SHAMELESS PLUG: Please check out my original fiction on Amazon. Strangers In Boston, by T.S. Mann


Harry Black
and the Resurrection Game


Chapter 19: New Arrivals

Theo No-Name's Room
25 October 1994

"Fourteen … fifteen … sixteen …" Theo gasped through clenched teeth as he focused on his morning pushups.

There was a soft knock on his door and two second pause before it opened. Theo was unconcerned. He'd gotten very good at protective warding spells thanks to his year spent under the Ultimate Sanction. There were only six people who could simply open that door without receiving a nasty curse in exchange, one of whom was here now.

"I'm afraid we're both skipping break… fast…" said Blaise Zabini before his voice trailed off. He stared at the sight in front of him while Theo continued his morning routine.

"Seventeen … eight … teen," he growled out.

"What in the name of Merlin's smelly feet are you doing?" Blaise asked in amazement.

"Pushups, of course … nineteen…"

"Uh-huh. Yeah, I know I'm not really into this whole exercise thing. But I was given to understand that when you do proper pushups, your feet should be planted on the ground. Or failing that, resting on something!"

And Zabini's amazement was understandable. Theo's feet were not resting on the ground or on anything else. Instead, they were suspended in the air with Theo's entire body parallel to the floor in defiance of gravity itself. Only his hands rested on the floor, and his arms strained to support the weight of his entire body.

"Wu Xi Do … twenty … Earth Style … twenty … one …" Theo explained while struggling to maintain his impossible form. "S'for improving … twenty-two … connection to the earth … twenty-three … Helps with stability …"

"Yeeeaah. Stability. You know you're not actually touching the earth, right?"

"Doesn't matter … twenty-four … it's what's underneath me … twenty … five … symbolism is what matters …"

"Uh-huh. Look, this is all very cool, albeit in a dull and seemingly pointless way. But we need to move. I suspect Harry will want to meet in the Lair in the next few minutes."

"Why … twenty … six …?" Theo managed to gasp out the question, though his arms were shaking from the strain of his exertion.

"Oh, I don't know," Blaise said airily. "Probably something to do with his mother getting arrested for murdering a Muggle."

"Oof!" Theo exclaimed as his concentration broke and he fell down face first. He rolled over and looked up at Blaise in astonishment.

"His mother did what?!"


Meanwhile in the Headmaster's Office

"Seriously?!" Lily Potter sputtered indignantly. "You think I murdered my own brother-in-law? That's ridiculous!"

"Lily, please calm down," Dumbledore said as he tried to defuse the situation. The smug expression on DMLE Director Yaxley's face wasn't helping.

"I can assure you, Lady Potter," said Yaxley. "Our evidence is compelling. That said, you are not under arrest … at this time. We are still at the stage of … inquiry."

Lily glared at the man who she knew perfectly well to be a former Death Eater. "Well, by all means, Yaxley. Inquire away. But first, I'd like to hear about this 'compelling evidence' that I somehow am responsible for the death of a morbidly obese Muggle who'd already had one heart attack just months earlier. Or do you think I'm responsible for that too?"

"We have no grounds for accusing you of the Muggle's earlier incident. But what we do have is a statement by your sister to the effect that you proudly confessed to poisoning Vernon Dursley's medications days before his eventual death."

Lily looked gobsmacked. "Petunia is accusing me? And claiming that I went to her and confessed? And then she waited almost two years before reaching out to the DMLE? My sister hates magic, but she's not ignorant of it. If she thinks I murdered Vernon, why did she wait until now to come forward with this ridiculous tale?"

"According to Mrs. Dursley, you confessed to her in order to gloat about your crime, and then you Obliviated her so that she could not expose you."

Lily blinked twice. "And why would I have done something as ridiculous as that?!"

Yaxley paused before answering. "So that you could treasure for the rest of your life the look on her face is what Mrs. Dursley claims you said."

Lily blinked a third time … and then burst into laughter. Then, she turned to Dumbledore.

"Headmaster, I know we're both Gryffindors, but have you ever known me to be that melodramatic?"

Dumbledore cleared his throat and elected to dodge that somewhat loaded question.

"Be that as it may, Director Yaxley, I must agree with Lady Potter that this all sounds a bit improbable. You say that Professor Potter poisoned Vernon Dursley and then confessed her crime to Petunia Dursley—apparently out of sheer spite—before Obliviating her. Have you considered the possibility that someone else must have Memory Charmed Petunia for purposes of slandering Lily?"

Yaxley sneered. "Of course we have! The Dursley Muggle's memories were recovered after she was given a Remembrall to handle which revealed the Obliviation, and, over the next several months, she continued to use it to fully recover the stolen memory. She is not currently under any detectable Memory Charms, and she has voluntarily submitted Pensieve copies of the memory in question. Their authenticity has already been confirmed."

At that, Lily was nonplussed. "I was not aware that Muggles could even give Pensieve memories. Or that the Ministry would give them any weight."

"I imagine not," Yaxley said with a snort. "Or else you would not have been so foolish as to have given your sister a gloating monologue."

"I did nothing of the sort!" Lily snapped, her eyes flashing a lethal shade of green.

"Lily, please calm yourself," Dumbledore said. "I promise we will get to the bottom of this. Director Yaxley, you said that you are not here to arrest Professor Potter…"

"At this time," Yaxley interrupted.

Dumbledore sighed in exasperation. "Yes, yes, but what are you here for then?"

"I have come to ask Lady Potter if she will consent to a formal examination under Veritaserum during which she will answer for these charges. Of course, I would normally just demand such an examination. But since Lady Potter managed to marry her way into an Ancient and Noble House, she cannot be compelled to give testimony under Veritaserum absent a writ issued by the Wizengamot, which will not meet again for several weeks. As a courtesy to a witch of her … standing, I am here to ask her to waive that privilege so that the investigation is not unduly delayed. But of course, in light of the evidence against her, I will not be overly surprised if she refuses to…"

"I'll do it," Lily interrupted. "I waive my privilege and demand to be questioned under Veritaserum."

At that, Yaxley was visibly surprised. "… You do?!"

"Lily, are you quite sure you wish to do this?" Dumbledore asked cautiously.

"Without question," the witch answered before fixing Yaxley with a cold glare. "Subject to certain conditions, of course."

Yaxley crooked an eyebrow. "Conditions?"

"Yes. One: The interview will be conducted here in the Headmaster's Office rather than at DMLE headquarters. Two: I will not permit a fishing expedition into the business of House Potter. Consequently, you will submit a list of questions which the Headmaster will read to me. He will ignore any questions not germane to your … inquiry. And three: Severus Snape will also be on hand, and he and the Headmaster will both examine the Veritaserum to confirm that it has not been adulterated or tampered with in any way."

The Director's eyes flashed angrily. "You would impugn the integrity of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement?!"

Lily folded her arms and smiled at Yaxley almost sweetly. "I'm not quite sure I know how to answer that question, Director. Why don't you roll up your left sleeve and ask me again!"


Just outside the Great Hall

Harry stepped away from the doorway and over to a nearby bench where he sat as he scanned the Prophet, at one point even dilating slightly so that he could read faster. He also tightened his Occlumency shields to suppress the emotions that were now washing over him. If the lead story was to be believed, Vernon Dursley's death had not been due to natural causes, nor even some magical byproduct of living with Harry and his "Muggle problem" for a decade. According to Rita Skeeter, he'd been murdered by Harry's own mother through some unholy marriage of magic and Muggle science. And then, Lily had felt the need to visit Petunia in the night and monologue about it!

"Well," Harry thought angrily. "I can see now why Lily was never a candidate for Slytherin!"

He was distracted from such musings by the sound of an angry Jim Potter drawing nearer.

"DID YOU HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH THIS, BLACK?!" the boy bellowed in a fury.

"I'm still trying to figure out what 'this' is, Potter!" Harry snapped back without looking up from the paper. "Regardless, we are not discussing it in a school corridor with half the school listening in!"

Jim continued to advance on Harry with Ron and Hermione close behind trying desperately to calm the irate boy. A dozen or so of their fellow students had followed them to the doorway as if hoping to see a duel break out. But before Jim could get close enough to start something, Neville rolled his eyes and then cast a Protego shield to separate the two. Harry and Jim both looked at him in surprise.

"Just following Lockhart's advice," he said acerbically. Meanwhile, Hermione had begun setting up a veritable array of privacy charms over the group.

Jim glared at everyone standing between him and his brother before turning back to Harry.

"Tell me the truth, Harry! Did you engineer this in order to get Mum sent to jail?"

Harry simply looked at him disdainfully, the Oath of Enmity he was under warring with the Imperius curse that still afflicted Jim to see which could antagonize the brothers the most. For his part, Harry didn't shout back. Instead, he rose from the bench, folded the Prophet, and put it away.

