Disclaimer: Canon characters and situations © J.K. Rowling and assorted Mugwumps. Original characters, situations, desserts and stuff owned by one DND. Who isn't getting any money or retribution of any kind for the writing of this piece of fan fiction.

Dedication: To everyone who's held out this long, and carried on reading and reviewing. Thanks a ton!

Thanks: To Shayde, for helping me with the proofread.

Congrats: To Japonica, for finishing Always!

Author's Note: This is a 2x1 chapter, considering the length, to make up for the even lengthier hiatus. Do try and enjoy.


The Time of the Turning

Chapter 19

Causality Part One -- Stratagem

Every Cause has its Effect; every Effect has its Cause. What we call ''Chance" is merely an expression relating to obscure causes; causes that we cannot perceive; causes that we cannot understand.

The Kybalion


"Ah, Severus," Rasmus drawled, interrupting his examination of the dinghy fireplace, upon noticing the approaching, spidery footsteps of the wizard he was awaiting. "I must say, the service of your house is rather lacking. There I was hoping that rat would have some manner of use, at least." Again, he spat it out. Snape's expression, however well-known his loathing for his one-time classmate, did not change.

"Rasmus," was the curt reply, accompanied with an equally stiff nod. Rasmus left the many unasked questions hanging in the air, turning to face Severus with an unhurried step, completely unbothered by the rather comprehensive amount of tension he was subjecting the other wizard to. Having him visit anyone was, after all, a rare occurrence-- and never without purpose.

"Our Lord has issued a new order," Rasmus informed curtly, both hands clasped behind his back; this gesture might be less attributable to being at his entire ease, however, and more than likely caused by the state the house was in. Filth and disorder he had never learned to appreciate, much as he was not overly bothered by spending days on end in the field, stalking a quarry; yet Snape's home did not precisely scream of cleanliness, and the sort of vermin walking around in it was enough to make Rasmus quite uncomfortable—and irritable.

That they were both necessary to the completion of any of the major tasks at hand was evident to him, and perhaps, the sole reason why they were still alive; double-crossers, in Rasmus' eyes, deserved worse than death. Though he had to admit, if only to himself, that they did have their uses.

At least one of them did.

For the time being.

Snape merely contented himself with giving Rasmus the same calculating look he had been graced with so far; a prompt in and of itself to continue, with well-concealed curiosity and—was that dread he was perceiving?

Interesting.

"This, I trust you are capable of understanding, is a matter of the utmost importance—and confidentiality," Rasmus continued, pausing to give Snape a minute glance, which was answered by the practiced casting of imperturbable and silencing charms. He nodded, somewhat appeased, before speaking up again. "He is in need of a new body."

The words had hardly left his mouth, when Snape finally opened his own.

To leave it hanging open.

Snape could at least be so considerate as to brush his teeth, if he was planning on displaying them to any observer.

"What?" He was not even bothering to hide his shock, gaping, gob-smacked, at him.

"I am neither in the mood nor do I foster the habit of repeating myself," Rasmus replied dryly. "Your Master does not merely know what he wants, he also happens to know with precision who it is he wants." A pregnant pause, followed by the inevitable question.

"Who…?" It appeared that Snape was into monosyllabic conversation today. Further, the news had rattled him enough to allow Rasmus to see his open surprise and curiosity over the matter. And yet, was it really this unexpected? To Rasmus, it was a matter of logical inference, and thus, not in the least surprising.

Clearly Snape thought differently. Rasmus had expected more self-control from the sallow-faced wizard, but, as much as he loved to show off his apparent immutability, Snape was in truth boiling with emotions at every moment. He reeked of them, just as he reeked of potions ingredients and fumes, and oftentimes, such as now, of old potions and the fumes thereof. Coupled with a less-than-healthy dose of bodily odours.

And Merlin-knew-what-else.

Such a very unhygienic man. How did he live with himself?

"You ought to know who," Rasmus replied, allowing a hint of cold amusement to permeate his features. "You were there. You saw it happen."

At least Snape had closed his mouth.

"Wh—" He raised a hand before the question was out completely. His patience could stretch seemingly endlessly when necessary, and conversely could wear thin in the matter of seconds.

Such as now.

"Snape, from what I have heard, you are supposed to be one of the painfully few members of the Innermost Circle who are actually alive from the neck up," he interjected. "The reason why he wants a new body is evident; The Potter boy's constant intrusion in his psyche is taxing him, amongst other reasons I have not come to discuss with you. You were there, as I said, therefore you should know."

There was no answer; Snape did regain his composure, however, gracing him with a scowl worthy of a Hogwarts Student being wrongfully told off by a teacher.

Pathetic.

"I do not enjoy of boundless free time either, so I shall be brief," Rasmus continued coolly. "Given the fact that possession has yielded, and shall surely continue to yield, only temporary results, your Master obviously requires a way to permanently inhabit this new body, without risk to him, or to the said body. That, so I have heard, is your area of expertise, so I do not believe I need to expound exactly on what your new priorities are, hm?"

Snape shook his head, jerkily. Rasmus could see a vein bulging in his forehead, and took that glare to be an additional bonus.

"I have been requested to deliver the body in question," he added, not bothering to hide his satisfaction at the turn of events, or the fact he was actually looking forward to working on this new project. "Given you are a trusted part of the Order as well, all I want of you, until further notice, is quite simply information."

"I report only to the Dark Lord." Oh, now he suddenly remembered he possessed a vocabulary that was larger than three words.

"Not anymore," Rasmus retorted placidly. "Although I have no problem waiting for you to check back with Voldemort." Snape flinched as if struck.

How quaint.

"If you feel you would rather your Lord gave you the order to report to me directly." Snape's retaliatory argument died before it reached his lips. Just as well, Rasmus was not in a patient mood, and while Snape might not be wholly aware what taxing his patience meant, he was well aware what challenging Voldemort's would amount to. Particularly now, when it was a precious commodity with an ever-decreasing shelf life.

"What do you want to know?" Snape groused, apparently having realised his only option in the matter. Nobody said he was stupid. Rasmus gave him a thin-lipped smile.

"For a start, I would like to know if McAlpin's grandsons have contacted the Order in any way."

"Not as far as I know—I would have been informed of this at once," Snape drew himself up a slight, causing Rasmus to raise an eyebrow in turn; a double-crossing traitor, in his never-humble opinion, had no reason to pride himself of being what he was. "I'll send word as soon as I hear anything."

Although he had to admit, double-crossers did have their uses.

"Fair enough," Rasmus said, checking his watch. He was being expected in less than an hour in Newcastle to pick up two more toys for Voldemort's little horror show. "I shall also expect a report on the spells and potions prepared by that scuttling pet of yours," He nodded at the door Pettigrew had disappeared behind, "to restore the Dark Lord his body, thereby disproving the rumour there is no use for it any longer. You are not to discuss the subject matter with it, however—this information was for your ears only."

"I wouldn't worry about that." A thin-lipped smile, showing rows of yellow, crooked teeth that seemed to have been brushed last in 1964, give or take a couple of years. Rasmus thought he was not far off the mark.

"Let me know of any progress you make," he stated, checking his watch once more. "I have to collect another few special guests for your Master."

"Is he still bent on using the younger ones?" Delivered as it was in a carefully nonchalant tone, Rasmus did not fail to notice the other wizard's apprehension on the matter. He had to hand it to Snape, however; few others would have noticed.

