A/N: Quick thanks to everyone who suggested titles for this book. I finally found one that kept with the theme of alliteration and following the letters of titles of the HP books. I know it seems very ominous, but try not to read too much into it; it's only chapter one, after all. Also a shout out to everyone who has made fanfiction of this fanfiction or fan art or contributed to the forum or left reviews or told your friends about it or anything else; you all keep this engine driving forward.
The Futile Façade
When Archie asked his cousin to tell him exactly what had happened in the last couple of months, he never imagined the scope of the tale that would unfold. He thought the basilisk had been the feather in the cap of any and all possible adventures, but once again he'd underestimated his cousin's penchant for walking into exactly the wrong situations at precisely the wrong time. As Harry unburdened herself in the quiet hours of the morning after they'd returned from school, Archie felt a sort of hollow horror grip his lungs. His breath stalled and stuttered at her recitation, but Harry, absorbed in her memories, didn't even notice.
The fact that she'd kept a Time-Turner from him didn't bother him, though it did make him feel better about how hard it had been for him to keep up with both his and her studies the past year. The fact that she'd knowingly put herself in danger by involving herself in an investigation that had nothing to do with her on the other hand…well, he had mixed feelings about that.
On the one hand, their ruse didn't need any more complications than already arose in the day-to-day duplicity. Harry developing some sort of hero complex wasn't going to do them any favors in the long run. On the other hand, though…Archie had to admit he was proud of his cousin. He would never wish danger on her, but the fact that she took on unnecessary responsibilities was, he thought, a sign of her growing up. Harry had always been somewhat selfish in terms of the things she chose to give her attention to. They were alike in that, he had to admit. She was kind and loyal and a dozen other wonderful things, but she had never been what you might call philanthropic or one to go out of her way to fix problems that had nothing to do with her.
He just wished she could discover this wider humanitarian scope without causing herself so much pain. He watched as she admitted to being consumed by a dark, bitter hopelessness that Archie was having trouble even imagining. Harry looked straight through him, her eyes reliving some torment that he could not share. He could see the moment when the fractured part of herself that she'd been suppressing broke like shards of ice to the surface of her thoughts. Her eyes welled and, to his panicked dismay, began to overflow with slow tears. He could not remember the last time he'd seen his staunchly unemotional cousin cry.
As though the tears were a signal, she stumbled through the rest of the story in a tumble of words and short, almost eerily controlled breaths. He pulled her into a trembling hug and wondered with acute distress if this was the first time she'd been allowed to admit the full torture of the experience since it happened. He'd bet a lot of Galleons that she hadn't revealed to anyone else—teachers, Aurors, parents, friends—how awful it had actually been. Harry wasn't the type to let anyone worry about her. He knew, as sure as he knew that he would have broken his Healing Oath if Pettigrew had been in the room at that moment, that Harry had shoved the whole thing into the past and was only dredging it up now for his sake, so that he would have all the information he needed about what had 'happened to him,' in case anyone should ask.
He patted his cousin's head and wished with all his heart that it had been he, not she, who had lived those weeks in darkness and despair. Harry always had to be the strong one, and it wasn't fair. He knew intellectually that she had handled it better than he would have. He was smart, but he was not resourceful like Harry. He also knew that she was the stronger one, though she might not look it at the moment.
"I wish I didn't have to go," Archie whispered once her words had stopped hemorrhaging. He was to leave that afternoon on an international Portkey to Turbo, Colombia. It was exactly when his cousin needed him that he couldn't be there for her.
Harry pushed herself upright and ran the back of her hand over her face in a scrubbing motion. "You have to go, Arch. You have to have time away from England to make both your changing appearance and your mental stability plausible." She said mental stability rather sharply, as though annoyed that it wasn't something she could claim with any credibility at the moment.
"I know," he said. He did know, he added mentally. They were in too deep of late. Time away from England was the best thing for their ruse. He would have a reason not to see 'Rigel's' friends all summer, which lowered the chances of one of them messing up in front of people they couldn't afford to make suspicious. It was a miracle that Remus hadn't noticed something slightly off about their switch, even considering that Archie looked exactly like Rigel while Harry now looked completely different. He really should ask exactly how old she was at this point, but now didn't feel like the right time.
"You're going to have a great time in Wizarding Colombia," Harry said after a moment, a decisive energy back in her voice. "You're going into the Darien Gap community, right? I've heard the wizards there are very secretive. Learn everything you can, okay? I want to pick your brain when you get back. And send lots of letters, if you have time."
"I will," Archie said, if only to stop her rambling. He wished he knew how to tell her that she didn't have to convince him that she was fine—that it was okay if she wasn't fine. He knew she'd take any suggestion of weakness the wrong way, though. "What are you going to do this summer while I'm gone? Play Quidditch by yourself?"
Harry cracked a small smile, though there was still a lost look in her eyes. "I don't know. I suppose…I'll find things to keep me busy. Maybe I'll practice my dives so much that when you come back you'll be like a frog chasing a falcon."
"They have brooms in the Americas, you know," Archie smiled back. "I won't fall behind, even if I have to fit practice in between saving lives." He waggled his brows in an invitation for her to be impressed.
"Yes, yes, your nomination from the Chocolate Frog Commission ought to come any day now," Harry said, rolling her eyes. They were still a bit red, which somewhat ruined the effect of her irreverence. There was a calmness in her features that reassured him, though.
Harry would be okay, with time and quiet. He could already sense the resolve that would lead her someday soon to describe her ordeal in dismissive and probably cynical terms. That was how his cousin functioned. He wished there was someone in England he could tell to look out for her, but he knew that no one could ever know that Harry had gone through that, just as he knew that Harry would not appreciate him arranging a minder for her.
Archie thought somewhat despondently that for all the things he knew, there sure didn't seem to be a lot he could do.
A certain amount of dissonance was to be expected, she told herself. Her recent transformation had been abrupt, and the past year had only accelerated the change. Still…she couldn't help but feel that she didn't know the girl in the mirror at all anymore.
She was taller, for one—significantly so. Poor Archie was nearly two inches shorter than she now. It was going to be a stretch to convince their family that he could grow that much in one summer away. Her musculature was more pronounced, reflecting both the maturation of her teenaged body and the vengeance with which she had taken back her health in the wake of its deterioration in that—
Well, she looked healthy now, in any case. Fully recovered. In body, at least. She knew her mind was less supple. Her dreams disturbed her on the occasions she neglected to leave a light on, and sometimes she found herself watching people more warily than was warranted.
Harry detached her focus from that train of thought with ease, re-concentrating on her own reflection. The light summer dress robes hid the fact that the Polyjuice kept her hips slim and her shoulders strong. Her hair was the same, short and perpetually tousled with ends that curled close to her face. The face itself…was leaning toward feminine, even for a pureblood. Her glasses helped to disguise some of it, such as the thickness of her eyelashes, but couldn't detract completely from the softening of her mouth and chin. She frowned at her reflection, and noted with some satisfaction that the expression gave her a sharper look. It wasn't a complete disaster, then. This could be Rigel's face come autumn, provided people believed that a certain measure of unconscious metamorphism was at work.
She plucked unenthusiastically at her dress robes, attempting halfheartedly to straighten the neckline. Why couldn't Uncle Sirius have had a pool party again? she complained mentally. She would bet that Narcissa Malfoy would have declined an invitation to her cousin's birthday party if it had entailed bathing in a flooded potions lab. Instead, Sirius was having an uncharacteristically formal celebration and, although the guest list was modest, it still consisted of enough non-family members that Lily had insisted Harry dress to impress. Or at least, she amended with another long look at the plainly styled robes, dress to underwhelm.
The party was to be on the back lawn at Potter Place, where Harry and Archie usually played Quidditch. When asked why he didn't want to host it at his own house, Sirius had muttered something about Grimmauld Place not being the most welcoming sort of venue. She supposed his choice had been in deference to one or more of his guests, though whether it was the Longbottoms, who she now knew had good reason to be wary of Sirius' old house, or his cousins, who she suspected had unpleasant recollections of the dwelling from their own childhoods, she didn't know.
Harry gave the girl in the mirror a little smile, but the far away look in her eyes made it look vague and a little sad. She settled back into a frown instead and nodded approvingly at the illusion of focus it accorded. She was tired of seeing that lost expression on her face. If she couldn't fake happiness at the world around her, at least she could fake an interest in it.
She left her room and trailed down the stairs in the direction of the kitchen, where her mother was directing the last of the preparations before the guests arrived. Addy, sitting in a high chair with a mess of what had possibly been yams at one point in front of her, waved distractedly at Harry as she walked in. Harry waved back, pleased at the attention. She and Addy got along much better now, probably because the baby was losing her sensitivity to magical cores as she matured. Even Remus got to hold Addy for prolonged periods, now, and the house was much more relaxed as her sister's once frequent bursts of irrational crying had largely subsided.
"Harry, can you move our gifts to the table outside so people know where theirs go?" Lily asked as she moved between watching some sort of raspberry sauce simmer in a pan and moving her wand in deft little curling motions that were producing a pile of delicately laced doilies.
"Of course." Harry stacked the colorfully wrapped packages from the counter and wove her way toward the back door. Once she'd deposited them on a small, round table to one side, she took a look around. The yard was charming, she decided. There were white poles set up at intervals around the perimeter and thick, colorful ribbons stretched between them like muggle telephone wires. Affixed to the top of each pole were Never-Ending Bubble Wands, which together produced a canopy of small and large bubbles that sparkled in the summer sun as they bobbed and weaved on the faint breeze.
A wide open-fronted tent at the back of the lawn gave shade to the table on which the refreshments would sit. Currently, it held only an ordinary ice bucket, which despite its common appearance seemed to have royally annoyed her very frustrated-looking father in some way. She came up beside him, peering down into the empty bucket curiously. "Need any help, Dad?"
He glanced her way with a quick smile. "Ah, thanks, Harry, but I can't remember the Everlasting Ice spell. Don't tell your mum." He grimaced. "I may have intimated that I didn't need her help with a fifth-year spell. Only…" He tapped his wand on the bucket and said, "Glacies Aeternus." The bucket filled with ice. James muttered, "Ignis," and a small flame erupted from the tip of his wand. At its heat, the ice at the top of the bucket began to melt perceptibly. "See? It's supposed to be impervious to heat. If Lily sees it melting she's going to ask Sirius and everyone how I passed my OWLs." James laughed self-deprecatingly. "All those useless spells. They know perfectly well you're never going to use any of them."
Harry smiled up at him. "It's 'Glacia Aeternalis,' I think. The spell's inventor was a potioneer whose classical education was a bit haphazard. He was blessed with a gift for ingenuity and created the eternal ice spell to cool the top layer of his potions quickly without watering them down even while the cauldron was kept over the fire to heat the bottom stratum. He used Late Latin instead of Classical Latin, however, because he didn't really give a whit about spell-crafting conventions."
James blinked behind his glasses at her, then grinned. "Glacia Aeternalis." The bucket filled with ice. He plucked a piece and rubbed it between his fingers for a moment before inspecting them for wetness. "It's perfect," he declared, hooking an arm around her shoulders in a grateful hug. "You definitely have your mum's smarts, Harry—and your Uncle Remus' love of complete answers. I swear he was the last done on every test we took in school, despite knowing all the material verbatim. Just couldn't resist giving backstory, our Moony."
"I have a friend like that," Harry said, thinking of Blaise. Then her smile fell slightly. Blaise wasn't her friend. He was Rigel's friend. Blaise had hardly even met her.
"A male friend?" James narrowed his eyes at her.
"Never," she rolled her own, shrugging out of his arm. "I'm going to help Mum move the food out."
She left her father gazing suspiciously after her. Honestly, you'd think James would have other things to worry about. Since when had she given him any indication of being interested in that sort of distraction? She also didn't know why her dad distrusted boys so much more than girls, anyway. Personally, Harry thought females were generally the more predatory species in the arena of romance. The calculating way Pansy spoke of her potential suitors was incredibly ominous, for instance, whereas Draco hardly every talked about those things, and when he did it was in a dismissive and unconcerned tone of boredom.
