AN: It's been a long road. Thanks to everyone who has read and reviewed. The sequel is coming, but not right away. I'm taking a break.

EPILOGUE: Crossroads

It was only the second funeral Harry had ever attended, but even that was two too many. He attached himself to Hermione, an altogether depressing parallel.

He had avoided the Weasleys for three days after the battle, feeling guilt with every evasion. He had been told, of course, that Molly and Arthur wanted to see him. Bill and Charlie – who had returned from the dragon reservation he worked at for the summer – had tried to ambush him at the Ministry after his testimony before the Wizengamot, but Harry escaped with the help of Percy, the only one of his family who didn't try to talk to him about it. Harry was grateful for it, though he couldn't be sure if that was because Percy respected his wish, or wanted nothing more to do with him than necessary.

Harry had been told through messengers that no one blamed him, which he found unfair. Who else bore the blame for this but him? He had led his friends to Mulciber, knowing full well there were Death Eaters in the castle. Why the hell hadn't he sent them away?

He caved, at last, on the morning of the funeral, more by the circumstance than his own choice. The weather was perfect – not a speck of cloud to shield from the blazing sun. Harry felt even worse, if possible, seeing that. Where was rain and stormclouds, thunder and howling wind? The world itself seemed to be mocking Ginny and Ron.

He, Sirius and Remus arrived via portkey at the Foghorn Estate, the ancestral seaside seat of the Weasley clan, and the domain of the jealous, territorial great-aunt Muriel. Muriel, apparently, was a mean shrew (in Percy's words) who refused help with restoring the deteriorating mansion and demanded all of it for herself. Harry took an instant dislike to the old witch, unable to fathom why Mr. Weasley allowed her to hoard the Foghorn and live there in isolation. Worn as it was, it was a proper manor of sturdy stone, with more room on one floor than there was in the Burrow. Percy confessed, in a surprisingly callous tone, that he couldn't wait until Muriel joined her late husband in the ancestral cemetery in a far corner of the estate land. Harry, painfully aware of the reason he was even at the Foghorn, withheld his own comments – but privately, he thought Percy had a point. Muriel reminded im unfavourably of Petunia.

He could no longer justify avoiding the other Weasleys, while more mourners arrived to attend the ceremony. To his endless relief, no one blamed him, not to his face, at least. Muriel graced him with a cross look, but said nothing. Harry almost would have preferred to be yelled and screamed at, thrown out, so he wouldn't have to watch his friends being buried much too early.

Harry, Sirius and Remus weren't the only ones to make an appearance. Neville had come with his grandmother. Augusta Longbottom carried herself with cool superiority, but Harry sensed no malice behind it. If anything, she seemed protective of her grandson. In fact, most of Ron and Ginny's Hogwarts classes had come to pay their respects – even a few Slytherins. For the sake of his own sanity, Harry refused to stoop down to guesswork regarding their motives for coming, whether they were being genuine or merely playing a particular part.

He had manoeuvred to the back of the crowd during the ceremony itself, joined by Hermione, who had only left St. Mungo's the day before and stayed the night at the Burrow. Harry had spent much of the two days she'd lain in a hospital bed by her side, knowingly using Hermione's unconsciousness to avoid talking to people.

Now they stood arm in arm, heads bowed, holding hands in a mutual gesture of comfort as the burial drew to a close, or rather, Harry endured without complaint as Hermione squeezed his hand as if she were trying to crush it. Harry didn't mind if she was. A few broken fingers would be a small penance for his role in this fucking calamity.

Mourners soon lined up to offer condolences to the family and then most of them left among murmurs and muffled sobs that carried through the garden. Harry thought he'd spotted some less than genuine faces, but held back from making a scene – that would be a far greater transgression than a few insincere gestures.

He and Hermione were approached by a pair in robes that looked more fit for a cocktail party than a funeral. Daphne Greengrass looked stunning, her arm linked through that of her boyfriend. Blaise Zabini seemed content to ler her take charge.

"Miss Granger," Daphne said, nodding in acknowledgement. "Potter."

"I have a first name," Harry replied. "All of this... is stiff enough."

Daphne's eyes narrowed for a blink of an eye. "Fair enough, Harry."

"What do you want, Daphne?" Hermione asked.