"He is, but he shall not have his way," he replied easily. Nobody else would have been able to deny Voldemort anything, but he was happily endowed with enough strength… And sufficient logic to do so. "Given the poor quality of the accommodations he has prepared for his guests, anything that has not outgrown the need for nappies would not last until the appointed date, and he understands—though grudgingly so—that having to fetch him a replacement at the last minute, while his little celebration is underway, is not only not advisable, but also ultimately preventable. We might be late for the show, and that is the last thing he wants. I am taking some more grownups instead—particularly considering the Lestrange woman is in charge of the Pit—the youngest I believe will be four. Your Master isn't pleased, but it's the only sensible option."

Snape nodded, but refused to comment.

"Now, before I leave," Rasmus added, changing the topic yet again. "I need to know the whereabouts of the Longbottoms."


Albus quietly opened the door to the room Angus' grandchildren were being kept in, Alastor a half-step behind him. Having missed Connor's brief appearance for breakfast the previous day, he had visited the room several times since, each of which yielded the same scene; Andromeda was right, they were exhausted. Nevertheless, he returned periodically, in the hopes of being able to speak to either of them.

He had expected to find them sleeping still, but as it turned out, only one of them was. The other, identical to his twin to the last detail, was sitting on his bed, eyes fixed on his brother. He turned slowly to face them as they entered, but Albus did not miss the wand aimed at them from under the frayed sleeve of the bathrobe he was wearing.

"Connor McAlpin?" Albus asked, walking to his side and letting himself down on a chair next to him. The boy did not respond, surveying him instead, assessing him in a cool, detached manner that was rather reminiscent of… someone Albus could not place, before nodding at Moody in greeting and putting his wand aside.

"I reckon you heard," Connor mumbled, keeping his voice low, probably so as to avoid waking his brother. The Scottish accent could not be missed for anything, however. "Gramps told us to come here." Albus nodded in response.

"Good thing too," Moody commented at a growl. "How's he doing?"

"He's holding up," Connor replied, his attention back on his brother. "Healer Tonks said he'd be right as rain soon… All he needs to do is wake up for longer than five minutes in one go." Though he sounded hopeful enough, his worry was evident.

"Andromeda is an excellent Healer, and I trust we shall see improvements soon," Albus said, trying to be encouraging, and drawing the boy's attention to him. "And I bid you welcome here for as long as is necessary, although I do wish the circumstances of our meeting had been different." This was met with the waving of a dismissive hand.

"Doesn't matter," Connor replied in the same low tone. "What I don't know is what we're supposed to do now. Gramps said to come here, but..." he trailed off, gesturing at the prone figure on the other bed. "Once he's better, I'm not really sure where he'd have wanted us to go."

Dumbledore did not respond for a moment; it was almost as if this boy were not so much as considering the obvious choice. Next to him, Mad-Eye gave a small grunt.

"You are welcome at Hogwarts," Dumbledore stated gently. "It is, perhaps for the best if you—"

"No," Connor said at once, firmly. "That's something I know for a fact. Gramps didn't want us going there."

"Might I inquire as to why?"

"You have been known to staff Death Eaters," was the reply. The tone, a notch cooler than before.

"If you are talking about Severus, he has been on our side for..."

"How can you know for sure?" Connor cut in, icy eyes flashing straight at him. Albus returned the sharp look with a mild smile of his own.

"He enjoys my full trust and confidence." The response to that was delivered in the form of a derisive snort.

"As have others, and we all know what happened then, don't we?" Albus raised an eyebrow at the mocking tone.

"Cheeky blighter," said Moody, but Albus could tell he was amused. He on the other hand, was not.

"Never you mind, we're not going there anyway."

"You ought to finish your education, and—"

"There's no need to go to Hogwarts for that," Connor retorted, interrupting the Headmaster yet again. "There is a house... a safe house. He'd probably have wanted us to go there." And now he was addressing Moody, rather than Albus, for input.

"Hogwarts might not be what your Gramps wanted it to be, kid," Mad-Eye growled, both eyes fixed on his one-time student, "but I'm telling you now—it is your best bet. Maybe there's little for you to learn there," he added, with an amused grimace of a smile. "but Snape or no, it's a public, well-warded place, where you can be safe. Voldemort isn't about to go storming the castle," He raised a hand to stop the protests before they were out. "And I'll personally be there to make sure nothing happens to either of you. Think about it, lad—If he's managed to find you in Dal Riada, and further, if the bastard's managed to take down the wards there, he'll find you wherever you go."

There was a stretching, ringing silence. Connor shut his mouth, swallowing back his thoughts on the matter and opting to worry his lower lip instead. At least he was listening.

"Hiding in the open will be best for the both of you, and I guarantee you the Order won't leave you stranded, either," Mad-Eye assured him.

Connor did not answer, clearly deliberating on the matter. In the end, he shook his head, uncertainly, looking lost as to what to decide, forlorn, even; to Albus, he looked his age at last.

"I don't know," he admitted in a small voice, glancing at Chris' bed.

"Sleep on it, kid," was Moody's recommendation. "We can discuss it properly later—I'll go look at your safe house anyway, if you still insist on going there after rolling it over a little."

Albus fixed Moody with a questioning look. The offer seemed abrupt, and not quite in keeping with Moody's usual policy of Constant Vigilance, but Mad-Eye was not even glancing in his direction, both eyes still scrutinising the boy's face. That he was even considering taking the boys to the safe house was odd to the extreme; they were not of age, and would likely not reach seventeen if they were indeed as greatly wanted by the Dark Side as their current situation suggested. Of all people, Albus would have expected Moody to be the most adamant against it, not in the least because, as their Guardian, it was in the end, his decision to make.

Connor considered the matter for an additional moment, clearly debating his choices, then gave Moody a single, tense nod in response.

"I'll need the address, Connor," Moody prompted. This too, was delivered in a manner that was most unlike the old Ex-Auror's behaviour. It was downright gentle. Albus decided to stay out of it. There would be time to talk to Moody later, and there was definitely a host of things to be discussed.

In the hallway outside, carefully concealed behind a niche, Harry Potter pulled at an Extendable Ear to retrieve it, stuffing it in his pocket with a sigh and turning towards the stairs, his other hand holding a rolled-up Daily Prophet he had taken from the kitchen to read in Sirius' room.

While now he was allowed out for meals, it was but a small improvement on his previous situation. Mrs. Weasley continued to remain distant, reminding him vaguely -- and probably unjustly so as well -- of Aunt Petunia when he was younger; it was as if she were only catering to him because it was her duty, and not because she wanted to, as she had in the past. Try as he might to write it off as a result of weariness due to the long nights she spent looking after him and the McAlpin twins, and even longer days working for the Order, she had never before been this way.

Conversations were reduced to smalltalk and never lasted very long, but this in turn suited Harry perfectly. He had no desire of conversation with anyone. Save Connor McAlpin and his brother, which was perhaps the hardest yet. Since their short-lived talk the previous day, which did enough to rattle him to say the least, he had not had the chance to so much as glimpse them, and Healer Tonks would not answer his questions about their well-being either, advising him to focus on getting better instead.

Other than that, the day had been a slow succession of hours of brooding, berating himself for having returned at all, and driving himself to frustration speculating about the twins, mixed unevenly with vague visions of Voldemort, nightmares of a wide variety, and a welcome isolation from whoever else happened to be in the house.


July twenty-eight.

The fourth of the long, mostly miserable days that had passed since he arrived at Headquarters.

It was a sunny day, miraculously devoid of fog and rain. Well, as sunny as it ever got in London, at least, particularly of late, when the city seemed to have gotten stuck on Fall weather; fog and an icy drizzle were the norm, and to Harry, the reasons for it were not a mystery; Dementors had been hovering all over the place for weeks, feeding off the population. He'd read it in the papers. Felt it underneath his skin.