She made it to the kitchen but, before she could lift one of the trays of sandwiches or cakes from the work top Sirius bounded in. He was visibly excited, which was nothing unusual, but Harry thought as she watched him survey all their preparations without saying anything that he might be a bit nervous, too. It had probably been a while since he hosted a gathering of any kind. Sirius, despite being one of the friendliest people she had ever met, was a bit of a shut-in.
She didn't think he'd always been that way. What she remembered of Diana glittered in her mind's eye. They used to go out all the time; she remembered because Archie had many a time been dropped off at Potter Place for an impromptu sleepover when his parents got the urge to drop by an event or surprise one of their friends with an invitation to dinner.
Harry had the quiet realization that Sirius must have been quite a different person back then, with different habits and enjoyments. Perhaps this birthday party was more than an unexplained desire to reconnect with old friends. Maybe it was a step back toward the life he'd led before he lost the love of his life and a large sense of his purpose with her. What had prompted it? Was it his son's ascension into society circles that encouraged him to pick up the rusted pieces of his own social life once more?
"Sirius!" Lily glided into the room, now dressed and made up for the party. "Good, I was half-afraid you'd be late. The guests should be arriving any minute now. Harry, will you man the Floo grate? Sirius, help me move this food…"
Harry abandoned her observation and settled into the Floo room to wait. She wondered vaguely who would be coming. She knew Sirius had invited some of his family members—the ones he could stand, to quote him exactly. She doubted that included Lady Lestrange.
The first ones through the Floo weren't Blacks, however; they were Weasleys. Fred, George, Ron, Ginny, Molly, and Arthur came one after another into the receiving room, all smiling and dressed gaily.
"Harry!" Molly Weasley bustled her into a hug. "How are you? You've grown a foot, I vow. Arthur, doesn't she look handsome? I told you lot to put on something nicer," she added, shooting a disapproving look toward her brood, all of whom scowled back at her good naturedly.
"I think they look grand," Harry said, nodding to the other teens. "It's good to see you all again. The party is in the back yard. Follow me."
She led them through the winding house, fielding questions left and right.
"Do you have a Quidditch pitch?"
"How many people are going to be here?"
"Is Rigel here?"
Harry turned to smile apologetically. "Rigel has already left on his internship. He'll be volunteering at a teaching hospital in the Darien Gap community all summer."
"What?" Ron looked completely nonplussed.
"That's a little random, isn't it?" Fred added, exchanging a look with his twin.
"Rigel's always been interested in Healing," Harry said vaguely. "It was an unexpected opportunity, but he's very excited about it."
"Rigel is so weird," Ginny sighed.
"Don't be rude, Ginny," Mrs. Weasley admonished her. "Oh, that is lovely."
They had reached the back door, and the Weasleys paused for a moment to take in the decorations. Sirius was waiting to welcome them. "Molly, Arthur, thank you very much for coming. Please forgive the lack of professional entertainment."
"That's what you're here for, is that it?" Mr. Weasley smiled.
"Well that and it is my birthday," Sirius smiled back. He made a show of craning his neck around. "What did you bring me? Not a puppy, is it? Because I've already got Archie for that."
"For taking on walks?" Fred asked with a mischievous grin.
"For petting, surely," George disagreed. "Rigel is above-average cuddly for a Slytherin."
"For fetching me things," Sirius said, shaking his head in amusement. "You two must be the infamous Fred and George. My son has mentioned that you aspire to a career in pranking, is that so?"
"It certainly is not," Molly gasped.
"Not until we finish school, of course," Fred cut in, looking slightly nervous.
"Of course," Sirius said, waving a hand as though no more needed to be said on the subject. "Now, if you like, I can give you a few insider tips on how the business works: what manufacturers are trustworthy, how to phrase your loan paperwork so the banks don't laugh in your face, that sort of thing."
Fred and George looked ready to kiss the ground beneath Sirius' feet, and Harry couldn't help but think that their admiration for the Marauders was about to grow closer to idolization.
Before he could get too involved in the conversation, Sirius turned an inquiring gaze at Harry and lifted an eyebrow with an amused quirk of his lips. "Not expecting any more guests? I do think we invited one or two more."
Getting the playful hint, Harry waved goodbye to the Weasleys and reclaimed her post at the Floo. The next ten minutes was a flurry of activity as guests arrived in twos and threes. The Longbottoms came through, bringing Neville, who looked curiously at Harry as she led them to the gift table. She realized she must have never met Neville as herself—at least, not that Neville could remember. She fought the tremor of unease that surfaced at that recently uncovered memory. Mrs. and Mr. Longbottom didn't seem to be looking at her with any amount of suspicion—but of course they wouldn't. She'd met them plenty of times when Alice Longbottom came to visit Lily. They just hadn't ever brought Neville with them, and she supposed now she knew why. Their child mysteriously falling unconscious and losing all memory of the event wasn't a glowing recommendation as far as play dates went.
After the twentieth group of guests had been escorted to the backyard, Harry stopped to get a glass of water from the kitchen. One or two more indeed, she thought with a small smile. Trust Sirius to jump back into society with a cannonball splash.
When she reached the Floo room, the next guests were already waiting. It was Narcissa Malfoy and, to her shock, Draco. Why would he come to Sirius' birthday party? They weren't exactly close. A moment later she kicked herself mentally. He was obviously expecting to see Rigel there. The better question was why Sirius had invited him. She supposed they were relatively closely related, by pureblood standards. Perhaps Sirius was determined to reach back toward all the areas of his life he'd been neglecting.
"Please forgive the wait, Lady Malfoy, Mr. Malfoy," she said, bowing briefly. "May I escort you through to the veranda?"
"Of course, Miss Potter," Narcissa said, smiling politely. "You remember my Draco?"
"Naturally," she said, nodding Draco's direction. "Rigel gives his regrets that he couldn't be here."
Draco's face fell slightly, though he masked his disappointment by glancing about the room instead. "I didn't realize his internship started so soon."
"He says he looks forward to taking tea with you when he returns, Lady Malfoy," she added.
"Such a thoughtful young man," Narcissa said, smiling fondly. "Tell him to owl me when he returns to England."
Harry nodded her agreement. She led them toward the sound of several dozen partygoers in high spirits and left them on the terrace with a polite, "Have a pleasant afternoon."
She returned to find Regulus Black dusting himself off despite there being no visible residue from the recently cleaned Floo. She opened her mouth to greet him, but he held up a hand forestalling her. "I know the way. Potter Place hasn't changed, I take it."
She could not tell if he approved of that or not, and she was more curious about when he'd ever been to her house in any case. He was not friends with her parents and was too young to have been an acquaintance of her late grandparents.
"As you like," she said indifferently.
He paused on his way out to look her over. "You're the Potter Heiress, then."
"We've met," she reminded him bluntly.
He seemed torn between annoyance and amusement at her rudeness. She didn't know how he expected people to be friendly to him when he was unfriendly first. "It isn't terribly proper for you to be greeting the guests at Lord Black's party, Miss Potter," he told her, eyes cold. "His own Heir should hold that role, if he insists on doing without house-elves."
"Rigel couldn't be here," she said, faking a sweet smile. "I'm just filling in."
Regulus lifted an eyebrow in distain. "Do you think if you look and act like the Black Heir society will really see you as interchangeable? Do be sensible, girl. No matter that you were raised together, you ought to have been told by now that your place and my nephew's are worlds apart."
"Not so far apart today, it seems," she said, fighting an eye roll.
"That the house-elf often stands next to his master is no reflection on their respective stations," Regulus sneered.
She blinked slowly up at him. "Have you considered that any and everything you admire in your Heir comes from his relation to me? As you noted, we grew up together. I don't know if you're warning me off or just disapproving of my influence on Archie in general, but you should know that the Black Heir likes me a great deal more than he cares for you, and that if you insist on being rude I may decide that I don't approve of your influence on him."
"You are a delusional child," Regulus said, eyes flashing in irritation.
"Go ahead and tell your nephew to stop associating with me, and we'll see who has overestimated their sphere of influence, Mr. Black." She held his gaze for a moment longer, then turned with cold dismissiveness toward the Floo to await the next arrival. She heard him scoff shortly before exiting the room and smiled to herself.
She really shouldn't have risen to the bait like that. If she had been Rigel, she never would have. There just didn't seem to be any point in putting up with his derision while she was herself. She didn't need a good relationship with Archie's uncle. What was the purpose of trying to foster one against the man's will? She'd rather save her energy for more fruitful pursuits.
The last group through the Floo looked around uncertainly as they arrived. The man was rather nondescript, but the woman was a very close approximation of Bellatrix Black. After a moment in which she questioned her eyesight, she realized this much be Sirius' other cousin, Andromeda, and her husband. A moment later, a whirl of robes and what appeared to be purple hair flung itself from the Floo and onto the floor.
"God. Damn. Stupid. Wizarding. Transportation." A young woman picked herself up off the floor with a level of resignation and utter lack of embarrassment that made Harry suspect this wasn't an uncommon occurrence.
"Nymphadora," the older woman sighed. "Must you?"
"Oh sure, like I do it on purpose," the young woman groused. "Wotcher," she added brightly upon catching sight of Harry. "Are you Arcturus?"
"She's in women's robes, dear," Andromeda sighed.
"No, I'm not Archie," Harry said, smiling slightly at the purple-haired witch's friendly expression. "He couldn't be here, so I'm showing people to the terrace in his stead."
"Oh," the girl looked disappointed. "Shame. I heard he had a bit of the 'morpher in him, and I really wanted to see how we matched up." Her hair changed swiftly from purple to blue and back again. "It's nice to meet you though," she said, sticking out a hand. "You'd be the Head's daughter, right? Nice place he's got here—I knew they paid the higher-ups more than they'd admit."
"Dora, dear, you're rambling a bit," the man said, glancing apologetically at Harry. "I'm Ted Tonks, Miss Potter. This is my wife, Andromeda, and our daughter, Nymphadora. She works at the DMLE under your father."
"Please don't call me that," Nymphadora put in with false cheer. "And I work very very far beneath your dad—don't expect he's even heard of me, in fact. I've heard of you, though. You're Harriett Potter."
"It's a pleasure to meet you," she said. "Just Harry is fine."
"My kind of girl," Nymphadora said, pleased. "Just Tonks for me, then."
"All right," Harry agreed, smiling.
"Anyway, you're the one who came up with that new potion they're going to let us play with, aren't you? Potter's Portable Protection Potion, right?" Nymphadora—Tonks—said eagerly. Harry had to wince at that ridiculous name. "We saw the first demonstrations yesterday. We all thought it was the Head who'd come up with it out of his little joke line, but then I heard it was you who thought it up. Neat stuff, that. The Department of Mysteries is trying to modify it so that it'll block out sound—to use again banshees or sirens, you know—but they're having a hard time reverse-engineering it, I hear."
Harry's eyebrows rose in surprise. "Thank you. I didn't know they were trying to do that. In any case, I gave them instructions—they shouldn't have to reverse engineer anything."
Tonks clapped her hands together. "Oh, just wait till I tell the other guys that the spooks have instructions and still can't figure it out! That's worth a laugh."
Harry smiled indulgently at the other witch's exuberance.
"Forgive our daughter," Andromeda said with a long-suffering expression. "She forgets that as a grown witch and a junior Auror no less she ought to show a little more decorum in her bearing."
"Hey, this is a party, Mum," Tonks said, wrinkling her nose in a carefree way. "Speaking of, are we the only ones here or what?"
"It's in the back garden," Harry grinned. "I'll show you."
They joined the congregation on the lawn and Harry watched as Sirius embraced his cousin as though it had been only a few months since they last saw one another, when in Harry's estimation it had been more like six years. She couldn't remember if the older woman had been at Aunt Diana's funeral or not.
"Andy, you look great," Sirius said. He shook Ted's hand and then turned to their daughter. "Is this little Nymphadora? James told me you had joined the force but I told him you couldn't possibly have finished school yet."
"She finished the homeschooling program a year early," Ted said proudly.
"And that was a few years ago in any case," Andromeda said, smiling slightly. "You're getting old and forgetful, Sirius."