"We just wanted to say we're sorry for your loss," Daphne said, while Zabini didn't actually make a sound. "Everyone knows you're close with the Weasleys."

Harry opened his mouth to bark out an unwarranted retort, but Hermione had somehow anticipated his reaction and squeezed his hand even harder, so he said nothing.

"Thank you," said Hermione. "It's very nice of you to come."

"It was only polite, after what Harry has done for my family."

As Sirius had told him, the Greengrasses had emerged without a scratch on them.

"I didin't do anything, it was Sirius."

"We've already spoken," Daphne said, nodding appreciatively. "I... have to admit that I'm not just making smalltalk, but my owls haven't been able to reach you. I'd love it if we could talk privately."

Harry didn't feel like bargaining. If this was a plot to kidnap him and deliver him to Voldemort, he would cross that bridge when he came to it.

"I could come over to your house. Or we could meet in Hogsmeade. I don't know. Whatever."

"Three Broomsticks, then? Are you available tomorrow?"

"Sure. How's four o'clock?"

"Perfect," Daphne said. "I'll be waiting."

They stood in an awkward silence for a moment, which Harry found strange. Daphne Greengrass didn't seem like a person who tolerated awkward silences.

"I really am sorry about your friends. Goodbye."

Zabini remained silent. Daphne led her boyfriend away and they vanished with the crack of apparition.

Most of the mourners had left and only the closest friends of the family still lingered. Mrs Weasley wiped the tears from her face and invited them inside, over Muriel's muttered protest, and collected orders for tea. Harry could understand the need to keep busy. He politely accepted his tea and sneaked out of the house as soon as he thought it wouldn't be considered rude. He wasn't alone for long. Hermione found him there minutes later.

"Sirius just left a minute ago," she said, straightening her skirt as she sat down beside him on a weathered stone wall that marked the border of the Foghorn Estate.

"Yes, he's got some to-do at the Ministry. I think he's trying to manipulate the Wizengamot into making him King of Wizarding Britain."

"Right," Hermione said. Harry was glad to see a ghost of a smile flash on her face, even for a moment. "Remus will take you back to Grimmauld Place when you're ready."

"I can make a portkey, you know."

Hermione poked his arm. "That's illegal."

"Yeah, well, I've done worse."

He bit his tongue as soon as the words were out of his mouth. Oh yes, brilliant joker you are, Potter.

Hermione didn't comment, but the spark of humour between them was gone instantly. Harry settled on the first thing that came to mind to disperse the tense silence.

"Hogwarts is going to be strange next year, isn't it? I can't go back, but I'll write you all the time. Every day, if you want."

"I'm not going back to Hogwarts."

The sense of her words, so... alien at first, took its time getting to Harry. Wait, what?

"Why?"

Hermione sniffed and turned away from him, hiding behind the curtain of her hair. "I can't just go back, like nothing's happened. Too much has happened, Harry. I used to love Hogwarts, but this year I hated every moment."

"Okay." Harry put an arm around her. "You can come live with Sirius and I. We'll be dropouts together... as bizarre as that sounds."

"I can't do that either. And before you ask, I'm not staying with the Weasleys."

He was out of ideas.

"So, what are you going to do?"

"I want to finish school... I'm going to transfer to Beauxbatons. Professor Dumbledore is helping to arrange it."

France? She was going to bloody France?

"When did you decide this? Have you thought about it? Why- why didn't you tell me sooner?"

"It's already in motion, Harry. I chose to wait before I told anyone else."

Neither of them said anything for a while. Harry stood up and shrugged out of his robe. It was fiendishly hot. His head was spinning, and he wasn't sure if it was from the heat, or because of what he'd just heard. He jammed his hands into his pockets and kicked at the wall repeatedly until his polished shoe was sufficiently scuffed.

"I don't agree with this-"

"I don't need your permission, Harry."

They locked eyes. Harry felt his heart plummet, seeing a spark of anger in her face.

"I was going to say that I'm not going to fight you," he finished. "I know I can't possibly... understand... what you've been through. Just—promise we won't become strangers. I'm running out of friends, Hermione," he said, hating himself for the self-pity that had snuck into his tone, "I don't want to lose you to."

