trying to protect you. But I admit that I was wrong. You are right. I should have learnt from Father's mistakes. I should have told you. I underestimated you, as I always have. And for that, too, I am sorry. I only wished not to lose you again. But I see that I erred greatly, and you have never been one who favoured forgiveness and lenity."

Harry wanted to be angry, truly he did, but a memory crept into his mind, the vague sentiment of his own opinions, back when his dreams had only been dreams, and he'd blamed Loki for tearing the family apart. That thought, that Loki was ungrateful, that he didn't appreciate what he had, that he didn't appreciate that his family loved him. That it didn't matter that they weren't related by blood. And that he, Harry, would have given anything

"How much do you remember?" asked Thor, clearly hesitant, and there was an answer ready, but Harry swallowed it, tore it apart, and tried for something new.

"I remember everything, except for what happened after I fell. That's all in pieces…. I remember nothing after the Invasion. Perhaps, that answer pleases you."

He couldn't keep the bite from his voice, but it was not as sharp as it might have been. Progress.

Thor sucked in a deep breath. "…'Everything'," he repeated, eyes wide, and reached for Harry, as if he couldn't help himself, but Harry flinched, thinking of the Dursleys, and, eyes downcast, Thor withdrew.

"Then it was all for naught, after all. I am sorry, Brother. I meant only to help you. Forgive me."

Forgive me. Words spoken as if there were any merit to them. But the only thing Thor had done wrong was not to tell Harry. Harry, who had done too good of a job pretending that none of it were real. The anger drained away. He felt weak without it.

"What are you apologising for?" he snapped. "Just…leave me be." He didn't even feel like figuring out whether or not he was being consistent, or making any sense. There was pain in his voice, the pain of a wounded animal, and Thor seemed to realise that his lashing out was only born of desperation. His gaze softened.

Harry just wanted to rest, and to put this night behind him, although he knew he couldn't. It was all interconnected now; none of it could be denied without denying the rest.

"What am I to you, then?" asked Thor, and Harry tried for a smile, but it was too painful. Words from a dream, given life.

Harry sighed, and frowned. "You have been my bodyguard, although I did not see it. And you could never be a vassal, or a nursemaid. You are my brother, and therefore my equal," he said, and a smile tried to creep across his face, but its valiant efforts were dashed by Harry's lethargy. "See? I listened, sometimes."

He didn't know what would come of tonight. He only knew that things could never go back to how they were. But perhaps, once he'd acclimated to reality, they might be better.

"I don't know what happened between the two of you, but you're being stupid, and I'm tired of it!" she suddenly cried, throwing a heavy textbook down onto the coffee table of the Gryffindor Common Room so hard that the entire table wobbled, all chatter ceased, and everyone in the room turned to look at them.

Harry flinched, and then closed his eyes. "I have no idea what you're talking about," he lied. It was a pointless lie, and they both knew it, but he was little more inclined to face what had happened right now than he had been a week ago.

"If this is about Scabbers—" she began, and he blinked, cocking his head in honest confusion, now.

"—You mean Peter Pettigrew—" he interrupted.

"—Ron really didn't know, and you're not being fair. I mean, he said that if he'd known the truth, he wouldn't have been so upset about Crookshanks trying to kill Scabbers—"

"Wait," Harry said. "Just how much did Ron tell you about what happened, anyway?"

He'd gone right back to calling him Ron. He didn't know what it was—habit, or delusion. It probably didn't matter that much, either way. Now that the truth was out in the open….

A week was far too little time for acclimation.

"Er…well, I'm not sure I understood everything he said, but he said something to the effect of Scabbers being a man named Peter Pettigrew who betrayed your parents to You-Know-Who. And he said that Sirius Black is innocent, and it was proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and something about how Black has been taken to a secure location pending trial…was there something else he should have mentioned?"

He'd left her out of the big secret, which, if you thought about it, was only to be expected. "…No," he said, wondering why he was keeping the secret, even as the truth was now eating him up from within. He couldn't talk about it to anyone. Sirius was the most tempting prospect—somehow, a certain sense of kinship made him easy to trust, violating Harry's norms of behaviour in a way that he should have found suspect. Ron was the second-highest candidate on the list—or he had been, but now….

Harry thought again of the Invasion, of the Coronation, of the Avengers, of a hundred things he'd been happier (or that he told himself he had been happier) thinking were only delusions.

"Then, really, you're making a big deal out of nothing," Hermione said, in such a supercilious manner that Harry grit his teeth, and stood, determined to find someplace that she wouldn't follow, and badger, badger, badger.

"You wouldn't be saying that, if you were in my shoes," he said, and, with a swift glare around the Common Room, he left.

"Ron's really upset, you know," Ginny said, looking as if she were seconds away from wringing her hands. "I don't think you two have ever quarreled before—have you? But Ron seems to think you're never speaking to him again—"

"So, he sent you to change my mind?" he snapped, and she flinched. Despite himself, his unjustified resentment towards her softened.

She thrust her chin up in an almost-haughty defiance, and crossed her arms. "No. I came to see you without being asked. I saw how miserable Ron was, and I thought—well, I'd made you see reason before—"

"That was different—"

"Quit interrupting!" Ginny snapped. "Let me speak!"

His eyes widened. Ginny's behaviour mystified him, but somehow—perhaps because he'd seen her at her most vulnerable—he wasn't alarmed by her when she snapped at him. And if Ron hadn't even sent her….

"You know, I idolised you, growing up. Then I met you, and realised that you're like everyone else—only a bit more socially awkward. And then…then last year…well, I suppose I respect you a lot for what you did, and I'm grateful to you, and all, but Ron's my brother, you know?"

No, Harry wanted to say. He isn't. The words strained against confinement, eager to be spoken.

"Ron loves you, you know? Whatever he did that made you upset with him, he didn't mean to. That's all I wanted to say. I know you wouldn't do what you're doing for no reason. I'm sure your anger is justified. But Ron didn't mean to hurt you. That isn't who he is."

She was spot on about Ron. Harry couldn't look at her. Silence reigned for a long moment. But Ginny was patient. She waited for him. He didn't want to know whether or not she could outwait him, too.

"I know," he said, the words a colossal effort to speak, harder than lesser truths. "I know he didn't. He just made me realise something I'd been trying not to. He forced me to face facts I was trying to deny. I suppose I'm shooting the proverbial messenger…but I just need time to…to think. To go through it in my mind, you know? I can't talk to him until I've straightened it all out in my head. Until I've straightened my head out. Will you tell him that?"

Her gaze was soft, and far too compassionate, as if she understood. As if she saw just how vulnerable and weak he was at the moment. He'd asked something similar of Hermione, but she'd refused, saying something about him being childish. But Ginny summoned a too-familiar, strained smile, and said, "Sure, Harry."

There was just one thing to be said after that, although it was perhaps a bit gauche.

"Say, Ginny, where have you been all year? I don't recall seeing you around."

Ginny huffed, and folded her arms, Ron-style, and frowned. Harry smiled at her.

"Harry! I thought that I might find you here!" a cheerful voice cried, causing him to start and very nearly spill his bottle of ink all over his notes on modern wizarding court procedure. He scowled, taking several deep breaths, and trying to be patient. It was probably a good thing that Ron was back to being fairly cheerful, despite…everything.

"Great. Now, I need to find a new place to hide," he said, in his flattest voice. Of course, he couldn't very well take this many books out of the library, a fact which Ron seemed to realise. "I asked Ginny to tell you to leave me be. Did she perhaps forget—?"

"She did say something to that effect," Ron mused, looking as if his thoughts had been knocked off-course. Now would be a good time to flee, if Harry were so inclined. But before he could, Ron came back to what he was saying. "I thought, perhaps, that you might not have been…entirely honest in your request."

"What, is lying all that I'm capable of doing?" Harry demanded, pushing against the desk with his hands to launch himself to his feet.

"That was not what I meant," Thor said, running a hand through his hair. "However, it has been more than a week—"

"Not long at all, by your standards," Harry said. "The blink of an eye. My transition was not easy, as yours was. Do you think I wished to be a monster?"

Thor shook his head. "You were never a monster, Brother," he said. He was saying all the right things, and Harry hated him for it. "We must talk. I will help you. I will do what I can. I have failed you before. I swore an oath to protect you, but I failed you. You suffered for my mistakes. I will not be forsworn again. I will swear another oath, if that is what I must do."

Harry's eyes widened. Suddenly, flight seemed imperative. He glanced around to see whether or not anyone were looking. Thor could make a spectacle of anything, without even trying.

"There is no need—"

"Whatever it is that I have done, only tell me. We can fix this. If we work together, we will succeed. I understand that I have violated your trust, but I know of no way to make amends, Harry."

"Why do you call me 'Harry'?" Harry asked. Surely, Thor's younger brother was more important to Thor than Harry was. Harry's only value to him was that he had once been—still was—Loki. Wasn't that right?

"That is your name," Thor said, with such evident confusion that Harry knew that he was sincere in his incomprehension—he truly didn't follow Harry's logic. "Did you wish for me to call you something else?"

Not that logic had ever been Harry's strong suit. He was better with manipulating people. Ron—Thor—was the chess master. And wasn't that strange?

Suddenly, all those old problems of identity seemed inconsequential. Ron had always been there, from the time Harry had met him on the Hogwarts Express, he had always helped Harry. That secret that loomed large had been kept for innocent reasons. And what did it matter, what name he was called? He was still Harry, still Loki, no matter what.

"Eh, 'what's in a name?'" he asked, with a crooked smile starting to spread across his face. For a moment, things were almost back to normal, almost better than normal, but then Harry remembered that Ron had interrupted. "Just leave me to work on Buckbeak's case in peace," he ordered, pointing in the vicinity of the library door as he returned to work.

Chapter Text

Hogwarts was infamous for being a rumour mill—rumours had abounded about what had happened beneath the school at the end of first year before Harry had even regained consciousness. As he was famous, a disproportionate amount of Hogwarts's rumours centred around him.

This explained how everyone in the school already knew—before even the end of the first week—that he and Ron were at odds with each other, somehow. It was the first long-term fight that they had over anything important—the first lasting dispute. No one could pinpoint the causes, or when it had started, or exactly how Hermione factored in—she seemed unfortunately easy to slot into a multitude of roles. It was some reassurance, that no one knew what the fight was about, but poor Hermione was called a great many unflattering things as a result. This put pressure on Harry to forgive Ron, to cut off fodder for the rumours, and it put pressure on Ron to put pressure on Harry.

That may have been why Ron kept seeking him out to try to get Harry to talk to him, but it probably wasn't. Thor had never seemed terribly aware of any gossip, ill-will, or mockery that was directed towards him. Ron was, surprise, surprise, no different on that front. That just meant that all of his attempts to speak with Harry were earnest attempts to reconnect. And maybe he was right; maybe Harry was reluctant to say "bygones", without some ready impetus to force his hand.

Malfoy was good for nothing if not as an impetus. He was quite pleased with how poorly Buckbeak's trial went. By all accounts that Harry or Hermione could get hold of, it was a mockery of a trial—a farce. What had all that time and research been put in for?

Hagrid was so distraught that he hardly seemed aware of what he was doing, moping through his classes in a daze. Very little of that was the knowledge (if it had reached him) that Sirius Black was innocent. The Ministry was, in its usual inept manner, putting off deciding upon a trial date until "The Hippogriff Affair" had been settled. He and Hermione set to drawing up plans for the appeal with a will. Harry doubted that they would work.

And meanwhile, here was Malfoy, gloating. And Harry had, loath though he was to admit it, given him rather a lot to gloat about. Buckbeak was old news that Malfoy repeatedly dredged up; perhaps he was justifiably concerned that Gryffindor would crush Slytherin in the final match of the season. Or it might have been that he'd noticed Harry's bad humour, and feared for his own life. But probably not that, or he wouldn't have done what he did.

It was a death wish to challenge Thor in any real duel, and the Malfoy-Weasley feud was well-known in the Wizarding World, with bad blood going back generations. Ron, further, was in rather a state, still, about everything that had happened, particularly with Harry not speaking to him. The confession, furthermore, had had the odd side-effect of lifting the burden of responsibility from his shoulders, by quite a bit, which meant that he exhibited less restraint in general, knowing full well as he did that Harry, left to his own devices, could generally take care of himself.

All these things, taken together, were a recipe for disaster. Tensions were high anyway, and Malfoy, who could be counted on to stir things up when they were about to boil over, decided to gloat. And, although Harry, who had broken at least three of Malfoy's wands, all told, was right there, Malfoy had no second thoughts about taunting Ron. About Harry not speaking him. Doubtless stirring some rather old, very bitter memories, now that Harry knew to look for such a response. The implication was clear: Harry and Ron were on the outs, so Ron was on his own.

Harry, as if he didn't care, stood back and watched. He was very well aware of how well Thor could defend himself, and he could hold his own in a wizard's duel, too, judging by the destroyed clearing in first year. Harry realised, now, how Ron could accidentally set someone on fire…why every time Ron lost his temper, it seemed to manifest in the same way. Electricity. Sparks. There was a figure he'd read, somewhere, about what percent of wildfires were started by lightning. Really, it was a remarkable display of restraint on Thor's part that Hogwarts and the Forbidden Forest hadn't burnt down by now. There was no need to worry about Ron.

But there was a deeply engrained habit, which it was possible (if difficult) to ignore, to watch, at the very least. To be ready to intervene, as Harry knew that he would, if it looked as if Ron needed help. Such as, say, when Crabbe and Goyle got involved. Hufflepuff was the house of fair-play. Slytherin was the house of opportunism. It was as predictable as it was inevitable.

It was Ron who picked the fight, of course, because if there were a continuum of how easy it was to goad someone into a fight, Harry would be somewhere in the middle, on the hard side, and Ron would be far on the easy side, with Malfoy in between.

Insult Mr. and Mrs. Weasley? Check. Insult Gryffindor House in general? Check. And then, the question, "What's the matter, Weasley?" Malfoy drawled. "Trouble in paradise? I don't see Potter jumping to your aid, as he usually does,"

Did he? Harry hadn't noticed that, but it was possible. He'd assumed, before, that Ron was only human, and…. Harry shook his head, to focus on the fight that had just begun. Malfoy had pushed the one button sure to set Ron off—the complicated mess that was recent events, recent revelations, and the fact that Harry wasn't speaking to him.

I caused this, Harry thought with what might almost be considered awe. He watched the fight closely, but when the fight expanded, when Malfoy had managed to manoeuvre Ron into a position, with his back to Crabbe and Goyle, and Crabbe or Goyle (did it matter which; it wasn't as if they were individuals?) aimed a thicker-than-usual wand at Ron's back, Harry intervened, almost automatically. He could have chosen to remain out of it, and that knowledge was enough for him.

"Incarcerous," he said, pointing at the offending slytherin, as ropes shot from his wand. He turned to the other, and cast the spell again, for good measure, before turning back to Malfoy, who was rounding on him. He stuck his left hand in his pocket, aiming straight at Malfoy with his right. "I think you may have misunderstood the situation, Malfoy," he said, in a level voice. "Gossip is only rarely true, after all. Now, why don't you remove yourself from our presence, before you lose another wand."

He gave Malfoy his friendliest smile, and Malfoy paled, taking a step back, and hastily stuffing the wand he was clutching away. Somewhere behind him, a member of the audience laughed. Harry paid them no mind, his gaze fixed on Malfoy, who was backing away, as if that would help protect him.

"My father will hear about this!" Malfoy cried, as he prepared to turn tail and run. It was all Harry could do not to reply that he should be more worried about Ron's father. Harry kept smiling, as Malfoy backed off, with his hand, level and steady, following Malfoy's movement in his retreat.

