While they walked through King's Cross, Sirius had a cool, unaffected air, as if he didn't notice the whispers and stares he got. When one particularly rude woman squawked at the sight of him, clutching her child behind her, Sirius merely smiled and winked at her while they passed. For her part, Augusta sneered down her nose at the woman, which was quite a feat considering Neville's gran was diminutive in stature and the woman eclipsed her by at least a foot.
Harry envied Sirius' ability to smile in the face of the whispers. It was something he'd never been able to master.
It wasn't until they were safely apparated away that the mask fell. Sirius' face changed completely, more tired, more downtrodden. He noticed Harry and Neville both watching him and grinned again.
"Still a bit of a shock seeing me, I guess," he reassured them. "They'll come around."
Harry didn't doubt it. He was well-acquainted with the fickle whims of the wizarding world, vacillating between declaring him a hero and a villain based on a snake or a cup or whether or not it happened to be Tuesday. Still, he wished they could get to the part where Sirius could have a normal life.
When they got to the manor, the hedges were no longer dancers, as they had been the last time Harry was here, but appeared to be upright cats playing a game of croquet. Harry caught Sirius' eye and grinned, knowing they were both thinking the same thing: How could this entrance possibly be approved by someone like Augusta Longbottom?
Harry was pleased to find out he'd be staying in the blue room across from Neville's again. Sirius, who had moved in a few days before, accompanied Harry and Neville to their rooms, bringing along their things.
"My room is one floor down—the one with the paisley wallpaper," Sirius said.
"That doesn't exactly narrow it down," Neville commented.
"The brown and orange paisley."
"Ah, so the truly awful wallpaper then," Neville mused, nodding his head sagely.
That room was set quite apart from everyone else's, and Harry couldn't help but wonder if Augusta was trying to give Sirius some privacy. Did he get nightmares sometimes, too?
Neville left Harry and Sirius at the door to the blue room. After placing Harry's trunk, Sirius stood there silently, restlessly, as if he didn't want to go but wasn't sure what to say. He paced about the room a bit, inspecting the furniture thoroughly.
Harry began unpacking his things, taking out his school robes, his dress robes and his shabby assortment of clothing—Dudley's old castoffs and a small pile of Weasley jumpers.
"The wallpaper really is quite bad in my room," Sirius said, "though Augusta's been a good sport about us staying here. She said I could change it if I wanted."
He looked around and added, "You too, of course. If you wanted a different color or something."
He looked down at Harry's things. "Green, perhaps?"
Harry felt his stomach clench. It's not that he didn't like green. Mrs. Weasley had said she liked green on him because of his eyes, but Harry couldn't see his eyes unless he was looking in a mirror. When he thought of the color green, he usually first thought of Slytherin… and, on occasion, he thought of that faint bit of memory he had, made all the clearer by the dementors—Voldemort murdering his mother.
It wasn't all the time, of course—most of the time green was just green—but he liked those jumpers because Mrs. Weasley had cared enough to make them for him, not because of the color. If he'd had a choice, he probably would've picked red or blue or something else entirely. And if it was all the same, he'd rather not have a green room.
"No," he said. "I like blue. Green's…"
He trailed off awkwardly, but comprehension dawned on Sirius' face and he nodded.
"Blue's nice," Sirius agreed, and then his mask was back, a charming smile on his face. "But whatever you do, look out. I've only been here a few days, and I've caught the house elf coming at me with scissors twice. According to Augusta, I've got the hair of a mangy cur—of course, I was one the past two years, mind you—and I can't imagine she likes the look of your hair either."
Harry felt for the tips of his hair instinctively—his hair was an unruly mess as usual. "Aunt Petunia's tried giving me awful haircuts," he said. "It grew back overnight."
In the end, Augusta won out on the haircut front, at least as far as Sirius was concerned. Over breakfast in the mornings she'd mutter about the vagrant at her table, and in the evenings when they'd all listen to the radio she'd ask Sirius what sort of woman would be attracted to that lanky mess, and, finally, she bet him in a game of cards—if she won, he cut his hair; if he won, he could transfigure hers pink.
"Gran never loses," Neville whispered to Harry as Diggy was cutting off Sirius' locks. "Because she cheats."
Harry didn't think that was particularly fair, but he had to admit Sirius looked much better with shorter hair. It was still long enough to fall in his face a bit—Sirius was adamant that he didn't want to look like someone who worked for the Floo Regulation Authority—but he looked like anyone else who hadn't spent the past 14 years as a criminal.
And when it was all over Diggy told Harry confidentially, "Master Frank always kept his hair and beard neat and trim. It made him feel normal after a particularly bad day at work."
And Harry was for anything that made Sirius feel normal.
In addition to the haircut, they all took a trip to the local muggle town—Augusta and Sirius deemed it safe enough for Harry to go for one quick trip—so that Sirius and Harry could get some clothes that actually fit. Sirius splurged on Harry quite a bit, buying jeans and jumpers and t-shirts in just about every color—though there was a noticeable lack of green.
"That wasn't so bad," Sirius commented when they were done.
Neither he nor Augusta had really talked about it, but Harry gathered that their excursion to Diagon Alley while Harry and Neville had still been at Hogwarts had been a bit more eventful—Augusta got a peevish look on her face any time it was mentioned at any rate.
If the scene at King's Cross was any indication, he could only imagine the scene they had created then.
Where Augusta won on the haircut issue, Sirius won on others, like the swimming issue. On the first particularly hot day, Neville suggested going in the lake.
"Make sure to take your gillyweed," Augusta warned, not looking up from her paper.