"I have no idea whether what's in the paper is true or not, Jim," he said coldly. "Though I plan to find out. But in the meantime, let me remind you of one little detail."

He stepped closer to the Protego shield that separated the two boys and spoke in a low angry whisper.

"As you know perfectly well, Little Brother, if I'd wanted to send one of your parents to Azkaban, I had every chance to do so last Spring with your father!"

Jim's eyes widened as he remembered the fact that Harry knew exactly who'd used the Imperius Curse against him the previous year. Then, Harry raised his chin defiantly and sneered at Jim before turning and striding away from the group. The others just watched him go, as did most of the students who were viewing the exchange from the door to the Great Hall. Most but not all; Hermione noticed with a frown that Daphne Greengrass had darted out of the Great Hall in pursuit of her fellow Slytherin.

"Harry!" the Greengrass Heir called out once they were around the corner. Harry looked back at her in annoyance.

"Now is not a good time, Daphne."

"On the contrary, Harry," she said. "This is the best time—and the only time—if you want to get in front of this story."

"What?" he asked in confusion.

"Our Houses are allied, Harry. The Greengrasses stand ready to assist you. And in case you've forgotten, our resources include Witch Weekly and its sister publications, the only print outlets in the country that can rival The Prophet for coverage. We had to bump back the article we were going to write about your successes due to everything that happened at the Quidditch World Cup. But we can easily fast track the story so that it prints in a week or two. And we can also tweak the article to address this … unpleasantness. Address it in a way that puts you in the best possible light and makes sure that none of the Potters' dirt sticks to you."

Harry studied his housemate for several seconds as if hoping his Legilimency would divine her motives (assuming they were anything more complicated than strengthening their political alliance).

"Go on," he said slowly.

Daphne grinned in satisfaction.


Ministry of Magic
The International Portkey Office
9:30 a.m.

"I still don't understand what the hell you think you're doing … sir," said Regulus Black (who belatedly remembered that he was still wearing the form of bodyguard Archie Goodwin and so owed his "employer" at least a pretense of respect).

"I think I'm greeting a VIP who will be my personal guest for the foreseeable future," Sirius replied placidly. Then, he put his hand over his mouth and breathed into it. Frowning, he reached into a pocket to produce a small spray bottle containing a solution which he spritzed into his open mouth. "Mmm. Minty."

Archie rolled his eyes. "My worry is that she'll be more than a guest, knowing you like I do!"

"Well, she is a very attractive woman," Sirius conceded.

"With seven dead husbands!"

"Yes, well, accidents do happen, I suppose."

"Sirius!"

Lord Black turned to his disguised sibling with a smirk. "The Countess Zabini's son is one of Harry's closest school friends. The Countess herself has a strong and possibly unhealthy interest in Harry, but he isn't sharing. I want to get to know her better to determine if she might be a problem."

"Well, that's fine, I suppose. So long as you don't get to know her better in the biblical sense."

"Why not?" he asked as if it was a reasonable question. "As I said: She's a very attractive woman."

"Who is ten years your senior," Archie muttered.

"Pfft. Don't be ageist, Archie. And honestly! Even if she is a Black Widow, it's not like she's going to kill me before we get married. So long as I don't propose to her, I'm sure I'll be fine."

Archie said nothing, but his glare communicated his thoughts well enough.

"Okay, okay," Sirius said with a shrug. "There is also the fact that Countess Zabini is an influential Beauxbatons alum who has scored tickets to the Welcoming Feast tonight. And as her 'plus one,' I have an excuse to go to Hogwarts and maybe talk to Harry this evening."

"What? About Skeeter's story in The Prophet? Why don't you just mirror-call Harry if you're worried about him?"

"Because you and I both know how Harry reacts when we crowd him. If I mirror-called him right now, he'd just say 'I'm fine' and shut me out again. If he wants to mirror-call me, he knows he can do so. Otherwise, I'm giving him some space and some time to process. But if I have an excuse to physically visit Hogwarts tonight, I can also find an excuse to talk in private with my Heir and find out how he's doing."

The Metamorphmagus looked at his brother in surprise. "That is shockingly mature of you!"

"I'm not sure if I should take that as an insult or not. But I've been reading some books that Dan Granger sent me on Muggle child-rearing. Apparently, he and Emma bought every book they ever came across that dealt with raising precocious children who didn't like boundaries. Can't imagine why."

"Okay, then. What do you want me to do while you're off at Hogwarts meeting with Harry while flirting shamelessly with the Black Widow?"

"Go to Flourish & Blotts and pick up a copy or two of The Fall of the House of Potter. Start looking through it to see what all it says about Harry in particular. Oh, and while you're in Diagon Alley, drop by a pet store and pick me up a couple of Crups."

Archie looked bemused. "And why exactly do you want a couple of notoriously temperamental magical yappy dogs?"

"Because I want to see if I can talk to them, of course."

Archie's look of bemusement became one of consternation. "This is about your other book, isn't it?"

Sirius grinned. The other book was the highly illegal Animagery treatise which Peter Pettigrew had slipped to Jim Potter and which had made its way into the possession of Harry and then the rest of the Azkabal. But before he could say anything else, there was a flash of light, and two figures appeared: Countess Serena Zabini and her manservant Gunther Hagrid, both of whom were touching the International Portkey (which in this instance was made from a rusty pipefitter's wrench). Gunther, in particular, was holding one end with some difficulty, as he was also supporting a large steamer trunk on one shoulder with several other pieces of luggage stacked on top of it.

The Countess stepped towards Sirius while Gunther struggled to shift the luggage without dropping anything. Sirius stepped forward as well.

"Comtesse!" he began in perfect French. "Bienvenue en Grande-Bretagne!"

"Bien le bonjour, Lord Black," Serena replied in French before switching to English marked by a cultured Italian accent. "And thank you once again for inviting me into your home."

"Well, technically, it's my Heir and godson's home," he said with a grin. "I'm just house-sitting while he's off at school."

Behind him, Archie-aka-Regulus watched as his brother flirted shamelessly with the notorious Countess Zabini and tried not to make his displeasure obvious.


The Headmaster's Office
11:00 a.m.

After the earlier and "spirited" discussion between Lily and Corban Yaxley, the DMLE Director withdrew to the Ministry along with the hit wizards who had accompanied him. But he promised to return as soon as possible with Veritaserum and a list of questions for Dumbledore to ask. Luckily, classes for the day had been cancelled so that the school could prepare for the arrival of the visiting schools and foreign dignitaries, all of whom were to arrive that afternoon in time for the evening feast. Luckily, because that saved Professor Potter from the embarrassment of announcing that Muggle Studies were cancelled for the day because the instructor was under suspicion of murdering a Muggle.

Lily took a few moments to Floo-call James, and Dumbledore gallantly stepped out of the Headmaster's Office to give them some privacy. She spent a few minutes calming down her distraught husband and reassuring him of her innocence. Not that he needed any such reassurance.

"Give me a little credit, Lily," he said. "Of course, I believe you. But you and I both know that innocence may not be enough with a Death Eater like Yaxley bringing the whole DMLE to bear against us. Do you have any idea how someone could have framed you this way? And is it even possible to murder someone the way Rita's book says?"

Lily narrowed her eyes. "What exactly does this book say? I haven't seen it yet."

"I've only skimmed it so far. The bitch had the gall to send me an autographed copy! I gather it's already on sale at Flourish & Blotts and flying off the shelves! But Lily … the things she knows about our family. About how Harry was treated by the Dursleys. About that stupid drunken Howler I sent him after his Sorting and all the legal problems it triggered. And everything is cast in the worst possible light. Especially everything involving Peter and all our money troubles. She …"

James swallowed painfully. "She implies we're unfit parents and … the Wizengamot should take custody of Jim away from us so someone 'worthy' can raise him."

Lily's eyes glinted in anger "That's not going to happen."

"Lily … Harry's political bloc has our votes, and because of that Oath of Enmity Sirius swore, they both hate us. That bloc is huge. Plus, they've shown they're willing to work with all the Death Eaters in the Selwyn bloc if need be. Add all those votes together and there's almost nothing they couldn't do."

She shook her head. "Listen to me, husband. I know Harry has to fight not to despise us. But even though he could have had you sent to Azkaban last March, he didn't. He could have let you die, but he didn't. And I don't believe he'll try to take Jim away from us. Or allow his allies to do so."

James nodded. "Okay, okay. Anyway, we were talking about how Vernon was allegedly killed. Rita says you used some kind of Transfiguration on Vernon's medications to make them poisonous but in a way that would cause them to return to normal after he died. Is that possible?"

She shrugged. "You're the Transfiguration genius, not me."

