The Malignant Masquerade:

Chapter 2:

When Hermione finally came to Grimmauld Place, she wasn't alone. Archie waited at the Floo, fairly buzzing with anticipation, but her father ducked through the grate first. Archie's smile froze in place as the man gave him a stern once-over. Mr. Granger helped his wife stumble through and put a protective hand on Hermione's shoulder when she stepped confidently from the fire.

Hermione looked between Harry and Archie with wide, solemn eyes. Her gaze went back to Archie, who had closed his fingers anxiously in an effort not to reach for her. She stared into his grey eyes as though she was meeting another human for the first time.

"I didn't think you would be taller."

It was almost an accusation. Archie slouched self-consciously. "Harry's a lot shorter than me."

Harry scowled at him, but straightened her face as Hermione turned to her. "Nice to see you again, Hermione."

"Have we actually met?" Hermione searched for something in Harry's gaze. "I wasn't sure."

"Several times, in Diagon Alley."

Hermione made a noise of understanding. Her eyes cut back to Archie's and held them. "That makes a lot more sense."

It was a little scary to watch Hermione's intellect at work. Harry suspected she'd filled a dozen boxes in her mental matrix with that single piece of information.

Archie glanced toward the corridor hopefully. "Do you want to talk in the courtyard? That is, if your parents don't mind."

The Grangers—Hermione had introduced them during the tournament, but Harry couldn't remember their names—exchanged a look. "We have questions," Mr. Granger said flatly.

Sirius cleared his throat and gestured to a side door. "Why don't we talk in the parlor? Let the kids catch up."

Hermione stepped from her father's reach and said, "I want to see your library, first."

Archie smiled. "I'll show you how the cataloging spells work."

Hermione followed Archie, and her parents went with Sirius. Harry moved slowly, not committing to either, until both groups were gone. Then she slipped through a false panel in the wall.

The magically expanded crawlspace between the parlor and the library was narrow, but clean. If one of the old wizarding families were visiting, Sirius would open the parlor side as a show of good faith. The Grangers would not expect such a gesture, nor understand what sort of family home had hidden spaces designed for spying on guests.

Harry and Archie had played hide-and-go-seek in the narrow passage, but she'd never used it for its intended purpose. All their family knew it was there, so it wasn't normally useful. Harry liked Hermione, but she wondered what the clever girl might have told her parents. She was one of the few who had spent significant time with all three of them—Archie, Harry, and Rigel. If there were any clues in their respective personalities and interactions, Hermione had them.

Sirius was making tea and the Grangers were perched uneasily on an heirloom loveseat when Harry slid the peephole aside. The listening spells activated automatically.

"—anted to know what kind of a family he was really from, you see."

Sirius turned to collect the kettle and hide his grimace. "We're an old family, but a small one. Archie is the only heir."

"He seems to have a lot to inherit," Mr. Granger said, looking about the room. The parlor had been redone in Sirius' style, but it still dripped indolently with established wealth.

Sirius set the tray on the table and expertly dressed each cup according to their requests. "He could take it, leave it, or give it all away. Makes no difference to me."

Mr. Granger took his cup but did not sip from it. "Do you suppose this cavalier attitude toward your son's activities might have contributed to the current situation?"

Sirius barked a laugh. "Just the opposite. I tried to curtail his wishes four years ago; I hope I've learned something from this mess." Sirius took a long pull from his teacup and set it down with a clink. "Every Black born with an ounce of magic has attended Hogwarts since the school's founding a thousand years ago. Every single one, until Archie. I lost my wife to a devastating disease when he was just a lad. I say I lost her, but really I was lost without her. I wanted to keep Archie close, to connect him to a place and an experience that changed my life for the better. Archie told me several times what he wanted, but I didn't listen."

"He did it to be a healer, Hermione said." Mrs. Granger's face was awash in sympathy for Sirius, who was too lost in his memory to notice.

"While I was folding into myself, Archie was looking outward," he said quietly. "Before I'd even processed my loss, Archie had decided, heart and soul, to spend his life sparing others that pain. I was thinking about his childhood, not realizing he'd already grown."

Mrs. Granger took Mr. Granger's hand in hers and squeezed it. "This is why we've come. We want to understand what sort of person H—Archie is. We've known for a while he's in love with our daughter. He cares about her, that's clear. It's everything else we're a bit confused on."

"Hermione tried to explain that there are…sociopolitical tensions at play in your world. And that your son was involved in some kind of social experiment about undermining the arguments of bigotry…or some such thing."

Sirius grimaced. "That is partly true, though I'm not sure I'd give my eleven-year-old son that much credit." Sirius downed the rest of his tea. "AIM's healing program is second to none. He could have gone to Hogwarts and bided his time, taken a healing elective, gone on to advanced education and taken an apprenticeship. He might have made full healer by the time he was twenty-five. Instead…" Sirius cleared his throat. "Instead, he took Harry's spot. That the boy who took his place at Hogwarts ended up sweeping the knees from the pureblood supremacy movement was a raw accident."

"Did Harry not wish to go to school?" Mr. Ganger leaned forward earnestly. "I'm stuck on this point—why didn't Harry simply take Archie's spot at Hogwarts?"

Harry felt her breath catch and closed her eyes against the wave of nausea that washed over her. They'd said it. As far as she knew, no one else had cut so swiftly to the heart of it.

"That would have been impossible." Sirius sounded a little amused and a little shocked when he replied, and Harry slowly let her breath out again. Of course, he would dismiss it. No one who understood how the magical world worked would ever suggest such a thing. It was the whole reason the ruse worked in the first place. "Halfbloods aren't allowed at Hogwarts."

"But a halfblood did attend," Mr. Granger pressed.

"A halfblood with nothing to lose," Sirius said. "Harry has a good family, a future, and plenty of other opportunities. She wouldn't throw it all away in such a risky gambit for so little reward. Hogwarts is a wonderful school, but it isn't worth dying for if you have other options."

"Dying?" Mrs. Granger gulped her tea. "Surely they won't kill the boy."

"That boy," Mr. Granger added, meeting Sirius' gaze squarely. "Hermione seemed to get along with him during the tournament, but do you think he's dangerous?"

"We understand he's on the lam," Mrs. Granger added.

Sirius prevaricated. "That's difficult to answer. He is capable of a great many things, as we've seen, but I don't think him deranged or malevolent, however the papers are painting him. He's certainly not a danger to you or your daughter, I shouldn't think." Sirius shook his head. "He's just a boy who wanted a chance at a real education. I don't believe he has some kind of vendetta, or anything."

The Grangers exchanged a look. "I wouldn't be so sure. We remember Hermione's reaction when she learned the British magical school didn't take 'her kind.'"

"Vendetta might be putting it lightly. For a while, she was out to prove her capability as a witch at all costs." Mr. Granger ran a hand through his hair, looking like a man who'd dodged a Killing Curse. "If she could have forced her way into that institution out of principle, she'd definitely have done it."

"Perhaps you understand Rigel better than I could," Sirius admitted. "I come from a position of power and so does Archie. Make no mistake: if Hermione had done something along the lines of what my son got involved in, she would not have gotten off with a slap on the wrist and a few tests to re-take."

"How…candid of you to say as much," Mrs. Granger murmured.

"Ignoring our privilege won't make it go away." Sirius's voice was raw as he added, "I sincerely hope they never find that boy. It won't go well for him."

"You don't seem angry that he impersonated your son for four years," Mr. Granger said shrewdly.

Sirius laughed roughly. "To be honest, I've come to be almost grateful. I feel terrible thinking it, but all the things that boy went through...I thought it was my Archie, see?"

They both nodded fervently. "Lost years of my life when Hermione entered that tournament," Mr. Granger said. "If we could have spared her that pain…but of course she'd never let us shield her."

Mrs. Granger rested a hand on her husband's arm. "Try as we might, it's not up to us, is it? They forge their own path. All we can hope is that we've equipped them with the tools to face down whatever they encounter."

Harry slipped out of the hidden passage and tracked Hermione and Archie to the library, where they were speaking quietly. Hermione turned to stare at Harry as she walked in. The girl blinked hard. "Sorry. You both look so different…" She caught Archie's eyes and looked away again awkwardly.

Archie bit his lip. "I could…" His face shifted smoothly to Rigel's features, and Hermione stiffened. Archie-as-Rigel looked strangely vulnerable as he added, "If it would make you more comfortable—"

"No." Hermione was entirely firm. Archie dropped the metamorphism and Hermione released a shaky breath. "Don't ever do that, Archie."

"Sorry."

Hermione took his hand and squeezed it. "Don't be—just be yourself. It's more than enough."

Archie absorbed her words like a plant brought out of the shade, and Harry hoped some part of him was silently healing.

Hermione turned to Harry and said, "We've been going over things. I gather you secured me the position at the clinic, after all."

Harry shrugged. "You did that on your own, but it was me that day, yes. Sorry to—"

"You both have to stop apologizing," Hermione cut in. "I've already forgiven everything. I'm just trying to understand now."

"Right. Well, the Lower Alleys is where I lived and worked the last four years. Archie doesn't know it that well."

"And Archie doesn't free-duel either, I take it," Hermione said shrewdly.

Harry winced. "You know about that?"

"Hard to miss it, with people coming in bearing knife wounds all the time." Hermione shook her head. "Lionel Hurst isn't very discrete. He's…fond of you."

Merlin, how much had she figured out? Harry tried a casual smile. "Normally, he doesn't have to be. The alleys are a tight community; outsiders stick out. Besides, I vouched for you."

Hermione raised her eyebrows. "You sound like Archie when you say that."

Harry and Archie exchanged a grin. "We're pretty good at being one another—"

"She's hopelessly obsessed with me," Archie drawled.

Harry shoved him. "Thanks for putting up with this one for four years. I really needed a break, and you're probably the only reason he hasn't been expelled yet—or have you?"

Archie shrugged. "I sent the administration a long apology and an application letter for fifth year. They haven't replied yet."

Hermione grimaced. "I hope they give you another chance."

"I'll have to blow them away on the entrance exams."

Harry suspected it would more likely come down to Sirius making a sizable donation, but didn't say so when Hermione was already offering to help Archie study.

"You have enough projects, don't you?" Archie ticked them off his fingers. "The clinic, the Fade…"

Harry's breath caught. Somehow, in the midst of everything, she'd forgotten entirely. How many people was she going to let down before she got it all straightened out? "That's right," she forced out, casual as anything. "Archie mentioned you'd made a breakthrough."

"Well, sort of, but with Rigel gone…" Hermione shook her head. "He was going to look deeper into the mechanics of the core, and I was really leaning on him as a sounding board."

Harry dearly wanted to offer, but it would be massively suspicious.

Archie was reassuring. "I'm sure you don't need Rigel. You've made great strides on your own already."

"But it helps to have someone who understands the esoteric parts of magic."

"You should ask my mum." It was inspired. Lily was working to re-create the Dark Detection Disk, but she always had time for a good cause. "She's a genius, like you," Harry started to explain.

Hermione's eyes were wide. "I couldn't. She's the most famous contemporary researcher in applied magics. She must be swamped with offers."

"She'll make time for this." Harry was certain of it. Lily had friends who had lost children to the Fade. "She's not with a laboratory or company right now, so it wouldn't be a sponsored internship or anything, but I'm sure she'd look it over and offer her perspective."

"I'd be grateful," Hermione said faintly. "If you think it's sophisticated enough, I mean. I haven't written anything formal regarding the preliminary findings…"

"It's groundbreaking, which is just what Aunt Lily likes," Archie said. "I feel stupid not thinking of it before."

Harry silently promised herself that 'Rigel' would put at much free time as he could into the problem and mail Hermione his findings. Some things were too important to be relegated to 'before the ruse' and left there.

-0

[RbRbRb]

-0

His Lord may have given up on him ever finding the imposter, but Regulus would not quit until every avenue was exhausted. The boy wasn't a ghost, for Salazar's sake. He was well-connected. Cunning. Probably hiding right under their noses.