"Just like old times, I suppose," he said, slipping the wand at last back into its holster, and turning to Ron, beaming. Ron stared, which was perhaps an understandable reaction, given that this was the friendliest Harry had been to him in months. Or perhaps even years?

"You…defended me," he said, frowning as he puzzled it over. Harry's smile faded. He blinked. Stared. The stare swiftly turned into a glare.

"What, and you thought that I wouldn't? I don't believe you. Oh, ye of little faith!" He walked over to Ron, ostensibly to make sure he wasn't hurt, and whispered, "I, too, swore an oath, and I swore it first. And I, not you, was first to break it. I would think that you would not have forgotten that."

Then he turned and left, before Ron could formulate a proper response.

If things were different from how they had been before, perhaps it was not a bad thing at all. There was a certain understanding between Harry and Ron—or Loki and Thor—that had never been there before—or perhaps not for a very long time. Hermione seemed able to tell immediately when they had come to an understanding: she'd looked from Harry to Ron and back, and burst into tears. "You're so stupid!" she sobbed, and Ron, seemingly on reflex, reached out to her, ignoring Harry's raised eyebrows.

"Hermione," he began, but Harry was already saying,

"I'm so stupid?" His level of incredulity was difficult for him to believe. Really, Hermione, where was this coming from?

"You're both the biggest, proudest, most idiotic idiots I've ever had to deal with," she cried, throwing her arms in the air. "You've spent the past two weeks fighting for no reason at all, as far as I can tell. What is wrong with you two? Are you sure you're not related, somehow?"

That was too much for Harry. He didn't want his mind to go off on a tangent about nature versus nurture, and just how much of your personality carried in through reincarnation, of all things. "Quite," he said, with some acerbity. Families were a sensitive subject for him on any side of the equation. Most equations didn't have three sides, but what could you do? "I suppose I'm technically an adopted Weasley, if that counts."

"Not technically," said Ginny, beaming at them, looking up from her homework. Harry raised an eyebrow at her, and she blushed and looked back at her homework. He shook his head. Ginny was inscrutable and a headache at the best of times. "It is rather odd that Ron seems to have more in common with you than with the rest of us Weasleys, though."

She seemed to be considering the matter instead of her homework, tapping the feather of her quill against her chin. Harry stared at her. Does this mean that she noticed that connection that neither of us did—with no knowledge of the background reasoning behind it, and on her own? He seemed to have underestimated Ginny. In his thoughts, she still seemed to be the girl whose lifeless body he'd had to revive in the Chamber of Secrets, last year. And perhaps he'd spent too little time discovering who she was when she wasn't the damsel in distress.

Harry frowned, glancing down at his feet, and shoving his homework for Divination aside. "Now, I think you're both making far too big a deal of this," he said, glancing around the table at them. "And, I am not an idiot."

That point seemed particularly important to clarify. Without his intelligence, what did he have?

The night of January Thirty-First was, of course, much more interesting than it had any right to be. Harry approached the cottage door with some misgiving. He wasn't sure what he ought to say, or whether it was even a good idea to bring up recent events, or to try to pretend that nothing were different.

He stopped outside the cottage door. He'd have to tell her, eventually. He was even on speaking terms with Ron, again. He'd adjusted. Maybe.

He knocked, waiting for her to answer before turning the handle, and opening the door a crack, before pausing. He seemed to be putting this off for as long as possible. But the truth was: he didn't even know how he'd react around her, anymore. Everything seemed so…different. He seemed so different. Could so much have changed in only a month?

He opened the door, and stepped into the exact same cottage that he remembered, careful when stepping over the rug he'd once tripped over, certain that she wouldn't be in the living room after being stuck there for so long. He glanced in that direction nonetheless. No, she wasn't there.

He wandered through the house, instead of calling out to her to ask where she was, precisely. It was alarming, how unchanged it seemed. A real house would have items misplaced, moved, added, thrown away. But this house, as if frozen in time, remained as it had been when he'd first seen it. He'd spent most of his time in the living room, or the outside garden. There were still entire rooms that he'd never seen. If they'd changed, he would never know it.

He started when a gentle hand landed on his shoulder. "What's this? Nostalgia?" she teased, with a fond smile. "I have never seen you wander this house alone."

And she was no different.

"Not nostalgia," he corrected her. "Perhaps curiosity. What lies in the basement?"

She frowned, something sparking in her eyes. "You should not seek it out, my son. Every place has its dangers."

"Yes, I remember," he said, sticking his hands in his pockets. She narrowed her eyes, studying him.

"Has something happened? You seem different."

A sharp, bitter laugh, one of many. Her brow furrowed as she continued to watch him.

"My world has been turned on its head, upended. Buckbeak lost his trial; Gryffindor defeated Ravenclaw; I found Thor; Peter Pettigrew has been caught."

Her eyes widened with each statement, until they were so wide that part of him wondered how they remained in their sockets. An inane thought.

"…I see," she said, enfolding him in a hug. "Much indeed has happened since last we met. And Thor…." Wistful longing accompanied that aborted sentence, and Harry squashed any inclination towards jealousy before it could be born.

"I gave Pettigrew no quarter. I remembered what you had said. And I can no longer humour my old delusions. That should please you."

She stroked his hair, fingers gentle as they parted it. She was crying. He didn't want to know why; he didn't ask. Perhaps, someday, he would regret that, too.

"You will not die again, Mother. Thor and I will protect you, as we should have, then."

It was not yet a promise.

Sirius Black sent in his signature to allow Harry to go to Hogsmeade, but, as his case was ongoing, Harry wasn't officially allowed to go, yet. Still, the fact that he'd already been, combined with the knowledge that he would go again once Sirius was cleared, made it easier to bear when he was told that he would have to sit this Hogsmeade visit out. He dutifully promised to stay on Hogwarts grounds, and not to try to sneak out.

He decided to go see what Professor Lupin was doing, and perhaps practice his Patronus Charm. Professor Lupin had, understandably, been distracted of late.

"Ah—Harry," he said, when Harry knocked on the door. "Just a minute…ah, yes, a Hogsmeade weekend, but I don't mind some company."

He was rambling. Harry looked around the room. He had no idea where the trunk was when they weren't practising. Presumably, somewhere where an innocent first year wouldn't stumble across it. But he would have expected to find it in Professor Lupin's office, and it wasn't here.

This was a pity. He hadn't had a chance to even try the Patronus Charm since that fateful night when everything had changed. He could feel it now…access to much deeper reserves of power and magic than he'd previously supposed that he had—all the strength he'd given, sequestered off for access to only one specific part of his mind. It was exactly the stupid sort of thing that Sirius would say typified intelligent people. But the point was that he wanted to see, now that he was no longer in denial, what he could do. And he wanted to study the true Patronus Charm, again, as he had parseltongue, last year.

"I don't mean to intrude," he said, looking around Professor Lupin's cluttered desk. Lupin looked tired, but seemed to have much more energy than usual. This was odd, because it was almost the full moon.

"You will be pleased to hear that preparations for Sirius's trial are going well," he said, with a genuine smile. "I can't thank you and Ron enough for uncovering the truth—all these years that I thought that I was the last of the Marauders, and now I realise that there is still another left…it was quite lonely, all alone with my memories. But listen to me go on like an old man. What can I do for you, Harry?"

Harry sat down in the chair on the other side of the desk. "I thought that we might practise the Patronus Charm," he said, pretending that he didn't see Lupin's slight frown.

"With the dementors leaving, there seems to be little need—"

Harry gave a sharp, bitter laugh. "You don't know my luck, professor. Trust me, I will encounter them again, and I will need to be prepared."

Professor Lupin glanced at him, his expression suddenly strangely guarded. "Well…well, alright, I suppose. I'm not properly prepared for such a lesson today, however—I wasn't even expecting you to visit."

Harry cocked his head to the side, glancing around the room. He could believe that. At least he could tell when Professor Lupin was lying, although that was not quite as useful a skill as he'd previously believed it to be.

"I've been thinking about that spell a lot," he said, looking down and away, as if lost in thought.

It was true that he'd given the spell quite a bit of thought. He didn't know what it was, what it was made of, but he sensed that the way it was usually used did not tap into the spell's true potential. He remembered his suspicion that love could be used as an alternative to happiness in the casting. But if he could see it cast, he could take apart what comprised the spell. With those components….

"Then, just show me the spell again," he said, and Professor Lupin's brows furrowed in perplexity.

"But you already know the wand movements—you've cast the spell successfully before. You can't have already forgot—"

Oh yes, I think you will find that I can, he thought, but did not say aloud. Saying such things would not bring him closer to his goal. Instead, he leant forwards.

"I am clearly missing something in my spellcasting. Show me again."

That strange air of camaraderie encouraged Harry to behave quite differently from usual around Professor Lupin, who, seeming to feel that same ambiance, reacted atypically to Harry's erratic behaviour. It was as if they were friends, hanging out and practicing spellwork—as if Harry were one of the Marauders, or Professor Lupin were…hmm, Hermione? He didn't fit in the role of Ron….

It was as if they were equals, when the truth was far more complicated than that. The truth was a cage of barbed wire, but at least it wasn't biting him, for the moment.

Perhaps, now that he was back in Hogwarts, Professor Lupin was nostalgic and retrospective, thinking back on his childhood with fondness, letting some of his old habits creep back in, letting himself be influenced by friendships whose breakage surely lay in the future, forecast, and not the past. Rather than scolding Harry, or lecturing, or even sending him away, Professor Lupin pointed the wand at the door through which Harry had entered, and said, "Exspecto patronum!"

Harry watched, seventh sense wide open, analysing the structure of the spell, the substance of it, the way it created a lure—a burst stream of the very emotions that dementors naturally consumed, but in a form unpalatable to them.

Because it was divorced from its originator, the original memories were protected. What emerged from the patronus was the raw emotion itself, untethered, its strength born of the strength of the memory, and the will of the caster. Once cast, the patronus existed independently of its originator, fed by the unidirectional memory substance, attuned with the mind of its creator, until it returned to be absorbed back into the caster's body, or dissipated, returning in a less physical way to its point of origin.

Mother's love was somewhat similar—but the sentiment and substance of her protective armour was more than only love. There were other things mixed in—a desire to protect, grief, purpose. In some ways, Mother's armour was stronger than the Patronus Charm; in others, it was weaker.

Harry watched as Professor Lupin's slightly vague Patronus—mistier and less substantial than Harry's stag, it was nevertheless identifiable as a wolf—returned to its master. Professor Lupin reached a hand out to it, and the white substance that made up the Patronus flowed, invisible, back up his arm and into his body, aiming for his heart.

Harry thought of Mother, thought of how she had sheltered him, lost sleep over him, died for him, shielded him from the dementors, fended off the mantra when Ron wasn't there to protect him. Crystals of negativity lost in the matrix of positivity weakened the strength of the spell. Harry sifted through his own thoughts, through the energy he was focusing into his wand without consciously realising it, and suppressed the bitter memories that would weaken the spell. Then, he cried, "Exspecto patronum!", and watched as the bright light of a full-fledged patronus erupted from it, each prong of the antler distinct and clear, eyes visible as a slight darkening in the face.

With no foe readily apparent, it walked over to Professor Lupin, who stood frozen to his seat, looking rather paler than usual. He was shaking and crying, and seemed completely unaware of Harry's existence. A cord of energy connected Harry to the patronus, feeding it energy in a continual stream, in a way that almost reminded Harry of Riddle and the diary, last year.

"Prongs?" asked Professor Lupin, with wistful longing painfully raw in his voice.

Harry turned away, acutely aware of how personal the experience was. After a moment, the stag trotted back over to Harry, antlers lowered, already beginning to dissipate at the edges. Harry's energy felt not at all drained, despite how much he knew that it usually siphoned off. Patroni were a massive drain on energy. It took great focus and energy to cast the spell properly to begin with, and then even more to sustain it. Harry was sure that most wizards would be lucky to hold it for more than a few seconds, that quite a few could hold it for five minutes or so, but it would drain them dangerously deep, and that only a very few—including Dumbledore, doubtless, could maintain one for longer.

There was silence for a minute. "Well done, Harry," Professor Lupin said at last. He sounded strained, and less sincere than usual. Tired, as if it were draining his energy to the level of casting a patronus, merely to speak.

Harry sighed. "Thank you, Professor," he said, glancing over in Professor Lupin's direction with a small smile. "Shall we see how it fares with an actual dementor?"

Professor Lupin was a bit more obliging to Harry's goals than perhaps he ordinarily would be. He led Harry to the staff room, which was, at the moment, empty, revealing the chest that held the boggart. It was covered in protective spells to keep the monster in, and to try to discourage the curious (or saboteurs?) from opening the chest themselves. Probably, it was just to keep Snape from "accidentally" getting rid of Professor Lupin's "pet project".

Professor Lupin looked as if he might be having misgivings, possibly questioning just why he was doing this to begin with. He'd never been here at Hogwarts to know how Harry's year usually went. Nevertheless, he cast a levitation spell on the chest, and they headed back to his office. Harry offered to help carry it, but Professor Lupin seemed to think it would be better if he "saved his strength" for the impromptu lesson. Not knowing what he could say that would change Lupin's mind without spilling the entire story, Harry only followed.

There was always an abandoned classroom in which to practise spells at Hogwarts, but they sometimes took some time to find. Even though this was a Hogsmeade trip, it was a Saturday, and first and second years still had classes. Doubtless, Professor Lupin had always somehow either been incredibly lucky, or ensured beforehand that the classrooms that they used were unoccupied. On short notice, they had to use his office.

He quietly shut and locked the door, lest Professor Snape take it upon himself to deliver a batch of Wolfsbane Potion early. Not that Professor Lupin told Harry this; Harry just assumed, because it seemed to make sense. There was almost a sense of wrongdoing to the whole process, as if it were illegal to ask for or offer tutoring. It put Professor Lupin in a far more casual mood—and he was never exactly strict, anyway. He'd earned the reputation of the "cool teacher" within a week or two of his arrival. This all served to create an atmosphere of casual wariness that reminded Harry of…well, himself, and Sirius Black. It was not the most conducive environment for creating a Patronus, which meant that it was ideal for practice—at least at the level Harry was attempting.

Enter the dementor. Harry began to realise one of the downsides to acknowledging the truth: always, before, he'd used that part of himself that he'd considered strong as a barricade. Before the dementors could access the most central part of his soul, they'd had to try to get past Loki—which was not the easiest thing in the world to do. And, in turn, Loki's memories had been hidden, suppressed, under the entirety of Harry's. But with the recent upheaval, Harry, while finally whole again, nevertheless now had no second line of defence.

He pulled himself up off the floor, his own screams still ringing in his ears, irked that he'd managed to be sidelined by the obvious problem, and shaking from the impact of pain and memories last visited in nightmares two-and-a-half years ago. He suspected that, life being unjust as it was, he was now more susceptible to mind control, too, and that it would take far less than before to drive him into mantra-born madness.

He shared none of this with Professor Lupin, instead only dragging himself to his feet by exerting an absurd amount of force on an inoffensive desk chair. Halfway to his feet, with his arms draped across the soft wood of the seat, he turned to Professor Lupin.

"Again," he said. He thought that he didn't sound quite like himself, and Lupin's startled hesitation confirmed it.

"Harry, I don't think—"

"I was not expecting that memory, before. Now, I am. Let me try again." Ah, yes, the uncommon edge of steel in his voice, that usually had Hermione, even, frozen like a rabbit. He pulled himself to his feet the rest of the way. He was swaying, as if he'd lost far more energy than, in truth, he had. A part of his mind, still trapped in that cold metal room, disbelieved that his feet could support him.