"Yeah, but you did get an O on your Transfiguration NEWT. Plus, you studied for all those Muggle science degrees. Wasn't one of them … Biochemistry or something like that?"

"It was," Lily answered. "And five points to Gryffindor for pronouncing it right this time. But I never took any classes on Pharmacology, which is the sort of science you'd need for this. And I have no idea how one might Transfigure medication in such a way that the transformation would end when the person who took the medicine died."

She looked thoughtful for a moment, but then her eyes widened.

"Whoever did this must have known about my Muggle university studies! That's why Vernon was killed in such an obscure and overcomplicated way. I mean, assuming he really was murdered and this whole thing isn't a hoax. Whoever killed him made a point of doing so in a way that only a Muggleborn with my credentials could have possibly accomplished. And then, they staged an encounter between Petunia and someone who looked like me where the fake-Lily confessed to the crime. And somehow, they tipped off Rita Skeeter. Assuming she's not in on it."

"But why would she turn on us? We've always had good relations with her."

"Not always, James. Right after we married, she was very hostile in her articles about us. But then …"

She gritted her teeth in sudden anger. "But then, Peter said he'd 'take care of her,' and after that, she gave us nothing but fawning coverage. I'd always assumed he'd threatened her with legal action, but now that we know he's a Death Eater …!"

James nodded slowly. "He might have blackmailed her into good coverage. Or something worse than blackmail. And now that he's out of the picture, she's broken her chains and is out for revenge. And she thinks whatever Peter did is our fault."

Lily nodded ruefully. "I suppose it didn't help that I treated her rather rudely over the years." She blushed slightly. "I guess I took all those 'gold-digging Muggleborn' articles a bit too personally."

"Not your fault, Lily-Flower. I took those early articles personally too at the time." He decided to change the subject. "So what about that fake-Lily? Polyjuice?"

"Maybe," she replied. "Or … could it have something to do with those foreign Metamorphmagi who were behind the Azkaban breakout? But what motive could they have to frame me for murder?"

Before James could answer, there was a soft knock on the door, and Dumbledore reentered, with Severus Snape following close behind, his face an emotionless mask.

"I apologize for intruding—and good morning to you, James—but I have received a Patronus message from the DMLE. They're ready to come through for the interview."

Lily nodded and turned back to James.

"Do you want me to come through and be there for moral support?" he asked.

"No," Lily replied. "Your presence would just antagonize Yaxley. I'll Floo-call again after we're done. And don't worry! Everything's going to be fine."

"After all," she added with a smile. "The truth is on our side."

With that, she ended the Floo connection and stepped aside. Seconds later, there was another fwoosh of green fire, and Director Yaxley passed through into the office followed by two hit wizards, a Ministry scribe, a witch who Snape recognized as an official Potions Mistress for the DMLE, and one more person who was not expected.

"Speak of the Devil," Lily thought to herself grimly, "and the Devil appears. Complete with rhinestone spectacles!"

"Good morning, all you lovely people!" exclaimed Rita Skeeter brightly. "Albus, dah-ling! So delightful to be in your charming little office once again. How long has it been?"

"Almost seven years, Rita," he said with what could certainly pass for geniality. "2 November, 1987. Which was the day I banned you permanently from the Hogwarts grounds."

"Yes, yes, it was certainly a dark day for investigative journalism." She waved her hand airily before reaching into her crocodile-skin handbag to produce a stamped Ministry document. "Happily, there are others at the Ministry who have a greater appreciation for the public's right to know. My credentials, Headmaster."

She handed over the parchment to Albus. As he read over it, his eyebrows rose in surprise.

"So … Ludo Bagman has given you a press pass to the Triwizard Tournament. And without bothering to inform me ahead of time. What marvelous initiative that shows on his part. I shall have to commend him later."

"Well, Ludo and I have always had a close professional relationship, Albus."

"I'm sure. Though I would not have thought a student academic contest would have attracted the attention of a journalist of your … pedigree."

"Nonsense, Albus! Students from three schools coming together in the pursuit of excellence and international understanding? Just think of all the human-interest stories there will be to tell. Anyway, I just happened to be visiting the DMLE offices and heard Director Yaxley would be Flooing over, so I decided to make my glorious return to my old Alma Mater a few hours early. You know, in case something interesting happened."

With that, Rita Skeeter turned and looked around the room. Her eyes landed on Lily, who was simply glaring at the other witch. Rita's face lit up in delighted surprise, as if she hadn't already been perfectly aware of Lily Potter's presence in the office.

"Lily, dah-ling! What a lovely surprise!" She gave Lily an utterly vicious smile. "How are things?"

Lily was not amused. "They'll be much better once I get this interview over with, Rita. At which point, I'll be making a serious study of the state of Wizarding laws regarding slander."

Skeeter chuckled. "Good luck with that, dearie. You should probably start by learning that slander is for spoken defamation. You're welcome to sue me for libel … if you think you're up to the challenge."

Before Lily could respond, Dumbledore interrupted.

"While your credentials seem to be in order, Rita, they entitle you to observe and report on activities and events germane to the Triwizard Tournament. As I'm sure you're quite aware, the meeting for which Director Yaxley and his associates have come has nothing to do with the Tournament, and so …"

"Say no more, Albus, say no more," Rita said loftily while putting a delicate but well-manicured hand over her heart. Her scarlet nail polish popped against her green satiny dress fringed in black hair from some shaggy animal.

"I only came along with the Director," she continued, "because, well, one never knows where a good story might be found. Buuut if this meeting is confidential, I shall leave you all to your little inquiry and take a stroll around the grounds in advance of the Durmstrang and Beauxbatons arrivals. Perhaps scout out some good locations for my cameraman. Honestly, poor Bozo wouldn't remember to take the lens cap off if I weren't there to remind him."

With that, Rita Skeeter turned gracefully and headed towards the door, pausing briefly to address Lily.

"Until we meet again, Lily. I doubt it will be very long."

"Well," replied Lily, "hope does spring eternal."

Rita sniffed. But then, she noticed Severus Snape standing next to Lily while bearing an impassive expression. She looked him up and down.

"Mmm. I do love a man in black." And with that, the muckracking journalist left the office. Dumbledore just shook his head.

"Enchantingly nasty as ever." Then, he turned his attention to Yaxley. "Shall we begin?

After nearly twenty minutes spent haggling over which questions were appropriate for the "informal interview," Yaxley finally produced the Veritaserum and grudgingly turned it over for review. Snape, Dumbledore, and Lily herself spent a few moments examining the potion to confirm that it had not been tampered with and was the standard formula. Lily took her seat, and the DMLE Potions Mistress administered three drops of the truth potion onto her tongue. Almost instantly, Lily's eyes glazed over. After the court scribe set up an enchanted quill to dictate the questions and answers, Dumbledore asked a number of baseline questions to confirm the serum's effectiveness (understandably, he did not ask Lily to give the address of her family's current residence even though Yaxley had wanted it) before starting in earnest.

Did you intentionally bring about the death of Vernon Dursley?

No.

Did you encourage or induce anyone else to bring about the death of Vernon Dursley?

No.

When was the last time you saw Vernon Dursley?

31 October 1992. The day of his funeral. I saw him in his casket.

[At this point, Yaxley asked for a clarifying question, and after some discussion, Dumbledore conceded the point.]

When was the last time you saw Vernon Dursley alive?

1 September 1991. The day we picked up Harry to take him to Kings Cross. We did not speak to one another.

When was the last time you saw Petunia Dursley?

31 October 1992. The day of Vernon's funeral.

And prior to the funeral?

1 September 1991. The day we picked up Harry to take him to Kings Cross. We had a brief exchange but nothing more.

[At this point, Yaxley and Dumbledore argued for several minutes about the substance of the "brief exchange" before a compromise was reached.]

At any point in time, did you ever tell Petunia Dursley or insinuate to her in any way that you caused the death of Vernon Dursley?

No.

Do you have any idea why Petunia Dursley might have verified memories of you claiming to have murdered Vernon Dursley?

No. I assume someone is trying to frame me. Either through Polyjuice or Metamorphmagery.

[Brief discussion between Yaxley and Dumbledore.]

What NEWTs did you sit and what grades did you achieve?

Ancient Runes, Arithmancy, Astronomy, Care of Magical Creatures, Charms, Defense Against the Dark Arts, Herbology, Muggle Studies, Potions, and Transfiguration. All Outstanding, except for Muggle Studies in which I earned an Acceptable.

[Several seconds of silence before one of the hit wizards interrupted with a question.]

You're the Muggle Studies teacher and a Muggleborn! How did you only get an Acceptable in Muggle Studies?!

Because I answered all the questions accurately instead of quoting the erroneous information taught in the class.

[A brief interruption as Dumbledore admonished the observers that only he is permitted to ask questions of the witness.]

