Boilerplate disclaimer, applies to this and all future chapters: It's J.K. Rowling's sandbox, I'm just playing in it.
What this story is, in a nutshell: An AU covering Harry Potter's Hogwarts years, 1-7, with three main points of divergence. Those points:
1) Ariana survived the Grindelwald/Albus/Aberforth duel, and thus the history of Grindelwald's rise and fall is significantly different than canon.
2) Harry was born exactly one year earlier, and is thus one year ahead of his canon self - he's in the same year as Cho Chang and Katie Bell.
3) Sirius Black's trip to Azkaban was much shorter, as detailed in the prologue.
For more on the goals, mechanics, and plot points of this fic, see my profile. I share many authors' distaste for long A/Ns, so this is the compromise I came up with.
The Prologue is set about a month after Voldemort's downfall at Godric's Hollow. After that, it's all Harry Potter.
Prologue – What Secrets Cost
Sirius Black was going insane – unobtrusively. Azkaban was a quiet prison, as prisons went. The Dementors floated about, and the prisoners, chilled and sapped of animation, rarely made a sound. Every few hours the oppressive silence would be punctuated by a scream. Sirius could tell that it was different people screaming, but not who they were – the cells were too far apart, and the bars of his door looked out into a grey, dull hallway. But it was the same kind of scream every time – a bleak, raw, 'rage against the dying of the light' kind of scream. It would have unnerved him, if his mind was together enough to be unnerved.
Sirius had no idea how long he'd been there. It could have been a week, or a month, or four. His mind fumbled with disjointed images skittering in and out of focus, grasping for purchase.
"Got a few friends coming your way, Black."
Sirius looked up, trying to focus his gaze on the guard. The grizzled jailer was the only human being he'd seen in… his mind flinched away from that particular realization. The man, all heavy jowls and beady eyes, shoved a rough-hewn wooden bowl filled with something unidentifiable and grey through the bars of the cage.
"Friends?" asked Sirius, his voice alien to his own ears, raspy and thin. For a second, he felt a swell of something. He means… James? For a second, his mind mercifully muted his recent past, and warm memories bubbled to the surface. Hogwarts. Gryffindor. Quidditch. Pranks. Feasts, sneaking, girls, classes, corridors – and just like that, it evaporated like a breath in winter. The Dementors took anything warm, in the end. And one more name rose to the surface.
Sirius choked back a scream as his brain shifted gears and quite rudely dumped him into the present.
"Reckon it'll be a nice little Death Eater reunion for you," said the guard, his mouth twisting into a sneer.
Sirius was in the process of forming a question when he heard a noise coming from down the hall. A cacophony of shouts, a staccato bang of curses, and one high, piercing laugh that he'd recognize anywhere. The group that came down the hall was large – a handful of guards ferrying four prisoners at wandpoint. Barty Crouch Jr. and the Lestrange brothers were going quietly – Barty, because he was limp and shaking, Rabastan and Rodolphus because they were clinging to their high-handed pureblood detachment for all it was worth. But it was taking three guards to subdue Bellatrix. Sirius's cousin looked a bit the worse for wear, her hair tangled into a rat's nest, and her black robes torn and tattered. When she saw Sirius, she locked eyes with him, threw back her head, and cackled.
"I said shut up, you stupid bint!" One of the guards jabbed his wand into Bellatrix's back, and with a flash of light, she stumbled to the ground. Her eyes never left Sirius's face as they dragged her past his cell, and she never stopped laughing.
"That's another four Death Eaters locked away," said the jailor with a hint of satisfaction. The man peered down the hallway to follow the progress of the new prisoners, then his beady eyes snapped back to Sirius. "Finish that right quick, or I'll come in and take it from you. I don't have all day."
Sirius started eating mechanically, idly considering a retort – the guard, in fact, did have all day. The human presence at Azkaban was a skeleton staff of low men on the Department of Magical Law Enforcement totem pole. Sorry excuse for a wizard probably really would come in here and take my bowl instead of using his wand, thought Sirius sourly. He can probably barely transfigure a teacup. He shuddered at the cold as he ate. Then again, considering the Dementors, he really doesn't need to.
"What did they do?" asked Sirius, gesturing down the hall with his spoon.
"They're Death Eaters," said the guard, his voice finally betraying an emotion, tightly controlled, as his face crumpled in rage. "Isn't that enough?"
Sirius could easily read the tapestry of pain and loss on the guard's face. It was a look he'd seen often enough in the years since the war started. With a slow shake of his head, Sirius pushed up the sleeve of his rags and bared his left forearm.
"No, you're worse, aren't you? Didn't even take the Mark. You were a spy. A traitor." The guard spat at Sirius, the wet glob landing in his lanky black hair. The guard jerked his finger over his shoulder, gesturing at the retreating group of new prisoners. "At least those pieces of human garbage were honest about it. Death Eaters to the bitter end. Went after the Longbottoms even after You-Know-Who fell to the Boy Who Lived and the Ministry started rounding up all of his blasted followers."
