Disclaimer: As you'll probably have noticed, I'm not JK Rowling, and boy am I happy about it. I do, however, enjoy toying about in her playground, something which I should definitely do more often. Whatever you recognise from other fan fiction or storylines is purely coincidental and not intentionally copied, but if you point out the coinkidinks, I'll duly credit. Canon characters, settings and the general wizarding world belong to JK Rowling and whoever she's sold the rights to the HP-verse to, everything you do not recognise from elsewhere has sprung from mine hollow head. I do not, and don't believe I ever will, perceive any sort of monetary compensation for my fan fiction writing. It is, conversely, one of the most satisfying things I've ever done. Howlers welcome, reviews even more so.
To everyone who has endured this long wait, and hasn't given up on this fic. Thanks a ton to you all!
The Time of the Turning, Chapter 18
Hiding in Grim Old Places
The Department of Mysteries was all but deserted at this hour of night. Albus Dumbledore strode into the Death Chamber, his footsteps echoing in the empty room; three Unspeakables guarded the circular access room, and some Aurors of a new special squad were posted in the different chambers, all part of a contingency plan that had been but one part of the host of changes in the Ministry after the battle that had taken place there. It had taken Dumbledore almost two hours to get the clearance to visit the Death Chamber unaccompanied, but it seemed well worth the effort: someone he had needed to see for almost two years was sitting on the dais, the veil fluttering slightly in an unseen wind behind him.
"Angus," Dumbledore said from the top of the amphitheatre. The silvery figure looked up from its pipe, and after a few long moments of careful examination, nodded once at him. Dumbledore approached, pulling out a sherbet lemon. Now he was closer, he could see his old school friend much better; the silvery outline gave way to colour, it was almost like seeing a live being, except for the faint glow emanating from the wizard.
"I see you received my letter," old McAlpin said, his tone businesslike.
"I did, a few hours ago." Dumbledore took a second sherbet lemon from his robes pockets, eyes downcast. "Angus, I am eternally sorry—"
"None of that," McAlpin muttered harshly, waving a dismissive hand at Dumbledore, his distinctive Scottish accent even more marked than he remembered. "Spare me your excuses, Albus, we both know there's precious little time to waste on explaining what you should have done and why you did not do it."
Dumbledore sighed. It would be a long meeting. It already felt as if he had been standing here for hours, when in truth only a few minutes had passed. McAlpin however, went on, puffing on his pipe thoughtfully.
"It was Voldemort, accompanied by such a force I had trouble believing it at first. Rasmus Thanatovich was with him. But of course you knew that already." His pale green eyes fixed themselves on Dumbledore's, assessing, knowing. "It is another matter I wish to discuss with you, otherwise I would not have bothered summoning you here at all, as you no doubt can tell."
Dumbledore took the scroll from his pocket with a sigh. He had hoped McAlpin would be but a slight more condescending.
He had no such luck.
"I was indeed wondering what the meaning of this was," he agreed, giving Angus a questioning look. Angus proffered a small smile that did not quite reach his eyes. Only he could make such a gesture look grave, Dumbledore realised, and waited for the old wizard to speak.
"It is a prophecy, a complement to the one you—and your ward—protected ever so skilfully," came the reply. Dumbledore did not dwell on the sarcasm coating McAlpin's words.
"Why did you not tell me of it before?" he asked instead, urgently. This could have unforeseen consequences, for all.
"Because you would have botched it up, just like you did with the first," McAlpin replied, his tone nonchalant, as if he were commenting on the weather.
"Some things are beyond our control, Angus," Dumbledore retorted, earning himself another dismissive hand gesture.
"You, Albus, trust too much. Be it in other people, or the fates," said McAlpin. His face was now grave, his eyes reproachful.
"About this prophecy..." Dumbledore turned to the parchment once more. Whether he was doing this out of genuine interest or simply to forestall a sermon, was hard to tell.
"The meaning of it shall be clear in due time," was the enigmatic answer. "It is not in me to tell you what it is, for I do not know myself—not for certain. And instead of speculating, which is your favourite pastime, it seems, I would rather have hard facts to back it up. Speak of it with only people of your full confidence, which in itself is a great risk—you have, after all, placed it in all the wrong places before."
"If you mean Severus, I would trust him with my life."
"Aye, that's what concerns me." McAlpin shook his head ruefully. The subject of Severus Snape had been the reason for the breach of their friendship, and McAlpin had nothing more to add to the matter. "Be it as it may, it is regretfully, I must say, your own decision to see whose counsel you seek. Keep this one safe, Albus, and the answers shall come to you in due time."
"Will you never trust me again, Angus?" Dumbledore's tone was now one of deep regret, and he meant every word. So, sadly, did McAlpin.
"My trust is irrelevant, and the least of your worries, particularly now." McAlpin raised his shaggy eyebrows, lighting his pipe again with a snap of his fingers. "You hesitate in acting, and you have made enough mistakes already, the consequences of which I do not even wish to begin to contemplate. I wouldn't want to be in your boots right now, Albus."
"I have acted in the best interest of—" he was cut off by another impatient wave.
"The greater good, yes, yes, I've heard it all before." Once more, pale green eyes fixed themselves on blue. "I hate to say I told you so, but I did warn you. Repeatedly."
Dumbledore braced himself for the impending earful he was about to receive. And sure enough, McAlpin paused minutely before plunging on.
"You should have set Black free when I told you to do so, the Potter boy should have gone to me instead of those muggles, as was the Potters' wish. The day you took my given right from me, decided upon Black's fate, and ultimately, young Potter's, you made it quite clearwhat you thought of the 'greater good', Albus. As I said, I do not wish to discuss your considerable lack of judgement, but, well, to request something of you now I am here." He gestured at the fluttering veil. "Or back there, if you will. I am unable to see to this matter myself, as you surely will understand."
This was most unusual, particularly since Angus and his entire family were gone now. Dumbledore frowned slightly.
"I have two pupils, or should I say, I used to have two pupils? No matter, either way they shall need your aid, for evident reasons," here McAlpin gestured at himself, ignoring the nonplussed look he was getting from Dumbledore. Which was likely a first occurrence, at least in the past handful of decades.
"Pupils?" Dumbledore echoed. He had not known Angus had taken in apprentices, and said as much.
"The amount of things you are not aware of could fill several libraries, Albus," McAlpin muttered, leaning back and regarding Dumbledore with disappointment. "The one-eyed man may be king in the kingdom of the blind," he stated, "but he still lacks one eye."
Dumbledore said nothing.
"I did have two pupils, and to judge by the fact they are not in there with almost all my remaining family, I believe they are on their way to see you. I need you to take them in and protect them."
"Do you mean to say, someone escaped the raid?"
"I am fully confident those two will have." A self-satisfied smile. Dumbledore's face fell, however.
"The Aurors, the Order... we found no one alive, Angus. No signs of anyone escaping, either."
"And my lads would not have shown themselves to either party had they been there, Albus. They escaped, I am certain of it."
"I shall do everything in my power to help them, then," Dumbledore replied gravely, although the tone of his voice betrayed his misgivings. "Where do I find them?"