Most people were not aware that Lord Riddle had commissioned the mirrors to record as well as transmit the champions' experiences. The material was intended to be spliced and trotted out as an advertisement and propaganda tool—after the boy won, of course. Now it sat dormant in the remaining 8 mirrors, waiting for the right runes to call it out.

Regulus watched the recordings dozens of times, analyzing the imposter's every move. At first, it only rankled. The boy was a bloody marvel. Magic to splash about like he was a living ley line and tenacity. Grit. That Regulus had once taken the boy's strength as a sign of their family's power now galled him. What wishful thinking. If Rigel was harder and more determined than the scions of old, it was because life had forced him to be. And because his generation had spoiled their children to ruin.

And yet, he must be a scion of old. The Parseltongue was unmistakable. A halfblood he may be, but not some random mutt from the continent, no. Rigel was the fruit of a branch pruned from an ancient family tree, and recently, if he knew the old ways convincingly enough to pull this off.

He thought the third task was the key. The dueling tournament. Regulus had studied dozens of styles growing up. He knew the signature moves of all the renowned duelists in the last century. If Rigel came by his skills honestly, he should have been able to determine their origin. And there was something familiar about his movements. A flicker of something in between all the camouflage.

And Rigel was a chameleon on the dueling stage. He matched his opponents' styles, transforming over the course of each match so that he almost seemed to be a different person each time. With Shang, he met and paid elemental magic in kind. He surged in aggression when Krum's offensive demanded it and mustered a seamless defense for Antiope, not blinking at the added challenge of balancing wand work with physical defense. None of the old families practiced swordplay, but it had clearly not been the first time he'd faced a blade.

There were places in Great Britain free-dueling simmered below the law's notice, but they were few. Regulus had warded tournaments for them all.

Rigel's duel with Antiope was too controlled to be of much use to him. The boy didn't really let loose until he faced Owens in the final bout. Regulus had no sympathy for the obnoxious American wizard, but he didn't watch him get bucked across the stage by the stage itself a dozen times just for the amusement. He had to be certain the spell he saw next was what he thought it was.

The Lightning Jaw.

Coupled with the way Rigel physically accelerated a spell from his own wand—and wouldn't he be trying that little trick at his next club practice?—Regulus was almost certain his teacher could only be one person.

Lionel Hurst. The boy-king of the Lower Alleys.

He hadn't the time to watch most of the matches during the summer tournament; there had been a World Cup that also required his attention. He had made a point of watching Hurst's bouts, however. The boy was nobody, but he had a lot of friends in low places. It never hurt to keep such a one on his periphery.

The Lightning Jaw was one of his signatures, and he was certain he'd seen the boy banish his knife into an opponent's extremity in just the same way Rigel had banished that spell.

The terms of his contract from the previous summer forbid him from revealing Hurst's identity as the shadow king or mentioning his involvement with the Lower Alleys or the freedueling tournaments that took place there. He could not involve his Lord with this lead, but he could question the boy himself. Find out how many he'd taught.

There was a connection there…and hadn't Hurst himself been at the final task with his band of mumpers? He might even have smuggled the boy out in one of the caravans. Aurors never looked too closely at the denizens of that world. The idea that Rigel Black—or whoever had been impersonating him—would have connections to them was unthinkable.

It was precisely this lack of thinking that Regulus had to work against. Too long had they underestimated the boy. They could no longer assume anything above or beneath him. He would find the boy-king in his pretend palace and see just whom he'd been bestowing his favors on.

Regulus was turned back halfway down Knockturn Alley. He'd known the covens were fighting—had reported it himself—but to see the aftermath…the fire had scarred a whole swath of the Cesspool, cutting Knockturn in two. Ministry wards shimmered a warning. None of it would be fixed until the fire dousers finished their investigation.

He ducked down a side alley and wove his way in a series of switchbacks toward the Dancing Phoenix. A dead-end almost stymied him, but a breeze shifted a faded red cloth just enough to reveal a narrow passageway behind it. Regulus had to turn sideways to duck through it, but he came out in a wider space that was almost a courtyard, except that the buildings on either side were little more than crumbling rubble.

The cobblestones had all been dug up, exposing the soil underneath, and in every available patch, there were flowers. Flowers of every color and size, flowers straining up toward the sun and flowers stubbornly digging roots in this place nothing respectable should consider growing.

A girl tended to a patch of hearty dahlias. She hummed an off-color shanty as she watered them—but, no. Regulus took a step closer, unable to quite believe what he was seeing. The girl had no watering can. Not even a wand. She just gestured to the air and. It. Rained.

Nothing dramatic. No thunderclouds rumbling overhead or lightning splitting the sky. Just rain materializing from a dense section of air at the girl's fingertips.

"You—"

The girl spun and the raincloud dissipated as though it had never been. She eyed him warily, relaxing ever-so-slightly as her gaze took in his manner of dress. Was she relieved that he didn't appear to be a vagabond? Or just confident she could handle a lost tourist?

"'lo, ser. You come fer a flower?" The girl flashed a practiced smile even as he winced at her accent. "I'll cut any what suits yer fancy."

"Who are your parents?" he asked. He hadn't seen a weather mage since the Stormunger twins died trying to bottle a hurricane.

The girl didn't blink. "Have none."

"What family do you claim, then?" Regulus tried to bury his frustration but it wasn't easy. The weather gift had all but died from the old lines and this girl was using it to water her gutter flowers.

"None that you'd understand." The girl's chin lifted and she gave him a suspicious look. "Why? I don't need orphan services." She'd dropped the accent completely.

"I don't provide them." He sneered. "Your weather magic: who taught you?"

"Are you asking if I'm enrolled in the Ministry-mandated minimum schooling?"

"No." Regulus had to suppress a scoff at that. "It's a rare gift, understand? One I thought had died out." He took a step toward her but paused when she slipped into a defensive crouch. "Is there another who taught you?" She just stared at him, stubborn as her flowers. He pursed his lips. "Sure you don't know your family name?" The girl shrugged. He suspected she was being deliberately obtuse.

What was the world coming to? A child with the weather manipulation gift here, of all places. Regulus already had a mission that day, but he couldn't very well just leave her there…

The girl straightened from her crouch, eyes going wide. They latched onto something over Regulus' shoulder and he spun even as his magical awareness flared out to find the threat.

There was nothing.

He turned back around; she was gone. Only damp flowers remained to dispute the idea that he might have imagined her entirely.

-0

[HpHpHp]

-0

Harry surveyed the damage, Kasten at her side. Twilight did nothing to soften the fire's toll, but the vampire seemed ambivalent to the destruction.

"It should have been much worse." Kasten's deep hood swung around to face her. "The Ministry does not normally respond so swiftly."

"Looks bad enough." Harry toed the charred remains of…something.

"This battle will be remembered for some time. Perhaps long enough to deter the next nest of fools."

"Will your coven be at peace, now?"

Kasten was silent for a long moment. She wondered if he felt as helpless as she did, staring at the wreckage of a battle he hadn't fought. Finally, he said, "For a time."

He turned away from the hollowed-out crypt, footsteps trailing silently through the ash. Harry kept pace beside him to the mouth of the alley. It was a relief to leave the smell of scorch behind.

"The Carpathians had allies," Kasten told her quietly. "I do not interact with wizards, present company excluded, but in my time, they did not often think of such relationships as…reciprocal."

"You want to know if their allies are now your enemies," Harry guessed. She shook her head. "The wizards they allied with are the very worst sort. To honor an agreement with another magical race beyond the grave? Unlikely."

She would never forget how the basilisk thrashed on the heels of its master's order. Bite yourself. The trembling confusion in its voice. The way the construct had sneered at it. No, the mad parcel of magic wrapped in Riddle's childhood mantle would never respect another being enough to seek revenge for them. Voldemort only knew how to use people.

"How is Gavril?" she asked.

"Nearly recovered, thanks to your brew."

She had hoped as much, based on the potion's properties, but it was good to have it confirmed.

"I would invite you to visit him, but I fear what Irina will do," Kasten admitted.

Harry frowned. "Is she angry with me?"

"Just the opposite." A smirk crept into Kasten's voice. "Given the chance, she may pledge to your service for the next century." Her feet stumbled over air and Kasten caught her with two fingers under her elbow. "Careful, mortal. Danger abounds."

"My face encounters the dirt often enough that I no longer fear it," Harry said wryly.

"Your lack of fear is entirely the problem," Kasten mused. His hand hovered awkwardly close to her elbow for a moment, as though it didn't know what to do once she had recovered her footing.

Leo melted from the shadows as they passed the Serpent's Storeroom and Harry felt her mood lift as though a wind had stoked the sails of her soul.

Kasten nodded politely and thanked Leo for his continued support while Harry looked her friend over for injuries. He seemed no worse for wear.

"Satisfied I've all my pieces?" Leo shot her a sideways glance as Kasten took his leave.

"Who says you started with a full set?"

Leo put a hand to his heart. "My poor old ma would grieve to hear it."

"She'd be more annoyed to hear you call her poor and old."

"Ah, but you wouldn't tell her, lass." Leo nudged her off the main path and into a half-alley draped with wisteria. He leaned close to say, "I know how good you are at keeping secrets."

Harry's breath caught in her throat. This was it. The moment he asked her for…everything. The answers to all his questions. The truth behind every lie.

Leo looked about them warily and stepped even closer, the front of his loose shirt brushing her arm in a way that was too slow and too sudden all at once. She ignored the shiver that wanted to chase goosebumps down her arm and said, "I don't want to keep secrets from you."

At the same time, he murmured, "Someone unexpected asked me about Rigel Black today."

Her eyes darted up to catch his and they stared at one another. His lips parted in surprise and he started to say, "Hang on. Say that a—"

She cut him off sharply. "Who asked you about Rigel?"

Leo swallowed hard and shook his head forcefully. "His uncle," he said lowly. The words dropped like dollops into her ears alone. She wondered abruptly how they must look to passersby, a pair of teenagers ensconced in the shadow of a crumbling, vine-twisted alley wall. Trying to imagine the situation from the outside was somehow easier than being inside it. Simpler. Because he couldn't have said—

"Regulus? Why would he ask you about…?"

But she knew why. Guessed it before Leo gave a guilty grimace and admitted, "He recognized Rigel's dueling style. Asked if I'd taken on a student."

"What did you say?" she murmured the question on numb lips.

Leo tilted his head. "Told him I taught a bunch of people, even ran a class in the alleys." A player's smile drifted at the corner of his mouth. "Can't expect me to remember all my students."

Harry nodded, turning the explanation over in her mind. "Let him think it's a common style in the alleys—still, it places Rigel here, which is dangerous."

"I told him I took anyone who came around, local or no. Maybe I have dozens of pupils running around the Wizarding World."

"Running amok, maybe." Harry couldn't help but snort. "Imagining you teaching an entire army of free-duelers is actually a bit frightening."

"Thank you."

They exchanged an amused smile, but it died as the anxiety swept back in on the next wave of reality. "How should we handle him?" Leo looked up at the wisteria as though it held the answer. "Bit high profile to disappear."

Harry bit her lip. "What are the chances he'll find the tie to me?"

"If he asks the right questions, he can find out you were in the tournament last summer. Too many folk know you, though they wouldn't give you up if he came on threatening, mind."

If he was nice, though—if somehow the proud pureblood scraped together enough human emotion to come across as admiring, even—people might not think to keep her participation a secret.

Harry took a slow breath, trying not to notice and catalogue Leo's scent as she let it go again. "If he does, I can cop to training Rigel for the tournament. Hopefully, he'll call it a dead end and look elsewhere."

Leo nodded. "We'll keep eyes out for him if he turns up again. Margo's got his make; she's protective of you."

"Tell her to be careful. Regulus might look like purebred Kneazle, but the Blacks don't raise housecats. He's dangerous."

"There you go again, worrying about everyone but yourself."

Leo took her arm, and they strolled the alleys as though they had nowhere to go and no cares to come back to, as though the evening was all that existed and it had been unfurled just for them.

"You haven't asked." Harry dared a glance at Leo's unruffled expression.

"You haven't offered," he corrected her.

"I want to," she confessed. "I think about it all the time: how to tell you. I just don't know where to start."