"It's a good thing I had everyone come here to celebrate one last year before I kick the bucket, then," Sirius laughed.
"You just wanted an excuse to eat cake, Uncle Sirius," Harry corrected him.
"Oh, is that why? Seems I am getting forgetful," Sirius said, scratching his head. The Tonks family all three chuckled appreciatively. "Well. Enjoy yourselves, try the lemonade, don't touch the cake—" Another laugh. "—and see if you can find Cissy in this mess, Andy, I know she'd like to see you." Andromeda didn't look at all convinced by that statement, though she nodded politely. "Harry, I think that's everyone, so I officially relieve you of your duties. Go have fun!"
"Happy Birthday, Uncle Sirius," she said, giving him a quick hug.
"Yes, yes, go find some young person to give your father conniptions over," Sirius suggested, patting her head. "Preferably one with a motorcycle."
"I think you're the only wizard in the world with a motorbike," she pointed out.
"Hmm. Well, find one with a tattoo or facial scar and I'll buy them a motorcycle," Sirius decided.
"I'm sure the look on my father's face will be worth it," she deadpanned.
"It always is," Sirius agreed, grinning. He pushed her along into the crowd, and Harry made her way towards the edges where she could observe instead of joining in for a little while. She didn't know most of the people attending, and those she did appeared pleasantly enough occupied for the moment.
Mrs. Weasley was holding Addy and cooing irrepressibly at the one-year-old's every expression. Every so often she gave her husband a pleading look, to which Arthur promptly flushed and looked regretful.
Draco was talking to Neville and Ron, gesturing with his hands in a way that made her suspect he was going over a new idea for a dueling combination. Ron and Neville both looked rapt over the discussion, and Harry longed to go over and see what the details were. She didn't know any of them well enough as Harry to do that, however. After a moment, she shifted her attention elsewhere with a small sigh. Draco would tell Rigel about it anyway, if it was a good enough idea.
James was deep in discussion with a witch Harry vaguely recognized as Amelia Bones, while her niece Susan made small talk with Ginny. As Harry wandered through the crowd, she picked up bits of conversation here and there. Most seemed to be discussing each team's chances in the upcoming Quidditch World Cup. She overheard Lily telling an older wizard in a top hat, "Unfortunately Albus couldn't make it today—I gather he's interviewing for the vacant professorships this afternoon." Soon after she passed a man saying to his neighbor, "Almost didn't come—you know the Ministry's Personnel Department looks down on Dark affiliations, and, well, the Black family…still, Martha insisted, and it is good to see the old boy looking so well..."
She wandered toward the refreshments pavilion for want of else to do, figuring she could at least play hostess a bit and make sure they weren't out of anything that could be refilled from the kitchen. The glasses near the punch bowl had been disturbed from their ordered positions, so she went about straightening them idly, wondering how long this was going to go on. She didn't begrudge Sirius his fun, but with all these people it didn't feel much like his other birthday parties had.
She was inspecting the ice bucket for signs of melting when she saw a pair of shadows moving around to the back of the pavilion. She watched them amusedly for a moment as the shadows moved across the thin, white material. What a bold place for a rendezvous. She was turning to leave the tent when a voice from the other side of the tent wall made her stop in surprise. It was Sirius' voice.
"What is it, Reggie?" He sounded impatient. "I can't just abandon my own party like this."
"Your adoring fans will wait," Regulus said. Both their voices came clearly through the cloth to her ears, and she looked around to gauge if anyone else was near enough to notice, but at the moment she was the only one in the tent. "We need to talk."
"Of course," Sirius said, sounding weary. "I might have known you didn't come just to wish me a happy birthday. What's so important that it drove you to accept my invitation, then?"
"I need to know where you stand, Brother," Regulus said. "People are asking questions that I don't know how to answer. Are you serious about declaring for Neutral?"
"That's what you're on about?" Sirius barked a laugh. "Screw those people, Reggie. I don't give a Knut what they want to know. I'll do as I always have—whatever I wish to."
"You can't be—" Regulus made a frustrated noise that told Harry he'd just barely refrained from saying 'serious.' "Sirius, you're not a child anymore. When you were just the Heir, some flexibility in your views wasn't cause for concern. After father died, people expected your stances to firm up, but of course with Diana's passing allowances were made. Now—"
"I didn't ask for any damn allowances," Sirius growled. "It's nobody's business but mine. I'm not going to stand here and make promises to my little brother on how my Wizengamot Seat gets voted. You can tell whoever put you up to this that the Black family headship cannot be purchased or cajoled to a side. I stand with my own feelings and needs, whatever they may be at the moment. Right now, that stance takes me Neutral."
"Because of your son," Regulus said pointedly. "And what happens if your Heir turns Dark? Where will your feelings take you then?"
"I am not discussing this," Sirius scoffed. "Hypotheticals and suppositions—what good are they? Archie can do what he wants with his life. I'll still do what's best for him." Harry noted that Sirius wasn't necessarily promising to support Archie's choices—merely to look out for his best interest. "In any case, you're off your rocker on this one, Reggie. My son is as Light as they come. He wants to be a Healer. He cares less for politics than I do, and that is saying something. Even if he did have an interest, what do you really expect from a boy whose best friend is a halfblood? Do you think he's honestly going to support your Party's agenda? It's pure fairytale, Reg."
"You may not know him as well as you think," Regulus said, low. "Children have a way of growing to defy their parents. You should know that better than anyone."
"Don't talk about Archie like you know him," Sirius snapped. "I won't hear any more of this nonsense. You've said your piece. Now either enjoy the party or get the hell out."
She saw the shadow that she surmised belonged to Sirius start to leave, but the other shadow whipped out a hand and caught his arm. "Wait, Sirius. I'm not finished. There are other things to consider."
"Like what?" Sirius said, voice exasperated.
Harry saw a woman approaching the tent from the corner of her eye and promptly pasted a disgusted grimace on her face. When the witch glanced over at her while starting toward the sandwiches, Harry gave her a quick headshake, miming being sick while pointing at the table of food discreetly. The woman wrinkled her nose and nodded a thank you before scurrying back to the party.
Harry drifted toward the back of the tent to pick up the low conversation.
"—'m not kidding, Sirius, it's time to consider taking another partner," Regulus was saying.
"Never," Sirius snarled.
"You're young yet, Brother," Regulus said firmly. "There's so much time left in your life—do you really want to spend it alone?"
"Pot. Kettle." Sirius sounded incredibly irritated.
Ignoring this, Regulus plowed on. "Things aren't the same as they were when we were young. You can marry your werewolf if you want and have a litter."
Harry had to consciously close her throat to keep from choking. Was Regulus serious?
"That's a ridiculous rumor," Sirius snorted.
"Not so ridiculous," Regulus sneered. "The Sirius Black most people know always had it coming from somewhere, didn't he? The only other people you hang around are the Potters, and the general consensus is that they aren't the type to—"
"Just stop," Sirius groaned. "I'm not getting remarried. You get married if you're so keen to continue the line."
"I can't," Regulus ground out in a low voice. There was a long pause, after which Regulus added bitterly, "You know that I can't."
There was an agonizing silence, in which Sirius cleared his throat uncomfortably. "After all these years? I didn't know. We thought it would fade…"
"Well it didn't," Regulus said bluntly. "Mother certainly knew her Dark Arts. The fact that she regretted it afterwards didn't make it reversible."
"She was so unhappy," Sirius said. His voice sounded full of regret and far away. "Whatever we did, we somehow never could make up for the ones that didn't survive."
"You gave up trying," Regulus said shortly.
"I realized that at some point I had to live my life for me, not for her demons," Sirius said heatedly. "That's what I have to do now. I gave into my own demons for too long. I'm not trying to make a political statement or start throwing the Black family weight around. I just…I want to be there for my son. Wherever he is. Archie is the world to me, Regulus."
"There's nothing wrong with that," Regulus said strongly. "I'm just asking you to think bigger. You are a good father, Sirius. Diana's death was a tragedy, but you've grieved long enough. This is a chance for you to circumvent the difficulties of a witch's second pregnancy. Start fresh. You could have another child, Sirius. One who will mean as much as Archie does."
"I don't…" Sirius trailed off into contemplation.
"Think of it," Regulus urged. "Your son is smart, driven, and powerful from what I hear. With two such children, our legacy would be assured." Harry winced. That was just about the worst thing Regulus could have said just then. He seemed to know it, too, for he attempted to backtrack. "Your house could be happy again, Sirius—"
"My home is fine the way it is," Sirius said flatly. "I'll thank you not to involve my son in your delusions of grandeur in the future. As far as I'm concerned, Archie can take another's name and the Black family can die with us."
"Don't be selfish," Regulus hissed, "This isn't just about you."
"I'm sorry you can't father your own sons, Reggie, I really am," Sirius said, voice firm. "I can't be your second chance, though. Adopt, if you're so eager. Leave me out of it."
Sirius' shadow walked off and, after a moment of frustrated cursing, Regulus' shadow slunk away as well. Harry was left with quite a lot to think about. That Regulus couldn't sire children explained a lot of things she'd wondered about, such as why he'd never married and had an heir of his own if he was so concerned with the future of the Black family. It also explained why Regulus was so interested in Archie—his nephew was as close to a son as Regulus would ever get. What kind of a mother would curse her own child? She'd heard that Walburga had been clinically insane, and now she had to wonder if she was interpreting Sirius' comment correctly in thinking that part of the reason for the woman's poor mental health was a high number of miscarriages in between her two successful pregnancies. That wasn't the sort of blow most people could shake off easily, if at all.
She walked ponderously from the refreshment tent, not going anywhere in particular. A hand snagged her elbow as she neared the gift table and she swung around to see Ginny gazing impatiently at her.
"I called your name about five times, Harry," Ginny said. "Are you deaf?"
"Sorry," she said, summoning a smile. Sometimes it was difficult for her to get used to being called Harry again after a long stint as Rigel, and vice versa. "How are you, Ginny?"
"Fine, I guess," the redhead said. "I hardly know anyone here—hence going out of my way to chase you across the lawn. You must have been thinking hard about something."
"I suppose I was," Harry agreed. After a moment in which Ginny gazed expectantly at her, Harry said, "Uh…I was just wondering about…Percy."
"Percy." Ginny narrowed her eyes in unimpressed disbelief. "What about him?"
"Well, how is he?" she asked, realizing as she did so that she was actually interested. "Last time I saw him—"
"You mean the only time you've met," Ginny muttered with rolling eyes.
"—he said he wanted to be a barrister." Harry tilted her head in an earnest way. "How's it going? Has he found a law firm to apprentice at yet?"
"Of course," Ginny said, shrugging. "One thing you can count on Percy for is setting the bar ridiculously high. He had a job lined up about a month before he finished school. Works for some hoity-toity firm that does Ministry cases. He's already passed his preliminary qualification exams and no doubt he'll be admitted to the bar the second he grows a big-boy beard."
She tried not to think of Percy in a beard, but it was too late. She snorted indelicately and closed her eyes in simple appreciation for the image Ginny had managed to evoke. "A red beard or a white one?" she asked around a chuckle.
Ginny grinned back cheekily. "Nothing intimidating about a red-bearded barrister. I bet he dyes it grey by the end of the year."
"That's horrible," Harry said, shaking her head.
"You don't know him like I do," Ginny told her. "Anyone else you're curious about? Charlie still works in Romania. Bill runs mysterious errands for the goblins all over the world. The twins have blown up their bedroom three times already since coming home. Ron does a whole lot of nothing all day, as far as I can tell. None of my brothers is in a serious relationship, if that's what you're wondering."
She couldn't stop her nose from wrinkling in surprised distaste. "I wasn't."
Ginny's eyes flashed dangerously. "Why's that? There's quite a variety—don't tell me at least one of them isn't your type."
"I really don't have a…type," she said, mystified at the direction the conversation seemed to be heading.
"So you just look down on Weasley men, is that it?" Ginny's expression was fiercely defensive.
"Of course not," she said carefully. "I don't know you all very well, but I consider you among my friends. It's just that I'm not interested in that sort of thing."
