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In the Time of Daffodils, Tansies and Honeysuckle

Chapter Text

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.”

“I know.”

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.

~

Helena stared at the imposing metal gates guarding the entrance to Hogwarts. She could see the castle in the distance, a great expanse of stone towers nestled against the dark waters of the Black Lake. The rolling green hills of the grounds, dappled over with the purple heather of late summer, ran wild all the way up to the walls of the quidditch pitch, and still further to the looming trees of the Forbidden Forest which surrounded everything.

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.

Chapter Text

The sky was still dark when Helena stumbled out of bed the next morning. A quick tempus told her it was just before five o’clock, which meant she had a least an hour before any of the other girls would wake up.

Helena sat back on the edge of her bed and scrubbed her hands over her face. She took several deep breaths, but even as her heart rate slowed, the anxiety spiderwebbing through her chest grew more pronounced.

Nightmares were a familiar companion in the future, and these last few months since her parents died had seen the advent of all new horrors painting her dreams dark with terror and death. This morning was actually one of her better mornings of late. At least this time she couldn’t remember what she’d dreamed. For once the images weren’t superimposed on the backs of her eyelids. Just lingering anxiety, and she knew how to handle that.

She walked silently to her trunk and pulled out some workout clothes. She tugged her black hair into a ponytail, laced up her shoes, and slipped out of the dorm.

Nobody patrolled the hallways at this hour. Even the portraits were too deeply asleep to notice the lone student drifting through the empty stone corridors. Troublemakers were night owls after all, not early risers. It would have been nice if she’d ever discovered this fact in the future, but as Harry she fell very firmly in the troublemaker category and had had to rely on the invisibility cloak and the Marauder’s Map to sneak around instead.

Hermione had probably known, she grumbled, then immediately had to suppress the thought. And she’d been doing so well not thinking about all the friends she’d lost. Two whole days without bringing them to mind. It was a bloody record.

She stopped in front of the blank stretch of wall that marked the entrance to the Room of Requirement and closed her eyes, picturing the room they’d used for the DA with as much detail as possible—the high vaulted ceiling, the dark wood floors, the sitting area to the left with its creamy leather furniture and overstuffed shelves of defense texts, the long expanse to the right with its rows of padded dueling platforms and the steel blue dummies which were capable of fighting back as viciously as any Death Eater she’d ever met—then she started pacing.

“I need a place to practice battle magic in secret,” she whispered over and over.

A familiar door appeared when she completed her third circuit. One of the dancing trolls in the tapestry hanging on the wall opposite the entrance to the Room of Requirement waved at her as she opened the door, then went back to trying to perfect a pirouette, its pink tutu fluttering around the tree trunks it called legs.

Helena was tempted to march in and start flinging blasting hexes at the training dummies, but she restrained herself. She needed to be better than a schoolgirl. She needed to treat this like a job. She needed to be more proficient than the professionals.

Which meant learning to spell-chain. It was a skill Hogwarts didn’t touch on until the very end of Seventh Year, a skill aurors spent the majority of their three years in training honing.

The idea was simple enough. Every spell required a certain set of wand motions, even when cast non-verbally. So if one spell (like the blasting hex she still wanted to let loose) ended with an upward jab to the right, the fastest way to get off a second shot was to choose a curse with a starting motion that coincided with the previous spell’s end point.

In practice, the technique was grueling. There were standard spell-chains, which she needed to know if for no other reason than to recognize when an opponent began to use one against her; then she needed to know the standard defensive chains to break her opponent’s rhythm.

She needed to know chains from every starting position: from a dueler’s ready stance, coming up from a dive, twisting to defend her back, and so on and so forth. And then after all of that, she needed to get creative, invent her own personalized chains. She needed to be so good she could anticipate possibilities when her opponent began a chain. She needed to be so good she could improvise pieces of a chain on the fly.

It was an exhausting prospect. One thousand perfect repetitions for something to become muscle memory, three thousand for it to become instinct. Helena had calculated how long it would take her to learn a single fifteen-second chain. If she blocked off three hours for practice every single day, she could feasibly master one a week.

Just one.

The thought made her want to cry. Or throw up.

Instead she flipped open the beginners treatise on spell-chaining she’d found her very first day back at Hogwarts and picked out a third chain to master. Something for coming out of a dive, she decided. She seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time ducking and rolling during all of her past battles.

~

When Helena reentered her dorm at half past seven, none of the other girls were ready to head down for breakfast.

Alice and Marlene’s beds were empty. Helena could hear the faint sound of surprisingly pitch perfect singing over the pitter-patter of falling water coming from the bathroom, so she assumed both girls were showering.

Dorcas was propped up in her bed holding a book with a risqué picture of a sharply muscled man embracing a half-naked woman on the cover. She grinned when she looked up and caught Helena staring at it, then went back to reading.

Lily looked much less lively. She was sitting up in her bed, slouched over so her elbows rested on her knees, her head resting in her hands, eyes at half-mast. Her copper hair was crunched up in a wild mane around her face. A red pillow crease ran all the way from her forehead to her jaw. She squinted over at Helena with a deeply suspicious look, taking in Helena’s sweat-soaked workout clothes and flushed face.

“Merlin, you’re one of those horribly chipper morning people, aren’t you?”

Helena paused on her way to her trunk. “Er…”

Dorcas snickered and whispered sotto voce, “Don’t try to talk to Lily before she’s had her coffee.”

Lily groaned and flopped back on her bed. “God did not intend for humans to wake up this early!”

“I don’t know, the sun’s been up for over an hour.” Helena smirked, a tiny thrill rolling up her spine. These were the kinds of details no one had ever thought to share after Lily was gone.

Lily didn’t respond verbally, instead flinging her arm over her eyes and flapping her hand in Helena’s general direction.

Chuckling, Helena gathered up her toiletries, feeling very chipper indeed.

The girls trooped into the Great Hall half an hour later. Lily made a beeline for the carafe of steaming coffee at the far end of the table, plopping down next to James without seeming to realize who she was sitting next to.

His expression was almost comically delighted at this turn of events, eyes wide behind his glasses, lips slightly parted in astonishment. He immediately slouched sideways, elbow on the table propping up his head, and ran his other hand through his dark hair, messing it up even further.

“Morning, Evans!” He chirped brightly.

Lily hummed with her eyes closed, cradling her mug of coffee in both hands as she breathed in the rich aroma like it was the nectar of the gods.

The non-committal response was all the encouragement James needed, apparently, because in the next second he was off, rambling at Lily in a stream of consciousness about whatever random thoughts popped into his head. He was midway through a speech outlining the merits of initiating a prank war with the Slytherins when she cut him off.

“Potter,” she huffed, not taking her eyes off her mug, “I swear to Merlin if you don’t shut up and let me drink my coffee in peace…”

“I will if you’ll go out with me, Evans!” He singsonged, shamelessly seizing on the opening.

Lily clenched her eyes shut for a second, like she was praying for restraint, then looked over at where Helena was seated watching the byplay with fascination.

“Switch places with me, Helena? Please,” Lily asked even as she stood up and started moving towards Helena’s seat.

Helena shrugged and hopped up, not in the least opposed to chatting with James. “I’ve been reliably informed that morning people were summoned from Hell by dark wizards,” she told him as soon as she sat down.

He smirked and raised his brows, taking in her cheerful countenance. “What does that make you then?”

“The devil, probably,” Helena grinned. “I’ve been up since five.”

James laughed and pointed his fork at her. “See now when you say things like that, you make the summoning theory make a scary amount of sense.”

“Oh come off it, Prongs,” Sirius scoffed. “If she’s the devil, you’re satan’s twin, what with how early you like to schedule practices.”

James opened his mouth to retort, then closed it. He looked at her contemplatively. “Huh. Say, you any good at quidditch, Gaunt?”

Helena stared at James, conflict clouding her mind. On the one hand, flying with him was a long-held dream, the kind of fantasy that could and had produced patronuses. On the other hand, there was the desperate, clawing need to train constricting her lungs tighter and tighter with each passing day.

Her godfather died because she wasn’t good enough, because she was unprepared and a fool.

And her parents. In another world, one in which she didn’t merge with her future counterpart, she probably died that day with them. But perhaps there was another world out there where she was better prepared, where she pulled them back to safety before the magic-impervious vines of the Angel’s Bloom could drag them into the murky depths of the Amazon River.

She couldn’t fail James and Lily and their future children who were as good as her siblings. She couldn’t fail Sirius, who deserved so much better than life had given him. And Remus, who deserved a progressive world, one where he had friends fighting for his rights as a human being. And Alice, who should never know the pain that drove her to insanity. And everyone else whose lives were wrecked by Voldemort and his followers.

Knowing what was out there the way she did, it would be beyond selfish to devote time to a game.

“Pretty good,” she admitted, not quite able to curb the need to boast to her future father. “But I don’t think I’ll have time to join the team.”

James’s eager expression dropped.

“But maybe I could come out and play a couple seeker matches to help out whoever becomes your seeker, if you want,” she was halfway through offering before she even registered the decision to speak.

“Oh, you’re going to regret volunteering for that job,” Remus piped up, smiling wryly as he scooped a third serving of eggs onto his plate.

Sirius threw his arm around Remus’s shoulders and leaned against him conspiratorially. “Hush, Moony. You know it’s dangerous to get between a man and his quidditch.”

“Oi! You’re on the team too, Padfoot!”

“To my everlasting shame,” Sirius sighed, placing his hand dramatically over his heart.

“Shocking lack of team spirit, that,” James tutted. “Wouldn’t you say, Moony?”

“Yes, very shocking,” Remus agreed drolly.

Pettigrew nodded along in enthusiastic support, much to Helena’s disgust.

“You lose a bet then?” She asked Sirius. “Or did he bribe you to try out?”

“Bet,” Sirius nonchalantly admitted, leaning back on the bench with his arms crossed as he stared up at the enchanted ceiling.

James scoffed. “I bet him he couldn’t make the team. In our third year. He’s still on the team.”

“In exchange for what?” Helena laughed.

“Nothing,” James smirked. “Don’t let him fool you. Sirius secretly adores quidditch. He just won’t admit it.”

“Lies! I will have you know—”

“Ahem.” A throat clearing cut Sirius off, and they all looked up to see Professor McGonagall peering over her spectacles at them. “Gentlemen, Miss Gaunt, your schedules.”

The boys eagerly grabbed for their schedules while Helena sat back, sedately waiting for McGonagall to pass hers over. The professor would be talking to her potential tutors later today, so she knew her schedule wasn’t quite as final as everyone else’s. She still needed to note down times slots to meet with them.

James snatched Sirius’s timetable out of his hands before the other boy even had a chance to look at it, quickly comparing their schedules before declaring with a wide grin that they would be sharing every class, as if they hadn’t already known they’d picked all the same subjects.

“What about you, Moony?” Sirius asked, tugging on Remus’s arms so he could look over the werewolf’s shoulder. He whistled, long and low. “Damn, your Wednesdays and Thursdays are going to be awful. And are you really taking history? Why would you do that to yourself?”

“History’s important,” Remus muttered, snatching his timetable back.

“I don’t care how bad your schedule is, Moony,” James piped up as he leaned over to catch a glimpse of Helena’s timetable. “It can’t be as bad as Gaunt’s here. Merlin! Are you actually taking seven NEWTs?”

Helena knew her merged memories gave her an unfair advantage, but that didn’t stop the rush of pleasure she felt at James’s impressed tone.

“Wow! Seven subjects? That’s amazing! I’m only taking four.”

And the pleasant feeling was gone. Helena sincerely hoped Pettigrew would never again look at her with that awed expression in his small brown eyes again.

Sirius glanced at Pettigrew’s timetable and snorted derisively. “Really, Wormtail? You’re taking divination?”

It wasn’t a kind reaction, but even as Pettigrew blushed and shrank down in his seat, Helena found she didn’t have much sympathy for the rat, not even this still-innocent version.

“Well, looks like the three of us have potions first thing today,” she said more to break the awkward silence than anything. She looked questioningly at Remus to see if he would also be joining them and was mildly surprised when he shook his head no.

A quick tempus showed they only had twenty minutes before the start of class, so she clambered to her feet and asked if any of them would mind showing her the way to the potions lab from Gryffindor Tower.

Sirius immediately volunteered, which for some reason made James choke on his sip of tea as he burst out laughing.

Helena spared him one concerned look before shaking her head and walking out of the Great Hall with Sirius.

Chapter Text

Helena was not sure how, out of all the potential tutors in her year, she had managed to land James, Lily, and Sirius. She would have expected Remus before his two more troublesome friends, but it seemed that while the prefect outperformed them in most other classes, in the ones she actually needed help, James and Sirius were superior.

Not that Helena was complaining. She and Lily had partnered up in potions, which would make their tutoring sessions efficient if nothing else. And learning transfiguration from James was a dream nearly on par with her fantasies of flying with him—she only hoped she could somehow convince him to teach her the animagus transformation. And then there was Sirius, who she’d missed most of all, who was so effortlessly brilliant at charms it was enviable.

James jokingly attributed this skill to the plethora of grooming charms Sirius used every morning, which Sirius didn’t even try to deny. Though he did roll his eyes when James called him a pampered show dog. (Helena had a hard time containing her mirth at that one.)

Professor McGonagall met with her after classes ended for the day to let her know all three teens had agreed to tutor her, then Helena had the rest of the afternoon free. She knew she should probably work on knocking out her potions and defense against the dark arts assignments to keep it all from piling up. Instead she exited McGonagall’s office and turned straight for the shortcut leading to the seventh floor corridor that housed the Room of Requirement.

Because a solid three more hours of spell-chaining practice was just what the healer ordered. If her anxiety levels held steady, Helena was going to end up in the best shape of both her lives. Honestly. Five hours in one day was verging on insane. But she couldn’t help herself.

She was feeling a titch lightheaded when she stumbled into the Gryffindor common room later that evening. She collapsed on one of the couches and leaned her head back against the cushions, closing her eyes. Sound drifted to her, muffled and distant, like a river of molasses was blocking her ears. Her heart rate slowed, a steady thump thump thump connecting her floating mind to her fingertips, her toes, the backs of her knees, her chest beating through each long inhale and slow exhale.

She wondered if this was what being high felt like: blissful relaxation, all her anxieties locked tight behind a wall of euphoria.

Gradually the feeling faded, though it did not completely disappear, and she began to pay attention to the other occupants of the common room. Which was about when James sauntered over to pin his quidditch tryouts announcement on the notice board and realized that the first Hogsmeade weekend was only three weeks away.

He spun around, eyes searching until they landed, almost inevitably, on Lily, who was sitting at the booth table tucked up under one of the tower’s many stained glass windows.

It was like watching a speeding train hurtling straight towards a broken bridge.

“Evans! Hey, Evans!” He shouted instead of walking across the room to speak to Lily. Most of the other students paused whatever they were doing to observe him.

Lily stiffened, then very slowly raised her head. “What, Potter?” She hissed.

Despite knowing Lily still greatly disliked James at this point, that during one of her last interactions with James the previous year she’d called him an arrogant, bullying toerag, it still sent an unpleasant jolt through Helena to hear Lily say Potter so coldly.

James hesitated for a fraction of a second, just long enough for Helena to see him swallow thickly, then he seemed to rally, puffing out his chest and running his hand through his messy hair.

“Oh don’t be like that, Evans. I know you’re busy, but you can add me to your to-do list, can’t you?”

Helena sucked in a sharp breath, barely holding back the loud snort that wanted to force its way out. Because, really? That was the line he went with? It was a bloody miracle Harry was ever conceived.

Lily clearly agreed. She rolled her eyes and tried to turn her attention back to her essay. “Was there something you actually wanted, Potter? Something that wouldn’t make me physically ill to even think about?”

“Always so dramatic,” James tsked.

Lily’s eye twitched.

“I was just going to ask if you knew that the first Hogsmeade weekend is coming up soon,” he said quickly.

“I’m the one who put that notice up on the board.”

“Great! So you’re probably trying to figure out who you should go with. Wonderful company always makes things—”

“No, I won’t go with you.”

The collective eyes of the common room swung back to look at James.

“You haven’t even given me a chance to ask yet!” He exclaimed.

“I didn’t need to.”

From there the conversation devolved into something better suited to a pair of pre-schoolers, the rest of the Gryffindors watching like it was a particularly riveting pingpong match. Helena even spotted one boy accepting bets for how long the two could go back and forth.