But today it was sunny out, a rarity and no mistake. Given that the old Black house was still as reluctant as ever to allow the scant sunlight through its windows, however, this otherwise notable change was less than worthy of mention, although Harry still stood by the window, peering out into the park past the layers of age-old dust and dirt encrusted on the panes. He had tried to open it once, but it was no use; for all he knew, the Blacks had put a Permanent Sticking Charm on it too.

He sighed, stepping away from the window and turning his gaze to the door instead. Healer Tonks had announced he was well enough to forego convalescing any longer and allowed him to leave his room at will at last, but he had no wish to do so, much as he hated staying in Sirius' room; facing the memories all over the house was worse than staying locked in around the clock and being plagued by the ones in his head.

However, by the time afternoon rolled by, being cooped up had turned into a rather familiar and much loathed sort of torture, and Harry found himself wandering the corridors once more, shuffling aimlessly ahead and trying not to think about times past.

It didn't quite work.

The memories alone were not the sole thing plaguing him, either; there was the Order itself as well. Everywhere he went, he kept 'accidentally' bumping into them. In the space of an hour he had seen and escaped Mad-Eye, Tonks, the Weasleys, McGonagall, Hestia Jones, Shacklebolt... The only Order members to be ever-so-conveniently absent were Lupin, Snape, and Dumbledore, it seemed; everyone else made a point to pop in and out of Headquarters at all times, fixing Harry with sympathetic looks, or else finding excuses to talk, trying to cheer him up with everyday issues that Harry did not find remotely interesting, or funny, or engaging.

The only subject he found interesting at the moment, and which was conversely also the only topic the Order members were avoiding as the plague, had to do with Voldemort's doings, who the boys were and how they were doing, and what the Order was doing to stop the attacks and disappearances from carrying on.

Their condolences slid off Harry as he realised that, as much as they claimed to care about Sirius, they had done nothing to help him while he was still alive and had needed help more than Harry did now. He had been alone, cooped up in a house he hated, while they were free to move about as they wished. If they had given one jot about Sirius, they would have had made clearing his name a priority, which never happened, did it?

And yet… He ought to have done something about it. In the very least, he should have done the very thing he was resenting them for. He should have tried, and he didn't.

He didn't care when he had a chance, and now he'd realised his mistake, it was too late to change anything.

At length, tired, angry at the world and seething at the Order's hypocrisy, he sought refuge in the library, a place he hadn't ever seen Sirius in and which the rest of the Order did not frequent either, as far as he knew. Then again, Sirius had usually been around Harry while he'd been here before, there was no telling if he'd really been here much or not; there was so much he hadn't even bothered to find out about his Godfather, and now, every chance of doing so was gone forever. At this moment, though, Harry was only grateful that he had no memories to connect Sirius with this place at all.

The door creaked ominously as he opened it, golden dust motes whirling in the dim sunlight that came through a large, grimy window, which took up most of the far wall.

Shelves upon shelves lined the walls on either side of him, which opened a little ways ahead and widened to make the room almost twice as large as the Dursleys' front room. Straight ahead, by the window, stood a large oaken desk and a few armchairs, as well as a fireplace that seemed not to be mounted on a wall, but stand quite on its own in the centre of the room before a large sofa. To his left and right, there were rows of heavy, black bookshelves stacked to breaking point with dusty books, dusty scrolls and even dustier maps.

Harry stepped cautiously into the room, a hand closing around his wand in his bathrobe pocket as he advanced into the library, which gave off the feeling of deliberate abandonment and neglect. He looked at the volumes on the shelves for a while, recognizing some titles, such as Saucy Tricks for Tricky Sorts, a worn copy of The Beater's Bible, Nature's Nobility: A Wizarding Genealogy – which was rather more worn than the copy in the Drawing Room, and others he had never laid eyes on before, such as: Ancient Magics of the Albian Mages, or Lightless: A Study on Dark Magic and Its Effects on Traditional Wizarding Morals.

Checking his watch, he realised he had a good couple of hours before he had to inevitably face the Order again over dinner, and he started looking for something interesting to read. A Practical Guide to the Dark Forces seemed to be an engaging read, so he pulled it out and placed it on a low coffee table. It was soon joined by Spells To Save Time, When Everything Seems Hopeless—Magical Escapism and Its Uses, and Weather Magic: How to Make it Work for You.

The leather armchairs turned out to be rather more comfortable than they appeared at first, especially after he had cast a handy dust-removing spell on them; they were made of dark green dragonhide, not the black he had thought them to be at first. Soon he was engrossed reading, and for a while managed to focus, forgetting momentarily about his troubles.

He was astounded how easy it was to concentrate; next thing he knew, it was nearly time for dinner. Still, he was reluctant to abandon his reading, and for a moment went as far as to consider skipping the meal altogether, before dismissing the idea. Mrs. Weasley had been acting strangely enough towards him as it was, and she would likely scour the house to find him if he wasn't there on time. He frowned at the book he was presently reading, wondering absently why his concentration had been broken. So far, the only sounds to be heard had been his occasional sniffling or the rustle of the pages as he turned them.

It was the creaking of the door that made him look up and turn his head towards it. A black-haired head was peering in, pale grey eyes blinking in the half-light.

"This must be the library," the boy stated. It was one of the McAlpin twins, and he was presently opening the door a little wider, seemingly with the intention to enter. Harry's mind supplied a name, and he decided that must be Connor. Behind him, he could see an identical raven-haired boy, adjusting his own frayed bathrobe, which had belonged to Ron a few years earlier.

Connor's eyes fell on Harry, and he looked him up and down appraisingly before walking inside with a nod to him, as curt and distant as before. He walked with a slight limp, and his left arm was still held in a sling, but otherwise he looked much better. Chris followed suit, addressing Harry with a light, "Hullo," holding himself rather straighter than was normal as he shuffled in after Connor.

"Hello," said Harry, putting his book down and unable to shake off the feeling that told him he ought to know who these boys were. The name McAlpin alone didn't seem to suffice. "Good to see you're doing better," he added, trying not to scowl at the look he had received, which had left him rather uncomfortable.

Chris gave him a small, wan smile that somehow made him look even more ill, and nodded.

"Healer Tonks is the best," he confirmed, in the same easy tone. "She just let us out an hour ago." He looked at Harry for a moment or two, in a subtler way than Connor had, but no less appraisingly. "We're exploring... huge place, this. Do you come here a lot?" he asked, once he appeared to have found what he was looking for, leaning lightly against the backrest of an armchair while Connor started browsing the shelves in silence.

"Not really, but I might begin. Some of these are interesting," Harry replied, gesturing at When Everything Seems Hopeless—Magical Escapism and Its Uses and shifting a little in his chair. He hated being stared at. And doing smalltalk.

Chris leaned forward a little unsteadily, peering at the cover.

"Sounds like a fun read," he commented without much conviction, turning around as Connor, who seemed to have finished looking at the room, started making his way to the door. "We'll see you later," he said, and moments later they were out once more. Harry barely had the presence of mind to nod at them.

They had left the door ajar, and even as he moved to close it again, he heard their shuffling stop in the hallway.

"Well?" one of them asked from rather close by—Harry peered through the door where he could just make them out, certain it was Chris who was asking. He left the not-quite-question hanging in the air, while he examined the chipped paint on the wall.

"Well." Came the reply in a final, rather disappointed tone, as if Connor had been engaged in a lengthy assessment and found the results every bit as poor as he had expected.

There was a short silence, before the first twin spoke again.

"He has been through a lot," he said, almost bracingly. Connor scoffed.