What advanced Muggle degrees do you possess?

I hold Bachelor of Science degrees in Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics, and Physics from the University of Manchester and a Master of Science degree in Biochemistry from St. Andrews.

[Brief discussion between Yaxley, Dumbledore, Snape and one of the hit wizards (who was a Halfblood with a Muggleborn parent) regarding the meaning of the terms used in the previous answer.]

Based on your knowledge of magic and Muggle science, do you believe it is possible to Transfigure medications into harmful substances which will then return to their original form upon the death of whoever takes them?

Anything is possible with magic, I suppose. But I've never heard of anyone doing that. Perhaps the Unspeakables might know.

[Audible growling from Yaxley.]

Do you personally know of any techniques for achieving such a Transfiguration?

No.

Where were you on the night of 18 October 1992?

I was at Hogwarts all day and all that night. I did not leave Hogwarts for any reason after that until the day of Vernon's funeral.

With the approved questions completed, Dumbledore leaned back in his chair.

"Well, that seems to be everything in order. I trust you are fully satis…"

Suddenly, Yaxley (who had grown increasingly frustrated with Lily's denials) barked out a question of his own.

"ARE YOU AN OCCLUMENS!?"

Lily drew a breath to respond, but before she could utter a word, Dumbledore hit her with a wandless, wordless Silencing Charm.

"Director Yaxley," Dumbledore said in a very cold voice. "That question was not on the approved list, and for good reason. It is forbidden to ask someone under Veritaserum whether they are an Occlumens. As you should well know, I expect, given how thoroughly the matter was litigated during your own treason trial in November of 1981!"

Yaxley glared at the older wizard, but he knew Dumbledore was right. Less than a year after the introduction of Veritaserum, the Wizengamot passed a law forbidding the use of the potion to question a person about their own Occlumency skills. The reasoning behind the law was that if a witness admitted under Veritaserum to knowing any Occlumency, their testimony could be disregarded at trial regardless of its actual truthfulness. If the answer was no, on the other hand, it could mean that either the person knew no Occlumency at all or that the person was actually a good enough Occlumens to lie about it (or any other topic) while under the truth potion. Thus, even a negative response in the hands of a skillful barrister might be used to attack the credibility of a witness who had actually testified truthfully under Veritaserum.

The fact that the Wizengamot members who pushed the strongest for this prohibition were all widely believed to have connections to criminal organizations was seldom addressed in the official legal commentaries.

In short order, the Potions Mistress gave Lily the antidote, while the scribe certified the transcript and then generated copies for Dumbledore and Lily. The Ministry contingent exited through the Floo, and after a few minutes of small talk with the Headmaster, Lily left for her private rooms. Once inside, she exhaled deeply and ran her fingers through her hair, letting the morning's tension drain somewhat. Now that Yaxley's nonsense was over, she would freshen up a bit before contacting James to let him know everything had gone well.

But before she could move an inch, the door suddenly burst open with a loud bang. Severus Snape strode into her room without knocking (and, to her surprise and annoyance, blasting through her normal locking Charms with ease). He slammed the door shut and put up no less than six anti-eavesdropping Charms on the door and the nearby windows, followed by a Muffliato, before finally addressing the witch with an expression of outrage and disbelief.

"Jesus Fucking Christ, Lily!" he finally snapped.

The witch was taken aback as much by Snape's profanity as by his anger. She remembered that when they were children, long before Hogwarts, he had explained to her that wizards had a strong taboo about taking the Lord's name in vain. Or for that matter, that of Jesus, Mary, Mohammed and the Prophets, or even Zeus or Odin or any other Muggle deities.

"Even an atheist wizard," Severus had said when they were both nine years old, "knows that, for someone with Magic, gods don't have to be real to answer our prayers. Whether you want them to or not."

"What is it, Sev?" she asked aloud.

"What is it? What is it? You are actually going to stand there and continue to feign your innocence of what you did?!"

"You don't believe me?!" Lily asked angrily. "Even after I answered every question under Veritaserum?!"

"DON'T LIE!" he bellowed in a rage. "Even if you choose to lie to yourself, Lily Potter, never think that you can lie to me!"

He began to pace about, albeit with some difficulty as the radius of the Muffliato Charm did not leave much room for it.

"That last question asked if you were an Occlumens, Lily. Dumbledore silenced you before you could answer and then began to argue with Yaxley and the others. But I watched you. I saw your lips move and I know what you would have said aloud had you been able to: 'No, I am not an Occlumens.'"

"Well, I'm not!" Lily exclaimed. "I've never even touched an Occlumency book!"

"Don't …!" Snape stopped suddenly and then studied the woman's face intently. Then, he rubbed his hand across his face and sighed in resignation.

"I see. It is pointless to argue with you or berate you because you don't know, and I don't know the trigger to remind you. Assuming, of course, that you haven't somehow permanently Obliviated yourself of the knowledge. Merlin knows that if anyone could master something as Gryffindorishly foolish as targeted self-Obliviation through independent study, it would be you!"

Lily stared at him in confusion, and after a moment, he continued in a calmer voice.

"Lily, at the time of our quarrel at the end of Fifth Year, you were already a strong Level 3 Occlumens. We both were. And you were eager to resume our studies over the summer because you saw it as a competition and wanted to master Level 4 before me. Level 4—in case you don't recall—is the level at which it is possible to develop secondary personalities and shift memories around in order to fool Veritaserum. A level you obviously reached since I just saw you lie about having never been an Occlumens at all!"

She stared at him, open-mouthed. Then, slowly, she sat down in a nearby chair in a state of shock.

"So … you're saying I murdered my brother-in-law, presumably in revenge for how he mistreated Harry all those years? And then, I made a point of telling Petunia all about it before Obliviating her? And apparently myself as well? Waitaminute, I don't even know how to Obliviate people!"

Snape groaned. "Which is only further evidence that you have, in fact, erased your own memories of incriminating facts. Because I taught you the Memory Charm in December of 1975. It was … well, it was my Christmas present for you since I could not have afforded to give you any actual presents. I learned …"

He paused midsentence. "I learned it … from another Slytherin," he finally finished, while hoping she wouldn't press the issue.

More specifically, Mulciber had taught him the Memory Charm in exchange for the Potion Snape provided him that he would later misuse so horribly against Mary McDonald, one of Lily's closest friends, albeit one who'd never disguised her disdain for "that greasy snake." Not that Snape had any interest in exploring that topic with Lily at this late date.

"Merlin," he thought to himself, "we've always been casually cruel to those we think have wronged us, haven't we."

"But what would be the point of giving Petunia an 'evil villainess monologue' and then erasing both our memories?!" Lily asked in frustration.

"I'm not even going to guess what the point of it would have been, and no Slytherin would conceive of doing such a thing. In any case, I doubt you erased your own memories at that time. More likely, you had a contingent trigger in place that would lock away those memories and also your knowledge of your own status as an Occlumens and your knowledge of how to Transfigure medicines into undetectable poisons if you were ever in danger of being questioned under Veritaserum or otherwise in danger of exposure."

Lily flinched at Snape's casual suggestion that she really was a murderess. "And that's … something an Occlumens can do?"

"I have five contingency triggers that I am aware of," Snape said by way of answer, "plus an undetermined number of triggers that I don't recall putting into place but which will activate automatically under the appropriate circumstances. I assume I installed them during my time as a spy on the Death Eaters."

"You have triggers to alter your own memories and personality and don't know what they are?! That's horrible!"

The man snorted. "Presumably your true self disagreed as she seems to have done the same thing."

She shook her head in a daze. "I still can't believe it. I can't believe I would do something like that."

"Neither can I. Honestly, monologuing? It would have been the perfect crime if you'd simply not said anything to Petunia."

"Sev!"

Despite everything that had happened, Snape could not resist a wry chuckle. "Tell me, Lily. Now that you know the truth, even if you still do not consciously remember it … do you regret Vernon's death?"

She looked away and said nothing for a long moment.

"I don't know. I mean …doxies, Severus! A few dozen of them, according to the Auror report. Do you remember how I described them when we first saw them in Kettleburn's class? Tinkerbell crossbred with a piranha. And Vernon Dursley threw my son into a swarm of them to die. If it really was me that killed him …?"

She paused while trying to analyze her own feelings. "I'm … not sorry he's dead. But still, I can't imagine that I would ever be the one to murder him in cold blood."

Severus watched his oldest friend in silence. There was so much that he wished to say. Lily did not presently even remember committing the crime, but she still knew enough to not regret doing so. What would she say if she knew that Vernon himself was innocent in that he had been compelled to mistreat Harry because of the boy's mysterious "Muggle problem"? Even if he weren't bound by oaths, Snape saw no upside to sharing that information with Lily now. But perhaps there was one thing he could—and should—share, for better or worse.