"I'll be around until you figure it out, and for a long time after," Leo promised.

She didn't think anyone could make such a promise. You could promise today, but never tomorrow. Tomorrow wasn't guaranteed. Perversely, it made her not want to tell Leo anything. Let him exist forever in the first half of his promise. Let them stand always atop the lies, and never find out if the truth could carry the weight of what lay between them.

-0

[HpHpHp]

-0

When Addy met Archie-the-fox, it was love at first pet. She cooed like a drunk pigeon and burrowed her face so far into his soft fur, it was a wonder she didn't have whiskers when she came up for air.

Archie bore it patiently, until the first tug on his tail. With a yelp that brought James' wand up involuntarily, Archie phased back to his human form in an instant. Addy kicked her feet into the sides of Archie's stomach and proclaimed proudly from the small of his back, "Ah-choo!"

Archie twisted his head around to give the child an unimpressed stare. She smacked him on the head—rare praise from the discerning goddler. "That's mean, Addy."

"Me Addy," the girl agreed solemnly.

"Well, I tried to warn you." Archie drew himself up onto all fours slowly enough that Addy was able to hang on with her fists in his sweater. "Unfortunately, mean little girls get—pony rides!" He shot off at an all-fours trot, circling the coffee table twice and sending Addy into shrieks and giggles that might have shattered glass, had all the glass in the house not been spelled shatter-proof.

Harry tucked her feet underneath her on the couch and slid her tea away from the edge of the end table. Lily poked her head in from the kitchen but retreated when it became clear Addy was having a grand time being riled into incoherence.

"She just ate," Remus reminded Archie mildly.

"So? She's a cub of clan Potter-Black!" Archie reared up on his knees and pawed the air like a lion rampant. "She's the steely nerve and iron stomach of a…" Addy's giggles became a gurgle, then an ominous sort of hiccup as Archie froze. With the grace of a panther, James swooped in and plucked Addy from her cousin's back just as Remus caught the projectile spit-up midair with his wand.

The sick promptly vanished into non-being, and not for the first time, Harry hoped nothing sentient lived there, after all.

Addy groaned unhappily and James took her to his shoulder, making slow circles on her back. "There, there, lion tamer. The world's not ready for you yet, is it?"

Sirius and Lily came into the living room with trays of after-dinner sweets, and Addy reached for a pink pasty as they passed. Sirius swung the tray out of her reach with a chuckle.

"Ambitious little tike. Got her father's eye for beauty." Sirius deposited the assortment with a flourish. They did look lovely enough to tempt.

"And her mother's temper," James grunted under the sound of Addy wailing a gusty protest in his ear.

For revenge, Lily pretended not to notice her husband trying to hand the crying toddler off to her. She sat next to Harry on the couch and bit into a tiny chocolate cake with an exaggerated moan of delight.

Remus reached around James' predicament to snag himself a pair of truffles. James shot them all a betrayed expression and Harry couldn't help but snort.

Her father's eyes lit on her with terrible anticipation and Harry tried to run but was too slow to get her feet untangled. James thrust Addy at her like a hot potato, and Harry sat at once to keep the flailing toddler contained to her lap. Addy transformed into some kind of tiny hydra with a dozen limbs, writhing and lurching toward the sweet trays in a way that said she knew she wanted the treats more than Harry wanted to hold her.

Lily took pity on Harry only after her own cake had been judiciously devoured. "Come here, you octopus." She turned Addy upside down and held her by one foot over the sweet tray. "You want one?"

Addy swung for the pink pasty with a hiccupping grunt. Lily dipped her just low enough to catch one, then folded her into her arms and blew a raspberry into the girl's exposed belly. Addy squealed with indignation, but her noises turned to delight when she remembered she had the pasty safely in hand.

"I thought you said not to give her sweets before bed," James protested.

Addy bit into the pasty with abandon, shedding pink sprinkles down her front, and Lily chuckled. "That one's sugar free. She can't resist the sprinkles."

"We figured out why Addy likes Aunt Lily best," Archie said absently. His eyes were trained on the array of dessert, his fingers poised indecisively as he dithered.

"Better up your bribing game," Sirius advised James with a solemn nod. "Don't wait till the next birthday—keep the rewards small but consistent."

"She's not a dog." Remus gave Sirius a chiding look.

"You sure about that?" Sirius held his tart near Addy's cheek and she snapped her tiny teeth at it without further provocation.

"Speaking of birthdays," Archie cut in quickly. He had noticed Lily's narrow-eyed expression before Sirius. "We never celebrated yours, Dad."

Sirius pursed his lips. "That's truuue. I suppose we were all a bit preoccupied by the multiple felonies you committed." Sirius almost seemed to enjoy bringing up the ruse, lately. He acted as though it was part of the family mythos: Marauder lore.

"And was acquitted for," Archie reminded him.

"And were pardoned for after your Daddy paid a very hefty fine that will be coming out of your inheritance." Sirius' smile was wolf-sharp.

Archie grinned back just as fearlessly. "Still, though. It's not every day you turn, what, seventy-eight?"

"Seventy—you better run, you little rodent!" Archie and Sirius transformed within moments of each other, and the sight of the jet-black dog chasing the burnished orange fox across the living room would be a common one from then on, Harry realized with a pang.

She hadn't attempted her animagus form in earnest since that night. She had not completely lost the urge to fly away, but it was not at all clear where she could fly away to. She was already home.

Sirius and Archie collapsed in an exhausted heap, hair standing on end like they'd sprinted through a wind tunnel. Remus flipped them each a truffle and James let out a laugh so unrestrained it was like the past couple of months had never happened. Addy brayed for attention that Lily bestowed as easily as breathing, and Harry soaked it all in. This was the life she was always meant to come back to.

All the time at Hogwarts, Draco and Pansy, the Weasleys and Binny…it was like a far-off dream. This was real. It was enough. All she had to do was accept it.

-0

[HpHpHp]

-0

As always, brewing bridged the gap between the days and weeks. She was brewing for Krait, brewing for the clinic, and brewing for her own experimental research. In between, she tried to be present for her family. She stayed at meals longer, made herself available to watch Addy on the weekends, lingered in the living room until her parents went to bed—anything to remind them that she was there and show them she still cared enough to be a good daughter.

The extra family time meant when she got around to delivering her potions, there were always several crates. Remus was her willing helper, and Harry let him accompany her when she had too much to carry on her own.

They dropped a load at Krait's and continued toward Maywell one sunny weekday afternoon. Remus knew the way without prompting, and she wondered how much time he spent in the alleys since he'd taken up tutoring. Leo was supposed to be limiting his contact to the kids alone as much as possible, but he lifted a hand to Old Tom as they passed the Phoenix and Harry worried. The occasional potions run and tutoring session was one thing; Remus becoming comfortable with her London friends was another.

Harry held the door while Remus shouldered the crates into the clinic.

"Harry, just in time!" Janice made space on the counter for the potions and smiled at the full crates. "Such a bounty, and us on our last Skele-GRO."

Remus shot Harry a look and she held up her hands. "I've told them not to call it that."

Janice rolled her eyes. "Yes, yes, the legally-distinct-because-of-some-esoteric-recipe-change-Skele-GRO-copycat-potion."

"You can just call it bone-grower or something," Harry muttered.

"How about Potter's Probably Prohibited Potion?" Remus suggested dryly.

Harry threw up her hands. "The royalties are most of the price for Skele-GRO! They're just asking someone to make a knock-off." She blew out a breath and added, "Anyway, it was a Potter who invented the base potion for it. We should sue them."

Remus just shook his head on a smile as Mrs. Hurst came out of the back room with Hermione and Merriam.

Hermione gave Harry a wide smile. "Do you do anything besides brew, Harry?"

"Not if I can help it," Harry admitted. "How's the internship going?"

"She's a dream," Mrs. Hurst proclaimed. "If you keep bringing me such talented and hardworking people, Harry, I'm going to make you head of the clinic's human resource department."

Merriam and Hermione both flushed at the blatant praise.

"Harry has good taste in people," Remus said.

"If you do say so yourself, Master Remus." Mrs. Hurst chuckled.

"You remember my uncle from the tournament?" Harry didn't particularly like that.

"We met again more recently; one of my students suffered a minor burn when we were learning defensive charms," Remus said sheepishly. "Healer Hurst patched her right up."

"So now I know all the adults in your life," Mrs. Hurst said tartly, "And I completely understand where you get it."

"Get what?" Harry and Remus exchanged an innocent look.

"The same thing my Leo's got," she said flatly.

Merriam inclined her head gravely as the clinic's door opened to let in the summer air. "I've a boy with an equal affliction. Incurable, he is."

"Did you plan that remark with Mordred's own timing?"

Harry turned. She knew that drawl. Merriam's eyes lit with a steely fondness.

"You don't look injured, Marcus, so you must be here to annoy me," she said with a sniff.

"Is that any way to greet your only son?" Flint lifted a lip in an unattractive sneer, but there was no ice in it. "I have good news."

"You finally got a real job?" Merriam's hawk-eyed stare could have given Mrs. Weasley a run for her money. Mrs. Hurst drew Hermione into a discussion on linen supplies and Janice pretended to have papers that needed a sudden filing.

Flint narrowed his eyes right back at his mother. "I'm supporting myself; what more do you want?"

"I want you to look in the mirror and see a wizard you respect—"

Harry and Remus each took an unobtrusive step towards the door.

Flint's head whipped around to pin Harry in place. "Professor. Potter. What are you doing here?"

"I could ask you the same thing." He was the one who had been so insistent that no one know where his mother was hidden.

Flint rolled his shoulders unconcernedly. "Haven't you heard? We're free, now."

Harry's eyes widened. She hadn't heard about Flint Sr.'s passing, but in all the drama, she might well have missed it. "I'm sorry for your loss." The words were automatic, and undeniably hollow.

Flint barked a laugh. "He's not dead, mores the pity."

Merriam's expression was hard, but her eyes were bright. "Marcus challenged him in the Flint tradition—single combat, no seconds."

"You're looking at the new Lord Flint." Flint flashed his disarming smile and Harry raised her eyebrows.

"I'm sorry for your line, then," she said. The droll humor disguised her complete shock at his proclamation. He'd dueled his father for the family headship? And won? She knew Flint was a dab hand with his wand, but he'd never indicated that was even an option.

Flint laughed again, and it wasn't even caustic. She had never seen him look so…unburdened. Remus glanced between the older boy and Harry with polite confusion. "How do you know one another?"

Harry shrugged. "Rigel introduced us, but really he's Archie's friend."

"Archie's friend?" Remus was, if anything, more confused.

"Childhood acquaintance," Flint corrected her. "Haven't seen him in years, obviously. What with him not being at Hogwarts…ever. I apparently know you better than him, professor."

"You don't seem as troubled by it as others," Remus noted carefully.

Flint gave a nasty smile that went straight to Harry's gut. "But it all makes so much sense now. Archie was a Chaser. I never understood why he took the Beater slot on our House team."

"Quidditch doesn't explain everything." Harry tried to keep her tone light, but she was remembering just how much Flint enjoyed nettling people.

"Quidditch is a microcosm of the world," Flint said. "It reveals a person's character. The Archie I knew was bold, rambunctious, and direct. Rigel was none of those things. He was careful, calculating, and patient: a Beater through and through."

She watched the words land squarely on Remus' conscience. Harry could almost hear his self-recriminating thoughts, wondering how Marcus Flint had noticed what he never had.

To pull focus, she scoffed, "The Weasley twins are Beaters, too, and that doesn't describe them at all."

"The Weasleys are comets in human form, not traditional examples of Beater craft," Flint drawled.

"I take it you won't be recruiting them for your team?" Remus smiled weakly.

"How did you find a team that enjoyed being belittled enough to hire you, anyway?" Harry added, annoyed into nettling him back.

Flint stared at her, and too late, she realized it was the sort of thing Rigel might say. She kept her expression relaxed and expectant, and he seemed to let it go. "I work for a few different teams, and they only see me in small doses." At her frown, he explained, "The scouting thing is only part time. I have several different revenue streams at the moment."

"Sounds shady," Harry told him.