Sirius jolted himself out of his slouch. "What did you say?" he whispered. "The Longbottoms? Are they…?"
The guard sneered at him. "You'll be happy to know your cousin held them under the Cruciatus Curse for three hours looking for information on Voldemort and trying to get them to give up Harry Potter's location. They're at St Mungo's, and they're probably never getting out." He grinned savagely. "But they never broke. Bloody heroes, they are. Imagine what would have happened if those four had gotten to the Potter boy. Wrecked your coming out party, didn't he?" The guard's grin became feral.
Sirius weakly pushed the wooden bowl across the floor with his leg, his appetite gone. The guard reached through the bars and scooped up the bowl, and with a last, vicious look at Sirius, walked away. Sirius didn't even register his absence, his brain locked in a kind of spiral. Frank. Alice. The oppressive weight of the Dementors helped him on his way, until he couldn't stop picturing Bellatrix laughing and Alice screaming, and Frank's unresponsive eyes, and James's broken body, and Lily's auburn hair fanned out on the floor by the crib, and Harry crying…
The spiral stopped. It wasn't a happy thought, but it wasn't negative, and the Dementors couldn't take it from him. Harry. Harry is alive. My godson is alive. James and Lily's son is alive. Harry needs my help.
He held on to those thoughts like a hot ember against his heart, and though it tore at him, he remembered, and repeated his new, all-consuming goal like a mantra.
Sirius waited until nightfall. The Dementors never left, of course, but the guards slept. It wasn't like they needed to really guard anything. The Dementors took care of that. When he judged it close to midnight, he closed his eyes and transformed. It didn't come easy, and his very bones ached, and he whimpered pathetically as he sunk into his dog form, but he did it. He squeezed himself through the bars of the cell – however long he'd been there, a few scoops of gruel a day had left him emaciated – and padded down the hallway. He didn't remember his trip to Azkaban – everything from his confrontation with Peter to waking up in his cell was a hazy blur tinged with a desperate, furious chaos – but he figured that all else being equal, he'd head downward and see where that led him.
Finding his way out of the prison turned out to be simple. He loped out the main gate, right past two Dementors whose skeletal hands reached out, searching, clawing, but not truly sensing. He picked up speed and ran through the small, dingy graveyard and down to the craggy rocks of the beach, not even breaking stride as he plunged into the water.
The ocean was black and cold as death. His body rebelled against the terrible shock, but he forced his limbs into a jerky doggy paddle. He had no idea how far away the English coast was, or how long he'd last in the water, but he was beyond caring. He would swim until he couldn't swim any longer. And if the ocean swallowed him up, well, that wouldn't be so bad.
It had been a bad month for Remus Lupin. One moment they'd been at war, but happy. He had his friends, who were like his family, and it was dangerous for everyone but they were fighting back. The next moment, James and Peter were dead and Sirius was a traitor, a murderer, and in Azkaban for life. The three people he cared about most in the world were gone in one fell swoop.
Ever since that black Halloween, the wizarding world had been rocked by cataclysmic shifts. Dozens of Death Eaters rounded up in the wake of Voldemort's defeat. Dozens more shaking off the chains of the Imperius Curse at long last – or pretending to. Ministry workers reassigned, businesses reopening. The Order was gone, disbanded. And Remus Lupin somehow fell through the cracks. He was lost at sea. For the life of him, he couldn't figure out what to do. He wandered around his small flat and walked the streets of Muggle London waiting for his grief to make itself understandable to him.
He finally started sobbing one day over a t-shirt that James had gotten him for his birthday. It was black and red, and it had a picture of a grinning wolf with its tongue out. The caption under the picture said Werewolves Do It Monthly. He watched himself, as if from outside his body, gripping the shirt and soaking it with tears and he almost laughed at the absurdity of it.
James had gotten that shirt for him when he turned seventeen. That was three years ago. Remus Lupin was twenty years old and felt much, much older.
News of the attack on the Longbottoms, Sirius's escape from Azkaban, and the balled-up note all hit him at approximately the same time. Remus was sitting on the front steps of his flat, bravely chasing back the winter chill with a nice cup of tea, when a delivery own dropped a copy of the Daily Prophet in his lap. He stuck five Knuts in the owl's pouch, and then unrolled the paper only to find his former best friend's face splashed across the front page.
Below the fold were pictures of the Longbottoms. Remus's eyes scanned the page, his tea long forgotten, his hands clenching the newspaper in anger. He was just working himself into a good, old-fashioned murderous rage when the balled up piece of parchment hit him in the face. He blinked as it softly fell into his lap, only to magically smooth itself out, slide up his arm, and fold itself into his sleeve.
In less than a second, Remus was on his feet, wand out. The spell was one James had invented so the Gryffindor quartet could pass notes in class. Only two living people knew it, now, and if Remus had his way, soon there would be just one.
