Harry saw Sirius duck Bellatrix’s jet of red light, laughing at her. They were the only pair still battling, apparently unaware of the new arrivals in the Death Chamber.
"Come on, you can do better than that!" Sirius yelled, his voice echoing around the cavernous room.
The second jet of light hit him squarely on the chest.
The laughter had not quite died from his face, but his eyes widened in shock.
Harry released Neville, though he was unaware of doing so. He was jumping down the steps again, pulling out his wand, as Dumbledore, too, turned towards the dais.
It seemed to take Sirius an age to fall: his body curved in a graceful arc as he sank backwards through the ragged veil hanging from the arch.
Harry saw the look of mingled fear and surprise on his godfather’s wasted, once-handsome face as he fell through the ancient doorway and disappeared behind the veil, which fluttered for a moment as though in a high wind, then fell back into place.
Harry heard Bellatrix Lestrange’s triumphant scream, but knew it meant nothing – Sirius had only just fallen through the archway, he would reappear from the other side any second…
But Sirius did not reappear.
“SIRIUS!” Harry yelled. “SIRIUS!”
He had reached the floor, his breath coming in searing gasps.
Sirius must be just behind the curtain, he, Harry, would pull him back out…
"Harry! There’s nothing you can—" Out of the corner of his eye, Harry saw Remus reaching for him, but with quidditch-honed reflexes he dove around his former professor and straight through the shimmering arch after his godfather.
Black nothingness greeted him.
For a moment that’s all there was: empty darkness, like he’d leapt headfirst into a wild cave, from a bright mountain ledge straight into the deepest bowels of Earth, a place forever untouched by the sun’s shining light.
But Harry quickly became aware of two other, vastly different sensations.
The first was a terrible squeezing ache, centered over his scar. A massive snake was coiling around his head, thick muscles constricting tighter with each rapid beat of Harry’s heart. It hissed at him; he knew there were words in those sibilant whispers, but the crushing pain made it impossible to listen. He tried to scream, to beg for it to stop, but no sound escaped his throat. There was no air in here to breathe. And he knew this must be Hell, must be his punishment for leading his friends into a trap, for getting his godfather killed. He would spend eternity choking on shadows as this serpent squashed him into nothing.
Then, as suddenly as his torture had begun, it ceased. The pressure which had been building higher and higher exploded, and like a pustule being popped, a malevolent leech burst from Harry’s scar, wailing as it was sucked into oblivion. The pain vanished, and Harry felt clean for the first time in his life.
The second sensation, which had been momentarily overshadowed by the agony in his scar, greeted Harry then with a warm glow tugging gently at his heart. This connection felt like protection and loyalty and love, and Harry knew instinctively that Sirius was on the other side.
He followed it.
Walking here was an odd sensation. He couldn’t see anything, nor could he make out a single sound, his surroundings quieter than the grave as all the whispers receded. At first he seemed to step forward along a path, but as he continued the sensation changed, became less solid. He would say he was floating now, but he couldn’t feel the rest of his body, and he realized with a detached sense of fear that he still was not breathing.
But the pulsing warmth, still drumming in time with his heart, made it impossible to panic.
Light was the first thing to return to him, bathing him in shades of gray. Then sound, indistinguishable whispers that seemed to egg him onward. And then he felt his feet rhythmically colliding with a cobblestone path, his arms swinging by his sides.
The light took on a distinct shape, and Harry realized he was walking towards an arched window. He stopped in front of it, staring out past the fluttering gossamer veil which shielded it and into the muted colors of the real world—a small library or a well-appointed personal study, a room vastly different from the cavernous Death Chamber Harry had been fighting in before he jumped after his godfather.
For half a second Harry thought he was looking at himself, but the face on the other side of the veil wasn’t quite right. The nose was too long, the lips too thin, and the other boy had brown eyes instead of Harry’s bright green. It was his father, he realized with a jolt, appearing much the same as he had in Snape’s pensieve memory.
Of course it was his dad. Because that was Sirius standing in there with him looking similarly youthful and handsome, though neither boy looked nearly as carefree as they had at Hogwarts just after their OWLs.
“You sure about this, Prongs?” Sirius gestured to the simple runic array drawn in what Harry thought might actually be blood on the ground in front of them.
James chuckled, but it lacked humor. “Of course I’m sure.”