"Harry, I don't think—"

"Let me try again," Harry demanded, and then, catching himself, added, in a voice much subdued, "please."

Professor Lupin, looking as if he did this only with the greatest reluctance, turned back to the chest. "Ready, now, Harry?" he asked, voice thick with worry.

"Ready, Professor Lupin," he said, but he waited until the fake dementor had left its confines, once again, to reach for the power tangled up with his mother's love. His mother's love, without the armour. He remembered the night he had pulled her from the Mirror, how warmth had stolen up his arm in response to the chill he'd spread even into the mirror. The warmth traveled down his arm, as the dementor inhaled.

Unwilling to take any risks this time, his mind-soul a jumbled mess as a side-effect of recent efforts, anyway, he charged the wizarding magic of the patronus with the other kind of magic. The resulting patronus was so bright that Professor Lupin gasped and covered his eyes, and Harry himself had to look away. Maybe he'd just charge it with the Star Preserver spell, next time.

"That…what was that?" he heard Professor Lupin say, but his voice was distant. Harry pushed forwards, driving his patronus towards the fake dementor. It backed off, seeking for the safety of the box, and he realised that, as a being that fed off of fear, a boggart was much like a dementor. A net of connections and interrelationships seemed to reveal itself between the two. "How did you do that?" Professor Lupin was asking. He'd said quite a bit that Harry hadn't heard, focused as he was on boggarts and dementors and patroni. Now, hearing Professor Lupin's voice, he came back to himself.

"What? Oh, I'm sorry, professor; I was just thinking. Boggarts and dementors are quite similar, aren't they?"

He walked over to Professor Lupin, his stride reduced to a sort of awkward shuffle amidst desks, where Lupin had fallen. He held out a hand to help Professor Lupin up, and Lupin took it, with a wry smile.

"That was quite some patronus," he said, still looking distant and a bit shaken, with a dash of Harry-is-an-anomaly thrown in. Harry hated that look, the look that said that Harry was a freak, different, possibly even a delinquent, but Professor Lupin's seemed to be the variety that thought that Harry, if strange, was nevertheless a good kind of strange, a sort of marvel to gawk at when he wasn't looking. And even that look faded away into contrition when Professor Lupin realised that Harry had seen it.

"I'm sorry. You were just…." Professor Lupin trailed off, unfortunately, leaving no clue as to where that sentence would have ended. Instead, he reached into a pocket, and pulled out a slab of chocolate, which he proceeded to set upon a desk, and then take out what looked to be at least a decade's worth of frustrations out on it. Harry watched, thinking that he might want to take a step back. Professor Lupin handed over several thick triangles-that-should-have-been-squares, and took a few, himself.

"And I have something else," said Professor Lupin, back to his easy, cheery voice. "For a job well done, although I must say I can't approve of you pushing yourself so hard. I would have thought that recent events, such as falling off your broomstick, would have encouraged you to take the risks of overexposure more seriously. And I have been quite an irresponsible teacher, humouring you."

Harry had the sense that Professor Lupin was trying to temper whatever reward he'd already intended to give Harry before they'd gone down this road with a hefty dollop of guilt, but the lecture washed right over him. Few people were capable of making him feel guilty for anything he'd done, and he had far too much experience with the guilt tactic to fall so easily for it, himself.

"Thank you for the lesson, Professor," he said. "I don't think I shall need more. I think I've got it, now. But it seems that there was something that you'd already decided to talk to me about."

Professor Lupin paused, frowning, perhaps at Harry's lack of response. "Ah, no. Well, I thought I'd speak to you about Sirius Black a bit. They moved him out of Mungo's at last, although they're still gathering evidence for the trial. He wants to see you, but Dumbledore has insisted that he wait until you've finished school for the year. You can continue sending letters, however."

"St. Mungo's is the 'secure centre' in which the famed mass-murderer Sirius Black is being held?" he asked, incredulous. Professor Lupin shot him a look of what seemed to be trying to be both humour and reproach. It succeeded rather more at the former than the latter.

"They didn't want everyone knowing where he was before they'd had a chance to clear things up—especially not the press, that horrid Rita Skeeter, you know—" He didn't. "Telling the public that he was in a well-guarded facility set their minds at ease—and he was well-guarded, but by aurors, not dementors, and they were there to protect him, not the public. Pettigrew is being held somewhere quite different. You know, Sirius has a cousin who's an auror. She volunteered for the responsibility…."

He had a slightly-dreamy expression, until he remembered where he was, and shook himself. "And I thought we could have a bit of a toast—to justice served at last, and victory of Gryffindor over Slytherin—not that I'm supposed to take sides, as a teacher—"

"Don't worry," Harry said, rolling his eyes. "I won't tell anyone that you have opinions."


Chapter Text

Hermione did not seem to realise that she might be considered to be fulfilling Trelawney's prophecy from the first day of class, when she jammed her textbooks into her bag and stormed out. Lavender and Parvati, by contrast, were almost inclined to gloat. They'd spent an unfortunate amount of time holed up with Professor Trelawney during lunch breaks, and now seemed to view her as an infallible purveyor of knowledge.

Harry was quite as frustrated as Hermione, but for completely different reasons. Still, he reasoned, it was almost inevitable that the subject he most wanted answers upon (and now with much greater ardour) should someday come up. Perhaps in one specific class lecture.

If all else failed, he could stay back and ask her after some lesson, which grew more appealing by the day, despite how he was growing more repulsed by the idea of staying here a second longer than necessary. The constant fog in which she immersed the classroom couldn't be good for anyone. But he knew—better than almost anyone, for he remembered his research—that there were such things as true prophets, who gave true knowledge.

If Hermione had listened, she would have noticed Professor Trelawney's emphasis in the simple subtleties of forecasting the future—Trelawney said it often enough. But Hermione, he was beginning to understand, was good at learning facts and processes, able to recite and regurgitate information, but with almost no capacity to do anything creative with it. She took always the most literal, logical approach to things, and any illogical thing was a stumbling block for her to overcome. Divination was not straightforward, not a matter of process, not a matter of memorising words and pronunciations and wand movements. It was not fixed and immutable, and there was always some leeway in interpretation, even as the future changed as it was observed.

Accordingly, she assumed that Professor Trelawney was a fraud, and that all of her predictions were hot and cold readings. It was an easy enough assumption to make, and Trelawney's need to seem more powerful than she was lent extra plausibility to this interpretation.

Most of her predictions were small, simple things, things that eluded your notice unless you watched and kept track in a tally board. But if you did keep track, you would notice that her accuracy was greater than that suggested by mere statistics, and that, because the matters were mostly all too small to merit notice, because they were not big, earth-shaking predictions, Hermione dismissed them. Harry did not.

Divination, Professor Trelawney said several times, was not a discipline that could be used on command. It required a certain openness and receptivity, a flexibility that Hermione lacked, with her rational, methodical mind, and that Ron was too impulsive and stubborn to access. Of the three of them, he had the greatest chances of becoming a seer. Harry had shown his own weakness in his three year refusal to accept the truth when it stared him in the face. But he was at least open enough to recognise that something real was happening, even if it was beyond his ability to access.

Only Ron had any genuine skill in the subject, which Harry did not, for once, begrudge him. It was kind of amusing. Or, perhaps he was just his father's son, and some of the pain of his father's sacrifice for wisdom had rubbed off.

That was a much less amusing interpretation.

Although Ron seemed to have some sort of latent skill in the subject, that couldn't have been his reason for signing up, last year. Harry knew his own motivations—what exactly had made Thor choose this subject? Harry had wanted to know how anyone who had never even been to Asgard, and were highly unlikely to have met anyone in the royal family, could know the deep secret that had torn the dream-family apart. Then, too, he'd heard about Ragnarök, and wondered if it could be avoided. Had Ron heard of Ragnarök? Should Harry tell him about it, just when they'd made amends?

Because he didn't have ready answers, he kept silent, awaiting a topic that might never come up.

It was near the end of April that Professor Lupin took Harry and Ron aside to give them the update on Sirius Black's now-impending trial. The obvious conclusion was that they'd done all the investigation and interrogation pertaining to Buckbeak's trial that they were going to do. Now, on to Sirius Black.

He'd been moved from the "secure and isolated" facility to a prison cell, complete with a light guard of dementors. No one save for Dumbledore, Professor Lupin, Peter Pettigrew, Ron, Harry, and Hermione knew that Sirius Black was an unregistered animagus. The only thing holding Sirius Black in his cell was his gryffindor sense of chivalry and honour. He could escape, if need be, but Harry still grit his teeth at the injustice of it. But, until Pettigrew was convicted….

Well, Sirius had already lasted for over a decade in prison. A couple of months couldn't do that much more damage. Harry silently set himself the task of researching any possible means of helping Sirius Black to recover. He knew from personal experience that the effects of dementors were rooted far more deeply than mere physical drain on the body. Mother said that soul-stuff gradually regenerates, given time—unless you had crossed a certain threshold. He rather suspected that Sirius Black had, and that it would take more than just waiting to put Sirius back together.

The more relevant fact was that Ron and Percy, at the very least, were expected to testify, having been the "owners" of "Scabbers" for several years. The Wizengamot would extract as much information as they could—any signs that Scabbers had been other than he appeared, while he had been in hiding. This was particularly important in Percy's case, as his lack of involvement in the reveal meant that his testimony was "unblemished" by "association" with Black. In other words, because he and Sirius Black had never crossed paths, Black had had no opportunity to cast any sort of unsavoury spells on him. Such as any sort of memory modification charms.

Professor Lupin, also, was being called to testify, and Harry had to be prepared—they probably wouldn't call him, but they might, so he ought to be ready. But, as the trial was due to start, soon, Professor Lupin, Ron, and Percy would be leaving in a couple of days.

"You will be alright, while I am away?" asked Ron, with more than a bit of trepidation. His meaning could not have been more obvious, but this was just the same as when he'd paid Harry a visit before the trip to Egypt.

"I promise not to go mad and try to take over the world," Harry said, rolling his eyes. Professor Lupin thought that he was being sarcastic. The secret meaning in Harry's words was lost on those with no background knowledge of the Chitauri Invasion. Which was just him and Thor. "With the dementors gone, the main threat is Malfoy. I doubt Riddle is going to make some sort of attempt on the school whilst you're gone. We would have seen some hint of that fact, and furthermore, Dumbledore will still be here."

"Dumbledore is leaving, too," Professor Lupin had to add. It was tempting to glare at him, too.

"Well, Riddle is currently a disembodied spirit hiding in the forests of Albania."

"Harry," Professor Lupin said, and Harry could tell this was going to be bad news as much by the hesitation, the long pause after his name, as by the uncertainty in his voice. "I will most likely not be returning to Hogwarts."

He was going to continue, but Harry leapt into the slight pause. "Whyever not?" he demanded, eyes narrowed at Professor Lupin. Now, he might glare. "The year isn't even out, yet, and you're the best Defence teacher we've had!"

Professor Lupin looked down at his briefcase and avoided looking at either Ron or Harry. "Ah. Well, my affliction is likely to come up in testimony, and this trial is national news. Parents will not want a werewolf to be teaching their children. Dangerous half-breeds and monsters, you know; there are Ministry officials who try to deny us basic rights, never mind mention a job teaching children. It might not come up, and if it doesn't, I'll be glad to finish off the year—but I rather think I've served my purpose here. Now, what was I saying? Ah, yes.

"I have arranged for a substitute to teach Defence Against the Dark Arts—Dumbledore is calling her a junior professor to try to avoid the curse said to be on the position, and I'm still the official professor. You'll like her; she's Sirius Black's cousin, and she shares his…disregard of norms. She's an auror, too. She should be quite good at her job. I've asked her to help finish your lessons on the Patronus Charm, and I'm sure the two of you will have no problem getting rid of the boggart at last, which, I might add, is at this point something of a mercy for it."

Harry flinched, but Lupin was too busy looking at his suitcase, packing away papers, to notice. Ron glanced at him again, as if to ask if he were absolutely sure that he would be fine in Ron's absence.

"I just wanted to warn you in advance, give you time to say your goodbyes, and whatnot. I'll take good care of Ron, never fear, and you will be seeing me again, even if I never return to Hogwarts. You have an owl; she'll have no trouble finding me. It was a pleasure teaching you. You're one of the brightest students I've had the pleasure to meet."

Ron was shaking his head, as if to say of course. It couldn't possibly be considered a surprise that one of Asgard's premier magic-users would be considered "a good student".

"Then I suppose it now falls to the three of you to see Sirius exonerated. A chance for you to redeem yourself, in his eyes, and in yours," Harry said, gaze lowering to the floor. There was an odd relationship between him and Lupin, and between him and Thor, but he'd never spoken to just the two of them, together, before. Perhaps Ginny was right in considering him socially awkward—any knowledge Loki had of how to interact with individuals was either irrelevant, skewed by differences in culture, or outright lost in transference to Harry. He'd have to go the human route of figuring society out on his own.

"Be careful, little brother," Ron said, with that stern gravity that had been rather scarce, of late. Harry just shrugged and grinned.

"Ah. Well, you know me."

That was, of course, the problem. Unsurprisingly, Thor was not reassured.

It was decided that Harry Potter did not need to appear before the court, which was almost a shame. He'd spent quite some time studying wizarding court etiquette for Buckbeak's doomed case, after all. Still, he was cheered by the knowledge that wizarding trials tended to be rather brief affairs. He had no idea how long the average muggle trial was for similar circumstances, but a verdict was promised for a few weeks after the trial began.

In the meantime, he and Hermione followed the trial by way of the Daily Prophet, which seemed unsure whether to continue kissing up to Fudge, or whether to curry favour with the last scion of The Most Ancient and Noble House of Black. Sirius Black might have mentioned that he, like Malfoy, was practically nobility.

Hermione disapproved of the whole thing and seemed to worry constantly about Ron, which, as Harry knew for his own part, was laughable. Any way you cut it, Ron was more than a match for the courtroom. Son of a king, strong and resilient (body and soul), steadfast and confident, with a strong sense of self. Pettigrew's advocates might try to unseat him, but they would fail. They had no idea whom they were messing with.

Hermione continued to fret, and Harry had little he could do or say to reassure her. Hogwarts seemed dingier, somehow, with its Weasley population halved. The Twins (who really counted as only one person) and Ginny were left behind. Ginny, at least, had faith in Ron, which was more than could be said of the Twins. They seemed determined to remember Ron as he'd been back before that fatal tenth birthday. And, interesting though it was to hear about a very different, very human Ron Weasley, Harry wished they'd give credit where credit was due.

One good thing to come of all this was Nymphadora Tonks, their assistant professor. Malfoy was horrified by her presence for about a hundred different reasons, from the fact that she was a "blood traitor" and an auror, to the way she often flouted the unspoken Hogwarts policy that even teachers had to wear nothing but robes, appearing frequently in t-shirts and jeans. And then, there was her bright pink hair….

Even worse, she could find no fault with their previous professor, whom Malfoy loathed for mysterious reasons (perhaps he knew that Professor Lupin was a werewolf, or perhaps it was that his clothes weren't high enough class for a Malfoy's tastes). And she went by her surname, Tonks, which was a muggle name, as she was a halfblood. Malfoy glared daggers at her, and she, in a conspiratorial whisper, shared that Malfoy was technically her cousin, too. "His mum's my aunt. I've another one, too, but she's crazy and a psychopath. Dunno how Sirius escaped the family curse."