Hermione stood and latched onto him and he held her like both their lives depended on it. She stood on the tips of her toes and kissed his cheek, then pulled away. "It's not going to happen overnight. I'm going back to Hogwarts for what's left of the semester. But now, I think someone wants to talk to you."

She hugged him briefly again and left, going back inside the house, passing Dumbledore on the path. Harry watched the old wizard approach, feeling tension building up in his body. What now? He'd already been questioned by a commitee of the Wizengamot. Dumbledore could bloody well read the transcript.

"Hello, Harry."

"Professor." He wasn't going to force the niceties. He hadn't forgotten Snape.

"Allow me to express my deepest sympathies. These are dark days when war claims the young."

"Thank you, sir."

Dumbledore sat down where Hermione had been sitting a minute ago and closed his eyes for a moment, appearing to enjoy the scarce breeze reaching them from the sea. It did little to lessen the heat.

"I shan't keep you long, Harry," Dumbledore said at last, "for I have precious little time to spare myself."

"It's the weekend."

Dumbledore smiled, though there was more sadness in it than joy. "True, true... But I'm afraid this isn't a matter of the approaching work week. Indeed, I don't expect to see much of Hogwarts for the foreseeable future, and I possess passably accurate foresight, if I may be so bold."

"Sir?"

Dumbledore stood, stretching his arms out to the crack of joints. "I light of recent events, I have determined it is no longer feasible for me to remain at Hogwarts. I shall be making the announcement of my resignation at breakfast tomorrow. I do believe Professor McGonagall will make an excellent Headmistress. I do wonder who she's going to appoint to replace her as Deputy..."

Harry stood there, confounded. The vision of Hogwarts without Dumbledore refused to crystalise in his mind. Whatever his differences with the man, Albus Dumbledore seemed as much a hallmark of the school as the castle itself.

"You're... not going to teach at Beauxbatons, are you?"

Dumbledore's eyes gleamed with the characteristic knowing twinkle. "I take it Miss Granger has informed you, then."

"Yes, and her decision is as bizarre as yours."

"I no longer can afford to fool myself into thinking that I can take an active role in this war by hiding in Scotland. Others may hope for the best, but we know that Voldemort still lives and he will not rest until he is destroyed completely. And, as much as it disgusts me to say it, destroyed he must be. You've bought us time, Harry. I shan't waste it."

Harry turned away, breathing in and out heavily. Things were changing too fast. He wasn't ready for this, not for any of it.

"As I said, I shall announce this tomorrow... I would like you to be there. Students of Hogwarts need leadership, whether they realise it or not, and I can't think of anyone better suited to this responsibility."

Harry looked back at Dumbledore, grimacing. "I was expelled. I can't exactly— What is that?"

Dumbledore held out to him a scroll, sealed with the Hogwarts crest in red wax.

"I am Headmaster for another day. As my final official act, I have rescinded your expulsion."

"But—I attacked you in the Entrance Hall."

"So you did."

"No one will agree to this! The other Professors—"

"Support my decision," Dumbledore cut in.

"The Board of Governors—"

"Harry," Dumbledore interrupted, gently, but firmly. "Do you not want to return to Hogwarts?"

"Of course I do!"

"Then that is it."

Feeling numb, Harry accepted the scroll. Dumbledore tipped his tall hat to him and disapparated.

~~oOo~~

There was no reliable way to measure something as intangible as power. What you had depended as much on yourself as it did on those willing to respect your authority, just like law was only valid if enforced. Sirius had learned that fundamental truth long ago.

With the destruction of Mulciber Manor and Voldemort's flight, the Fidelius Charm fell apart, allowing the whole affair to be named the Battle at the Bone Mound, after the hill atop which Mulciber Manor used to stand. The Battle had been a bittersweet victory, all things considered. Ron and Ginny's death were a steep price to pay, but Death Eaters were scattered and Voldemort gone – for now.

Sirius asserted the following day that his political capital was a rapidly shrinking resource. Aurors had been killed at the Bone Mound and deaths of children were raising an uproar. Sirius knew he had little time to act before someone else felt bold enough to act against him. He had been given supreme command of the Aurors and the entire operation, every death was being decried as his fault and damn if Sirius didn't agree, up to a point. His enemies were poised to strike at an opportune moment. The Purge – another Prophet-coined nickname that was catching on – had won him no friends, especially in the Wizengamot, not when he'd had Amelia Bones put warlocks behind bars.