"Oh," Ginny's eyes grew wide with interest. "Are you one of those? With a preference, I mean?"
Harry sighed. "It's the opposite. I'm not interested in anything."
Ginny looked skeptical. "Everyone's interested in something."
"I don't have time for romance," she said flatly, quite finished with the conversation.
"If you say so," Ginny shrugged, now appearing bored. "You and Rigel are well-suited after all, it appears."
Harry peered a Ginny suspiciously. That was an odd thing to say. Unless… "You've heard about the…engagement," she surmised.
"Everyone has by now," Ginny said, smirking slightly and looking satisfied about something. "The consensus is that it isn't a very serious arrangement. Since you didn't even bring it up when I grilled you on your inclinations, I'd have to agree. The question is, which of you is the less serious about it?"
"What do you think?" Harry pressed her lips together, irritated that she'd let Ginny corner her in a conversation.
"I think both of you are treating it lightly," Ginny said, studying her. After a moment, she dropped her eyes and shrugged. "It's obvious who benefits more from it, though. I expected you to be defensive of it, in fact, but you seem even less interested than Rigel, and that is saying something. I can't tell if you're oblivious to the favor he's doing you or if you and Rigel are really so close that you can take such treatment for granted."
"The latter," Harry said shortly. "Rigel and I would do anything for one another."
"Anything is a dangerous precondition," Ginny said, eyes cynical. "I don't know anyone who would do absolutely anything for another person."
"Now you do," Harry said, smiling sweetly. "Excuse me, Ginny, but I've just noticed the punch is looking low."
"Better refill it," Ginny agreed, her own smile a shade too disillusioned to be truly innocent.
Why was it that her friends from school were easier to deal with when she didn't have to be herself? Was she always going to feel like this? Like she was seeing two sides of people and they were seeing two sides of her without knowing it? Would she ever be completely one person, or would she forever be straddling the gulf between what she was supposed to know and think and feel and what she actually did?
She was so lost in thought that she misjudged her footing and ran right into someone as they passed the other way. "Sorry," she said automatically, looking up. "Ah, my apologies, Mr. Malfoy."
"Just Draco," her friend grimaced uncomfortably, glancing around as though not sure he wanted to start a conversation with her. "And it was my own fault. I lost track of my surroundings."
"I know the feeling," she said. They stood for a moment in awkward silence until she added. "Enjoying the party?"
"Yes," he said, slight relief in his grey eyes. He always hated to be at a loss for something to say. "It's very relaxed."
"Very Sirius, you mean," she offered.
"Just so." His lips relented somewhat into an amused quirk. "My mother told me many stories of her cousin Sirius when I was young. Somehow, I don't think she exaggerated any of them."
"If anything, she probably downplayed some of them in deference to general standards of credibility," Harry guessed. "There are a few I wouldn't believe myself if I hadn't been there."
"Like what?" A mischievous glint crept into Draco's eyes. "Mother doesn't have any recent tales."
"I'm not sure I should tell you…" she teased. "It wouldn't do to defame the birthday boy at his own party."
"I won't tell if you don't," Draco said seriously.
She bowed her head in good humor. "Very well, but you must promise to believe everything I say, no matter how outlandish."
Draco chuckled a bit, and she noticed the sound was lower than she'd expected. She had just seen him on the train ride home. Had she been so distracted by her own problems lately that she hadn't noticed her friend getting older? "Very well, I so promise," he said, clearly humoring her.
She widened her eyes and lowered her voice, ready to give the story all the drama and style it deserved. "It was a dark and stormy night. Lightning splintered across the sky and thunder cackled with threatening promise in its wake. All sensible witches and wizards were safe in their homes. Save one." Draco began to smile appreciatively, so she pressed on. "The wizard set out on this very lawn we're standing in to challenge the sky—his mission: to capture a bolt of lightning from the storm."
"That's ridiculous." Draco pursed his lips. "Not even Sirius Black is that foolish."
"Who says it was Sirius?" Harry smirked. "No, the wizard in question was considerably younger and more idiotic than my uncle. It was Archie."
"Rigel tried to catch a lightning bolt?" Draco looked completely incredulous. "Why?"
Harry shrugged. "At the time, he and I had the old Thunderbolt broom models, and Ar—Rigel got it into his seven-year-old mind that lightning was what made it go fast. He wanted to make it go faster."
"Oh, no," Draco groaned. "Of all the foolishness…wasn't anyone watching him?"
"I was," Harry said, grinning. "Saw the whole thing. It was my idea to attach a coat hanger to the end of handle." Draco's face was entirely horrified. "Our parents thought we were sleeping in my room, but we used the brooms to fly down from the window instead. Don't worry—we were very careful. Wore rubber gloves and everything."
"I'm sure it was all very scientific," Draco scoffed.
"Oh, yes." Harry nodded seriously. "We arranged the broom with the handle toward the sky, propped up by branches we stuck in the mud. It took ages for the storm to really hit its peak. We almost gave up waiting, and I headed toward the neighbor's garden to see if I could find another piece of metal to add to our configuration, but then a huge crack rang out and the sky seemed to split open in a flash of light and heat. When my vision cleared, Rigel was unconscious in the grass about twenty feet from where he'd been standing and the broom was blackened and twisted, the sticks around it on fire. Turns out when you stand near a lightning strike rubber gloves don't stop the peripheral electricity from running up through your feet."
Draco's eyes were completely round. "What…what did you do?"
"I took down the other broom right quick so they didn't both get fried," Harry said, blinking innocently.
He gaped at her for a moment before his eyes narrowed. "You're joking."
She smiled. "Yes I am. I ran over and checked on Rigel, of course. He was breathing, but he didn't move when I shook him. His hair was all standing on end and he just stared up at the sky unblinking while I called his name. Finally he turned his head to me and said, 'Did we catch it?'"
"Idiot," Draco breathed, lips quirking a bit fondly. "I don't understand how this story has to do with Lord Black, though."
"I'm building up to it," Harry promised. "Once I was certain my cousin hadn't been fried completely, I ran inside to wake my parents. There was subsequently much panicking and Diana and Sirius were called over and we all wound up at St. Mungo's around two in the morning. They patched him up quick enough, but he had to stay overnight in the children's ward for monitoring. Rigel grumbled and complained about how unfair it was and despite our family's rather stringent admonitions remained quite unrepentant about the whole episode. Sirius got so fed up with his cavalier attitude that he decided to teach his son a lesson in empathy."
"I'm sure that went over well," Draco said, grimacing. "Rigel hates being patronized."
"He was just a kid back then," Harry reminded him. "And quite gullible, actually."
"I can't picture it," Draco said, clearly doutful.
"People change a lot," Harry said dismissively. "Anyway, Sirius waits until the next morning, when Archie is taken from his bed in the general ward over to an examination room so a Mediwizard can check him one last time before discharging him. The examination rooms are really just curtained off areas that separate the patient from the rest of the children's ward. There are a series of them in a row at the far end of the ward, toward the windows. Sirius is surprisingly handy at weather charms, in case you didn't know, so he went to the window and summoned a very localized storm."
"Oh, no," Draco muttered, looking like someone who was watching a brand new broom about to crash into the Whomping Willow.
"Oh, yes," Harry said, grinning. "Complete with little flashes of lightning and thunder and everything. Sirius then positioned himself next to the curtain behind which Archie was being examined and said in a loud voice, 'Will you look at that storm rolling in! The lightning is so close!' He then summoned a bright light that illuminated his silhouette against the curtains and proceeded to scream dramatically while pretending to twitch and fall to the ground, apparently electrocuted into unconsciousness. Immediately a high-pitched scream of horror came from behind the curtain and Sirius considered his plan a flat success."
"That's a bit dark," Draco said, looking disturbed.
"The point was to make Rigel feel what Sirius had felt when James summoned him to our house and he saw his son twitching uncontrollably with burns on both feet," Harry said. "You have to remember that Rigel appeared to feel no regret at all for what we'd done, which made Sirius understandably concerned that unless he realized the extent of his actions he might do something even more reckless next time."
"I can see his intention, but I have to say Rigel's track record doesn't speak to its effectiveness," Draco said wryly.
"That's because Rigel wasn't even in the examination room while Sirius was giving his best impression of a human light bulb," Harry said, smirking. "He had slipped out to go to the bathroom five minutes earlier when Sirius was distracting the Mediwizard by sending him to fetch his son some water."
"Then…who screamed?" Draco asked, frowning.
"Well, it turns out Sirius got a bit confused about which curtain Rigel was supposed to be behind," Harry said sadly. "When he jumped to his feet and swept the curtain aside with smug satisfaction he was confronted not with a newly repentant son but with a group of eight little girls all there to receive their pre-schooling immunizations. Three of them were crying openly and the others all began screaming again at the sight of him, convinced he was now a ghost."
Draco groaned in amused disbelief. "That's terrible."
"It was," Harry agreed. "They all started panicking and throwing things at him, including a water goblet that caught him across the face and blackened his eye. A Mediwizard for the ward came charging in and found Sirius at the mercy of eight tiny witches who were all hysterically upset. It took Sirius ten minutes to explain himself to the Healer's satisfaction and calm the little girls down, and by then Rigel was back from the bathroom and had a good laugh at his father's expense. Then the girls' schoolteacher, who had been in the waiting room with the rest of my family came in to see what was taking so long and Sirius had to explain all over again. Then one of the smallest girls tugged on Sirius' sleeve and told him that he made her cry and he had to make it up to her. He asked how he could earn her forgiveness and she told him, very seriously, that she wanted one of the gold filigreed buttons on his overcoat."
Draco smiled widely. "Not the ones from Twilfitt and Tattings? Those cost a pretty penny."
"They are apparently very shiny, as well," Harry said. "As before he knew it, all the girls were demanding buttons. He agreed, of course, feeling terrible for having frightened them accidentally. When he ran out of buttons on his coat, he was obliged to offer the ones on his shirt as well and even the golden clasp that was holding his hair back. When he finally came out into the waiting room he looked like a goose that had been plucked for dinner and then released after the cook changed his mind. He was clasping his clothes together with his bare hands and his disheveled hair hung about his rather shell-shocked expression as he stumbled toward the exit miserably. The Head Healer of the children's ward was searing his ears with admonishments and Rigel was just behind him, laughing and laughing all the way to the Floo."
Draco shook his head in disbelief. "And they still let him volunteer at the children's ward after that?"
"Oh that was when he started volunteering," Harry told him. "He felt so guilty about the whole thing that he arranged it with the Head Healer as a sort of penance. Later he decided he enjoyed it too much to ever quit."
"Well if that's an average anecdote from your childhood I suppose I can see where Rigel gets some of his skewed notions of normalcy," Draco admitted, laughing softly. "Thank you for sharing that."
"Thanks for listening—I know other people's stories are never as interesting as they seem to the person recalling them." Harry smiled.
"You shouldn't be self-deprecating like that," Draco said, frowning slightly. "It was an amusing story, and making it seem otherwise won't serve you well in the long run."
Harry blinked, tilting her head slightly. "Why do you say that?"
Draco took a moment to respond, looking at her oddly. "You look so much like Rigel when you do that. It's eerie how alike you two are."
"We grew up together," Harry said shortly. "What did you mean?"
"Just that if you want to succeed in this type of social environment you need to show confidence and strength, not humility. It makes you seem as though you either don't know your own worth or you're fishing for complements," Draco said.
She thought about that for a moment, frowning. "Most people would consider it a polite deflection of an implied compliment, wouldn't they?"
"Perhaps if you were someone else," Draco said, looking a little apologetic. "I'm not trying to criticize you—it's honest advice," he added, concern in his gaze. He probably feared she would take his comments the wrong way and perhaps complain to Rigel that he was unkind to her.
"I understand," she said, nodding slowly. "As a halfblood speaking to a pureblood I shouldn't overtly undervalue myself because others will do it anyway, so it only makes it seem like I agree with their assessment and am admitting that I don't belong here."
Draco looked taken aback, as though he hadn't expected her to grasp his point so quickly or repeat it so bluntly. "Forgive me," he said, "for bringing it up like this. I shouldn't have ruined the mood. It is a party."