"You?" McAlpin's laugh rang loud and clear across the empty chamber, earnestly amused. "What makes you think you could find them if you tried? No, they will find you, Albus, I don't believe I asked you to search for them. In fact," he went on, "I would not be surprised if they were knocking on your front door already. Their methods are not the conventional ones, you could say. All I ask is you help them, keep them safe from Voldemort until they are ready to stand on their own, and don't try to shape them as you're doing – or should I say, not doing – with the one you claimed as your own to raise."
Dumbledore lowered his eyes once more, averting his sight from his one-time school friend's keen, penetrating gaze.
Where did we go astray, Angus, that we cannot talk but from opposite sides of this self-imposed Hadrian's wall? he mused ruefully, examining his third sherbet lemon mournfully before popping it in his mouth. The sweetness of it was quite insufficient, as he began to attempt an explanation.
"I am aware my decisions have not been the best, or might not seem as such at present," he started, "but they were nevertheless mine to make, Angus."
"Not from where I am sitting," was the reply. "There are some people back in there who are most unhappy with the way you have handled things, and some issues have quite recently come to light that are most... ah, upsetting for us all."
"Tell Sirius, James and Lily—"
"I'm not your errand boy, Dumbledore," McAlpin snapped, his voice suddenly harsh with anger. "You can come here talk to them whenever you please, although I am not certain they will consent to talk to you, especially since Black rendered his own report a mere few weeks ago, and I cleared a few parts up myself. After all, why you haven't come here but the once in fifteen years was clear to me before. And now, it is clear to them as well." He paused. "You have made them very angry, Albus, and yet... you do owe them an explanation."
"You are right, but you do not know the whole story, the underlying reasons are—"
"Ah, but you do. Now you do. Or rather, given some time, you might know it all, you might understand..."
And Merlin be with you when you realise what you have done.
Angus turned his attention to his pipe, indicating the conversation to be over, the statement hanging in the air like an anvil over Dumbledore's head. The silence stretched, ringing, penetrating, for the space of several eternally long moments.
"I have a question, Angus."
"Fire away." McAlpin looked up from his pipe, mildly interested. Dumbledore hesitated for a moment.
"How much do you know about Soul-Splitting?"
"Could I steal a few moments of your time, then?"
"I have an eternity Albus," said McAlpin, chuckling. "What is it that you need to know so badly?"
"Please... I can't stop the bleeding."
Harry lowered his wand, gaping openly at the boys, even as Bill called for Moody, his own wand steadily aimed between the eyes of the one who had spoken. Tonks mimicked Bill's movements, while looking out the door for any potential attackers.
"Bill, let them in," Harry said urgently, his eyes fixed upon the unconscious-looking boy. For a fleeting moment, he met the other's eyes, and a jolt of energy coursed through him. It was a split second only, but for that period of time, it was as if time stood still, and he were looking at an old friend, someone he knew as well as he did himself. Harry blinked. The boy looked away.
The connection broke.
Bill and Tonks hesitated.
"Could be a trap, Harry." Bill's voice was curt, almost unfeeling. Harry turned to look at him in disbelief.
"They're hurt," he said, temper rising. "Let them in. Now." He knew that the boys were no threat, but how he knew was beyond him. It was also something he was not about to analyse now. Unless the boys were seen by a Healer soon, they'd die. The unconscious one would, at any rate. He'd seen what had been done to him after all, hadn't he?
Mad-Eye Moody clunked hurriedly up the kitchen stairs, his wand already out and aiming at the newcomers.
"Potter, get out of the way," he barked, already holding the boys at wandpoint. What happened next confused Harry to no end.
"Professor!" the boy gasped, looking relieved to see Moody, of all things.
"I can't stop the bleeding, sir," he went on in the same urgent, strained tone he'd been using so far. "He needs—"
"Who are you?" Moody barked imperiously, cutting the boy off. "How did you get here?"
The boy froze for a second, as if he had not expected this turn of events at all. He gave Moody a look of what would have been exasperation had he not been so worn out.
"We walked," he said shortly, looking down and adjusting the bleeding form of his brother against his chest. "Nobody followed us, all right? Just—just get some help for him, I'll answer whatever questions you have, I'll do what... whatever you want." The boy looked intently at Mad-Eye, his voice cracking. "Please. He's dying."
Mad-Eye regarded the boys impassively.
"How did you know how to get here?" he snapped, his magical eye darting every which way, looking for other enemies and finding none.
Harry darted forward, starting to protest, but Bill held him back, muttering something he didn't quite listen to, but which sounded somewhat like: "He knows what he's doing, let it go."
His eyes boring into Mad-Eye's, the boy reached deliberately slowly into his pocket, and, ignoring Mad-Eye's threatening growl of, "Watch it boy!", withdrew a pair of identical black wands from it, tossing them at the old wizard with a pointed look. He then held up a scrap of bloodstained, filthy parchment.
"Only we can read it, Professor," he said, his breath heavy. "But it says, 'The Headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix may be found at number twelve, Grimmauld Place, London.' Which is here, if I'm not mistaken." He gave Moody a pointed look, teeth gritted, in impatience or pain, Harry couldn't tell. "Will you help him now?" He turned his attention to his unconscious twin, shaking him slightly and muttering into his ear.
At the mention of the Order's address, Bill muttered an oath under his breath and let go of Harry, leaving for the kitchen at a sprint.
"I don't recall ever seeing you, let alone teaching you, so stop calling me that." Moody interrupted his examination of the boys' wands and summoned the piece of parchment to him, even as Bill called loudly for Healer Tonks in the background. "Who gave you this?"
"My grandfather, Angus McAlpin," was the reply. "Dumbledore gave it to him early last summer."
"He should have burned it," Mad-Eye growled.
"Well it's a good thing he didn't, isn't it?" the boy snapped back, glaring at the old ex-Auror, clearly desperate. "Or are you saying we should not even have bothered coming all the way here? He thought you'd help us, but if you won't, then—"
At this point, Healer Tonks arrived at a run, pushing Harry aside as she passed him. It took her next to no time to assess the situation.
"This boy needs help, Alastor," she snapped, pushing past him as well. "Move aside."
"Healer Tonks?" the boy croaked in disbelief, as Tonks helped her carry the other inside. He looked ready to laugh, or kiss her, or both. Fortunately he did none of these things, but relinquished his hold on the other boy so she could look him over.
"Do I know you?" Healer Tonks asked sharply, gracing the boy with a minute glance, at the same time Mad-Eye barked, "You know her?" from right behind. Even despite the sudden confusion, he had not stopped aiming his wand at the newcomers.
"Yeah, she was Grams' Healer..." the boy muttered, weakly pulling himself up along the doorframe. He glanced at Mad-Eye, shook his head a little, as if to clear it, then gave him a dismissive, tired wave. "You know what? Never mind."
All along the entrance hallway, a commotion had broken out. Mrs. Weasley was hurrying up the stairs after Tonks and her mum, a series of bags and stacks of clean linen floating in her wake. Confused shouting rent the air, reverberating across the house as everyone –minus Mrs. Black's portrait—gave orders, or offered to get something or other for Healer Tonks' newest patient. Harry shrank back into the wall as Bill ran past him, told Mad-Eye something he couldn't quite catch, then hurried outside, Fred and George in tow. Harry caught a glimpse of them obliterating the trail of blood the boys had left behind before the door closed behind them.
He was just wondering what to do with himself, when he saw the other boy sliding down the wall onto a sitting position, burying his head in his right hand. His left, Harry noticed, was held against his chest, looking rather purplish and swollen. He felt a sympathetic twinge on his own wrist.