"What's he need gillyweed for?" Sirius asked, a look of total confusion on his face.
"I almost drowned once," Neville told him, "when my uncle dropped me off a pier. Gran's made me use gillyweed ever since."
"Well, we can't have you go drowning again," Gran muttered. Her face was still behind her paper, but from the gruff note in her voice, Harry thought perhaps Neville's drowning had scared her more than she let on.
Sirius did not seem shocked at this piece of Neville's past—Harry had gathered from years at Hogwarts that wizarding children were used to being dropped off piers or buildings, or bitten by creatures with sharp fangs, or turned into a hedgehog for a little while by accident, and Sirius had once been a wizarding child—but Sirius did seem shocked by the gillyweed.
"Seems a bit stupid to rely on a plant when we can just teach them how to swim," he replied incredulously, as if Augusta were a small child he had to explain a simple task to.
And so, Sirius set out to teach both Neville and Harry just that. First, he showed them in human form and then he chased them around the water in dog form, all the while Augusta sat primly on a bench she transfigured near the lake, ostensibly reading her book but she never seemed to turn the page.
And, quite honestly, it wasn't that hard once Harry got the hang of it. Soon they were racing to a buoy Sirius placed in the middle of the lake, and while he or Harry usually won, the time Neville got there first, they all made celebratory cake with Diggy.
Once Sirius was certain they wouldn't drown a horrific death, he began charming the lake, creating fountains when they least expected it, lifting them up into the air, and giant waves for them to body surf.
This was always Harry's favorite time of day. When Sirius was bewitching the waves, he actually smiled—not the mask smile—and even Neville, who tended to avoid even halfway-dangerous situations, seemed to thoroughly enjoy the waves, beaming after they'd surfed toward shore. For a few moments, swimming with Sirius and Neville, Harry could imagine that he was living the life his mum and Alice had planned for.
On days when it was too cold to swim, the three of them played games of exploding snap. And when Neville wanted to spend time working in his greenhouse, Harry and Sirius played swivenhodge—a game where you sat backwards on your broom, using the end of it to lob a ball over a hedge, sort of like tennis—which Sirius swore could help with broom precision in quidditch.
Harry wasn't sure if that was true, but swivenhodge was fun anyway. Harry especially liked the times after the games when he and Sirius would lay in the grass catching their breath, and Sirius would tell him some story or another of the time his dad scored 600 points in a single quidditch match, or the time his mum was the first to master nonverbal spells in class, and she proved it by stunning his dad.
After his conversation with them in the graveyard, after he got a chance to hear their voices—and not their yells or their pleadings—Harry could almost picture what they must have been like back then.
"Were they always friends?" Harry asked.
Sirius was quiet for a moment before answering. "No."
Harry figured that was the case considering what Sirius had written when he'd given Harry advice about Hermione.
"They were both stubborn and liked to be right, so they had a bit of a rivalry in classes," Sirius added. "I think that's why your dad always fancied her so much—he liked being challenged."
"And outside of classes?" Harry asked, staring up at a cloud that looked like a rabbit.
"Your mum didn't always approve of our extracurricular activities," Sirius laughed, making Harry think he was perhaps sugarcoating things a bit. "Their senses of humor were a bit different. And on the surface, they didn't have much in common—she didn't care much for quidditch, they had different circles of friends, and she was a prefect while we spent a fair bit of time in detention."
"So what changed then?"
Harry turned his head to look at Sirius, whose face had grown more contemplative, more serious.
"Where it counted, they had everything in common," Sirius said. "There was a war on, and your parents had the same beliefs, the same values. As we got older and things became more real, well, all of us marauders grew up a bit—the others a bit more than me, of course. And your mum was able to see who your dad really was."
Harry gazed up at the clouds—puffy clouds perfect for jumping on—and thought of Hermione. Some people might write him off as a jock and her as a nerd—and it was true that he preferred the quidditch pitch, while she liked the library—but at their core, they believed the same things, too.
"That makes sense," Harry murmured.
It wasn't all fun and games and reminiscing, of course.
When they sat down to dinner on their very first night—the four of them plus Remus, who had come to see how Harry and Sirius had settled in—Harry asked about the Order of the Phoenix and what was going on with Voldemort. Sirius sat back in his chair, a proud smile on his face, while Augusta eyed him shrewdly. Remus looked like he knew the question was coming and shot a significant glance toward Sirius.
"Voldemort's been lying low for now," Sirius said, avoiding Remus' gaze, "since his comeback didn't exactly go off as planned."
"What do you mean?" Harry asked, exchanging a confused look with Neville.
"Well, he didn't exactly expect Dumbledore to show up in the middle of it, did he?" Sirius asked. "Nor did he expect you to survive. And now he's got to deal with Dumbledore alerting everyone in the wizarding world to the fact that he's back."
"Is it working?" Harry asked. "We haven't talked to Dumbledore about it since that talk with you the day Rita's first article came out."
"There are plenty who believe him. Though Fudge is still clinging to Pettigrew's version of the story," Remus answered.
Apparently, whatever he had been trying to warn Sirius not to say did not extend to Fudge.
Sirius sneered when Remus said Pettigrew's name.
"And there are people who believe Fudge?" Harry asked, not understanding how anyone could be so blind to the truth when Dumbledore himself was telling everyone what he saw.
"It's not so much that they believe Fudge as they don't want to believe Voldemort is back," Sirius explained.
Harry was getting tired of hearing that—people were idiots.