The mood of the public was going to change quickly. Days ago, he had been a hero, stepping in to root out corruption and get the sludge moving through the pipes at last. Today, some were calling him a tyrant, aiming to execute a coup.

Well, not just yet.

He moved quickly. Throwing his weight around for the last time, he invoked his authority to convene the Wizengamot on his whim. Needless to say, Scrimgeour looked less than pleased when Sirius approached the lectern raised for him in the middle of the chamber's floor. There were noticeable swathes of vacancies among the warlocks, not just those who were being held downstairs.

For the second time in a week, Sirius placed Mordanis' Writ of Authority on the lectern before him.

"That document," Scrimgeour said, leaning forward in his seat, towering over Sirius, "is not your key to open all doors, Advisor Black."

Sirius surveyed the warlocks, from left to right, drinking in their displeasure. Almost all the faces uniformly displayed varying degrees of loathing, with a few notable exceptions. Dumbledore sat in the highest row, removed from the others. His face told Sirius nothing.

"I can see that you disapprove of my calling this session of the Wizengamot, Chief Warlock," Sirius said, "and I would be a fool to feign ignorance of the reasons for your scorn, unstated though they are."

He placed a hand on the Writ, but kept looking up at the assembled warlocks. "If you'll permit me to voice my petition, I will promise to never bring Mordanis' Writ into this chamber again."

Scrimgeour's left eye twitched, but it went unnoticed by anyone but Sirius. He gave a permissive wave. "I'm sure we're all anxious to hear about this petition."

Given the stage, Sirius performed his last act as Advisor Black, proposing a trade he was sure would tempt Rufus – give me back Mordanis' Knights, and I'll leave the Ministry.

Irritated that he couldn't use phrase it exactly like that, Sirius nevertheless maintained an air of dignity as he laid out his offer, dressed in far too many fancy words, so the warlocks could digest it one little piece at a time. It was a risky move, staking everything on this gambit, but he was confident in Scrimgeour's desire to have him out of the Ministry.

"You wish to restore the Argent Knights?" Scrimgeour sounded understandably suspicious. "This is a dangerous path you tread, sir. Wizarding Britain is not as it was four hundred years ago. We have a proper government now. The Wizengamot will not tolerate another self-appointed tyrant named Black."

"Tyranny is furthest from my mind, Chief Warlock. I understand the Wizengamot's reservations," even though you're the only one speaking, Rufus, "and I do not aim to compromise the integrity of the Ministry—"

"One might say you've done that already."

Sirius paused, restraining an involuntary shiver. The chill clinging to the floor of the chamber had him feeling small whenever he stood there, as if he shrank each time entering. He looked up at the challenger, his jaw set. Clearly, not all warlocks were as firmly ruled by their affiliations as he'd thought.

"The Purge," he said, careful not to raise his voice, "was as necessary as it was disruptive, madam."

Augusta Longbottom did not seem convinced.

"A strong argument can be made that your hunt for spies has made the Ministry weaker."

Of course it has—that's precisely what I wanted

"I fail to see how rooting out the enemy's spies weakens our government, madam warlock."

"By undermining public trust in—"

The gavel struck once, twice, three times, silencing Augusta at once.

"Order," Scrimgeour barked, a hint of contempt in his tone, though he didn't turn to look at the woman. "We're not here now to dissect the Advisor's actions and their consequences. The issue before us is a separate matter."

Sirius held back a grin. The old lion had fallen for his ploy.

"Advisor, I will not insult your intelligence and mine by explaining to you why the Wizengamot cannot simply re-issue this Writ in your name."

"Certainly, Chief Warlock. My only concern is for the safety of Britain and its citizens."

Prompted by Scrimgeour, Sirius detailed his offer further.

"You're suggesting that Aurors are an insufficient apparatus of security," another warlock piped up. Selwyn, Scrimgeour's predecessor. Sirius had been expecting him to enter the discussion at some point. He had to be desperate to not be seen as completely defeated by his unseating as Chief Warlock. "I can't imagine that any Auror would be anyhing but insulted by such claims."

Sirius would have tipped a hat to Selwyn, were he wearing one. Very shrewd, sir.