"It is," his mother said with a disapproving sniff.

"Like I care how it sounds."

"You were one of my brightest students, Marcus," Remus said mildly. "I hope you aren't letting that sharp mind go to waste."

A shark lurked in Flint's grin. "On the contrary. I solve problems no one else can solve."

Harry narrowed her eyes. "And what sort of people do you solve problems for?"

"The sort that can pay for it," Flint said frankly.

"The very worst sort, then," Harry muttered.

Flint's eyebrows rose. "Says the heiress."

Remus snorted and Harry shot him a betrayed look. "He's got you there, Harry. Your house is rather glass in that respect."

"And I know better than anyone where its cracks are," Harry said quietly.

Remus fell silent at that, but Flint stepped over to the counter and plucked one of the potions from its crate. "Is that why you're brewing Skele-GRO knock-offs in your free time, Miss Potter? Little rich girl guilt? Or do you get a cut of the community's tithe money?"

Harry scowled at him, but it was Merriam who spoke sharply. "Keep talking, Marcus, and prove how little you understand this community."

"Harry donates a number of potions to the clinic," Hermione added from the other side of the room. Marcus sneered at her, and Hermione's expression grew, if anything, fiercer. "And it's a sight more than most bother to do at all."

"Yeah, you're a real goodie-two-shoes." Flint put the potion back and circled Harry as though he was scenting for blood. "Suppose that's why you let Archie hare off to America in your name, isn't it? Selfless Harry Potter, letting everyone else live out their dreams."

"I actually think I got the better deal," she said, chest tight but voice light. "Archie and Rigel had their traditional, inch deep, mile wide education, and I got to do the only thing I've ever wanted to do, every day, all the time." For a moment, she let herself imagine it was true. She let the confidence bloom in her stomach, swelled with it and let Flint see it for the perfectly grounded competence it was. "I'm good enough to do something useful in this world because I was giving my all to this one thing while you were idling on the Quidditch pitch, by all accounts squandering the opportunity for an education Rigel quite literally risked his life for."

Flint only smiled. "Everyone has things they take for granted. Even Merlin-touched Rigel learned that in the end; pity how he left things with his friends, isn't it?"

"It wasn't his first choice," Harry ground out.

"Everything's a choice, Potter. Even the things you don't do."

She stared at him, infuriated beyond words and not entirely sure if it was because of what he said or because of what she imagined he was saying. He couldn't know that she was Rigel, but his words found their mark anyway.

"That's enough, Marcus." Merriam stood between her and Flint, her chin high. "This girl gave me a roof and a respectable position when you couldn't. You'll not bully her here."

Flint bowed his head mockingly. "Some other time, then." He left, and all Harry could think was that he really did know too much.

One more thing to keep her up at night.

Merriam put her hand on Harry's shoulder and squeezed. "I can never repay you for making space in your little apartment for me all those months."

The fear shifted from Marcus to his mother, clear and bright. She knew that Harry hadn't been living in the apartment and knew she'd lied about it, too.

Remus made a joke to the effect of being glad Harry had some adult presence in her life while she was living in the alleys and Merriam smiled self-deprecatingly. There was a roaring in her ears that drowned out the response, but she heard when Merriam added with another squeeze of her hand, "I'll never forget your niece's kindness."

Harry patted Merriam's hand with a sickly smile, then ducked her head embarrassedly as it dropped away. She was as good as promising not to tell anyone, and yet—the beast of stress landed on wings of dread in her stomach. She wanted to trust Merriam. Wanted to think that reciprocity and gratitude would hold her tongue. She worried still. A person's word didn't feel like enough to keep her safe.

She wondered if she would ever sleep again.

-0

[HpHpHp]

-0

They were almost to the Leaky when they saw it. A great, rune-encrusted mirror with Riddle's great, smug-encrusted smile in it. Remus and Harry slowed as one, struck into stillness by the shock and confusion winnowing through them.

For a moment, she wondered crazily if Riddle had kept the mirrors as his own personal pulpit. Was he going to use them any time he wanted to remind the world what a self-promoting political sleaze he was?

A crowd had already gathered, and they joined it in time to hear Riddle's magnified voice say, "—despite our spring surprise, we feel the True Triwizard Tournament has yet to be brought to a satisfying conclusion."

She'd almost forgotten how much she hated the sound of his voice.

"What's all this?" Remus asked a woman in twill patterned robes of purple and white.

"His lordship has some new announcement about the tourney," the woman said.

"Not sure he remembers he's only got two champions left," joked the man on the other side of her.

They both chortled, but Harry felt a shiver of unease down her spine. In no world had Riddle forgotten what Rigel Black had done. The farce he'd made of Riddle's entire tournament and political agenda.

"—in my purview as tournament chair, I have an important announcement."

The crowd held its breath and its comments long enough to hear what Riddle said next.

"There is still one task required of our champions: the crowning ceremony."

Talk burst from all around her, like birds taking flight.

"Crowning? He can't be serious."

"But the boy who won is gone, mate."

"He's on the lam, that one!"

"Maybe he means to crown the runner-up."

"That French girl?"

Harry didn't realize her breath had stopped coming until Remus took her arm and dragged her out of the crush. She heaved in oxygen and blinked against the spots in her vision. This must be a nightmare, she thought, over and over. It surely wasn't happening, wasn't—

The concern in Remus' face as he bent to look into her wide eyes was real. She steadied her breathing with willpower and a little help from Dom. "Are you okay, Harry? You shut down out there."

She nodded, unconvincingly at first, but with increasing certainty. She was fine. She was safe.

And this was real life.

There is still one task required of our champions. Required of them. He had to say it just like that. Anger came on the heels of panic. He was trying to invoke the Vow, trying to steal her victory—or at least give it a second edge.

"You're sure?" Remus's voice was soft, but the look in his eyes was sharply assessing.

"Sure." Harry fixed her features into a scowl. "Sorry. I just saw red for a second."

"That was anger?" Her uncle's eyebrows rose.

"It was fury." Harry did not pull the punch from her tone. "I despise that man. For what he's done to the wizarding world, but mostly for what he's done to Rigel. Why can't he just leave him alone?"

Remus winkled his nose. "It is a bit desperate. Not at all Riddle's usual style. Perhaps the Ministry put him up to it to try and draw Rigel out into the open."

It would be as ham-handed as the government's usual approach to things, were it not for one thing. "You're forgetting the Unbreakable Vow," she said quietly. Remus stiffened. "The wording—did you catch it?"

"He called the crowning ceremony a task," Remus realized aloud. "But—can he do that?"

"I don't know." She tried to imagine not dancing to Riddle's tune, pictured not going to the ceremony with all her might and—nothing. Her veins didn't heat. But she was not certain she had framed the hypothetical situation with enough belief to trigger it. If there was even a Vow left to trigger. With a growl, she stalked toward the Leaky. "We have to talk to Archie. Then we have to find a way to warn Rigel."

Remus glanced back at the mirror with a frown. "It's on a loop," he said. Harry paused long enough to confirm it—Riddle was repeating himself, the same exact smile on his giant, flat face. Harry had never wanted to break a magical object more. "And if there are other mirrors around the world with the same message, Rigel will hear about it soon enough."

Harry blew out a breath. He was right. There was no need to pretend to send a letter of warning to Rigel. Everyone would know about Riddle's little announcement. "Merlin forbid he let the papers report it like a decent, non-self-aggrandizing megalomaniac," she muttered.

They hurried toward the Floo, and with each step, Harry felt the anxiety that had haunted her over the last few weeks settle into place, like fat re-solidifying as it was taken off the burner. The strangest thing was that it wasn't a particularly bad feeling. There was a little relief in it; somehow, she was on solid footing again.

Because the world caving in on her was a familiar feeling. She understood it. She could rise to meet it. And maybe there was a part of her that had been waiting, all this time, for the other shoe to drop.

Somehow, she'd known it wasn't over.

-0

[HpHpHp]

-0

It was Archie who set up the meeting. He wasn't happy about it, but he couldn't think of a better alternative. They needed to know whether the Unbreakable Vow still applied, but the number of people they could consult on the matter were few.

Archie's carefully worded letter merited a swift, succinct reply: on Wednesday evenings, I am known to visit my brother's establishment in Hogsmeade village. I often linger over a hot toddy, and I always appreciate company.

If Dumbledore didn't know the answer, no wizard would. The only question was: whose face did she wear to the meeting?

Archie wanted to go as Rigel. He could look like anyone, and change disguises in an instant if need be. Archie didn't know Dumbledore, though, and his Occlumency wasn't that good. He would never be able to deceive the venerable wizard into thinking he was Rigel, and if he went as himself on Rigel's behalf, it was as good as admitting to being in regular contact with the fugitive. Bad enough the letter, which hadn't mentioned Rigel, could be traced back to him if Dumbledore bothered.

Harry was determined to go, but wearing Archie's face would be suspicious if anyone saw them. What would a teenager who wasn't the headmaster's student be doing at a bar with him? Plus, it implied Rigel had enough access to Archie's person to obtain a hair for Polyjuice. Going as herself and trying to play it off as a disguise was as bad as handing Dumbledore a roadmap of the entire ruse, and using anyone else's face would connect them to Rigel, too.

The best solution was still the blended-hair-based Modified Polyjuice, which even the Aurors hadn't quite figured out the details of yet. If she layered an illusion on top of it, she could keep anyone but Dumbledore from seeing through it. Disguise in depth, she would call it. The only downside was getting rid of the Modified Polyjuice afterwards.

Archie manfully sacrificed a handful of hairs, all but one of which she set aside for a future necessity that seemed more and more likely to manifest. Harry filed a matching set of her own hairs beside them. She could have made Rigel look like anyone, she supposed, but it felt appropriate for him to retain a blend of her and Archie's features. He would be familiar to Dumbledore, perhaps enough to kindle the Headmaster's fondness. Assuming he had any left after Rigel tore down the Founders' wards and led Aurors on a midnight chase through his school.

The first Wednesday passed, and she did not go. The blended hairs were burning a hole in her trunk, but she wanted to do more research on the Thief's Downfall before she attempted the ruse again. She thought there had to be a copy-cat recipe out there, but a dip into the archives at the Potions Guild brought up nothing but warnings. Whoever the goblins commissioned to create the brew took his non-disclosure agreement very seriously. Or possibly they had killed him.

She understood where the goblins were coming from, keeping the recipe secret. If the details for their disguise defeating potion got out, someone might find a way to counter it. She wasn't trying to out-maneuver it, though; she just wanted to use it for herself. She didn't feel too guilty, therefore, when she took a trip to the deep family vault and opened her small handbag surreptitiously just before the glamour charm she'd found in the back of Witch Weekly triggered the Thief's Downfall.

The goblin was sneeringly disappointed not to have caught an imposter, and Harry's flustered embarrassment over her beauty charm disguised the way she sealed the oil-lined handbag before any of the captured potion could spill out or become contaminated.

The second Wednesday passed, and there were only two weeks to Riddle's so-called crowning ceremony, but she was so close to cracking the recipe. She bought a mokeskin-lined trunk that cost more than she made from Krait in a month, and only then did she feel safe writing down her suppositions about the potion. Her notes went into the trunk, along with the blended hairs that would make Rigel's disguise possible, and no one, not even Archie, guessed what she was working on in the basement ten or twelve hours at a time.

Figuring out the ingredients was the hardest part. Some were obvious—the wiggentree sap she identified by smell alone. The boomslang skin hadn't even been fully incorporated; bits of it speckled, suspended in the liquid. After neutralizing a sample in dittany, she was able to detect erumpent fluid by taste. The color could have a number of culprits, but after some trial and error she recreated it exactly with neem oil and dragon's blood, which only made sense in something designed to cancel out magical disguises of any kind. The neem oil would soften the effects of knotgrass while the dragon's blood broke down the magic of fluxweed. It was precisely what she would have started with, if she were designing the potion from scratch.

When all the obvious ingredients were catalogued, she used Kasten's centrifugal technique to separate the potion's components and tested each unknown for reactivity to various substances. The starthistle reacted to concentrated skyweed. The Clabbert pustules reacted to powdered unicorn horn, and she was stuck on the Valerian root until she realized it didn't react to demiguise hair—almost anything else would have.