“Get used to it,” Sirius said as he plopped down next to her, spreading his arms out along the back of the couch and surveying the common room like a king overlooking his empire. He nodded at James and Lily. “This happens at least once a week.”

“What? James gets shot down?”

Sirius let loose a great barking laugh. “I was going to say Prongs asks her out at least once a week, but yeah, I guess you could phrase it that way too.”

Helena grinned and took a moment look him over, her smile spreading wider at seeing the blatantly muggle outfit Sirius sported now that classes had concluded for the day. Jeans, sneakers, a Led Zeppelin shirt featuring a naked angel leaping exultantly above a rainbow sunset, and a black leather jacket that looked soft as butter.

“You ever go to a concert?” She asked, pointing at his shirt.

Sirius glanced down like he needed to double-check what he was wearing, then his entire face lit up. “James’s dad took both of us to the concert in Rotterdam over winter break last year.”

“Well now I’m jealous,” she said.

“You should be,” he smiled confidently, leaning towards her. “We were up on the very first row, close enough to feel the base.” He thumped his chest to emphasize how strong the vibrations had been. “And at the end, Bonham tossed his drumsticks out to the crowd…”

Sirius smirked.

“Let me guess, you caught one?”

“Yep,” he preened, absurdly proud.

Helena laughed. Usually Sirius’s behavior was every inch the intelligent canine his animagus form embodied, but right now he resembled nothing so much as a smug cat purring with satisfaction. “How in the world did you get that close?”

“Well,” he said slowly, gray eyes sparkling, “Mr. Potter had to confund a bunch of the muggles to let us slip through the crowd, and then, once we got up near the front, he accioed some joints to—ah, bribe—a group of men to let us in front of them.”

“Weed? Are you serious?” Helena squeaked, disbelieving.

“Since I was born,” he quipped.

She shoved him back an inch. “That’s a terrible joke!”

“Why’re you laughing then?”

Helena rolled her sage green eyes, but she was grinning too widely for anyone to ever believe she was truly exasperated. “You can’t actually expect me to believe Mr. Potter let you and James smoke.”

Sirius raised his brows suggestively before shaking his head. “Nah, you’re right. Ole Fleamont’s way too responsible for that. Didn’t stop him from using drugs as a bribe to get his way though.”

Helena eyed him shrewdly for a second, then said, “Let me guess, Mr. Potter’s a bigger Led Zeppelin fan than both you and James combined, isn’t he?”

“Shhhh, it’s a secret,” Sirius winked. “Strictly speaking, we were ordered not to tell anyone. Wanted to pretend he was the long-suffering father indulging his son, didn’t he? But s’long as this never gets back to Mrs. Potter…”

“What’s this about my mum?” James interrupted them, sagging into the wingback chair beside their couch. The cushions were so thick he sank down several inches, cocooned by the piles of red fluff.

“I see someone’s finally finished flirting with his pretty green-eyed girl,” Sirius drawled lazily.

James startled, then dismissed Sirius’s words with an aggravated sigh. “She just likes playing hard to get,” he said, trying and failing to look unconcerned.

As if James’s approach was some type of signal—or perhaps a magnet would be more accurate—Remus and Pettigrew drifted over, both slumping down on the oversized crimson ottoman in front of the couch. For all that they were now present though, neither boy tried to chime in to the ongoing conversation—Remus probably more because he looked as if he would fall asleep sitting up any second now rather than because he lacked an opinion.

Helena, however, figured she should try to help James out. Lack of dating experience aside (in either life), she was in the unique position of having lived her life both entirely as a boy and entirely as a girl, and that had to count for something.

“Maybe you could try not asking her out next time,” she suggested.

James stared at her, nonplussed. “Huh?”

Sirius and Pettigrew were both looking at her intently, and even Remus had perked up at her unexpected contribution.

Helena shifted uncomfortably, her knee knocking gently against Sirius’s. Her workout clothes were as muggle as Sirius’s outfit, the white shorts leaving her legs completely bare. Even through the fabric of his jeans, Sirius radiated heat. She jerked away, pressing her legs tightly together to keep from fidgeting.

“I’m just saying, you want her to like you, right?”

“Of course I do!”

“Then do something nice for her,” she stated simply. “And don’t ask for anything in return.”

James settled back, the burgeoning offense wiped clean from his face, replaced with a kind of deep contemplation more suited to a philosopher contemplating the complexity of life.

“Did Lily say something to you? In your dorm or when all of you went off to the bathroom, or—”

“No,” Helena scoffed, “It’s just a general tip about most girls: like the attention, don’t like it when you’re too pushy.”

“Huh,” Sirius muttered. She didn’t know what he had to look so pensive about, though. As far as she was aware, he’d never had any trouble with the ladies.

James leaned forward to rest his arms on his knees, recapturing her attention. “What do you mean, too pushy?”

“You asked Lily out twice in one day,” Helena deadpanned.

“Twice the opportunity for her to say yes. What’s the saying? You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take?”

“So in your scenario, she’s the keeper, and you don’t want her to catch your balls?”

One beat of dead silence. Two. Then James flushed beet red, from the tips of his ears straight down his neck. Sirius choked and burst out laughing at the same time, wheezing as he tried to draw in air. Remus’s eyes widened almost comically. Pettigrew squeaked and fell clean off the ottoman.

Helena slapped her hand over her mouth. He wasn’t her father, not really, she immediately tried to reassure herself.

It did not work.

Merlin! She couldn’t believe she’d just cracked that joke at James, of all people. And about Lily.

“That—That wasn’t what I—”

“Oh no, you can’t take it back now, Helena!” Sirius crowed. “Merlin, Prongs, your face!”

James scowled, but it was only a moment before his disgruntled expression cracked. His lips twitched, spread wider, and then he was chuckling right along with Sirius. “Mind in the broom cupboard much, Helena?”

“More like down deep in the dungeons,” Sirius corrected James gleefully. “With the snakes.”

And oh Merlin, they were still going.

Remus snickered, shaking his head, and reached into his pocket to pull out a bar of chocolate. Breaking off a piece and holding it out to Helena, he said, “Here, it’ll help with the shock.”

“Shock?”

“Well it seemed rude to call being forced to deal with these two traumatic. At least to their faces,” he said, pointing at the still laughing pair of James and Sirius, who were now trying to one-up each other for best double entendre.

Helena accepted the chocolate. The familiar dark flavor melted in her mouth, a burst of sweetness and then the lingering rich aftertaste on the back of her tongue. Just like McGonagall’s fashion choices, some things even twenty years couldn’t change.

Lupin always had a stash of this same exact brand handy during their patronus lessons. It took Ron months to discover that particular habit of their professor, for which Helena had suffered through no end of complaints about all the missed opportunities to gorge on sweets. Then, of course, Ron had made a point of stopping by during every one of Lupin’s office hours so he could snag a few bars. He’d split them with her while they stayed up late into the night talking about quidditch, their classmates, the latest mystery, their hopes and fears.

Sometimes Helena’s heart ached with so much loss it was hard to breath.

She looked at this younger Remus with his smiling hazel eyes, his face not yet scarred by his curse, and wished for one desperate second that she was sitting before the thirty-five year old man who had lost his entire pack, at least for a time.

Guilt washed over her in the next second. Missing Ron and Hermione and everyone else was fine, but the universe had granted her a chance to change the future, to help create a peaceful world for everyone she loved. And maybe it was arrogant to think she could make that big of a difference, but that prophecy orb had had her name on it, and whatever it actually said, that had to mean something.

“Sorry,” she grimaced at Remus, aware she’d been silent too long, “A friend of my dad’s used to give me that same kind of chocolate.”

Remus looked at her searchingly but thankfully chose not to comment.

James turned back to her then, his competition with Sirius concluded at some unspoken cue, and with no clear winner. “So, Gaunt—”

“Helena, please. I’ve always thought my last name sounds a bit morbid.”

“Ha! Alright, sure, Helena it is. Did you have any questions about the transfiguration reading for class tomorrow?”

“Oh, er,” she bit her lip, then admitted, “I haven’t actually started it yet.” She hadn’t started any of her written assignments either, for that matter. She didn’t know how she was going to have time to complete those and her pre-class reading. But she knew she needed to find a way to fit it all in. Her work was hardly going to get lighter moving forward, after all.

“No worries, I can save you the trouble!”

“Here we go,” Sirius muttered under his breath.

James tossed a helium jinx at him in retaliation, snickered when Sirius’s next attempt to speak came out high and squeaky, then offered to summarize the reading for Helena.

As he launched into a lecture about the history of ground transfiguration and the theory behind large-scale flooring alterations, her mind turned predictably towards spell-chaining. She’d once sat with Mad-Eye Moody for over an hour running through hypothetical scenarios. And if there was one thing the scarred ex-auror had harped on as much as Constant Vigilance!, it was to take advantage of one’s environment during a fight.

James demonstrated the wand motion, a single large swipe from left to right, the same basic motion utilized by the vast majority of cutting hexes. She pictured it, her enemy dodging or wasting time throwing up a useless shield before the very ground shifted beneath their feet.

Be creative, her book on spell-chaining had advised. Look for opportunities to disguise your intentions. Make your opponent misread your chain, and you can grab the split-second advantage you need to win.

And she had to win.

Chapter Text

The Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher this year was not as incompetent as Dolores Umbridge, but it was close.

“I’m sorry Professor,” James said with such an innocent look in his eye that even the simpleton before them should’ve been able to guess he was being mocked. “But I’m a bit confused. What should I do if I ever come face-to-face with a werewolf?”

“Yeah,” Sirius piped up right on his tail. “I dunno if I’ll be brave enough to look a real werewolf in the eye and try’n talk it down, sir. Do you have any other suggestions?”

“I don’t know, Padfoot, you’ve always struck me as the type mad enough to try and wrestle a werewolf into submission,” Remus murmured with a wry twist to his lips.

Helena choked and slapped a hand over her mouth to cover up her helpless giggles. She wondered if future Lupin ever read Gilderoy Lockhart’s book, Wanderings with Werewolves, wherein the fraud claimed to have done just that. Ninja style, of course—couldn’t insinuate some ferocious beast might have gotten close enough to scratch off his award-winning smile.

Professor Diddle smiled dopily, like Lockhart post-obliviation but less shiny. His eyes roved over the class without settling on a single face, almost as if he was looking through them. “No, no, no…No. Negotiation is step three. First you shield. Second, you send up sparks to alert the authorities you need help. Then you can try appealing to the human within.”

It wasn’t the worst advice ever, but considering most shields they learned at Hogwarts couldn’t withstand more than two or three hits from a werewolf thanks to the magical resistance the beings gained during the full moon, Diddle’s suggestion would be pretty close to worthless in reality.

“Now!” Diddle clapped cheerfully, apparently liked the beat and clapped it out again more slowly, a deeply thoughtful expression taking over his face. He was silent long enough for it to grow awkward, the students beginning to exchange befuddled glances, then he came back to himself, blinking rapidly. “Pair off and go practice your shields.”

He wandered back to his desk, softly clapping and bobbing his head. No one tried to tell him that he had not actually bothered to teach them a shield. Only a week into the new school year, and everyone already knew it would be pointless.

The Slytherins on the other half of the room fell into easy pairs, as did the Gryffindor girls. James and Remus partnered up, James shoving Sirius towards Pettigrew with a subtly triumphant glint in his eyes, which gave Helena the impression they must trade off who had to practice with the rat each class. And then they all paused, realizing for the first time that their numbers were no longer even.

Lily and Alice exchanged a glance, and Lily opened her mouth to offer Helena a place with them, but Sirius beat her to it.

“So, Helena, what’s the most advanced shield you can cast?” Sirius asked as they lined up across from one another, his voice dripping challenge.

Never one to back down, even when downplaying her talent might have been advisable, she tilted her chin up in her best impression of Draco Malfoy, and drawled, “I’ve been working on ferro clypeus. You ever heard of it?”

She was sure he had. More conjuration than anything, ferro clypeus was the primary physical shield employed by aurors. It created a wall of solid steel, which aside from dodging was one of the only ways to defend against the unforgivables, and unlike other physical shields, it did not require much power to cast, just a heap ton of technical skill and concentration.

Sirius whistled, low and appreciative, his eyes burning with interest. “And here I was worried this class was going to be boring,” he said, nudging Pettigrew teasingly.

Sirius wasn’t looking at him, so he didn’t see the dark anger that flashed through Pettigrew’s eyes at the casual ribbing. But Helena did, and it stirred every one of her protective instincts. The vicious dragon coiled around her heart lifted its head and peered at Wormtail with predatory intent.

You can’t have him, it hissed. He’s MINE.

Pettigrew blanched and dropped his gaze to the floor. Helena turned her attention back to Sirius.

He’d clearly picked up on the danger she’d radiated for that one fleeting second, but he didn’t appear bothered by it. If anything, he looked even more intrigued.

“I can teach it to you, if you want,” she said.

“Well if you insist,” Sirius grinned. Pettigrew stood timidly at his side, not protesting even though it looked like he wanted to.

It didn’t take long for Sirius to pick up on the spell. He couldn’t yet perform it with any speed, and the metal wall was too thin to provide reliable protection, but for thirty minutes of practice, he was almost startlingly proficient.

“Step forward when you cast,” she instructed, eying his stance critically as she so often had when coaching members of the DA. “You want to augment the power of your spell with movement from your entire body.”

Sirius nodded and squared off again, but snickering from a group of Slytherin boys standing twenty feet behind him drew Helena’s attention away from his next attempt.

She recognized Snape instantly, with his long hooked nose and greasy black hair. He was shaking his head, a familiar sour frown marring his hawkish face. Another boy, this one short and stocky with straight brown hair and icy blue eyes, said something that drew raucous laughter from the rest of the group and an eye roll from Snape.

The boy smirked and turned to stare at Lily. He flicked his wand, and a silvery spell shot across the room.

Helena acted on instinct. She’d practiced this ten thousand times over. She didn’t have to think. She threw a powerful protego over Lily and Alice, flowed smoothly into a disarming charm, then straight down into a stunner. The boy was flat on his back, his wand tossed high in the air by the time his vanishing hex impacted her shield.

Everyone stilled and turned to stare at her. Helena couldn’t bring herself to care about the attention, not after she realized what that disgusting boy had intended. “A vanishing hex?” She snarled. “What kind of sick joke is that?”

That woke the other Gryffindors up. They turned from looking at her to scowl at the boy Snape had just revived.

“You did what, Mulciber?” James growled threateningly, the muscle in his jaw jumping. “You slimy pervert.”

“Oh come on, Potter,” another one of the boys spoke up. He was tall and thickset, with dark, curly hair swept back off a sharp, cruel face. There was something familiar about him, in the lines of his nose and jaw, the thinness of his lips, but it was distorted, like an image seen in a funhouse mirror. “It was a lark. You shouldn’t get yourself worked up over one little mudblood’s honor.”

Helena had heard Draco say things like that before, but never so casually, and never with such little provocation, not even during his stint with the Inquisitorial Squad. And maybe the Voldemort supporters of the future would’ve become more bold once the conflict became less of a shadow war, but Helena wasn’t used to such brazen prejudice.

The others, however, were entirely unsurprised. Angry, but in no way taken aback. Lily’s expression tightened, but she didn’t otherwise react. The other girls glared, fingering their wands. Pettigrew shrank back. James stepped forward aggressively, Sirius right on his heels. Remus reached automatically to place a restraining hand on James’s shoulder.

“No, no, no…No!” Professor Diddle bustled over, having finally taken note of the standoff taking place in the middle of his classroom. He clapped, a more assertive beat than the one that had occupied his attention at the beginning of the period. He scrunched his face up, dissatisfied with the rhythm, tried a different pattern and nodded to himself with a bright smile.

“We are not equipped for practice duels today. Werewolves! That’s what we’re talking about,” he nodded firmly, then waved for the tall, thickset boy to face Helena. “So, Mr. Lestrange, Miss Gaunt here is an aggressive werewolf ready to rip you limb from limb—”

No one, Helena thought, should look that cheerful when talking about dismemberment. She was disturbed to note that Lestrange—Rodolphus if she was remembering the infamous brothers’ ages right—appeared to share her opinion, though if she had to guess, she would say his disgust was more for the professor’s cheer than the idea of ripping someone apart.

“—Negotiate!” Diddle gestured towards Helena with both arms spread out like a presenter on Wheel of Fortune.