"I'm glad you did," Harry said honestly. "I never resent advice, especially when it's given kindly. I'm not…" she trailed off, picking through words with care, "unaware of the position I'm in. Rigel means a lot to me, but he occupies with ease a world that I will have to work hard to be accepted in. If I may be as blunt, I truly appreciate your civility. Others of your station have not been so courteous. Even if you are only being nice to me for Rigel's sake, I'm still grateful, and I think it speaks well of you as a wizard."
Draco looked supremely uncomfortable. "I find your company perfectly amiable, Miss Potter. That Rigel is so close to you just makes it all the more important for us to find ways to get along."
She would bet good Galleons that Pansy had put that idea into Draco's head. It smacked of her friend's social insight and long-term thinking. She didn't know how she felt about the idea. On the one hand, she was acutely aware that she would one day lose Draco and Pansy's friendship as Rigel. It would mean so much if she was able to continue that friendship as Harry, but on the other hand…it seemed an unlikely prospect. How could she have a close relationship with her best friends without eventually revealing something about the ruse? She knew too well that her guard was much lower around them. Eventually she would make a reference she shouldn't. It was too risky, and yet…she wanted this. Wanted to be legitimately included into their lives as Harry.
"I suppose we should," she said eventually. She knew it was less than overtly welcoming, but she wasn't sure yet what the best course of action would be. She would write to Archie and ask his opinion before she attempted to get any closer to Draco as Harry.
If Draco was curious as her sudden reticence, he didn't show it. Instead he gave her a polite nod and said, "I look forward to speaking with you again sometime, then, Miss Potter."
"Just Harry," she said.
"Harry," he repeated, looking searchingly at her for a moment. "How is he?"
She knew exactly what he was asking. The last he'd seen of Rigel hadn't been an advertisement for a healthy psyche. "He's…getting better," she said honestly. She could not help the shadow that drifted across her face as she reflected on the progress she'd made. "He's going to be fine. The time away from everything will do him good, I think. When he returns, he'll be the Rigel you know."
"He should be with his family and friends right now, not off in the middle of nowhere," Draco said, scowling unhappily.
"You know he likes to deal with things alone," she said quietly.
Draco pressed his lips together and nodded sharply. "You're right of course, Miss Potter. Excuse me." Then he left, weaving his way through the crowd toward where Narcissa was standing somewhat stiffly beside her sister.
"Just Harry," she muttered after him half-heartedly. She had never been more aware that she was not 'just Harry.' She was Heiress Potter. She was Harry the Lower Alley Potions Brewer. She was Rigel Black. She was highborn, lowborn, pureblood, halfblood, powerful, average, mysterious, and unassuming. She was thirteen. She was fifteen. She was fractured and whole. She was a child and a criminal, a lady and a liar. She was afraid that by the time everything was over she wouldn't be anything anymore. Just a collection of faces that hid a hollow void where there should be something real and solid and her.
She retreated to the outskirts of the party, then slipped into the kitchen when Sirius began opening his gifts with great fanfare. She busied herself washing up, but knew that anyone who came in would not be fooled by her slow scrubbing. As the party wound down, she pasted a friendly smile back onto her face and thanked people for coming when they glanced in her direction as they traipsed through to the Floo.
When Lily came in after the guests had departed and took over the cleanup, Harry bid Sirius one more happy birthday before changing out of her party clothes and grabbing her cloak. She needed to cheer up before her family wondered about her odd morose mood, and she could only think of one way to do that.
"I'm making a run to Diagon," she called to her parents on her way out. "Won't be too long."
"Can't it wait?" James called back.
"No," she said, attempting to sound apologetic. "Sorry, but I'm completely out of beetle legs."
"Merlin forbid," she heard her father snort as she grabbed for the Floo powder. It was nearly gone, even with their having bought extra for the party.
"I'll get more Floo powder while I'm out," she said loudly.
"Thank you!" Lily's words were the last thing she heard as she spun away to the place she had come to think of as a second home.
It was nearing dinnertime, and the more popular restaurants in Diagon Alley had begun setting up outside tables that edged foot traffic in the alley closer toward the middle of the street. She made such slow progress getting through the summer evening crowds that she wasn't surprised to find Leo waiting for her by the time she'd reached the mouth of Knockturn Alley. She slowed her impatient steps to a stop a few feet from him, taking in his ever-tanned skin and sleeveless summer tunic. His bright, hazel eyes smiled at her fondly as he uncrossed his arms and stepped in for a hug.
"It's about time, lass," he said into her hair.
She pulled away after a brief moment and scowled lightly to cover an unexplained embarrassment. "I've only been home from school a few days," she reminded him. "I'm not obliged to come down here and get my boots dirty at the very first opportunity."
"You did anyway, though," he guessed, grinning crookedly down at her. She had to frown, wondering when he was going to stop growing and let her catch up. She'd been so sure that her recent height addition was going to give her an advantage in their next duel. He was, what, eighteen now? When did boys stop growing, anyway?
"I had nothing better to do tonight," she huffed, putting her hands in her pocket. "How did your lookouts recognize me, anyway? I've changed a lot since they last saw me."
"You look the same to me," he said, eyes tracing her features in quick flicks. "My ears recognize your boots, anyway."
"My boots?" She frowned down at them. They were an ordinary pair of boots, though she supposed she did always wear the same ones.
Leo nodded once. "You take care not to attract attention with your clothes—which in itself attracts attention, by the way—but your boots are top-quality. That, and you're the only black-haired, green-eyed kid who comes to Diagon Alley alone and doesn't stop to look at any of the stores as you walk. Even when you've been gone awhile, you walk like you belong down here, and that's easy to spot out."
She considered that for a moment, then shrugged. "Well, tell your ears that I'll be buying a new pair of boots soon; the Sizing Charms are starting to wear thin on this pair."
"They'll relish the additional challenge," Leo assured her.
She rolled her eyes and began walking toward Kyprioth Court. "How are things lately? The Aurors ought to have stopped raiding now that they've got what they were looking for, right?"
"Apparently," Leo said, measuring his steps beside her. "They've gone back to just inspecting known Dark Arts dealers like Borgin and Burkes again. Things are good here. They usually are in the summer. More tourists in Diagon with kids off of school, so businesses do well, which means goodwill taxes can be collected. It also means a booming business for my pickpockets, but that's neither here nor there."
"I hope you're recruiting faster runners," she said, remembering with amusement the time a young urchin had tried to relieve her of a money purse.
Leo grinned sidelong at her. "I heard you chased one of my boys all the way to the deep alleys once. He was very traumatized by the experience, you know. Says you did some wandless voodoo on him and scolded him like his mother to boot."
Harry felt her ears turn red. "I didn't scold him. I just told him to pick someone fatter to steal from next time."
Leo laughed aloud. "I would have given the lad my Galleons to see that. If you're interested, I think the kid took your advice. Jack is one of our top collectors, these days."
"How nice," she said, not sure if she should feel pleased or not that a boy his age was making a decent living as a thief. She supposed it was better than imagining the boy on the street somewhere, but… "Leo, what do children in the lower alleys do besides run errands for the Court? I know you feed and house the orphans, but are they schooled?"
"Of course," Leo said, looking surprised at the question. "We have a couple different schoolmasters who float in and out of the Court. There's always someone around to give lessons to those who'll sit still for them. It's not anything fancy, of course; there's no money to send 'em to Hogwarts and the like, even for the few who could prove themselves pureblooded. Most are mixed bloods or don't know who their parents were, and there's certainly not enough gold to send them abroad. We do what we can, though, to get training and certificates for the older ones who want to leave the alleys to do other things. Most of them stay on with the Court, or at least in the alleys, and no one around here gives a whit where you learned to count anyway."
She nodded silently, soaking in this new information. There was always so much she didn't know about the world. "Well, I'm free this summer. If anyone seems interesting in potions brewing, send them my way, will you? At the very least I can teach them how to recognize good potions from bad. You'd be surprised how few grown wizards can tell if something in their potions kit has spoiled."
"That'd be great," Leo said, voice earnest. "Most of the teachers we get specialize in basic spellwork. My mum gives an impromptu lesson every now and then at the Phoenix, but it's usually on how to detect and cure poisons."
The Dancing Phoenix was just coming into sight ahead, and Harry couldn't help the small sigh that escaped her at its cheerfully lit windows and open door, which spilled music and laughter into the court around it. "I missed this place," she admitted. "It's been a long spring."
"It missed you, too," Leo said, bowing her facetiously through the doorway. "And spring is long behind us now."
"Yes, it is," she agreed quietly, soaking in the atmosphere for a long moment before following Leo to the center table where Merek, Aled, Rispah, Solom, and Krait were all sitting. "Summer is come at last."
Mugs were raised around the table at her arrival, and a discordant sort of shuffling ensued to make room for her between Leo and Krait on one side, with Marek, Aled, and Rispah on the other and Solom pulling up a stool on the end closest to the dormant fireplace. "There's my long-lost brewer," Krait said, slapping her on the shoulder happily. "First you send me so many potions I'm overstocked and then you drop off the map for two months! We need to have a serious chat about quantity control, Harry."
"I had a time-management issue this last term," Harry said, for the first time able to smile slightly even as she alluded peripherally to the events that still haunted her. "It'll be better this summer."
"Not doing anything with the Guild this year?" Aled asked curiously.
She shook her head. "I'll do some experimenting on my own, but I'll still have loads of free time."
"Not as much as you think," Leo said ominously, a slow grin taking over his face. "Don't you remember what I told you in our letters?"
She thought back, but after so many time-turned hours it was like trying to remember something that had happened years ago instead of months. Finally, a vague recollection came to her. "Something about a…tournament?"
Rispah began laughing. "I don't think Harry reads your letters as many times as you read his, Cousin."
"That's because I send him more letters than he sends me," Leo grumbled. "Harry is a terrible pen pal."
"Guilty," she said, nodding sadly. "So what gem did I miss in the treasure trove of your correspondence, Leo?"
"The Court is holding a freedueling tournament," Marek put in excitedly. "The first in three years. People are going to come from all over to compete."
"Freedueling is illegal," she felt compelled to point out. "How will you even advertise it without the Aurors shutting it down and fining you?" The others laughed, as she knew they would, but she was genuinely interested in how they planned to spread the word.
"Word of mouth," Aled said, shrugging. "Everyone knows someone who knows someone who wants to test his mettle."
"Or her," Rispah put in, eyeing Harry sidelong.
"That's right, it's open to all participants regardless of nationality, gender, or species," Leo said, also smirking in Harry's direction.
"I'll look forward to watching it," she said, frowning back at him suspiciously.
"I signed you up," Leo said bluntly, a cheerful smile on his face. "The entrance fee was a Sickle. You can pay me back at your leisure."
Her eyes narrowed dangerously at him. She'd pay him back all right. "You can get your money refunded when you withdraw my name from the list."
"No-can-do," Solom said, smiling into his drink. "The brackets have already been drawn up."
Harry gaped at them. It was a conspiracy. "I can't compete. I'm not even qualified."
"You passed the preliminaries," Marek said innocently. "Lots of people didn't do that much. I'd say you're plenty qualified."
"What preliminaries?" she demanded.
"Oh, you have to beat a member of the organizing committee in a friendly duel to earn a spot in the real competition," Rispah said, inspecting her nails casually. "Just to keep out the kids who could get hurt in a real fight."
"Well I didn't do that," Harry said, frowning. "It's not fair if you just put my name in because you know me."
"You beat Aled in a practice duel over winter break, did you not?" Leo reminded her, leaning one elbow on the table cajolingly. "Turns out he's part of the organizing committee, so it counts."
"He went easy on me that day," Harry said, exasperated.
"I never," Aled snorted. "You're a tricky devil, that's all."
"Not as tricky as you lot," she complained.
"If you were, we'd have to hire you," Rispah said, chuckling. "You're already dangerously savvy for one not in the Court of Rogues. You'll do fine in the tourney."
"When is it?" she groaned. It better not be something that was going to take up her whole summer.