Once she was certain she had the full list of ingredients, it was only a matter of figuring out what each of them was meant to be doing in the potion, and then re-creating a recipe that would allow them to do that.

The camphor basil had to be added near the end. Starthistle and wiggentree sap had to be added together. Boomslang skin needed a long time over heat to release the magic in its densest scales, and so on. Logic told her most of it, and anything necessity didn't dictate, the original creator would have been able to massage. Plugging those gaps was like adding grammar to a sentence of nouns and verbs, when you already knew generally what the sentence was supposed to say.

All that remained was to test variations.

The first variant only worked on glamours. The second only worked on disguises grounded to objects. The third didn't work at all.

One rather terrifying variant stripped all ambient magic from an object, regardless of intent or type. It would vanish conjured objects, dismantle anything held together with magic, and she shuddered to think of it falling on a person who'd been recently Healed of an injury. Harry tucked that recipe deep into the mokeskin trunk and hoped she never had cause to use it.

Finally, she found one that worked on Polyjuice but burned ever-so-slightly. When she tested it on herself, it left her skin red, as though she'd been out in the sun without protection for several hours. It wasn't perfect, but it was good enough that she couldn't put off her meeting with Dumbledore any longer.

The third Wednesday, her parents were going to be out of the house, and it was too good an opportunity to miss.

Lily bussed Addy on the cheek and Harry on the head, her eyes serious and guarded. Harry hated that she had made going over to their friend's house an exercise in trust for her parents. "We'll be back late, but try to make sure she goes to bed on time."

Archie looked up from the Healing periodical he had his nose in and joked, "Midnight, right? And she gets three cookies for putting on her pajamas, or five?"

Lily turned to Harry, who nodded reassuringly. "No cookies after bath time, and at eight-o-clock, we start bedtime stories."

"I know a great one about the lead singer of the Weird Sisters." Archie grinned.

"Tonight, we'll be working our way through The Bubbling Cauldron, Part II," Harry said primly.

"Aww, Addy doesn't want to hear about the boring bubble-bath cauldron," Archie wined. "She wants to hear about rock stars and motorcycles."

"I hope you burned whatever children's books Sirius read to Archie," Harry told her mother. "We don't want another one turning out like this."

Lily shook her head. "Pots and kettles, both of you."

James came into the living room with two bottles of wine. "Does Alice drink white or red? I can't recall."

"Because she drinks whiskey, Darling. Augusta will take the red."

"Well, I'm not bringing it for her."

"Say hi to the Longbottoms for us," Archie said.

"Is Remus going, too?" Harry asked, casually. She thought he was, but needed to be sure.

"He and Sirius will meet us there," Lily confirmed. "If you need us for anything, just Floo-call Longbottom Hill House."

"Don't come through the Floo, though," James added with a grimace. "Augusta hates having ash tracked into her parlor."

"I'm sure we'll be fine," Archie said confidently.

"Have fun," Harry added.

Her parents left, and Archie took Addy from her arms with a troubled look.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?"

She shook her head. "We've been over it, Arch. No amount of caution will help if the Vow kills me for not showing up at Riddle's ceremony. Anyway…I trust Dumbledore."

"I don't know Dumbledore, but it's not him I'm worried about." Archie bounced Addy absently on his hip as he paced the living room. "Just make sure nobody sees you and you're back before our folks get home."

"I'll try," was all she could promise.

She took the stairs to the basement two at a time. The Modified Polyjuice was ready, and time had not improved its taste. Harry conjured a mirror and stared at the face within.

It was both her and not-her any longer. Rigel was older, almost startlingly so. He had grown into Archie's cheekbones and Harry's large eyes. The combination made him look more mature than the sixteen their blended hairs should have made him, but he was still between them in height, his body a strange androgynous mix; Harry's shoulders to Archie's waist. The over-robe would hide that, at least.

She had all new clothes for this meeting, even down to her shoes. All of it was black, befitting the dangerous, mysterious character he must remain. Nothing Rigel wore from then on would be associated with Archie or Harry. He was a completely different person. No wand. No identity. Nothing in his pockets except the copy-cat Thief's Downfall, which she had renamed Disguise Dissolution in her head. Alliteration was always better.

The only problem was his hair. She fingered the long strands. Harry had let hers grow, to differentiate herself from Rigel as much as possible, and now that vanity made it harder to reassume his identity. With a resolute breath, she used one of the sharpest knives in her workroom to lop it off just below her ears. Freed of its own weight, it began to curl at the ends but otherwise kept itself out of the way. It would have to do.

She didn't stop to say goodbye to Archie. She didn't want Addy seeing her like this, and there was no time to lose. Her parents would not be out all night.

She wove an illusion of shadows, straight from the Dark Disguise Book, over her face and pulled the hood of her cloak up over her head for good measure. She felt like the cheesiest villain in a serial fiction rag, but that was what Rigel needed: shadows within shadows. Avoiding attention was not as important as avoiding recognition.

She picked a public Floo in Hogsmeade, though it was a longer walk than the one at the Three Broomsticks, and went straight through.

The sun had already set, and the village bustled with evening patrons. Music and light spilled from open windows, and summer's promising serenade wove gaiety through the throng. Rigel stalked the side streets like a common criminal, up to exactly as much good as she looked, face in shadow, gloved and cloaked like it wasn't warm as a hot chocolate outside.

For better or worse, the Hog's Head served exactly her kind of clientele, and she didn't stick out at all as she ducked through the open doorway and declined to remove her hood like any normal, mother-respecting individual might.

Dumbledore sat at the bar, exactly as he'd intimated all those weeks ago. Rather, it was accurate to say that Albus Dumbledore sat at the bar and a different Dumbledore—his younger brother, Aberforth—stood behind it. One looked significantly happier to be there.

The headmaster had a spiced drink in one hand and a muggle pencil in the other. He was playing a one-drum rhythm against a blank notebook with its eraser and did not appear to notice as Rigel slid into the seat beside him. Aberforth did notice, and speared her with a look that said he was not at all impressed by her intimidating get up.

"Come to brood or drink?" he asked gruffly.

"Just looking for some conversation." The voice spell on her throat was perfect, and she knew her professor recognized it by the way his pencil stilled.

"Conversation's free. This seat ain't. Buy something or get out."

The headmaster spoke up smoothly before she could admit sheepishly she hadn't thought to bring any gold with her. "I could do with a bit of conversation, myself. Abe, can we have the back room?"

Aberforth gave his brother a hard look. "One of yours, eh? Tell him to lay off the illusions; he looks like a fake Unspeakable."

"I rather like the shadows," Dumbledore said with an unruffled smile. "Reminds me of that All Hallows' Eve party, was it forty years ago? You had that dementor's cloak, Abe, with the smoke spell that wound up setting off Grismelda's fire detection arrays—"

Aberforth dropped a rusty key in his brother's drink. "Go. Now."

The headmaster fished the key from the glass with a flick of his finger and gave Rigel an embarrassed smile. "Aberforth is still deciding whether he really wants customers or not."

"It's double rate on that room tonight." Aberforth gave a sneer that could put Snape to shame. "Busy season, you know."

Albus slid a handful of silver across the counter and stood from his stool. Unbidden, his notebook and pencil slid themselves into his pocket. Rigel was a step behind him, avoiding the gazes of the other patrons and only faltering as they approached a room so heavily warded it could give Gringotts itself a run for its money.

"Lot of wards for a dining room," she commented quietly.

"No anti-apparition wards, but anti-pretty-much-everything-else," Dumbledore agreed.

The idea that she could apparate if needed was a welcome one, but the reassurance made her wonder how often Dumbledore met with shady characters to know so well how to set them at ease.

The room was small and hardly furnished, but Dumbledore pulled out a chair for her and conjured a periwinkle teapot and two cups. He produced two bags of English black from his pocket and filled the pot with hot water from the tip of his wand. Rigel sat quietly while he served their cups, taking hers with an automatic, "Thank you, Professor."

"Unfortunately, I am no longer your professor, Mr. Black."

She removed the hood and the shadowy illusion from her face. "Unfortunately, I am no longer Mr. Black."

Dumbledore appraised her features for a long moment. "What would you like me to call you?"

"Rigel is fine, sir. As good as anything else, that is."

"And why are you here, Rigel?" Dumbledore's eyes peered at her from over his teacup as he sipped. "Not that an old man doesn't appreciate the company."

"I have a question I don't think anyone else can answer."

"You were always a good student, but I suspect this question is not entirely academic."

"It is the most urgent sort of practical, sir, but before I get to it…" She set aside her tea to steady herself. "I want to apologize. I'm sorry for lying to you—"

"That is entirely unnecessary." Dumbledore fixed her with a gentle stare. "I knew, you see."

Rigel's heart stuttered in disbelief. "You…know who I am?"

"Goodness, no!" Dumbledore refreshed the hot water in his cup with a smile. "I only knew you were lying. I was not even entirely sure about what. But you see, I have long since forgiven you for it."

"You never pressed," Rigel said slowly. "You weren't…concerned?"

Dumbledore's smile faded. "There were discrepancies in your person, but never any doubt as to your desire to learn, Rigel. You were clearly at Hogwarts for the right reasons, and so obviously a positive influence on all who knew you. If I never looked too closely, perhaps it was because a part of me did not want to know."

"But S—Lord Black is your friend." She couldn't understand what he was saying. He'd known she wasn't who she claimed? Or at least had reason to suspect, all along?

"I had no proof you were anyone other than Arcturus Black, and even if you were, there was no reason to suspect Sirius' son was in any danger. Indeed, your seamless presence would have depended upon his cooperation and support." Dumbledore's gaze turned distant, and he added, "You are not the first student to come to Hogwarts as something other than they appear. Less and less am I able to help those students. The Ministry ties my hands. The Board of Governors binds my feet. I am left only my mouth, and I find sometimes the wisest course of action is to not use it."

She supposed there may have been enough like Greengrass over the years to make him hesitant to dig too deep. "Because you never asked, you can truthfully swear you didn't know I wasn't Heir Black."

"And I have done so, several times since we last saw one another."

She winced, but Dumbledore merely sipped his tea, unconcerned. "The Aurors questioned you, I suppose?"

"They were not inclined to believe that the 'great Albus Dumbledore' had been fooled along with everyone else."

"To be fair to them, you weren't fooled," she said dryly.

Dumbledore only twinkled at her. "They were especially loath to credit that I had no idea how you escaped the school grounds the night of the final task. Seemed to think I had spirited you through a secret passage. As though I have any idea how many secret passages the castle boasts."

"At least seven," she said quietly. "But that's not how I did it."

Dumbledore didn't say anything, didn't ask, but curiosity lingered in his gaze, along with worry. It was a weakness in the school's defenses, and he ought to know about it if he was going to help rebuild the wards stronger.

"The Aurors didn't ward against animagi. Almost nobody thinks to—even the original wards didn't protect against them."

Her professor's eyes went bright with understanding. "Ah. That would do it. To think you achieved an animagus transformation at only fourteen…"

"I'm seventeen." Or she nearly was, by her best estimate, but he didn't need to know that was due to an over-used time-turner. "And I'm sorry about the Founders' wards. I wasn't thinking clearly when—when I tore them."

"My child, I hope you haven't been recriminating yourself for that; you certainly did not destroy the Founders' wards." Dumbledore chuckled. "The wards had to come down, of course, in order for the one entrapping you to be dismantled, but that is why I detached the lodestone myself as soon as we realized what was anchoring them."

"You…detached the lodestone?"

"Like taking the battery out of a string of Christmas lights," Dumbledore said cheerfully. "It takes time to re-hang the wards in the right order, but the magic of the Founders isn't gone. It will power the new wards just the same. Perhaps I will personally add one for animagi in your honor."

"Oh." That was good. She felt more relief than she expected, and wondered that she didn't notice the added layer of guilt she'd been harboring until it was gone. "I'm glad that's okay, then."

"I'm glad that you are okay, Rigel." Dumbledore finished off his tea and set the cup aside. "Which brings us to why you have risked so very much to come here and speak to me. Your question."