Lestrange stared at Professor Diddle for one incredulous second, then turned to sneer at Helena.

“I’m not sure it’s possible for her kind to understand logic, Professor, but I can give it a try. So, werewolf,” he said, much the same way he’d said mudblood, “the Ministry, in all its wisdom, lays a hefty fine on anyone who kills a werewolf except in self-defense, so I’m going to save myself some galleons and try to negotiate with you to save your miserable life. Though if you were my relative, I’d have saved you the shame of living like this the moment you were bitten—”

“Funny,” Helena drawled, “if you were my brother, I’d have let you.”

Lestrange bristled but showed more restraint than Helena had expected when he didn’t otherwise react.

Alice, standing to Helena’s right, giggled behind her hand, which was a much better response than the slight tightening around Lestrange’s eyes.

Yes, laugh at him, Helena thought viciously, I won’t ever let him steal you away from Neville. Not this time.

“As fortune has it,” Lestrange snapped, “I don’t have any slavering beasts in my family tree. If you knew what was good for you, you’d save me the trouble of showing you mercy, and tuck your tail between your legs and slink away like the pathetic creature you really are.”

Well that wasn’t subtle at all. Also pretty shoddy recruitment for the purebloods, who had no way of knowing that she only barely qualified as one of them.

“Strangely enough,” Helena said with a strained smile, “the human within isn’t feeling much less murderous than the werewolf at the moment.”

Lestrange smirked meanly. “Dumb animals. Actions are the only language they understand.”

“You know, it’s odd, the more you talk the more enthusiastically the human within waves this giant ‘Werewolves for the Win’ banner…and yep,” Helena rolled her eyes back, pretending she was trying to peer into her own mind, “now she’s started singing a roaring rendition of Killer Queen. I don’t know what to tell you,” she smirked right back, “It seems she finds you less charming than a werewolf.”

Lestrange flushed such a dark shade of purple even Uncle Vernon would have been proud. His fingers squeezed tight on the hilt of his wand, his arm twitched back like he was barely stopping himself from cursing her.

“You little bitch,” he snarled, three steps in front of the other Slytherins.

“I suppose a werewolf is a type of dog,” Helena mused, faking indifference at the future madman’s show of aggression. “But I don’t think your word choice is the best approach if you want my inner human to resist the unbearable urge to maul you.”

“He does have a very maul-able face,” Sirius said, stepping up next to her with a cheeky grin. “Wouldn’t you say so, Moony?”

“Very maul-able,” Remus nodded sagely. “If I were a werewolf, it would definitely be the kind of face I’d want to scratch.”

Helena didn’t know how he could say that with such a straight face. None of the other marauders managed so well, all three of them cracking up at a joke no one other than Helena even caught, and she was having trouble holding back her own laughter, which only seemed to further incite Lestrange.

He lifted his arm as if to attack, but before he could act on the temptation, Professor Diddle once again saved the day, though whether this was intentional was anyone’s guess, seeing as he was currently organizing packets of sugar quills by color on his desk.

“No, no, no…no,” he said without looking away from his candy. “This is a one-on-one negotiation, kids!”

He sighed, moved the blue quills an inch to the right. “But we are out of time. So! Practice for next class. Good opening salvos are in your book…somewhere. Good day!”

And then he ambled to the classroom door and held it open for them with an absent wave of his hand.

The Slytherins filed out first, glaring over their shoulders as they went. The Gryffindors, by unspoken agreement, waited a solid minute before following them out the door.

“Well damn, Helena,” Dorcas Meadows gave an impressed whistle, “Werewolves for the win, hmmm?”

“Only every full moon…and during arm wrestling competitions…and maybe weight lifting battles,” Helena said, ticking off areas where werewolves would be superior on her fingers.

“Oh yes, lots of…animal strength, yeah?” Dorcas leered, wiggling her eyebrows.

Alice giggled. “Straight off the pages of one of your romance novels, right Dor?”

Dorcas laughed. “No, but maybe I should write one. Could title it On the Prowl or Howling at the Moon or something equally racy.”

“Ew,” Lily mock groaned. “No, if you get rich and famous writing lewd werewolf romance novels, I might have to disown you as a friend.”

“I don’t know, at least she’d be famous,” Marlene McKinnon noted with a sly smile.

“And rich,” Dorcas grinned. “Let’s not forget the part where I make a ton of money.”

Sirius chose that moment to butt in, dragging a visibly flustered Remus forward with an arm around his shoulders. “So you think werewolves are sexy, Dorcas?”

Dorcas nodded enthusiastically. “Oh yes, a werewolf would make the perfect male lead: handsome, super strong, protective but with this dark secret that makes him all broody and mysterious.”

She bit her lip and shivered dramatically, then pretended to swoon, falling sideways into a giggling Alice.

Helena hung back, watching the others’ antics with a growing feeling of fondness warming her chest. She’d long known she loved these people, or at least the idea of them, but getting to know them for real was an entirely different ballgame. Even Remus and Sirius, whom she’d actually met in the future.

They were all so happy.

James though was being oddly quiet. He was frowning, hands stuffed in his pockets, brooding. The expression took Helena aback for its sheer familiarity. She’d seen it often enough in the mirror in the future. But on James it didn’t suit. He had a face built for laughing.

She almost asked if he was okay, but she wasn’t sure he would take it well coming from her. So she refrained, silently shooting him concerned glances every few seconds instead. Which was why she noticed the second his eyes darkened and his lips pulled back in something that could have been a smile if it hadn’t looked so angry.

Her eyes flickered to where he was staring, right at the back of Mulciber’s head. She watched with an almost detached sense of inevitability as a silvery spell ricocheted through the crowded entrance into the Great Hall, splattering in a sheen of sparkles against the Slytherin’s back.

His naked back.

Everyone froze, gaping in shock at the suddenly nude boy. Well, almost nude. James had thankfully not vanished the boy’s underwear, not that the pale green briefs were leaving much to the imagination.

And then the unavoidable pointing started. Someone catcalled. His friends laughed. And then it was like the floodgates had opened, the hall filled with shouts of glee. No one, aside from his small group of friends, seemed to feel a lick of sympathy for James’s victim.

Mulciber himself took nearly five full seconds to react at all, and then he screeched louder than a banshee and started trying to pull Snape’s outer robe off his shoulders.

Professor Slughorn arrived on the scene a moment later, his jowls bouncing as he jogged towards the clustered students.

“What—is—going—on—here?” He panted.

Snape immediately jabbed his finger at James.

“Potter hexed Easton’s clothes off!” He accused, though Helena knew for a fact his back had been turned at the time.

“Oi! Don’t blame me for his naked arse! Way I hear it, Mulciber’s been flinging vanishing hexes around willy nilly all day. He probably hit himself with one by accident!” James said, even as Helena spotted him surreptitiously casting a weak lumos behind his back.

“What would you know about it anyways, Snivellus?” Sirius sneered. “You don’t actually think anyone will believe your nose wasn’t busy greasing up the pages of a book when Mulciber here decided to go streaking, do you?”

Snape turned white with rage, but he didn’t get to snap back. Professor Slughorn jostled forward with a jovial laugh and wagged a thick finger between the two opposing groups.

“Now boys, let’s try to be mature about this, hmmm? Mr. Snape, did you actually see Mr. Potter fire the vanishing hex?”

“I know it was him,” Snape glared mutinously.

Slughorn shook his head in a disappointed fashion. “Be that as it may, we cannot fling accusations about with no proof. Nevertheless, Mr. Potter, your wand, if you would?”

James handed his sleek mahogany wand over without hesitation. He crossed his arms and smirked straight at Snape as Slughorn performed priori incantatum, his mouth widening into a grin of smug satisfaction when the spell turned up an innocent lumos as his most recently cast spell.

“If it wasn’t Potter, it was Black!” Snape shouted, wild eyed.

But Slughorn only sighed.

“Maybe you should check Mulciber’s wand, Professor,” James suggested slyly. “I wasn’t joking when I said he probably hexed his own clothes off by accident.”

Slughorn chuckled at the thought, somehow not seeming to catch on to James’s too-innocent vibe.

Or maybe he dislikes that lot as much as the rest of the school, Helena mused.

“Right you are, Mr. Potter! It’s always best to rule out an accident first. So Mr. Mulciber, your wand please.”

Tight lipped, Mulciber begrudgingly handed over an unusually thick wand to Slughorn’s waiting hand.

Helena couldn’t help but laugh along with the rest of the crowd when the priori incantatum turned up a vanishing hex. It was poetic, really, the way James had twisted Mulciber’s attack on Lily back against him.

The Slytherins were the only ones not laughing as they all headed into the Great Hall, James escaping any punishment Scott-free. The Slytherins and Lily.

She had laughed along with the rest of them, but once they reached the Gryffindor table she rounded on James, demanding to know if he’d done that because of her. Which James didn’t even try to deny, loudly declaring that he would always defend Lily’s honor.

“I can take care of myself!” She hissed. “I don’t need you running around using me as an excuse to act like a bully!”

“Bully? I was just returning the favor!”

“Don’t pretend you needed a reason to sink to their level!”

For a second, James looked as though he’d been slapped, then his face hardened into a scowl. “He’s a git! Why would you defend him anyways?”

Lily growled. “That—That is exactly the problem with you! Always tit-for-tat, or attacking first, even. You never just use your words!”

“Oh come on,” James rolled his eyes, “he said it himself, you can’t reason with a beast. They only understand actions. I was just giving him a taste of his own medicine!”

“Next time, don’t. Not for me,” Lily said, then shoved away from the table to sit as far away from James as possible.

“What is it with her?” James huffed. “I was trying to do something nice for her.” He turned to lock eyes with Helena, something both frustrated and imploring lurking in his gaze. “Just like you told me to.”

Helena snorted. “Not exactly what I was talking about.”

“You told me to do something nice. I defended her honor!”

“By the stars, that really wasn’t what I meant.”

He blinked at her, totally uncomprehending.

Helena sighed, not entirely sure how he’d misinterpreted her earlier advice. But then she supposed she hadn’t completely spelled it out for him. Showy gestures of affection had never occurred to her as something to warn him against, mainly because when she was a boy, the mere idea of doing such a thing had been enough to make her break out in a cold sweat.

“I meant something small,” she explained, “like holding the door for her or paying her a compliment or saving her a piece of her favorite dessert, not cursing someone’s clothes off!”

“How was I supposed to know that doing something even nicer would be wrong?”

Helena clasped her hands together in front of her lips in a praying motion, closed her eyes and took one deep inhale, and forcefully didn’t let herself think about the days when she rivaled James for sheer cluelessness.

“Let me rephrase. In what scenario is it ever a good idea to present the girl you like with a different naked boy?”

James instantly flushed crimson, his eyes widening comically behind his glasses. He twisted to stare down the table at Lily with a horrified grimace.

“She’s got you there, Prongs!” Sirius said with a great barking laugh, then reached over and dragged the plate of treacle tart between the two of them. “Here, we have to snag anything with chocolate in it early or Moony will hog it all.”

Helena turned to smile sunnily at him, before practically diving on the dessert. Merlin! Hogwarts really did make the most divine treacle tart. The fact that Remus was pouting on the other side of the table only made eating it better. She had a feeling Sirius had absolutely not been exaggerating about the werewolf hogging the treat.

She and Sirius dug in, mockingly cutting Remus off a tiny piece, much to his consternation. James wasn’t paying any attention to them though. He was busy squashing his carrots into a pureed mash, muttering reassurances about Mulciber’s general lack of appeal under his breath.

Helena wondered how long she should let him stew over that worry before she told him Lily would never be remotely interested in a slime ball like Mulciber even if he was Adonis himself.

At least another day, she decided. Just so she could listen to James wax poetic on all the Slytherin’s perceived deficiencies. It had nothing to do with her finding his fretting endearing. Nothing at all.

Chapter Text

Helena was ravenous by the time dinner rolled around.

After Defense Against the Dark Arts and lunch, she’d only had Arithmancy, which left her with a solid three and a half-hour block of time to devote to dueling practice. She was feeling pretty good about her progress, all things considered. Her shoulder was a little sore from practicing falling, and she needed to shave full seconds off her recovery time when coming up from a dive, but the footwork was starting to feel less awkward, and she could now confidently say she’ be unlikely to injure herself in a fight.

Give it another week or two and she would be ready to up the difficulty level on the training dummies to a solid five, the equivalent of a vicious if uncreative Death Eater. She hoped she would be able to max the things out at level ten, the equivalent of an international dueling champion, by the end of the year. After that she would need real, thinking opponents.

She was halfway through her third cup of pumpkin juice and second helping of bangers and mash, silently lamenting the lack of enchiladas at Hogwarts, when she clocked on to the unusually low volume in this section of the Gryffindor table.

“Where’re the boys?” she asked, blinking between Lily and Alice, who were quietly debating some article in the evening edition of the Daily Prophet, and Dorcas and Marlene, who were more happily but no more loudly spitballing ideas for Dorcas’s future money-making romance novel.

“Down in the kitchens would be my bet, probably planning their next epic prank or some such rot,” Lily said with a disinterested shrug.

Yes, that did sound like something the Marauders would do. Helena wished she’d thought to go down to the kitchens before now, come to think of it. Maybe she could teach the house elves to make enchiladas. Or Italian. She was better at cooking Italian, and it might be nice to resurrect some of her mother’s family recipes, to keep that connection to Bellona Farnese alive.

Soon, she promised herself.

Helena pointed her fork at the newspaper clutched in Alice’s hands. “Anything interesting happen since this morning?”

Alice pursed her lips in apparent approval. “Mr. Crouch—he’s the head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement—he’s petitioned the Wizengamot for permission for his aurors to use the Unforgivables.”

“He wants to take the fight to the Death Eaters, use their own methods against them, so to speak,” Lily said, appearing far more uncertain than Alice, who until this moment Helena had taken to be the gentler of the two.

“Well that’s not likely to backfire on him at all,” Helena snorted, derisive with the benefit of foreknowledge.

“I guess it depends on if it’s effective,” Alice conceded reluctantly. “But as far as I’m concerned, he’s the only one in that Ministry lot with the right attitude. Whether they want to admit it or not, we’re at war, and while our people are being killed off one by one, all the Death Eaters we arrest seem to end up back on the streets the very next day!”

“But the Unforgivables?” Lily shook her head. “We might be at war, but our side’s supposed to be the good guys. We have no business sinking to their level.”

“That’s a nice idea, but if we lose because we want to keep the moral high ground, then we’ve damned everybody,” Alice said.

“Well sure, but the only Unforgivable that’d even be helpful for us is the Imperius,” Helena pointed out.

Lily squinted at Helena. “I can understand why you’d discard the Cruciatus. I can’t see how torture could ever be justified in the Wizarding World when we have access to things like Veritaserum. But if you don’t object to lethal force, what’s your issue with the Killing Curse?”

“Well it’s addictive, isn’t it? Probably not a great idea to turn our aurors into kill-happy addicts.”

Fake Moody had never counted that property of the spell as a negative, convinced as he was that only a strong-willed person could successfully cast an Avada Kedavra. He took it for granted that a strong will went hand in hand with the ability to fight against addiction. Which on reflection was probably not an attitude cultivated solely from his stint with the Death Eaters. But there was a reason that the Killing Curse, out of all of the thousands of ways to murder a person, was the only method which gained the caster an automatic prison sentence.

“The risk can’t be too bad though, or Crouch wouldn’t have proposed we use it.”

Alice talked with her hands, waving them about in the same way Neville did when he was trying to make a point or clarify one of his many questions. Helena wondered with a pang if he ever knew they shared that trait, if his grandmother had ever told him how very much he resembled his mother when he was on a roll and feeling confident.

“One of my crazier defense teachers thought it should be legal too,” Helena said almost as much to distract herself from her wayward thoughts as to continue the debate. “He thought only the most pathetic wizards would suffer addiction. Crouch can think the same all he wants, it doesn’t make him right.”

“So you don’t think the Wizengamot should approve Crouch’s request?” Alice didn’t look like she knew whether to agree now that all the many cons were laid out, or whether she should be mad.

“I don’t think it would be effective.”

“Which would make lowering our standards pointless,” Lily tacked on.

Helena nodded in agreement. If you were going to say the ends justified the means, you at least needed to make sure the final result was worthwhile.