"Harry thinks Vernon's death was his fault," he said quietly.

"What?!" she exclaimed.

"Harry believes—or at least did believe until today, I suppose—that Vernon died of a heart attack. But deep down, he thinks that the man's death was directly connected to his earlier heart attack from the evening the Doxies attacked the Dursley residence. Doxies which were apparently sent there as part of a magical attempt to kill Harry. Harry believes that the incident was simply the straw that broke the camel's back after years of the Muggle's stress and agitation due to simply having a magical child in his home. He never expressly told me this, but I know the boy well. Since the day he learned of Vernon Dursley's death, Harry has wrongly thought that it was all his fault."

Lily's bottom lip trembled slightly. "Why did you choose to reveal that to me?"

"Because you are his mother. And I truly think you do love him after a fashion. Perhaps not in the way you love Jim, but I know you do love Harry. And yet … nearly everything you have ever done for Harry has only hurt him instead. I tell you this … because I hope that your noble Gryffindor instincts don't hurt him even more."

With that, Snape turned, dismissed the protective spells, and reached for the door handle.

"Are you going to tell … anyone?" Lily asked softly.

Severus paused with his fingertips resting on the brass door handle. "No," he finally said. "Not unless something changes. Something that affects Harry."

Then, he turned back to look at his first friend once more.

"But Merlin's bones, Lily … I wish you hadn't done it."

And then, he left. Lily stared at the door, occasionally reaching up to wipe away tears shed over a crime she didn't remember committing. Then, she went to her lavatory and cleaned up her face before leaving the room to Floo-call her husband and tell him what happened during the interview. She did not know when or if she would tell him the rest, but if so, it would not be today via a Floo-call.

As the door closed behind her, the room sat empty and silent for almost a minute. Then, there was a soft buzz as a large green beetle slowly crawled out of its hiding space underneath the chair where Lily had been sitting. The beetle fluttered its wings in excitement for a few seconds before taking wing and leaving the room through a crack in the window.


Moments later, an emotionally drained Severus Snape returned to his own quarters. After closing the door, he leaned back against it with his eyes closed as he committed everything that had just happened, everything he'd said and done and felt, to memory. Then, his brow furrowed as an unexpected idea came to him. He pulled out his wand and pointed it at nothing in particular.

"EXPECTO PATRONUM."

A silvery mist shot forth and flew about the room. But instead of manifesting as a delicate silver doe identical to Lily's Patronus (his doe's name was Desirée, while Lily's was Faline), the silver mist instead sprouted a pair of jagged wings. The Patronus flapped around the room before landing on a nearby table and spreading its wings wide. They were deeply impressive if menacing wings, with a span of more than five feet. Quite appropriate for a flying fox, the largest genus of bat in the world. The enormous bat stared at Snape with beady eyes and then opened its mouth (the needly teeth were visible even in Patronus form) and hissed at its creator.

"Well," Snape said aloud to no one. "That's … something at least."


Later that day …

Almost instantly, the news had spread across Hogwarts that Lily Potter had successfully denied the accusations against her under Veritaserum, which only served to raise more questions. Questions ranging from "Who is trying to frame Lily Potter?" to "How did that dirty Mudblood manage to fool Veritaserum?" depending on who was asking.

Harry knew more about the interview than most students, though he still had plenty of questions. In his first major application of his power as Prince to direct enchanted snakes to spy on others in the castle, he had decided to go "Gryffindor bold" and send a tiny portrait grass snake named Siobhan to slither unobtrusively into a portrait of Phineas Nigellus Black hanging in Dumbledore's office. Phineas Nigellus had been a Slytherin, and Lucius had suggested that he might be less likely to object to a strange snake showing up in his own portrait, though neither Lucius nor Regulus had ever been bold enough to try spying on Dumbledore in his own office.

While not a perfect transcript by any means, the grass snake was able to convey the gist of the questions asked and the answers Lily provided. Harry was perturbed by Yaxley's question about Occlumency, and even more so by the fact that no audible answer was given. On the bright side, it was good to know that the Ministry would never be allowed to ask him about his own Occlumency under a truth ;potion. But even setting aside the possibility that Harry's birth mother might actually be a murderess who concealed her crimes through Occlumency, it was sobering for Harry to realize that Lily might also be a better Occlumens than him and still make the same kind of irrational and emotional decisions that she made on a regular basis.

"Against Gryffindor tendencies," he mused to himself, "even Magic struggles in vain."

At lunch, the Great Hall was awash in petty gossip. Jim had to be physically restrained from punching Cormac McLaggen after the older boy asked with his usual directness: "Listen, Potter, everyone's talking but no one knows anything. Did your Mum kill that Muggle bloke or what?"

Meanwhile, Harry received an owl at lunch from Hestia Jones informing him that Artie had also read the Prophet and advised him to say nothing to anyone. Podmore & Associates would be issuing a press release later in the day which, among other details, would remind the press that even though Harry was emancipated, he was still a minor for many purposes, including how damages might be assessed against anyone who defamed him or who invaded his privacy. All media inquiries regarding Lord Wilkes were to be addressed to his solicitor. While sound advice, Harry thought it might be difficult to follow in light of just how many copies of The Fall of the House of Potter had been delivered to the Great Hall. Daphne had actually ordered two and quietly given one to Harry. He thanked her and then handed his copy off to Blaise who was an accomplished speed-reader.

Immediately after lunch, Harry knocked on the door of Snape's private quarters. Snape opened the door and gave Harry a jaundiced look. Harry opened his mouth but abruptly closed it again. Finally, he said in resignation: "You're not going to tell me anything helpful, are you." It was not a question.

Snape just stared at the boy impassively, which was an answer in and of itself.

"I am not at liberty to discuss my views on the accusations against your mother," he finally said, "except to confirm that she did deny under Veritaserum playing any role in Vernon Dursley's death." He paused and grimaced. "That said, while I have no authority to order you to do so, I strongly encourage you to meet with Healer Tonks for guidance in how to best to deal with any … emotions you may be feeling as a result of this …"

"Circus, sir?" Harry finished.

"I was going to say trauma."

Harry shrugged as if he'd not considered that aspect of it. "I'll find time this afternoon to speak with Healer Tonks."

Snape nodded, and Harry turned and left. He hadn't lied. He'd been assigned to inform Draco Malfoy upon his arrival that the boy's father had chopped his own arm off the night before to evade a curse levied by one of Voldemort's Horcruxes. And Harry thought it might be wise to do so in the presence of someone else so who could both be trusted with the Azkabal's secrets and also likely to give some concrete information about Lucius Malfoy's current health and prognosis. As an added bonus, Healer Tonks would be able to administer first aid if Draco hexed Harry for leaving his father unattended long enough for the Gaunt Ring to get a piece of him.


Later still ...

The arrival of the visitors was almost enough to distract the student body from the emerging scandal, though personally, Harry found their modes of travel to be somewhat pedestrian by magical standards. The Durmstrang contingent came in a large boat that arose from the depths of the Black Lake like some ghostly sunken pirate ship that had somehow been modified into a submarine. The uniforms worn by the Durmstrang students, male and female, were very brown: brown trousers and brown tunics (cinched at the waist with a leather belt in a slightly darker shade of brown), long brown coats with brown fur trim and, in a few cases, brown furred hats. Draco had referred to them as Ushenko hats in one of his letters and said that they were very warm in the winter months.

Most of the males had buzzcut hairstyles, including Krum, but a few had longer styles. Draco apparently managed to avoid getting a buzzcut, but it was hard to tell under the hat. The girls mostly had tightly braided hair or else ponytails. The whole ensemble was very martial in character, bordering on sinister, albeit in a somewhat rustic way and not at all what Harry would have expected Draco Malfoy to be wearing. Unlike the other two schools, these uniforms were gender neutral. Harry wondered how many of the British students from more traditional families were scandalized by the trousers worn by the Durmstrang girls. After studying the group for a moment, he focused his attention on the ones he actually recognized: Draco, Viktor Krum, and Alexander Nott (Theo No-Name's "sort of" brother), who all stood close to Headmaster Igor Karkaroff, a wizard so surrounded with a miasma of "Look at me! I am a dark wizard!" that he could hardly be named anything but Igor.

The Beauxbatons students, meanwhile, arrived in a very large and ornate gilded carriage drawn by eight winged Abraxan stallions. For the Beauxbatons girls, the uniform consisted of fashionable baby blue dresses with pointed hats. The boys, on the other hand, wore blue V-neck jumpers, striped blue neckties, and pin-striped jackets (dark blue with baby blue stripes and the Beauxbatons crest on the pocket). Black trousers completed the look. Harry only knew one Beauxbatons student, but he was eventually able to pick her out of the crowd: Fleur Delacour. Surprisingly, the young witch almost blended into the background. She wore noticeably less makeup than most of her peers, and compared to her chattering fellow students, she seemed reserved bordering on shy.