"SIRIUS!" he bellowed, his anger overriding good sense as he charged into the street, looking around wildly. "Come for me too, have you? Want to make a clean sweep of it? Come on, then, and try me! I promise, I'll put you down like the traitorous mongrel you are!"
He was breathing heavily as he spun in a circle, trying to look everywhere at once. After a few seconds it was clear that his ex-best friend wasn't going to make an appearance, and Remus retreated back to the steps of his flat. His anger had simmered down to a dull roar, and was being replaced with a healthy dose of guilt. The Prophet had emphasized the unprecedented nature of Sirius's escape from Azkaban, noting that not a single wizard or witch had escaped the island prison in the last hundred years. The article went on to almost gleefully theorize about what kind of Dark powers Sirius possessed, and how dangerous he might be to the average family.
Good for them. Now that Voldemort's been gone a month, they were running out of ways to scare people. I'm sure this will drum up some business, thought Remus sardonically.
The twisted smile slipped off his face. The paper also speculated about the exact means Sirius had used to escape, each theory more wild than the next.
Remus was pretty sure he knew how Sirius had done it.
He'd thought about coming clean a month ago when Sirius was tossed into Azkaban. Even written the letter to his former Headmaster. But he couldn't do it. Telling Dumbledore that Sirius was an Animagus meant admitting that Remus had betrayed Dumbldore's trust in letting him come to Hogwarts. It meant telling the person who'd opened the doors of Europe's most prestigious magical school to a werewolf that instead of keeping himself safe during the full moon, he'd been roaming the halls at night, putting children at risk because he was so selfishly happy to have real friends.
The piece of parchment in his sleeve rustled against his forearm, poking him, breaking him out of his reverie. He slowly drew it out and unrolled it. The handwriting was a familiar scrawl, and the words did nothing to help his fragile emotional control.
It wasn't me. I convinced Prongs to switch at the last second. I thought it was clever. Wormtail was the Secret-Keeper. I went after him, he got the drop on me, blew up the street and transformed. At least I think he did. I was pretty out of it. I woke up in Azkaban. If there was a trial, I don't remember it.
I escaped when I heard what happened to Frank and Alice. I'm not asking you to trust me – James and I didn't trust you enough to tell you about the switch. Couldn't be sure it wasn't you leaking information to Voldemort. Knew it had to be someone close. Sorry about that. Never thought Peter had the stones for it.
Look, I can't prove anything I'm saying. But if even a tiny shred of you believes me, then I trust you figure out a way I can convince you. I'll be honest, I feel about as smart as a flobberworm right now. Reckon an extended stay at Chateau Azkaban has that effect on people. But just like always, I'm going to jump into trouble and count on my friend to get me out of it.
I'll be at the place in the Forest where we used to howl at the moon. I'd say 'come alone', but I'm in no position to be setting terms.
If you show up with a Hit Wizard squad I'll try not to hold it against you.
Remus clenched the letter in his fist and closed his eyes.
It seemed his month of depression and inaction was about to end… one way or another.
Sirius paced back and forth on the bare rock. The clearing in the Forbidden Forest was unremarkable except for the several-meter wide stone, perfectly circular and almost white, buried in the ground. They'd found it in fifth year, when the novelty of their new Animagus forms was enough and they'd simply romped around the Forest, exploring. Remus had thought the rock must have been magical because of its unnatural symmetry, and they'd even sneaked out of the castle during the day to go back and test it, but they'd never found evidence that it was more than a rock.
Even if it wasn't magical, it did make a fairly excellent spot to pose dramatically during a full moon and let loose a wolf and/or dog howl.
The wind clattered through the branches of the leafless trees surrounding the clearing. Winter in Scotland had never been pleasant. Sirius drew his rags closer to his body, shuddering. He absently flicked his stolen wand, re-casting the Warming Charm around his body, though it helped little. The wand was a poor match, but it was better than nothing and he'd been lucky to nick it at all.
Sirius heard a low, muffled crack behind him, and he whirled around, managing to spot the outline of three figures before he was knocked off his feet by a brilliant, blinding white light.
He hit the rock hard, and spat out a mouthful of blood as he rose and slowly raised his hands, shaking the spots from his vision until he could make out the three people in front of him.
Albus Dumbledore looked as serene and implacable as ever, his majestic white beard gently swaying in the breeze. He had an unreadable but calm look on his face as he pointed his wand unwaveringly at Sirius. Belatedly, he realized that his own pilfered wand was resting comfortably in Albus's off-hand.
Remus Lupin was staring at Sirius with a look of such raw emotion and pain that it was all he could do not to rush over to him and embrace him in a manly hug.
The third man…
"What's he doing here?" asked Sirius, scowling.
Severus Snape regarded Sirius with his customary sneer, supremely unconcerned, his wand not even in his hand, looking, thought Sirius viciously, like he was a child hiding behind Dumbledore's robes.
"You asked me to figure out a way to believe you," said Remus, his voice cool and his face rearranging itself into a semblance of controlled detachment. "This is the way."
Sirius took an unconscious step back as Snape stepped forward, his hand plunging into his robes and coming up with a bottle of clear liquid.