“I know we have to win the war. But if we want a society worth living in when it’s over, we need a government that doesn’t bend its moral convictions to make things easier. And maybe that includes allowing lethal force, but it doesn’t mean we give the aurors unlimited discretion. That kind of approach is short-sighted, and it will create more problems in the end,” Lily continued passionately.

Alice scowled. “Did you know Falcon Travers was arrested last year? Caught red-handed torturing a family of muggles. He killed an auror before they managed to stun him. And then they just locked him up in a holding cell to await his lawful trial. Five days after his arrest, he escaped. Someone in the Ministry unlocked his cell in the middle of the night and let him walk right out the front door. A week later he led the Death Eater raid on Merlin’s Cove.”

“Oh, Alice…” Lily’s face twisted in sorrow. She reached out to grasp Alice’s hand.

Alice allowed the contact for a second, then pulled her fingers away, clasping her hands together in a white-knuckled fist in front of her.

“My uncle died protecting my baby cousin. Travers killed him.”

To her credit, Lily didn’t recant her earlier opinion, but she did drop the subject, moving on to more pleasant topics far more gracefully than Helena thought she’d ever be able to manage.

~

Helena veered outside after dinner, declining Lily’s offer to help her with her potions essay in favor of a brisk walk around the Black Lake. She made it about a mile before she came across an old favorite haunt.

The rocky outcropping contained one large slab of smooth gray stone which jutted out over the lake. After heavy storms, the water would rise to lap at the overhang’s edge. Helena had once visited hoping to celebrate the end of midterm exams only to find it completely submerged. But the water was so low now that she could drape her legs over the side and barely brush her toes along the lake’s surface.

From this spot she could see clear across the lake to the valley that marked the western horizon. Steep, mountainous hills framed the valley, holding the glowing orange sun in a verdant palm. Helena loved sunsets like this, the sun sinking to reveal a tapestry of colors, red fading to orange, pinks and purples kissing the navy blanket of twinkling stars finally visible above them. And the full moon rising at the same time, painted in warm hues instead of its usual cool light.

Poor Moony, Helena thought, sparing a brief moment to wish she could transform and run wild with the Marauders tonight. She dismissed the fantasy a second later. She was neither an animagus nor close enough to the boys for them to let her in on their biggest secret.

Still, it would be nice to revel free and thoughtless for a night.

She watched the sun until it completely disappeared then sighed and laid down on her back to gaze up at the stars, leisurely tracing the familiar constellations as she filled her lungs with the crisp autumn air in slow, measured breaths.

A twig snapped behind her, and she twisted up with her wand drawn before she even registered the steady clomp, clomp, clomp of hooves against solid stone. The sight of a bare male chest attached to a muscular horse’s body should not have been as reassuring as it was considering the somewhat violent nature of most of Helena’s past interactions with the Hogwart’s centaurs. But Helena was relaxing before she even consciously realized she knew this particular centaur.

“Firenze!” she blurted, and then immediately wanted to slap herself.

Firenze tilted his head curiously, his long blond hair sweeping over his shoulders, highlighting his blue, blue eyes. He turned those bright eyes up to the heavens for a moment, then looked at her again with an even more curious expression on his markedly younger face.

Helena had always thought of Firenze and the other centaurs as timeless beings, but he didn’t look much older than fifteen, at least by human standards.

“The stars tell of great change. Something altered,” he said. Because of course he did. Only a centaur could take her strange knowledge of his name in stride like that.

Helena decided not to worry about it. “That’s good. I’d hate it if you foresaw things…staying the same.”

Firenze nodded and was silent for an uncomfortably long minute, shifting almost nervously from hoof to hoof. He glanced back towards the dark edge of the Forbidden Forest, mere feet behind Helena’s outcropping. When he looked back at Helena, his lips were pulled in a solemn frown.

“I…should not speak to you. But for good or ill, I feel I must tell you to beware of shattered family, Helena Gaunt—”

Alright, so he knew her name too. She didn’t want to think too hard about how such a young centaur had learned about her. She hoped it was the stars, but somehow she doubted it was that simple.

“—You cannot be bound. You must not tie yourself to him.”

Helena swallowed thickly around the sudden sensation of drowning. That was oddly direct for a centaur, even one as unconventionally straightforward as Firenze. But still, centaurs were notoriously cryptic, just like reading the future produced notoriously enigmatic results.

Firenze could not be telling her to stay away from James. Helena refused to believe such a thing. She was already bound to him by familial love, and nothing was going to change that. Whatever this warning meant, it would become clear only with time.

As logical as these reassurances were, however, they did not banish the ice filling Helena’s chest.

Something else to lock away in the back of her mind.

“Right, er, well thank you, I suppose… For, er, taking the risk to tell me that.”

Firenze bowed his head with a graceful, courtly bend of his front legs, then turned and galloped away.

Helena crawled to her feet, no longer in the mood to stare at the stars. It was dark, and she had homework to do.

She started trudging back along the path towards the castle, cursing the multitude of rocks and roots she could barely see with the moon shadowed by tree branches. It was slow going, especially given her sullen mood.

And then in the distance, a wolf howled.

Cool dread shivered down Helena’s spine.

She was a hundred kinds of idiot. She couldn’t even console herself that she hadn’t remembered it was the full moon. She’d been staring at it for hours, even daydreamed about joining the Marauders on their midnight stroll around the school grounds. And never once had it occurred to her to worry about actually running into the werewolf.

She was going to be the moron who gets bitten by a werewolf because she decided the night of the full moon was the prime time to take a hike. Or worse, the monster who put herself in a situation where she had to defend herself from Remus despite knowing all about his condition.

The real Moody would be so embarrassed by her lack of situational awareness.

Chapter Text

Helena was edging around the Whomping Willow, finally close enough to summon her broom from Gryffindor tower, when her retreat to the castle was halted by the very werewolf she was trying to avoid.

The Marauders were gathered at the edge of the Forbidden Forest. They were located closer to Hogsmeade and the Shrieking Shack than the Whomping Willow. But they still had a clear line of sight over the lawn Helena needed to cross to reach safety.

Moony and Padfoot were wrestling as playfully as cubs on their first excursion out of the den. Prongs pranced around them in a wide circle, tossing his head in the same manner he did while in human form. Wormtail wasn’t visible, but Helena knew he was with them too.

She spotted them as she crested the hill that led down to the lakeside path and immediately dropped into a crouch, heart pounding. There wasn’t anything to hide behind up here except tall grass, which only reached her chest even hunched over as she was. The Whomping Willow was a comfortable hundred feet to her left, lazily waving its branches in greeting to the full moon. A small outcropping sat on its far side, but Helena worried the tree would react violently if she tried to sneak passed it to shelter amongst the stones, alerting the animals to her presence.

“Accio,” she hissed, then held her breath, waiting.

A full thirty seconds elapsed before she felt the spell connect, but the familiar tugging sensation was wrong. Usually, the summoning charm grabbed an object and pulled with a steady force. And her magic had grabbed on to her broom. The spell feedback was clear on that front. But the pull force was waffling, yanking and releasing over and over in three rhythmic beats.

Thunk, thunk…thunk.

Helena clenched her eyes shut and fought the urge to punch the ground. Her broom was locked in her trunk, she remembered. She could picture it in her mind’s eye, the broom knocking against a lid that wouldn’t budge, the luggage dragged along for the ride only to bang against the narrow windows in her dorm.

“Finite,” she spat like it was a curse.

Alright then, time for Plan B.

On the plus side, she was standing right next to the entrance to the Shrieking Shack’s secret tunnel, which would be safe enough for the time being. And she could walk from the Shack down to the passage under Honeyduke’s.

The only problem lay in getting into the tunnel before the werewolf clocked on to her presence.

At this distance, Moony could be on her in under twenty seconds. The knob at the tree’s base, the one that would freeze its vicious arms, was situated directly facing the Marauders. She needed to walk the hundred feet to stand before it without catching the attention of Remus or the notoriously sensitive Whomping Willow. Then she needed to poke it, preferably with a long stick. A stupify would probably work too, but if she made it that far undetected, a bright red spell would surely tip everybody off. This would be fine if she hit her small target on the first try, but if she missed the knob by even an inch, she was looking at a fight with someone she desperately wanted to avoid hurting.

Helena glanced over her shoulder. She could also pull back to the Black Lake, but she didn’t trust her luck that far.

So she stalked forward cautiously, careful to keep her breaths slow and even, her steps gentle. She’d watched enough big cats hunt with her father to know that the key to stealth was deliberate, unhurried motion, especially given the autumn debris scattered amongst the grass.

It took her ten solid minutes to cross the hundred feet to the Whomping Willow. Her muscles were stiff by the time she was in place. Her eyes ached from straining to see in the dark. Still, she was undetected, and that was all that mattered.

Turning her back on the Marauders was more difficult than she thought it would be. It reminded her of the cupboard under the stairs. The pitch-black as the house creaked. Her skin prickling as if a predator was breathing down her neck, mere shadow when she braced to defend herself. The way her ears struggled to identify the whisper of sound under her cot.

Helena’s gut clenched with the need to guard her back.

She resisted, instead focussing on her summoning charm. She pictured the kind of stick she needed: Long, three or four times her own height; thin and lightweight; few if any twigs. And then she cast.

Her stick came hurtling out of the Forbidden Forest with a loud crash, snapping twigs and leaves to carve a destructive hole in the canopy. It was a javelin thrown by a gold-medal Olympian, but Helena wasn’t worried about it impaling her. She didn’t even watch as it came to rest beside her, stopping dead in midair to hover by her hand.

Her heart skipped a beat. Her perception narrowed down to the blood pounding in her temples.

She heard a startled yip, paws scrabbling over loose gravel, hooves pounding over hard-packed dirt. And then the howl that made all her hair stand on end.

Intellectually, Helena knew she should seize these last few seconds to petrify the Whomping Willow. But she couldn’t stop herself from turning to face the threat for the life of her.

Moony, ten paces in front of his friends and closing in fast, was savagely beautiful. At first glance, he was indistinguishable from a real wolf. His thick silver-gray fur reflected moonlight with a healthy shine. His body moved with svelte grace, strong muscles propelling him forward in bounding leaps. So different from the malnourished beast he became in the future.

Rather than diminish the feral hunger dripping from Moony’s gaping maw, the werewolf’s elegance enhanced it.

Red panic drew Helena’s arm up in a hammering motion. A purple blasting hex burst from her wand before she had a chance to consider what she was doing. Only the last-second thought that this was Remus kept her aim from flying true. Her hand twitched, and instead of landing a brutal shot to her friend, she instead exploded the ground in front of him, spraying him with chunks of earth.

The dirt didn’t even slow him down.

Helena scrambled back a step, her mind filled with white noise as she tried to think of a spell chain in her arsenal that was non-lethal. But there wasn’t one. She was practicing to fight Voldemort and his Death Eaters, not cursed schoolboys.

Moony was less than fifty feet away. Padfoot and Prongs still trailed him by several seconds. One galloping step. Two. Moony leapt at her, white fangs dripping poisonous saliva…

“Ferro clypeus!” she shouted at the last instant.

BANG. Moony collided with the steel wall erected suddenly between him and his prey.

Helena jerked with the noise like she’d been punched in the gut, gasped out the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. Moony released an animalistic whine of pain, scratched at the metal, and growled. And then Padfoot and Prongs were there.

Helena could hear yips and growls, snarls and trampling hooves as they tried to herd Moony away from her. But she couldn’t see them around the steel wall, and it left her feeling vulnerable.

She shuffled to the side and peered around the edge cautiously, wand raised.

Moony fought with the kind of fearless insanity of a serial killer: he pulled no punches; he attacked without fear of injury; and he was not afraid to hurt his opponents. So despite being outnumbered two to one, Moony was winning.

A hard scratch over Prong’s flank caused the stag to skitter back. Moony’s glowing amber eyes settled on Helena’s face. She watched, as if in slow motion, as his muscles bunched. His mouth opened wide—she could count every sharp tooth jutting from pink gums. He lunged.

Helena hustled back several steps. Moony’s shoulder caught on the metal wall. His claws swiped through the Helena’s hastily conjured protego like it was thin plywood, then he was hurtling towards her again.

She dove to the left.

Moony missed.

The Whomping Willow did not.

Helena heard more than felt the crack of her ribs as a massive branch slammed into her side. She was airborne for one frightening second before she hit the ground hard, sliding ten feet before she came to a standstill. Her arm burned with bloody abrasions, and her head ached worse than that one hangover she’d experienced last year. But worse was the way her lungs refused to draw in air.

She gasped, wheezing, and watched with tear-clouded eyes as Moony recovered from his own match against the tree, which had shoved them in opposite directions. Prongs was on him before he could fully regain his feet, pushing him down towards the Forbidden Forest.

Padfoot was racing towards her. He waited only long enough for the other two to disappear from sight, then shifted smoothly into human form to crouch over her.

“Shit! Merlin dammit! Are you hurt? Did he scratch you, or—or bite…?” Sirius’s hands hovered over her like he was afraid to touch.

Helena was still trying to regain her breath. She attempted to pant out a response, incoherent as it may have been with how surprised she was Sirius had transformed in front of her, but the words wouldn’t come.

Sirius’s panic skyrocketed. He began to apologize over and over as he stroked her hair with shaking fingers.

“I’m okay,” she finally managed to croak out. “Not bitten.”

She placed her hand on his chest in reassurance and didn’t try to stop him from petting her hair. It felt…rather lovely, the way his fingers slowed down as he calmed to card more methodically through her dark locks. She tilted her head and sighed as he messaged a tender spot. She wouldn’t mind seeing healers, she absently reflected, if they all soothed her injuries this gently.

“Good,” he rasped, “Good, that’s…Thank Merlin, I thought he got you there at the end.”

“Nah, turns out the Whomping Willow was on my side all along.” Helena sat up, wincing as her cracked ribs protested.

Sirius rushed to place a supportive arm at her back. “I wouldn’t be too quick to count that violent thing as your ally, Luv.”

“It’s a plant. They’re not always the best at expressing their emotions, but it likes me. I’m sure of it.”

Sirius’s lips quirked up. “Gives all new meaning to the phrase go hug a tree.”

Helena laughed, then immediately wished she hadn’t.

“Can you stand?” Sirius asked, his hands back to fluttering around her like a nervous hummingbird.

It took her a second, but Helena was able to regain her feet. Walking, as it turned out, was not so easy. She took one step, and her right leg crumpled beneath her weight, white-hot pain lancing through her ankle.

She grabbed onto Sirius before she could tip over. “Think my ankles sprained.”

“You’ve been clutching your side, too,” Sirius pointed to Helena’s arm, sill curled protectively around her middle. “How bad is it?”

Helena grimaced, then admitted, “The tree probably fractured a rib or two.”

Sirius nodded, looking back and forth between her and the castle. “Here, let me—”

He bent down and looped one hand beneath her knees, then paused. He gazed up, gray eyes silently asking for permission. Helena glanced back at the castle, a glowing beacon atop the highest hill on the Hogwarts grounds. She groaned, then waved her permission.

“Listen,” Sirius said after several minutes of silence as he carefully picked his way over the lawn. “I know it’s a lot to ask of you, but please don’t tell anyone about what happened with Moony.”

“Moony? As in Remus Lupin?” Helena asked, even though she already knew the answer.

Sirius winced, likely chastising himself for using Remus’s nickname. “The teachers know about him,” he was quick to defend. “It’s not like he’s here illegally or anything. But…just, if you say a werewolf attacked you…It’s not Remus’s fault! He’s the nicest bloke in the world. He’d never hurt anyone on purpose. But that won’t matter if—And we were supposed to—”

“Sirius! Calm down, I won’t mention Remus to anyone.”

Hope shone so brightly from every inch of Sirius’s face, it was almost painful to look at. “You won’t?” he whispered.

“I won’t. I promise,” she whispered back just as softly.

“Thank you.” Sirius closed his eyes as stress melted off his handsome, youthful face. When he opened them, they no longer reminded Helena of the tormented cast that haunted his post-Azkaban mien, instead shining with impish delight. “I could kiss you for that, you know,” he said and smirked.

“How long have you waited for the perfect opportunity to say that?” Helena asked, fighting back giggles for fear of upsetting her ribs.

Sirius’s barking laugh was loud enough for the both of them. “You’d be surprised how rarely people do things that are worthy of a kiss.”

Helena grinned. “To hear James talk about your standards, I would be surprised if it was rare at all.”