He eyed Sirius’s pale face for a moment before he reached over to grasp his friend’s shoulder in a reassuring grip. “I’m not going to let them force you into anything, Padfoot. This,” he pointed at the runes, “will protect you. You can’t betray a shield-brother.”
“But what if—”
“No!” James shook Sirius roughly. “No. This will work. You can trust our research that far, yeah?”
Sirius scrubbed his hands over his face. “He was in my house, James.”
“My house. My mum was bloody ecstatic. And Reg…he stared at him like he was the next coming of Merlin. And I just…What if I hadn’t been able to get away?”
“You escaped,” James swallowed audibly, “And we’re not letting them take you back, okay? I promise, no one’s ever going to force you to be that monster’s fucking slave.”
Sirius clenched his jaw, nodded once firmly, and knelt on one side of the runic circle. James knelt opposite him. They both drew their wands and held them aloft in their left hands, pointing straight up at the ceiling. They grasped each other’s forearms with their right hands, stared at each other for one long beat, then began chanting.
Harry watched as his dad and godfather swore undying loyalty to one another, a shimmering line of gold growing between them, connecting their hearts. Unseen by the two living teens, the line continued, extending out from James’s heart and shooting straight through the invisible veil to wrap around Harry.
He jumped as the pervading warmth in his chest flashed searingly hot before simmering back down into a smoldering ember.
The godparent bond between Harry and Sirius had always been too strong given their limited contact. But this extra vow would explain their deep connection. This, Harry realized, was the exact moment his link to Sirius was formed in the eyes of Fate. (Though how he was certain of this, Harry wasn’t sure.)
As the ritual concluded and Sirius and James began to clamber to their feet, Harry noticed another tie pulling at him, though this one felt like an echo of his own soul. His attention went inwards.
Somewhere out there, his soul was rousing from sleep, eyes fluttering open on a doomed morning. The whispers inside the veil grew louder, more urgent.
He could see the serpent again. And he realized he was still wrapped up in its coils, the walls which surrounded him undulating as the snake slithered in ever-continuing circles.
Harry tilted his head back, staring up and up and up. At the farthest reaches of his sight he could just make out a massive head, the snake’s fangs latched onto its own tail.
Starlit eyes gazed back at him. The jaws dropped open. The tip of its tail fell from its vast maw. The coils heaved, knocked into Harry’s back and shoved him unceremoniously through the veil.
Harry woke with a gasp, staring up at the canvas ceiling of a magical tent. Muggy air filled his lungs, cotton sheets brushed over his skin. He tried to sit up, but exhaustion immobilized him. His eyes fluttered shut, lids too heavy to hold open.
“Helena?” A soft voice called, but he couldn’t respond.
Another voice, this one male, spoke up a second later. “Let her sleep, Bell. Angel’s Bloom is too dangerous for a sixteen year old.”
The woman said something in reply, but Harry didn’t hear it. Sleep had already claimed him.
It was a sight at once both achingly familiar and foreign. A part of her was stunned by the majesty of Hogwarts, enchanted by its beauty as anyone with eyes would be upon first sight. Another part viewed this place as home and appreciated the magical picture without finding it overwhelming.
She sighed and rubbed at her temples in an attempt to relieve her stress headache, not for the first time bemoaning the difficulty inherent in reconciling two entire lifetimes of memories all smooshed together in one brain.
Don’t dwell on it, she told herself firmly, shaking her head. She had two weeks to get acclimated to Hogwarts before any of the other students would arrive. She could handle this.
She stared at the gate a moment longer, forced herself to count down from ten, then raised her hand and knocked.
It took fifteen minutes for Professor McGonagall to make it from her office in the castle all the way out to Helena, and another ten minutes for Helena to verify her identity to the professor’s satisfaction. Finally she was allowed through the gates, the school wards washing over her as she entered, greeting her like an old friend.
Not a blood-based identification then. That was interesting.
“This is your tutoring schedule for the next two weeks.” Professor McGonagall handed Helena a long sheet of parchment outlining her time slots for each of her pre-term classes. She was just as stern and brisk as every one of Helena’s memories of the future painted her, still dressed in dark green tartan too, so it seemed not much about the woman would change over the course of the next twenty years.
That thought should not have made Helena’s eyes prickle with emotion.