She was, however, more of a hindrance than a help, when dealing with the boggart-dementor, owing to her extreme clumsiness. She had to stay well away from the chest, and try not to move around too much, lest she come too close, and the boggart transform into her worst fear, or she accidentally kick it open by tripping over it.

"Just how do you go about making those horrid things amusing?" she muttered to herself, which was a very good question. Harry could always corral the dementor back into its box, now, but they remained stuck on that front. Tonks refused to violate Professor Lupin's instructions for Harry's tutoring. He supposed the practice was no longer hurting him. He let it pass.

He asked around at Gryffindor Tower, and Dean Thomas enthused about some muggle movie called Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, released several years ago. He set to drawing a scene from the movie, in which Death, whom the dementors superficially resembled, was dressed up in a…well, dress, to have an audience with God. It was all unsettlingly religious for Harry, but nevertheless fodder. Dean's rendition of Death-in-a-dress was noteworthy on its own.

But that was probably the way to go about it. Dementors could not be made less frightening, but Harry had no great fear of death, or even of Death. This was a breakthrough, although it reminded him of that first class, with Neville and Professor Boggart-Augusta-Snape. Tonks loved it. And "Death in a dress" seemed to work decently for dealing with dementor-boggarts, as long as you kept yourself from noticing their frigid chill, and acted before they could start sucking all joy and life from the room. This probably meant that Harry owed Dean.

Despite her clumsiness, and her less laid-back air, it was generally agreed upon that, if Professor Lupin had to go away, he'd found a suitable replacement. The only thing they seemed not to like about her was her periodic habit of shouting "CONSTANT VIGILANCE!" and then smirking, as if there were some joke they should be getting.

Sense would be made of that in-joke all too soon.

Sirius's acquittal was both the obvious outcome of the trial, and reassuring. The Daily Prophet was abuzz for a few weeks with speculation as to what other innocents might be trapped within Azkaban, and what other guilty parties might still walk free, which put Malfoy in something of a mood. Sirius Black had kept his secret of being an illegal animagus, although he'd privately, quietly registered himself on a secret list he'd petitioned to have made.

Professor Lupin was not as fortunate: the trial was not the only headline news in the paper. True to Professor Lupin's prediction, the school flooded with owls begging the recently returned Dumbledore to fire Professor Lupin, and the same sentiment could be found in the editorials, although there were also plenty of people (an amount that Lupin would later admit surprised him) who supported Professor Lupin, noting that the Wolfsbane Potion made him safe to be around children, and werewolves had to live too, you know. Actually, some of the letters arriving by the dozens might have been speaking in his defence, too. It wasn't as if Professor Dumbledore read them aloud before the whole school.

Ron, Percy, and Professor Lupin returned to the school soon after Dumbledore, in late May, and Professor Lupin pretended not to hear the whispers and comments about him that ran rampant through Hogwarts's halls.

But, Harry still heard. He seethed. Professor Lupin clearly knew his material, and there hadn't been a single incident—some of these students whispering about him behind his back had thought him "cool", before. Public opinion, especially at a school, was a fickle thing.

They had an unnervingly quiet April and May. Tonks stayed behind to continue her role as assistant professor. Since the Wizarding World was currently at peace, the Ministry didn't mind sparing her for an extended period—particularly not since it was partly their fault that the real professor had been called away, and definitely their fault that he as on the outs.

Harry was half-expecting Riddle himself to pop up out of nowhere, by now, as he'd joked about to Ron. He didn't know what to do with himself, with a normal education. He, Ron, and Hermione studied diligently for the upcoming final exams (Ron had the added burden of needing to catch up on all the material he had missed, and too little time in which to do so). Hermione seemed to enjoy trying to tutor him; Harry wished her joy of it, but, as a workaholic, she was happy to have a challenging pupil.

Sirius Black made arrangements to come to Hogwarts, to speak with the headmaster about Harry, Harry's lodgings, and just what Sirius was supposed to do with himself, now that his name was cleared, and the Order of Merlin that had been given to Pettigrew had been destroyed, and Sirius had been awarded one in his place.

Dumbledore was firm that Sirius had to recover his strength, first, although he looked far less skeletal than before. He recommended that Sirius return to St. Mungo's. Sirius put his foot down, and insisted upon staying at Hogwarts for the rest of the year. "I'm his godfather, and I've already missed over a decade of his life. That's unacceptable," he'd said.

Dumbledore had either grudgingly agreed, or Sirius had once again found a way to go behind his back. They never seemed to be in the same place at the same time, which made it difficult to tell. Professor Dumbledore was busy with…something. Presumably, it had something to do with his responsibilities as headmaster. And Sirius seemed to spend quite a bit of time catching up with Professor Lupin. Most of the students gave him a wide berth, but not the Weasleys, or Ron, Harry, or Hermione. Since Professor Lupin would only be teaching until the end of the year, he quietly looked the other way, and "forgot" about the Marauder's Map.

He and Sirius were good for stories about James, back when he'd been in school. Harry had even learnt the reason for the fierce ire directed their way by Professor Snape. This was one of the "intelligent people do stupid things" instances Sirius had hinted to Harry about, when they first met, and he'd still been wearing tattered robes, instead of a black muscle shirt advertising some muggle band Harry had never heard of, and black jeans. He seemed delighted by how this dress style offended the purebloods.

He offered Harry a home again, more than once, but Harry thought of Mother, the connection to her sustained by the blood she shared only with Aunt Petunia, and held firm. He tried to explain it to Sirius, but the way in which Sirius laughed off Harry's refusals suggested that he didn't understand. Harry wasn't sure that he understood, himself, but he knew what Dumbledore had said.

Despite that small hurdle, Harry and Sirius became fast friends within that small window of time. Sirius's concern for Harry's happiness and well-being were foreign, but welcome. Harry felt that he'd found another adult that he could trust. These were few and far between. And the sorts of antics Sirius described him and his friends (Harry's dad among them) getting into at school, and the sorts of mistakes Harry knew him to have made, made Harry want to confide in him about the biggest secret he held. That was not, of course, his secret, alone, to bear, but when he cornered Ron to ask about it, Ron seemed to think the decision of whether or not to tell was Harry's choice to make. They both seemed to trust Sirius, although a nagging familiarity—a commonality of experience, perhaps—made Sirius easier to trust than anyone Harry had ever met before. Always before, the adults in Harry's life had let him down—except for Professor Lupin, and Dumbledore. Truly, this was an odd year.

Despite how much they trusted him, they left Sirius Black out of Hermione's end-of-year mad scheme.

Chapter Text

Buckbeak lost the appeal, and Malfoy nearly lost his life gloating about it. It was the only thing he had to gloat about, after Harry and company had thoroughly trounced Malfoy and his cronies in the last quidditch match of the season, thereby winning the quidditch cup for Gryffindor, at last. While this meant that the proverbial noose had loosened from around the collective necks of the quidditch team, it meant that Malfoy felt an increased need to vent his ire.

"But it's not murder if it's Malfoy," Harry protested, as Hermione glared at him, clenching her hand into a fist. "Besides, you slapped him; I don't see why you stopped Ron."

"Because Ron might have killed him, and you weren't stopping him," she said, rubbing her hand against her robes as if it stung. With a face as angular as Malfoy's, she might have poked herself. A glance over in Ron's direction showed him looking slightly sheepish, but not in the slightest bit self-conscious or remorseful. Harry couldn't blame him.

"We're going to end up killing Malfoy, sooner or later. Riddle is going to come back, and when that happens, Malfoy will waste no time signing himself up on the Death Eaters sign-ups list. Will you still defend him when you meet on opposite sides of the battlefield, I wonder."

"What do you know?" Hermione snapped, recovering almost instantly from Harry's mention of Riddle. Ron must have seen Harry's expression darken, because he shot him a look that Loki had had to use on Thor all the time. It was somewhat disorienting to have the tables turned, thus, and that disorientation was enough for him to get a grip on himself. He should probably thank Ron, but he didn't, because there was no way to do this without both arousing Hermione's suspicion, and sounding ridiculous.

But Hermione was still coiled as tight as a spring. "Oh, we can't let them execute Buckbeak! We all know that Malfoy was faking his injury, and that Buckbeak was just acting according to his nature—hippogriffs attack when provoked, and, when you look at those beaks and talons, Buckbeak really held back! There must be something…yes, I think that might work, but what about—"

She rushed off to the library at this. They would not learn what she was on about for several days, as was typical of Hermione.

"Did I get a trial?" Harry asked Ron. He'd gone all the way up to the Astronomy Tower to get away from everyone, so, naturally, Ron had followed him.

Ron frowned, but somehow knew precisely what Harry meant. He did look remorseful, now, corners of his eyes turned down, head bowed, shoulders even set in a sort of slouch. Harry wanted to snap that he didn't blame him for not knowing about the whole…Thanos thing, but suspected that if he said it flat out, it wouldn't help. Thor was a classic man of action, which seemed to mean that he believed something only if he saw it. This had often backfired spectacularly for him in the past, so this attitude was tempered somewhat by his previous experience with mortality on Earth. You know, the one that wouldn't happen for two decades.

"Ah…no," he admitted, after a moment's hesitation. He didn't ask why Harry had to ask; he must remember that Harry said he didn't remember anything after the end of the Invasion. "That is not how matters are settled in a kingdom. Father saw sufficient proof of your guilt to imprison you. It was not an indefinite sentence. Understand that he did not wish to do this, and that he fully intended to release you when he deemed that you were no longer a threat. He told me that it is one of the difficulties of being king—that the people must come first, before even those whom he loves, and that being just often gives the impression of cruelty."

"Ah," said Harry. "The difficult choices. That sounds an excuse. Did he ever even come visit?"

Thor's silence was answer enough. "It was not out of want of love for you, Brother," he said, at length. "There was but little time between your arrest, and the reappearance of the Aether. That was when they murdered Mother, and I—"

"Broke me out of jail to help you?" asked Harry. "Because you knew that I loved Mother, despite everything." He didn't remember the events, but he could guess, read between the lines.

"I needed to follow them, after they took Jane. I needed a means of traveling between the worlds without use of the Bifrost, and you…I knew that you had such a means. You knew secrets that none of us had discovered."

"A World-Gate," Harry said. "But I suppose you didn't ask your Father for permission—"

"He is your father, too," said Thor, all earnest enthusiasm and loyalty. "You know that he loves you as well as I."

Harry looked over the balcony, and realised that the ground was too far away. He had to turn away, with the stars shining bright overhead. There was too much bitter threat in their existence, so far removed from safety.

He considered Thor's words. Love. The Sorting Hat had told him that love was his guiding force—the guidance of his mother, the authority of his father. It had seen what he had missed, what Loki had forgot. Father, always so distant, always so difficult to please; he'd felt he'd had to work harder at that than anything else, just to be noticed.

But, sometimes, he'd succeeded. He had forgotten that. And if Odin favoured his natural son, he didn't realise it. He meant to be even-handed and fair, but if there was a certain distance there, perhaps it wasn't even in the difference between adopted children and natural ones. Perhaps, it was something else. Perhaps, he'd thought that Thor needed him more, impulsive and reckless as he was. Perhaps, he'd considered Loki his ally in trying to rein in Thor's impulses. It was all hypothetical. He couldn't know for sure: Loki had never asked. But, what did he think?

He remembered Mother, thought of Mother, and was unable to doubt the sincerity of her love. It was her strength, more than that of anyone else, which had brought him through this year. But Odin couldn't measure up to Harry's scant knowledge of James Potter, who had died defending his wife, only for her to die defending their son.

Could he? He glanced around the room, but didn't see any of it. There were stars everywhere. He had to close his eyes.

"Thor, Brother, please," he begged. "I am still trying to comprehend everything else that has happened this year. It is very different from the last two years, is it not? Sirius, and Professor Lupin, Peter Pettigrew, the dementors…and then you. I have a father: James Potter. He may be dead, but all I know of him says that he deserves my respect. You seek too much of me, too soon. Give me time."

"He loved you no less than he loved me," Thor insisted, with that single-minded focus that often led him into trouble. Harry sighed, thinking back to all of those dangerous old memories.

"…I know," he said, his voice almost a whisper. "But, he is not here, now, listening to us. I have much to resent him for. Give me time, Thor. Are we not speaking now? Perhaps, in time, I will agree with your words, but for now…."

He spread his arms wide, and stepped away from the balcony, turning to face Thor. "Be patient. How often has haste availed you?"

Thor shook his head. "Then I shall ask you a question," he said, and Harry nodded. He knew the questions would eventually come. The chances that they were about anything other than the Invasion were infinitesimal. He braced himself, internally, whilst looking quite relaxed to all outward appearances.

"The Chitauri. Whence did they come?" This question had clearly plagued him for years. Harry looked back up at him, and the expression on his face could be mistaken for a smile, by those who didn't know him, who didn't know his background.

"What's this? Another way of asking who controls the would-be king?" he asked, tilting his head. He knew there were two ideas in Thor's head, two separate ideas, not quite touching. All Harry had just done was to bridge the two.

Thor recognised his own words, turned back on him once again. "'Controls'… then that means—"

Harry turned away, preparing for Thor to speak the name. He hadn't warned him yet that the danger was greater now than it had been before, with no thick barrier blocking off that corrupted part of his mind. But…it was only his mind. Why, then…?

Perhaps out of consideration to Harry, Thor did not speak the name. Instead, he took advantage of Harry's lack of attention to cross over, and rest a hand on Harry's shoulder. "I should have seen it before," he said. "But, that means…those dreams, in first year…."

A series of disjointed thoughts. Harry took some time sifting through them. He refused to look at Ron.

"He knows how to use the Infinity Stones," he warned. "You had best be more careful. His mastery over the Mind Stone enabled him to…broaden his victims' horizons, shall we say?"

Thor sucked in a great breath, and gripped Harry's shoulder tight. "…He brainwashed you?" Harry tried to shrug off that hand, but Thor, even in a mortal body, had an iron grip. He would not let the question go unanswered.

"Just like that friend of yours…what was his name?" The dreams were too sketchy here: he'd honestly missed the name, if ever it had been spoken.

"Clint Barton," Thor supplied, but his expression, when Harry chanced to glance at him, was distant.

"He will come to this world. He will come for me. I failed in the task he set to me, and he will not overlook the loss of the Mind Stone. Be thankful if Earth does not become his next conquest. He slaughters the half of the worlds he conquers, as if that restores some sort of cosmic balance, and calls it 'mercy'. He thinks that he is doing a good thing. He thinks that he is doing them a kindness. Do you think that you can stop him?"

"Now that I know of his threat, I promise you this: We will stop him. Together. We have always had more success, working as a team than at odds with one another. Are you willing to help me?"

Harry closed his eyes, and bowed his head. "I will help, but the two of us won't be enough. We need the Avengers."

He hated voicing that admission aloud.

Things settled down with both Buckbeak's and Sirius's trials out of the way. But at the end of May, Buckbeak was slated for execution, which stirred Hermione into motion, offended by the mere idea of an innocent creature being murdered. The would-be executioner was on the list of exonerated Death Eaters, which inclined Harry towards assisting her, and Ron, of course, signed on to keep Harry out of trouble, to repay Hagrid, and just to placate Hermione, who seemed to feel a bit miffed, still, that she'd missed out on the Scabbers Incident.

Whatever Harry had been expecting of Hermione's big secret—and he'd given it little thought, with plenty of other things to occupy his mind over the course of the year—he hadn't expected it to be time travel. Perhaps he should have—how else could you attend three classes at once? But he hadn't expected it. And he'd even less expected Hermione to suggest that they break the law to save Buckbeak.