“Oi! You can’t listen to a word Prongs says! He’s just jealous because he’s been gone on Evans since we were wee little firsties, and you see how much help he needs.”

“Prongs?” she mused. “Is that because he’s a stag? Are you all animagi?”

Sirius blanched like he’d only just remembered what other secrets had been revealed tonight. He proffered a very reluctant nod, more of a twitch than a deliberate movement.

“Wow, McGonagal must’ve been super impressed with you! How many points did she award Gryffindor?” It struck Helena as a little mean of her to needle Sirius like this, but she wasn’t going to stop.

Although Sirius was reluctant, the heavy silence between them eventually forced him to admit that their animagus abilities were a secret.

Helena wondered, on a scale of one to ten, how much Sirius wished he could cast an obliviate right now. Luckily for her, she knew he couldn’t perform one even twenty years in the future, so she was safe.

Which explained why Sirius was trying to act like such a gallantly charming knight right now as he talked about the Marauder’s nights spent romping around in the Forbidden Forest. He painted a romantic picture, one filled with self-sacrificing boys rebelling against the law to save their friend from a monstrous fate.

“So what,” Helena cut in, arching her brows skeptically, “you learned to turn yourselves into animals so you could run around with Remus every full moon?”

Sirius frowned. “Look, I know it probably seems stupid and reckless to you. You almost got bitten, and I’m so, so sorry about that, but Moony…It was torture on him being locked in that itty bitty room every month. And moons like this one, ones where the sun is still in the sky when the moon comes up, they’re awful. And—”…

“You don’t have to explain. I get it. It’s actually kind of…sweet.”

Sirius stopped walking. “Sweet?”

“Yeah, you’re a really good friend,” she said and had to restrain herself from laughing when an honest-to-god blush rose in Sirius’s cheeks. Compliment the boy on any number of shallow things, his good looks or his hair or his grades or his pranks, and he would accept the praise with all the confident swagger of a prince. Tell him he was a good friend, and he turned a brighter crimson than the Gryffindor banner.

Sirius cleared his throat awkwardly and resumed walking, mostly, Helena thought, so he wasn’t forced to look her in the eye any longer.

“Sweet,” he shook his head. “Almost get mauled by a werewolf, and you think this whole arrangement is sweet.”

“Hardly the worst thing to almost maul me,” she tried to shrug her shoulders, but it was a little awkward with the way Sirius had her cradled in his arms.

He gaped down at her, gray eyes widened incredulously. “That does not make it better!”

Helena smiled sunnily, warmed by Sirius’s obvious concern for her. She didn’t know why smiling seemed to make him even more distressed but figured she should probably change the topic before he popped a blood vessel. “So, I do have one condition for keeping your secrets.”

Sirius barely tensed, which Helena took as a good sign. “What is it?” he asked.

“Teach me the animagus transformation,” she grinned, anticipation rushing through her.

An answering broad grin blossomed on Sirius’s face. “Damn, you’ve got to love a lady who knows what she wants,” he laughed, shaking his head. “Well, if that’s all you're after, consider it done.”

Helena didn’t tell him, but with the triumph singing in her veins, she could’ve kissed Sirius right then.

Chapter Text

“I’m so sorry,” Remus said as soon as Madam Pomfrey bustled away to tend to a third-year girl who looked so embarrassed that Helena figured she’d probably just experienced the joys of womanhood for the first time and was in need of supplies.

Helena was lying two beds over from Remus, trying to ignore the way her arm itched as the skin knit back together under a generous slathering of dittany. Her ankle was mercifully numb, as were her ribs, so she was spared the hours of pain associated with the use of skelegrow and tendon reparative potions. Unfortunately, there was no stopping her headache—one could only take so many potions at a time without terrible side effects.

Not that Remus was much better off. A transformed werewolf might be more resilient than a regular human, but the Whomping Willow possessed a distinct advantage. Moony had taken the brunt of the tree’s beating, and now Remus was laid up with a fractured hip, a broken leg, a broken collar bone, and livid deep tissue bruises mottling the entire right side of his body.

It was enough to make Helena cringe in sympathy, even if those injuries had been her saving grace.

“You don’t have to apologize to me, Remus. It wasn’t your fault. I shouldn’t have been out—”

“We’re at Hogwarts!” he cried, squeezing his eyes shut in misery. “The safest place in Britain. You had no reason to think, couldn’t possibly have foreseen running into a…me.”

But I could have, Helena thought guiltily.

“It’s not your fault,” she tried to reassure him, but Remus wasn’t listening.

“I could’ve bitten you. Or killed you!” he moaned.

Helena wished she could wrap him in a hug, ply him with hot chocolate and stuffed animals. She would even have settled for casting a cheering charm if Madam Pomfrey hadn’t forbidden the use of magic for the next six hours. But she was stuck with measly words of comfort.

“You would never hurt anyone on purpose, Remus. I know that.”

Remus’s honey-brown eyes were molten with anger when he turned back to look at her. “Don’t try to absolve me,” he spat. “I knew exactly how dangerous it was to run around like that every full moon. I just didn’t care.”

Helena was inclined to think desperation, not misanthropic indifference, was his primary motivation. But somehow she didn’t think he would welcome such sentiment in his favor at the moment.

Remus squared his shoulders as best he could with a broken collar bone. “It won’t ever happen again,” he declared, nostrils flaring as he huffed like a bull preparing to charge. “I’ll stay locked up during full moons from now on. I promise."

“Wait a second! I would never ask you to—”

“You shouldn’t have to ask me not to set a monster on the school!” Remus hissed with palpable self-disgust.

Helena shook her head, wide-eyed. “You’re not a monster.”

“Yes,” Remus rasped, nearly on the verge of tears, “I am. At least once a month, that’s all I am.”

Helena didn’t know what to do. This wasn’t the Lupin of the future, the adult who had reconciled himself to a bleak existence. This was a teenager who looked like last night had shattered all of his hopes and dreams.

“So you lose your mind once a month…” she tried to inject some levity into the conversation, but halted when Remus’s face crumpled. “Hey, it’s just a disease, yeah? It doesn’t make you—”

“Thank you,” Remus cut her off, gaze shuttered in a mask of stoicism, “for being so nice about this. It’s more than I deserve.”

“No! You’re—”

“But I know what I am. I know how to handle what I am. I was irresponsible, and you almost got hurt…more hurt than you already are. I won’t be that careless with everyone else’s safety again.”

“Remus…” Helena stared at him helplessly, wishing she could find words to wipe the desolate expression from his face.

“I’m sorry. I know you deserve a better explanation. A better apology. But can we not talk about this anymore?”

Helena floundered for a wise response, but she didn’t know what to say to make this okay, so after several seconds of awkward silence, she nodded mutely. Remus released a hitching sigh and tilted his head back, eyes firmly shut. But the move couldn’t stop his tears from leaking out of the corner of his eyes to course wet trails over his temples.

Helena stayed quiet.

Sometimes, she heard Hermione’s voice whisper in her mind, people just need to cry. Helena fought back the stinging in her own eyes at the memory, then struggled to contain a watery laugh at the disapproving look the imaginary Hermione cast her way.

I’ve cried enough, she wanted to tell Hermione. You should be telling me to toughen up, not chastising me into a pathetic, blubbering mess!

She pictured Ron’s grinning face then, telling her Don’t worry, mate! I’ll make sure Colin gets a picture of that for you. You could even sign it for him: The day Harry Potter turned into a puddle. For posterity, yeah?

James and Sirius’s faces had never been so welcome. They tumbled into the Hospital Wing with Pettigrew in a rambunctious display of lighthearted jostling that easily pulled her out of her maudlin thoughts, saving her from a headfirst dive into the pit of despair in which she’d lived during the first few weeks after her trip through the Veil.

“Moony! You’re awake!” James shouted across the room, smiling jovially. He jogged to Remus’s bedside and continued talking, for all the world appearing as if he didn’t notice the other boy’s red-rimmed eyes. “Did Padfoot tell you Helena’s going to be an honorary Marauder? We’re going to help her…transform.”

He wiggled his eyebrows, then side-eyed Sirius, his smile settling into a mischievous smirk. “Siri thinks she’s going to be a dog,” James snickered, though what he found so funny about that statement, Helena wasn’t sure, nor did she understand why it made Sirius cross his arms defensively and glare at James.

“I, on the other hand, think she’s going to be a cat,” James finished with all the aplomb of a famed seer announcing a prophecy.

Emotions flashed over Remus’s face too quickly for Helena to parse out, before his expression settled into a mien of easy cheer. “A lioness, maybe,” he said instead of addressing the numerous more serious topics he could have chosen.

With a mental shrug, Helena decided to let sleeping dogs lie for the moment. “Aren’t you curious what I think I’ll end up being?”

“Eh, no one ever guesses their own form right. I thought for sure I was going to be an eagle, and Padfoot was convinced he was going to be a bear.”

“And Peter thought he was going to be a fox,” Sirius tacked on with only the faintest hint of mockery, but he immediately took the sting out of his tone with a light, good-natured punch to Pettigrew’s shoulder.

“Well I think I’m going to be a hawk,” Helena declared.

“Oh now you’ve done it,” Sirius said. “You’re definitely not going to be a hawk now.”

“If not a hawk, then some type of bird.” She tilted her nose up as if daring any of the boys to gainsay her, which of course meant Sirius promptly jumped to contradict her.

“Are you trying to doom yourself to a flightless existence?” he lamented, shaking his head in faux pity.

She laughed, glad of the numbing creams when her ribs gave only the barest twinge of protest. Which reminded her… “How’s your side?” she asked, pointing to the approximate area where Moony had scratched James’s stomach.

James gingerly patted his obliques. “All good. Padfoot fixed me right up.”

“And there won’t be any side effects from—” She glanced sheepishly at Remus, wishing she’d let the subject drop, but it was too late to take the question back now. “From it being a werewolf scratch?”

“Nah, it wasn’t a bite, and Siri cleaned it with Essence of Silver before I transformed back.”

“Worst case scenario,” Sirius said, “I didn’t get it completely disinfected, and Prongs will develop a taste for rare steak.”

“Wouldn’t be the worst outcome. At least I’d finally fit in with all the moneybags at those fancy restaurants my parents like so much.”

“Oh please, like you don’t already fit in without eating rare steaks,” Sirius scoffed.

James snorted. “Me? The Potters are new money, thank you very much. If anyone was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, it would be you, oh great heir to the Most Noble and Most Ancient etcetera, etcetera House of Black.”

“I was blasted off the family tree,” Sirius declared with a perverse sense of pride.

“I’m sure you’d both fit in at any posh event,” Pettigrew gushed, completely missing the point of the debate.

“There, you see? You’re both fancy-pants tossers,” Remus said without missing a beat, valiantly covering for Pettigrew’s cluelessness.

Unable to resist, Helena said, “I think I can top them. I’ve dined with a queen.”

The dumbfounded blinks she received were nothing short of priceless.

Pettigrew was somehow the first one to regain his senses. “Really?” he breathed, cheeks flushed and eyes sparkling with awe.

Helena suppressed a shiver of revulsion. She was glad now that her statement was so misleading. James and Remus and Sirius would accept her story as the whimsical joke she’d intended it to be, but Pettigrew, he would be disappointed. And though it might have been petty, she couldn’t help the vindictive pleasure that bloomed in her chest at that realization.

So for the rest of the hospital visit, she regaled the group with anecdotes from the time her parents had stashed her away in Las Vegas with a part-time magical portrait forger and full-time drag queen. Needless to say, even if Pettigrew didn’t look like he knew whether he should be disappointed or even more awestruck, Sirius appeared suitably impressed.

Helena was half convinced he would let her dress him in drag before the hour was up.

Something to bring up with James, perhaps. She was sure he wouldn’t be opposed to helping her prank his best friend.

~

Helena was searching for an unbiased treatise on werewolves when she ran, quite literally, into Lucius Malfoy. They reached for the same book simultaneously, smacked shoulders rather more roughly than one would expect under the circumstances, and stumbled in opposite directions.

She’d figured she should take a page out of Hermione’s playbook and research if she wanted to find a responsible enough approach to full moon excursions for Remus to get on board. What Malfoy was doing in the werewolf section of the library, she couldn’t begin to guess. But his presence completely derailed her plans.

“Pardon me,” he said as he straightened up. “I didn’t see you there.”

“No, I—” Helena turned to absolve her fellow student, but the words died on her lips when she caught sight of the boy occupying the aisle with her.

Malfoy was standing across from her, arm extended in a solicitous manner. His black school robes were neatly pressed, fine wool with a jade silk liner. His leather shoes were polished to a high shine. His hair slicked back so every feature on his pointed, aristocratic face was unobstructed. He looked, every inch, like the kind of rich, goody-two-shoes boy that prep school parents wouldn’t hesitate to let their daughters date.

Helena wanted to curse him.

The last time she’d stood this close to Lucius Malfoy, he’d been twenty years older and surrounded by insane Death Eaters. But he’d worn the same ingratiating smile and stretched out his hand in the same politely beseeching manner.

He took in her stiff silence with one perfectly plucked eyebrow lifted high on his forehead, quietly chastising her lack of manners in the face of his perfunctory apology. His voice, when he continued speaking, was like satin sliding over polished marble, smooth but lacking the warmth that would make it charming.

“Malfoy,” he said, twisting his outstretched hand sideways for a handshake. “Lucius Malfoy. And you must be our new student, Helena Gaunt?”

“Yes,” Helena returned the handshake with visible reluctance.

Malfoy’s expression hardened before settling into a cold press smile. “The Gaunts are very well regarded in the United States, aren’t they? Some would say…almost famous?”

Helena was tempted to write him off as another brown-nosing Slytherin eager to network after that question. But his icy eyes were filled with too much calculation, were too intense for a casual encounter. So instead of baldly announcing that her father was estranged from his family, which had worked so well to diminish Slughorn’s interest, she instead shrugged uncomfortably and muttered, “I suppose so.”

Malfoy was undaunted by her short reply. “I’m surprised to find you in this section of the library,” he said, leaning towards her conspiratorially. “Knowing your family’s rumored affinity for other magical creatures.”

Snakes, Helena realized with a jolt. Malfoy wanted to know if she had an affinity for snakes. She’d known her ability to speak parseltongue would be of interest to the dark side, but she hadn’t given much thought to the way her last name might give the secret away. Which was stupid in hindsight. It was such a rare talent, and with Voldemort taking so much pride in his Slytherin ancestry, of course he would have researched every other family sharing the ability.

A new suspicion churned in Helena’s gut. Her eyes flicked down to Malfoy’s covered left forearm. Surely not. He’s still in school! her mind wanted to protest, but she couldn’t shake the sudden conviction coating her tongue in ash.

She peered down the aisle, desperately hoping to chance upon an escape route, and in a rare show of kindness, the universe deigned to answer her prayer.

She locked eyes with Sirius, who had come to see what was taking her so long. He took in her discomfort at a glance, and immediately called out, “Helena! There you are!”

He jogged up to her and flung his arm around her shoulders. “We were beginning to think a book had eaten you or something equally dastardly.” He paused, squeezed her shoulder as she relaxed into his side, and looked over at Malfoy, dipping his head in the shallowest of nods at the blond boy. “Malfoy.”

“Black,” Malfoy sneered. Then he turned and gave a much more regal bow to Helena. “Well,” he drawled, “It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Helena. I hope we’ll have the chance to speak again soon.”

And with that overly familiar adieu, he glided out of the library without checking out a single book. Sirius chortled, shared a look with Helena, then doubled over in laughter, shortly followed by Helena, who couldn’t help but join in his merriment over Malfoy’s pompous display.
“He’s a giant arse, yeah?”

“Oh yeah,” Helena laughed, rubbing at her aching cheeks.

Sirius chuckled, hugging her to his side with the arm he still had wrapped around her shoulders. “Odd though. I don’t like the bastard, but even I can admit he can be a charming git when he feels like it, and it looked like he was trying to be pleasant for once.”

Helena shrugged. “I knew a guy like him once,” she said, thinking of Draco. “First time I met the guy, he nattered on and on about my best friend living in a shoebox. Malfoy had the same look about him.” A more accurate statement Helena had never spoken. Father and son resembled each other to an eery degree.

Sirius perked up, bouncing out ahead of her and spinning so he was walking backwards. “A shoebox? Really? Can’t say a blame the bloke, honestly, I’d probably have nattered on about that too.”