"I'm not drinking anything from him," said Sirius, almost petulantly.
Dumbledore lowered his wand. "If you wish us to believe your rather incredible tale, we will require some proof as to the veracity of your claims."
"He wants to poison me," said Sirius, pointing at Snape.
"How perceptive," said Snape in that silky smooth voice. Sirius had forgotten how much the greasy git rubbed him the wrong way. "If you are responsible for the crimes you're accused of, as I'm quite sure that you are, it will be my very great pleasure to make sure your death is a painful one."
Sirius blinked. He'd never known Snape to particularly care for innocent lives, and certainly not the lives of Muggles. He'd hated James with a passion, and given their rather public falling out, he wasn't likely to have shed any tears for his one-time friend Lily Evans. The Order had him high on their list of suspected Death Eaters. So why was Snape looking at Sirius, who at this point was suspected of being everything Snape aspired to – like he'd strangled his puppy?
Sirius turned to Remus. "You trust him? After everything?"
Remus hesitated. "I trust Dumbledore. Dumbledore trusts him."
Snape swept forward and unscrewed the vial. "Enough of this. We're not the ones on trial here, Black. Drink, or you will be forced to."
Sirius looked at Dumbledore, who had stayed back, unmoving and impassive. "It's not reliable, you know. Veritaserum can be resisted. You must know that was part of Auror training."
"As the former Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot, I do have a passing familiarity with the Auror department," said Dumbledore. "However, this particular batch was made by Severus himself, who, though you may find a trifle challenging to get along with, is a rather excellent Potions master."
Sirius hesitated as Snape held out a dropper well away from his body, as if he found the very concept of standing near Sirius to be distasteful. "I just want to make sure you've considered all the angles," he said. "When I tell you the truth, I want you to believe me."
Dumbledore nodded, stroking his beard. "Talented as you may be, Sirius, the combination of the potion along with my own observations will be sufficient, I believe. I am," he continued modestly, "a rather skilled Legilimens, after all."
Sirius took a deep breath, prepared to take the potion, but then pulled up short. "Did you say former Chief Warlock? What exactly – "
Dumbledore waved his hand dismissively. "As fascinating a story as my abrupt dismissal from the Wizengamot is, I'm afraid it must wait until you tell your own tale, Sirius "
Sirius huffed. "Fine, let's get this over with." He stuck out his tongue at Snape, who distastefully but carefully measured out three drops of Veritaserum onto it. All three men watched closely as Sirius closed his mouth and swallowed.
Immediately, he felt the potion's tendrils hook into his mind, wrapping around his thoughts and closing off all paths but the truth. He suppressed his instinctual response and let the effusive feeling of calm acceptance wash over him.
Dumbledore scrutinized him for a few long moments, then nodded to Remus.
Remus took a deep breath. "What is your name?"
Sirius felt the words flow from his lips. "Sirius Lycoris Black the Third."
Snape laughed. "What a perfectly ridiculous name."
Remus paid no attention and continued his questions. "From where did your middle name originate?"
"My great-aunt Lycoris Black," said Sirius.
"And why aren't you fond of that name?" asked Remus
Sirius bit his tongue, but the potion had him in its grip. "Because my cousin Narcissa dressed me up in girl's clothes and made me call myself Lycoris."
Snape looked like Christmas had come early.
Dumbledore stroked his beard again, his eyes merry. "I believe that proves the potion's efficacy. I do not believe Sirius would reveal that information in Severus's presence of his own volition." His merriment fell away and he regarded Sirius soberly. "Were you the Secret-Keeper for James and Lily Potter?"
"No," said Sirius clearly and evenly.
Dumbledore leaned forward, very intent on Sirius. "Why did you choose to keep this information to yourself?"
At this, Sirius tensed up. He couldn't fight the potion completely, but he could be a bit…choosy when the question was as broad as that. "We wanted everyone to think that I was the Secret-Keeper. We knew someone was leaking information, so only the people involved in the ruse knew about it."
Snape pounced on that like a bat on a mosquito. "He's lying, Dumbledore! I can tell."
"Not lying, Severus," said Dumbledore calmly. "Merely telling only a portion of the truth. Sirius, why didn't you tell me the plan?"
Sirius felt the truth spill from his lips. "James didn't trust you, Albus. Something happened after you told them to go into hiding. They never told me what it was, but they learned something, and after that they were very careful around you. I asked James about it once, and he told me that it had something to do with why they went into hiding. Whatever reason you gave them for why you thought Voldemort was after them, they found out that you'd lied about it, or held something back, or deliberately twisted the truth, something like that."
Dumbledore had a pensive, faraway look in his eyes. "I see. That makes things… complicated."
Remus stepped forward and fixed Sirius with a piercing stare, ignoring Dumbledore. "How did you escape Azkaban?"
"They didn't feed me well. I transformed into Padfoot and I was skinny enough to fit through the bars. The Dementors couldn't find me. I swam to the coast."