"Yes. I—you have heard about the ceremony Riddle wants to have?" At his slow nod, she explained, "He phrased it as a task the champions must complete, and I wondered…"

"Whether your Unbreakable Vow still applied." Dumbledore's brow lowered in a troubled crease. "I had not considered…but of course he would make this final effort to bring you within reach."

"There are not many who know about the Vow, and fewer still I could risk even speaking to at this point," she said quickly. "I know it is a trap, but if the alternative is death…I must know before I decide whether to go and allow myself to be caught."

"You certainly should not allow that, no matter the state of this Unbreakable Vow." Dumbledore gave her a hard look. "To turn yourself in is to do a disservice to the entire world, Rigel. You represent something important. Something defiant. You must never let them take that away."

"If I must go to this ceremony, I may not have any choice," Rigel said.

Dumbledore adjusted his spectacles and held out his hand. "Your wand arm, if I may?"

Rigel let him take her wrist and push back the sleeve until most of her forearm was exposed.

"Picture in your mind the ceremony as you understand it—as a task for champions of the Triwizard Tournament. Then attempt with all your will to decide not to go."

Rigel had tried that already, but she did it again, for his sake. She pictured Riddle's voice, demanding the champions presence for one final task, imagined refusing, staying home, not even considering the idea of going…and nothing happened.

Dumbledore turned her hand over and examined her wrist carefully before saying, "You do not bear the marks of one attempting to resist an Unbreakable Vow."

"Marks?" She had never heard of any associated with Unbreakable Vows. It was a pact between two people, not an oath or other public display of allegiance or alliance.

"When the promiser of an Unbreakable Vow makes a serious attempt to break one of its conditions, the ropes of magic that originally bound them will re-surface, often scaring the hand and wrist irrevocably." Dumbledore lifted her forearm, which was smooth save the occasional knife nick. "No mark means you have not attempted to subvert it directly, and it also means your counterpart has not broken his end of the Vow."

She frowned. "I'll be able to tell if Riddle tries to get out of his end?"

"If his attempt progresses to scarring him, it will mark you as well."

"He can mark me?" She did not like the sound of that.

"Only by risking death himself, which I assure you Tom is not keen to do."

That was good to know. Still, it was no guarantee. "In the tournament, sometimes I could feel my blood heat when I wanted to do less than my best to win the tournament, or when I wanted to do something that was less expedient. It never scarred me, though."

"Then it was not a serious attempt to break the Vow," Dumbledore told her. "Depending on the wording, these Vows can afford a surprising amount of maneuverability. The blood heat will warn you when you approach a boundary, but the scarring will appear if you attempt to cross it in earnest. If you succeed in crossing it, of course…"

"I die." But it wouldn't be all at once, at least. From what he was saying, she could wait and see how the Vow reacted before deciding. "I could wait nearby, or within Apparating range," Rigel said slowly. "And if the ceremony approaches and it gets to the point that the marks appear…then, I'll know I have to go."

"Just so. To be on the safe side, I believe we should plan for you to be forced into appearing." Dumbledore began stacking their teacups inside the periwinkle pot. "With a well-laid strategy, we should be able to keep you safe even if the Vow is still active."

"We?"

Dumbledore vanished the teapot and gave Rigel a bracing smile. "It's time I introduced you to a group of like-minded people, Rigel." She felt her eyes narrow and the old wizard softened his smile to add, "Only with your consent, of course."

Rigel wondered what he meant by 'like-minded.' The sort of people that gathered each year for his spring soiree? It would have to be the sort of people who would overlook her lies, and she could only think of a few reasons anyone would be willing to.

"People like Moody, you mean?" she guessed. It wouldn't be the hardliner idealogues, but the ones who put results above methods, perhaps. The ones willing to ignore her moral shortcomings to use Rigel as a symbol. You represent something important. Something defiant. They were not just words, she realized.

"Alastor is one of these people, yes," Dumbledore said carefully. "It is a group of individuals dedicated to resisting the forces of inequality and injustice, in whatever form they present."

"I'm not looking to be involved in anything," she said. "I never wanted to start any kind of—of revolution or resistance. Whatever I did last year, whatever I said… it was about surviving, and then trying to win just one, rotten victory from all the pain and struggle, and we got that. I—it's enough. I've had enough."

"You don't have to commit to anything," Dumbledore assured her. "I won't wrap you up in something you want no part of. I think you should meet them, all the same. We can help you if the Vow forces your hand. At the least, let us offer you more protection than you have now."

Which was none, though he was too kind to say so aloud. Rigel had no one to stand with her, if it came down to it. Archie could not risk his name and neck again, and no one else knew enough to help, if they would even be inclined to.

"You'd help me even if I don't agree to join your…group." Whatever it was.

"I could do no less for you, Rigel, than you would do for anyone who asked." Dumbledore's piercing gaze held admiration, fondness, and trust. He trusted her, after all she'd done, trusted her enough to introduce her to whatever band of renegades the wizard kept tucked away for when injustice needed resisting. Or something.

Trust was a two-way street. She had walked in this far, and Dumbledore was the very last person she thought would ever turn her in.

"I will meet them." Rigel stood, weaving the shadows over her face once more, and took Dumbledore's offered arm.

"Hold tightly; it's a long way through the tube."

Side-along apparition was invented by a wizard who wanted to force all other wizards into learning to transport themselves across time and space. There was no other explanation for the sheer disorientation and wanton discomfort it caused besides malice. And a good deal of spite.

They re-materialized on the sloping lawn of a country manor home, sprawling but none the less elegant for it. Rigel followed Dumbledore up the torch-lit carriage drive and into the foyer of the great house, a little surprised when the wizard entered without bothering to knock. He must know the owners very well, to take such liberties.

"Ah, before I forget." Dumbledore turned to Rigel and fished a package out of his overcoat pocket. "This is for you."

It was a group of books, tied together with brown string. She moved the string to read one of the titles and had to bite back the sudden emotion in her chest. It was next year's Alchemy textbook, handwritten and all. The next three years', for the three years of instruction she would never have with him.

"One must not let a good education go to waste," Dumbledore said, patting her on the shoulder.

"Thank you," she managed, tucking the slim books into her robes carefully, minding the pages.

"You are always welcome to what modicum of knowledge I possess," Dumbledore said seriously. "Now, to business; your arrival may startle a few of them, so I think it best if you wait in the corridor while I explain the circumstances of your presence."

"Right. Sure." She didn't know how Dumbledore was going to convince his secret organization to give her aid without a membership, but she had come this far. "I'll wait out here."

Dumbledore gave her a reassuring smile and slipped through a solid cherry door with a banal apology for being late. The door shut behind him, and she could hear nothing through its reinforced secrecy spells.

In the silence that followed, she had a moment to wonder what, exactly, she was doing here. Were a random group of people really going to help her not get caught by Riddle and the Ministry just because Dumbledore asked them to? And what would they want in return? Maybe Dumbledore could be so selfless as to help someone at great personal risk, no strings attached, but usually the world didn't work that way. Usually, there was a bill after the life-saving surgery.

Just as she was starting to think she ought to leave and face Riddle on her own terms, the door opened again and Dumbledore poked his head back into the corridor.

"Still here?" The headmaster smiled at her. "Minerva always thought you would have made a fine Gryffindor. Come inside, before these buzzards take my beard off with the strength of their curiosity."

Rigel was taken aback at Dumbledore's suddenly relaxed demeanor. Where was the ominous mystery of a few minutes earlier? From his tone now, you'd think she was late to a party, not crashing a meeting of his clandestine forces.

She stepped into the room, the sounds of a few dozen voices making themselves known as she crossed the spell line. The sounds fell silent, and she thought she must have crossed another spell line, until she realized they'd all fallen silent as they stared at her. At her face, which the spells across the doorway had stripped of its shadowy illusion.

All she could think as she lowered the hood from her head was thank Merlin she hadn't relied on a glamour or spell-based transfiguration for her disguise that night. Her Polyjuice was left untouched. Which was good, really, because she recognized every person in the room.

"Rigel?"

"It is Rigel."

"This is the soul in need, Dumbledore?"

Dear Merlin, it was—everyone. Augusta Longbottom and Professor McGonagall. Mr. Weasley and Mrs. Bones. McKinnons, Prewetts, Medowes, Vances…every Light family in the book was represented and then some.

"Rigel? Rigel!" One voice cut through the others, and Mrs. Weasley pushed her way past her husband and eldest son to stand in front of Rigel with wide, accusing eyes.

"M-Mrs. Weasley," she stumbled. "I—"

"What do you mean, Dumbledore, bringing him here?"

She flinched as Mrs. Weasley rounded on the headmaster.

"He shouldn't be here, of all places. What are you thinking, Albus Dumbledore?"

Rigel swallowed her reaction. Of course, they didn't want her here. She would only bring danger to them—to this group of people who were not renegades at all but parents. Her friends' parents. Her parents, she mentally amended as Lily and James stood from the back of the room and met her terrified gaze.

She could tell even across the room that James was wishing he'd stayed home that night; knowing the whereabouts of the Rigel Black Child was exactly what he didn't need. Sirius was there, too, and Remus—he stood next to Frank and Alice Longbottom and she realized with a mental kick that this was the 'friends' gathering' her parents had run off to tonight.

Going to the Longbottoms' for game night. She supposed with a cynical glance there was a pack of cards on the table in the middle of the room, come to that. Probably this was even the Longbottom estate. And really, what had she expected? Some kind of black ops organization Dumbledore was secretly training to rid the world of evil? Of course not. Of course, it was the same people it always was, just behind an impressive set of secrecy spells.

"I have brought Rigel here, Molly, because he needs our help."

"But it isn't safe for him."

Rigel blinked at the woman. Wasn't safe for her? It wasn't safe for them. She thought Dumbledore was talking about a group of people like Auror Moody. Professionals. Not—not the very people she would give anything to keep out of harm's way.

"This isn't—" She turned helplessly to Dumbledore, shaking her head. "I can't put them in danger. Not for me."

"Hush, child." Mrs. Weasley bundled her into a hug without further ado and just…held her. Rigel held very still, then made to draw back, but the woman only hugged her more tightly. "We've been so worried, Rigel. So worried. Ron and the twins are beside themselves, Percy is ready to go to war against the DMLE, and Ginny—she hasn't been the same since that horrid task." Mrs. Weasley drew back to look Rigel up and down. "Look at the state of you: skin and bones. Are you eating?"

"I'm eating fine," she managed. "Really, Mrs. Weasley, I don't—I'm so sorry." She could barely get the words out. Her throat kept closing and all that wanted to come up was sobs because she had no idea—no idea—how much she'd needed someone to embrace her as Rigel. To embrace him. She had no idea how much of the acid in her stomach would be neutralized in that single moment of grace. "I'm so, so sorry for lying to you." She tried to include the whole room in it, but her eyes kept coming back to Mrs. Weasley, who kept her in arms reach like she was something precious that needed protecting. "I hated it, every second, lying to you, to your children—"

"Rigel, there's no need." Mr. Weasley came around his wife to clap her on the shoulder bracingly. "We're just relieved you're all right."

"But what are you doing back in England?" Mrs. Weasley looked from Rigel to Dumbledore.

"I…never left. It is not so easy to travel internationally," she muttered, very pointedly not looking toward her father as she said it.

"Are you safe? Are you hidden?"

She didn't know how to answer those questions.

"Your parents…" Mrs. Weasley cupped Rigel's face with both hands. "Is there someone who takes care of you?"

Rigel fumbled, trying not to let her eyes dart to Lily and James. "It's—complicated."

Mrs. Weasley turned imploringly to her husband. "Arthur, we could make room. Surely…"

"No." Rigel blurted. "I—I'm all right, thank you. I'm safe and cared for. It's better if no one knows where."

Mrs. Weasley seemed only mildly mollified, and Rigel wondered how much more of this her nerves could endure. She had been braced for an entirely different sort of confrontation and now had no idea what to do or say. Bill drew his mother back to give Rigel a little air, and she took a deep breath to steady herself.