“You will note that we will be focussing primarily on charms, transfiguration and potions in the next couple of weeks. If your teachers in those subjects feel it is appropriate, we will allow you to enroll in all of your chosen courses at the start of term.”
“Professor, I know this was a condition for my transfer, but…” Helena fidgeted with the piece of parchment. “Can I ask why it’s necessary? I passed my International Wizarding Standards.”
McGonagall pursed her thin lips. “Frankly, Miss Gaunt, your results were all over the place. Yes you passed transfiguration, charms and potions, but only with an A, and NEWTs classes here at Hogwarts require better than an Acceptable for admission. However, the Headmaster seems to believe your education may have been more unconventional than most homeschooled students, and a closer look at your exam answers did appear to suggest that a lack of focus on the test-specific subject matter rather than a lack of talent was the cause of your grades. And thus the necessity for further assessment.”
Unconventional was probably the best label for Helena’s life (which was a far cry better than the Traumatic label she would give her life as Harry). Her parents were acquirers—Had been acquirers, she reminded herself harshly. They were dead. She couldn’t keep thinking about them like they were simply off somewhere on a job too dangerous to bring her along.
That kind of thing had happened often enough. Acquiring was a dubiously legal profession at best, one which had required her family to travel constantly as they tracked down rare magical objects and plants, harvesting or buying or stealing as the occasion demanded. She’d lived out of a magical tent her entire life, except when her parents deemed it too dangerous for her to remain with them. Then she’d been dropped off with one contact or another and left to wait out their absence for days or weeks at a time.
It was far too easy to pretend that was all this was now: a slightly longer stint in a safe place while she awaited their return. Like her world hadn’t shattered when she’d woken up with another lifetime of memories in her head to the sight of two golden spokes marked Bellona Farnese and Marcus Gaunt lying like broken bodies at the bottom of their family clock, her own lonely spoke pointing straight towards LOST.
“But my other subjects are fine?” She asked, forcing her mind to focus on the present.
It was too bad she hadn’t had her future memories when she sat her exams. As Harry, transfiguration, charms and potions were not her strongest subjects, but he was more formally trained in those classes than she was. She wouldn’t have stared at the examiner blankly when he’d asked her to make a pineapple tap dance if their memories had already been merged.
McGonagall smiled thinly. “Yes, Miss Gaunt, I have no compunction about enrolling you in any of your other chosen subjects. Though I do have to ask, are you sure you want to take seven NEWTs classes?”
Helena shrugged. “If it seems like too much, I can always drop one or two later, right?”
Not that she believed dropping out would be necessary. With the intensive study her parents had forced on her in runes and arithmancy (ward-breaking was oddly high on their priority list), those two classes should be a breeze. And with her future memories, she could probably pass the defense NEWT now. Which only left charms, transfiguration, potions, and care of magical creatures for her to slog through.
(She wouldn’t be touching herbology with a ten foot pole, not after the Angel’s Bloom and her parents and two months flying through the Amazon alone.)
The next two weeks at Hogwarts passed uneventfully. Professor Slughorn seemed largely disappointed in her and her general lack of potioneering skills. Once she informed him that no, she had not ever met any of her distant Gaunt relatives in the United States, descendants of one of the founders of Ilvermorny, he seemed to dismiss her entirely. Professor Flitwick was much more cheerful and encouraging, perhaps because charms had been her second-best subject as Harry and she didn’t have trouble with their lessons, but more likely because the short half-goblin was genuinely a kind and happy person.
On the last day before term, McGonagall told her she would be allowed into all of her chosen classes, though she would need a tutor until her Head of House deemed her caught up, which meant until McGonagall was satisfied. The Sorting Hat had been rather snippy when it sorted her three days after she arrived at Hogwarts.
“I’ve already placed you,” it grumbled after the barest brush over her mind, then in the next second it shouted “GRYFFINDOR!” as loudly as if they were in the Great Hall rather than McGonagall’s office. And that was that, days of worrying the magical object would out her as a time-traveler or reincarnated soul or universe hopper, or whatever it was that had happened to her, resolved within seconds.
So now here she was, sitting alone at the Gryffindor table as she waited for the rest of the student body to arrive for the Welcoming Feast. She could hear them in the distance, the dull roar of hundreds of youthful voices all trying to be heard at once as everyone jumped out of the thestral-drawn carriages and made their way towards the Great Hall.