"Not so fast, you." Mad-Eye's gnarled hand closed itself over the boy's arm, hoisting him up and ignoring the wince this movement elicited. "You have a lot to explain."
"Alastor! What are you doing to that child?"
The stern shout made Moody stop mid-movement and Harry flinch involuntarily. Where McGonagall had come from was clear to Harry when she started brushing soot off her green tartan robes, and the reason for her arrival was also made obvious when Madam Pomfrey emerged from the kitchen next, hurrying to the first-floor room Healer Tonks was occupying now.
"He could be a potential Death Eater!" Mad-Eye barked at the same time the boy raised his head and snapped, "Watch who you're calling that, madam," in entirely too similar a tone to that of the Ex-Auror's.
McGonagall's lips went as thin as Harry had ever seen them, and her tones were clipped when she yanked the boy from Mad-Eye's grip, placing a protective hand on the boy's shoulder. He wobbled a little, but held fast.
"It is still just a ch—a youngster, Alastor. You might want to revise your methods," she retorted firmly. "This is not Auror Headquarters or your interrogation chamber, in case you haven't noticed, and we are not stooping so low as to resort to caveman practices here."
She led the boy all the way to the kitchen, a grumbling Moody clunking behind her. Harry trailed after them, trying to make himself as unobtrusive as possible. He took a seat at the back of the room, while McGonagall conjured some tea and glared at Mad-Eye before pushing the steaming cup at the boy.
"Drink," McGonagall said shortly, but her voice was not unkind. "You look like you need it."
The boy snorted and pushed the cup away.
"Cheers, but I'd rather not be poisoned right now."
"You do look parched," she insisted, frowning.
"I need to speak to Dumbledore first," was the flat reply.
McGonagall looked like she was going to argue back for a moment, but sat down with crossed arms instead. Harry did not miss the appreciative look Moody gave the boy before starting a systematic interrogation.
The boy, who introduced himself as Connor McAlpin, described the events of the last few days in an increasingly croaky voice. Harry listened attentively, confirming most of the things he'd dreamt of. Connor however, did not go into great detail about the tunnels he'd found, and became rather vague about other things as well, Harry noted.
He was summarising his tale in such a way as to appease Moody without giving out any information that could be useful later. His explanations were simple, straightforward, and not a little detached. His voice, although croaky, was steady, stating fact after fact in a quite efficient manner that forestalled most obvious questions.
For his part, Harry stared at the boy, eyes roving over every feature, every bit of mud and dried blood on his robes. He had the distinct feeling he'd seen him before, and not in a dream or vision, either. He wasn't one of the Hogwarts students—Harry was certain he'd remember that face—but then, where had he seen him before?
"... and when I went back to the house, it was full of Inferi. I managed to get a hold of some Floo powder, though, that's how we left." Connor ended his short account, sniffing the cold tea suspiciously before taking a sip at last. He looked spent, and Harry just knew that he would gladly fall asleep where he sat if it weren't for the mistrust he had in the people sitting around him.
"Inferi?" Upon hearing this term once more, Harry leaned forward to whisper to Tonks, who had been kicked out of the room that had been turned into an impromptu hospital area, after tipping over a basin full of hot water. She too seemed to be trying to blend in with the scenery, which was made rather difficult given that her hair was some neon shade of red.
"Sort of like zombies," she whispered back. Harry swallowed, an image he'd thought to be from a dream popping before his mind's eye, dragging itself towards him as he backed away against a window.
"How did you find your way across London?" Mad-Eye asked. His tone, more than snappish, was intrigued now. Harry felt he knew the answer to that one, too.
"We arrived at the Leaky Cauldron by Floo, sir. Then we walked... got lost."
Mad-Eye narrowed his normal eye.
"We heard of a disturbance there earlier in the night. Was that you?" he asked with a growl.
Connor nodded tiredly, "We didn't know there was an alarm... triggered it."
"Why not seek out the help of the Aurors?" This question seemed to amuse Connor. He gave Moody a wry, lopsided smirk.
"Because we can't check their forearms for interesting tattoos," he said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. Harry had the feeling that for him at least, it was.
At this point, Mrs. Weasley returned to the kitchen, to get some more boiling water. Connor almost leapt to his feet, as if his previous tiredness had not been there at all.
"How is he doing, madam?" he asked, apprehensive.
"Healer Tonks is doing her best—oh, but you do look terrible too, we need to get you looked at as well," Mrs. Weasley said, looking him up and down appraisingly. He did look awful, Harry realised with a pang; not all the blood on him belonged to his brother, that was clear.
"I can wait," said Connor earnestly, "just fix him up first."
"What happened to him, exactly?"
"Death Eaters... they... they... one of them hit him with this purple curse... I don't really know the name of it." Connor replied distractedly, for the first time showing some signs of distress as he slumped back in his chair. "He's been...been bleeding like mad for the longest time. I didn't know if he'd make it all the way here." He swallowed. "I tried to... to stop it, but... it didn't really work."
"Why didn't you take him to St. Mungo's then?" Moody shot the question at Connor, towering over him in a way that was quite intimidating. Mrs. Weasley, who had been in the process of saying something to comfort the boy, gave an exasperated huff and bustled out.
To Harry's surprise, Connor gave out a chuckle.
"What, after the Bode incident earlier this year?" he scoffed, fixing his eyes on the scrubbed table. "Do you honestly believe we'd have survived more than one night in that place?"
Mad-Eye slammed a hand on the tabletop, making everyone jump about a foot in the air. Connor did not budge, or indeed seem surprised by this behaviour at all. His eyes moved from Moody's hand on the table to his scarred face, and it seemed to Harry as if he were suppressing a smile. When he spoke, however, he measured every word; his tone, though strained, was controlled.
"I was going to... I was going to risk taking him there if we were turned out from here, but... well, St Mungo's is quite a bit farther away and I do not carry tube tickets, sir."
"What about the Knight Bus? Surely you have heard of this method of transportation?"
Connor rolled his eyes.
"Right. One of the conductors was recently imprisoned for being a Death Eater. We do did read the papers back home, you know. And," he added, "the driver is a menace on wheels." He paused for a moment.
"Sir," he said, his eyes boring into Mad-Eye's own with an intensity that startled the old wizard, "I was told to come here for help, not St. Mungo's, or the Ministry, or anywhere else. If we had had some other alternative, any other—believe me, you wouldn't even know we exist at all."
Moody stared at the boy sitting in front of him as if he had grown fangs, horns, and scales. A rather harassed-looking Healer Tonks picked this moment to come into the room, summoning herself a drink and surveying the scene around her. Her eyes fell on Harry, who was sitting quietly in his corner.
"What are you doing down here again?" She bore down on him, and Harry instinctively recoiled from her.
"You," she snapped at Harry, poking him on the shoulder, "should be in bed. I'll be up in your room in five minutes, and if you're not lying down as I told you to, it won't be You-Know-Who you'll have to worry about."
"Yeah, yeah, you'll be happy if I'm in a bloody coma when you come by, I get it," Harry muttered, angry at being told off in front of everyone. Tonks snorted, but Connor ignored him completely, in the same way he had so far.
"As for you," she turned to Moody with an expression that reminded Harry of his Hungarian Horntail in the Triwizard Tournament, "you can carry on with your little 'interrogation' to-do later. I need to check this one here over."