"So, he doesn't need food or shelter," a familiar voice drawled. Moody pushed himself off the wall and looked down at her expectantly. "What in Helga's cup is he doing here, then?"

"It's the Unbreakable Vow, isn't it?"

All eyes turned to Remus, some more horrified than others.

"What Unbreakable Vow?" Mrs. Weasley demanded. Her husband looked ready to echo the sentiment, but it was McGonagall who actually did so.

"Yes, Albus. What Unbreakable Vow?"

"Now, Minerva, I hope you don't think I condone children entering into death bargains."

"You'd better manufacture some surprise on your face, Albus, or start explaining," the Transfiguration professor snapped.

"It's not his fault," Rigel said over the bickering that began to break out. "I made the bargain with Riddle. No one else knew until it was too late."

McGonagall's face went white. "Riddle? You made an Unbreakable Vow with Tom ruddy Riddle? I'll have Severus' head for this, and don't try and tell me he didn't know about it either!"

"Professor Snape had no choice. I made him our bonder, and he couldn't very well say no in front of Riddle—"

"That slimy git, letting a child get dragged into—"

Rigel spoke over Sirius to finish her sentence. "—without Riddle realizing he was working against him."

"Explain, Rigel," Remus said evenly, one hand over Sirius' mouth.

"The whole thing was my own stupid idea," Rigel said on a defeated breath. "Riddle was pressuring me to enter the tournament. He was making threats, against you all, mostly, promising to ruin your lives and other rubbish, then promising to make me Minister of Magic in the same breath. I knew he would find a button that worked eventually, so I tried to make the bargain on my terms."

"You fought in that tournament under duress of an Unbreakable Vow?" Frank Longbottom exchanged a troubled look with his wife. "Is that even legal?"

"There must be something against compulsion or coercion in the rules…"

"I entered the Vow of my own will. Dictated two of the conditions myself."

"What were they exactly?" Mr. Weasley asked, frowning. "Word for word, if you can recall."

Rigel tried to remember, but it was Dom who pushed her the exact words from her memory. "The first two were for Riddle: 'will you, in the event that I willingly participate in the New Triwizard Tournament, give a public statement on behalf of your political party disavowing the actions of the group responsible for the World Cup attack?'"

"You got him to say that?"

"I thought he'd been possessed that day."

Rigel continued. "Then: 'will you, in the event that I am the outright winner of the New Triwizard Tournament, cease all attempts to introduce, promote, or pass legislation regarding the rights of non-pureblooded witches and wizards in the areas of employment, healthcare, and marriage, including any legislation encouraging or requiring people to marry or not marry on the basis of blood status alone?'"

"That was the one that stopped the legislation, then!"

"Now we know what you all were yammering on about that week—you knew Riddle would be backing off the legislation, but you didn't explain why."

Her parents exchanged a look with Remus and Sirius, but said nothing. She wondered how much they had been afraid to say, afraid to admit how much their children knew about Rigel's doings.

"They'll make a politician of you yet, boy," Moody snorted.

"No politician worth his salt uses Unbreakable Vows to get his way," Augusta sniffed.

"Riddle did."

"The point stands."

"Regardless, that's only two conditions. What was the third, Rigel?" Mr. Weasley pressed.

"The third was for me: 'will you, in the event that you are chosen to participate in the New Triwizard Tournament, agree to compete to the best of your ability in any and all tasks required of a designated champion?'" Rigel looked around at them all. "That's why I'm here. Riddle has called a new task for the champions, and I don't know whether the Vow still holds me or not. I won, but…is the final condition satisfied?"

"Is there any way to know?" Frank asked.

Alice shook her head slowly, "The wording is unspecific in a way that favors Riddle, in this case."

Dumbledore inclined his head. "I thought much the same. We will not know whether the Vow applies to the crowning ceremony until it happens. Until then, we must assume that it does."

"But you can't mean to go," Mrs. Weasley protested. "It's sure to be a trap."

Bill muttered darkly, "The alternative might be death, Mum."

"If it's a trap, then it's one we can turn to our favor," Moody said firmly. "They've lost the element of surprise."

"This isn't a war, Alastor," Mr. Weasley admonished.

"Of course, it is," Augusta snapped. "Do you think the fight is over because one piece of legislation was snuffed? Rigel won a battle of ideology when he declared himself Triwizard champion and halfblooded simultaneously, but the moral high ground is only as good as its symbol. If we let them capture him, drag him away in chains like a common criminal, we lose some of that power."

That sounded a bit more like what she'd been expecting. She didn't want to be anyone's symbol, but if it meant avoiding prison, she would take the allies she could get.

Talk devolved into the different parts each person could play on the day of the ceremony. Some would be in the crowd, some on the stage itself as members of the tournament committee. James and Moody would handle the Aurors, and as they discussed it in low voices, her stomach churned with guilt. Was there a chance, if she had simply gone to her father, confessed everything and begged for his help, that he could have rallied this group of people himself? Would he and Lily have made this happen if she'd trusted them, or would they have tried to solve the problem alone, afraid to tell anyone the truth and risk Harry in the process?

She would never know. Her family was being forced into danger anyway, and without the benefit of knowing who it was really for. Perhaps it was kinder this way. James would resent it, having to lie to his coworkers and go behind the Minister's back, but at least he wouldn't worry for his daughter.

Rigel kept her expressions reserved through it all, muted herself so there would be no connection between Rigel and Harry, renegade and relative, dissenter and daughter. She needn't have tried too hard—the Potters never approached her, even as the meeting was ended and one-by-one the members of Dumbledore's club filed out of the room.

Remus gave her a professional nod that said he still wasn't sure what to make of her, but it was Sirius who stopped before her and stuck out his hand. She took it, trembling slightly. If he cursed her, she wouldn't even blame the man, but he only shook it slowly up and down.

"When I thought it was my son, I was scared for him and proud," Sirius said quietly. "I can be no less now that I know it was someone else's son." Rigel stared at him, lost for words, but he was not finished. "Because of you, my son grew up safe and happy. Whatever else you intended, you have done House Black this service. As far as I'm concerned, our name is yours, however long you choose to use it."

Rigel did not recognize the words Sirius said next, but she felt the magic settle over her, sure and true. It wrapped her in something like a hug, warm and accepting, and her heart made room for it next to her bond with the Malfoys and her own family's magic, all burrowed in her breast like birds nesting side by side, as though the cold of the world couldn't touch them as long as they roosted together.

A tear escaped before she could stifle it, and Sirius pretended not to notice as he patted her on the cheek with a small smile. "Welcome to the family, for whatever it's worth."

"You've no idea what it means," she murmured, her heart an absolute wreck. "Archie is so lucky in his father, Lord Black."

"Just Sirius will do, being as you've called me 'Dad' for four years," Sirius quipped. Humor was always his shield, but she could see the soft spots through the cracks. Sirius cleared his throat and saluted Dumbledore on the way out the door. "Try not to surprise us so badly every time, Dumbledore. Some of these old vultures won't withstand too many more heart attacks."

"Consider your invitation revoked, Sirius Black," Augusta spat.

He yelped as the house magic sped his retreat. Augusta fixed Dumbledore with a look that dared him to object, then turned to Rigel and looked down her nose in unimpressed consideration. "I hope this means you will be signing on to the cause in earnest, young man."

"That is yet to be determined," Dumbledore said evenly. "As of now, we are merely attempting to keep Rigel alive."

"And when your life is secure, see you do something with it," Augusta sniffed. She left the meeting room, and Rigel supposed that was her cue to leave. Especially as she heard the Floo go off and realized her parents were going home right now.

It was already too late to get there first. She would have to hope Archie came up with a believable story, because there was one more thing she had to ask Dumbledore, one question that had been eating at her since she'd walked into the room and seen everyone except him inside it.

"Headmaster, where is Professor Snape?" Dumbledore gave her a considering look, so she pressed, "He is a part of this group, isn't he? Since I won the tournament, he is free of his own Vow. I know you trust him…" There was no way he wasn't part of this group.

"Professor Snape had an errand tonight, and he does not usually attend these meetings…but yes, he is a part of our organization. Albeit discretely, and only when available."

The wheels turned and clicked into place. "You've got him reporting on Riddle, haven't you? He should be free of that circle—"

"He is well positioned in those circles and more than willing to remain so," Dumbledore said gently. "Severus serves the cause as he wishes. No one commands him. Certainly not I."

Sure, Snape would say as much, but Rigel would bet her best cauldron his motives were much more convoluted than that. No matter. If she was to be…affiliated with Dumbledore's citizen army, then she would cross paths with Snape eventually. She would have the chance to apologize—grovel, likely—and to see whether he accepted it. Accepted her, after everything.

"I am returning to Hogsmeade, if you would like a lift," Dumbledore offered politely. Recalling the feeling of side-along Apparition with a grimace, she shook her head.

"I'll make my own way back, thank you."

"We'll be in touch before the ceremony." She was going to ask how, but then he pressed a phoenix feather into her hand. "Fawkes will come with any messages."

"It's not a good idea for you to know where I am," she said, not taking the feather.

"In one hundred years, I have never learned to speak Phoenix," Dumbledore said idly. "I don't think I ever shall."

"I'm still not keeping this at my house. I'll keep it somewhere safe and check for messages periodically, so leave plenty of time before expecting a reply." She would not budge on that, and Dumbledore, perhaps sensing as much, inclined his head in agreement.

Her pockets one phoenix feather heavier, she Flooed to the public grate in the Lower Alleys, weaving shadows into her hood as she transferred. The feather went to her apartment, released from evidence by the Aurors when it was clear no trace of Rigel Black remained there. She'd paid the landlady twice that year's rent for the trouble, but it was worth it to have a place that was completely her own, still.

With the phoenix feather safely hidden, she stepped into the shower and dumped the entire bottle of Disguise Dissolution over her head. It burned the Polyjuice away, and she told herself through gritted teeth that she would get the recipe right before the next time she had to do this. The black robes she transfigured to look like her own, and her hair, poor mangled nest that it was, suffered a swift growing charm for its troubles.

Completely herself again but looking like she'd had a week-long vacation in Bermuda, Harry Flooed to the Leaky Cauldron, then stepped through the next grate to whatever awaited her at home.

-0

[AbAbAb]

-0

When the Floo went off in the living room, Archie knew from the lack of someone sprawling ungracefully to the floor that it wasn't Harry.

He became her, as easily as a polyglot slipped between tongues. The clothes took a moment longer, but he remembered what she'd been wearing well enough. He could transfigure clothes in his sleep—it was a useful skill to cultivate, when one had a natural ability to shift faces on a whim.

Addy startled at his sudden transformation. She sneezed disagreeably in his face and he appeased her with an upside-down twirly-plop that conveniently held her out of the way long enough to snag a throw and drape it over his legs. The height change was still difficult and took him longer, but no one would notice his too-long legs if he didn't stand.

James and Lily strode into the room on high-alert, the first inkling that something was very wrong.

"Harry." James slumped from his fighting posture and assessed the room with his eyes. "Where is Archie?"

"Just went up to shower," he said with Harry's vocal cords. "Addy…expressed herself all over his jumper."

Lily took Addy from his arms with an admonishing frown. "Is that why she's not in bed where she belongs?"

Actually, it was because Archie needed a distraction ready as the hours ticked by and it became increasingly likely Harry was not going to arrive before her parents. The auditory spell over the bathroom that sounded like running water he'd set up hours ago. It wasn't paranoia, he reminded himself firmly. It was preparedness.

"Addy also expressed that eight-o-clock was too early for bedtime, and demanded the recitation of a thousand and one stories else she cut off my head."

"Pretty sure that's Arabian Nights." Lily's expression was unimpressed as Addy gave a wide yawn.

"She was doing cartwheels on the ceiling five minutes ago!" Archie insisted. At Lily's raised eyebrows, he dialed it back slightly. "At least, that's what Archie said. I was sort of reading and lost track of time until she vomited on him."

"Really, Harry." Lily put Addy's little head up to her shoulder and rocked slowly from side to side. "This makes it difficult to trust you with more responsibility," she added in a whisper.