"Why did you escape?"
"I saw them bring in Bellatrix and her friends. Heard what happened to Frank and Alice. Knew I had to protect Harry."
Remus studied Sirius for several long seconds. Then he turned to Dumbledore. "I believe him. I think he's telling the truth. Give him the antidote."
Dumbledore was still looking into the middle distance, and it took a moment for Remus's words to register. "I concur, Remus. Severus, please give Sirius the antidote."
Snape stepped forward, but Sirius waved him off. "No need. It's worn off enough that I can fight it." He regarded Snape, looking at him frankly. "Your hair isn't greasy at all, and I really, really respect you." He grinned toothily.
Dumbledore coughed politely, perhaps covering a smile as Snape glowered. Sirius ignored them and turned to Remus, a hopeful, almost shy grin on his face. "So you really believe me?"
"I believe you," said Remus.
They stepped forward as one and embraced, clutching each other tightly. "Sorry," they both muttered at the same instant.
As they parted, Sirius found that his voice was a bit hoarse as he cleared his throat and squared his shoulders. "So now that that's over with, how about some answers?"
Dumbledore still seemed distracted by something, but at Sirius's words, he shook his head, clearing out the cobwebs, and nodded decisively. "Yes. Perhaps that would be best. We have much to discuss, and much to plan, and little time to do it. I suggest we all make ourselves comfortable."
Sirius was about to interject that he couldn't exactly get comfortable while shivering against the wind on a slab of rock in the Forbidden Forest, but his words died in his throat as Dumbledore lazily waved his wand and the sound of the wind was muted down to a low rustling, while at the same time the air around them heated itself all the way up to comfortable. With a sharp flick of his wand, Dumbledore conjured four squashy chintz armchairs. He was sitting down before he even finished the wand motion, settling into the chair without even confirming its existence. Even with so many other pressing concerns, Sirius couldn't help but admire Dumbledore's casual mastery of magic.
"So," said Sirius as he plopped himself down on a chair. "Former Chief Warlock? Just how long have I been in Azkaban?"
"Thirty-six…hmm," Dumbledore snapped open his pocket watch, glancing at the bizarre configuration of planets and multitude of hands. "Thirty-seven days."
Sirius shuddered. "Felt longer."
"Indeed. Azkaban is a terrible place, and I am sincerely sorry that you suffered it unjustly." Dumbledore snapped his watch closed, forestalling Sirius's objection. "And before you ask, Sirius, I had nothing to do with your lack of trial. The Council of Magical Law has, under the leadership of Bartemius Crouch, taken sole responsibility for all Death Eater trials. The Department of Magical Law Enforcement has been rather…ardent…in their pursuit of justice, and given my reputation, I felt it wise not to oppose Bartemius."
"Anything less than full-throated support of the Ministry hasn't been tolerated this last month," said Remus. "People are feeling very patriotic now that we've won. Although, with Crouch's son exposed as a Death Eater, it's all shot to hell again. I honestly don't know how people are going to take that."
"As if it matters," said Snape, waving his hand contemptuously. "The Ministry will no doubt reorganize itself into a fascinating new configuration of the same mediocrity and incompetence. Crouch is nothing."
"On the contrary," said Dumbledore quietly, "Bartemius is a man of strong conviction, and though the Minister's position is beyond his reach now, he is not a man to be written off. If and when Voldemort returns, he has the potential to be a powerful ally, or a difficult roadblock."
Sirius's knuckles went white as he clutched the armchair. "He's not dead, then? I heard a few rumors in Azkaban, but nothing concrete."
Remus shifted nervously. "Everyone's acting like he's dead, but no one's really confirming it. People talk about him being gone, or defeated, or banished. But no one's actually saying he's dead. The one thing that's generally agreed upon is that they didn't find a body."
Sirius turned to Dumbledore for confirmation.
"Indeed," said Dumbledore. He arched an eyebrow at Sirius. "Though, from my understanding, it was you who was 'first on the scene,' as the Muggles would say. You didn't by chance notice a very dead Lord Voldemort, did you?"
Sirius closed his eyes, flashes of memory assaulting his senses. He hadn't heard from Peter in a few days, and he'd felt unsettled. He'd known right away that something was wrong when he'd gone to the Potters and hadn't felt that characteristic dragging sensation of Apparating through a Fidelius Charm. The images from inside the house would be imprinted in his mind forever. James had died violently, his body battered and bloody, but it was Lily who would haunt Sirius's nightmares. She was there, in that ruined room, splayed out on the floor, not a mark on her, little Harry's crying a flood on his senses. Her expression was terrible to behold. Her last moments frozen on her face – fear, rage, fierce love. Her eyes were wide open.
He'd picked up Harry, knelt over Lily, looked around the room, and…
"There was no body," said Sirius, his voice shaking a little. "It was just…just Lily and Harry."
Dumbledore raised an eyebrow. "Not even a wand? A pile of robes, perhaps?"