"So have we, right?" he retorted with a shrug. "And we're not the only ones, either; you've read the papers these past few days." A sigh, a headshake. "I don't know. He looks..." he trailed off, casting about for a suitable description.

"...Brittle?" Chris ventured, and Harry moved away from the doorway with a frown, his hand already groping inside his Emergency Escape Kit for his Invisibility Cloak. His curiosity was spiked, his temper rising despite his efforts to keep it down.

Brittle? I'll give you bloody brittle!

Cloak thrown over his head, he peered around the doorway, to see Connor give Chris a wry sideways look.

"I was thinking more along the lines of 'fragile'," he said, shrugging, and succeeding in spiking Harry's temper all the more, along with his curiosity. "But aye, brittle will do nicely." He started limping down the hallway in the direction of the stairs. Harry quickly toed off his slippers and followed as quietly as he could.

"Maybe it's just that he's under the weather," Chris commented, gripping the banister tightly as he descended the stairs at turtle speed. Sweat was already pearling on his forehead, but his tone was light, as if they were doing nothing more important than discussing Quidditch odds. Two steps further down, Connor rolled his eyes with a scoff.

"Whatever."

"Well, it is a possibility," Chris countered reasonably. Then, three painstakingly slow steps further down, "I actually found him to be a rather... rather likeable bloke."

"You would." Connor scratched the back of his neck with a black wand, looking thoroughly uninterested about Chris' views on Harry.

What's that supposed to mean? Harry stopped on the upstairs landing, staring at them as if that were enough to make them explain themselves.

All he saw though, was Chris rolling his eyes.

"Why can't you just give him some time? A chance to prove your theories wrong? Everyone's entitled to a period of—" He cut himself off at Connor's pointed look. "Alright, alright..." he relented, wiping some sweat from his face. "I just can't see why you hate him so much."

Yeah, Harry thought angrily from the top of the stairs. What did I do to piss you off too? Part of him was hoping for a full explanation. His luck wasn't in the mood for helping, however.

As per usual.

"You know why," Connor muttered, his own temper visibly rising. His eyes were flashing, jaw set in an elegantly mulish expression that struck Harry as highly familiar. Not that it mattered at the moment.

Chris seemed unbothered by this apparent imminent outburst of temper. His tone was as light as ever, as was his shrug.

"All I'm saying is you're a bit too harsh in judging him—" He raised a hand in the face of Connor's growl, conceding the point, "—all right, you say you're not, and I believe you, I do—but... he's escaped from Voldemort, what, three times now?"

"Five," Connor replied grudgingly, to Harry's surprise. "I do count the thing with the diary in '92 as one. And you're forgetting that dumb stunt at the Ministry those few weeks back. The Sodhead was there then too." It was as if Harry had personally affronted him by surviving.

Harry's frown deepened; how many people knew of the Chamber of Secrets fiasco? Chris, however, gave Connor a lopsided smirk.

"That's thrice more than we have, isn't it, little brother?" he retorted. Connor snorted, but said nothing. Chris tried another vein, stopping his descent to catch his breath.

"He did win the Triwizard Tournament though, didn't he? That's got to be some manner of an achievement; you have to give him that."

"Bloody—He went through all the easy parts!" Connor snapped, making Harry give a start. "How many times do I have to tell you? It was all staged! Anyone could have ruddy done that, we could have done it, for Merlin's sakes!" Chris held up a bandaged, placating hand.

"Alright, so perhaps it was staged, and maybe anyone could've done it," he conceded. "Just what are you going apeshit over?"

There was a silence during which Connor glared at the carved wood of the railing, jaw clenched. When he raised his eyes, they shone icy grey, piercing as they met his brother's. Harry expected him to shout. He did not. Instead, his tone was quite level and calm—which somehow made Harry think he was angrier than before—when he spoke.

"Because he's all we've got." The statement hung in the air, heavy, definite, disappointed. Betrayed, even. Connor continued to keep his eyes fixed on Chris'. Quietly, almost bitterly, he added, "He's our only hope."

Chris said nothing in return. For a long moment, he just returned Connor's intense stare with a marginally milder one of his own. To Harry, it was as if an entire shouting match were taking place. He could feel the tension, the air almost crackling with suppressed energy. Chris then averted his eyes, conceding defeat. Giving himself a little shake, he resumed his climb down, concentrating on the steps with a drawn face. Connor merely shrugged his good shoulder, as if to state his unspoken point was made.

"Is that roast I smell?" Connor asked abruptly, sniffing the air as he too, resumed his descent. All traces of anger, all intensity was gone from his tone, which was now as light and casual as Chris' had been earlier.

"Aye. Mrs. Weasley does know her cooking, doesn't she?" Chris replied, taking another step down. He too, had recovered his light, almost carefree tone, making light of a situation that was anything but; incredibly, it seemed to be working. The crackling tension disappeared, remembered by nobody but Harry, who couldn't care less about it.

"That she does. Go on, peg it. At the rate you're going it'll be midnight by the time we get there."

"Says you," Chris answered, giving Connor a weak shove. "I have to keep waiting for your slow arse…"

Harry watched them bicker all the way from the upstairs landing, until they vanished from view, after saluting the portrait of Mrs. Black, which merely sputtered and stared, but did not yell. He did not dwell on that strange development, however, most profitably occupied glaring at their retreating forms, while clutching the wooden railing, in a fair attempt at turning it into splinters with his bare hands. Anger aside, the encounter, if it could be called that, had left a very sour taste in his mouth, as well as a hurt sort of feeling; he had been scrutinised by two who apparently knew more than they let on—and he had been found wanting.

He was decidedly intrigued by them now, and resolved to get to the bottom of the matter as soon as possible.


"One thing's certain," Tonks said, picking herself up from the floor for the third time, after having almost fallen through a gaping hole and all the way to the cellar. What was left of it, at any rate. "The safe house doesn't quite live up to its name, does it?"

"It's not quite a house anymore either," Bill quipped from upstairs, poking his head through the considerable gap in the ceiling. "And I don't reckon it has been one for a good long while."

"A pity," Tonks commented, tossing a broken broomstick aside. "I wouldn't say no to spending a few weeks here. The beach up close, a nice rustic town in the background, and Blackpool has muggle concerts all the time…"

Bill snorted, shaking his head. If he applied his famed honesty to himself, however, he wouldn't mind babysitting Moody's lads for a few days, either. The town didn't even have the usual Dementor fog around it, and it was indeed appealing to the eye. Peaceful. Safe.

Except for the bit where it wasn't.

"I did find something those kids would appreciate getting, Moody," he announced to Mad-Eye, cutting him off before he could rag at them for not being on the lookout. No sense of humour, that one…

"What's that?" Moody asked from the front room, which he had been examining for traps. Bill was right; the safe house Connor directed him to was torn to little bits of rubble at least a fortnight ago. While on the outside it looked whole and in good shape, the moment anyone entered, it became evident it was nothing but a trap. They must have had undone three score spells aimed at disarming and capturing whoever stepped into the place, some of which were nothing short of deadly.

"My favourite sort of find," Bill called from upstairs. "There's a trunk here, but it's got spells on it the likes of which I've never seen."

Moody clambered up the battered staircase, to a section of the house where a library or study of some sort had been fitted. All valuables, if there were any in the first place, had been taken, and it became clear at once to Mad-Eye why the chest Bill had found was still here; it was glowing a dangerous hue of neon orange, vibrating as though in warning as Bill cast detection spell after detection spell.

"I can't see what's in it," he growled. This, was definitely an interesting find.