"I haven't finished yet!" Moody barked.
"I'm in no hurry, Healer Tonks," Connor said at the same time.
"Oh, but I am," she replied grimly, completely blanking Moody and surveying Connor closely. "You look almost as bad as that other one."
"How is he?"
"I can't say he's doing peachy, but I believe that he'll be up and going in a couple of days, with some luck. I'm guessing you did the initial healing?"
Connor nodded, suddenly apprehensive.
"It looks terrible, but you did a decent job. Now let's get you looked at, kid." With these words, she motioned Connor towards the kitchen door, giving Harry a look that said: 'You have four minutes left, Potter, don't push it.'
As he rose from his seat, Connor leaned in to Moody and whispered something in his ear. Moody froze for a second, both eyes fixed on the boy's retreating back. He blinked in shock, shook his head, then stood up, his clawed foot scraping the floorboards.
"Sweet Merlin... Why didn't you say so before?" Moody's tone was that of utter astonishment, and was that...recognition?
"As if you'd have let me come close enough." Connor grabbed Moody's arm. "I need to speak with Dumbledore," he repeated, for perhaps the fifth time since he'd arrived. "As soon as you can get a hold on him."
"Yes, yes, I'll arrange it. As soon as he returns. Go with the Healer, lad," was the surprising response. Moody's tone, though, was what made Harry stare. It was downright fatherly, he'd never have expected the harsh Ex-Auror capable of it.
"Oh, and Connor—" Moody called after him, "you'll need these." He pressed the wands back into the boy's hand, his face contorting into a creepy grimace of a smile, even as Healer Tonks gave him a pointed look and led the boy away.
Harry followed them out slowly, utterly confused. The answers to his unspoken questions would not come today, he was aware of this much. That did not keep him from turning things over in his head as he made his slow way back to Sirius' bedroom.
Connor staggered into the room where the other was lying on a bed, asleep. As tired eyes roved around the room, he became ever more acutely aware of his own, rather unhygienic state. Chris' filthy, torn robes were in a heap at the foot of his bed, contrasting with the stark white linen he was covered in now, as out of place in the surgically clean chamber as Connor felt at the moment. The smell of healing potions filled the air, which was much cleaner here than downstairs. A spell had been cast to keep the temperature level, too; it was warm here, pleasantly so. Rows of multi-coloured bottles, vials and jars of ointments lined a rather oversized nightstand of sorts that had been placed by Chris' bedside.
Connor took a few tentative steps inside, approaching his brother almost hesitantly. Instead of making for his bed as instructed, he sat down on the bed by Chris' side, biting his lower lip with worry as he looked his twin over.
He hadn't had the chance to see him in broad daylight before now, and part of him was glad about it. Even now he was all cleaned up and properly bandaged, not to mention looked after, he still looked terrible, worse than he remembered him looking before. His breath was still uneven, coming in ragged and shallow gasps, his eyes sunken, the dark rings under them contrasting sharply with his pale skin. And yet, he was fast asleep, resting after two days of strain.
Two days. Had it really been that long?
Longer, his mind prompted. If you count in the Dementor attack on the twenty-second, that makes it what, three days? Four?
Connor's breath caught in his chest. He had done it.
Against all odds, after running for he had managed to get Chris to safety, alive.
This abrupt realisation did not, however, bring any sort of relief. He let out a long, slow breath.
Knowing he had, somehow, managed to do what Gramps asked him to, if anything, made Connor feel all the more uneasy. So far, he had concentrated on eluding the Death Eaters, on keeping Chris alive, and foregone all thoughts beyond reaching the Order's Headquarters, of getting help for his brother. Yet now, looking at Chris on that bed, his brain automatically moved on to the next big question.
What was to become of them now? Chris was badly hurt, everyone they had ever learned to trust was dead, gone. Gramps was gone, and with him, all sense of stability he'd ever known. And, he knew, the world was hostile, and would continue to be, especially to them. Even the Professor's reaction to seeing them had been less than friendly... until Connor had told him. But he couldn't tell everyone, could he?
He reached out one shaking hand, placed it on Chris' arm, squeezing lightly. Chris drew a deep, shuddering breath, but did not otherwise react. Connor forced out a wan, hollow smile.
They were safe, for the time being, and he could not do anything more about it. Not right now. He had shoved the matter into the Professor's hands, all that was left now was waiting for Dumbledore to show up.
"Your bed is just a few feet over," a female voice said quietly from behind him. "You'll be more comfortable there."
"He'll be alright, won't he?" Connor breathed in a small voice. Healer Tonks nodded, smiling reassuringly.
"Yes, he will. In a few days... He is exhausted, but already on the mend."
Connor breathed in true relief at last, slumping as he sat. Suddenly he felt light-headed and shaky, close to tears, even. It finally sank in.
They had made it all the way here, and they were safe. He didn't know for how long, but they were safe, and that was all that mattered now.
"Come," Healer Tonks motioned for him to get moving, gently ushering him to the spare bed. "I'm not sure about how you are doing, though. Let me look you over."
Connor swallowed dryly and nodded, getting to unsteady feet and covering the short distance to the other bed, swaying a little as he sat down, his eyes fixed on the floorboards ahead of him.
"Right," Healer Tonks mumbled, kneeling down before him to unbutton his muddy, bloodied robes. "Where does it hurt?"
Albus Dumbledore had not had a good day so far. The visit to the Department of Mysteries which had begun the previous evening, had dragged on to past lunchtime the following day, and he did not manage to escape the Ministry without running into a very distraught Cornelius Fudge, who had babbled some nonsensical accusations at him before shuffling hurriedly to his office, a half-score insistent reporters following closely behind.
Albus had, however, managed to get a hold of a copy of the Daily Prophet, heard a disturbing tale or two, and even held a brief, yet very much informative talk with a grim-looking Kingsley Shacklebolt, who was on his way to one of the Auror Apparition Points, followed by a team of Hit Wizards and headed to Inverarray. The Auror did tell him, almost in code, that they had managed to safely take Harry to Headquarters, where he was being presently tended to by Healer Tonks and Madam Pomfrey. He could not elaborate on Harry's condition, but knowing the boy was safe sufficed for the moment.
Dumbledore, in turn, asked Kingsley to look for two fourteen-year-old boys in and around the McAlpin Estate, and to bring them to Headquarters if they were found alive. He could not provide much by way of useful information, however, other than their names, and that they had black hair and grey eyes. If Kingsley was confused by this, he did not show it, but assented by jokingly asking for the post of Defence Against the Dark Arts Master at Hogwarts.
"They are likely injured, and, as my sources have informed me, they shall not approach you willingly, unless you disclose your... other affiliation," Albus said quietly, after chuckling and loudly offering the Auror some sherbet lemons. "Yes, Kingsley, I shall look into it, we have as yet found no suitable replacement this year," he added loudly. "Do feel free to stop by for tea sometime, there is no need for you to owl beforehand," he added, and both wizards took their leave from each other shortly after.
The return to Headquarters went smooth and quick, as usual. Albus apparated to the park outside the town house, entering it quietly so as to not disturb the portrait, whose curtains were open. Mrs. Black, however, merely sputtered and gibbered at him, as if shocked. The Hogwarts Headmaster raised an eyebrow, striding to the much more welcoming kitchen.