"He's innocent, just like Sirius," she said, with a somewhat wild-eyed expression. "He hasn't done anything wrong!" Now, she looked to be on the verge of tears.

"And time travel is the only way this can work?" Harry asked for what felt the hundredth time.

Hermione nodded vigorously. "I told you already, we need an alibi! Almost no one knows that I have a time turner, and everyone who knows me knows that I never do anything reckless or against the rules—although I sometimes get dragged into similar situations by my two best friends—" She shot them one of her patented, smugly superior looks. "They'd never suspect me!"

"They'd totally expect me," Harry said. "Perhaps you should just bring Ron with you. He's good at this sort of stuff."

No one in their right mind would choose Ron for a mission involving subtlety and care. Hermione narrowed her eyes at Harry, folding her arms. Yes, she was definitely spending too much time with Ron.

"Fine, fine. The year is not complete without us breaking the law, and a hundred school rules. I hope you've planned this thoroughly."

"Of course I have," Hermione said, smiling even as Ron looked down, as if it would tune out, and exempt him from, the discussion currently happening around him.

"Good," said Harry. "Because I have no idea where we could hide Buckbeak, or how to keep him from just returning to Hagrid's cabin, or how to explain to him that he has to go into hiding."

Hermione's mouth rounded into her familiar silent realisation. She almost never said the word, "oh", but it always accompanied her silently.

"Well, er," she foundered, searching for safe ground. Harry sighed.

"…I'll see what I can figure out," he said, running a hand through his hair, with a sigh. Of course, he'd have to do half of the work on Hermione's project.

But, he did figure out the answers to some of those problems. Sirius told them about a criminal friend of his, Mundungus Fletcher, who could take Buckbeak off their hands, and that Crookshanks knew the secret way into the passage under the Whomping Willow.

"It was built to help Remus with his transformations," Sirius said, in a low voice, as if the secret could still be kept. Judging by Snape's almost-smugness, he was the one to first out Remus as a werewolf. "We used it to sneak into and out of Hogwarts's grounds. I'll arrange for 'Dung to meet you in Hogsmeade. He may be shady, but he's loyal. Even if he gets caught, he won't sell us out. 'Course, I've been wrong about that before."

Harry left Sirius to his glum thoughts, torn between trying to figure out how to undo the damage Azkaban had caused to his soul, and who-knew-what-else, and trying to plan for the immediate future. Hermione was insistent that they had to save Buckbeak at the very hour he would otherwise be executed.

"Otherwise," she explained, with exaggerated patience, "The Ministry will think that Hagrid freed him."

Harry could have figured this out on his own, but he wisely kept that fact to himself. Most of his attention still was devoted to fixing the damage done to Sirius, although St. Mungo's was doing their best to treat him long-distance. Unfortunately, they had no prior experience to fall back on, and, worse, they didn't understand the effect dementors had on the soul. Harry thought a fix was probably up to him. He was forever cornering the resident expert (Professor Lupin), and Sirius, and then researching what had been discovered of the most similar symptoms he could find. But, Sirius Black was the first person to escape Azkaban, and the first to be left in their "care" (at their mercy) for an extended period of time, without losing his mind.

References for even slightly similar events were few and far between.

Hermione continued to map out her plans for who would do what on the night of Buckbeak's "execution". Judging by her confidence, she'd run the plan past Dumbledore at some point. It was possible she hadn't, but Hermione's natural inclination was to obey authority figures, and she acted as if she had one backing her.

Of course, even as the execution crept closer, so too did final exams. They were the closer, and thus Harry spent progressively more of his time working on studying. He'd already reviewed quite a while in Ron and Professor Lupin's absence, but school still took precedence over his long-term project. Even as he studied, thoughts of his other research tended to intrude. It was while studying for History of Magic, after all, that he realised that legilimency would perforce be an integral part of any treatment program he might devise.

He came to the conclusion, sometime in the week preceding finals, that the closest they would come to an end-of-the-year threat or drama would be Buckbeak's rescue, although, as it turned out, Professor Lupin's obstacle course drove quite a few students to tears, including Hermione, who didn't quite manage to make her way through. Neither Harry nor Ron could work what it was that had so terrified her out of her, but thought that there might be some sort of hint in the way that she seemed reluctant to let either of them out of her sight for a second, over the rest of finals week.

Divination was a difficult subject to review for—there were no required materials for the course, bar the textbooks, which in turn made for no ability to practise. Only the true seers would be able to find a workaround; they scried in bowls and plates, doused with wands, read pumpkin juice or ordered tea from the kitchens (Harry hadn't realised that you could do this before, but anyone who could find the kitchens could make special requests of them, whoever it was, that worked there).

Despite his lack of practice, Harry had enough experience fabricating the sort of tale Professor Trelawney enjoyed hearing told to do well on his exam. He gave a long, intricate prophecy on the subject of Buckbeak, who often was on his mind owing to the fact that it was almost his execution date. If he was passing this class—and he knew that he was—he had also just passed his Divination exam. It wasn't that long, or that complicated, and hardly the sort of comprehensive test that you would expect from a competent teacher—but, as with Snape, while Trelawney clearly knew her stuff, she was a poor teacher of it. Of course, there was also the fact to consider that Divination was difficult to teach.

Harry shook his head to clear it. He'd already taken all the rest of his exams, and, combined with the perpetual haze of the Divination classroom, his mind was in a bit of a fog. It still occurred to him, as he was the last to take his Divination "exam", to stay behind to enquire as to the nature of prophecies, and prophetic knowledge.

Which was somewhat fitting, considering what happened next. He had packed his school satchel, and was slinging it over his shoulder, when Professor Trelawney spoke, in a harsh, guttural voice, quite different from her usual mystical whisper.

"It will happen tonight," she pronounced, in a deep growl of a voice, and Harry whirled back around to face her. He considered opening his seventh sense, would later regret not doing just that, for this was a unique experience. Trelawney stood there, unnaturally still, eyes rolled back in her head, and continued to intone her prophecy, for that was what Harry had swift realised that this was. "The Dark Lord lies alone and friendless, forsaken by his followers…. His servant has been chained these past twelve years…. Tonight, before midnight, the servant will set out to rejoin his master. The Dark Lord will rise again with his servant's aid, greater and more terrible than ever he was…. Tonight…before midnight…the servant will set out to rejoin his master…."

She trailed off, as if whatever had caused her to speak had left her, and Harry realised that he'd stood there, frozen, listening to her recitation, unable to move or even properly to think. He should have opened his seventh sense—it might have given him an idea, at least, as to the nature and source of prophecy.

Then, his mind caught up to his ears, and he realised what she'd said.

"What happened? Why are you looking at me that way, my dear boy?"

He just kept staring. "You don't remember?"

Problems concerning memory happened disconcertingly often around him. As did unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities—providing they were negative.

"Ah, I must have passed out for a moment—this heat. You're such a dear for worrying about me, but I'll be fine."

He shook his head with some violence. "You just gave a prophecy," he said, somewhat disappointed that she didn't remember. It would have been nice to have someone to confirm this news, which he knew had to be brought to Dumbledore's attention. And the Ministry's. There were plenty of "servants" of Lord Voldemort, even ones who had "been chained these last twelve years". It might not be Pettigrew.

However, given the Ministry's past record, he was the most likely to escape. The entire thing was bad, bad news.

"You said that You-Know-Who's servant would escape, and he would resurrect him—that You-Know-Who would 'rise with his servant's aid, greater and more terrible than ever he was'—"

"I think you may have fallen asleep, too," said Trelawney, her tone suddenly sharp. She sounded almost human. "I would certainly not presume to predict something as far-fetched as that!"

"You said yourself: you can't control what or when you predict!" Harry retorted, wondering as he did why he was even bothering. "Don't accuse me of fabricating this just because you don't remember it when you give major prophecies!"

For some reason, she did not appreciate his pointing this out to her.

"I think you had better leave, Potter. Get some air," she said, her voice so firm, for a moment she could almost be mistaken for McGonagall.

Sensing that she would not be willing to discuss this, or to back him up, he headed straight for Dumbledore's office, regardless.

It took him only three tries to guess the password, this time, and he barely noticed, reciting the lines over and over to himself, trying to engrain them into his memory. Dumbledore needed to know. He had no memory, later, of knocking upon the door, or of opening it, or of sitting down. He was fairly sure that he gave Fawkes an absent-minded wave as a greeting, but most of his attention was fixated upon Dumbledore.

"Ah, Harry, to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit? Lemon drop?" Dumbledore asked, and Harry leant forwards, pressing his hands against the wood of Dumbledore's desk, heedless of any spindly silver instruments in his way.

"Professor Trelawney…" he began. "I just came from her final exam—it's my last exam of term, you know, and I was the last one she tested. And then, she sort of went all…rigid and strange… I thought she was going to have a seizure, at first, you know? But she was speaking, in a harsh growl of a voice…I've never her heard her sound that way before…. She said: 'It will happen tonight'…."

He shook his head, closed his eyes, tilted his head back, as if that would help him to recapture the memory. He recited the prophecy as best he could, eyes closed to avoid any distractions, but that just made him more aware of the little noises—the breathing of the portraits on the walls, the ruffling of Fawkes's feathers, the slight whoosh of air caused by the perpetual motion instruments. He thought he remembered the entire thing.

He opened his eyes to see Dumbledore's gaze fixed upon him with the gravest expression Harry had ever seen, from him.

"And to think, in the excitement of this year, I had forgotten what I promised to tell you at the end of last year, concerning the reason that Voldemort went after your family to begin with. You must forgive me, Harry, but the news you bring requires swift action. However…." He reached under his desk, and pulled out a silver basin, runes ringing the edges. On another day, Harry would have read them, and tried to discern their uses (if they weren't mere decoration; wizards too, did that, sometimes). For the moment, however, he just sat there, eyebrow raised, wondering what relevance this basin had. And what it was.

"This is a pensieve, Harry," Dumbledore said. The term sounded vaguely familiar, but he didn't know what it was. But he didn't say that.

"If you concentrate hard on a memory, and touch the tip of your wand to your temple, you will be able to extract that memory. If you put the memory in this pensieve, you will be able to view it as a detached observer, and even string such thoughts together…. If you would remember the experience you just had, if I could borrow your memory of what Professor Trelawney just said…it might help me to convince the Ministry to heed my warnings. They are less… reasonable, of late."

Ah. That was why. Harry closed his eyes, concentrating hard on the fresh memory of Trelawney, packing up to go, and then the way Trelawney had spoken….

He detached the memory, and, with a flick of his eyes to Dumbledore's watchful gaze, detached it from his head and put it in the pensieve.

"I will return this memory to you afterwards, of course. The Ministry will want to duplicate it for their records…they have an entire room devoted to prophecies in the Department of Mysteries. But I digress. Go back to your friends, Harry, and I will keep you informed. I must thank you for delivering this report promptly."

He reached into the fireplace, and pulled down a jar of bright green powder, of which he threw a handful into his fireplace, crying, "Ministry of Magic!"

He stepped through, disappearing, leaving Harry alone in his office.

Chapter Text

Of course, Harry's natural inclination was to speak with the Sorting Hat. It would be the first time he'd spoken to the Hat since…well, since the big confrontation. But he scowled as he realised that the Hat must have known all along—in both of their cases, and never said anything.

He blinked. Hadn't it said that it kept these secrets for those it sorted? For better or for worse, at great cost, with no reward possible? Something to that effect. That was just proof of its words. Put that way, it was somewhat…reassuring.

It might have had the decency to tell him where his brother was, at least. Would that be asking too much?

And speaking of…he probably ought to tell Ron and Hermione this news…but somehow, he suspected that he'd just get drawn into Hermione's planning sessions. Perhaps, he should speak with Professor Lupin, Tonks, and Sirius instead…Tonks was an auror, perhaps she…?

The fact was, it was galling to be stuck here, safe at Hogwarts, not knowing what was going on. At least Dumbledore had promised to keep him informed. He'd just have to find something else with which to occupy his time. He knew that Hermione could be counted on to drag him into her plans.

He turned to Fawkes. "Do you suppose he'd mind, Guy?" he asked the phoenix, who, by now, probably could guess precisely what Harry was talking about. The bird just stared at him, and then gave a little trill, that he took for permission. But instead, full of a restless energy, he shrugged, and said, "I'm leaving. I have to accomplish something here."

Fawkes gave a sad little trill of farewell, and Harry made his way through the corridors to the Defence classroom with the same lack of attention that had brought him to Dumbledore's office.

Professor Lupin looked up as he appeared in the doorway. "Ah, Harry, come in," he said, with a smile. "I would have left by now, but tonight—and tomorrow night—are the full moon. I thought it best to take advantage of this, while I still could—"

"What's the matter, kiddo?" asked Sirius, rising to his feet and crossing the room. "Come in; sit down…you look like you've seen a ghost."

"Ghosts are all over Hogwarts," Professor Lupin pointed out. Sirius just smiled.

"It's a muggle expression, Remus. Isn't that right, Nymphie?"

"Call me that again, Black, and I hex you. Wotcher, Harry!" said the unfortunately named girl.

Harry glanced around the room as if he expected a wall of boggarts to show up and attack him.

"Well, today is the day slated for Buckbeak's execution—"

"Ah, yes. I'd forgotten," Professor Lupin muttered, with a grimace.

"—but that misfortune pales in comparison to others. Do you believe in the reality of foretelling the future?"

There was a pause, as everyone tried to understand his abrupt change of subject.

"I never really thought about it," Professor Lupin said diplomatically, taking a sip of the Wolfsbane Potion, and grimacing. He seemed otherwise to be relaxing, sitting at his desk, and taking some time to hang out with his friends. Harry thought he probably shouldn't have interrupted—but if anyone deserved to know about a potential breakout by Peter Pettigrew, it was these two, whose lives he had ruined.

"I think your Dad did," said Sirius. "He could make some convincing arguments for it, but I'm on the fence. Don't we make our own destinies?"

"You just say that because you're the odd Black out," said Tonks, rolling her eyes. "You always have to be different. But everyone in the House of Black has to learn all these long-standing traditions—prophecies have been around for a long time. And the Unspeakables clearly believe in them, or they wouldn't be researching them in the Hall of Prophecy. But what does this have to do with anything?"

Asking what an "Unspeakable" was could wait. It sounded like some manner of title.

"Professor Trelawney gave a prophecy that sent Dumbledore to the Ministry to check up on some things. I was there to hear her prophecy, and it sounded…bad. It seemed to concern Peter Pettigrew."

The sudden tension in the room was so taut and thick that you could cut it.

"That traitor?" snapped Sirius Black, looking quite different, almost deranged, with his head bowed, and his fists clenched. He'd cut his hair to about shoulder length, his clothes were typical muggle attire, and his fingernails were neat and even, and yet somehow he looked far more dangerous than he had on that first night. He didn't have his wand in his hand, but his eyes seemed to shoot sparks.

"A prophecy…are you sure? Professor Trelawney, er…didn't strike me as the type—" Professor Lupin said. His diplomacy was falling a bit flat in the wake of the sudden hard lighting of the room.

"It's the end of the school year," Harry said. "This sort of thing tends to happen. I shouldn't be surprised if I encounter a dementor of twelve before the day is out…even if they have all returned to Azkaban."

Sirius paled a bit at the mention of the place, and Harry shot him an apologetic look.

"What was the prophecy?" asked Tonks, and Harry frowned. He couldn't remember her giving it, but he remembered what he'd told Dumbledore, and he could recite that.

"I gave Dumbledore my memory of the incident, to help him convince the Ministry—"

"As if that'll work," Sirius growled. "Incompetent fools! You saw how they handled my case—"

Sudden, complete silence, the kind that comes of a rising crisis that no one knows how to handle.