Helena cast him a dark look.

“What? That’s bloody impressive! How many people lived in it?”

“It wasn’t actually a shoebox!”

“Oh,” Sirius deflated, “Just an ugly house then?”

“Seriously?” Helena glared.

“I’m always serious,” Sirius grinned so brightly it was impossible for Helena to maintain her irritation. She shoved him lightly and moved to take her seat at their library table in good spirits.

In the back of her mind though, she wondered how many students might already be marked Death Eaters.

Chapter Text

“Purists,” James lectured as he stirred powdered bighorn hoof into an animagus revelation potion, “will tell you meditation is the only right way to discover your animagus form. The thinking goes without months of self-reflective meditation, you won’t ever understand your soul enough to truly connect and become one with your inner animal. There’s also some speculation that the meditation method produces a different, more accurate animagus form. But luckily for you—”

“We’re not a bunch of giant transfiguration snobs,” Sirius nodded sagely as he completed James’s sentence. Though judging by the way James wrinkled his nose like he’d stepped in something foul, that was not how he would have phrased it.

They’d found an empty classroom in the deserted north wing of the castle to use for their brewing. One with ample windows for ventilation so they didn’t need to replicate the air filtration charms used in the dungeons. There was no furniture other than the five chairs James had conjured for everyone, big brown leather things that swallowed their occupants in fluff. So the large room felt a bit cavernous.

Sirius had charmed his chair bright red and twice as large as everyone else’s, but it only helped the room feel a little cozier.

Remus and Pettigrew were situated away from the other three, playing a game of exploding snap. Remus had said he was happy they were helping Helena become an animagus, but he was so adamant her transformation wouldn’t lead to any more full moon adventures that she knew the project made him uncomfortable. Hence his passive-aggressive refusal to get any more involved.

The way he hunched down in his seat and turned his face away when Sirius began to loudly speculate about how soon Helena would be able to join them only confirmed her impression.

She lightly kicked Sirius’s shin to shut him up and leaned forward to softly murmur, “Maybe we shouldn’t push it? Remus seems pretty adamant that’s all over.”

Sirius scoffed, but his voice was just as soft when he replied. “He’ll get over it. We’ll be more careful, go deeper into the forest, or something. It’ll be fine.”

James set the stirring rod aside and came to sit in his own cushy chair. He bent over with his elbows resting on his knees so their heads were close enough for a confidential conversation even with the subject of their tête-à-tête in the same room.

“That’s going to be a hard sale, mate,” he said, mouth set in an unusually solemn frown. “We should be bloody thankful Moony didn’t manage to bite anyone. I don’t think he’d ever recover from something like that.”

“Unless it was Snape,” Sirius said, sneering at the thought of the greasy Slytherin boy.

A cold rush swam down Helena’s neck, her chest, settling as a thick knotted lump beneath her sternum.

“Please tell me that was just a bad joke,” she snapped, though she knew it wasn’t. Her godfather had nearly sent Snape to his death at around this point in his sixth year.

Sirius took in the flashing anger in her eyes and the unconcealed disappointment in her scowl. He shifted uncomfortably under her stare, glanced at Remus moping on the other side of the room with Pettigrew.

“Course it was,” he muttered with such blatant chagrin a toddler wouldn’t have mistaken his guilt for a jest.

“Good,” she said, scowl still firmly in place.

Sirius’s brows dropped into a straight line over his hooded eyes. “Merlin, I said it was a joke!” he growled defensively, crossing his arms over his chest. “If Moony’s going to hurt any of those wannabe Death Eaters, I’d make sure he was conscious to decide how he wanted to do it first!”

Which wasn’t much better, even if it was a giant leap in the right direction.

“So that’ll be never, then?” James rolled his eyes. “The great, bloody pacifist Moony is.”

Helena very nearly gaped at him. Remus a pacifist? That had to be an exaggeration. She’d seen Professor Lupin fight. He’d been right in the thick of things at the Department of Mysteries. He was one of the most vicious duelers their side boasted.

Could time and loss have altered his beliefs that much?

She had the sickening suspicion the answer was yes.

“Now, back to the real issue at hand,” James said, pulling her out of her spiraling thoughts, “I think we need to come up with some better safety measures if we ever want Moony to run with us again.”

Sirius flicked his wrist like he was shooing away an irritating fly. “I already said it. We go further in the Forest, and it’ll be fine.”

“You think that’ll convince Remus? If Helena had been a titch less bloody competent…” James shook his head with a pained grimace.

“So we have to be more careful, keep a better eye out.” Sirius shrugged. “But it’s not as if we’re likely to run into anyone if we go deep enough.”

James grit his teeth, nostrils flaring with sudden anger. “We failed, Pads!” he croaked. “It was our job to keep Moony from attacking anyone. He trusted us to stop him, and we failed.”

Sirius blinked and sat back, eyes big and mournful as a kicked puppy’s. Everything had worked out. Remus hadn’t bitten Helena, hadn’t lost her as a friend. She was fine, closer to them than ever. They were even helping her become an animagus!

He knew they’d messed up, but… But…

Helena cleared her throat awkwardly. “What about the wards Dumbledore set up around the Shrieking Shack? Maybe we could replicate those on a larger scale out in the Forbidden Forest,” she suggested.

James’s gaze flicked over to her, but he was shaking his head before he answered verbally. “There weren’t any.”

“None?” she exclaimed.

James tilted his head and rocked his hand in a so-so gesture. “There was a proximity ward so Dumbledore would know if people got too close, but that was easy enough to get around. He wasn’t expecting anyone to try very hard to get closer to the screaming ghoul, I guess.”

“But there was nothing to stop Remus—”

“Wouldn’t have worked, would it? Not much of a point when Moony would’ve just torn through anything Dumbledore set up.”

“You need physical barriers to contain a werewolf,” Sirius clarified when Helena continued to appear confused. “Any purely magical ward that could stop a werewolf would kill it.”

“That can’t be right,” she denied. “The Hogwarts wards stop all kinds of magical creatures from entering the grounds, including werewolves. You can’t expect me to believe they kill any werewolves who wander too close!”

Hermione would have said something if that were the case! Though Helena had to admit she’d never paid too much attention to the details of her friend’s lectures. And Hermione had always seemed so righteously furious when discussing the state of wizard-creature relations. But surely…

Sirius grimaced. “I don’t expect it happens too often. Werewolves know not to transform anywhere within the vicinity of Hogwarts, or any other major magical sight, not unless they want to be incinerated.” He paused, then bitterly added, “Which includes pretty much every pureblood manor house in England, not that the poor bastards even know where all those are located.”

Helena looked over at Remus, who was grinning triumphantly at Pettigrew as he laid down another winning hand, and almost heaved as nausea swept over her.

“Well that rules that option out then,” she said, pleased when her voice didn’t shake. “What about building an enclosure? We could conjure—”

“It won’t work,” James cut her off before she could complete the suggestion.

Helena shot him a cross look for the interruption, then another at Sirius when he snickered at her disgruntled expression. It made sense they had already researched this stuff. Teenage boys didn’t decide to become illegal animagi on a whim. But that didn’t make being so perfunctorily shot down any less irritating.

“Why not?” she huffed, determined to at least get on the same page as her cohorts.

James sat up straighter, adopting the same posture he used while tutoring her in transfiguration.

“Reginald Baggins tried to build a werewolf sanctuary two centuries ago,” he said in that engaging, storytelling tone of his that made normally bland subjects seem interesting. “He built a twenty-foot brick wall around thirty acres of land. And then the first full moon came, and the werewolves climbed right over it. So ole Reggie coated the entire inner wall with steel so there wouldn’t be any tiny footholds for the werewolves to stick their claws. And guess what happened?”

“The werewolves dug under it?” Helena predicted.

“Right in one! They dug more’n fifty feet down in one night to get out. Give ‘em enough time, and werewolves are some of the greatest escape artists in the world.”

“It’s why you need a cage,” Sirius said. “Four walls, ceiling, and floor—the Shrieking Shack has steel in the middle of all its walls.”

Helena sighed. “We probably couldn’t clear out the space to conjure a wall anyways.”

“Not to mention the amount of power it would take to keep a conjuration of that size standing,” James noted, more out of academic interest than practicality.

“Middle of the Forbidden Forest is way too far from the Hogwarts Ley lines,” Sirius agreed. “We’d have to go out there twice a day to maintain it.”

The three of them stared at each other, then with identical petulant frowns, James and Sirius nodded and in unison grumbled, “Research.”

Not for the first time, Helena wished she possessed Hermione’s eidetic memory. Not that trait had ever stopped Hermione from spending ten times as many hours researching as the rest of them.

“Well,” James said a minute later as the alarm he’d set on the animagus potion chimed, an optimistic smile climbing back onto his face. “If we can become animagi before we’re old enough to buy fire whiskey, we can figure this out too!”

Sirius raised an imaginary glass in a toast. “Hear, hear!”

Helena grinned as they settled back and pulled out her potions essay. It was a jumbled mess of random facts, some completely irrelevant, others tossed down on the page without any attention paid to coherence. It was a Troll worthy effort if she was honest with herself.

“Have either of you completed the potions assignment for Slughorn?”

“Haven’t started it,” Sirius admitted at the same time James claimed he’d made it through the first five inches before calling it quits.

“No chance you know why the Blemish Blitzer ointment is so hazardous, then, is there?”

Sirius slid sideways on his oversized chair so his long legs hung over one armrest, his head over the other so he was staring at her upside down. He smirked.

“Haven’t the foggiest!” he said cheerfully.

“Something about one wrong move turning it into a deadly poison or some such rot,” James shrugged. “Lily could tell you. She’s your potions tutor, right?”

He always called her Lily when they were alone, like the casual familiarity would make his attempts to slip her into conversation twenty times a day less obvious. He didn’t make eye contact when he mentioned her, studiously examining the instructions for the animagus revelation potion, which Helena knew he’d memorized back when the Marauders originally undertook the task of becoming animagi.

“Yeah, she is, but I’d like her to think there might be some hope for me, you know?” She shared a conspiratorial look with Sirius, barely holding back laughter as she continued. “Oh! Maybe you could help me out? Ask her a couple of potions questions, maybe shop for some ingredients for me? Maybe during the next Hogsmeade weekend?”

“Er, I’m not sure—Lily doesn’t—she said she won’t…” James stuttered, a blush creeping into his cheeks.

“And while Prongs is busy entertaining Evans, I could show you all the fun, worthwhile shops,” Sirius offered. He was still hanging with his head upside down, and his words came out in a breathless rush as a result.

“Perfect!” Helena smiled happily. “I heard there’s a great enchantments store in Hogsmeade. My godfather had this knife that could open any lock, and I’ve been hoping to find something similar since I, er, lost it.”

“Davenshaw’s,” Sirius nodded, smiling so brightly Helena wouldn’t be surprised if his cheeks ached for days. “My family swears by that place. And while I wouldn’t normally pay one sickle for their opinions, in this case, I’d have to say their elitism is worth every knut.”

“But—But how do I…? She’s not going to—” There was a note of panic in James’s voice when he interrupted them, like asking Lily Evans out hadn’t been a daily occurrence before he’d started taking Helena’s dating advice.

“Make it a group thing,” she suggested, thinking about how much she’d wished for Ron and Hermione’s presence as a buffer during her one disastrous date with Cho Chang. “It’ll take some of the pressure off.”

James relaxed instantly. He nodded slowly, clearly warming to the idea. “Yes, that’s brilliant!” he whispered, then more loudly, “You can ask her, Helena. You’re the new student. She wouldn’t dream of saying no. And all us Gryffindors could go down together!”

Helena laughed but conceded it was a good idea easily enough. She’d never say no to spending more time with Lily, and she definitely wanted to facilitate her future parents' relationship. A great plan all around, she thought.

Which was why she was surprised when Sirius sat up straight in his chair and glared half-heartedly at James, his lips turned down in a moue of dissatisfaction. “Merlin, Prongs, sometimes you’re a right tosser!”

James looked at him, wide-eyed like a deer caught in the headlights. “Er, sorry Pads. That was…” He smiled sheepishly, rubbing at the back of his neck.

“I thought it was a good idea!” Helena was quick to defend him.

James instantly pointed at her. “Right! She said it, it’ll take the pressure off!” He nodded firmly and moved his eyes meaningfully in her direction as if he was trying to impress some other point on Sirius.

Sirius tipped his head back and groaned, throwing his arms up in resignation. And that was how Helena ended up asking the Gryffindor girls to spend their Hogsmeade weekend together with the boys a few days later.

~

It was almost disgustingly easy for Helena to gain leave for the Hogsmeade visit. Given the circumstances of her parents’ deaths out in the middle of a remote jungle, her legal status had gone largely unaddressed by any government body. She had no guardian, but she wasn’t an emancipated minor. But given that she was attending Hogwarts on a student visa, the British Ministry of Magic was not overly concerned about her living situation outside of school.

As such, all Helena had needed to do was ask Professor McGonagall to sign her permission slip in loco parentis, as was her right with regards to all orphans and foreign students, and she was set.

It was a starkly different response to the last time she’d asked McGonagall to sign for her. Voldemort was an enemy of the state at the height of his power, a far worse threat than Sirius Black could ever have managed. But there was no reason to believe Helena would be a target in this time.

She sincerely hoped she never became famous again.

They were all queuing in the Entrance Hall, waiting for Filch to check them off his approved student list before heading outside to the thestral-drawn carriages that would carry them to town. Sirius was once again dressed head to toe in muggle clothing, standing out in a crowd where even the muggleborns tended to wear robes—A Rolling Stones t-shirt paired with his black leather jacket, he was only missing a motorcycle and a lit cigarette to complete his rebel vibe.

James had gone in the opposite direction, donning the finest set of casual navy robes Helena had ever seen. She would bet good money their needlework pattern was stitched with honest-to-Merlin gold thread. Standing side-by-side, the two boys looked like portraits of vanity taken to opposite extremes.

Sirius winked dramatically when he caught her staring.

She flushed, shaking her head and laughing. “You’re ridiculous,” she told him.

He preened like she’d paid him a compliment, flung his arm around her shoulders. “Don’t be jealous, we can get you a leather jacket at Gladrags. Brown for you, I think. I would say dark green would suit you—to match your eyes—but we all know Slytherin’s the enemy, so brown it is.”

“You saying I have Slytherin eyes?”

“It’s sad but true,” he grimaced with mock-solemnity.

“You’re right,” she agreed with a completely straight face, “I’m going to have to charm them Gryffindor red.”

Sirius pulled a face. “That…would be creepy.”

He sighed, a complete swoon with the back of his hand pressed to his forehead. “Alas fair lady, I wouldn’t have you change a single feature on your face! Especially not your eyes, even if they are the enemy’s color.”

He said it like a joke, but there was such earnest sincerity warming his eyes when she turned her face up to look at him that she found herself caught. Her breath hitched, her cheeks heated. She’d never noticed the icy blue flecks in his gray irises before, bright spots of color that made them shine. She felt the strangest urge to stroke a finger over his brow, like touching him would allow her to imprint this image on her mind so she could hoard his warmth forever.

“Oi, Padfoot! Stop flirting!” James hollered from the Entrance Hall doors. “You’re holding up the line!”

Sirius jerked his gaze away and growled, low in his chest like an agitated guard dog, and threw a rude gesture James’s way, much to Filch’s consternation. The old caretaker glared at them, his scraggly face pinched in an even more severe frown than normal as he muttered meanly under his breath.

“Idiot teenagers, staring at each other so happy like. Giggling, always with the insufferable giggling,” she heard him say, then more loudly, “Your name?”

“Come on, Argus, you know who I am,” Sirius said with his most innocent smile.

Filch glared harder. Helena was sure he knew exactly who Sirius Black was. He probably fantasized about stringing Sirius and James up by their thumbs on a daily basis. So of course Sirius felt the need to needle him.

Your name?” Filch asked again, brandishing his clipboard like a weapon.

“Helena Gaunt and Sirius Black,” Helena said before Sirius could continue, not interested in dragging this out any longer.

Filch grunted and waved them on with a beady-eyed sneer.

When the Gryffindors hopped out of their carriage a short ride later, Sirius threw his arm back over her shoulders in a move that was becoming increasingly familiar and comfortable. A chill wind ruffled their clothes and she snuggled in closer to his side, grateful for the body heat. She knew she should’ve worn a scarf out today, even if she usually found them irritating.