"Took you long enough," Alastor greeted him impatiently, even as around him, Minerva McGonagall, Tonks and the Weasleys looked up from their respective drinks. They all looked tired, Albus noted. "Did you get stuck with the press mob that's been pestering the Magical Law Enforcement Squads? We've been waiting for hours."
"My apologies. I was... detained," Albus replied, sinking into a chair with a sigh and conjuring some tea for himself. There was something tense in the air, however, and the way the grizzled wizard was staring at him did not serve to enlighten him beyond the fact that, there was indeed something further to discuss, something that likely had to do with Harry.
"I am all ears now, however," Albus ventured after a moment's silence.
"Good, because we have a fair bit to tell you. Angus McAlpin's grandsons are here."
"My Lord, you wished to see me?" The Death Eater bowed low before him. Voldemort waved a long-fingered hand in an impatient gesture of dismissal.
"Get up, Rasmus, there's no need for you to do that now," he hissed. "We have but six days left, what are the news?"
"I have gathered seven so far, my Lord," Rasmus replied, taking a seat across from Voldemort's own. "I am planning to bring you two more, before the night is over. Nott and MacNair are looking into it already, I am confident we will have them all long before the deadline."
"Where are you keeping them?" The Dark Lord inquired, pleased to hear the news. Six days to go, and less than half the elements left to gather for the party.
"The Dementor Pit," came the reply. "Although I am confident Bella will keep them duly entertained for the next few days, if things become... overly dull."
Voldemort smiled thinly, nodding his agreement. That particular project was coming along nicely, good.
"Have you heard any news about the Clan McFusty?" the Dark Lord asked next, in a conversational tone that was rarely heard by any Death Eater, save perhaps those few who enjoyed what could be termed a friendship with Voldemort. Such a thing did not exist, and neither of the wizards present in the parlour were fooled. They were friends as much as they were master and servant, titles which they honoured for mere form's sake.
It was, however, a most excellent arrangement, which had so far, brought both sides enough satisfaction to continue pursuing an exchange.
"The eyes of the press are on them at all times, particularly since their heir has died," Rasmus informed, summoning himself some wine. He was completely at ease, secure in his power. "We can strike on the day of the funeral, or the morning after," he added, earning himself a pensive nod from his master. "They will be too occupied mourning to pay attention to what is important, and we will be able to help ourselves without interruptions." An elegant little scoff and a roll of his eyes conveyed the rest of the message.
Voldemort chuckled. Rasmus went about matters in a thorough, methodical fashion, pinpointing the critical areas and offering immediate solutions to them without getting out of stride. If Rasmus said it could be done, it could be done... which was why Voldemort kept him around and made so many concessions to him.
"The Wandmaker will be pleased, he has been asking for conventional cores. When is the funeral due?"
"The date has not yet been set, but we are ready to strike even now," came the confident reply. "Last I heard, the Hit Wizards had not yet managed to retrieve the corpses."
"So we have an advantage." Voldemort snapped his fingers, and a blood-red goblet appeared in his hand, filled with a poisonous-looking green liquid that steamed slightly. Serpente, a liquor made of the venom of thirteen different snake breeds, so rare and expensive it was thought not to exist outside legend. It served as a strong tonic, although anything over a mouthful would kill a fair-sized wizard in a heartbeat. Voldemort stashed the stuff by the barrel, his favourite aperitif as it were.
"I would ask something further of you, then, since you appear to have the time for it now."
"Anything, my Lord, as long as it is within my power to provide."
"I need a new body," Voldemort mused. He had always confided in Rasmus, who, having no further interest in anything outside of his game, had no reason whatsoever to use this information against him. He gestured a long, bony hand at himself. "This one might be powerful, but it is ultimately flawed. The link with the Potter boy is getting stronger by the day, and the constant Occlumency needed to block him out is draining my strength."
Rasmus nodded shortly. The link with the Potter boy was not the sole reason for this decision, he knew, but he was not supposed to be aware of the fact that Potter had managed to control Voldemort's body for a brief period of time a few days ago, during the DalRiada raid. Over a distance of almost 700 miles.
"I have been feeding him dreams, but it does not seem to be enough," Voldemort hissed, sipping his Serpente with relish. "Nothing ever is with that one. I want him, Rasmus, but for that I need to be rid of this connection... it is not worthwhile having if he can see through me but I cannot see through him at all."
"What sort of body would Your Lordship wish for?" Rasmus inquired, tilting his head slightly in acknowledgement of the last statement. Voldemort's eyes glinted red.
"A young body. A powerful one. Nothing less will do, a common body would die with ordinary possession, in a matter of weeks, maybe days. There is, however, one who would withstand the process, one whose body I could claim as my own without much problem."
Rasmus thought he knew where this was going. He nodded patiently, however, allowing the Dark Lord to explain his plan before jumping to conclusions.
"Severus should start researching how to make the transfer, but you, my friend, are tasked with the more important part of the plan. I know who I want."
Rasmus looked keenly at his master, not bothering to hide the glint of excitement welling up in his own eyes. "Who might that be?"
"One of those twins... I want one of the McAlpin boys."
And there it is.
Rasmus felt a smile of triumph tugging at his lips. He did not bother to ask why the Dark Lord had come to this conclusion, Voldemort would tell him in due time, he always did. Sheer power of the McAlpin heir was not the sole backing for his reasoning, and Rasmus was well aware of it. He welcomed the opportunity of a hunt, however, the reasons for it would come to him in time, and he was nothing if not painfully patient.
"Find them, Rasmus, bring them to me, no matter what the cost. You may keep the spare in exchange, I just need one after all... undamaged."
"Certainly," Rasmus conceded, bowing his head and steepling his fingers. "Do you have any preference as to which, My Lord?"
"I believe it is the firstborn, Rasmus. They are generally more powerful than their younger siblings... yes. Bring me the firstborn, whole, do with the other as you wish."
"You are aware it might be a long-term project, my Lord," Rasmus retorted, raising his eyebrows. "They might be with some of their old friends... Dumbledore might have already taken a hold of them."
Voldemort nodded once. This turn of events was quite predictable, after all.
"I have waited for years, Rasmus," he pointed out. "Time I have in spades. I need quality, not speed."
Rasmus fell silent for a while, already pondering ways of action in this regard.
"The girl," he mused aloud. "McAlpin's granddaughter... what became of her, I wonder."
Voldemort waved a long hand at him, the gesture bordering on languid.
"Bella kept her... as a personal plaything, I believe," he commented offhandedly. Rasmus nodded again, an idea forming in his mind.
"I would wish to use her... as bait, perhaps."
"If you can find a use for her, by all means," was the unconcerned reply. "All my resources are, as per usual, at your disposition."
"Thank you, your Lordship, you are most generous," Rasmus replied, smiling coldly. "I do, in fact, believe she could be put to better use than Bella's entertainment—I shall strive to duly compensate her, for the loss of such... rare a toy."
Voldemort let out a chilling laugh. Today was a good day. Everything seemed to be running smoothly, and Rasmus was already thinking out a plan. He raised his gobletful of Serpente in silent toast, mirrored by the other wizard.
"Is there anything else you might need for this venture?"
"I should like to have a word with Severus, my Lord... I am not completely certain yet, but I do believe I shall devise a suitable plan after seeking his counsel."