"Just before your birthday," Leo said, smiling in satisfaction. "Plenty of time to prepare."
She sighed into the glass of milk that one of the table boys had brought over without her asking. She supposed it would be as good a reason as any to ask Leo for extra lessons in hand-to-hand combat. She had been planning on taking her training more seriously anyway this summer. She would never be caught in a helpless position again. "All right," she said at last. "But you're training me for this so I don't make a fool of myself," she added with a stern look.
"Wonderful," Leo said, clapping his hands together. "Come to the alleys tomorrow and I'll teach you how to Apparate."
"What?" She stared at him. "I'm not seventeen."
They laughed again. Marek leaned forward and said, "Everyone else will be Apparating in the tournament. If you can't, they'll only take advantage of that."
She supposed it made sense that freedueling didn't have rules about Apparating during the duel if it didn't have rules about weapons or potions being used. Still… "My dad's an Auror, remember," she muttered in aside to Leo. "This probably isn't a good idea."
"And my dad's an Aldermaster." Leo shrugged. "But they aren't the ones participating. Your parents will never know."
"Unless I die in it." She wasn't sure what made her say such a pessimistic thing, but she didn't take it back. It was a legitimate concern, after all.
"I won't let anything happen to you," Leo said seriously. He leaned in a bit closer and added, "You don't have to, Harry. We're not really going to force you to compete. Think about it, though. You've been training under me for almost a years now. Don't you want to see what you can really do? Against real opponents? Don't tell me you aren't tired of always losing to me."
Harry elbowed him for his conceit, but had to admit he was right. It would be interesting to test her skills for real. Dueling club at Hogwarts lacked a certain amount of earnestness, not to mention it was restricted to magical means of contestation only. Then she thought of something else. "Won't I be losing to you anyway, if you're in the tournament?"
Leo laughed, "I hope so. I have to win if I want to keep my crown, after all."
"The prize is the Rogue?" she said, alarmed.
"Of course not," Leo laughed. "Not everyone wants the job, I assure you. If I don't come out on top, though, it will lead to at least a few people questioning whether I've gone soft. They'll wonder if I can really protect the Court like I'm supposed to. It's bad enough I'm the youngest Rogue they've had in several generations. I have to make the best showing possible. The tournament is a way to reassure people as much as to cement my authority and entertain them. Not to mention the gold it'll bring in from ticket sales and vendors…"
He trailed off, clearly making happy calculations in his head, and Harry just gazed at him, wondering how someone so young could take on the responsibility of so many people willingly. She could barely take care of herself some days.
"So what is the prize?" she asked the table at large, raising her voice again to include everyone.
"Gold," Krait grunted.
"Twenty whole Galleons," Marek added, smiling dreamily. "And that's just the runner-up! The winner gets thirty, but everyone knows it'll be Leo and just go back to the Court."
"Nothing is certain," Leo said modestly. There was a glint of competitive anticipation in his eyes that she recognized from Draco's before a Quidditch game, however. What was it with boys and proving their own superiority through sport? As soon as she thought it, she flushed somewhat guiltily. She couldn't deny the fire of competition flooded her own veins on the occasions she was faced with a real challenge. Hadn't she enjoyed putting the boys in their places during the Guild internship last summer? Who was she to think the tournament foolish?
At that moment, someone came up and tapped Leo on the shoulder with a low, "Highness." Leo's face grew serious and he nodded to them all before standing and excusing himself to hear whatever it was in private.
Rispah leaned over from across the table and said, "It's good to have you back, Harry. Leo's been under a lot of pressure this year and you just being here calms him down right enough."
"I don't do anything," she protested, surprised at the remark. "If anything I take time away from what he could spend on other things."
"Don't underestimate what your friendship means to Leo," Rispah said seriously. "Leo's never had a friend from outside of these alleys. His relationship with all his closest mates changed irrevocably when he won the Kingship. He became withdrawn, formal with his people; he has to be, to be taken seriously at his age. It wears on him at times, though. He needs someone he can spend time with irresponsibly. It makes him happy, and a happy King means a happy Rogue. Everyone here knows that—it's why our folk look after you the way they do."
"Look after me?" she repeated, confused.
"Did you think one lazy pickpocket attempt every two years was the average for people who walk at will through the lower alleys?" Rispah raised her eyebrows. "Leo's ears have intercepted half a dozen attempts on your person at least—and that's just that I know of."
Harry's eyes went wide. "Well, I feel sheepish. And much less confident. I didn't notice anything," she said, disturbed.
"We didn't let you," Rispah said, patting her messy hair fondly. "Don't look so stricken; your naïve confidence is part of your charm."
She grimaced. "Thanks." She vowed to pay more attention to her surroundings. She'd known Leo's little runners kept an eye on her progress through the alleys, but she had no idea they'd been so industrious in keeping negative attention away from her—or that their efforts were so necessary.
Krait cleared his throat from beside her and, when Harry looked over, he said, "I heard you've had some success with your potions experiments, young Harry."
"I told you about it last summer," she said, slightly confused about why he was bringing it up now.
"You told me you'd invented a new way of brewing," Krait corrected her with a scowl. "You didn't tell me you invented a whole new bloody potion. Horace Burke has been breathing down the door of every apothecary in London trying to find someone who can replicate a recipe he somehow finagled from the Guild's Department of Research and Development. He's mad to find a brewer who can make the potion work, so I tell him if he can get a copy to me, I'm sure my star brewer can attempt it. When I got it, wasn't I surprised to see my own brewer's name in the bloody title?"
She frowned in alarm at Krait, who didn't appear to notice that he'd told anyone with a little detective ability in earshot that she was Harry Potter. She looked suspiciously at his tankard, wondering how many drinks he'd had that night. "I didn't know Burke was so interested in the potion. The recipe was published in the Guild's newsletter last year."
"Well, no one can recreate it," Krait said flatly. "And Horace Burke is going to pay through the nose to be able to supply it to his customers before it gets mass produced."
"That's…" She shook her head to clear it. "I'm not sure if I'm allowed to sell it yet. The Department of Mysteries has been studying it all year, but they haven't gotten back to me about their findings, if any. Although…they are starting to use it at the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, so I guess they must have decided it was safe."
Her father had in fact already commissioned several dozen of them directly from her just before the school term ended. They were the first potions she was able to bring herself to brew without wanting to be sick. When Archie first passed on the letter, Harry had to laugh at how excited James was in making the order. He'd told her gleefully that she'd even get paid for them from department funds, and mentioned it might be a good idea for her to open her own Gringotts account with the profits. He had no way of knowing that she'd been financially capable for quite some time. It was nice to have his pride, though. Finally even he had to admit her studies were good for something.
"If the Ministry is using it in their departments they can't stop anyone else selling it," Krait said, smirking. "Come on, what do you say? Lets get rich, Harry."
She shook her head a bit in amusement. "I'll make Burke as many as he wants. You, too, Krait. Don't charge too much for them, though. I want everyone to have access to it."
"What's it do?" Marek finally piped up, looking insanely curious.
"It's like a portable ward," Harry said, fumbling to explain in a way someone not familiar with the intricacies of brewing techniques would understand. "You pour it around you or whatever you're protecting and it sets up a barrier. Only weaker than a real ward, obviously. Still, it holds up pretty well against werewolves. Dragons, too, actually. It lasts about twelve hours, unless the antidote potion is used."
"There's an antidote potion?" Krait looked ecstatic. "Burke doesn't even know about that one. I'm gonna charge him double for the set."
"That sounds impressive," Rispah said interestedly. "How do you know it holds up against such creatures, though?"
She blanched a bit before she caught herself. Affecting a casual expression that she knew didn't fool any of the players at the table, she attempted to brush off the question. "Well, there's a lot involved in the experimental process—"
"What did you do, Harry?" Came a low voice behind her. She turned to see Leo standing over her shoulder with a hand on his hip. "Don't tell me you tested those uses yourself."
She opened her mouth to lie, but stopped when she saw the sharp intuition in his eyes. Because of her unprepared acting, he already knew the answer. "I've had an interesting year," she muttered defensively.
He looked at her long and searchingly before offering her a hand. "Tell me about it."
She shook her head quickly. "No, that's okay. It's really not the sort of thing you'd want to hear."
Suddenly everyone else at the table had something very important they had to get to. Krait and Solom retreated into the kitchen while Rispah excused herself to join a group of ladies at another table and Marek challenged Aled to a wrestling match in the courtyard. Harry stood and drained her milk resignedly. She set the cup down and climbed out from the bench, ignoring Leo's outstretched hand a bit churlishly.
He walked her outside, and Harry glanced up at the sky clumsily. "Wow, it's getting late. I ought to head back. I told my parents I wouldn't be long."
"Tell them you ran into an old friend," Leo said easily, leaning back against the side of the Dancing Phoenix with a patient expression.
"That will greatly reassure my father," she muttered, turning to lame humor in her unwillingness to have the conversation Leo seemed to be waiting for.
They stood in silence for a few moments, until Harry relented and came to lean on the wall beside her friend. She could see him tilt his head down at her from the corner of her eyes. She didn't meet his gaze, preferring to look straight ahead at the sparsely populated alley. "You look tired," Leo said after a lengthy pause. "Like you aren't sleeping."
"I sleep," she said.
"Not the full night, though, I'd wager," Leo mused. "There's a strangeness in you, lass. I thought it was just your new looks, at first, but my magic's been telling me something is off all evening. You've changed in some way, somewhere below the surface."
"I'm the same—"
"You look around more, too. Wary-like. You noticed me in the shadows of Knockturn Alley much sooner than I expected you to. When we approached the Phoenix you looked like someone come home after years in the wide world, only you also took note of every face and body in the room before you came to sit." Leo turned his gaze up to the heavens and he blew out a long breath. "I wish you'd tell me what happened to you in the last couple months. You sounded busy in early spring, but fine. Then your letters just stopped coming. I thought you were busy with exams, but it was something else, wasn't it?"
She shook her head slowly, an ache from the feelings she was holding back taking root in her temples. She forced her expression to relax and said, "Nothing happened. You're imagining things."
"So I imagined your eyes going dark and troubled just before you asked for extra self-defense training?" Leo said softly.
"You must have," she whispered.
"I don't want to talk about my year," she said firmly, looking over at him at last. "I'd like to put all of it behind me, in fact. I like being with you all in the alleys because nothing here reminds me of that. Okay?"
Leo's face said plainly that he didn't find it okay, but her friend was getting better at respecting her boundaries, apparently. He smiled a bit sadly at her and said, "Whatever you want. Let me walk you back to Diagon?"
"Sure," she said, standing straight once more. "Oh, I have to get some Floo powder! I told my parents I would pick some up."
"The shop might be closed by now," Leo said doubtfully, glancing up at the sun. "Why don't we Floo to your place on Dogwood real quick and you can bring home whatever you have stored there? You can buy more tomorrow to replace it."
"No, that's okay," she said quickly. "I'll just tell them the shop was out." She had no idea whether Mrs. Flint was still using her apartment or not, but Flint had intimated that he planned on letting her stay where she was settled until he had a stable enough position to support them both, so she assumed the woman was still living there for the time being.
Leo gave her a measuring look. "More secrets, Harry? These are my alleys, you know. I could find out if I really wanted to."
"Or you could respect my privacy," she said breezily. She started down the street at a quick pace, calling over her shoulder, "Coming?"
"One of these days…" Leo threatened playfully.
"Keep telling yourself that." Harry smirked. "I know you value our friendship too much to pry."
"I do," he agreed, suddenly serious again. "But, Harry, you can talk to me if you need to. About anything. I won't judge anything you're mixed up in, and I won't tell anyone your secrets."
"I know you wouldn't," Harry said, smiling wanly. "I'm not protecting myself from you, Leo." It was quite the other way around. She couldn't mix Leo up in her crimes by making him an accomplice. For all that he flouted the law down here in his kingdom, she was committing crimes under the noses of extremely powerful people who would not hesitate to round up everyone she'd ever met for questioning if her lies were ever discovered. Leo could not afford to fail a Veritaserum test on her behalf. Too many people depended on him.