"Perhaps if I went to the Ministry—" Tonks suggested, casting worried glances around the room.

He'd done nothing but put them on edge.

"I just thought that you should know…keep your guard up." He wished he hadn't come, even as he knew that he had to. He spent some more time giving half-hearted suggestions as to what they should do, before he conceded defeat, and left.

The natural thing to do after witnessing a dangerous prediction was to seek out Ron and Hermione, and tell them what he'd witnessed. It was just as well that he'd gone to Dumbledore first, and then Sirius, Professor Lupin, and Tonks, because Hermione had scarcely lain eyes on him before she redirected his attention. Today was, after all, the day slated for Buckbeak's execution, and Hermione was a woman of single-minded focus. She'd even drawn Ron into things. He looked quite as long-suffering as Harry felt.

Her plan went off without a hitch, unless you counted the natural difficulties in trying to convey your intentions to an animal. There was a certain language barrier. Hippogriffs were probably aware of the concept of death, but probably less aware of the existence of murder or execution, and even less how to plan to save yourself from those. He knew that Hagrid took care of him, and loved him, and Hagrid's tears and wailing made him strain against the rope.

But the rope was being held by Ron, so there was one fewer hurdle in their line-up. Few creatures in this world had the physical strength and stamina to drag Ron anywhere against his will. The reverse was not as true. Once Ron had bowed to Buckbeak, received Buckbeak's approval, and led him into the woods, they had to keep still and quiet, watching the cabin closely to see who came and went, and listening in to hear what they decided.

He had not expected Dumbledore's presence, but it had been several hours since he'd issued his warning. Still, it was most likely not a good sign that Fudge had come, in person, to see to the execution of Buckbeak, instead of staying behind in the Ministry. That seemed to suggest that their priorities were somewhat…skewed

At last, they left. Dumbledore's suggestion that they "search the skies" was one of the last comments anyone made before they all left the cabin to head back to the castle. Hagrid was about to get very drunk to celebrate Buckbeak's escape which he thought was Buckbeak untying his own rope (knots are very unreliable things), when, unless Harry was much mistaken, Dumbledore had just covered for them.

Hermione was smug about the entire matter, even before Buckbeak was safe. Harry quietly reminded her that they still needed to get Buckbeak to Mundungus Fletcher, somehow, and she wrinkled her nose at the name of a man she'd never even met. She knew that he was a thief and a criminal, and, although what they were doing right now was, technically speaking, illegal, that didn't make her any more inclined to accept a thief—even one who was doing her a favour, had fought against Riddle in the last war, and who greatly admired (and was steadfastly loyal to) Dumbledore.

Hermione was exactly the sort of person who never noticed her own hypocrisy, Harry mused as they led Buckbeak at a muffled trot over towards the Whomping Willow. Crookshanks glared at them as they approached, as if to ask them what had taken so long, before darting over the tree, and pressing a paw to its trunk. They could have used one of its fallen branches, but that was much more difficult to do—aiming through those lashing limbs without getting close enough for it to strike you—and Sirius had already taught Crookshanks the secret; might as well make use of it.

They waited until they were well along the path to the Shrieking Shack to relax even slightly. It would be a bit of a trick, getting out of the Shack, with all of its doors and windows boarded up, but Harry knew that, between him and Hermione, they could manage. If Ron didn't just knock the door down, or something. It was the sort of thing he would do.

Because there was no true rush, Harry was able to prise the boards off the door (with Ron's help, of course) and shift them to the side. He had no idea how they were going to replace the boards again without a hammer, but decided that saying such a thing was probably not the best idea. It was also entirely possible (or absurdly likely?) that Ron had managed to bring his pet hammer with him when he was incarnated as a human, and—

Yes, those were thoughts best left for another time. Judging by the appearance of The Burrow, however, there were magical means of replacing those boards. If this activity was truly sanctioned by Dumbledore, he would probably arrange to have those boards fixed before anyone could discover the tunnel leading to Hogwarts. Which did not mean that he, Ron, and Hermione would just leave the boards hanging loose around the frame of the door.

Mundungus Fletcher was one of those patrons of the Hog's Head who wore a cowl over his face, the ones that Hagrid had mentioned so casually in first year. Harry could see a pair of extremely baggy eyes, a chin covered with stubble, and surprisingly full lips, under a rather long nose. But not all at the same time, as the cloak worked hard to keep his profile in shadow.

The bartender glared over in their direction, occasionally, as if knowing that they were not supposed to be there, which seemed plausible, but Mundungus Fletcher assured them, in his rather rough and scratchy voice, that the old man never breathed a word of his dealings before. Also, he apparently had been a member of Dumbledore's old Order, too. Those people were suddenly coming out of the woodwork, which was probably just as well, given—

Oh. Now, with Buckbeak off their hands, and the immediate task of trying to repair the Shrieking Shack to look forward to, Harry remembered the prophecy. But he knew that it was pointless to mention it to Hermione—she'd just scoff, and right now she was radiant with her triumph. Her thundercloud of hair, even, seemed to be glowing. He wouldn't ruin it for her with talk of things she didn't believe in.

At the same time, it seemed wrong to only tell Ron. He considered the matter on the way back to the Shack.

The next step was transfiguring items they found on the way into tools they could use for construction. They'd have to tell Dumbledore about their efforts…and maybe Sirius, Professor Lupin, and Tonks could help them instead, but for now, they needed just anything of around the same shape and size as hammers and nails. Rocks and sticks worked well enough, for the moment. It was only a stopgap measure, after all.

Harry picked up a rock hammer, and shot a glance, aside, at Ron. He thought the entire thing was hilarious, but Ron didn't seem to agree. Perhaps it made him nostalgic.

Hermione didn't know to comment on the quick work Ron made of the entire task. Harry was sure that nails were supposed to take a great deal more blows to sink in. Despite this, he knew that Ron and Hermione were both listening to what he remembered of the prophecy. Hermione, of course, was dismissive, Ron far less. He seemed troubled, and were it anyone else, Harry would fear that he'd hit his thumb with the hammer accidentally. But he hadn't forgotten who Ron was.

After they'd finished, they had to return to Hogwarts, cross the grounds without attracting attention, and somehow sneak back into Gryffindor Tower, where they were supposedly fast asleep. For this part of the journey, Harry pulled out the invisibility cloak, to hide them from prying eyes, and the Map, and they emerged back into the night, where Crookshanks was waiting. He twined around their legs, purring, and then stopped the Whomping Willow, so that they could head back into the castle.

It was difficult to believe that this was the cat who had caused Ron and Hermione's quarrels. Really, though, with Scabbers revealed to be a villain (or at least a minion), that made Crookshanks into the hero's sidekick, always an auspicious role. Neville had even forgiven the cat for getting him a week of detentions (after Crookshanks was revealed to have stolen the passwords, the detentions were canceled, which helped). Sir Cadogan was still in charge of passwords for the moment, which was always a bit of a hurdle to cross, but it was always amusing to watch Ron and Sir Cadogan interact. Harry wished that they'd met earlier, but he'd just enjoy it while he could. Ron always seemed a bit…diminished, after a chat with Sir Cadogan.

It was a bit less amusing when they were this pressed for time, but nothing much could be done about the matter. Sir Cadogan had insisted that the Fat Lady had forfeited her position for the year, and that therefore he, the stalwart defender of the young and the innocent, had taken up the standard, defending the Tower with steely courage, and….

Sir Cadogan had never shown any such ability, of course, but he had been the only portrait to volunteer for the job, and Dumbledore had elected to humour him. Harry was confident that he wouldn't even remember the three of them passing through, late at night, on the last day of term. He'd keep silent, for rather different reasons from the Fat Lady. That was all that mattered to them, for the moment.

No one could discover how Buckbeak had escaped, a week later, perhaps because they were too busy focusing on the breakout from Azkaban Fortress. Peter Pettigrew had somehow escaped in the middle of the night. Probably, the fact that he hadn't been put in a cell specially designed for animagi assisted in this ("He was in temporary holding there, surrounded by dementors—we were about to move him to a proper cell, but these things take a while to prepare", a flustered Fudge was reported to have said). Harry threw the paper across the table in disgust.

"Well," he said, putting quite a bit of emphasis into the word. He thought it sufficient response. He felt Ron's gaze land on him, more troubled than it had been in months. The Dark Lord will rise again... greater and more terrible than ever he was….

Sirius Black and Remus Lupin breached protocol by joining them at the gryffindor table. Technically, Professor Lupin was no longer a professor, which meant that he couldn't get in trouble for it—he no longer even had the authority to award points.

"I see you've heard the news," said Professor Lupin. He sounded tired, and his voice was hoarse and creaky. He put his head in his hands, looking down at the table, as the gryffindor students in Harry's vicinity turned to look at their strange little corner.

"I should have let you kill him," Harry said to Sirius. "This is what comes of showing mercy." The way he spat out the last word made Ron glance over at him, and then move over to be ready to act at a moment's notice. Harry, in other circumstances, would have rolled his eyes, but he honestly didn't know how to react.

"It's not your fault, kiddo," Sirius said. "You were right. If I'd killed Peter, I'd have gone back to Azkaban…old Voldy's still got plenty of supporters there. If it wasn't him, the prophecy could have been about any of the other Death Eaters… chained in different ways. These things have a way of coming true, I suppose. Don't tell Tonks I said that. Look, kid, Harry, don't blame yourself for this. You made the right choice…I wasn't thinking straight."

"But…if Riddle rises again…that makes it my fault."

"Then it's definitely my fault that your folks died," Sirius said, staring him down. Harry'd worked particularly hard to make Sirius stop blaming himself for just this—it was in the way of his recovery. Fool knew it, too. Harry decided that he hated talking to smart people. He liked being the one who knew how to talk people into corners, and hated having it turned back on him. But Sirius meant well. Harry sighed.

"Pettigrew owes you his life," Remus said, looking thoughtful. "That gives you a bit of leverage over him—something about bonds of spirit…I'll have to look it up…."

"Why did I bother telling Dumbledore?" asked Harry. "Are the Ministry always this inept?"

"Pretty much," agreed Sirius.

"But we're here for you, all the way," Hermione said, eyes suspiciously bright. Ron sighed, running a hand through his hair, and shot Harry a glance.

"Will you be alright?" he asked. "I might remind you that I, too, was present when Peter Pettigrew revealed himself."

Harry gave a bitter laugh. "As if I could forget. Very well, then, I understand what all of you are saying."

"Good," Hermione said, in a manner that stated in no uncertain terms that the discussion was closed.

"All that we can do is to be ready when Riddle rises again," Ron said, folding his arms, and frowned.

"He never escaped without help," Sirius snarled. "We should pursue that lead, I suppose. But I am concerned about you being alone at the Dursleys—"

"I have the Weasleys checking up on me every week," Harry said, glancing at Ron, who looked deep in thought. There was a time when he would probably have mocked Ron for that—or not Ron, per se—anyway, things were different, now, and the world was about to be upended, again. At least he had forewarning, this time.

Chapter Text

Everything was chaos in the wake of Pettigrew's escape, both within, and without, the castle. Percy was so distraught and distracted by the news that he begged to have his N.E.W.T.s postponed for a second time. He seemed to be convinced that Pettigrew would come after him, particularly, and Harry had to wonder just what Percy had said in his testimony. He'd never been closer to feeling pity for what was usually the bossiest and most arrogant of the Weasleys.

Fred, George, and Ginny were nothing diminished, but they did seem to feel that Ron was in a certain amount of danger, which was utterly ridiculous. Neville was almost in hysterics at the realisation that the man who had only been arrested because Crookshanks had stolen the passwords Neville had written down (so that was how Sirius had gotten in) was now at liberty to take his revenge. Sirius and Professor Lupin spent a great deal of time in conference with Headmaster Dumbledore.

Harry, Ron, and Hermione couldn't catch a break. This, so soon after successfully rescuing Buckbeak, and the knowledge that Pettigrew's escape anticipated Riddle's return….

Harry continued his research into treating Sirius Black's trauma, but he thought he'd just about exhausted Hogwarts's knowledge, which was hardly extensive. For the most part, the information he was there for was in the Restricted Section, and it was all fragmentary references to reactions and attempted rescues from long-forbidden curses. He was only able to research these at all because Professor Lupin had written him a note, before he'd stopped being a member of Hogwarts's staff. Harry had sorted through these volumes, first.

For the most part, he sensed that he'd probably be creating his own cure, from scratch. It would take years, so he'd better start now. Even the pure energy of the other kind of magic would do little to cut down on the time that this would take. It was all a careful admixture process anyway, requiring a multi-faceted approach. If only there were someone with whom he could confer…. It was true that Mother was some help with his efforts, but it was also true that once a month was far from sufficient for planning. Still, with the threat of dementors gone, she'd resumed his lessons in healing, which was nothing if not directly relevant to his situation.

Ron had clearly managed to pass his final exams, with help from Hermione, but Harry thought he should have gotten a free pass—or at the very least an extension. Then again, cumulative exams were designed to show that students had been studying and practising what they'd learnt over the course of the semester. Harry hoped that Hermione hadn't forced him to review for Hagrid's class, which, with Hagrid moping about Buckbeak's impending execution, had been less than inspired.

Recent events had shoved Professor Dumbledore's promise to the side of Harry's mind. He was too busy with everything else, including the planning he'd picked back up on what might possibly be done to stop Thanos. The knowledge of a threat returning from beyond the grave had reminded him of the notes he still had in his trunk, which required some editing, but were still valid. For the most part.

Between his research, planning, hanging out with Sirius, Remus, Tonks, Ron, and Hermione, Harry was quite busy, anyway—and it was almost time to go back to the Dursleys (a truly appalling thought). The last thing he was expecting, although he should have been, was to be called to Dumbledore's office for a chat.

Well, no, not for a chat. He knocked, was bidden enter, and opened the door to see Dumbledore, pensieve out, sitting behind his desk, looking haggard and worn. The Ministry had kept calling him out to London to try to mop up some of the mess that had resulted from Pettigrew's escape. Fudge was not quite so confident and arrogant now, talking about more dementors being sent to Hogwarts the following year.

This time, Dumbledore put his foot down, and dementors were banned from the grounds. He was taking advantage of Fudge's current standing in public opinion, his more deferential air, the respect that the Wizarding World had in Dumbledore. Harry could respect that. Dumbledore was perhaps not showing the wear as much as most people his age would have under such pressure. Harry could respect that, as well.

"I was told that you wished to speak to me, sir," Harry prompted, as he entered. He paused, to turn to Fawkes. "Hello, Guy. Good to see that burning days aren't too common for you, eh?"

Fawkes gave a sleepy trill, and didn't lift his head out from under his wing. Harry supposed he understood the sentiment. He glanced at the Sorting Hat, again fighting the impulse to have a nice long chat with it. Although….

"Ah, yes," said Dumbledore. "Please sit. Lemon drop?"

There may have been a slight, absent smile on his face as he, with a murmured thanks, took one of the candies, and unwrapped it. So much changed since he had come for the first time! He waited. Dumbledore took a candy, himself, and then steepled his fingers, eyes narrowing.

"What I have to tell you is not easy for me to say," Dumbledore said, voice grave. A glance at his expression showed a troubled frown, and eyes devoid of any twinkle. "I wished to protect you from this knowledge for as long as possible," he admitted, and Harry tensed, fists clenching. Great. Just what he needed. More secrets. At least he'd been aware that this one existed; he still remembered asking Dumbledore about the reasons for Voldemort going after his family, his first year. He'd just forgotten that that was the particular secret Dumbledore had promised, at the end of last year, to share with him. Well, at least Dumbledore was coming clean without it being forced from him.