James came back into the living room, evidently satisfied that the shower was, to all appearance, running. "Anyone call while we were out?"

Archie shrugged. "Who would call? All your friends were there at the Longbottoms' right?"

James gave him a sharp look that Archie was not sure what to make of, until Lily cleared her throat and said, "At the game night, yet."

"Did you win?" Archie asked. He couldn't help but notice the suspicious glance they traded before answering the simple question.

"You know Lily always wins at game night," James said stiffly. "Is Addy ready for bed?"

Lily nodded. "I'll take her up," she said softly.

James lingered a moment awkwardly, then muttered, "I'd better help." He followed Lily upstairs, and Archie had to conclude that more than one odd thing had happened that evening. There was whatever had kept Harry out so late, and then there was whatever James and Lily had really been doing all evening. Given that Sirius and Remus were supposedly there too, they were at least all in on the secret together.

Archie was not used to the grown-ups keeping secrets. Generally, it was the other way around.

He would not look a gift hippogriff in the mouth, however. When James and Lily were safely embroiled in the battle of wills that was attempting to put down a sleepy toddler, Archie jumped up from the couch and slipped into the basement where Harry kept her Invisibility Cloak. He tossed it over his head, snuck up both sets of stairs to the upper bathroom, and ducked inside without a sound.

After letting go of Harry's form completely, he cancelled the water spell, un-transfigured his clothes, and dunked his jumper in cold water until it was sopping. Then he wrapped a towel around his hair, stuffing the Cloak inside like a very heavy turban, and came shirtless into the corridor, dripping water everywhere.

He dripped all the way to the kitchen, where he abandoned the jumper in the sink. The Invisibility Cloak he stashed back in the basement, and his hair he fluffed with a wind spell as though he'd just dried it. In the Floo room, he tossed a handful of powder into the grate and called, "Diagon Alley!" in Harry's feminine tone.

That brought James thumping down the stairs quick enough. Archie looked over innocently from where he was elbow-deep in soap, scrubbing at his jumper. "Uncle James, how was game night?"

"Was that Harry leaving?"

"She said she had to grab something from the shop before it closed," Archie said blankly. "Isn't her curfew lifted?"

James ran a hand through his hair, and Archie sort of felt bad for him. "What did she need that was so urgent?"

"Something about her stink sap being expired?" Archie shrugged. "To be honest, I wasn't listening very closely. It's always something with Harry."

"You can say that again."

James let out a long breath and crossed to the cupboard for a bag of crisps. Halfway through his third handful, he offered Archie a nab. Archie shook his head, smiling. "Didn't the Longbottoms' feed you?"

"Augusta Longbottom only eats from her own garden," James said sourly. "Vegetables, greens, fruits, and more vegetables."

That, at least, sounded true. "There's some ice cream left," Archie offered. "Harry didn't want hers." She hadn't come home in time to eat it, at any rate.

James moaned his appreciation and dug the container out of the ice box. "Don't know if Harry's even my kid, sometimes."

Archie winced at the poor jest. "Don't let her hear you say that. Your relationship is awkward enough."

James shot him an offended look. "Mind your business, Archie Black. Our relationship is…complicated."

"And not awkward at all," Archie muttered.

James gestured with his spoon, and a blot of ice cream dripped unnoticed onto the counter. "Well, we can't all be Archie and Sirius, best buds forever."

Archie felt his eyes narrow. "Dad and I have had our rough spots. Mostly caused by me, cause Dad is awesome. I don't know that you can blame Harry entirely for your situation, though."

"What's that supposed to mean?" James dared him to say it, but Archie was not afraid of his uncle.

"You pushed her away before she ever drew back herself."

It was something that had been true for a while, but maybe never voiced aloud until this moment. That was fine. Harry would never say anything, but Archie was not some outsider who didn't understand both sides.

"When Harry delved a little too deeply into that children's potions kit she got for her birthday, you binned it."

James pressed his lips together, but didn't admit to it. He didn't have to. Archie had seen him do it, and then heard him tell Harry it was lost.

"And when she asked for a new one, you got her a broomstick instead."

"It was for her own good," James said. He stabbed at his ice cream with a scowl. "Every kid I ever knew who was too into potions had a miserable life. I didn't want her to be the weird smelly kid at school, all right? I didn't want her to be picked on, laughed at. Not my sweet girl."

"I know." Archie had understood for a while why James was so resistant to Harry's interests. Just as he knew James thought of potions kids as victims because he'd done his share of victimizing them. James had been popular in school and popular kids could not understand anyone not wanting what they had. "I think you underestimated Harry's strength of character, though, and overestimated your ability to change her. Harry would never let anyone bully her, not even you."

"I never—" James snapped his mouth shut and set the ice cream aside with wet eyes. He was quiet for a long minute, and Archie wondered if he was examining a few things in his memories under new light. "I wasn't trying to hurt her, but to protect her."

"I get it. The hardest part of going to America was leaving Harry here. Not because she couldn't take care of herself—Harry is the strongest person I know. It was hard because I wasn't sure she would ever make another friend." He was spinning truths with lies, now, but the heart of the emotion still choked him. "I thought she'd hide away in that apartment and never come out, deliberately pushing away everyone to keep me safe." And she had. Or she tried to. "Somehow, she made some pretty great friends despite the lies."

"Leo," James said, distaste on his tongue. "And Caelum Lestrange. Potions boys."

"Harry's friends," Archie said firmly. Honestly, Harry hadn't even introduced James to Kasten yet. The man really needed to get over a few things. "They haven't replaced her family yet, but if you keep her at arm's length, she's going to find someone who won't."

James closed his eyes and swallowed. "Sometimes it feels like she's been walking away from me her whole life, and every year she gets a little further."

"So stop standing here and run after her."

James straightened. "You're right. Godric, Arch, you're so right. I'll go to Diagon Alley and—"

"Not literally, Uncle James—"

The after-hours Floo bell went off and the sound of Harry's butt hitting the ground announced her arrival.

"Harry?" Archie called quickly. "What's wrong, was the shop closed early?"

He and James strode into the Floo room and helped Harry clear the ash from her robes and hair. When Archie got a look at her face, he had to smother a laugh. She wasn't kidding about that Polyjuice-stripping potion. It looked like she'd washed her face with turpentine.

"Harry, what happened to your face?" James took her chin in his fingers and Harry winced.

"Ouch, Dad. I stepped into the grate before the Floo powder had fully took." Archie snorted with amusement and Harry made a very red face at him. "When I'm of age, I'm never traveling anywhere except by Apparition."

James grimaced. "Say that until the first splinching."

Harry grumbled something else, but it was distracted. She had a lot on her mind, and Archie could tell she wanted to talk to him about it. "Want to sleep over at mine?" he asked her. "Only you'll have to Floo again."

She put a hand to her face uncomfortably. "Sirius will never let me live it down. Can you stay here?"

Archie looked to James in question, and his uncle shrugged agreeably. "Always welcome, Arch, you know that." As they turned for the stairs, James added, somewhat awkwardly, "Ah, Harry?"

Harry turned with a carefully expectant face.

"What was it you needed at the shop? Some kind of sap?"

Harry flicked her eyes to Archie's, silently asking if this was a trap. Archie smiled reassuringly. "Stink sap wasn't it? Or did I get it wrong?"

"Stink bug juice," Harry said with a small eye-roll. "Honestly, Arch, where's your short-term memory? Hermione would be ashamed."

"Don't bring the goddess of mnemonic devices into this," Archie started.

"Stink bug juice, then," James cut in. "I can pick it up tomorrow on my way home from work, if you need it."

Harry blinked at him. "I…sure. If you like. I need undiluted…the red one. But I can get it, too. I'm in the alleys a lot anyway."

"Sure, right. If you weren't planning to go tomorrow, though…"

"I suppose I don't need to…"

It was like watching two boggarts try and figure out how to scare one another.

James bobbed his head. "Great, I'll get you some, then."

"Thanks, Dad." It was almost a question, but Harry smiled tentatively all the same.

James beamed at her, and really, their awkwardness was painfully unnecessary when they both wanted it to not be there so badly.

Harry watched James leave the Floo room whistling, then turned to Archie with a question in her eyes.

"Don't ask. Things have been weird tonight."

"You don't know the half of it," she muttered.

They pulled the spare mattress from the closet and said goodnight to Lily as they passed her in the corridor. Throwing up the usual silencing spells was easy. Getting Harry to start talking was harder.

So Archie started. "I pretended to be you." Because it would have been so much more suspicious if she was gone while Rigel was having a mysterious meeting with Albus Dumbledore. Harry's timeline could never match up with Rigel's. Even if no one had enough pieces to put it together.

"I knew you'd think of something." She gave him a relieved smile. "Sorry I was late."

"I thought I wouldn't have to do that anymore," Archie said.

Harry flinched. "I—I know. I know you don't want to keep doing this—"

"It's starting again, isn't it?"

Harry's face hardened. "Riddle started it. I'm going to try and finish it."

"It won't be that easy." Didn't she see that? "You're not just pretending to be me anymore, Harry. You're pretending to be a wanted criminal. Riddle, the Ministry, the public—they all want a piece of him." Harry said nothing, and Archie sighed. "I don't have to tell you it's dangerous. Just think about why you're doing it."

Harry's eyes, that decadent, disastrous green, flashed in the lamplight. "What do you mean, why? The Vow—"

Archie shook his head. "When we started this, you could pretend it was for me, at least partially. Not anymore. I don't want this…but I'm starting to think you do."

Under the red skin, he still saw the flush in her cheeks. The excitement. He hadn't seen Harry this way in a long time. Not since the beginning, maybe. The guilt in her eyes was what confirmed it, though. Part of her was relieved. Part of her…had missed it.

"You're invested, Harry. This is more than just the Vow."

Harry bowed her head. "Dumbledore has an…organization."

"I'm guessing it's not a book club."

Harry shot him a look. "They're going to help me with the crowning ceremony, if the Vow makes me go."

Archie set his teeth. "And what does this organization want in return?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. Nothing explicitly. Implicitly…they want Rigel to be their symbol."

"And what does Rigel want?"

Harry frowned, and he knew she had not fully faced the question herself. "I…don't want to hurt this family any more than it has been. But I do want what they want for the world. I feel…responsible, still. Involved, as you said."

Archie thought it over, knowing she trusted his opinion and wanting to be sure he had every angle before giving her advice. "I don't know Dumbledore the way you do, but our parents trust him. This organization can't be ill-intentioned, at least."

"About our parents…" Harry sucked her teeth and Archie caught the exact same look in her eyes that Lily had worn when she came back from the Longbottoms'.

Archie cursed. "They were never at the Longbottoms', were they?"

"Technically, we all were."

Archie swore again. Then he laughed, a helpless, brittle release. "Of course, they were. Of course, they are."

Harry started to laugh as well. "I had that exact reaction."

"Because let's not do anything unless it's as complicated as humanly possible."

Harry and Archie laughed until it hurt, and Archie let the relief course through him. Whatever else had happened, however far Rigel had climbed back into their lives, Harry retained enough of herself to see the humor. That would do for now.

She gave him a crooked smile, and pulled his head into hers in silent camaraderie. After they'd caught their breaths, she said wryly, "Look at it this way: if even we don't know what's happening, no one else stands a chance of figuring it out."

From her words to Merlin's ears. So mote it be.

-0—0—0

-0—0

-0

[end of chapter two].

A/N: Happy holidays everyone! This chapter is dedicated to the ten-year anniversary of the Rigel Black Chronicles! As of December 6th, I'll have been running around with this character in my head for a full decade. I doubt I'd be the same person without her.

To celebrate, the Discord server "Harry Get Some Sleep" will be helping me host two Q&A events this weekend, December 4th at 7pm EST and December 5th at 10am EST. If you have any questions for me you'd like to submit, there is a pinned thread available in the server.

In addition, there will be a prompt week for fanworks December 6 – December 13th! Prompts are listed in the server under announcements, and you can find tagged works when they are finished in the AO3 collection. Thanks to everyone who continues to organize and participate in all the fic exchanges and masquerades and other events that keep the community well-fed in between chapters.