"I wish I could protect you from whatever it is that's got you so scared," Leo said, clenching and unclenching one hand frustratedly as they walked. "I hate seeing you unhappy."
"I'm not unhappy," she said, smiling at him to prove it. "In fact, this is the best I've felt since coming home. Thanks for that, Leo."
"Anytime, lass," Leo said, falling back into his usual diffidently relaxed gait after a moment. "You come down this way as often as you need to—we'll be here."
He would, she knew, and he might never know how much that meant to her, having a place where she could be as close to herself as she knew how. The further her ruse carried her from the person her family expected her to be, the stranger she felt falling back into old patterns of behavior when she was at home. Here people didn't care what her name was or what her future held. The only things that mattered were her wits and her skills and, she admitted upon reflection, her friendship with Leo. She hoped Rispah was right, and she was as good an influence on Leo as he was on her.
She couldn't remember the last time she was considered a good influence on anyone, in fact, and some part of her found it a nice feeling. At the least, it made her feel less beholden to the unwavering support and generosity he'd shown her for the past two years.
The good feeling from the alleys followed her home and into her dreams that night. She woke feeling refreshed, and thinking that she should make it a point to do something good for others this summer, since she had a bounty of free time before her. Offering to give a couple of classes on potions for the alley kids was a good start, but there had to be other ways her skills and knowledge in potions could be put to a greater use. She would make it her mission that summer to find ways to give back to the community at large.
First, though, she had to get Krait a batch of the Protective Potions, if only to give him something to gleefully hold over Burke's head for a few weeks. She would need to ensure Krait didn't tell Burke that his brewer was the potion's inventor, however. Burke had contacts all over the place, and she didn't need anyone outside of Krait, Archie, Leo, his parents, and Rispah knowing that Harriett Potter worked for a shady apothecary down Knockturn Alley in her spare time.
The potions were a cinch to make after so much practice. They used a lot of magic, but she found that she had plenty to spare these days. By the third cauldron full, she had gotten so used to the large expenditures of magic that she didn't even notice it anymore.
She did notice when a piercing headache so diverted her concentration that she lost count of how many stirs she'd given since reducing the heat. The pain bloomed deeper, to near-debilitating levels, but she was well acquainted with pain now and didn't let it consume her. She gritted her teeth and forced her brain into focusing on setting up a stasis spell over her cauldron. That done, she groped her way toward a stool and took several deep breaths as she attempted to identify a cause.
The pain in her head didn't seem to emanate from any one point. It wasn't the ache at the base of her skull that let her know when she'd been hunched over a cauldron too long, nor the throbbing behind her temples she sometimes got from squinting at recipes for hours in the near dark. This pain pulsed through her entire head like a knife, and as she concentrated on it she began to feel a separate sensation, like a tug on her consciousness, underneath the discomfort.
Anger replaced her confusion, and she moved from the stool to sit against a nearby wall while she plunged her consciousness backwards from reality into the recesses of her mind.
She opened the eyes of her avatar to find herself completely submerged in water and very nearly closed them again in aggravation. Why did everything have to be so difficult? She looked around in what seemed like slow motion, her movements restricted by the press of water all around her. Visibility was remarkably good, despite the ocean that stretched in every direction, and there was an unnatural amount of light bending through the water that gave the scene away as magically created.
She was about a hundred feet above some sort of golden, underwater city. The metal that composed its spires and archways glittered beneath her and she started swimming toward it. She would bet all her cauldrons that the nuisance responsible for her headache was lounging on a throne somewhere in the middle of all the grandeur.
When she approached the submerged castle, she found it guarded at every entrance by selkie-like creatures that brandished spears menacingly at her as she swam near.
"It's my mind," she snapped at them in a stream of bubbles, waving away their silent challenge with an impatient hand. They let her pass, or rather she swam straight past them with an impatient kick of her legs without waiting for a reply.
She swam into a grand entrance hall and heard muffled noises coming from the staircase to her left, so she swam upstairs—wondering as she did so what exactly the point of building stairs underwater was supposed to be—and followed a tube-like corridor to where it ended at a pair of ornate golden doors. She could hear something like music coming from the other side, so she pressed her hands against the doors and kicked her legs with all her strength until they began to open.
"No, no, no, stop!" cried a voice. She ignored it, pushing open the doors the rest of the way and swimming into the room beyond. After taking in the sight before her, she realized the voice was not talking to her.
She had emerged onto a small balcony, which overlooked the largest opera house she had ever seen, complete with rows and rows of spectator seats that were currently empty and an orchestra pit that was presently filled to the brim with selkies of all sizes, each clutching some manner of unlikely underwater instrument. There were drums made of what looked like sharkskin stretched over hollowed out coral and violins drawn taut with seaweed strings and driven by bows of mermaid hair. The amalgamation of instruments and selkie virtuosos created an oddly grotesque effect from afar.
Beside her on the balcony was a merman with russet locks that hung to his waist and a tail that sparkled gold and silver as he lashed it back and forth angrily. He pointed a jewel-encrusted trident at the band below and cried, "You call that staccato, Wavespinner? Pluck those strings like you have opposable thumbs, for Trident's sake! This is to be the premier orchestral arrangement in all of Atlantis, and I will not have you mucking up the grand finale! Do it again."
"Or don't," she cut in, scowling at the merman. He spun in the water to face her and she caught the outline of a red jewel on his right shoulder. She didn't know why the Dominion Jewel insisted on taking such ridiculous forms when she'd given it a perfectly serviceable construct to begin with. Probably its incredibly developed ego played a part.
"What are you doing here?" he sneered. "The concert isn't ready yet, obviously. Come back later."
"You know very well why I'm here," she said, glaring. "I have a splitting headache. What are you doing to me?"
"What am I doing?" The jewel-possessed merman tossed his head of floating hair superiorly. "What are you doing? You've burned through an obscene amount of magic already today. I'm not going to have enough to finish this ensemble to appropriate standards."
"I don't give two Knuts about your imaginary orchestra!" she shouted, utterly exasperated. The effect of her ire was completely ruined by the stream of bubbles that seemed to be on delayed effect exiting her mouth, so that it was several seconds after she'd shouted that the bubbles finally dissipated.
"Do you like it?" he asked, smiling coquettishly at her. It was an entirely disgusting expression on a middle-aged merman. "I designed the bubbles so that anyone who came into this mindscape who wasn't me would look like a complete idiot."
She noted that no bubbles occurred when he spoke and felt like baring her teeth. Of course he had decided that emasculating an intruder by forcing him to produce bubbles every time he spoke fulfilled the order he was under to defend her mind. She rubbed her temple and refocused on the issue at hand. "You cannot debilitate me with headaches just because you don't like how I'm using my magic. It's not your decision. It is my magic and you can't stop me from using it."
"I can make it very uncomfortable, though, can't I?" The jewel-fuelled construct smiled widely.
"How are you doing that, anyway?" Harry asked suspiciously. "You shouldn't be able to affect the physical world from in here."
"I can't, but there are consequences to the things I do here," the jewel said, looking bored now. "Boys. Show the little lady how it works."
She looked over to see a pair of selkies with enormous cymbals standing at attention. As one, they slammed their metal instruments into the sides of the orchestra pit and an inhuman howl of sound rang in echoes all around the opera house. Harry cried out as a sharp pain reintroduced itself into her skull and sent her thrashing in the water until she bumped into the rail of the balcony and curled into the fetal position, clutching her head.
"Stop," she commanded sharply. "Stop it right now and don't do that again." The pain immediately receded in the wake of the fading sound and she uncurled herself slowly.
"I'll find some other way to annoy you," the construct said, yawning. "I can't allow you to simply waste our magic whenever you want."
"It's replenishable," she ground out. "And it's my magic."
"Yours, mine, ours." The jewel waved a hand unconcernedly. "The point is I clearly have to be the rational one here. If you drain it dry all the time, you'll leave us with nothing for emergencies."
"You just want it to build this stupid underwater opera house. Sound doesn't even travel well underwater," she said, rubbing her eyes tiredly. "What's the point?"
"I'm bored," the construct pouted. Also not a good look for a merman. "I need this entertainment to console myself about being locked up here away from the world."
"You pushed your way in here," she reminded it.
"Well, it obviously didn't work out like I'd planned," it snapped back. "How was I to know that you had an elaborate trap already built especially for such a situation? It's seriously weird, you know that?"
"I'm not the weird one in this equation," she said, gesturing angrily at the entire underwater spectacle that the jewel was wasting magic on for no other reason than to amuse itself.
"This is art, you plebian." The jewel threw its own arms into the air in exasperation. "Out. Get out of my Atlantis and don't come back until you're ready to appreciate the complex web of creativity I have woven here."
"You can't throw me out of my own mindscape," she spluttered.
"Watch me," the jewel hissed. It brandished the jewel-encrusted trident at her and a wave of hot water jetted across the space, like a whip of bubbles boiling in a slashing arc toward her. So shocked was she that it dared to brandish her own magic at her that she didn't move out of the way in time. The boiling stream struck her across the torso, but didn't burn her. She looked down at herself perplexed, examining her avatar. She looked and felt perfectly fine. "No," the jewel snarled, hurling another bolt of magic at her. She stared back defiantly as it splashed against her face harmlessly and dissipated into the water around her.
"That. Is. It." She was so done with this overgrown stalagmite trying to tell her what to do. There was absolutely no reason to let it keep leeching off her magic when there was no longer a Time-Turner around to produce the risk of resonance feedback. Now that she wasn't still reeling emotionally and mentally from the blows of those two weeks in captivity, she was ready to do what she should have done from the beginning.
"Don't do anything you'll regret," the jewel said nervously, floating backwards away from her a little bit.
"I won't regret it," she promised. She attuned her attention to her own magical core. It felt far away to her senses, for all that she knew she was right in front of it. It was like reaching for something familiar that you'd dropped underwater. It felt different as she groped for it, even though she knew intellectually it was the same thing. She felt it stir at her insistent mental prodding. The jewel grabbed at its stomach as though it was going to be sick.
"What are you doing?" the jewel groaned, doubling over. "Stop it."
"I'm taking my magic back," she said aloud, hypothesizing that giving the construct that contained the jewel's will an order would smooth the transition. "You can't have it anymore. Release my core."
She coupled the command with a lash of her will, tugging the magic of her core toward her, not caring how the violent reclaiming affected the jewel's sensibilities. Come back to me, she coaxed it silently. Come back to where you belong.
It started as a small trickle, just a lick of flame that crept from between the construct's lips and spewed out in sputtering fits from between the jewel's beefy fingers. She tugged on the connection between the magic and her, imagining that she was reverse-imbuing a potion, drawing the magic out of its container firmly.
The tongue of flame multiplied, the fire spewing from the merman's mouth in earnest, faster and faster, until the force of it pried his jaws apart to make way for the lava and ash that spilled out into the water around them. It solidified and began to slowly orbit, a small ball of fire that grew steadily larger as she insistently pulled and coaxed the current wider. The construct was belching fire now, a steady torrent that scorched the water around them into a flurry of bubbles that streamed up all around them.
Her re-forming core grew with a fury before her eyes. She smiled in satisfaction. A part of her that she hadn't known was feeling stifled was suddenly free, as though she'd been wearing thick, restrictive armor for months on end and could breathe in deeply and fully for the first time in too long. It was invigorating, watching her core defy all logic and understanding and form a giant ball of roaring fire a hundred feet underwater.
The fire stopped flowing from the merman's lips, and he gazed up at her weakly between wandering strands of hair. "Don't," he tried, pausing to cough a cloud of ash into the water pressing against his own face. "Don't take it all. Please."
She put a hand to the fiery core and stroked it fondly. "Take us back to the base layer of my core, jewel."
Bitterly, the merman snapped his fingers and the water world around them melted away. She found herself on the face of her old mountain and looked around to take stock of it.
The snow was gone, and she wondered if it would ever again be the icy fortress it had been. The mountain was overgrown with grasses of various shades of green, and she thought she saw a couple of trees beginning to sprout near its peak. Her core appeared to recognize the mountain intrinsically, gravitating toward the place at the very top where a piece of it had once sat.