Twenty minutes later, Moody realised why the Death Eaters had left it alone; he would have to resort to some of his more creative solutions if he wanted to take it with him. All Bill managed to figure out, was that the spells placed on it were put there by Angus McAlpin.

"Sorry Moody, we have to go." Kingsley interrupted Moody's stubborn attempts to so much as move the trunk half an hour later. He and Tonks were expected at the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, for the weekly reports all the Divisions of the said Department delivered.

"You go ahead, then," Moody answered, puffing as he tried to pry the lid open with an iron bar. Resorting to Muggle methods was a last resort he and Bill were giving a whirl, but they might as well have tried to open it using a drinking straw: it held fast, and did not budge.

"You're not staying behind because of a box," Kingsley countered in his deep bass. Soothing as his voice usually was, its tone was definitive, and brooked no space for arguments. "You two can't stay behind on your own."

"The kids need to see this thing," Moody grumbled, his scarred face uncharacteristically flushed. "All right," he muttered after a moment's thought. "Here's what we'll do…"


The cubicles in the Auror Division at the Ministry of Magic were deserted. Not one red-robed individual could be seen anywhere, either, and the black-robed Hit Wizards were nowhere to be found, either.

Other Departments fared similarly; Obliviators, Unspeakables, officers from the Disaster Squadron, all absent from the posts they usually manned.

For a half hour only.

One room in the Ministry, however, was bursting full with wizards and witches. Everyone directly connected with fighting the War, at any level, was present there. Yet they might as well have been absent; a complete silence permeated the room, which had been magically enlarged to fit the entirety of the Ministry's task force. A long table dominated the chamber, at which the Heads of the Divisions involved in this meeting sat, all eyes turned to the centre, where a grizzled wizard surveyed them sternly. Around the table, uncharacteristically quiet and arranged in teams, sat the Aurors, Hit Wizards, Magical Law Enforcement Officers, Obliviators, Muggle Liaisons. A sea of grim faces, which showed the strain and worry of the past few weeks.

It had been taxing for all; completely unprepared due to Fudge's terrible mistake, and suddenly dunked headfirst into a war when You-Know-Who was brought into the light once again, there had been little to no rest for any Department at the Ministry. And those present in Meeting Room One at the moment were amongst those for whom the mere concept of rest had become alien.

And yet, the war raging in the country, the attacks and disappearances and the general lack of safety anywhere were not their only troubles. Division within their own ranks, sabotage, even spies had been uncovered, starting with the Minister for Magic himself. He had kept the truth from them for so long after all, had he not?

While former friends surveyed each other in silence, listening to the orders issued by their superiors in matters of surveillance and safety, the question, unasked, hung nevertheless in the air: whose side is everyone else on?

"Now we have addressed all major issues, we shall hear the reports on our progress so far, starting with the Sirius Black Inquiry," Rufus Scrimgeour, Head of the DMLE, announced in his usual growl from the centre of the room. "Amelia Bones is heading the investigation, as we well know." He waved a hand at a witch sitting at the table, turning the attention to her.

"Thank you, Scrimgeour," Bones said, taking off her monocle and unrolling a sheaf of parchment. "At present, my team and I have been busy tallying the evidence and official statements regarding the case of Sirius Black, former team leader in the Hit Wizard Division. We are reviewing his entire known history, for anything that could point to an involvement with the Death Eaters prior to the Potters' murders and the subsequent murder spree he allegedly committed. However," she added, shaking her head, "there is nothing conclusive to report yet. There are many inconsistencies throughout his file; entire entries have been taken out, apparently misplaced in the filing, or so I have been told. And that's without considering the fact that there is no material evidence to back up what is in the files—Apparently, Black's wand has been misplaced as well." A babble of voices broke out at this.

"I told you, but did you listen?" Tonks, one of the Aurors who had been pushing for clearing Black's name, asked loudly, turning to glare at Archie Proudfoot. Everywhere around her, people were stating their own opinions, getting louder. Bones held up a hand, to shut them up. Controversial as Black's status was, she was still heading the investigation, not them.

"I am not making a definitive statement yet," Bones said loudly, which quieted down the Aurors and Hit Wizards considerably. Of them all, they had been focused feverishly on a manhunt for two years—searching far and wide for Sirius Black, the deranged mass-murdered. One who had been one of them. One who might well not have done any of the things he was accused of. One who, if proven innocent, would perhaps also be proven a scapegoat used by the Minister to blind them in 1981… and then once more until a month ago, to cover up not the proverbial Pandora's Box, but a Pandora's Pit. The possible implications were endless, and they were right in being mistrustful. Another reason why Bones was taking this matter to its every last consequence.

"Up until now, I can't yet safely say he was innocent of the crimes imputed," she resumed firmly. "I cannot safely say he was guilty of the crimes, either. He was never given Veritaserum to get the story out of him, although I have heard rumours from the wardens that he requested it several times while in Azkaban. The material evidence is almost nonexistent, and what little we do have to work with has been handled so much over the years it will take additional time to tell whether or not it is true; Black was not given a trial either, and as most of his interrogations were handled in the presence of Dementors, what was said there cannot be taken as solid fact without additional proof to back it up.

Currently, the sole backing proof of his alleged crimes rests upon witness statements. The majority of these statements is not conclusive, either, and cannot be confirmed with the witnesses, as these were mostly muggles, obliviated by the Junior Minister of Disasters himself on site, less than an hour after the mass-murder in York occurred—"

Once more, a babble of voices rose, though no heated words were uttered. Tonks had resumed her pastime of making origami figures out of her parchment roll, glowering at the floor, and everyone else limited themselves to muttering a comment here and there. If Fudge was the only 'real' witness to Black's mass-murder… He could have made anything up. Perhaps as shortly as two months ago, nobody would have believed it possible. Now, however…

"The only statements we shall be able to confirm are those which were deposed by Minister Fudge, who was on site and directed the capture; Albus Dumbledore, who himself gave evidence of Black's role as Secret Keeper, and those members of the DMLE who participated in his capture and imprisonment," Madam Bones said. "However, his list of crimes has been reduced. Pettigrew has been sighted in no less than three occasions, and although we have not had the time to confirm these sightings, it is going a long way towards proving him innocent of the mass-murder, at least. The Potter boy said himself Pettigrew brought You-Know-Who back, and if we go by his testimony, and add to it the fact Black was a member of the Order of the Phoenix—assuming it exists—then we might surmise he was not guilty as charged. I shall issue a detailed report as my inquiry goes on."

By the time Bones turned the floor over to Scrimgeour once more, the expressions of those present mirrored their thoughts once more. Was it possible they had made such a terrible mistake, and further, allowed endless charges to be pinned on the same man without so much as questioning the involvement of other, allegedly innocent wizards and witches?

It certainly seemed that way at the moment.

Moments later, the uncertainty about the Black situation was shunted to a second plane of their attention, however: The reports that followed had to do with more recent happenings, which were too many to count.

Dementors had swarmed south from Inverarray, passing through small towns and villages and cities alike, causing panic, mass hysteria, destruction, and chaos amidst the wizarding and muggle population alike. Their progress could be traced throughout the isles, spreading relentlessly like a plague.

One they had not found a solution for, not in three hundred years, when the Dementors first started breeding out of control. As the Unspeakables put it, they were no nearer finding an effective way to destroy Dementors than they were to walking on water without a spell.

The team of Hit Wizards assigned to clearing DalRiada estate of its Inferi infestation did have some good news to report, as far as news went; The late Robert McFusty and his wife Jeanie had been successfully contained, and their bodies would be delivered to the family within the week for burial. Being an influential, ancient family with no known affiliation with the Dark Side, the Ministry had made it a priority to return the last remains of their eldest son to them.