Which, of course, was not the impression of Fleur Delacour that Harry had gotten from their brief encounter in Marseilles the previous summer. He made a spot for "look into Fleur Delacour" on his to-do list, but after the last few days, he could slot it in no higher than tenth at best. Stealing Harry's attention away from the mysterious Delacour was the Beauxbatons Headmistress, Olympe Maxime, who was easily the tallest woman Harry had ever seen. She looked to be almost as tall as Hagrid, though far more sophisticated in clothing choice and bearing.

Dumbledore greeted the two Headmasters warmly, and surprisingly so, as Harry knew for a fact that Karkaroff was a former Death Eater. That fact was confirmed by Harry's built-in Dark Mark detector. As soon as Karkaroff got within about fifty feet, Harry heard the faint hiss from the snake tattoo on his left shoulder hidden beneath his clothes that announced the man's prior allegiance. But if Mark hadn't already warned Harry about Karkaroff's Death Eater markings, the boy might well have guessed it from the way both Snape and Alastor Moody sneered at the man. Harry assumed that the presence of a "reformed" Death Eater was the only thing that could get those two to agree on anything.

While Dumbledore made his welcoming comments, Harry made eye contact with Draco. The other boy gave the barest hint of a smile, but Harry did not smile back. Instead, he casually rubbed his left earlobe before quickly turning his attention elsewhere, thus communicating to the former Slytherin that they needed to talk immediately and in private. Draco lifted his chin slightly and then turned to whisper something to another Durmstrang student, thus relaying to Harry that his message had been received. Harry was pleased to note that even after a year at Durmstrang, the other boy had not forgotten how to communicate like a Slytherin.

Soon after, everyone made their way inside to the Great Hall. The chairs and long tables had been removed and replaced with a number of smaller tables holding hors d'oeuvres and punch bowls for an informal meet-and-greet for all the students. According to McGonagall's earlier announcement, there would also be a brief "cultural exchange," apparently featuring Durmstrang's pyromancy drill team, Beauxbaton's papillon dance ensemble (Harry gathered it involved butterflies), and Hogwarts' own frog choir, of which Neville was a proud member. Not a fan of "the arts," Harry was eager for an excuse to slip away, and once out in the corridor, he noticed that Draco had snuck out of the festivities as well.

"Interesting uniform," Harry quipped. "I was expecting something more … Prussian. Perhaps with lots of little medals on the chest."

Draco snorted softly. "It's very comfortable, actually. Ideal for being crammed into the bowels of a creaky old magic boat for fourteen hours."

As the boy spoke, he pulled off his Ushenko and shook his head. His hair was about as long as it had been at the Quidditch World Cup, but it was now slicked back into a short ponytail. Then, to Harry's surprise, Draco smiled and pulled him into a warm hug.

"It's good to see you again, my friend."

"What? It's barely been two months! And since when have you been a hugger?"

"Since I stopped being Slytherin Draco and became Bogatyr Draago. Bogatyrs are, shall we say, more in touch with their emotions than Slytherins."

Harry crooked a dubious eye. "Merlin save me from ever becoming a Bogatyr, then. At least they haven't made you shave your head or anything."

"Pfft! That? That's not school policy. We're just expected to keep ourselves neat. But Viktor likes to keep his hair very short and, well, he has fanboys. But enough of Durmstrang school fashion. What did you want to speak about?"

Harry grimaced. "Something happened last night, Draco. Something to do with …"

But then, before he could finish that sentence, Harry stopped abruptly with a surprised look on his face. He glanced down at his right hand for a second before looking around the area as if searching for something.

"Come on," he finally said. "We shouldn't talk about this here. Ted Tonks has an office near the Hospital Wing, and it's probably got the best privacy wards in the castle other than Dumbledore's."

Then, he turned and strode down the hallway, with a confused Draco following behind.


Six minutes later …

"WHAT DO YOU MEAN MY FATHER CHOPPED HIS ARM OFF?!" Draco shrieked.

Harry sighed. In retrospect, he probably shouldn't have led with that without any build-up. Idly, he wondered if his verbal misstep was because Draco's Occlumency had improved to the point that Harry could no longer read his emotional state reflexively (though obviously not yet to the point that Draco could take terrible news with aplomb). Luckily, Ted stepped in to take over.

"It is as Harry said, Draco. Professor Snape informed me of the details this morning. Your father held possession of a Horcrux sealed within an impregnable Orichalcum box, but last night, he and Harry were finally able to open it. But then, the Horcrux—in the form of a magical ring—mentally influenced your father to put it on, and it immediately infected him with a deadly curse. Andromeda is at Malfoy Manor treating him now. She theorizes that the curse was a Wasting Curse augmented by You-Know-Who's Parselmagic. She and Severus both agree that Lucius would have surely died had he not cut the infected limb off so quickly."

"Uh-huh." Draco turned angrily towards Harry. "And where were you when this was happening?"

"I had to leave the room briefly to get the Basilisk venom we needed to destroy the Ring. I was gone less than thirty seconds, which was enough time for it to influence your father into putting it on. And I suspect the Ring might have influenced me into leaving him alone with it long enough to focus all its attention on Mr. Malfoy."

"You got magically influenced by a Horcrux? You started Occlumency training as a First Year!"

"And your father is still much better at it than me, but that didn't stop the Ring from compelling him to put it on even though he knew it was likely cursed. Just like the Locket would have compelled Regulus to kill himself with a Basilisk fang and probably killed me with the sense-memory of a Doxy attack if I hadn't managed to resist long enough to destroy it first."

Draco put his face into his hands as he brought his emotions under control. "You're right, of course. It wasn't your fault."

Then, he looked up at Ted. "How is Father? Can I see him?"

"Andromeda has him in a healing coma while she follows the standard regimen of cleansing rituals. He will almost certainly be unconscious for several more hours at least. But I will speak to Headmaster Dumbledore and through him to your own Headmaster and see if we can get permission for you to visit Malfoy Manor this evening or tomorrow."

Draco nodded. "What do you think the long-term effects of this curse might be?"

Before Ted could answer, Harry leaned forward in his chair. "Actually, before we get into that, It occurs to me that we've been talking about some pretty sensitive information. Ted, can you go over the protections on this room again?"

The boy let out a weak chuckle. "You know us paranoid Slytherins. Haha."

Ted looked at Harry quizzically before shrugging and answering the question. "The room is protected by all the standard wards against external eavesdropping or illicit recording."

"Anything to stop someone from just sneaking in and listening to what's said?"

"Well not specifically beyond just magically locking the door, but …"

Before he could finish the sentence, Harry jumped out of his chair, wand already in hand, and cried out "HOMENUM REVELIO!" A wave of magic washed over the room, but to Harry's surprise, no intruders were revealed. Then, Harry pointed his wand towards the door, dilated his perceptions, and focused his Legilimency on that area, but he still detected no one. Indeed, no sign of movement or life of any kind. Just a small, insignificant flying beetle that was heading straight for a crack under the office door. Quickly, Harry opened up a second mind stream to double-check those observations, and the second mind immediately noticed what the first mind had missed: that the insignificance of the beetle was unnatural in nature!

"HOMORPHUS REVERSO!" he snarled. There was another flash of light followed by a loud expletive and a thump as the beetle transformed back into the form of Rita Skeeter just in time for her to bang her head on the door as her body dropped to the ground. Luckily for her, the Animagus had not picked up enough speed to seriously hurt herself as Peter Pettigrew had done in the Shrieking Shack the previous May, though she did rub her bruised forehead as she rolled onto her back.

"Owww!" she said in an irritated moan.

By now, Ted and Draco had both risen and drawn their own wands to point at the fallen reporter. Harry stepped forward with his wand still trained on the woman.

"Rita Skeeter. Star reporter for the Daily Prophet and author of The Fall of the House of Potter. So lovely to meet you again."

Rita patted her blonde curls into shape as best she could without a mirror and then smiled up at Harry.

"Likewise, Lord Wilkes. And if I may say so—Congratulations! You are by far the youngest man to ever put me flat on my back."

Then, she held up a hand as if she actually expected one of the males in the room to help her up off the floor. Harry rolled his eyes and then gestured with his wand in a silent Wingardium Leviosa. Instantly, the witch was lifted up off the ground and put back on her feet.

"Thank you, Lord Wilkes," she said as she took a moment to adjust her dress and brush off any dust from her spill on the floor. "So very gallant of you."

"Whatever. So … you're an Animagus."

"Obviously," she answered with a self-satisfied expression.

"And an illegal one at that," Ted added.

"Well, I'm a reporter, not a lawyer. I suppose that's for others to decide."