"And they won't believe it until people are routinely coming home from work to find their families dead in their sitting rooms, the Dark Mark hovering over their houses," Augusta added, her voice sharp and cutting.
Sirius nodded at her grimly. "But we're doing our part there," he said. "Amelia Bones, Amos Diggory and Arthur Weasley are doing their best to spread the truth throughout the Ministry without doing anything so overt as to get them fired. Amelia has even gotten some new recruits for the Order of the Phoenix."
Sirius shot Augusta a fond smile. "And this one has probably done more than any of them," he said.
Harry's eyes darted to Neville and saw his friend was just as confused as he was.
"She's playing parlor politics," Sirius explained, taking a sip of his water.
"What's parlor politics?" Harry asked.
"The battle of the biddies," Sirius said, although that still didn't explain anything to Harry. "Fudge and Dumbledore are still locked in this battle over whether Voldemort is back or not, and Ministry officials have to tread carefully lest they lose their jobs. But what can they threaten old Augusta with?"
Harry looked at the grim-faced battle-axe with the snarled claws for hands. There was nothing they could do to her.
"So you're just going to people's houses and telling them Voldemort's back?" Harry asked.
Augusta surveyed him. "You don't just tell people he's back," she said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "There's an art to it. Parlors are a place meant for gossip and for making the other person feel incredibly dumb for not being in the know."
Harry gathered that Augusta was probably very good at making other people feel dumb.
"In any case, Mildred Coote—that dreadful hag—and Addie Dawson have seen the light, and their husbands think whatever they want them to, so at least these visits haven't been completely worthless," Augusta griped.
Neville caught Harry's eye and grinned. His gran loved complaining, but it was obvious to anyone that she very much enjoyed her role in the cause.
"What else is the Order doing?" Neville asked eagerly.
"Mostly, we're just doing whatever we can to make sure Voldemort can't carry out his plans," Sirius said.
"What are his plans?" Harry asked.
"He's trying to build up his army again," Sirius explained. "In the old days, he had his faithful Death Eaters, as well as people he'd bullied or imperiused to follow his orders, dark creatures as his allies. Hagrid's reaching out to the giants and Remus here is trying to make inroads with the werewolves."
He glanced at Remus, whom Harry supposed looked more tired than usual.
"How's that going?" Harry asked, though he was pretty sure he knew the answer.
"Slowly," Remus said, looking a bit amused. "Werewolves aren't particularly trusting, so there's not much I could do in a week."
"Ridiculous," Augusta muttered. "They're the ones who go around biting children—oh not you, of course, I know that, but the packs are a different story. And they're distrustful of us?"
She looked like someone had just set off a bunch of dungbombs. Augusta liked Remus—he was the only professor aside from Professor Sprout who'd ever taken an interest in Neville, after all—but she considered him to be different from the werewolves who chose to live in packs. Harry didn't know much about them, but he didn't think they could all be bad. It's not like they had chosen to become werewolves either.
Sirius' face was dark. "They don't all go around biting children, any more than all purebloods go around joining the Death Eaters," he retorted.
"Says the only halfway decent member of the Black family in a thousand years," Augusta sniped.
"The difference is all Blacks are raised from birth to be raving lunatics who believe in the myth of blood superiority," he replied. "Werewolves aren't born to kill—they're not even born werewolves—and being turned into one doesn't suddenly make you a killer."
"No, but living apart from society certainly does create a hive mind mentality," Augusta pointed out.
"Well, whose fault is that?" Sirius snapped. "Maybe if we actually treated them like they were human—"
Remus cleared his throat awkwardly, and Augusta and Sirius glared at each other, haughty expressions on both of their faces. Neville and Harry shared a nervous glance—though they would come to find out in the coming weeks that Augusta and Sirius both got a perverse sort of pleasure from arguing politics with each other. It usually ended with Augusta snarking that the Blacks were a bunch of degenerate loons, and Sirius correcting her that they were actually inbred degenerate loons, and then they'd share a good laugh about it.
"In any case," Remus said mildly, "that's why letting people know Voldemort's back is so important. If we can keep him from getting allies and put people on guard for a potential Imperius attack, we can keep his numbers from growing."
"We know he called his Death Eaters to him not long after he returned," Sirius added, still looking like he wanted to say something about the werewolves, but forging ahead anyway. "He's not particularly pleased with them—"
"Why not?" Harry asked.
"Because while Voldemort's spent the past fourteen years barely surviving, the Death Eaters who escaped Azkaban have been living their best lives, hardly giving him a thought," Sirius pointed out. "You think the Lucius Malfoys of the world are happy he's back? Lucius has spent the entirety of Fudge's term whispering in his ear, getting the man to do his bidding, and now he's got to play second fiddle to Voldemort again."
"And the way Voldemort sees it, Lucius and the others could have spent that time finding and helping him," Remus added. "The Death Eaters who escaped Azkaban are the least loyal of his followers."
"So could they be turned?" Neville asked.
Sirius let out a bark of laughter. "No," he sneered. "Too cowardly. It was all well and good for them to pretend they were never Death Eaters when Voldemort was in the wind, but now that he's back in full power? They'll be too afraid of him to do anything but his bidding."
"What about Snape, then?" Harry asked.
All of the adults exchanged a look.
"Dumbledore trusts him," Remus finally said with a sharp glance toward Sirius.
"And he's apparently sold his return to Voldemort well enough," Sirius added.
Though the way Sirius said it, Harry was certain he'd be perfectly happy if Voldemort saw through Snape's spy act and killed him where he stood.