"The number of non-Dementor attacks on Muggles and Muggle-borns have increased dramatically in the last week alone," Emmeline Vance informed, by way of an introduction to her report. "While the McAlpins' murders a handful of days back have been the most shocking of these events, they were well-known to be active fighters against the Dark Side. And yet, in the past fortnight Muggle-born members of our community have disappeared, their houses ransacked and looted—without apparent reason. This is most unusual for the Death Eaters. While they will usually make a point of killing and torturing Muggle-borns, up until two weeks ago they had rarely targeted anyone who was not opposed to them. Now they are targeting school children and their families. Some of the disappeared were not even going to Hogwarts yet, or else had no apparent quarrel with the Death Eaters."

"Other than being Muggle-born, you mean?" Savage commented. Some around him voiced their agreement to that.

"The missing witches and wizards are mostly youngsters, none older than 15," Vance replied. "What use would You-Know-Who have for children?"

"Whatever it is, I doubt it's to open a nursery," said Tonks grimly.

"He's taken a four-year-old," Shacklebolt cut in, raising a glowing piece of parchment from the table, which was the form the DMLE dealt with emergency calls. "Two attacks, the last not ten minutes ago— the caller said the Death Eaters are still there, in Newcastle."

Instantly, the hereto orderly group assembled snapped into motion; the meeting was dissolved without another word, team leaders called their subordinates to them, Scrimgeour started barking orders, and moments later, the entire DMLE poured out of the double doors, hurrying to get their equipment and to the Apparition Areas.


"She's breathin' alright. She'll live, I reckon."

Rasmus nodded, half disappointed at the assessment. If she had died, he would have had to look for a replacement immediately, and perhaps, with luck, it would have been better versed in duelling than this one.

There was a tug under his foot. Rasmus looked down, lifting the heel of his boot just long enough for Mulciber to free up a thin golden chain from under his sole. He watched as the wizard wiped the blood from it with his sleeve, grinning at the glittery star-shaped pendant hanging from it.

Petty thievery, yet another aspect of the Death Eaters' behaviour he loathed. No matter how much they might excel in subjugating their targets, no matter how wealthy they were, the greedy looting that followed a capture was inevitable, and, in Rasmus' eyes, a far greater stain on their honour than the blood of their victims now splattered on the floor.

"Put her with the other one," he instructed, watching impassively as the pair of Muggle-borns were gagged and bound together, only to be systematically searched by six pairs of hands.

For valuables.

The things he put up with, honestly.

He gave them a few minutes, looking around the considerable destruction surrounding him. Who would have thought a dog could give them so much trouble? A non-magical, common mutt no less, which now lay near the stairs to the upper level. The other half of it was still smoking, somewhere in the kitchen.

It was sad, he mused, when a common dog proved to be a better adversary than its owners.

"If you're quite done," he interrupted impatiently, clearing his throat as Rodolphus Lestrange made to start searching the dining room for silverware. "I do not have all night, and these two have to be taken to the Pit before they do bleed to death. Your Master wants them alive, and I highly recommend you deliver them before dawn."

He resolved to look for an extra addition to the collection later, before he stalked out the Longbottoms' house, if only to give himself something to do to while away the boredom.

All in all, it had been a rather disappointing day, and it promised more of the same.

"Next time, we get the ankle-biters after we get the older ones," he muttered to Lestrange, who was cradling the unconscious child in her arms, an aberration of a pantomime, mockery to a mother's loving caress. A vampire would have looked less shocking. Bellatrix could surpass such a creature's hungry look, holding the four-year-old girl like a trophy, impatient to rouse her from the Stunning Spell she had been hit with.

Rasmus wished briefly she were not necessary to the successful completion of the raids; but much as he despised her, he had to admit she was an asset in the field. Even despite the fact she was entirely too wand-happy, too deranged, too loud. And more often than not, killed the victims intended for capture. Alive. Which did not mean 'in bloody bits'.

He only hoped the Longbottoms would provide a more entertaining close to his evening.


"FIIIILTH! MUCK! HALF-BREEDS! GET OUT OF MY HOUSE!"

Such was the buoyant welcome to Headquarters Moody received upon opening the door and dumping the trunk – along with the torn-off wall and floor it was attached to – in the hallway.

"Oh pack it in!" he snapped, clunking to the portrait to help Bill wrestle the billowing curtains shut. All it seemed to accomplish was to spur the old hag to greater heights, and to turn up her volume.

"TRAITORS! TRAITORS IN THE HOUSE OF MY FATHERS!"

"SHUT UP, DAMN YOU!" Harry had come up from the kitchens, where the smells wafting up suggested Moody had arrived halfway through dinner. Was it really that late?

The curtains stopped flapping around, and with a last, deafening screech, Mrs. Black obeyed. It didn't keep her from lolling her tongue out with a hateful expression aimed at Harry, who glared right back at her, silently daring her to carry on yelling.

"How do you do it, kid?" Moody asked, chuckling in that harsh way of his.

"Dunno," Harry muttered. "I'm loud enough, I s'pose. What's that?" He approached the trunk, a hint of curiosity flitting across his face as his eyes fell on the McAlpin crest on the lid, but it was gone in the next moment, replaced by the closed expression he had taken to favour of late.

"It's none of your business," another voice supplied from behind. Moody, who had been in the process of opening his mouth to deliver a rather more diplomatic variant on the same, decided to forego answering and nodded at Connor in greeting instead, who was coming slowly closer, the threadbare slippers on his feet making a shuffling sound as he advanced.

Harry suppressed a sigh. "Just wondering," he muttered, turning to leave, his hands buried deep in his pockets.

Mrs. Black stopped lolling her tongue out at Harry, turning her attention to the other boy. Her loathsome expression arranged itself into one of disbelief, her yellowish skin paling even further. Not that anyone noticed.

"You..." It was little more than a whisper, little less than a hiss. Unnoticed by the rest, who were busy heaving the trunk towards the stairs, Connor gave her a small smirk, raising an eyebrow in confirmation. There was no yelling, though a pointed look alone was enough to set her off these days; Mrs. Black just gaped at him, eyes so wide it looked as if they could bounce out at any moment.

"It's pretty much all we could rescue," Mad-Eye growled, his magical eye fixed on Harry, while the other was fixed questioningly on Connor, who shrugged one shoulder in response and gave the trunk a once-over.

Upon seeing the crest, his face fell, fears confirmed; the safe house was not an option.

"The place is a wreck, kid," Moody added, sounding almost gruff as he placed a gnarled hand on Connor's shoulder. "Completely ruined. They got to it at least two weeks ago. I'm sorry."

Harry slowed in his already reluctant shuffle back to the kitchen. He could feel Connor's glance on the back of his neck, but was too curious to care.

"Gone all to cock," Connor muttered. "Again."

"There's always Hogwarts, kid," Moody said bracingly. Harry didn't need to look to know what the answer to that last was. It was further confirmed by Moody's, "Call Chris over, while Bill and I get this thing upstairs—I hope it's not a crock of rubbish we've been lugging around half the country."

"What's in it?" Connor asked.

"We couldn't open it," Bill provided. "I just hope it's not something loaded with blasting curses. Mad-Eye couldn't see through it, and we can't levitate it."

There was a silence. Harry, impossibly curious now, debated staying to see what was going on, but Connor shattered his plans.

"I'll get Chris. I reckon I know how to open it."

Moody grunted his agreement, and soon the scraping of the trunk was heard again, along with more grunting from both wizards as they heaved the trunk up again. Mrs. Weasley, who had come out of the kitchen to see who had arrived, made a point of ushering Harry back downstairs to finish up his meal.