“Where to first?” she asked the group as she gazed down Hogsmeade’s quaint main road.

Unlike Hogwarts, Hogsmeade had changed over the course of the next twenty years. Not enough to be significant, but it was still a bit like looking in a funhouse mirror. The cobblestoned street and the medieval-style cottages with their thatched roofs and candlelit windows were the same. But she could spot small differences all over the place that made her head want to spin. The sign for Zonko’s Joke Shop was freshly painted. The roof over the Three Broomsticks was all one color, lacking the large section towards the back where it had been repaired with red shingles. And Stella Luna Bakery didn’t exist at all.

“I vote we head to Tomes and Scrolls,” Dorcas said. “Tina Mayflower just published a new writer’s guide that I’ve been dying to get my hands on.”

“Who?” Lily scrunched her nose up when she asked the question, which judging by the hearts in James’s eyes as he watched her must have been an absurdly adorable expression.

Dorcas was clearly not of the same mind. “Tina Mayflower,” she said with the despairing sort of tone old people used to say Kids these days. “Phoenix Rising? The Silent Banshee? Dark Souls? Merlin! Do none of you ever read good books?”

“I’ve heard of Dark Souls!” Lily tried to protest.

“Have you ever read it?”

“Well, no…”

Dorcas shook her head. “How are we friends?”

In the end, they spent over an hour in the bookstore. Helena was not a big reader, so she mostly stuck to the Defense section, but there was nothing in the shop that couldn’t be found in the Room of Requirement. Afterward, Marlene—who Helena had learned was the source of the pitch-perfect shower singing in their dorm every morning—dragged them all to Dominic Maestro’s Music Shop. Then James finally got his way and they hopped over to Honeyduke’s, where he proceeded to purchase a 2,000 piece bag of caramel chocolates for Lily.

(Because they were her favorite, he told Helena later when she tried to ask why he’d gotten Lily an entire year’s supply of candy.)

They were in bright spirits when they ran into Snape and his Slytherin cohorts right before lunch. Most of Snape’s group was already waiting by the carriages ready to head back to Hogwarts, along with a smattering of other students, but Snape was trailing behind them, just exiting The Three Broomsticks as the Gryffindors were heading in.

James and Sirius shoved past him without a word, trailed by Remus and Pettigrew, for once not paying their rival the slightest bit of attention. Snape glared at them, then turned to sneer at Lily.

“You’re hanging out with them, now? Really?” he said with silky disdain.

Lily’s expression closed off, going from rosy-cheeked and smiling to blank in an instant. “That’s none of your business anymore, is it?”

Snape’s black eyes darkened further, a contemptuous smile curling his lips. “It’s embarrassing. If you had half a brain, you’d ditch them and go back up to Hogwarts.”

“Leave us alone, Severus,” Lily sighed and turned to walk away.

Snape stared after her stiffly, then snarled under his breath and stalked off to join his friends.

“Well that was dramatic,” Helena spoke into the awkward silence. She wanted to ask how well Lily knew Snape, why they’d seemed so familiar with one another when as far as she knew, defending the greasy boy against James and Sirius after their OWLs was the closest Lily had ever been to Snape. But this didn’t seem like the right time for that conversation. And to be honest, she wasn’t keen to discover anything disturbing like that Lily had dated him or something.

She was gratified when Lily snorted and the other girls relaxed, picking up her teasing quickly so they were all grinning and happy again when they joined the boys at their table.

The entire incident had been swept under the rug half an hour later. Alice had consumed enough butterbeer to make her slightly tipsy despite the drink's minuscule alcohol content, which incited no end of taunting from the rest of the table. Helena was laughing as Sirius regaled her with a story of the time he’d accidentally burned down his crazy great aunt’s living room when he was twelve. And James was actually managing to carry on an intelligent conversation with Lily about interdisciplinary applications of potions and transfiguration.

Helena should have known trouble would find her. But she was enjoying herself. When her next huff of laughter came out in a cloud of icy steam, she didn’t pay it any mind. The realization came slowly, her giggles tapering off as frost splintered across the pub’s windows. She shivered, cool dread pooled in her stomach. Fearful confusion flickered across her friends’ faces as Helena stumbled to her feet.

“GET TO THE FLOO!” she roared at the frozen crowd, wild with panic.

Dementors were descending on Hogsmeade.

Chapter Text

Helena had participated in fights in both her lives. She was intimately familiar with the way fear sharpened the senses. Time would slow, her eyes tracking fast-moving projectiles with ease, her attention snagging on small details. Strength would flood her limbs. Her magic would crackle with the restrained fury of a dragon preparing to spit fire. And when she cast, it would sing.

But for all her experience fighting, she’d never been on the receiving end of a military attack.

The patrons of The Three Broomsticks froze when she shouted for them to flee. It was quiet as the grave for one heart-stopping second, then the candles died. Someone’s mug crashed to the floor unseen in the sudden gloom, and chaos erupted.

A bear of a man launched himself across the room, grabbed a handful of floo powder, and disappeared with a panicked shout. More adults jostled after him, pushing and shoving to get to the fireplace. Others stayed back, calling for their loved ones, trying to make sure they didn’t leave anyone behind. A Ravenclaw girl screeched about their inability to floo into Hogwarts, growing louder and more shrill as her words went ignored. A pair of third years, small and skinny and baby-faced, huddled together in their booth, crying.

Helena headed towards the front door, ruthlessly elbowing her way through the flailing crowd. A hand on her shoulder stopped her right as she reached for the handle.

“What are you doing?” said Sirius, shouting to be heard.

She jabbed her finger at the large window to the left of the door where they could see people fleeing from the first flashes of spellfire. A boy, no older than five, was cowering behind a wooden barrel on the other side of the street, no parent in sight to save him.

“There are kids out there!”

Sirius pointed out the same window towards the sky which was blackened by a swarm of wraithlike creatures in gossamer cloaks.

“Those are dementors!”

“I know.”

Sirius’s fingers spasmed on her shoulder. He swallowed thickly. His Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat as he clenched his jaw tight. His eyes were wide and glassy with pain, the dementors’ hooks already speared fast in his brain.

“Okay,” he said, resolute, and gestured for her to lead the way. “Then let’s have some fun,” he added facetiously.

Helena thought about trying to convince him to stay behind, but in all the ways that mattered, Sirius was the most stubborn son of a bitch she’d ever met. If he said he was following her into battle, he was following her into battle.

She reached up to squeeze the hand on her shoulder, nodded at the rest of the Gryffindors who had finally managed to push their way through the crowd, then yanked the door open and sprinted outside.

A cold blast of air embraced her as she ran to the middle of the street, burning her lungs as she inhaled. The dementors were spreading out over the town, more than a hundred strong, blotting out the overcast midday sun. What light did make it past them was dim, like a solar eclipse had cast the village into hazy twilight.

Helena could hear a woman screaming. Not Harry! Please…Have mercy…Have mercy! And she recognized that voice now, knew how it laughed, how it lilted when it grew impassioned, knew how it sounded when Lily wasn’t begging for her son’s life.

A clock with a mother of pearl face. Two golden spokes marked Bellona Farnese and Marcus Gaunt fallen like broken bodies, her own lonely spoke pointing straight towards LOST. Abandoned equipment, struggle marks dragged through the mud, a vine swaying in the current. The crushing guilt of I was asleep!

Helena sucked in another bitingly cold breath and shoved those memories aside. She pictured Ron and Hermione with their arms thrown around one another. They smiled at her. The war won’t ever touch us. You’ll make sure of it.

They were with her till the end of the line. Always.

She let that thought wrap around her, then roared, “EXPECTO PATRONUM!”

Prongs burst from her wand, a towering twelve-point stag in his prime glowing silver bright like the moon. He paused for one beat, then lowered his antlers and charged down the street. Pulsing waves of power spread across the village in his wake, driving the dementors back. Immediately the air around them warmed, and despair lost its grip on her heart.

“Lady Magic on high,” Sirius whispered, watching in awe as her patronus tore through the swarm.

Helena watched with him, panting, before she regained her senses.

She ducked into the alley beside The Three Broomsticks and turned to look at the others who had followed her, only slightly surprised to see every Gryffindor in their year with her, even Pettigrew, all looking to her for direction.

Right then, she prayed to Merlin she got this right.

“Remus, I need you to run to Hogwarts and get help,” she said. As a werewolf, he would be faster than the rest of them no matter the time of month. She hoped that would be fast enough. “Don’t engage in any fights if you can help it.”

He nodded and took off at a dead sprint without pause. She looked at the rest of them, trying to figure out what to do in the few seconds they had. A concussive bang shook the ground while she was deliberating, and she had her answer.

“Wormtail, go back into The Three Broomsticks and get kids away from the windows. Get them under tables or behind the bar. And try to get that floo line organized!”

That would get him out of the way.

“Everybody else partner up and spread out! We need to get those fires put out. If you see any children, get them inside!”

Grim determination lined their youthful faces as they followed her orders without question. Alice and Lily ran towards the blast, James and Sirius towards a group of terrified fourth years sheltering in another alley, and Dorcas and Marlene charged straight at a cluster of Death Eaters torturing an old man at the top of the street.

It was only then that Helena realized she’d somehow left herself without a partner, but she didn’t have time to rectify that error. The battle had lulled when she expelled the dementors, but it was picking back up with a vengeance now.

A squadron of Death Eaters was marching onto the main street, nine in total attacking in a standard triad formation. There were three groups of three, each trio standing in a small “V” to make up one larger “V”. It was a powerful configuration, with designated defenders protecting the offensive, and the Death Eaters were taking full advantage of the arrangement, fearlessly carving a swath of destruction up the road.

Helena watched them for one second, long enough to see them send a wave of fire at the town’s grocery, then she leapt into the fray. Her wand swept through a series of practiced motions, rapidly firing off a bone breaker, two different blasting curses, and a ground alteration that would send stone spikes shooting up beneath her opponent’s feet—all aimed at one defender.

He fell to one of the spikes, screaming behind his skull mask as stone punctured his thigh.

Helena had the entire squadron’s attention now. Their bone masks turned on her, eerily expressionless.

There was a stark difference between battling a group and the single combat fighting she’d been practicing. She was almost entirely on the defensive, dancing between curses, evading and shielding with minimal forward advancement. She abandoned spell chains as soon as she began them, only one or two hexes in before she was forced to shield or dodge again. In the back of her mind, she made a note to practice chains with more powerful opening casts, but most of her attention was focussed on surviving.

And all the while she could feel her patronus slowly draining her energy.

She swerved around a sizzling purple curse and slashed her wand in an upward diagonal, releasing an easily blocked cutting curse, then twisted her wrist in a small circle and jabbed her arm at the squadron, superheating the air between them. The three closest Death Eaters collapsed screaming as their masks melted on their faces.

Helena didn’t stop to revel in her success, her wand continuing smoothly down in another cleaving curse. But before she could complete the motion, three spells came at her simultaneously, the vivid red of the cruciatus, an unknown sickening yellow, and a bright green Avada Kedavra.

There was no way to dodge them all, not at this range with the spells coming from different directions. So she redirected her wand, desperately crying out, “Ferro clypeus!”

If she’d had a moment longer, it would have worked. But the steel wall was too thin. It dented when the Killing Curse hit, warped as the cruciatus smashed into it a fraction of a second later, and splintered apart with the impact of the yellow curse.

Metal shards cut shallow wounds into her face and arms. A larger piece stabbed through her left bicep, almost exactly where the basilisk fang had pierced her in her previous life.

Don’t pull it out! Some part of her mind screamed at her.

She would have ignored that inner voice, was already reaching to yank the shard out, but another hex landed a foot to her right, blasting her off her feet. Her thigh was burning. She threw up the strongest shield she could muster, glanced at it, and was nearly sick when she saw a chunk of her leg slowly dissolving before her eyes. The yellow curse, something flesh-eating—the steel shield hadn’t absorbed all of its power.

A quick finite halted the spell’s progression, but Helena couldn’t heal this. And no amount of adrenalin could suppress the scalding agony ripping apart her nerves. It took her several precious seconds to stop shaking. When she finally tore her eyes away, shakily beginning to scoot towards better shelter, she realized no one was firing on her.

The squadron of Death Eaters, half of whom had fallen to her wand, had backed away, fanning out to block off a circle around her. And at their center, staring at her with intense curiosity, was their malevolent leader.

Voldemort was shockingly human. His features, though waxy and exaggerated, were still those of a normal man, with a nose and thick brows and prominent cheekbones. His eyes glowed red, but his pupils were round. Salt and pepper hair covered his head. The only serpentine thing about him was his tall, willowy build.

“Helena Gaunt,” he greeted her with a sharp smile as she scrambled back to her feet, his voice high and cold as ever. “It’s nice to finally meet you, cousin.”

Helena startled and shook her head in denial. “We’re not cousins.”

Real battles don’t stop for two enemies to have a conversation. But as far as Helena could tell, this one had. There were skirmishes further up the street, but everything around her was still, like the world was holding its breath.

She was back in front of The Three Broomsticks. Honeydukes across the street, Zonkos beside it, right where most of the Hogwarts students were hiding. She could spot some of the braver ones situated closer to the street, wands at the ready, listening keenly.

“No?” Voldemort’s smile turned mocking.

“No, there aren’t any Gaunts in Britain—”

“They died off years ago. Yes, I know,” he smirked cruelly. “I admit I took great pleasure in killing them. An illustrious line, in whose veins runs the blood of Salazar Slytherin himself. They’d become a disgrace to our heritage. But the American branch has done great things, I hear, and now you’ve returned home. You cannot honestly tell me you traveled all the way to Scotland without knowing about our connection, can you Helena? Or perhaps you did, and this is simply fate smiling upon me.”

Helena listened to his speech with a detached sense of horror, bile souring the back of her tongue. She’d always known Voldemort was descended from Slytherin, but the Gaunts? They had a fraught past, but they were her family.

She didn’t know anything about their history before Gormlaith Gaunt tracked her niece, Isolt Sayre, to Massachusetts, dragging her illegitimate ten-year-old son with her. As the story went, Gormlaith had set out to murder her niece and died in pursuit of her malicious goal. The son was raised by his much more sane aunt, establishing the Gaunts as a formidable family in the upper echelons of American society, which naturally came with its own black marks over the years. But she’d never guessed that in the distant past they’d been Slytherins.

Dear Merlin, she was related to Voldemort.

Something petty and vindictive curled in her stomach. It wasn’t wise to antagonize him, but she wanted to get under Voldemort’s skin the way this news had gotten under hers. And she knew just how to manage it.

“The only cousin I’m aware of on this side of the pond is a Tom Riddle. So tell me, Tom, what’s a half-blood doing leading a pureblood crusade?”

Voldemort’s eyes flashed dangerously, but he remained surprisingly calm in the face of her jab. More than calm, he looked triumphant.

“I own them. I am their master,” he said with obvious relish. “And when you join me, Helena, I will make you their queen.”

Helena sucked in a sharp breath at the implication. “Never. I will never join you.”

He cocked his head, examining her with hungry, covetous eyes. “I will have you,” he said, implacable and sure.

The words whether you are willing or not went unspoken, but she heard them nonetheless.

They’d been slowly circling each other as they spoke. Helena limping, streaked with dirt and her own blood. Voldemort, clean and hale and smug. She threw the first curse, the best answer she could give to his terrifying presumption.

Voldemort turned on a dime, sidestepping and firing back, meeting her blow for blow.

It was worse than fighting nine Death Eaters at once. Every movement he made was precise, calculated to disrupt her rhythm. His spell choice was unpredictable, powered with the force of a raging bull slamming against her defenses. He apparated more swiftly than most people could jump, practically a ghost on the field for all her ability to land a hit. And the way he called out instructions as they fought…

“Dueling is a symphony, Cousin! A dance! You don’t need to gather power for each spell. Build it towards a crescendo. Let your magic flow through the chain like water! Your movement and intent will drive the effect.”

He was toying with her. And worse, his advice was good.

Helena didn’t know how long they fought, with Voldemort treating her like some kind of child performing a new trick for its betters. Her arm ached. Her leg cramped every time she put too much weight on it. Black spots dotted her vision, and she knew with a kind of cold certainty that she wouldn’t last much longer.

Salvation came not a moment too soon.