"You can't stay out here," she told it, somewhat apologetically. She hated to shut it away in the mountain again, but she would have to at some point. The yellow-orange sun approached her slowly, hovering before her almost inquiringly. "Part of you can, for now, but in a few months I'll need you to stay inside the mountain. It's safer in there." Especially as having foreign entities traipsing through her head had become something of a disturbing trend.
Fire shifted over the surface of the sphere disgruntledly for a moment, but then the magic obediently split itself into two pieces, one significantly smaller than the other. The smaller piece soared upwards to take its place at the apex of her mindscape, where it would project a perfectly average magical aura for as long as she was Harry Potter. The larger sphere bumped her almost playfully in the shoulder, as though to say it wasn't upset at its partial suppression, before floating toward the illusory entrance to her potions lab.
"Sycophant," a voice scoffed in disgust.
She turned to see the jewel-construct, back in the original form she'd given it and looking much diminished, sitting on the grassy mountainside in a morose attitude. "Sorry, did you say something?" she asked sweetly.
"After all you did to that overgrown bonfire, it still cozies up to you," the jewel said, grimacing. "Didn't you lock it away for, like, ten years?"
"It wasn't that long," she muttered, glancing toward the entrance to her lab a bit guiltily. "I guess it forgave me. It understands that I was young and confused."
"It understands that it should get on your good side so you don't chain it up again," the jewel sneered.
"Maybe you could learn a thing or two from that overgrown bonfire, then," she suggested in a mild tone.
"I am Dominion!" The construct leapt to its feet, bringing itself to exactly her eyelevel as it glared dove-grey eyes at her green ones. "I do not submit. I am worshiped. I do not toady to sacks of flesh."
"No one is asking you to be my slave," she sighed. "I don't even want you in here."
The jewel seethed at her. "I destroyed my physical form in order to inhabit yours. Even if I wasn't trapped in this ridiculously limited mental construct, I still couldn't leave your mind for the physical realm now."
"So I can't get rid of you," she surmised. With a shrug, she tucked her hands into the pockets on her avatar's brewing robes and blew out a short breath. "Well, I'd assumed that much anyway. I suppose we'll have to learn to live with each other."
"One does not learn to live with tyranny," the jewel said, a bit dramatically in her opinion.
"My requirements are perfectly reasonable, considering that technically my mind is the victim of your invasion, which makes you the unwelcome aggressor in every circumstance," she pointed out. "All I need you to do is sit quietly up here and not cripple me with headaches whenever it suits you."
"All you need me to do is waste away without a purpose," the construct moaned. "I'm supposed to be controlling you. That was the deal."
"There was no deal," she argued. "You misinterpreted my needs for your own exploitative greed."
"Same thing," the dark-haired boy said, waving a hand dismissively.
She closed her eyes and wondered why she was bothering to argue with it. She had come here to get rid of a headache, not give herself another one. "Look," she said at last. "The bottom line is I'm in charge and you aren't. Obviously you can't be trusted to use my magic responsibly, so I'm not giving it back. You'll just have to learn to live without it. Find a new purpose."
The construct stared hard at her for a long moment, but then a slow smile bloomed across its face. "Actually…I do have a new purpose. You gave it to me, didn't you? I am to protect your mind from invasion. I need magic for that."
"You don't need magic—"
"Wasn't it you who wanted me to manage the layers of your mind in lieu of any true mastery of the skill by yourself?" The jewel leaned closer to her, smirking widely. "Something about maintaining a complicated fiction that depended on projecting the right sort of aura at the right times? It would be such a shame if I couldn't help you out with that."
Or if it deliberately sabotaged her, she thought darkly. What she said aloud was, "I've managed fine without you."
"It's been difficult, though, hasn't it?" the construct asked, picking at its nails now. "It could be so easy—you wouldn't even have to worry about it beyond sending me a little mental nudge when it was time to switch layers. And your mind is safer from Legilimency probes when I'm managing its defenses."
She didn't want to be tempted, but…it had a point. She didn't know how to maintain multiple layers in her mindscape. It was an extremely advanced Occlumency technique, at least she thought it was from what little she'd been able to find out about it after first witnessing it done in Ginny's mind by Riddle Jr.'s construct. As it was, it took her a good twenty minutes at her fastest just to move her magic and manifestations back and forth between the outer and inner portions of her mountainscape. To be able to switch her aura seamlessly in an emergency…well, that could be useful.
It would also be incredibly reassuring to know that her Occlumency was good enough to withstand a master Legilimens' probing for her secrets. As it was, she had been relying on her Occlumency primarily as a warning system in the event that someone attempted to pry secrets from her mind. She wasn't sure it would stand up to a truly skilled opponent who was determined to know her thoughts.
She couldn't give the jewel power over her magic again as things were, though. It was much too unpredictable to trust. She would have to bring it over to her side…slowly.
"You're right," she said, giving the construct a frank stare. "I could leave you up here to languish but it would be a waste of a valuable resource and I suspect it would only give you time to find other ways of vexing me."
The jewel smirked. "Glad you've seen reason. Now about my magic—"
"I wasn't finished," she interrupted, smiling sharply. "I think we can come to an agreement, but it will be just that—a bargain upheld by both sides, with consequences for disregarding its stipulations."
Something like pleasure flashed in the boy's eyes. "Oh, I do love a contract of power. What's it to be then, fleshling? I have much knowledge to offer a heathen such as yourself. I can teach you how to bend the natural world to your whims, how to influence the creatures you encounter to your advantage, even how to appropriate the magic of others as your own. It will be difficult, of course, without my physical form to channel your magic through—you'll have to learn the hard way, I'm afraid. Still, it will be worth the many years of labor when you rule the seven—"
"Not interested," she groaned. "Can you just listen for five minutes? This is what I need you to do: create a second layer in my mind—not a temporary one, a permanent one that will stay as consistent as my mountain world. That will be the primary layer from now until I return to school. Then you will have to live in the mountain world as the primary layer at all times."
"Not this dreary place," the construct complained loudly.
"Build what you like beneath the mountain," she growled. "Just leave the surface of the mountain alone. It needs to be identifiable any time a Legilimens scans my shields."
"You say that as if you're expecting it to happen all the—wait," the construct's eyes widened suddenly as what she'd said caught up to it. "You're giving me back the magic."
"Not all of it," she said, holding up a hand warningly. "Just enough for you to make changes around here. I'm keeping the rest of it free, and you will neither monitor nor begrudge the way I use it—that's an order. No more headaches."
"Yes, fine," the construct said, face alight with greed. "Give me the magic."
She held out her hand and summoned a fistful of magic from the spinning orb at the peak of her mountain with a single, clear thought. It flew to her immediately and danced around her fingers. She twirled it for a moment, smiling at the warm feeling it evoked in her breast, and then she held it out to the jewel. "Here. This is your allowance. Once you spend it, you'll have to wait for it to replenish itself naturally. You will not at any time attempt to consume more magic without my permission."
"That's not enough!" the jewel protested, eyes wide now with dismay. "That's barely anything."
"It's plenty if you don't use it wastefully," she said sternly. "Just build slowly and economize a little."
The construct looked highly offended at the idea of being thrifty with magic. It looked down at the generous ball of magic in its palm with complete distain.
"If you don't want it…" she said, reaching out to take it.
The construct snatched its hand back and swallowed the orb whole without further delay, a petulantly defiant expression on its face as it gulped the magic down. Once it had ingested the magic, she turned to survey her mind one more time before she left to get back to brewing. With luck, she would get back to her body before her parents came down to remind her to eat lunch.
"Not so fast," the construct said smoothly, catching her by the shoulder. She tilted her head toward it with long-suffering resignation.
"Our deal is not yet stuck," it informed her. "I have conditions of my own."
Her eyes narrowed and she crossed her arms with a huff. "What conditions could you possibly have? I'm not giving you any more magic, and what I want you to do with the magic is non-negotiable. It's too important."
"I can see that," the construct said, stepping closer to her avatar with undisguised curiosity lighting fires in its eyes. "I want to know why."
She stepped back, frowning at it. "I don't—"
"I'll make it easy for you," the jewel said bluntly. "Give me access to your memories. I want to know exactly what brought you to this web you seem to be weaving. I want to know what your plans are. If I'm going to be stuck in your head forever, I ought to have some understanding of what your life entails. It sounds fascinating, I must say." It said the last with a slow, relishing smile.
She pressed her lips together and thought it over. The jewel was basically asking for all of her secrets. Her ingrained instincts said no no no, but her rationality had to point out that there was nothing the construct could do with her secrets. It was literally confined to her own head. Not to mention bound to act in a way that was in her best interests, even if it did sometimes stretch those interests to include things that suited it, like 'conserving magic for emergencies.' She could command it never to reveal her secrets, and it would have to obey. There was also the possibility that it would be much easier to deal with if it knew why she asked it to do certain things. The jewel seemed self-serving in most things, so why shouldn't she turn that to her advantage by showing it how precarious her situation was? Once it understood that a single mistake could land her—and by extension it—in Azkaban forever, it might be a little more leery of distracting her unnecessarily.
"I'll make this place into a fortress," the construct said idly. She noted that it must be dying of curiosity if it was willing to stoop to cajoling enticements. "No one will ever be able to break through all the defenses I erect. I'll drive any intruders mad before they even realize they've stumbled into something above their pay grade."
"You sound very confident you can pull this off," she remarked, still thinking it over. "Driven a lot of people insane?"
The smile on the construct's face was not at all reassuring. "Only when they've failed me. If you're wondering if I'll do the same to you—don't. You passed the test already. You've proven your worth as a host. I could wish for a little more ambition, but your control certainly doesn't leave anything to be desired. Your willpower alone will take us far."
She wanted to say something contrary like 'No it wont,' but she was aware that breaking off into tangents was the last thing that would allow them to progress in this wearisome conversation. "Tell you what," she said eventually. "I'll give you access to some of my memories—only the ones pertaining to the ruse. My personal life is none of your business."
"It's a start," the construct said, looking incredibly anticipatory. "Can I view them now?"
"Not now," she said, shaking her head. "I'll set aside some time later this week and go through them with you."
"I know how to access a memory orb—"
"And I know you're a nosy hunk of corundum," she snapped. "No, you won't be rifling through my space room on your own. I will make time soon and give you access to the ones with information you'll need to conduct yourself usefully on my behalf. You will not have access to them once viewed and at no time will you attempt to interfere with or influence any aspect of my manifestations."
"Fine." The jewel sniffed. "It seems we have an accord."
"I won't forgive any mistakes after this," she warned it seriously. "I do think you can be a useful addition to my mindscape, but if you prove yourself to be detrimental to my plans I will build a mental box and put you in it, then bury it so far under my mountain that even I won't be able to dig you out again. Understood?"
"You won't be disappointed with my work," the construct assured her silkily.
She gave it a last, measuring look before turning away from the mountain and allowing her consciousness to slip toward the mists at its periphery. As she was fading back to reality, she heard a voice whisper softly, "Don't stay away too long."
She shuddered upon awaking on the floor of her lab. It was a sad state of affairs when she felt off-balance in her own mind. Still, if she could succeed in making the jewel invested in the outcome of her artifice, she would have a valuable weapon up her sleeve. That the weapon had the potential to be double-edged only meant she had to treat it very, very carefully. Harry was no stranger to handling things with care. She cracked her neck deftly as she removed the stasis charm over her cauldron and smoothly picked up stirring where she'd left off no telling how many hours before. She smiled a little as some part of her recognized automatically exactly what she had to do next. It was so nice when things proceeded precisely according to plan.
[end of chapter one].
A/N: Here we are again, faithful readers. As some of you may have guessed, following the pattern of books so far as alternating between a major Alanna plot line and a major HP arc, this book will give a bow to the Triwizard Tournament. It may not be quite the tournament you're used to, though, so try to keep an open mind.
Thanks again to everyone who's made it this far. Your support and feedback make the writing process so dynamic; sometimes I forget I'm writing fiction and feel instead that I'm merely relaying the inevitable conclusion to all my readers' hopes and suppositions.
All the very best,