"'Knowledge is power'," Harry said. "If you share this knowledge with me, I will be better equipped to face what lies ahead."

Dumbledore cast a shrewd glance aside in his direction. "You are full of wisdom for one so young. Yes, you're right…this knowledge might empower you…but it carries a burden with it. I wanted to keep that burden from your shoulders for as long as possible.

"But I have heard that you are studying, teaching yourself occlumency. A useful skill to have, and it will help you to keep the knowledge I am about to impart from untrustworthy ears. And I must ask you not to share what I am about to tell you with anyone. I will inform your godfather, myself. Voldemort is a master legilimens, and this knowledge he would dearly like to have, for it concerns the nature of his defeat. Now that you know occlumency, you stand a chance of keeping the knowledge from him.

"More than that, when you first arrived here at Hogwarts, three years ago, you seemed so small, so fragile, that I could not bear the thought of laying such a burden on your shoulders. But, at the end of the year, I found that I had misjudged you, underestimated you. You had faced off against Voldemort, and lived. Clearly, you were stronger than you originally had seemed, both of mind, and of body. And then you asked me the question that I knew you someday must: Why had Voldemort attempted to kill you when you were a baby? Such a shrewd question for a child to ask, but it was so early, too early. You were still so young…I wanted to protect you for a bit longer.

"Perhaps you see where this is going. I made the mistake that many old men make—underestimating the young,—and the one which Voldemort particularly despises: I cared about you. I valued your happiness over the cause I sought to protect. I tried to protect you even from threats I knew you would someday have to face. What did I care if the rest of the world burnt, if you were safe and happy? …Such a foolish thought. I should have known better, that first year, after you saved the Philosopher's Stone from Quirrell. I should have told you, then. It took your reaction to Lockhart and the basilisk to see how hollow my attempts to protect you were. But for the sake of my conscience, I still waited for another year. I told myself that I could talk myself into the righteousness of this conversation, in only a year. But I hoped that you would forget to remind me. Selfish of me, not even to consider that you should be the one to choose. Foolish not to think that you knew your own limits better than I."

Harry had no idea what to say. It did sound rather as if Dumbledore were still dithering. He might have to say something, to bring the conversation on track.

"And then, you told me of the second of Professor Trelawney's predictions…I knew as soon as I heard the words that I could delay no longer. I had seen for myself your ability to rise to the occasion. What is love without trust? If I cared about you as much as I thought I did, then I would have to trust you with this knowledge, burden though it was. And that brings me to my point. For Professor Trelawney gave but one other prophecy than the one you witnessed in the Divination classroom. Ah, yes, and I should return that memory to you."

He held out a vial of what seemed to be silver glitter. "Poke your wand through the open bottle, until it touches the thought stored within. Then draw the thought back into your temple."

Harry opened the vial, and did as he was told, carefully extracting the thought, and placing it back into his own mind. Such a strange idea, that he could have given up a memory, only to recover it at a later date. Wizarding society was weird.

"Don't worry. The Department of Mysteries now has this prophecy on file. Only those about whom a prophecy is given can touch them, and only the actual prophecy is stored. It is labeled using a complicated system of initialing. I believe the label for that memory is… 'S. P. T. to H. J. P. concerning H. P. and L. V. II'—plenty abbreviated, and the Roman Numerals threw a few people off."

"Why is there that number II?" asked Harry. "Does that mean that it's the second prophecy concerning Voldemort and me? But it wasn't even really about Voldemort…."

Dumbledore sighed, and folded his arms loosely on his desk. He looked haggard and worn. "Indeed, it is considered to be the second prophecy your Professor Trelawney made concerning you and Lord Voldemort. They put it with the older prophecy because they are both prophecies in the greater scope of the blood wars waged by Voldemort. Peter Pettigrew is not an important enough figure, when the prophecy also mentions Voldemort."

Ah, yes. Well, that made sense, Harry supposed. And why did he think he knew whither this was headed?

"And the first prophecy?" he asked, gaze downcast.

Dumbledore sighed, yet again. "It was almost fifteen years ago that I heard that first prophecy—the only other prophecy Professor Trelawney has made, to my knowledge. I was considering cutting the course of Divination from the curriculum entirely, but Professor Trelawney had submitted her application, and her credentials were quite high—a descendant of a quite famous seer, named Cassandra (no, not that Cassandra), and I decided to give her a chance. I was less than impressed at our first meeting. I thought to myself 'Divination, then, is a waste of our resources, after all'. I turned to leave."

Harry tensed, anticipating what would come next. Dumbledore did not seem to notice, lost in his memories of that night. There was some part of his mind that told him that he should find a way to thank Trelawney—but for her sudden, and doubtless alarming, performance, the course of Divination would not exist at all, and that would have been quite the barrier to Harry's attempts to research the subject. If nothing else, that it was taught at Hogwarts ensured that Flourish and Blotts had textbooks and other reference materials on the subject. It kept the practice alive. But for the most part, his attention was directed to Dumbledore's story. The old man would get to his point…eventually. The background information was probably also quite important.

"I had reserved a room at the Hog's Head, a tavern in Hogsmeade owned by my estranged brother, Aberforth—I don't think I've mentioned him to you before. Hmm." There it was again: life laughing at him. Well, let this be a cautionary tale for him then. Dumbledore's deliberate levity suggested that he was not so indifferent to his estrangement as he wanted Harry to believe.

"The problem with the Hog's Head, as perhaps you are aware, is that it receives all manner of customers. On that night, unfortunately, the prophecy given by Professor Trelawney was overheard—at least in part. To protect her, and as a reminder that I, too, have my biases, and lessons left unlearnt, I offered her the position at Hogwarts for which she sought.

"Personal experience should tell you some of the shock I felt when her voice changed, and she stood there, so still…she seemed almost otherworldly. There was a definite difference to her presence. I knew what I was witnessing, as you did, and knew that I must pay attention. Perhaps that is why I did not notice the spy in time to prevent him from hearing as much as he did of the prophecy. That is my fault. He brought his knowledge of the incomplete prophecy to Voldemort, and because of that prophecy, Voldemort tried to kill you when you were a baby. To him, your parents were collateral damage—you were his true target. All because of that prophecy. I suspect, when he returns to full power, he will attempt to hear the full prophecy for himself—and as it is about him, he is one of only two people who could touch that prophecy without suffering grievous mental injury. You are the other, naturally."

Harry was running out of patience. He could see what Dumbledore was setting up, how important it was to set the stage, but curiosity was eating him up. Just what was this crucial prophecy? He realised that he'd crossed his arms at some point, which probably made him look a petulant two-year-old—or like Dudley (not that there was much difference). He made a concerted effort to relax.

"Then, this prophecy is the reason for everything that came after," he said. "Its mere existence a burden, but perhaps even more of a burden, the knowledge of the future it contains. And it has yet to be fulfilled."

Dumbledore looked incredibly grave, again. "Part of it has been fulfilled. Listen to it, and see what you make of it."

He prodded the silver liquid in the pensieve, which Harry had quite forgotten about, and a misty figure rose up, wrapt in her gauzy shawls and too-big spectacles, covered in bangles. She looked much the same, if slightly younger, than the professor who loved to predict his death. She spoke:

"The one with the power to defeat the Dark Lord approaches…. Born to those who have thrice defied him; born as the seventh month dies…. And the Dark Lord shall mark him as an equal, but he shall have power the Dark Lord knows not…. And either must die at the hands of the other, for neither can live, while the other survives…. The one with the power to defeat the Dark Lord shall be born as the seventh month dies…."

Harry was quite glad that the Hogwarts uniform covered his arms, hiding the goosebumps spreading up and down his arms at her pronouncements.

And it struck him, then, as unlikely that he'd chosen Divination as one of his two elective classes, and it turned out that he would not only witness a prophecy being uttered, but also, unwitting, be the subject of one. Mostly, however, he drank in the words of the prophecy, trying to set aside all the experiential excess that came of witnessing it secondhand. How many prophecies did the average prophet give in his lifetime, anyway? How many others might be? Did they, too, concern him? He understood Dumbledore's impulse to keep Trelawney close, that had paid off in the end.

He frowned, puzzling over the words of the prophecy. "Well," he began, "the prophecy refers to a child born at the end of the seventh month—that is to say, July. Thanks to English's grammatical structure, it doesn't tell if that child is a boy or a girl…but I suppose you have cause to believe that it refers to me."

Dumbledore's eyebrows rose, as if perhaps he hadn't taken grammar into account. But Harry was not an expert on prophecy, any more than Dumbledore was. They were both using a system of assumptions, their own different backgrounds, to assist them in interpreting. And, given his proclaimed derision for divination, he doubted that Dumbledore had taken the class, if indeed it had even been on offer a century ago, or whenever Dumbledore had been in school. Harry's limited experience in the subject did not give him an edge, so much as entangle him with minutiae.

"Perhaps it's that first part: 'born to those who have thrice defied him'. I would suppose, from my own experience, that not many survived to defy him thrice."

"And yet there were another set of parents, expecting a son at the end of July. I am speaking, of course, of Neville Longbottom, and of his parents, Frank and Alice Longbottom."

Harry blinked. Well, that was unexpected. Another candidate? Neville as the Boy-Who-Lived? What would have happened, then? Would he and his Mother have lived out their lives, never remembering the past—Lily Evans hadn't remembered until after she'd died, which meant that he would probably have been the same. Thor would have kept his secret—would Harry have ever learnt the truth? And did that—the fact that he remembered—mean that he'd in truth died, that Hallowe'en night? Didn't it have to?

He deliberately wrenched himself away from those thoughts, resolving to think on it more later, knowing full well that he'd go out of his way to avoid just that.

"Neville?" he asked. "He never speaks of his parents…I didn't even know that he was born at the end of July…."

Suddenly, he was stricken by the irrational thought that his roommates were all keeping big secrets from him. Had he given Neville so little notice that he didn't even know his birthday?

…Then again, when was Ron's? Sometime in March?

"Looking at Neville's burdens as they are, I think perhaps I'm better suited to being the Boy-Who-Lived. That grandmother of his…always pushing him so hard, but not giving him the means to fulfil her wishes. Did you know that he doesn't even use his own wand?"

He took the effort to return to the prophecy at hand. He'd given Dumbledore plenty of room in which to supply information, if he'd wanted to, concerning Neville's situation. Harry would have to seek out answers from Neville, himself. Which was probably best, anyway.

"…'The Dark Lord will mark him as his equal'—that would seem to suggest that Riddle thinks that I'm…well, like him, as he pointed out at the end of last year. Unless…." He lifted up his bangs, revealing the lightning-bolt scar. A mark. Shaped like a bolt of lightning, but that was a train of thought for pursuit another time (Ron's protection, from afar? A coincidence? Thor, the Protector of Man? Ron had, most likely quite deliberately, never spoken of it).

"Yes. Voldemort considers you a true threat, perhaps his equivalent amongst the light wizards, with your similar pasts and experiences. Accidentally, I increased your similarities. I understand that neither of you had the happiest childhoods."

That explained Riddle's reluctance towards returning to the orphanage.

"Then, he already has marked me as his equal—that is what you meant by part of the prophecy being fulfilled already. But the last line: Either must die at the hands of the other, for neither can live while the other survives….'. Hmm. I suppose that means that I'm now the only one who can defeat him…and it seems every near-death experience I've ever had has centred on him. I'm not too reassured by the hint towards certain immortality in that line. Does that mean that I can't die, except by his hand? And that he can't die, for some reason, except by mine? And that about… neither can live while the other survives'."

It was all quite distressing, and he was unable to stop himself from dragging gods into the mix. Did wizards have a means to make themselves immortal? But there was the Philosopher's Stone. If there were one way, there might well be another.

Why would he be the only one who could kill Riddle, anyway?

Dumbledore sighed, and looked his gravest. He seemed to have decided to take pity on Harry, helping his thoughts along. "Perhaps you have forgotten, last year, that we were discussing you and Lord Voldemort, and I told you that I believed that he had put a bit of himself in you, the night he gave you that scar."

It connected. The scar, the one that marked him as the Dark Lord's equal, the taint of the Dark Lord's soul, anchored to Harry by a rotten-looking, blackened plant in the forest outside of his mother's garden. He didn't know the relevance, but it was this fragment that marked him as different from everyone else…the reason that they were trapped in a nasty ouroboros—the symbol of infinity.

Right. Life was still laughing at him. Got it. Somehow, having a piece of Voldemort's soul in his head was enough to bind them in an endless circle. Unless one succeeded in killing the other. And Riddle couldn't have known about it, or he wouldn't have kept trying to kill Harry.

He reached up to touch the scar on his forehead. Not a sign of protection, then, but a curse—as he had been told. A curse that prevented Riddle from dying, but Harry doubted that he had that luxury. But perhaps, just perhaps, he was wrong. Perhaps that fragment of soul had kept him from dying, that Hallowe'en night—or had dragged his soul back from death. Maybe it wasn't Fawkes who had resurrected him last year. Sure, he'd died at least twice, but neither time had taken, for long.

What did he do with this information?

"In some sources, you will see that the Wizarding World has elected to call you 'the Chosen One', despite knowing nothing of this prophecy. They believe that you are the only one who can save them, and that in turn feeds the prophecy. It is the nature of hero worship, I'm afraid."

Hero worship. Ah, great. And speaking of….

"Just so you know, I'm going to tell Ron and Hermione all of this," he said. He hated when people kept big secrets about him from him, and these two were trustworthy, if anyone was. "Not necessarily immediately, mind you, but before the war begins again. I think they deserve to know, after all that we've been through. And, if you hadn't already said you'd tell him, I would have included Sirius."

Dumbledore was at his most inscrutable. His face appeared quite passive and blank, without his usual twinkle. "I prefer to involve as few underage wizards as I can in this war," he said at last, with a heavy sigh. "However, there is no denying that your friends have already been drawn into the thick of it. I will inform Sirius Black, as I have already said. As long as you ensure their silence, you may tell whomever you feel necessary. I trust your judgement, Harry."

He considered saying that no one in their right mind trusted him on anything. But he kept silent, still turning over the prophecy, and how neatly he'd avoided talking about "the power he knows not". He didn't want to think what that might mean.

Chapter Text

Harry cornered Ron and Hermione as soon as his conversation with Dumbledore ended. The headmaster had given him almost no time at all between revealing all this information to him, and sending him back to Privet Drive. But he could hardly be blamed for that—he had almost certainly intended to tell him weeks ago, but Pettigrew had messed things up, as usual.

Hermione surprised him by acknowledging that, if she had once been wrong about Professor Trelawney, she was willing to accept this prophecy. After all, sources all agreed that the date of Pettigrew's escape was the same one as that of the final exam for Divination. Part of her sudden tolerance was also the fact that she'd dropped a few classes, and would no longer have to bear the brunt of constant time travel. It must have been a weight off of her mind. Harry considered telling her to discuss the nature of the troubles of time travel with Ron, but knew better.

Hermione treated the new prophecy with the gravity it deserved. Ron took it perhaps too seriously, if that were possible. He had to be the one to make the comment that the prophecy sounded as if Harry would need to die in order for Voldemort to be defeated. This made Hermione gasp and cover her mouth, and Harry bow his head, refusing to acknowledge the sentiment behind the statement.

No matter how he trusted Hermione, he waited until he could be sure of talking to Ron alone before he discussed the other things he'd noted, but kept to himself. Such as his suspicion that he'd died as a baby, and that that was why he remembered. And the discussions of what was intended by "the power the Dark Lord knows not" could go on for days. "Dumbledore thinks it's love," he said, although he hadn't confirmed this with the headmaster. "However, I must wonder, now that I know the truth…."