It was a lonely affair, despite the fact Mrs. Weasley was present. Chris and Connor excused themselves and left to their room to talk to Moody, but it didn't make much of a difference from before. They were mostly quiet, had become customary at every meal they had taken together; think as he might it was caused to some extent by what had happened earlier, Harry wasn't surprised. Whatever their reasons for their rather contemptible behaviour towards him, he couldn't really begrudge them for it, if he was honest and fair, hard as it was when catching the distinct feeling his mere presence sufficed to vex them, though they were good at hiding it.

He himself wasn't in a chatty mood, hadn't been in a long time, and they hadn't lost just one part of their family—they had lost every single one, and it was showing. He at least had the Order to lean on, impossible to bear as their company was sometimes, and he had friends—even if he hadn't really heard of them in a while. The McAlpin twins had nobody at all. Except Moody, perhaps, but he was the last person Harry would pour his heart out to.

Bill joined them at the kitchen shortly after, but aside from informing his parents that Tonks, Shacklebolt and most everyone with a position at the Ministry were at a meeting and would report to the Order when they got the chance to, he held tight about the trunk and what he and Moody had been doing all day, preferring to stick to the proverbial smalltalk and light subjects when talking to Harry.

Harry didn't bother asking about what the trunk contained, as he would likely not get an answer, and focused on finishing up, hoping to manage to provide some answers to his questions on his own.

He bade Bill and Mrs. Weasley good-night, making his way upstairs as quietly as he could. The door to the bedroom he and Ron had shared previously was ajar, and voices were coming out of it. He briefly considered throwing on his invisibility cloak, but discarded the idea; he would be spotted by Moody for sure, and that was one ear-bashing he could certainly do without. So he contented himself with straining his ears, and going at snailpace while pretending not to be listening.

"… shot to shite," Connor was saying, and he sounded frustrated.

"The safe house was supposed to be unplottable and everything," Chris threw in. "How did they get in there?"

Connor scoffed, "I reckon we ought to worry less about that and focus on where the hell we're going instead."

"Hogwarts—" Moody started, but cut himself off.

"Is a mingin' rat's nest," came next. Connor was quickly getting frustrated, to judge by the markedness of the distinctive Scottish lilt that was suddenly present in every word.

"It's not so bad," Moody tried again. "And it is safe. Harry's been going there for years, and—"

"Spare us the load of rot, will ye?" Connor snapped. "I know well enough what's been goin' on with that one, I don't need to hear owt about it." Harry took another step up, quite unwittingly, at the mention of his name. This, he wanted to hear.

"Alright," Moody relented. He sounded placating, and it seemed to work.

Sod it.

"Just… roll it around for a bit, it's really our best bet. Unless you'd rather stay here."

"Like hell," both boys chorused, as Harry came into view of the room. He tried to go slow, hoping he would be ignored, but three sets of eyes were on him almost at once. He nodded at them, seeing them sitting on the beds, an open trunk between them, but knew his hopes at eavesdropping were sod-all squared.

And sure enough…

"Move along, now," Connor prompted, flicking a hand at the door, which shut in his face with a slam.


The next morning did not bring any improvements with it, starting with the weather. A storm raged outside, the clap of thunder unhelpful as ever to make Harry's nightmares less vivid. Kept awake half the night brooding, rehashing his misadventures, the storm that unleashed when he had finally managed something more than a doze only worsened matters.

At one point, waking up from a particularly nasty dream with a scream, he fancied he heard an echoing scream coming from outside his room—but that was impossible; he was the only one in that storey.

The lousy night only set the theme for the day, it seemed: Breakfast wasn't much better, which he suspected had to do with the fact Connor didn't look much rested at all either, and was in a much similar mood to his; rotten.

Only, Harry had spent half the night brooding himself to frustration, and was in no accommodating mood. Consequently, he had little patience with the glances sent his way, which were starting to feel more like silent challenges than anything.

Challenging back was becoming increasingly tempting, a confrontation harder to avoid.

A letter arrived however, from Gringotts, and soon Headquarters, which for some reason contained more people than Harry remembered hearing come in during the night, was all of a flurry of activity. The letter, which required the twins' presence in Diagon Alley the next day to weigh their wands or some such grout, was passed from hand to hand, and hurried plans were made to meet the appointment. A rather sleep-deprived Tonks explained to Harry it had to do with some vaults not needing a key to be opened, but the owner's wand being used for that purpose. And for this process, the twins had to be present.

The possibility of not taking them to Diagon Alley was briefly discussed, but Bill squashed that one early on.

"You don't want to stand the goblins up," he told them. "If they say weigh your wand a certain date, you have to be there. It's a matter of respect to them, and you know how nasty they can get if they feel they've been wronged."

The prospect of leaving the Black house for a few hours did the trick for the twins, who looked rather cheered up once it was made clear they had to go. Mrs. Weasley then said something about having to buy her kids' and Harry's supplies for the upcoming school year, and the twins needed to be fitted for robes as well—all the clothes they possessed were the tatty ones Harry and Ron had discarded over time.

Harry decided it was time to leave them to it, stomping up to his room in a fouler mood than before. While he had had his share of outings and even camping trips over the past couple of weeks, being cooped up in the gloomy old house with nothing but nightmares for company was awful, and though he understood the need for it, that didn't mean he had to like it—and yes, he was rather jealous over the fact the twins would get to leave Headquarters for a few hours.

Not bothering to be quiet about it, he slammed the door to Sirius' room shut, throwing himself onto the bed with a huff.

"Oh, if it isn't the Potter boy," a mocking voice drawled lazily from the far wall. Harry glared at a hereto empty frame, which was now occupied by none other than Phineas Nigellus.

Figures.

It seemed Dumbledore had returned to his habit of spying on him. Not unexpected, as far as things had gone up until now, but at the moment Harry was not in the mood for anyone, much less being understanding or civil towards anyone.

"Miffed today, are we?"

Least of all Phineas Nigellus, the rotten bastard.

"Get stuffed, you," Harry snapped.

"Getting smart now, eh? Mind your manners, and who you're talking to, you little rascal. That good-for-nothing great-great-grandson of mine was just the sa—OY, you little lout!" The last bit of that was muffled, and nothing followed. Who'd have known that to shut Phineas up, all he had to do was turn the frame around?

"I said: get stuffed," he snarled again, peeved to the extreme. On his way back to bed, he stubbed his toe, which did nothing to improve his mood.

Hopping on one foot and cursing under his breath didn't do much to mitigate his frustration, particularly not when he lost his balance and toppled over, out of breath.

"Bloody hell!" he yelled at the empty room, fuming as he raffled himself up, holding on to the wall—

Only to land on the floor again a split second later when it gave way.

The oath that was well on its way out of his mouth died before it was uttered; he had been leaning on one of the faded Gryffindor banners permanently stuck to the wall, which was now gone. A gaping hole was there in its stead, stretching into a dark corridor or passage of some sort.

All traces of anger forgotten, Harry sat up again, blinking slowly at the dark gap before him. Stuffy air and some dust motes reached his nose, making it prickle, but he paid it no mind, focusing instead on remembering all Sirius had told him about the house; there was a garden, he'd said, but he'd not seen it since he was twelve—his parents had done something to it, so that whenever he arrived at the house, he could not so much as find the door to it; the windows had been charmed to look outside, yes, but could not be opened, by magic or force; Harry racked his brains, trying to remember. He had not paid too much attention to Sirius' stories back then, too busy hating the house and its filthy, dinghy feel, to pay him any heed. He could not remember ever hearing a mention of this passage, or where it led to.