"I have the deepest respect for the Auror Office," Sirius said, briefly placing a hand over his heart. "But it cannot be denied that we face threats the Aurors are simply not equipped to respond to. The Dark Lord is banished from our shores, but not dead. He will return—we cannot afford to make the same mistake we made fifteen years ago." There was a murmur of approval from one side of the room. Augusta was a noteable holdout among her neighbours.

"Let us not pretend to save face," Sirius continued. "We were ill-prepared to fight another war, thankfully short as it was. We had grown complacent in apparent safety. I believe I can make the Silver Order into a shield against which any enemy of Britain will shatter."

"Certain provision would have to be agreed upon," Scrimgeour countered.

Sirius knew in that moment he'd won.

"Undoubtedly. To ensure that this new organisation, if it is sanctioned, doesn't grow corrupt as it did under the command of Mordanis Black, I would dedicate myself fully to it. As such, I would resign from all my responsibilities in the Ministry."

Responsibilities—it was a polite word that sounded nice. He had no real responsibilities as Advisor. Instead, he had a lot of privileges.

Scrimgeour allowed himself to look smug for a moment. "That's a good start, Advisor."

Deliberations went on for another hour. Sirius fought tooth and nail on every point—he had to make it look convincing. The more he opposed giving up his power as Advisor, the more readily would the warlocks grant him his wish, just to push him out of the room faster.

Once the scribe passed the newly reforged Writ to Scrimgeour to affix his seal, Sirius left the Wizengamot Assembly first, no longer Advisor Black. He was Knight-Marshal of the Silver Order, forever prihibited from inserting himself into the Ministry again and burdened with making his new title into one to be respected instead of mocked.

He ducked into a hallway leading away from the golden lifts and waited, discreetly watching the warlocks stream out of the chamber. Dumbledore was among the last leaving. He looked even more tired and worn out than Sirius remembered him mere days ago. The Bone Mound had taken a lot out of him.

"You wanted to talk," Sirius said curtly. "Let's make this quick. I'd rather not stay here longer than I have to."

"To business, then," Dumbledore said. "Do you recall our talk in my home? The envelope I gave you?"

He remembered, though if he were honest with himself, he'd forgotten about both until just now. It was in the desk drawer in his study at Grimmauld Place. Dumbledore had said the envelope contained directions to a cache he'd prepared, containing information Harry would one day need.

"I do."

"Open it," Dumbledore said, then turned on his heel and marched off with uncharacteristic abruptness.

Frowning, Sirius shoved the man and his bloody envelope to the back of his mind—he didn't have long before one of the warlocks informed the press about what had just occurred. There were a few people he wanted to talk to before they found out about the Silver Order from the paper.

Percy, the first name on his short list, had taken swift command of his underlings, readily assering his authority over even those members of staff senior to him in age and experience. Sirius was almost jealous of the ease with which the young Weasley had adapted to the environment of the Ministry. Not that Sirius hadn't enjoyed the perks of his position, but he would never have been truly comfortable being a bureaucrat.

He found Percy at the Burrow, where the Weasley clan—sans Muriel—had gathered. Sirius plucked him out of the kitchen and onto the porch.

"In a few hours, you'll read about my resignation in the Daily Prophet," Sirius began without preamble. "I'm no longer Advisor Black. I've taken a position much better suited to my talents."

Percy listened. Sirius liked that about him. He wasn't going to ask unnecessary questions if he'd been told they would be answered later.

"I told you a while ago that I was looking for people I could trust, to pool the collective resources and give this country the kick it badly needs. I want you to be one of those people. You're the first one I've come to."

"Is this going to be a clandestine operation, like the Order of the Phoenix?"

"More or less. No one's to know you work for me. You'd still be doing what you're doing at the Ministry."

Percy offere his hand, which Sirius shook. "You know I'm going with you, Sirius."

Sirius nodded. "Very well. I'll let you know when and where."

He stopped by shortly to shake hands with the other Weasley. No one brought up the funeral. No one needed to. Sirius hadn't felt their loss as keenly as others, but he'd known Ron and Ginny well enough to care about them. He backed out of the Burrow in solemn silence and made his way back to London and Grimmauld Place Twelve, where Remus, Tonks and Dell awaited him in the kitchen, on those bloody hard chairs, when there was perfectly comfortable seating in the living room.