For the past half hour, Albus had been listening to a fantastic account. Angus' 'pupils' were, in fact, his grandchildren. And they had arrived, half dead in the middle of the night, eluding Death Eaters and the rest of the wizarding world as they crossed half the country to reach Headquarters. Impressive as though the story might be, there was more to it, he could tell by merely looking at his long-time friend.
"I didn't remember them at first, although Connor made it pretty clear he knew me," Alastor continued with a growl. "It didn't click until he told me he was—" Moody made a choked noise in the back of his throat, tried again, with the same result. Everyone turned their heads towards Mad-Eye, who merely chuckled good-naturedly.
"That old sod McAlpin was a genius," he commented, shaking his grizzled head. "I can't tell you what the kid said... but I believe I can explain some of it."
"Kindly do," Minerva interjected, suppressing a yawn and looking strained. These past few days had been taxing for all.
"McAlpin was head of the Department of Mysteries until 1981. Late that year, he developed a variation of the Fidelius Charm, to protect his family from the Dark Side," Moody informed in a grunt. "Few even know of them, and those who do... well, the charm comes coupled with a selective obliviation spell the old coot developed too."
"How do you know that?" Albus enquired, frowning slightly.
"Because I taught those kids for two, no, three years, up until the time I went to Hogwarts to get stuck in my trunk," Moody counters. "I only just remembered, when Connor lifted the memory spell and the Fidelius Charm for me." If anything, he looked impressed and proud, not at all miffed that his memory had been tampered with.
"I agreed to it, you know," he growled at the many confused looks shot his way. "It was a necessity back then. Still is, but I couldn't tell you why if I tried. All I can tell you is there is much more to those two than meets the eye, they need our help and protection, and they need it yesterday."
Silence greeted these words, while everyone present digested them the best they could.
The thoughtful, rather confused quiet pervading the kitchen was broken quite unceremoniously moments later, when Healer Tonks trampled down the stairs and flopped onto a chair, summoning herself some water. She looked worn out, and her robes were stained with fresh blood. Not that she seemed to mind about it.
"Well," she stated, after draining a goblet of water and looking around. "They'll live."
"What are...?" Mad-Eye and McGonagall asked in tandem, both stopping short to allow the other to speak and neither finishing the question.
Healer Tonks laughed tiredly, launching into a rather clipped description of the boys' conditions.
"The first one, Chris, has lost a lot of blood," she informed. "He was hit by a shredding curse, a well-aimed one." She paused long enough to allow everyone around to flinch and cringe in sympathy before explaining the remainder of his injuries, which included a few strike spells and a hurling hex. "He is worn to the limit, of course, which never helps. The other one, Connor, is not much better off. I am surprised they made it this far under such conditions," she commented. "That alone will set the healing period back a few days, but they're strong... they'll pull through."
Mad-Eye let out a sigh of relief, echoed across the room by everyone else present.
"Connor's injuries are less grave, but more numerous, not to mention he hardly took the time to look at them, which leaves him in much the same state as the other one," Healer Tonks added, not bothering to list off every broken bone, every gash she'd mended over the hours. "I'd be surprised to see him waking up in the next couple of days, he's completely knackered."
"What now, Albus?" McGonagall voiced rightly what should be their main concern.
Dumbledore exchanged a significant look with Moody, who spoke up once more.
"As I remember it, I was to take guardianship of the boys, should anything happen to Angus. I doubt that has changed in any way whatsoever. Given they're the last living McAlpins, the matters of property and vaults and the like are a no-brainer. What I am concerned about," he stated, "is how to keep them safe from future attacks."
"The can stay here over the summer," Dumbledore replied in turn. "Along with Harry, they might just be the most sought-after by the Death Eaters at the moment. We can take them to Hogwarts in September."
"If they agree to it," Moody growled. Dumbledore did not have an answer to that.
"Albus' plan would help us along, Alastor," McGonagall pointed out. "Now, the matter of their custody is thankfully settled, but it reminds me of Harry's custody. Who shall take guardianship over him now Sirius is gone?"
"I shall breach the subject to Harry," Dumbledore retorted. "Once we have settled matters with the McAlpin boys." He rose from his seat, McGonagall nodded in agreement. "Andromeda, may I see them? It will just be a minute."
"They're asleep, Dumbledore," was the flat, rather unimpressed response. "But have it your way. You have ten minutes, they need to rest rather desperately."
Albus nodded, bowing himself out of the kitchen. Moody followed, not bothering to get the Healer's permission. Healer Tonks rolled her eyes tiredly, waving her wand at her robes to clean them of the bloodstains.
Harry wasn't allowed back downstairs all day, nor the next, even if he didn't feel half as weak and shaky as he did before.
Healer Tonks came in sometime before noon on the day the McAlpin twins arrived, her robes splattered with blood and what appeared to be potions, looking careworn and rather unapproachable. She took to checking him over, gave him a few strengthening potions, and changed the bandage she'd placed around his head; his scar had been bleeding since he had had that last vision of Voldemort in the McAlpin's courtyard, and it kept opening at random times, accompanied by sharp jabs of pain whenever it did.
Harry asked after the boys, but she would not say anything; he chalked it up to her being tired and grumpy, as she had probably been up for days looking after him and now those newcomers, so he did not press the matter. She ordered him, as usual, to try and sleep as much as he could, encouraging him to use a bell she left on his nightstand if ever he needed anything.
He couldn't sleep, however tired he was, his mind completely busy with the strange newcomers, or else plagued by nightmares of Trolls on a pier, of Dementors and burning houses, of the living dead walking towards him, drag—thump... drag—thump...
As if that weren't enough, he tapped into Voldemort's head a few times, yet the connection was too short, too vague to make anything out at all. Invariably, such visions were coupled with sharp burning in his scar, blood trickling down his forehead as he cradled it in his hands, wishing he could just tear his scar off and be done with it. The visions left him drained and gasping, and every time, the recurring nightmare of the dark, dank cave-like chamber followed, where he crawled over shards of glass, blindly looking for Sirius, whose voice kept impatiently demanding to know who was there.
It was enough to put anyone off sleeping more than strictly necessary, and Harry had gone on without a good night's rest long enough to be used to this sort of arrangement, raw deal or not. He took to idly watching the sun crawl through the grimy windowpane of his bedroom, trying to figure out who the McAlpin boys were.
They looked entirely too familiar to be allowed, but he was certain they had never set a foot at Hogwarts. He'd remember them. He had the feeling that he ought to know them, a sense of having seen them before in the waking world, but by the life of him, he could not remember when or where. It intrigued him to no end, and he couldn't wait to find out.
Mrs. Weasley, whom Harry had counted on for news, however, did not help him either. She brought him his meals, fluffed up his pillows and checked his bandages, but she was strangely quiet, with rings under her eyes and a certain distance whenever she addressed him that had not been there before. It made Harry not want to talk to her more than was absolutely needed. He knew by the look on her face she had been crying, and unbidden, the images of the boggart she had faced the previous summer came into mind, and he sipped his soup quietly, not daring to speak up.
Otherwise, he was left alone in the large chamber, listlessly staring at the dark red canopy of his bed and brooding in silence, which was near complete, suffocating. Apart from the black canvas of a thankfully empty portrait which he knew belonged to Phineas Nigellus—he had heard him sniggering a few times, but was thankfully spared from seeing him—there was no source of sound in the room.