Sirius shook his head. "No, nothing. I was pretty shaken up, and the nursery looked like someone tossed an overpowered bombarda into the south wall, but I would have noticed anything that looked like Voldemort's remains. There was a lot of magic, though. The air was practically saturated with it. I didn't have time to delve into that, though. Harry was crying, and bleeding…" At this, he hesitated.
Dumbledore took his meaning. "I assure you, Sirius, Harry is quite safe."
Sirius relaxed, but not all the way. "Good. But… what happened, Albus? After I escaped, I snuck into a pub in Dover, figured I could nick a wand. Thought it would be easier to try on someone who was already three sheets to the wind. And then I heard some people toasting Harry Potter. Saying how he'd beat You-Know-Who." Sirius shook his head, his long, dark hair falling into his face. "Is my godson a folk hero at age one?"
Remus winced. "Hagrid wasn't very discreet. He told the Hit Wizards who showed up at the Potters after you'd left, and then a pub full of people later that night, and it kind of snowballed from there. It's common knowledge. I doubt there's a wizard in Great Britain who hasn't heard the story."
"But what is the story?" said Sirius, blinking rapidly. He was feeling foggy, and things weren't adding up for him, but he couldn't tell how much of that was the situation and how much the aftereffects of Azkaban.
"It's pretty vague," said Remus, shrugging. "Voldemort went to the Potters, killed James and Lily, turned his wand on Harry, and somehow couldn't kill him. The curse backfired."
Sirius gaped. "And people just accept that? That makes sense to people?"
"People are fools," said Snape waspishly. "They'll not look too hard at their good fortune. They'd believe the Potter child was a time-traveling Merlin if it meant the Dark Lord was gone."
"But he is not gone," said Dumbledore, his quiet voice nonetheless commanding attention. "And there is at least one Death Eater free and striving for his return. I'm afraid what Sirius saw proves that."
"Proves it how?" asked Sirius.
"There was powerful magic at work that night," said Dumbledore grimly. "Old magic. We may never know for certain exactly why young Harry survived, but Lily's death was no accident; she chose it, and her sacrifice proved to be a truly powerful protection. The Killing Curse did indeed backfire – instead of leaving the body and destroying the soul, it did the opposite. Voldemort's body was destroyed, but his soul remains. He lingers, even now, with less presence and ability to affect the world than the most pitiful spirit, but here nonetheless."
Remus looked thoughtful, and Snape wore a hooded, guarded look. "But… how is that possible?" asked Sirius. "If Voldemort's body was destroyed, how can he still be around? How can the soul exist without the body?"
"How indeed?" said Dumbledore. That faraway, pensive look was back. "I fear the answer to that question may be of some importance in the future, and rather sooner than we'd wish. The Dark Marks on the captured Death Eaters tell us that. Faded, yes, but not collapsed. The Mark is a complex bit of soul magic. Tom always had a knack for such things." Dumbledore lapsed into a wistful silence.
Sirius licked his lips. Dumbledore was being cagey. "Albus. What do you know? You must have some reason to believe he's not dead beyond what you've said. You wouldn't base your reasoning on how faded a tattoo is. Not just that, anyway. You know something else. You have to."
"I know many things, Sirius," said Dumbledore, his hands clasped in front of him. "But despite rumors to the contrary, I am not even slightly omniscient."
Sirius slumped despondently. "Please, Albus. Think of what secrets have just cost us."
There was something in Sirius's voice that made Dumbledore look at him, then. A steady, calculating gaze that seemed to take the measure of him, deep down.
"You are quite right, Sirius," said Dumbledore, and Snape stirred in his chair, looking like he might interrupt, but Dumbledore's next words quieted him down. "I must beg your forgiveness, however. Some secrets are not mine to tell. Suffice to say that I believe quite strongly that Voldemort will rise again, that he will seek Harry Potter's death again, and that we must do all in our power to oppose him."
Something about Dumbledore's words tickled at the back of Sirius's mind, but his overtaxed brain was unable to make the connection.
Sirius was on the verge of protesting, but Remus leaned forward and shook his head, catching Sirius's eye. Now is not the time, said his unspoken look. The werewolf turned to Dumbledore and asked, "You said something about there being a Death Eater trying to bring him back?"
"Indeed," said Dumbledore. He stood up, lazily banishing the chair, and began pacing. Sirius was immediately reminded of the many Order meetings he'd attended, Dumbledore thinking out loud, pacing just like that. "Voldemort's missing body may be accounted for by the unique circumstances of the backfiring Killing Curse, but for his wand to be gone as well…"
"Peter," said Sirius, straightening up, his voice dropping to a monotone. "It had to be."
"That was my conclusion as well," said Dumbledore. "And I fear tracking him down will be quite challenging, especially given the revelation of his Animagus form."
"He probably ran to the nearest master that would take him," said Sirius nastily. "We should check the Malfoys. He's probably licking Lucius's boot as we speak."
"The Malfoys have been exonerated, Black," said Snape. "Unwilling victims of the Imperius Curse. Did no one bother to tell you while you were chained up?"