Remus was sipping a tall pint—when he wasn't being troubled by the moon, he enjoyed a hearty drink. Tonks and Dell joked around, but the general mood was, inescapably, dulled by the morning's events.

"Greetings, friends," Sirius hollered, tossing his cloak at the rack—he missed, but the hook came alive, catching the cloak before it fell. "Where'd you get that?" he asked, pointing at Remus' glass. "Kreacher! Get me one of those!"

Tonks and Dellan didn't take much convincing. For them, the existence of the Silver Order merely gave a name to their allegiance. Remus, however, was a tougher nut to crack.

"Argent Knights," Remus repeated slowly, tasting the words. "What do you want from me, exactly?"

"To join up. Not a grunt," Sirius hurried to explain, pointing with his pint. "I already have two of those, ("Hey!" was the collective protest of Tonks and Dellan) I'll find more. Be my right hand, Remus. Harry is a bit young for this still, and I'll need someone to help me run things so I don't run them into the ground."

"You jest, but you've always sold yourself short. Dumbledore agrees," Remus replied, raising his eyebrows slightly.

"Let's not talk about—"

"Is there a salary involved?" Remus interrupted.

"There can be, if you want it," Sirius said.

"I do," Tonks piped up, raising her hand. Sirius gave her a thunderous look, but she didn't seem cowed.

"It's a tempting offer, Sirius... but I don't share your enthusiasm for working for the betterment of Britain."

"Well," Sirius said, shrugging, "it was worth a try. I have another name in mind, anyway. I had a feeling you'd say no."

"What other name?" asked Tonks. "What about me? Why can't I be the right hand?"

"It'll be a surprise. Now, kids, shoo. I need to talk to this one privately," Sirius said, jerking his thumb at Remus.

"If you knew I'd refuse," Remus asked when they were alone, "then why ask at all?"

"I wanted to be sure, pin you down. You've been a ghost for weeks. Ever since you found the girl in Malfoy's dungeon."

Remus' face darkened. He knocked back the rest of his pint in one go, slamming the glass down with a thud. "Greyback escaped."

Sirius sighed, rubbing his forehead. "And I suppose you're planning to go after him? Is that why you've been brooding more than usually?"

"Can you still pull some strings in the Ministry?"

"Not anymore, but Crouch can. He'll do anything I want. What do you need?"

"Access to Azkaban. There's a prisoner there I need to talk to."

Azkaban was now being repopulated and security was tight. A few dementors had shown up at first, but were chased away. The fortress would no longer rely on those creatures. No one wanted a repeat from last fall.

"Who's the prisoner?"

"Jeremy. Don't know his last name. One of the werewolves you and Harry caught when you went after Peter."

"Consider it done. I'll badger Crouch about it tomorrow."

"Thank you." Remus stood up and made for the back door. "I'll see you tomorrow, Sirius," he said, without looking back.

Tonks and Dell had apparently interpreted his words as order to leave the house altogether. Alone—unless one counted Kreacher—Sirius decided to investigate Dumbledore's envelope. In his study, he unlocked the desk drawer and sliced the envelope open. Inside was a small piece of parchment and on it, an apparent riddle—or so he thought, until the sense of the words snapped into place. Eyes going wide, he flew down the stairs to the library, where he located two volumes of memoirs of the cursed Cygnus Black—no had yet found a way to decipher the man's scribbles, written in a code the key to which could not be found anywhere in Grimmauld Place Twelve. He pushed the two cloth-bound tomes apart, revealing a wooden box that fit snugly at the back of the shelf, in a compartment Dumbledore had clearly put there himself.

"Son of a bitch, hiding things in my house..."

Inside the box was a collection of memories in crystal vials and another envelope, affixed to the lid. When Harry came home sometimes later, Sirius told him nothing of what he'd learned from the notes in the envelope or the memories he'd viewed in Harry's—now again empty—pensieve. He reached to his chest, where a heavy golden locket used to rest, until he'd been forced to abandon it at Mulciber Manor. If it had still been there at the time of the battle, it was gone now. Nothing could have survived the untamed Fiendfyre.

Dumbledore was right. Harry would have to know this someday, but not yet—no reason to rush things. Voldemort wasn't an immediate threat anymore. Sirius put the box back where he'd found it.

Just another secret to keep.