The dedicated, constant care of Healer Tonks, Madam Pomfrey, and Mrs. Weasley, yielded results. He was indeed healing, and with an increase in his energy, the feeling of restlessness began to assert itself.
He left his bed sometime in the afternoon on the day after the McAlpin twins arrived, his third at Headquarters, and spent some time alternately glaring at every corner in the room and pacing around. The movement made him feel a little better, even if he tired quickly and it increased the feeling of confinement, but the effort helped distract him a little from the steady stream of bitter thoughts his mind was adamantly presenting him.
However, the thoughts won out as his eyes fell on something sitting on his bedside table. It was the mirror Sirius had given him, which he had taken out of the case he'd somehow managed not to lose sometime earlier, for lack of anything better to do. It had taken a simple repair spell to fix it, but he had not called into it again. What good would it do, except make him hope for what was not going to happen? He'd give anything, anything, to see Sirius' face again, had long lost all hope of ever doing so.
Sirius... Sirius might have known who the boys were, why Voldemort was after them. Come to think of it, Sirius had usually been rather well-informed of, well, almost everything. He'd been a ready source of advice, but most of all, he'd trusted Harry, treated him as an equal and not like a child. He had been there for him, had had faith in him, never once lied to him.
And look where that landed him, Harry thought bitterly, glaring at the worn rug on the side of the bed. Azkaban, Merlin knows how many other places while he was on the run... sleeping in caves, or worse... only to end up in another, equally bad prison and... He gulped down the word, not wanting to even think of it, and resumed his pacing, jaw clenched. Suddenly the idea of seeing Sirius' face again became less than appealing. What could he tell him? How could he even think of facing him again if he had as good as killed him?
"Sorry" did not suffice now any more than it had so far.
Harry took to pacing up and down the room again.
Despite the frequent wakings and unpleasant dreams, Harry did manage to rest some. Since his room came with its own bathroom, and his almost every need was being catered to, there was no real need for him to leave, even if he'd wanted to. Which he didn't, not anymore.
When a very tired-looking Healer Tonks announced, while giving him his morning potions on the twenty-seventh, the third day after his arrival, that he would be ready to be about the house for a little while later that day, Harry was faced with mixed feelings. Part of him was itching for movement, particularly now the strength was returning to his limbs, and welcomed the opportunity to give more than a few paces in either direction at last.
Yet another part of him did not want to leave, however; as hateful as he perceived every minute he spent in Sirius' old bedroom – he still had trouble considering it his own – he had never been there long during his other stays at Grimmauld Place, and he knew that once he left the dubious safety it provided, he would have to see the rest of the house, and the memories would come flooding back, and once they did... He wasn't sure what he would do.
He did leave though, in time for a late breakfast or an early lunch, whichever way he looked at it. The oppressing sense of confinement proved more daunting than the memories for the time being.
He also found he had been right; even as he hobbled slowly across the old corridors—which, despite the visible efforts to clear them, seemed to be adamant on retaining the 'classical evil-wizard style' as Sirius used to put it—images, sounds, and even smells from his last stay there popped up around every corner, from every nook and cranny, only to disappear again and return to their dark corners to lurk and wait for another time when he could be caught unawares.
He stopped on the third floor landing to catch his breath, and there was Sirius, grinning at him while he told him of some mad stunt he and James had pulled at school, or else telling him with every detail how he had fooled Chinese Aurors while in Peking, or asking for a retelling of Harry's escape from the dragon in the Triwizard Tournament... Harry looked away, tried to hurry up. His eyes fell on the corridor leading to the Master Bedroom, where Sirius had kept Buckbeak; it had been his favourite brooding place, when things were going less than well for them all... Gritting his teeth, Harry made his way downstairs, hoping for some distraction.
He sensed him before he entered the kitchen, knowing he was in there without needing to see.
His left arm was held in a sling, his forehead sported a bandage similar to Harry's own, and he was sitting ramrod straight, wearing a set of Harry's pyjamas and an old, threadbare bathrobe Ron had discarded the previous summer. Connor did not even look up from the newspaper he was reading as Harry entered, turning instead to hand Mrs. Weasley an empty plate.
She greeted Harry warmly, stifling a yawn as she motioned for him to sit. everyone else had apparently already left for the day. Harry took a seat, across from Connor, who seemed absorbed by whatever he was reading.
"Hello, I'm—" Harry began, deciding that introducing himself would be the obvious course of action, and possibly, a start to a conversation.
"Harry Potter, I know," Connor mumbled absently, without looking up. For an explanation, he tapped his own bandaged forehead once, graced Harry with a glance right after. Harry frowned, slightly taken aback. He was used to people knowing who he was by now, but Connor had hardly glanced at him, even that night he and his brother arrived.
"I'm Connor," he added, almost as an afterthought, resting the paper against the sugar bowl to carry on reading. Before Harry could say anything else, Mrs. Weasley placed loaded with food before each of them, and Connor tucked in like a starved man, turning his attention alternately to his food and the paper after thanking Mrs. Weasley profusely.
Harry reached for one of the old Daily Prophets scattered on the table, to give himself something to do other than stare at the boy sitting before him in silence. Someone had beaten him to the front page, though, but he wasn't in a picky mood at the moment. He skimmed though most of the articles until one caught his attention.
July 26, 1996
Inquiry to be conducted at the Ministry of Magic.
The Ministry of Magic spokeswizard Stamford Jorkins, 57, said, in a statement deposed earlier this week after a Wizengamot hearing, that a full inquiry shall be conducted, regarding the alleged wrongful imprisonment of one Sirius Hellion Wilfred Orion Merlin Dexter Nestor Soren Pendragon Alphard Phineas Black (36, deceased), wrongfully believed for years to be He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named's right-hand man, the alleged murderer of twelve muggles and three wizards, as well as the greatest threat to the Wizarding World after He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named himself, whose life recently was ended during the battle at the Department of Mysteries, in the heart of the Ministry of Magic. Black had, as per firsthand sources, gone to the Department of Mysteries to rescue Harry Potter and a handful of Hogwarts students held by notorious escapee Death Eaters.
The story, which struck the Wizarding World as unbelievable at first, has further been confirmed as the inquiry continues. Black, allegedly a prominent member of the legendary Order of the Phoenix, a secret organisation set to fighting the Dark Side during the First War (1970-1981), was never responsible for the charges imputed upon him. Spokeswizard Jorkins assured that "he is due to receving a full pardon soon."
The conditions of his imprisonment in Azkaban, the lack of a trial upon his capture, his unprecedented escape and his outwitting of the Ministry's top Aurors, as well as the conditions of his demise shall be fully revised, spokeswizard Jorkins, further stated, hinting that even awarding Black the Order of Merlin, First Class posthumously would not suffice to cover horrid mistakes and inconsistencies present in his case. "The man was a hero, and heroes should not be treated that way," he said.
Already the charges of being in league with You-Know-Who and bringing about the escape of the 'Deadly Dozen' last January, which had previously been pinned on Black, have been dropped, spokeswizard Jorkins declared, pointing out that this is "One of the worst disgraces the Ministry of Magic has ever partaken in."
Harry lowered the paper, feeling sick to his stomach. He could not read on; what good did it do to Sirius to clear his name now? He was gone, and Harry knew who was responsible for it. He picked at his food, all appetite gone.