After that night, Sirius and Augusta kept them pretty well up to date on the comings and goings of the Order of the Phoenix, as well as any tidbits of news that they got.
Augusta also took great pleasure in explaining current events to them. In the mornings, she and Sirius would read the Daily Prophet, calling out their favorite Rita Skeeter-isms.
"She called Fudge a bloviating bonehead!" Augusta murmured approvingly.
"That's nothing," Sirius remarked. "Look, later on she calls him the 'human equivalent of flobberworm feces.'"
Fudge had apparently taken issue with Rita's first article about Voldemort and had tried to get her fired, but the Daily Prophet had seen a spike in sales and refused. Or maybe Rita just had blackmail material on the paper's owners—anything was possible with her.
Rita, miffed at Fudge's actions and secure in the knowledge that the newspaper had her back, had made destroying Fudge her new mission. Or, at least, that's what Hermione had gathered.
I tried to give him a chance, she wrote to Harry, but as he's still carrying on this nonsense I don't mind what Rita says about him until or unless he admits to the truth.
Harry certainly wasn't feeling charitable toward Fudge—especially after Pettigrew got sentenced to Azkaban for the explosion years ago, but his trial for kidnapping Harry was put on hold. "For the safety of the Boy Who Lived, of course," Fudge told the reporters. "There's no need to put him through that when Pettigrew is already serving a life sentence for his crime 14 years ago."
Of course, anyone with a brain knew it was because he didn't want Harry and Dumbledore testifying in court.
"Amelia's not fighting him on it because there's no point," Sirius explained. "Dumbledore's telling the story to anyone who will listen anyway, trial or no trial."
There was the time Dumbledore gave a speech to the Wizengamot about Voldemort, and the ensuing fight over whether or not he had returned had ended in Mervyn Doge turning Giles Oldershaw into a rooster. And then there was the ICW meeting that almost ended the same way—except the Bulgarian ambassador backed Dumbledore up.
"The Bulgarian minister doesn't like Fudge," Harry told the others. "Pretended he didn't speak English during the whole Quidditch World Cup."
And then there were the smaller news items—like Amelia Bones making reforms in the DMLE, reforms that Sirius told them were designed to ready the department to fight Voldemort while still giving Amelia plausible deniability where Fudge was concerned.
Or the four-legged magical creatures act that Amos Diggory introduced, the details of which made Harry's eyes glaze over but which Sirius found incredibly promising.
"This'll make Remus' job a bit easier," he told them.
"What's this got to do with werewolves?" Harry asked.
Sirius grinned bitterly. "A couple of years ago, Umbridge introduced anti-werewolf legislation that made it impossible for Moony to get a job," he explained. "And other werewolves, too. If you read between the lines of 'properly licensing your hippogriff' and 'guidance on severing your crup's tail,' he's rolled back those werewolf restrictions a bit."
"Why doesn't he just roll them back fully?" Harry asked.
"He can't," Neville replied. "People would have a fit."
Sirius eyed Neville approvingly. "That's right," he said. "He'd probably never get it passed. But a little tweak here, a little tweak there, and suddenly, you've got loopholes."
Amos Diggory had never seemed like the type to care much about magical creatures—his treatment of Winky certainly hadn't been great—but he at least seemed committed to the Order's cause.
Or, at least, that's what Hermione said in her letter to Harry a couple of days later, having read between the lines of the latest legislation. Remus delivered it to him directly so it couldn't be intercepted—he always seemed to pop in for dinner on days he had spent guarding Hermione's house—telling Harry that Hermione looked well and was exceedingly safe.
He was glad to hear it, though Harry wasn't sure he'd fully believe that until Hermione was safely at the manor. Still, he was eager for any information he could get about her.
While Harry knew where Augusta was going when she left in the afternoons, Sirius also spent a fair bit of time outside of the house—and he knew it wasn't to guard Hermione since he was certain Sirius would tell him if he'd seen her.
"Where are you always going?" Harry asked one morning when they were exploring the grounds with Buckbeak, who had also taken refuge with them.
"Sometimes to Hogwarts," Sirius said. "Remus and I taught Flitwick how we made the Marauders Map, and he's got a few improvements."
"You're making more maps?"
Sirius nodded. "These will be a bit different. Flitwick is enchanting them to sound an alarm if anyone shows up on the map who shouldn't be there. And, since we know Voldemort could use house elves again, Dobby is imbuing the maps with a bit of house-elf magic to alert the user if any non-Hogwarts elf turns up."
"I didn't know he could do that," Harry commented.
"House-elf magic is different from wizarding magic," Sirius replied. "We don't fully understand it and so we can't always block against it, but house elves do and they can."
"Who's going to have these maps?" Harry asked.
"Dumbledore. A few other professors that he trusts."
Harry felt a pit in his stomach. "Snape?"
Sirius laughed bitterly, a grim expression on his face. "You think I'd ever let anything I create in Snivellus' hands?" he sneered. "No, McGonagall and Flitwick will do just fine."
Harry was glad that Hogwarts would be better protected, but he did feel the loss of the Marauders Map. If the professors had it, they'd be able to see anytime he was sneaking around Hogwarts—which, if the past was any indication, was quite a lot.
Sirius eyed him carefully, and then laughed more mirthfully.
"Honestly, Harry, these maps are for alerting Dumbledore to outside threats," he said. "I highly doubt any of them will be used to see whether you and Hermione are snogging in a broom closet after hours."