This was how Ron learnt that Harry had access to Asgardian magic. That he hadn't mentioned it before to Ron, nor ever used it around him, had completely slipped Harry's mind—perhaps in quite a deliberate fashion. Harry Potter rarely discussed magic itself with Ron Weasley, and Thor had never cared to listen to Loki about the subject. It hadn't occurred to him that this had changed.

But Ron would be the first to admit that magic was very difficult, and Asgardian magic thrice as hard, with its emphasis on focus, and the lack of rigid rules that characterised wizarding magic, making it easier to cast spells whilst limiting the spells that could be cast. Of course, Ron's experience with the other kind of magic, as Harry persisted in calling it, was his attempts to use Mother's spell. And of course, as Odin had given Thor the handcuffs he'd used on Peter Pettigrew, it had been their shared mother, Frigga, who had taught him that spell. If Molly Weasley had known such a spell, she wouldn't have needed to keep such a close eye on her kids. Or the clock that told the status of each member of her family.

Of course, such thoughts naturally raised the question of how Ron and Harry were related. Were they related? Thor was the natural son of Frigga, and Loki was his adopted younger brother. That was straightforward.

But Harry was the natural son of Lily Evans, who was sort-of Frigga, which meant that Thor Thor was sort-of his biological half-brother. But then, too, Ron Weasley had his own family, completely unconnected to Asgard, which had sort-of adopted Harry, in what Harry suspected was a deliberate echoing on Ron's part of previous events.

The entire thing was a tangled, complicated mess, in ways that shouldn't be possible. He was fairly sure that, no matter how you calculated things, he wasn't related to Fred and George, or Percy, which meant that he wasn't related to Ginny. That was something. But there was a certain edge even to this small mercy, for he was certain that none of the Weasleys knew about Ron's true identity.

Was that why Ron avoided the topic of the Mirror of Desire? He remembered Ron speaking of it, first year. He'd said that his family "was also more complete than it should have been". At the time, Harry'd assumed that he was speaking of the Prewetts, Fabian and Gideon, whose names he'd come across later. As Molly Weasley's brothers, they were Ron Weasley's family. But not Thor's.

This was what caused him to realise that Ron was deliberately avoiding the entire situation. Thor didn't want to figure out what his connection was to the rest of the Weasleys. He didn't want to decide whether or not they were just as much his family as Harry was. But there was a silent assumption that they in fact were. Perhaps that was enough, for him.

He refused to discuss the subject at all, which probably wasn't very healthy. He'd have to confront it, eventually. What happened, after all, when he reached the endpoint—that point of time when he'd first gone back in time? Logically, one way or another, that future Thor would disappear. Ron would probably end up replacing him, which meant…well, that couldn't be known. Harry foresaw much struggle and heartbreak in the Weasley family's future.

There was little time in which to discuss this, anyway, as it was very nearly time to return "home". Hogwarts was even more his "Palace-on-Earth" than it had been before he acknowledged the truth—Privet Drive would never be home to him. It was a great relief to find that the Weasleys had extended an invitation in advance to stay with them over the summer. The Quidditch World Cup was supposed to be in Britain this year…everyone knew that, for whatever reason, Harry liked quidditch, despite the many bad experiences he'd had playing it. It was something to look forward to, to take the edge off returning to the Dursleys.

Sirius Black had bought Ron an owl to replace his old "pet". As Crookshanks seemed to have a sixth sense for these things, they ran the bird's authenticity past him. He sniffed the owl and purred, which must mean that the bird was just that—he'd have taken violent action against a malevolent animagus. Hermione was quite smug at her wonderful choice of pets. Ron seemed unable to decide how to react. Those two….

All too soon, despite how much Harry wished to stay at Hogwarts, it was time to leave. Remus, Sirius, and Tonks boarded the train with them, Remus looking out the window at the retreating form of Hogwarts with the same wistful longing Harry recognised in himself.

He had retired before the end of the year. If there were a curse on the position of Defence Against the Dark Arts professor, it had not had the chance to take effect. Professor Lupin had maximised his effectiveness, staying as long as he could without risking mortal injury or death.

Tonks seemed to have some sort of strong admiration for Remus's courage in bearing through his lycanthropy, and his heroism in the previous blood war. Somehow, she managed to monopolise Remus's attention for the entire train ride. It was almost as if….

Sirius looked on at the scene with folded arms and a smirk, and then turned to Harry. "Say, kiddo, I forgot to tell you, but I've a bit of a good surprise for you at the other end of the line." He still looked exhausted, and his skin was still rather waxy, stretched tight over his bones, but his smile was less alarming than it had been a few months ago. Progress.

Everyone in this compartment was more than used to Sirius Black by now: Harry had taken pains to acclimate Ron, and to ease Hermione into the experience that was a conversation with Sirius Black—on one of his good days. He still suspected that Sirius had suffered some sort of trauma-related head problems, and was now stuck at the age of twenty, or so. The age he'd been when he'd been sent to Azkaban. It was an alarming thought, but…surrounded by memories of what he'd lost, unable to move forward from the worst days of his life, many of them from his childhood, was it any wonder that his mental development had been…hampered?

All this meant that he was still impulsive and hot-headed, and somewhat immature. He didn't spend all his time cracking childish jokes and putting whoopee cushions on seats, but at the same time, he seemed not to have the experience to know how to handle delicate subjects with patience. He made a better older brother than guardian, but Ron already was an older brother who was also a guardian. The niche Sirius filled was that of guardian, nevertheless—a parental substitute. But he still seemed too young for such a role.

Whatever Harry ended up creating to help him would probably end up deaging his body back to match his mind state. It was the easiest way to accommodate the disparity. There were glimmers of maturity there, but that could be said of most people in their late teens. Perhaps, if Harry could shave off some years from Sirius physically (somehow), with his mental and physical age aligned, he would be able to mature in a somewhat ordinary way.

But that was an incredibly permanent solution, and Harry wanted to see how things progressed first. Sirius's problems with impulse control, as when he'd broken into Hogwarts to kill Pettigrew, belied his true intelligence. Speak with him on any of a number of subjects, and Harry saw glimmers, at least, of the intelligence Mother had credited him with. Watch him cast spells, see his improvisation, the flexibility, and realise that some of those spells were of his own making…that impressed Harry.

But there was also no denying that Azkaban had left its mark on him. Harry wished that he'd go back to St. Mungo's—although he quite enjoyed spending time with Sirius. Still, it wouldn't be long until they parted ways. Then, doubtless, Sirius would go back to his treatment at St. Mungo's, until the Quidditch World Cup. Harry knew he needed treatment. He did not hold it against Sirius, that he had been absent for most of his life, or that he would need to be absent for a bit more of it.

That was not how things turned out. Sirius had arranged something with Dumbledore. It had been the reason for their frequent conferences toward the end of semester. At last, Dumbledore had yielded to Sirius's insistence, and arrangements had been made. Be cautious making bets concerning this one.

Sirius explained this all incredibly smugly. Harry was still thinking of the most pertinent information: Sirius was going to be staying with Harry at Number Four, Privet Drive "for it is clear that you need extra protection, with a mass murderer after you who actually committed the crime. I think Dumbledore feels guilty, leaving you to fend for yourself, the past decade".

Dumbledore was rarely that straightforward. Harry knew that magic was forbidden to the underage, except in extenuating circumstances— to save a life. Furthermore, Harry was the only wizard in the area. IF one of Voldemort's flunkies should somehow make it through the protective barrier around Number Four….

And the stay would doubtless be good for Sirius, too. But the thought of Sirius, staying in that house…how would he react to the cupboard? How would he react to the bars? He still remembered Fred's reaction, not to speak of Ron's. Still, there was a pool of warmth flooding him with reassurance from within, at the idea of Sirius Black, his godfather, his family, ready there for him. He knew not to have expected Ron, his brother, to come back with him, but had never considered that someone else might join him in his exile.

And exile it was, even if Dobby had returned all the mail he'd stolen last year—he was quite cut off from the Wizarding World. Sirius might not have quite the maturity level you would expect from someone his age, but he was a good fighter. Harry had seen some mock duels amongst the three adults, and Sirius was the quickest draw, the most creative caster, somehow moving with grace and poise, as if it were some horrible dance. Professor Lupin could sometimes almost match him, but Tonks never could, despite that she was an auror, despite his stint in Azkaban. The knowledge of his competence brought with it a strange sense of security: for the first time in this life, Harry had adults who cared about him for his own sake, who would die to defend him. For the first time, in this life, he had a safety net.

He needed to tell Sirius Black about his big secret, share the knowledge of the threat he posed. One of these days. Not just yet, though….

Malfoy did not dare to bother them—not with three adults in their compartment, including their ex-professor, and a convicted criminal. Perhaps Tonks, the auror, was worst of all. He just narrowed his eyes at the full compartment, and moved on, bringing his cronies with him. That was the second time that Remus had saved them from a fight with Malfoy…at the very least. And Remus always faced Malfoy with admirable calm, despite Malfoy's habitual, almost automatic, taunts about half-bloods and monsters, which made Harry angry enough for all of them. But he didn't act, because Professor Lupin was the one with the right to.

All too soon, the train arrived at King's Cross Station, and it was time to go their separate ways. Ron had given Harry another batch of rings (or the same batch, replenished), and their usage had been explained to those who remained. Presumably, Ron's new, unnamed owl, would take less time in delivering the rings, flying to and fro, than Errol had. Although, it was difficult to see how the rings were even necessary, when Sirius revealed that he would be staying at Number Four, Privet Drive, with Harry, in the summers from now on.

He had to announce this—his big surprise—shortly before they got off the train, so that Harry wandered off the train in something of a daze, and didn't even hear Neville or Ginny saying their farewells, and that they would see him next year. Sirius was very pleased with himself for this.

Sirius, Remus, Tonks, Hermione, Ron, and Harry all disembarked together, Harry peering half-heartedly through the crowd looking for the Dursleys. He had no idea why they, hating magic and wizards as they did, came onto Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters, rather than waiting out in the station. Perhaps it wasn't allowed.

He started and flinched when Sirius's hand landed on his shoulder—a gesture intended to comfort, but Sirius noticed him start, and bent down to be at a closer level to Harry. It reminded him of Mother, which might not be the best train of thought to follow right now.

"You okay, kiddo?" asked Sirius. Harry didn't say that half of the extremity of his reaction was that he was no longer in a place of safety, where Uncle Vernon, Dudley, and Aunt Petunia couldn't reach him—he was back in their world.

"Have you not noticed that he is…wary of physical contact?" asked Ron, who apparently was determined to see Harry off properly, this time. Molly Weasley was calling him, but he ignored her, for the moment.

"Harry?" asked Sirius, voice pitched higher in his concern.

"I'm fine," Harry lied. Ron and Sirius gave him almost identical looks of disbelief.

"There you are, boy. Hurry up, we're running late," Vernon Dursley said, pushing through the crowd by means of the sheer size of his girth. Harry tensed, and Sirius turned to meet the approaching threat head-on. Ron's eyes narrowed, and he seemed one wrong word away from a battle stance.

"Hi, Uncle Vernon!" said Harry, in a falsely cheerful voice. "It's so good to see you again. You have no idea how much I missed you, and Dudley, and Aunt Petunia this year!"

By which he meant: not at all. And Uncle Vernon knew it. His eyes narrowed into a mean-spirited squint, trying to figure out why Harry was behaving this oddly.

Good luck to him on that one. He wouldn't like the answer.

"I don't think I've had the chance to introduce you to my best friend, Ronald Weasley."

Ron shot him the most bemused expression he'd seen in a while, but gave a half-hearted wave that didn't suit him in any way. Harry's amusement at the situation grew.

"And this is Professor Lupin, who was one of our teachers this last year—"

"I've told you before: I'm not your teacher anymore. You can stop calling me 'Professor'. Just 'Remus' is fine."

"You!" cried Aunt Petunia, and then seemed to come to herself.

"Do you know each other?" asked Harry, with false wide-eyed innocence. For once, he could have some fun with the Dursleys without fear of later retribution. He'd like to see them even try to keep up their usual system with Sirius there.

Remus gave a sort of half-grimace, and tried his best to smile at Aunt Petunia. "Hello, Petunia. It's good to see you're well." Lie, said his inner lie detector, quite unnecessarily. He hadn't known that Remus and Aunt Petunia knew each other, although he supposed that it made sense.

"Petunia?" asked Uncle Vernon, obviously wrong-footed with recent events. Harry shrugged, and continued before Aunt Petunia could explain.

"And this is Tonks, she's an auror."

"Hello," said Tonks, seeming at a loss, but ready to dislike anyone who spoke that way to Remus. Her eyes were narrowed. Aunt Petunia took one look at Tonks's bubblegum-pink, spiky hair, and seemed to regain her equilibrium enough to look down her nose at Tonks. "Pleased to meet you," Tonks said, which seemed to be a half-truth, or something. Harry frowned, just momentarily, before his expression leveled out again. He was just in time, as Tonks glanced at him sidelong for an explanation for the animosity she sensed from people she'd never even met, and who weren't even wizards, who might have known that she came of the House of Black. Harry shook his head.

"They think you're a delinquent," he muttered to her. "With your hair…and you're a witch, and they hate magic, so—"

Tonks looked briefly self-conscious, but she just stuffed her hands in the pockets of her jeans, and said nothing. The Dursleys resumed ignoring and overlooking her existence.

Harry continued on to the best, for last. By now, their personal experience with the Dursleys meant that Remus and Tonks would be pleased, too, at the reaction Sirius's introduction was sure to garner.

"And this is my godfather, Sirius Black," he said, beaming at them. "You might remember him from that news report about the break-out from a secure facility last year—they didn't say which facility, because it was the wizard prison, Azkaban. Sort of a wizarding Alcatraz, I suppose." He allowed himself a moment to ponder this, and then continued, ignoring their sputters, or the way Dudley backed away, looking around frantic, and doubtless expecting to be receiving a pig's tail at any moment.

Sirius Black said nothing, following Harry's line of thought with an accuracy that alarmed everyone else. There was almost a vague sort of grin on his face. He was doing his utmost not to smile, and failing spectacularly.

"Hey, 'Tuney!" he said. "Good to see you again."

It was just as well that Harry's lie detection didn't work on Sirius Black at all. It meant that he could focus completely on the way Petunia paled, clutching Uncle Vernon's arm as she glanced around the station to see who might be watching them. A gossip is always aware of gossipers, and dreads being their subject. She didn't even react to the nickname, although she still hated it. Even after all this time, it still reminded her of Lily, and that awful boy who had taken her away.

Harry just basked in their discomfort for a bit, before moving on. He caught a glimpse of Remus shaking his head, out of the corner of his eye. Tonks seemed confused as to why he was painting Sirius in such a bad light.

"Did I mention that, per the headmaster's orders, he's going to be living with us from now on?"

Aunt Petunia fainted. It was just too much for her. "Is Aunt Petunia alright?" he asked Uncle Vernon, in fake worry. Ron shot him a sharp glance that he promptly proceeded to ignore. The Dursleys had made his life utterly miserable for ten years, almost killed him several times, and tried to keep him from going to Hogwarts. They in truth deserved far worse than this. Revenge, they say, is a dish best served cold.

And no one was better equipped to serve it than Harry. Before the Dursleys could recover, Harry grabbed his trunk, and made for the car, waving goodbye to Ron, Tonks, and Remus as he did. He'd be seeing the rest of the people he cared about soon enough.

{end Choose Well}