"Harry, you do need to eat up, it's getting cold," Mrs. Weasley admonished, gathering the loose pages of the Daily Prophet and folding them neatly before placing them on the table. She did not, however, take the front page from Connor, whose eyes remained fixed on it even as he started on a third helping of breakfast.
"D'you mind letting me have a look at it?" Harry asked, gesturing at the paper Connor was still looking at while feeding himself right-handed.
Connor stopped chewing for a moment, and looked Harry over, as if appraising him... and not being at all happy with what he saw. Harry frowned in confusion, but just when he was going to comment about it, Connor gave him a half-shrug and handed him the paper, pulling another one towards him.
"Thanks," said Harry, watching the boy closely. Once again, the feeling of almost-recognition crept over him. He'd seen that face before, and not in a dream either. He had seen the exact same jaw line, the nose, even the eyes, at Hogwarts... but... it couldn't be. Connor turned back to eating, completely ignoring Harry.
Giving himself a shake, Harry looked at the front page of the Daily Prophet—and stared.
Over half the page was taken up by a picture of the Dark Mark, hovering over the smoking ruins of McAlpin Estate. He recognised it without a problem, remembered how it had looked, when it still was whole, what had made it into a smouldering heap of stone and wood.
Attack on Dal Riada Estate— Clan McAlpin Annihilated, the headline read.
At nightfall on the 24th, the estate was attacked by a great force of Death Eaters. The Clan McAlpin, one of the oldest wizarding families in the world, thought long disappeared, was annihilated. All its members, turned into Inferi. We are once more facing the same darkness as years ago, what will bring this madness to a halt?
Harry felt a wave of cold overcome him, chills running down his spine. How Connor could have polished off two plates of Mrs. Weasley's English Breakfast while looking at that picture the way he had, was beyond him. He returned the front page wordlessly to the other boy, who gave another careless shrug and tossed the paper farther down the table, now apparently immersed in a cross-word puzzle.
He glanced at Connor every now and then, the sensation of being studiously observed and ignored at the same time increasing with every passing moment. By the time he had forced down the last bite of his sausages, he was convinced Connor felt nothing short of contempt towards him, but by the life of him, he could not fathom why.
He worked his way across the papers in silence. The news were no better than they had been so far, there were notes everywhere relating of disappearances of Muggleborns or their families, Dementor attacks, Death Eater sightings... nowhere did Harry see so much as a hint of news that someone had fought back. He reached for today's paper, almost reluctantly.
This, too, was entirely too similar to the rest to be comfortable with. Apart from learning that today was July twenty-seventh, there was little difference from all the rest he'd read so far.
The reporters screamed for news of the 'Chosen One', who was, as per statement by Dumbledore himself, 'in an undisclosed location, to ensure his safety'. Harry felt his stomach threaten to turn. People were pinning their hopes on him, and where three weeks ago they had been singing songs of praise about his 'boundless courage' as he faced the Death Eaters at the Ministry—his courage.
What did they know?
Stupidity, that's what it was. Hermione had told him there was no way Voldemort could have kept Sirius of all people in the Department of Mysteries for hours, but he hadn't listened, had he? He'd thought he'd manage to come out on top, like so many times before. But he hadn't, and Sirius had died.
He glanced at the paper again. Now, people were nothing short of demanding to know what his plans were to battle Death Eaters, wanting to know why he was doing nothing about the disappearances.
What could he do? Survive? It certainly was the one thing he excelled at. Drop a bomb right on top of his head, he'd probably live to tell the tale. But, he argued with himself, that was hardly enough to face Voldemort. Why were people so adamant in thinking he was the hero they needed? Were they that desperate?
Harry sighed heavily, chewing on his bottom lip with apprehension. The prophecy came to mind, unbidden.
'...neither can live while the other survives...' He pushed the thought as far from his mind as he could, he wouldn't ever be able to face Voldemort and hope to win, no matter how much the reporters clamoured that he would.
Connor rose from his seat and limped towards the door, after thanking Mrs. Weasley for her cooking. Snapping out of his brooding, Harry followed wordlessly, catching up with him by the foot of the stairs.
"Hold up, wait—"
Connor turned to look at him... and there was that cool look again, coupled with an indescribable, closed expression Harry could not place at all.
"I... I just wanted to ask..." For some reason, he felt nervous all of a sudden. Asking the boy before him who he really was did not seem the right question to ask, nor was asking how he knew him if he'd never seen him at all, and neither was demanding to know why Connor hated him so, even if all three were on the tip of his tongue.
"H-how is your brother doing?" he asked instead.
"Chris? He'll live," was the curt answer, delivered with a strong Scottish accent. "Or so Healer Tonks says. Hasn't woken up much at all though."
"Oh... Well I, I hope he gets better soon."
"He will." Harry didn't know quite how to carry on this conversation. Connor's tone brooked no uncertainty, no doubt. It was also final, indicating their exchange was over.
Harry nodded once, struck with the sudden urge to do something, anything to help.
"If you need anything at all," he heard himself blurt, "anything... whatever you might..."
"We don't." The slightest hint of annoyance crossed Connor's features, but when Harry looked again, it was gone, that impassive poker face back in place.
"The offer stands, I could—" Harry replied, before he was aware the words left his mouth. Connor cut him off with a disbelieving snort.
"Help us?" he finished for Harry, chuckling almost derisively. "What makes you think—"
Harry was about to reply to that, driven by the same impulse that had prompted him to offer his aid—whatever that might amount to. He had no time to respond, or indeed begin to ponder what he'd just done, though. As one, he and Connor looked up the stairs, in the direction of the room occupied by the twins.
"He's awake." Connor's voice was a mere whisper, so low Harry wasn't sure if he'd said anything at all or if it was his own mind voicing a thought; words weren't necessary, however. Chris was awake, disoriented, confused. Harry had felt it as surely as Connor had.
That in itself was boggling.
Without another word, Connor climbed the stairs, disappearing behind the door. As it shut with a soft 'click', Harry snapped out of his daze.
What was that? He had no answer for this question, but part of him was certain that Connor knew. That same part of him also knew, but it was as if he'd been hit by a Confundus Charm; he didn't know what he knew, or how he did. It had been almost... instinctive.
Night was falling, as was the eternal London drizzle, when Rasmus Thanatovich apparated in a dank, mist-covered alley close to the slum called Spinner's End. He did not bother with Muggle clothing, even if he was striding purposefully down the street and looking for all the world as if he owned it.
Which, he mused absently, he very well could. He would have to contact his realtor.
Screwing up his nose at the smells reaching him from the overturned, overflowing rubbish bins scattered along the way, and sidestepping a rat or three, a few well-placed wards and a guardian bat statue, he stopped by a very much shabby-looking door at the shabbiest part of the street.
He kicked the door a few times, waiting rather impatiently for it to open.
Eventually it did, revealing a short, grubby, straw-blond wizard with overlarge front teeth who blinked at him with watery blue eyes. Rasmus looked haughtily down at him, his expression scornful.
"Let me in, rat. I have an important errand to see to and little time to waste with the likes of you," he commanded.
With a squeak, the short man scuttled aside, watching him with wide, fearful eyes. Rasmus spared the double-crosser not a glance, striding into the dinghy front room. Snape's hygiene seemed to have not improved one jot since he had last been here in 1982. He stood before the fireplace, hands folded behind his back.
"Call Severus. I have news for him."