Harry felt his face burn red. When he and Remus had gone to see Sirius the day of the Third Task, most of their conversation had been about the tournament. But Sirius had asked how well his advice had worked and Harry had stupidly told them about the kiss. Sirius had grinned quite thoroughly, clearly pleased with himself even though it had been Harry who had done all the work, and Remus had had a superior sort of demeanor, as if he'd known all along that something like this would happen.
"We don't go snogging in broom closets," Harry retorted.
Hermione deserved much better than a dusty old broom closet.
Sirius' grin widened, as if he didn't believe a word Harry said.
"In any case," Sirius added, "I think you'll be safe to use the map next year—within reason, of course. Stick to the castle and don't go wandering about Hogsmeade unsupervised."
Harry nodded. He'd never had much reason to go to Hosmeade when it wasn't a Hogsmeade weekend, so that wasn't a hard promise to make.
"So that's really the only place you're going?" Harry asked. "To Hogwarts?"
Sirius looked down. "Sometimes I go to meetings for the Order of the Phoenix, at headquarters."
"Where's that?" Harry asked eagerly.
"Can't say," Sirius shook his head. "It's under the Fidelius, too."
"Why couldn't this place just be the headquarters?" Harry asked, perplexed. It was already protected, and then Harry could get to know more of what was going on.
"Absolutely not." Sirius shook his head, his tone sharp and resolute. "The only people who know about this place are the people currently here, Hermione, Dumbledore and Remus. And it's going to stay that way."
Sirius sighed. "Because this secret is only safe as long as Dumbledore is alive," he said. "And as Augusta quite rightly pointed out to me, we're in a war and Dumbledore is old."
Harry couldn't conceive of fighting this war against Voldemort without Dumbledore.
"I'm not saying he's going anywhere anytime soon," Sirius said, reading Harry's expression. "Dumbledore will probably live to be 300. But when he does die, if this Fidelius is still in effect, every person who knows the secret will become a secret keeper."
His face darkened. "And while Dumbledore may trust everyone in the Order, I don't and neither does Augusta," he said, and Harry knew he meant Snape. "I want to make sure you—and Neville and Hermione—always have this place to go to."
Harry nodded, but couldn't help but feel vexed. He was sitting here swimming and playing games while there was a war on. Everyone was hell bent on protecting him, but he wanted to be doing something.
"I can help, you know," he blurted out. "I'm not just some kid."
After Crouch Jr. had attacked Harry and his friends, Sirius had made it clear that he thought Harry should be focused on school.
"I know that," Sirius said softly. "No one denies what you can do, Harry. There aren't many people who could fight off Voldemort the way you did in the graveyard."
They continued walking side by side, Buckbeak rambling off on occasion to sniff at a rock.
"Voldemort fought differently with me than he did with Dumbledore," Harry said. "With me, it was all Crucios and curses. But with Dumbledore…"
"Let me guess," Sirius said dryly. "One of them conjured a dragon, which the other transfigured into a thousand flaming arrows, which then got turned into a knight the size of a giant."
"Well—basically, yeah. How'd you know?"
Sirius laughed. "Because that's what happens when you get two showoffs together," he replied. "They can't help proving how much better at magic they are. It was the same during the first war. Remus, your parents and I, we crossed paths with Voldemort a time or two, and he always tried to get rid of us expediently, while Dumbledore got the theatrics. That is, of course, until your dad conjured up a swarm of bees to attack him. Then, Voldemort started attacking him with twisters and conjured bears."
"What did dad do?" Harry asked.
"Turned the bear into ice daggers," Sirius replied, shrugging his shoulder lightly.
Harry grinned, and felt a bit of certainty in what he had to do next. Voldemort only fought that way against people he respected—and those were the only sort of people he could ever really fear.
Harry stopped walking and turned toward Sirius. "Could you… could you teach me how to duel like that?" he asked.
Sirius studied Harry, a thousand emotions flitting across his face: pride, love, fear, and finally resolve.
"Of course," he replied.
And so, Harry and Sirius started spending a few hours a day in the Auror Room. Harry thought Sirius was going to teach him some exciting bits of conjuration and transfiguration—fireballs and gargoyles and the like—so when Sirius told him what he'd be learning it was a bit of a letdown.
"Bubbles," Harry said incredulously, repeating what Sirius had just said.
He looked at Harry, a completely serious expression on his face.
"Transfiguring in a duel is not like transfiguring in class. You can't afford to get it wrong, so you've got to start small," Sirius explained.
"But… bubbles?" Harry asked, perplexed, earning a laugh from Sirius.
"Think of it this way," he said. "Voldemort conjures something and you turn it into bubbles. How will he react?"
"With a snide comment about how stupid bubbles are, I expect," Harry snarked.
Sirius' grin grew wider. "Exactly," he said. "So he turns the bubbles into a stampede of wildebeests, and you turn that back into bubbles. Now what is he thinking?"
"That I'm an idiot?"
"And after the third, fourth and fifth time?" Sirius asked.
Harry contemplated that, wondering how he'd feel. "He'd be annoyed… maybe vexed? But wouldn't he just go back to Crucios then?"
"And that's when you conjure up a swarm of bees," Sirius replied. "And then you go back to bubbles."
"But what's the point?" Harry asked. "To make him angry?"
Sirius looked victorious. "And angry people make mistakes," he said. "Look, the fact is, it would take all of us—not just you—decades to amass the type of magical knowledge that Voldemort and Dumbledore have. So we've got to create other advantages. Like annoying Voldemort into making a mistake. Getting him to underestimate us."
"So… bubbles," Harry said, this time without the incredulous tone.