"Like the DMLE?" Draco asked harshly.

Skeeter chuckled but didn't take the bait. Meanwhile, Harry looked at her curiously.

"But there's more to it than illegal Animagery, isn't there? I mean, insects are small and unobtrusive for the most part, but you're very stealthy for what looks to me to be a bright green and unusually large beetle."

"Rude!" she said as if offended the boy had made some cheeky comment about her weight. But then, she tapped the side of her rhinestone glasses.

"Illegal beetle Animagus and also a reasonably talented Ravenclaw, darling. An Animagus's clothing transforms with the Animagus's body and becomes a part of the animal form. These glasses, aside from being très chic, also carry a special targeted Notice-Me-Not variant. One that's only triggered while I'm in my other form and which projects a constant message of 'pay no attention to that big green beetle flitting about' to anyone who does happen to spot me. Good enough to fool even most Revelios. Your psychic powers must be very well-developed to have seen through it so quickly."

Her smile suddenly became somewhat predatory. "But then, you've always been a bit of an overachiever, haven't you?"

Harry said nothing. In fact, he thought his Occlumency might well have failed against Rita's defense had he not known for certain that there was an Animagus inside the room somewhere near the door thanks to the enchantment built into his Lord's Ring and backed by the collective power of the Wizengamot. Then, an angry Draco spoke up.

"Enough of this … flirting, if you please. How much did you hear about what we were talking about, Skeeter?"

"It doesn't matter what she heard," Ted said authoritatively. "As I was about to say before this … intrusion, part of my privacy wards includes an invocation of the Healer's Oath that can be used to protect confidential discussions touching on medical matters to any degree. The fact that part of our discussions involved your father's injury was enough to trigger the invocation which also acts as a nonconsensual oath binding everyone who hears us, whether they voluntarily submitted or not and regardless of whether the conversation strays into non-medical matters! Miss Skeeter cannot reveal anything she learned from our discussions or else she will be marked as an oath-breaker."

Harry looked sharply at the Healer. "Waitaminute. All we need to do in order to protect our secrets is to meet in here and make a point of asking for a headache remedy as part of the conversation?"

Ted thought for a moment. "Pretty much, at least to the extent that a secrecy oath can bind anyone. It's nonconsensual so there might be some loopholes if you're clever enough. But the oath only works in this room, and only if I'm present to activate it."

"Good to know," Harry muttered.

"Yes, very interesting," Skeeter said blandly. "Out of curiosity, does that work both ways? After all, you only learned about my Animagus form in the course of this conversation about poor Lord Malfoy's tragic injury and the treatment he is receiving … if you don't mind me bringing things back around to your original medical-themed topic. Can I assume you all are also bound against revealing my little secret?"

Ted opened his mouth to respond but then snapped it shut again as he considered the question. Harry took that to mean the answer was yes.

"We may not be able to reveal what we learned about you in here, Miss Skeeter," Harry said threateningly. "But I'll wager that the oath doesn't cover anything we learn outside this room that confirms what we already know about your secret."

She laughed gaily. "Harry, Harry, Harry … You don't mind if I call you Harry, do you?"

"Yes, I do actually."

"Anyway, Harry, there's no need for us to be antagonistic. I'm on your side in all this."

"On my side?!" the boy nearly spluttered. "You just published a book that exposed some of my deepest and most personal secrets!"

"And obviously, you haven't read it, or else you would know that you come out of it smelling like roses dipped in Amortentia! I addressed your time with those filthy Muggles with the utmost respect and sensitivity and praised you for how you overcame those traumas to become the truly admirable young man you are today! My real focus was on the parents who abandoned you to that tragic fate. Which, of course, is the same tack that your friends at the Witch Weekly publications are going to take as well, so perhaps we should coordinate. I believe the Muggles call it synergy."

"What do you know about that?" Harry asked cautiously. "Witch Weekly, not … synergy or whatever."

"Oh, merely what I was able to read half-an-hour ago in a letter that the Greengrass Heiress was writing to her mother while a certain 'small and unobtrusive beetle' was perched delicately on her shoulder. Anyway, since you managed to finagle away all the Potters' money and their home, I assume you are not opposed to the idea of revenge against them. And speaking of which, forcing Lily and James Potter to move into the very home where you were abused?"

Skeeter actually gave a chef's kiss at the idea.

"Thanks," said Harry sarcastically.

"Excuse me," interrupted Healer Tonks testily. "If your goal is revenge against the Potters for … something, why in Merlin's name did you go after my wife and I? What did we ever do to you?"

She looked at him in confusion for a moment before remembering the borderline slanderous accusations she'd made about the Tonks family in the aftermath of the 1993 werewolf attack on Hogsmeade.

"Oh, that … Sorry?" Rita apologized with a bare minimum of sincerity. "I mean, honestly, I have nothing at all against you or your family. That was all Pettigrew."

"Pettigrew? What about him?" Harry asked before the familiar whirr-click of a Legilimency deduction provided the answer.

"Wait, never mind. He was blackmailing you, wasn't he?" the boy said, answering his own question. "That's why your coverage of the Potters went from hostile to fawning back in the early '80s."

Rita snorted contemptuously. "I'd be offended by the word fawning if it weren't perfectly accurate. Yes, the filthy little rat was blackmailing me into covering not just the Potters but a number of stories according to his needs. That included a number of stories insinuating that you, Harry, were a future dark wizard, so my apology extends to you as well."

"So Pettigrew knew about your Animagery?" asked Draco.

"He knew about my secrets, and that's all I'll say about that. But I've recovered what Pettigrew had on me and am free of his control. I assure you, Healer Tonks, I have nothing against you or your family. I suspect he was worried that the Hogsmeade attack might be traced back to him, so he told me to stir up public anger against you, your family, and Theo No-Name as a way of clouding the issue. If you want, I'll make it up to you with a puff piece about your new role as Hogwarts counselor or something like that."

"I'll be sure and let my wife know," Ted snapped. "Perhaps then she'll stop plotting to kill you with Manticore venom."

"But you do have something against the Potters, right?" asked Harry, who was trying to keep everyone on point. "Otherwise, Pettigrew wouldn't have needed to blackmail you to stop bad coverage of them. And your book is a way of getting revenge against them for what Pettigrew did!"

"Well, I'm certainly not a fan of either of them, but I like to think it's less about revenge than it is about civic responsibility."

"Excuse me?!" spat Harry.

"Just that. You all know as well as I that Jim Potter is the Savior of Wizarding Britain, the one who saved us from You-Know-Who and who is fated to do so again if the Dark Lord returns. And yet, for the last thirteen years, he's been raised by an arrogant buffoon and a gold-digging psychopath, both of whom were content to appoint a Death Eater as Jim's godfather and then to turn over effective control of an Ancient & Noble House to that same Death Eater. With the end result that poor Jim is now an emotionally damaged teenager who lives during the summer among Muggles. And in utter poverty, no less!"

Harry narrowed his eyes. "You're trying to damage the Potters enough for them to lose custody of Jim? That'll never happen! Who else could even get custody of him?"

"Well, you, silly!" she said almost mischievously. "Jim will be living at Hogwarts until next June. I have until then to utterly ruin James and Lily Potter. Then, you can prevail upon your godfather to rescind the Oath of Enmity that causes you to feel an unnatural dislike for your twin. Once your parents are out of the picture, custody of Jim will naturally pass to his closest blood relative … who just happens to be his recently emancipated multi-millionaire older brother! It's perfect! You two will reconcile and Jim will even be able to get his old room back at Potter Manor! And I'll have pictures of you two in a warm brotherly embrace on the front page of The Prophet!"

"I'm not going to stand by and let you destroy the Potters just to enhance your book sales!" Harry exclaimed angrily.

"Oh, Harry …!"

"Lord Wilkes to you!" he snapped. Rita just smiled condescendingly.

"Harry," she said with authority. "You're not going to fight me on this because … you owe me."

"For what? Exposing my crappy childhood just to further ruin my birth parents?!"

"No, Harry, darling," she said with a look of serene confidence. "You owe me because, even though it would have been the story of the century, I have thus far not told a single solitary soul that Regulus Black is still alive and is a Metamorphmagus posing as Lord Black's bodyguard. Or that Bellatrix Black is also still alive but is innocent of being a Death Eater and is living in Australia under a false identity. Or, indeed, any of the other exciting and outrageous details I've learned about the Azkaban breakout or the Dark Lord's Horcruxes!"

The three wizards just stared at her in open-mouthed amazement and horror.

"By the way," she added, "who came up with Azkabal? Because that. Is. Brilliant! When I finally do publish, that's going to be part of the title. Secrets of the Azkabal! I can hardly wait!"

"HOW?!" Harry shouted in consternation.