"Unwilling my saggy left – " Sirius was quickly Silenced by Dumbledore with a quick flick of his wand.
"I suggest we keep this discussion civil," he said mildly.
"Pettigrew would find a cold welcome with the Malfoys, in any case," said Snape, clearly enjoying the furious but silent looks Sirius was giving him, combined with a few violent hand gestures conveying something anatomically impossible. "The Dark Lord's former followers are very…displeased… with the one whom they view as being responsible for his downfall."
"So he ran," said Remus, looking out into the Forest, the hundreds of dark trees swaying in the muted breeze. "He could be anywhere by now. Absolutely anywhere."
"It is imperative that we find him, nonetheless," said Dumbledore. "Even such a relatively unassuming wizard as Peter Pettigrew would be a powerful ally given sufficient commitment."
"Which he has," said Remus grimly. "There's nothing else left for him now." He leaned forward in his chair. "It's going to have to be Sirius and me, isn't it?"
"Don't be absurd," said Snape, scoffing. "A werewolf and an escaped convict, traipsing around Europe looking for a rat?"
"I hate to agree with Snivellus," said Sirius, finally breaking through the Silencing Charm, "but he's right. It sounds like the start of a bad joke."
"No, it has to be," said Remus, lost in thought. "Sirius, you missed a lot. The Order's all but disbanded. James and Lily gone, Frank and Alice…" he trailed off, looking down.
"I heard about that," said Sirius, a glum look crossing his face. He looked up at Dumbledore. "Is there really no hope?"
"There is always hope," said Dumbledore. "Alas, in this case I fear that hope will be in vain."
"You could have just said no," muttered Sirius.
"It's an old man's privilege to dispense inscrutable wisdom," said Dumbledore mildly.
Sirius was opening his mouth for a rejoinder, but Remus cut him off. "Sirius, they kicked him out of the Wizengamot. And it's six to five and pick 'em whether or not he's still Headmaster by this time tomorrow."
Sirius blinked, completely nonplussed. "What? Who…? I mean, why…?"
"Articulate as always, Black," said Snape.
"When the Aurors got to the Longbottoms, they swept the house for clues trying to track down the people responsible," said Remus. "Obviously they succeeded, but they found something else, too. Alice's diary." Dumbledore sighed heavily, and stopped pacing. Remus looked up at him almost nervously, but continued. "She was always a little leery of some of what the Order did. She was a good soldier, always went along with it, but she kept a diary that was very critical of some of the Order's more… ethically pragmatic actions."
Sirius's overtaxed mind whirled as he flashed back to the darkest days of the war. The Order hadn't always had the luxury of playing nice. He scratched his unkempt beard. "Let me guess. That dust-up in Wakefield?"
"And the altercation with the goblins in Ashford," said Remus grimly. "But what really made a dog's dinner of it was Alice ranting about that absolute cock-up in Glasgow."
"Bad business, that," said Sirius, looking down. And it had been. The fog hadn't helped, or the dark, or the fact that they'd gotten their wires crossed somewhere along the way and ended up in a three-way pitched battle with Death Eaters and Aurors.
"Yes, it was," said Remus. "And it looked worse from the outside. The Aurors didn't know we were there for Jugson, so when we nabbed him it looked like we were helping the Death Eaters escape. Doge covering our retreat certainly didn't help; he wasn't too picky who he cursed. And we did leave the Aurors there, and not all of them made it back, including a close friend of Alice's."
"Jugson had information we believed vital to the war effort," said Dumbledore, who stood still as a statue, his hands clasped behind his back, looking up at the sky. "Information that directly led to preventing dozens of deaths."
"I know that, and you know that, but most people don't know that," said Sirius. "You have to admit, there are a couple sides to this. And now that the public knows Alice's side…" he trailed off.
"They seem quite unwilling to forgive and forget," said Dumbledore. "An altogether unsurprising development, considering my role in Gellert's rise and fall. I had hoped that my years of faithful public service might have restored some of my rather tarnished reputation, but it was not to be. Alice's diary had some scathing words for Minister Bagnold's handling of the Auror Office as well, and though nothing is certain at this point, the Minister may be forced out of office as well. She and I have never had the most pleasant working relationship, and I fear her attitude at this point is decidedly of the 'if I'm going down, I'm taking you with me,' nature. In the past few days, she's been the architect of a series of articles calling for my dismissal from my various positions."
"That's…a big deal," said Sirius, trying to process the idea of a Wizarding Britain without Albus Dumbledore.
"Again, your mastery of the English language astounds me, Black," said Snape. "With Dumbledore effectively cut out of the government, and more likely than not gone from Hogwarts, the consequences will be far-reaching and unknowable."
Dumbledore turned around, his gaze intense. "Which is why we must move quickly. Sirius, you and Remus must track down Peter, starting tonight, if possible. The longer you dally, the colder the trail gets. Logically, starting the search in England makes the most sense, and as Severus pointed out, England may well soon be out of my sphere of influence."