They entered in waves, one swell of black-clad bodies after another. Helena scanned their faces with bated breath. A shock of white-blond hair headed towards the Slytherin table drew her eye. The hall dimmed. Her hand jumped to her wand. All she could see was Lucius Malfoy’s sneering face, his palm outstretched as he said, “Hand over the prophecy and no one need get hurt.” And Bellatrix’s mad laughter.
“Hi! Helena Gaunt, right?”
Helena blinked, stared at the hand thrust towards her with its bright red nails, slowly reached out to shake it, and glanced up to see who was speaking to her. Her breath caught for an entirely different reason.
“I’m Lily, the Sixth Year Gryffindor prefect. Professor McGonagall said you’d be joining our year.”
“Yeah, it’s—” Helena cleared her throat, swallowed and cleared it again. “It’s nice to meet you.”
When Lily grinned she looked just like all her pictures, all smooth copper hair and bright green eyes and perfect white teeth. But she had a dimple. That hadn’t shown up in any of the photos. And a drop of chocolate was smeared along the collar of her shirt. Ink stains on her fingers, a singe mark on her cuff.
“Oi! Evans! Stop hogging the new girl!”
Helena had been prepared to hold back tears when she met her future parents. She’d readied herself for the way emotion would clog her throat, had practiced smiling blandly in a mirror every night before bed. Somehow she had not anticipated the effervescent joy that exploded in her chest when she heard Sirius’s voice for the first time in this decade. She laughed and the brief flash of long-suffering annoyance faded from Lily’s expression, replaced with another sunny smile.
“Hold your hippogriffs, Black! Merlin forbid you ever wait five seconds for anything!” Lily rolled her eyes then proceeded to introduce the rest of the Sixth Year Gryffindors, naturally saving Sirius for last.
It was sobering for Helena to realize she recognized every single one of them. Mad-Eye Moody had shown her a picture of the original Order of the Phoenix. Dorcas Meadows, a tall, dark-skinned girl with an impressively large afro, was murdered by Voldemort personally. And Marlene McKinnnon, the auburn-haired girl to Helena’s left, was killed when Death Eaters wiped out her entire extended family. And then there was Alice Fawley, Neville’s mother who gave her round face and kind brown eyes to her son, who was tortured into insanity protecting him.
But she couldn’t let herself dwell on all that, not now when she needed to act like a normal person and not a super intense weirdo. So she smiled and shook their hands, only allowing her eyes to linger over James’ face for a second before she wrenched her gaze away. She forced herself not to snap Pettigrew’s pudgy wrist, gratefully accepted Remus’s firm grip around her fingers.
And then it was Sirius’s turn. He was practically vibrating in his chair like an overexcited puppy after being made to wait through all of the other introductions. But he calmed when she reached her hand out to him. He seized it and didn’t let go, forcing her to keep leaning towards him as he spoke.
“Helena?” A roguish grin spread across his lips as he caught and held her eyes with his own. “Definitely a face that could launch a thousand ships.”
A part of her was indignant Sirius had never taught her how to deliver a line that dramatic so smoothly, instead leaving her to flounder around in the romance department, but most of her was enthralled with the mischievous, happy light shining in this teen’s gray eyes, untouched by the shadows of the future. She’d only ever caught glimpses of this open merriment on her godfather’s face, and they were always so fleeting.
“Did you practice that in a mirror?” She asked after a beat of silence, realizing she’d start looking like a nitwit soon if she didn’t respond. “Or do you just come up with those kinds of things spur-of-the-moment?”
Sirius barked a surprised laugh.
James leaned around him, grinning broadly. “Oh definitely the mirror. You ever need to find a guy who spends more time combing his hair than all the girls in Gryffindor combined?” He jabbed his thumb in Sirius’s direction and wiggled his eyebrows.
“Oi!” Sirius turned towards James with an exaggerated scowl, tossing his hair back with a sniff and a raised chin. “I know you’re jealous of my luscious locks, Prongs, but that’s no reason to go defaming my good name to all the pretty new girls in our house,” he said, then turned back to Helena and smirked. “I only spend as much time combing my hair as all the girls in our year combined.”
“Oh, well that’s all right then. For a second there I thought you might be vain or something.”
James guffawed, slapping Sirius on the back. Lily giggled. Sirius’s entire face lit up with delight. And something in Helena clicked into place.
Coming to Hogwarts was the right decision.