She could have wept when she saw the teachers storming into town, Dumbledore a bright spot of fuchsia in the lead. Aurors in red robes popped into existence, attacking the remaining Death Eaters with prejudice. More patroni, a silver hare and a striped cat and a great phoenix, joined her stag in the sky, driving off the dementors for good.

Voldemort snarled, half-turned to face Dumbledore, and Helena seized her chance. With the last dregs of her energy, she exploded the ground at his feet. Voldemort was able to shield in time, but the concussive force knocked him back several steps. And the resultant spray of crushed cobblestones and dirt provided the perfect cover for Helena to make her escape.

She dove into the nearest alley, scrambling to hide behind a stack of old crates. She could hear Voldemort’s screams of rage, then the sounds of renewed battle as Dumbledore—it had to be Dumbledore—confronted him.

Helena slid down the wall as her legs gave out, breathing hard.

She reached for the wound on her leg, tried to gently shift fabric aside so she could see it. But her hand was shaking too hard. She lifted it up before her eyes, stared at her trembling fingers. Blinked.

Oh, she thought fuzzily as blackness began to creep over her vision, I’m about to pass out.

She heard someone frantically calling her name, but she couldn’t muster the energy to respond. Everything was fading, and she was so tired. She could close her eyes for just a second, just a moment, and then she would call back.

When Helena regained consciousness several hours later, she was in the hospital wing, and there were a lot of adults arguing very, very loudly.

Chapter Text

Helena was not confused when she blinked her eyes open. She instantly recognized the white stone walls high overhead and the uncomfortably thin mattress beneath her. The stench of antiseptic potions hung heavy in the air. Her bedsheets were overly starched and stiff, rubbing against the sensitive new skin on her arm and thigh like sandpaper with every minute shift. And her head ached, throbbing in time with her heart in a way that was all too familiar.

Thanks to her life in the future, she had a wealth of unfortunate experience waking up in this infirmary—not to mention her recent visit post werewolf encounter. (And wasn’t that just her luck? Two major life-threatening incidents within the first month of school. It had to be some kind of record).

The only unusual thing about the situation was the heated argument taking place at the foot of her bed.

There were four people: Dumbledore, Bartemius Crouch Sr., a man sporting marvelously thick black mutton chops, and one formidable woman. Naturally, the headmaster was the only one to notice Helena watching them. When he spotted her, he smiled, winked, and very pointedly failed to alert the others to her wakened state.

Helena figured she couldn’t have been unconscious too long. Dumbledore was still dressed in the fuchsia robe he’d worn during the battle in Hogsmeade, so unless she had imagined that garish color racing to her rescue, it couldn’t have been more than a couple of hours since she’d passed out in that dirty alleyway.

Which as it happened was just long enough to feel like an eavesdropper on a conversation taking place right in front of her.

“I read the witness reports same as you, Bartemius,” the formidable woman was saying, hands braced solidly on her ample hips as she spoke in a loud, uncensored voice. She was a tall woman—nearly of a height with Dumbledore, who typically loomed over his company—with kind eyes and deep laugh lines, though her face was currently pinched in a stern frown.

Crouch was one of those eerily ageless men, the type that made people suspect vampirism or secretly created philosopher's stones to explain their unchanging visage. In twenty years, he would still sport the same unnaturally straight gray hair, parted neatly in the same spot, with the same narrow toothbrush mustache and staid black attire. And his wrinkles, few though they were, would be no deeper or more prevalent than they were at this moment.

But his expression was unlike anything Helena had ever seen on his face in the future. The closest equivalent she could think of was the time he’d accused her of casting the Dark Mark after the World Cup, but even that had lacked the feverish intensity he sported now like a religious totem.

“Clearly not,” he said, “Or you wouldn’t stand there defending the girl like she’s some kind of innocent.”

“She’s sixteen,” the woman hissed back.

And Crouch sneered, the same ugly, condemning expression he’d worn in Dumbledore’s Pensieve memory as he tossed his own son into Azkaban Prison. “Sixteen? I cannot tell you how many sixteen-year-olds we arrest every summer. Vandalism, theft, assault, stupidity. Give teenagers an excuse and they’ll reap more destruction than a hundred adults. And the Death Eaters are nothing but an excuse, the greatest excuse in existence!”

Helena was chagrined to admit, if only in her own mind, that Crouch wasn’t totally off base. Case in point, she’d taken five friends with her to the Ministry of Magic and managed to wreck an entire secret department. By age twelve, her actions had led to the destruction of a priceless magical artifact as well as a major historical landmark. And at thirteen, she broke a prisoner out of jail. Good intentions aside, that was a lot of chaos. And that was all before Harry had managed to time travel decades into the past and merge souls with a girl raised by parents who were only semi-law abiding on their best days.

Though in fairness to other teens, Helena was pretty sure they didn’t fall face-first into nearly as many ridiculous situations as she did.

“Your poor experiences with teenagers aside,” the woman sniped, pulling Helena out of her thoughts, “Miss Gaunt hasn’t done anything wrong. On the contrary, I’d say she acted like a damned hero today.”

“That is one interpretation of today’s events.”

The woman’s expression grew more pinched, like Crouch had poured straight lemon juice down her throat with his patronizing tone. Dumbledore merely hummed, to all appearances listening to the debate with polite disinterest. The last man, the one with the fluffy muttonchops that made him look both old-fashioned and militaristic, chose that moment to chime in with all the consummate prevarication of a seasoned politician.

“I take your point, Millicent. To all appearances, the girl hasn’t done anything wrong. And given her age, well, normally I would agree with you that we should give her the benefit of the doubt. Protecting the youth is our highest priority.” He shook his pointer finger so emphatically his fluffy black mutton chops bounced with the motion. “Magic be my witness, you know I believe that with all my heart. But under these circumstances? The girl is not just any youth. Bartemius is on the front lines of this war. And I say he must have the right of it. It's a very bad business, very suspicious. We have to ere on the side of extreme caution.”

“The circumstances being her relationship to You-Know-Who, you mean? Not her defense of Hogsmeade? By the Witch Father, Minister! If we judged every citizen by their worst relation, there wouldn’t be a single free citizen left in Britain!”

“There’s no need to be hyperbolic, Millicent. Clearly the cousin of You-Know-Who himself is a special circumstance. And you have admit, what happened in the battle, well, you have to agree, it’s all very dodgy.”

Millicent set her jaw and glared, Crouch’s smug sniff the only sound to break the stony silence that fell after the Minister of Magic stopped speaking.

“Come now,” he said, flapping his hands at Millicent imploringly, “you do see it, don’t you? What are the chances that a teenage girl could fight You-Know-Who to a standstill?

That’s your evidence? She didn’t die.”

“I’m not suggesting we arrest the girl! But a little caution wouldn’t go amiss. You have to agree!”

“No, I most certainly do not have to agree.”

Helena was of half a mind to start applauding the woman, especially when Crouch reentered the debate to point out that they didn't need to arrest Helena to use her.

“Maybe you are correct, Mrs. Bagnold,” he said, “maybe the girl is innocent. Maybe until a few hours ago she was even ignorant of her connection to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. But she is not ignorant now, and what's more, it is clear he wants her. She is his cousin. She is talented. And she possesses the same cursed ability to speak parseltongue. Who knows what he said to her out there, what hissed promises made her. There is no doubt in my mind that he wishes to recruit her. We have to use that!”

“A trap. You want to use a child to bait You-Know-Who.” Millicent Bagnold shook her head in disgust.

“She is already bait!” Crouch shouted, composure shot. “The only choice here is whether we take advantage of that fact or not!”

“Not, I should think,” Dumbledore said, smiling serenely when the other three adults twisted around to stare at him, having clearly forgotten he was standing there.

“What?” Crouch asked, blinking dumbly.

Dumbledore peered down his long, crooked nose at them, exuding disappointment so potently it made Helena squirm with vicarious shame. “I am afraid, Bartemius, that I cannot allow you to exploit any of my students, no matter how well-intentioned you believe yourself to be.”

Crouch narrowed his eyes. “No?”

Dumbledore smoothed down his long white beard, smiled wider. “No.”

It didn’t take long for Crouch to back down, unequal to the headmaster’s calm resolution. Dumbledore waited another moment as the Minister and Crouch turned their faces away. Then he waved a wrinkled hand in Helena’s direction and said, quite jovially, “I am sure Miss Gaunt is glad to know our little disagreement has been resolved.”

Helena tensed as four sets of eyes swiveled in unison to face her. “Er, hi,” she managed to croak out, only to immediately regret it as her dry throat protested her attempt to speak with a violent coughing fit.

“I believe gentlemen, Mrs. Bagnold, that we have disturbed Miss Gaunt’s rest quite enough,” Dumbledore said as he conjured a gaudy crystal blue goblet with silver stars inlaid around the rim and filled it with water. He handed it to Helena with a gentle pat to her back. “Would anyone care to join me for a cup of tea in my office? Limy has recently discovered a new lemon tart recipe that, I must confess, surpasses even my love for lemon drops.”

“She still needs to be questioned, Dumbledore!” Crouch protested.

“And I am sure you have many capable aurors who can take her statement later. Now, if you please, Limy will show you up to my office.”

On cue, a diminutive house elf popped into existence before the group. She was clean and smiling, decked out in a freshly-laundered fuchsia tea-towel to match the headmaster’s robes, with a hand-stitched Hogwarts crest taking pride of place over her heart. Her large ears twitched excitedly as she took in the ministry officials.

“Limy be leading guests to your office right away, sir! Limy is getting them tea, sir, and lots of lemon tarts, sir. Limy is baking a fresh batch!”

“Thank you, Limy,” Dumbledore said, eyes twinkling merrily.

“Right this way, sirs, ma'am, right this way. Limy be showing you the way now,” she announced, prim and authoritative despite her squeaky voice and the way she bounced on the balls of her feet as she spoke.

Millicent Bagnold left without hesitation, a triumphant bounce in her step buoyant enough to rival the elf’s. Crouch and the Minister were more reluctant, but under Dumbledore’s implacable stare, they too exited the Hospital Wing.

The headmaster turned back to Helena with a genial smile. “That was a very brave thing you did today, my girl.”

“Not everyone seems to think so,” she noted, bitterness coating her words.

Dumbledore sighed and gestured towards the chair at Helena’s bedside. “May I sit?”

Helena nodded, one stilted bob of her head. The headmaster settled into the seat, fluffing out his robes and arranging his beard so it pooled like a pile of cotton in his lap. He studied her for a long moment, then finally addressed her initial remark.

“In my long experience, I have found that fear, especially when coupled with ambition, can make monsters of us all. The real challenge, my dear girl, lies in choosing to remain kind in spite of our fears. Bartemius Crouch and Minister Minchum are not the first men to fail in the face of that challenge. And they will, unfortunately, not be the last.”

It was odd having Dumbledore’s complete focus like this. He’d avoided her for the entirety of her Fifth year. He’d refused to make eye contact with her when she was on trial before the Wizengamot, and again when she came to warn him about the attack on Mr. Weasley before the winter holidays. And as much as Helena had tried to tell herself he was not purposefully avoiding her, she’d known the truth, a truth which was even more evident now as he sat beside her, granting her his undivided attention.

It made her wonder, resentfully, what she, as Harry, could have possibly done to make Dumbledore shun her, when he was so perfectly at ease with Voldemort’s own cousin.

“It doesn’t bother you then? That I’m—related—to Voldemort?”

“I am not in the habit of judging the child for the sins of the father, no.” Dumbledore chuckled, “Or as the case may be, for the sins of a distant cousin. Besides, I believe your fight with Tom demonstrated your true colors quite admirably.”

Helena tilted her head to the side questioningly.

“It is one of my lesser-known talents, but I do possess the ability to understand parseltongue, though I cannot speak it myself.”

Helena jerked. “Parseltongue? Crouch mentioned, but…Were we…?”

“Hmmm, yes,” Dumbledore nodded, “Shortly after Tom declared for all the world to hear that the two of you are cousins, your conversation became incomprehensible to most everyone else.”

“I hadn’t realized…”

“I thought that might be the case.”

“Do—” Helena’s voice cracked. She cleared it, downed the rest of the water in her conjured goblet, and tried again. “You know, then? What he wants from me…”

Dumbledore’s twinkling eyes dimmed. “Yes, I heard. I am sorry, my dear girl. Terribly sorry.”

Helena shivered. She tried to hug herself, an unconscious act of self-soothing, but her left arm complained violently, the puncture wound in her bicep too recent to move even with the aid of magical healing. It made her want to cry, for what, she wasn’t sure, but the urge was almost overwhelming.

Not here! she snarled at herself. Not where anyone can see you. By Lady Magic, get a grip on yourself, girl!

“I will not pretend your situation is not dire,” Dumbledore continued after a moment. “Knowing Tom as I do, I doubt even fleeing the country would take you from his notice now. But so long as you remain at Hogwarts, I assure you I will do my utmost to keep you safe. And later, well, if you will accept a compliment from an old man, it has been many years since I have seen anyone demonstrate such a natural gift for dueling. You do not have to be his victim.”

Helena blushed, pleased by the recognition, though she tried not to focus on it. “Later, sir?”

If he had been anyone else, Helena would have said Dumbledore looked sheepish. “This is not something I would normally address with a student, but given your unique situation… Have you ever heard of the Order of the Phoenix, Helena?”

Helena blinked, momentarily startled. “It’s—your secret organization, isn’t it, sir? The one you created to fight against Voldemort?”

“Secret, yes,” Dumbledore chuckled, eyes regaining their merry twinkle. “So naturally the whole world knows. Dubious secrecy aside, your description is more or less accurate. The Order is a group of trusted individuals I have gathered together to fight against Voldemort in areas where the Ministry either cannot or will not. I would like you to consider joining when you come of age.”

“Me? But—I’m only a sixth year!” Helena exclaimed, taken aback. If Dumbledore should’ve been asking any student to join the Order of the Phoenix, it should have been the Boy-Who-Lived, not the brand-new transfer student that Voldemort wanted to forcibly marry.

The headmaster smiled mildly. “Yes, it is rather unorthodox of me to speak to you now. But do not trouble yourself, my girl. We still have nearly a year before you will turn seventeen, plenty of time for you to think about your decision. And in the meantime, I would like to offer the occasional lesson to help you with your dueling.”

“Really? But—why? I haven’t even said yes, yet!”

Dumbledore cocked his head to the side, stroking his long beard contemplatively.

“You have the ability to be a very real force for good,” he said solemnly, then more cheerfully, “And perhaps more personally for me, I am and will always be a teacher at heart. There is nothing that brings me greater pleasure than fostering the potential of a talented student.”

“Thank you, sir,” Helena breathed out, excitement beginning to bubble in her chest.

Dueling lessons from Dumbledore…She shook her head, quietly marveling at the idea.

Dumbledore smiled and patted her arm as he stood up. “Now, I believe I have some important ministry officials waiting on me for tea, so I will leave you to your much-deserved rest.”

“Sir?” Helena bit her lip as a new worry occurred to her. If the Ministry had learned about her unique situation, then surely her friends, who were actually present at the fight, had heard about it by now too. “Has anyone been by? To visit me, I mean?”

The headmaster looked back at her with an expression full of understanding. “I am afraid Madam Pomfrey is not permitting visitors. She’s a bit overrun at the moment and doesn’t have the room or, I believe, the patience to deal with concerned friends.”

Helena looked around, for the first time realizing how many beds were visibly filled, and how many more had privacy curtains around them. The Hospital Wing was so quiet that it hadn’t occurred to her that she might not be the only patient. Which was silly. Of course Madam Pomfrey used silencing charms to facilitate the comfort of those under her care. The transparent golden bubbles encircling every bed were proof of that.

It still struck her like a blow to see the tiny second year boy sleeping fitfully in the bed beside her. The little boy turned over, face scrunched up in distress, and Helena recoiled, bile rising swift and pungent up the back of her throat.

The boy’s left sleeve was empty. His arm was gone.

“None of our students died,” Dumbledore said, gentle as he offered the only reassurance he could. “You were a big part of that.”

Helena tore her eyes away from the child to stare up at the headmaster, desperately wishing he could offer her more.

“Please, consider joining the Order when the time comes,” he said with a slight bow of his head. “And have faith in your friends. If that group is as worthy as I have always believed them to be, they will not abandon you.”

Helena silently watched as he walked out of the Hospital Wing, then looked back at the boy with the missing arm.

When the time came, she knew what her answer to Dumbledore would be.