Caught up in his energy, Sirius stood, as did the others, and Dumbledore banished the rest of the armchairs.
"Not that I think it's a good idea," said Remus cautiously as he stood up, "but is Severus coming with us?"
"Absolutely not," said Sirius and Snape at the same time. They each turned and shot each other a scowl.
"Severus is needed elsewhere," said Dumbledore. "One of my final acts as Headmaster may have been his appointment as the new professor of Potions."
"Well, that sucks for Potions," muttered Sirius.
Snape looked all set to counter that with a sneer and a cutting comment, but Dumbledore swept into motion. "Let us return to Hogsmeade. My brother can provide the two of you with provisions, as well as a safe place to stay the night."
Sirius raised an eyebrow. "Aberforth still owns the Hog's Head? I thought he gave that up when he started teaching."
"Keeping his inn was one of several rather…unique… conditions that my brother insisted on before he took the Care of Magical Creatures position," said Dumbledore distractedly as he looked Sirius over. "Remus, perhaps you should Side-Along Sirius to Hogsmeade. You look a bit worse for wear, Sirius."
Remus nodded, moving to take Sirius's arm, but Sirius again stopped them with a word. "Harry. Where is he?"
"Safe," replied Dumbledore, his voice betraying a hint of impatience. "As I said."
"Let me try that again, Albus," said Sirius. He seemed to shed his tiredness as he stood up straight. "Where is my godson? Because I'm not going anywhere until I'm sure he's okay. If tracking Peter is that important, I'll do it, and until I can clear my name I can't exactly raise him as an escaped convict, but I will do everything in my power to make sure he's safe and happy."
Dumbledore seemed to study Sirius for a moment. "I placed Harry with the only family he has left," he said at last. "Lily's sister Petunia and her husband will raise the boy."
"No!" Sirius and Snape shot each other a look as they spoke at the same time once again, surprised and almost offended by their mutual agreement.
"How could you do that?" said Sirius, aghast. "Lily's sister is a horrid woman. James told me all about her. She's not fit to raise a houseplant, much less James's son."
"The Dursleys are thoroughly Muggle and quite unpleasant, but they are Harry's last living blood relatives," said Dumbledore amicably, quite calm in the face of Sirius's obvious fury and Snape's subtler, cold rage.
"Petunia is more than merely unpleasant, Headmaster," said Snape. "She's a foul, noxious woman of limited intelligence and limitless pettiness."
"What do you care, anyway?" asked Sirius, twisting to fix Snape with a suspicious glare.
"I don't, Black," snapped Snape. "The brat could be raised by wolves, for all I care. I was merely expressing my opinion of Petunia."
Abruptly, Sirius noticed that Snape was not his usual cold, sneering self. He had those elements, to be sure, but his emotions were much closer to the surface than usual, and behind his icy demeanor, there was a hint of something…raw. An open wound.
"Regardless of Petunia's character," said Dumbledore, raising his hands in a placating gesture, "young Harry must reside in her home. The protection against Voldemort that Lily's sacrifice engendered was blood magic. Familial magic. As such, it lives on in Petunia. Her taking Harry into her home, however reluctantly, sealed the charm I placed upon him. While he calls that place home, it is the safest in the world for him."
"From Voldemort, maybe," said Sirius, turning away from his contemplation of Snape's odd behavior to growl at Dumbledore. "Not from being raised by a vicious, horse-faced shrew and her fat, loudmouth husband."
"Would you rather I had placed him with a loving family, close friends of the Potters, such as Frank and Alice?" asked Dumbledore quietly.
That was enough to bring Sirius up short. He shuddered. "Fine. I get your point. But someone has to look out for him. There's got to be some oversight, someone looking out for Harry's interests."
Dumbledore glanced speculatively at Snape. "Perhaps…"
Sirius's eyes nearly fell out of his head, and Remus looked a little ill, but it was Snape himself who reacted most strongly.
Snape laughed. It was an unhinged, bitter, ugly laugh. "Oh, yes, a splendid idea, Headmaster." He leaned over, as if talking to a child. "Hello, Potter brat, I'm Professor Snape. Magic is real. You can conjure a pretty bunny rabbit, but you can also rip the memories from someone, compel them to strangle themselves with their own intestines, make them forget their own name, give them a potion to twist their outsides into a different gender, confront them with a creature that turns into their worst nightmare, or simply kill them with a flick of the wrist and two words. It's also quite possible to make promises that will kill you if you break them, or spark a duel to the death over something you don't understand."
Dumbledore sighed. "Perhaps not."
Sirius was taking deep, calming breaths. "Definitely not."
Remus went to Sirius's side, putting a hand on his shoulder. "We all want Harry to be safe and happy. We just need to figure out a way to do that."
Sirius looked around, holding the gaze of the other three men. He was mentally and physically exhausted, half-starved, cold, and an emotional wreck. It had been a long night, and it was about to get longer. He squared his shoulders.
"I'll tell you what we're going to do."
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