And so Harry transfigured everything that Sirius conjured—from balls to giant trees to a bunch of roosters—into bubbles. Some worked better than others, but eventually Harry got it to a point where he was not just creating bubbles, but bubbles in the shape of silver stars and gold bells.
"Fantastic," Sirius crowed. "Soon we can move on to something a little harder."
"Like rose petals?" Harry retorted, but couldn't help but feel a little proud of himself anyway.
Neville sometimes joined them in the Auror Room, and Sirius taught him too, helping him to master some of the spells Harry had spent fourth year learning for the Third Task.
Of course, things were a little different with Sirius as a teacher. Where Harry, Hermione and Neville had used the Auror Room to conjure up objects they could summon and blow up, Sirius didn't indicate any specific spell they wanted to learn when he touched the stone on the wall.
"Fight training," he'd say, and the room would be filled with objects they could use in their fight—whether to use for cover, to transfigure into something else, or to use against their opponents as is.
And then chaos ensued, with Harry and Neville fighting together against Sirius. He was unpredictable in dueling, as likely to turn one of the discs into a rubber chicken as he was a snowball packed with ice.
"You've got to use your environment," Sirius called out when Harry and Neville were ducking down behind a dresser. "Duels don't take place in a vacuum."
Harry wiped some sweat from his face. Neville looked equally as tired. This was just like the fight with Crouch Jr.—Harry had used the broken furniture in the room then, too.
"Reducto!" he shouted, shooting a vase toward Sirius' head, which Sirius handily turned into a cluster of bubbles.
He turned toward Harry and grinned. "See?" he said. "Bubbles."
After one of their training sessions, Sirius was explaining the intricacies of protection spells to them.
"Protego you know, obviously," he said, as he tapped his wand to the stone to set the Auror Room to rights. "But there are all sorts of others—protection spells for areas, for objects, and one extremely specific one for pet iguanas."
He turned toward Neville. "Your dad had a pretty good book about them. We can see if we can find it in the library."
The "library" was a medium-sized room with a bookshelf running the length of one wall, and a few cozy chairs for sitting. It said a lot about how much Hermione liked the Secret Garden that they hardly spent any time there during Easter break.
"Oh no," Neville said, blushing slightly. "Any books that had to do with work wouldn't be in there… They'd be in their office."
Harry and Sirius exchanged puzzled glances. They hadn't seen any office in any of their explorations of the house.
Neville looked between them, fidgeting a bit, his desire to see his dad's book and learn more about protection spells warring with… something else on his face.
He sighed, squaring his shoulders resolutely. "Come on," he said, leading them out of the Auror Room and, to Harry's surprise, toward the door he always hurried past. Neville stood in front of it for a moment, completely silent, before reaching for the doorknob with a shaking hand.
The room was neat and bright—as soon as the door opened light flooded the space and a fire roared to life in the fireplace. Next to the fireplace was another closed door. Books lined the walls behind two dark mahogany desks that stood facing each other. On one, there was a magical eye, sitting in what Harry assumed was a preservation potion.
Sirius eyed the eye sadly, before moving to the bookshelf behind the other desk. Harry followed him. Neville hovered awkwardly near the doorway, an anguished sort of look on his face.
Harry looked down at the desk—there was a piece of parchment in the middle, a quill and inkwell perched next to it. He studied the handwriting—it was a report on the capture of a Death Eater named Nigel Pritchard, though by the looks of it, it hadn't been finished. It was dated November of 1981.
Harry felt his stomach clench, realizing instantly why Neville hated this room. Absolutely nothing had changed from the day his parents had been captured. It was like it was frozen in time, waiting for them to come back. Like they'd suddenly become sane, come home, and resume writing reports on Death Eaters long since sent to Azkaban. Even the fireplace had been waiting to welcome them.
He avoided looking at Neville, figuring he wouldn't want all the attention, but was extremely relieved when Sirius plucked a book from the top shelf. Harry glanced at Neville, whose eyes were staring pointedly at a spot on the floor.
"Come on," Harry muttered, pulling Neville out of the room. "Let's see if Diggy's got any biscuits."
While Harry enjoyed his days at Wiggentree Manor, the nights were another story. Every night, it seemed, he was plagued by dreams of the graveyard—the snake sinking its teeth into Crouch, Winky's vacant eyes, the feel of the Cruciatus Curse. Sometimes these dreams morphed into the ones about his parents' death, and sometimes he just felt the constant pain of the curse, waking up in a cold sweat, his limbs jerking around violently, his scar burning.
No one ever said anything about the nightmares to him, and he didn't mention them to the others. Dumbledore already knew about his scar dreams, and it didn't take a genius to figure out why he was dreaming of the graveyard.
Still, when Harry left his room early in the mornings, Neville was up too, a haunted look on his face. He had to have heard Harry's yells—their rooms were too close not to—but he never said anything directly. He merely asked if Harry wanted to go downstairs for a cup of tea, or to go question the portraits about Hufflepuff's office. They did both quite frequently, though hadn't had much success figuring out Hufflepuff's secrets.
And that didn't exactly help Harry's mood either. He couldn't do anything for the fight against Voldemort here; the least he could do is make some progress on the house-elf front.
Instead, when Sirius disappeared for some mission for the Order and couldn't go swimming with Harry and Neville, the two boys found themselves fruitlessly pestering the portraits or looking through some dusty old history books in the library.
Neville looked up at Harry one of those days and grinned. "If Hermione could see us now," he noted.
Harry practically snorted. "She'd probably be mad at us for doing this without her," he replied.