"Hmm, well let's see. First, I have a small and unobtrusive Animagus form. Second, I am very skilled at Notice-Me-Not Charms. And third—and most important, I think—I am a very good reporter with a very good instinct for digging out the truth."


29 August 1993
The Office of Chief Auror James Potter
(about fourteen months earlier)

"But why would American Muggle-born wizards want to break Death Eaters out of Azkaban?" Potter asked in confusion.

Buck shrugged. "Who can tell with the Americans? To gain access to dark magic from You-Know-Who's stash, maybe? Or perhaps revenge of relatives murdered by Death Eaters?"

"Well, maybe Mr. Cato can tell us. Now that we know he's probably a shapeshifter too, it's time we brought him in for questioning." James rose from his desk to send out a squad of aurors.

"No doubt," Buck said as he distractedly waved away a small bug that had been fluttering around his face. "And, um, while you're taking care of your business, I need to take care of mine, so to speak. Can you direct me to the nearest loo?"

James laughed. "Certainly. It's down the corridor. First door on the left."

Buck thanked Potter for the directions and made his way to the men's room. Once inside, he checked to make sure he was alone before locking the door. Then, he pulled out his wand and pointed it at the floor, his face a mask of pure annoyance. "EXPECTO PATRONUM," he whispered angrily.

Though Buck had not noticed, the bug he'd waved aside in Potter's office had followed him all the way into the men's loo before landing atop one of the stalls to watch. She'd been in a position to see Buck McMillan's face once his back was to Potter and the other Aurors, and she noticed as his mask of "amiable Australian hick" had swiftly melted away to reveal a much cannier expression. Her suspicions were confirmed by the message he'd given the Patronus to carry:

"Burn the Cato identity. Now! It's been made by the British Aurors. And then, come see me tonight at the Leaky Cauldron, Room 4 at 10 o'clock. And for Merlin's sake, try to be discreet for once in your miserable Pureblood idiot life!"

Later that night, when "Rusty White" finally arrived at Buck McMillan's room and (after a punch to the face) told the retired Auror everything about Azkaban, about Sirius Black, and about the Dark Lord's Horcruxes, that same beetle was hiding quietly under a dresser taking mental notes. If beetles had lips and teeth, this one's grin would have stretched from antenna to antenna.


Now ...

"You've been surveilling our conspiracy for over a year?!" Draco exclaimed.

"Off and on," she replied easily. "I paid a contact who works at the Leaky Cauldron and who has a good Patronus to keep an eye on McMillan and to let me know instantly if he left for any reason or if he had any visitors. Consequently, I was on hand when he was visited last Christmas by an emotionally distraught and very drunk Regulus Black who was upset from learning about the incident involving Sirius Black, Severus Snape, and that werewolf during their school days. I almost followed them through the Floo to Longbottom Manor, but I was concerned that a house elf attuned to the Longbottom wards might have spotted me. But I did manage to spy on McMillan and Regulus a few more times and learned about the plan to smuggle poor brainwashed Bellatrix to Australia for a new life. And when McMillan returned for the Quidditch World Cup with an 18-year-old apprentice named Delphini White in tow, it wasn't hard to figure out her true identity, especially when the werewolves attacked, and a young chit of a girl suddenly started annihilating them with a few of Miss Demeanor's signature spells! Quite obvious, don't you think?"

"But you haven't told anyone yet?" Harry asked in a tight voice. "Why? To blackmail us the way Pettigrew blackmailed you?"

"Well certainly not the way that bastard blackmailed me, but the less said about that the better. No, Harry, darling. I have kept your secrets this far for one simple reason."

As she spoke, Rita pulled her wand out of a concealed fold of her sleeve, totally unconcerned about the three men still pointing their own wands at her. She waved the wand to summon her handbag from wherever it had been hidden, and from it, she produced a mirror and levitated in front of her face. And then, the reporter proceeded to fix her make-up and reapply her lipstick while continuing her explanation.

"The simple fact, gentlemen, is that I am a newshound. A gossipmonger. A muckraker. The Sorting Hat put me into Ravenclaw not because I love knowledge, but because I love secrets. Finding them, collecting them, and eventually, exposing them for fun and profit. I love using my quill pen to puncture the arrogant, to punish the guilty, and to exalt the virtuous. I love having the people's adulation for the stories I write, stories that can bring down a government and have done so from time to time. And above all, I love getting paid handsomely for it, enough to live a life of luxury and style that captures the imagination of my adoring fans."

By that point, she'd finished reapplying her make-up, and with a flick of her wand, the mirror and lipstick floated back into the clutch bag. She turned back to Harry and regarded him with a suddenly serious expression.

"People like me, Harry, do not come to happy ends under brutal fascist dictatorships!"

Then, she smiled once more as if to dispel any thoughts of whatever unhappy end she'd been contemplating.

"And so, darlings, you may reassure your fellow Azkabal members that they have nothing to fear from Rita Skeeter … so long as Rita Skeeter has nothing to fear from any of you. Live and let live shall be our motto. I wish you all the best of luck in your heroic endeavors. Indeed, if the price is right, I'm even willing to help you in any way that I can. With, of course, the understanding that, when all is said and done and the last of You-Know-Who's Horcruxes is destroyed, I will be the one to publish all those secrets the Azkabal has been keeping and reveal you all as the great unsung heroes of our time. And all for the low-low price of 4 Galleons, 10 Sickles a copy, available at Flourish & Blotts and other fine bookstores."

She turned and put a hand on the door before looking back over her shoulder.

"Naturally, you will want to tell your compatriots about this, and, except for the secret of my animal form, I give you permission to do so. Should you wish to reach out to me for my assistance or to further discuss the terms of our arrangement, I'll be staying at the Three Broomsticks for the foreseeable future. I would prefer that you send either Regulus Black or Severus Snape to meet with me."

"Why them?" asked Ted.

"Because we were all at school together, and as a student, I had a bit of a crush on Regulus. And that was before I knew he could change his appearance at will. On the other hand, Severus Snape has filled out rather nicely since our school days, and I think he could be quite attractive if he could be motivated to care about his appearance. And if I did end up bedding him and Lily Potter found out, I'll wager she would be furious about it!"

With that, Rita Skeeter blew the three wizards a kiss and sauntered out of the office, no doubt to stir up some mischief elsewhere in the castle. The three were silent for a long moment before Draco spoke almost dejectedly.

"You know, things like this just didn't happen at Durmstrang. At times, it was almost boring. But I've been back at Hogwarts for less than an hour, and finding out that my father amputated his own arm is merely the second most distressing thing to happen to me."


Next: Getting to know the foreign arrivals. Plus, Sirius flirts with danger and Rita flirts with everyone. And then, the Cup chooses.

AN1: Check out the Sinister Man's web presence on the POS wiki, the POS TV Tropes page, and my Discord server (through which you can see advance previews of this story as it is being written). Also, the Sinister Man would be profoundly grateful if you checked out my P*****n page and supported my original fiction. Patronage is not necessary to get the free POS previews via Discord.

AN2: In what might be the most recursive shout-out ever, Lily's description of doxies as "Tinkerbell crossbred with a piranha" is taken directly from … the TV Tropes description of doxies from the page for POS tropes, specifically the Nightmare Fuel page.

AN3: What the Sinister Man is reading:

Worth of Magic by Raul Fictitious has started updating again. It's a somewhat weird and occasionally disturbing Dark!Harry fic in which Harry becomes a psychopath and possibly an Obscurial due to his experiences at the Dursleys. It interests me because it's not a normal Dark!Harry fic, most of which can more accurately be described as "emo Harry" fics. This Harry is more motivated by his disdain for wizards obsessed with petty politics and oblivious to just how powerful Magic can be. So he shows them. Oh boy does he show them.

Hadrian Black and the Blood of the Covenant by anonymousmagpie, which I don't remember if I recc'd or not. It's year six of a WBWL fic with any interesting take on wizarding politics in which Harry has to thread the needle between Death Eaters who want to rule the country and a Stasi-like Order of the Phoenix that already does.

Methods of Humanity by local_doom_void has also updated again. In which a Voldemort healed by the Sorcerer's Stone decides to retire from being a Dark Lord and settled down as Hogwarts' permanent DADA professor right under Dumbledore's oblivious nose.

AN4: Special shout-out to all my Discord editors: BlueWater5, ChowPow123,Darkarus The Recognized, Farsight, Idefix, Krisni, Nemo's Flower Song, ohana, PrettyPinkCupcake, Rubric of Ahriman, Sakkiko, Sigurd, and Vayne Hellslinger. Thanks guys!

AN5: Vital Statistics: Reviews: 18,372. Followers: 20,354. Favorites: 18,647. Communities: 252. Discord followers: 5,436! Go Team POS!