He'd gotten a few letters from Hermione, but not nearly enough. The first had been a thank you note for his sneakoscope. He'd unpacked it on that first night, and gotten incredibly angry with himself. How could he have forgotten about it?
He'd sent it off with Hedwig right away with instructions for Hermione to keep it on her at all times. The sneakoscope had known that Pettigrew was untrustworthy, so it had to be at least somewhat useful.
Luckily for both of us, I'm not much for lying—Harry grinned, thinking of all the lies Hermione had told for his benefit—so the chances of it going off unnecessarily are quite low.
Crookshanks also appeared to be holding up his end of their deal.
You'll be happy to know that I can't even go out front to say hello to our neighbor without Crookshanks nipping at my heels. He even followed mum and me to the park the other day! You're very lucky that I happen to adore my cat.
Harry grinned picturing the stern, stubborn expression on her face, but couldn't quite bring himself to feel bad that she was a smidge exasperated with him and Crookshanks. She might sound grumpy, but if she were really mad at them, she wouldn't have thrown in that bit about loving her cat.
She also told him about her trip to the British Museum with her dad, writing in detail about all the new exhibits she'd seen.
Moody was supposed to be on guard duty that day, but he had to switch with one of the others—the museum is too crowded for his invisibility cloak to be effective, and can you imagine how people would react to that eye? But I had a chat with him a few days before and he sent one of the others—her name is Tonks—to blend in with us. Quite effectively, too… I kept looking out for her, but could never find her.
As worried as Harry had been about Hermione going home, he was glad she was getting to spend some time with her parents. When she told him about her fears—that her parents would feel like strangers—it was like a punch to the gut. She'd confided in him a few times this year—at the Yule Ball, after her fight with Ron about the Slytherin/Ravenclaw quidditch match—but as she told him about her parents, he realized she never really talked about her problems. She had a tendency to isolate herself when she was upset, to handle things on her own. And while he understood the impulse, he didn't like not knowing that things were bothering her. They'd been friends for four years, had talked about her parents plenty, and he'd had no idea what was really going on there.
Dad and I ate at this really good French restaurant after. I think even Fleur would've liked the food.
Harry scoured her letters for any clue about if things were okay with her parents; when he asked about it, she said that things were great, but he wasn't sure if the optimism was for his benefit.
Where he was certain her enthusiasm was real was her reaction to his transfiguration lessons. He'd thought about surprising her with a demonstration when she turned up for their birthdays but, well, he still didn't think bubbles were particularly exciting.
Hermione, on the other hand, did not seem to agree.
Harry, that's FANTASTIC! Battle transfiguration is really quite complex—remember how Professor McGonagall told us last year about that war in Transylvania that was won when one side accidentally transfigured their leader into a potato? But I know you can do it… and when I get there, Sirius will have to teach me, too!
While there were other things Harry would prefer to do with Hermione, he was happy to spend time with her doing anything—and, certainly, he wanted her to be able to defend herself, too. Besides, learning made Hermione happy, and when she was happy, she smiled, and when Harry accomplished a complex spell, she got that dreamy look on her face that made his stomach flip.
Where Harry looked forward to Hermione's letters, the ones from Ron vexed him. The first one had been fine; he was back at the Burrow, and had grumbled a bit about Fred and George—Harry gathered they hadn't let up yet about Mandy, though Ron didn't confirm one way or the other—but had apparently spent an entertaining day with Ginny, Luna and the garden gnomes. She's absolutely mental, mate, Ron wrote about Luna, but at least she's amusing. Better than hanging around Percy, who seems to have that stick lodged even higher than before.
Harry didn't particularly like people calling Luna mental, but, well, he understood why people didn't exactly get her, especially if she was talking about the Rotfang Conspiracy and the like.
But his next letter from Ron was different. I can't say much about you-know-what, obviously… We're quite busy, but I can't give you details here…
Sirius told Harry that the Weasleys had moved into Order headquarters.
"I can assure you he doesn't know any more than you," Sirius said. "Less, probably, since his mum makes sure to keep all her kids away from the meetings. But he can't exactly write about what he does know in a letter that can be intercepted, can he?"
Harry supposed that was true. He didn't write anything to Hermione about anything he learned about the Order for the same reason, though Remus had also promised he'd keep her informed. But he still was a bit jealous that Ron got to be closer to the action.
Neville seemed to sense when Harry was feeling particularly antsy because that's when he'd suggest they go swimming or help Diggy cook dinner—cooking was more fun when Aunt Petunia wasn't around—or suggest Harry and Sirius go flying, reminding Harry of all the things he could do here.
And as much as his dreams were plaguing him, and as much as Harry wished he was doing more to help the Order and doing more to help the house elves, he really wouldn't trade these weeks for anything. Their daytime routines and the nights Harry and Neville spent flipping through comics, listening to the Weird Sisters on the radio while Augusta and Sirius debated broomstick laws in the background, made this the best summer of Harry's life.
One time Neville dragged him into the Secret Garden—Harry had avoided it because it made him miss Hermione—but Neville insisted, pulling him to the Wiggentree. It looked the same as it always had—seasons weren't really a thing in this garden—except for movement high up in the branches.
"What is that?" Harry asked, craning his neck to see.
Neville grinned. "Baby bowtruckles," he replied, as one hopped down and fell on his head.
Harry plucked it from his hair—it was barely the size of a finger and looked very much like a stick with knobbly arms and legs, and two long, sharp fingers at the end of each hand. It stared up at him with beetle-brown eyes, its funny, flat face expressionless.
"You can't normally see them," Neville explained. "They're great at camouflaging themselves, so you'd only see them if they're attacking you—which you definitely don't want. But when they're babies, they haven't learned all that yet and they just hop around the tree."
Harry lifted his cupped hand toward the closest branch and the bowtruckle hopped out. He looked up and saw the bowtruckles leaping amongst the branches, creating a sort of synchronized dance that Harry found mesmerizing.
"Isn't it great?" Neville asked.
"Yeah," Harry agreed, sad that Hermione was missing it. She would've loved this.
One morning, a few days before Hermione was set to arrive, Harry woke up in agonizing pain, his scar burning. He had dreamed about the graveyard yet again, but then it turned into something different. He remembered seeing Voldemort, Lucius Malfoy, Snape and Goyle's dad. They were planning…something. A break in of sorts, though what they were stealing, he had no clue.
He pulled on a jumper, feeling cold despite his sweat, and crept out of the room. Neville was waiting for him, as always.
"There's still some cake left over from last night," he suggested.
"I think Voldemort's planning a break in," Harry blurted out as they padded downstairs. Neville nearly tripped on one of the steps at the sound of Voldemort's name, but righted himself. He turned to Harry, his face horrorstruck.
"How do you know?" he whispered.
"I saw it in a dream," Harry admitted. "He was making plans to steal… something."
"You've got to tell Sirius," Neville said automatically.
"I know," Harry agreed. He might even be downstairs already—Sirius wasn't exactly a late riser either.
They didn't find Sirius in the kitchen, but they did find the leftover cake. Harry felt better once they were seated at the kitchen table, each with generous portions.
Neville glanced up at Harry nervously, before taking a bite off his fork. The silence filled the room, the only sound that of the forks scraping against the dishes.
"Look," Neville finally said. "I know this dream was different. At least, I assume, since you've never mentioned one before. But…"
Harry felt his stomach sink. He didn't want to talk about the other dreams.
"I got them too, you know," Neville said softly. "After Crouch Jr."
Harry didn't remember hearing any screams, but maybe Neville's were more of a silent terror.
"It's different, I know—it wasn't You-Know-Who—but the dreams are normal, I think," Neville added.
Harry nodded, unsure what to say.
"If you ever want to talk—"
"I don't," Harry said quickly, feeling bad about the sharp note to his voice. Neville was just trying to be a good friend.
Harry looked up, smiling tightly at Neville. "But I know you're… thanks."
Neville returned his smile with a small one of his own, and then they went back to their cake.
Harry didn't have to wait long for Sirius to stroll into the kitchen looking for coffee. He eyed the crumbs on their plates, and smiled mischievously at them.
"Cake for breakfast—a bold choice," he remarked, pouring himself a cup of coffee.
"I think Voldemort's planning a break in," Harry responded, causing Sirius to jerk around. At the question on his face, Harry added, "I had another dream."
Sirius nodded slowly, but didn't say a word.
"I think he's trying to steal something," Harry continued. "But I don't know what."
"We know what," Sirius sighed.
Harry and Neville exchanged expectant glances.
"What?" they asked.
Sirius ran a hand down his face and then rubbed at his temples. He looked like he wanted to tell Harry something, but remained silent.
"I've got a right to know," Harry protested.
Sirius considered him. "You do," he said, sitting down at the table with them, and folding his hands together.
Harry sat up straighter.
"He's after a weapon," Sirius said. "Something he didn't have last time."
"What kind of weapon?" Harry asked. "What can be worse than Avada Kedavra?"
Sirius smiled sadly, with a glance toward Neville. "A lot of things," he answered. "But to answer your question, even I don't know what the weapon does. But Dumbledore is adamant that Voldemort not get his hands on it. And…"
He trailed off, his face pained.
"What?" Harry asked.
"I don't know exactly what the weapon does," Sirius said, "but your dad had a pretty good idea—"
"He didn't tell you?" Harry asked, confused. From everything he'd heard, his dad and Sirius shared everything.
"No," Sirius answered. "In those days, sometimes it was better—safer—to keep certain things to yourself. What your friend didn't know couldn't be tortured out of him."
"So dad was trying to protect you?"
"I think so."
Sirius' tone was sorrowful, his expression guarded. Harry glanced toward Neville—he couldn't imagine keeping secrets from him and Hermione and yet, would he do it to protect them? If it would make them safer?
Sirius let out a sigh. "In any case, from what James did tell me, we definitely don't want Voldemort getting his hands on this weapon."
"Well, where is it?" Harry asked. "Can't we just get it first?"
"It's someplace safe," Sirus said, raising his eyebrow at Harry. "But you really don't think I'm going to tell the kid who went running into the chamber of secrets and who stole the philosopher's stone where the weapon Voldemort wants is hidden, do you?"
"Well, it's not like I'd go running after it with no reason," Harry said hotly. "Ginny was stuck in the chamber and Voldemort was after the stone!"
"Sort of like how he's after the weapon?" Sirius asked, lifting his mug to his lips.
From his tone, Harry had just confirmed exactly what Sirius feared would happen if he told Harry.
"Fine, don't tell me," Harry muttered. "Maybe Voldemort will in my next dream."
Sirius' expression sobered at that retort and he gripped his mug harder. He eyed the cake plate sitting between them all—there was still a fair bit left.
"Right," Sirius said, nodding. "We need more of this."
After Sirius cut them all a slice, Harry bit into his second piece of cake, half-listening as Sirius and Neville discussed Frank Longbottom's apparent talent for juggling. But he couldn't help thinking about this weapon—what could Voldemort possibly want?