He made up his mind, eyes trying to pierce the darkness, ears pricked up for any tell-tale sound coming from within. His wand was out before he knew it, and he was padding cautiously down the passage the next moment, scanning it for dangers in the beam of his wand. There was no sign of any sort of peril whatsoever, just a gaping black hole that smelled of old dust and lack of airing. The floor a few feet inside, though, showed marks in the layers of dust, pawprints… and footprints.

He looked long at them, something tightening in his chest that made him want to turn back and carry on moping. And yet... Sirius had known of this passage. That meant it was safe, wasn't it?

First good news of the day.

Harry's scowl faded, a feeling of excitement bubbling up from deep inside him, of the curious, exploring sort he had not felt in a while. He turned back, to trade his slippers for his trainers, and made sure his door was securely locked before stepping into the passage again.

The beam of his wand fell upon smooth stone walls, his footfall muffled as he advanced warily, eyes trying to pierce the pitch blackness ahead.

He walked slowly, yet remained unhindered by obstacles of any sort; there were no spiders the size of plates lurking, no doxies, or boggarts, or anything other than-- crunch.

He'd stepped on something. Lowering the beam of his wand, his eyes fell on a crumpled piece of parchment under his foot, old and faded. Harry picked it up, wiping the dust off it for further examination; it was an envelope, so old he could almost not make out the address. Looking left and right in case some of the house's old monsters came round, and feeling guilty for reading Sirius' old post, Harry carefully opened the envelope, taking out a single sheet and smoothing it out to read. It tore at the centre as he unfolded it, brittle after years lying there.

But… Now Harry could not help wondering about it. What was it doing here? Did anyone else know of this passage? Where did it lead to?

He'd find that out, but first things first. He turned his attention to the letter once more.

The writing on it was also faded, written in something of a coppery hue which made it all the harder to read. He squinted, trying to make out the words, but all he could establish at the time, was that the distinctive, flowing handwriting looked rather familiar. While he stood there, trying to remember where he'd seen that sort of handwriting before, he did manage to make out a date—December 19, 1974, which sent his heart racing again; Sirius had been barely 15 when he received it, possibly during the Christmas holidays in his fourth year; it was well likely the letter was sent by his father.

Harry briefly considered turning back to peruse the letter in a better lighting, but a muffled noise of a door closing and footsteps nearby made him forget all about it. He pocketed it, tiptoeing further down the passage, stepping here and there on what felt like paper, but he didn't give the things littering the floor anything more than passing thought, concentrated instead on where the noises were coming from.

"… do you think?" It was muffled, but gave him a close enough direction to follow. Harry sped up a slight, taking a left turn as the passage split—and suddenly it opened into a niche, where he could see slivers of light shining through a couple of cracks in the wall, near the floor… and hear everything as though he were in the room… Whichever room it was he was listening in to.

"I don't know." It was one of the McAlpin twins, Chris. Harry pressed his ear to the wall, hardly daring to breathe. There was the creaking sag of a mattress, and locking and silencing charms were cast. At the door only, because Harry could still hear everything.

"We have to be there, eleven sharp," Connor said. A second sag of the mattress was heard, followed by a heavy sort of sigh, familiar in itself. Harry decided to stop speculating about why it was familiar, but couldn't help being intrigued; here were two boys he obviously shared some sort of connection with, Connor most strongly.

He was aware that this was a new development, and yet, the demeanour and expressions of the boys were familiar, as if he had seen them before…

Except for the bit where he hadn't.

Ever.

It was maddening.

"We could use the fresh air," Chris offered, but he didn't sound very convinced of it.

"Aye, we could." Connor was silent for a moment, then added, "I hate this place. It's so…"

"Shitty," Chris finished for him.

"That sums it up nicely."

"No wonder he went bloody crackers in here. I feel I'll follow trends soon." The conversational tone wasn't lost on Harry, but what they were on about was.

"Who cares about him?" Connor snapped. Harry frowned. "He deserved every bit of what he got."

"Didn't."

"Did." Connor spat it out, a mouthful of hatred that took Harry aback.

"No, he bloody well didn't, and you know it." How Chris could carry on so lightly when Connor was clearly hacked off, Harry didn't know. He wouldn't have managed, even if he didn't have a clue who it was they were arguing about.

"We don't, that's for sure." And thus, the topic changed abruptly, even if Connor's bitterness hadn't changed one jot.

"I'll give you that," Chris conceded.

"He d—What the hell?" Connor said, followed by the squeak of the mattress. Harry pressed his ear all the harder against the wall.

"Whatsit?"

"He's out there." Connor sounded annoyed.

"Who?"

"Potter." A cold shiver ran down Harry's spine. How could he know that? He hadn't made a single noise.

Or had he?

There was a sound of shuffling, a door unlocking, opening. Harry held his breath, closing his eyes. Quite distinctly, he could see in his mind's eye, how Connor scanned the empty hallway, then went to check the staircases.

"I don't get it," he said upon returning. The door closed again, was locked, the spells placed on it once more. "I could've sworn he was on the other side of this wall." It came from very close to where Harry was listening, and the small noises that followed were surely caused by Connor running his hands along the wall.

"You really need to sleep more," Chris said. "It's getting to you—" It was getting to Harry for sure.

"I'll be glad when we're out of here."

"I won't argue that," Chris conceded. "And on that note, where are we going next? The Blackpool house is out of the question. Home isn't an option, either."

"We're…" Connor didn't finish. Chris cut him off.

"We could try going to Hogwarts—"

"Oh yeah, that's really clever," Connor said derisively. At least he didn't limit his sarcasm to him only, Harry noted. The only difference seemed to be that Chris wasn't moved at all by it. "Why don't we hand ourselves over to Voldemort while we're at it? That would save everyone a whole lot of trouble."

"I didn't mean it that way, you dobber—But honestly, what options do we have? They did away with the Blackpool house," Chris argued back. "It was supposed to be impossible to find."

"Supposed to being the very operative term," Connor muttered. "There's still the Welsh house…"

"You haven't told anyone about it," Chris said, and there was a definite tone of reproach there. "What if they got there too?"

"They won't have." Connor sounded certain.

"How come?"

"Gramps knew the Blackpool house would be taken sooner or later." A shuffling sound, followed by the rasp of latches being undone, the hollow thud of wood on wood. "He didn't tell me to go there…He said to go to Wales."

"He…?" Chris sounded aghast. "You lied to the Professor? Gramps--"

"He knew, Chris." Connor sounded bitter.

"Connor." There was a silence, but Harry could feel the tension crackling in the air, the finality of the tone. "What did he tell you, the other day?"

"A load of rubbish," was the answer. Harry had a flash of a library, pale green eyes boring into his; anger, fear, regret—Knowledge, used as punishment. Or was it as a last resort?

"Don't give me that hogwash." Oh, Chris did have the same explosive temper as his brother. "What happened? After the horses got stolen and the Dementors attacked?"

What? Harry backed away, stunned. He had not given the horses another thought, or indeed cared to tell the boys some of their herd was still alive. Unbidden, he started rehashing the events in Inverarray, which he had not bothered to pick apart either. In his defence, he was out of it for days, and had not wanted to think of the matter overmuch. Now however, he came to an abrupt realisation: If he'd told the horses to go to their masters, if he'd only known he was so close to where the McAlpins lived, if he'd only realised what it was Voldemort was on about… He could have taken the horses there in time, and nobody would have died.

If only.

Harry didn't want to listen on, feeling ill to his stomach. Did Connor know of their link? Did he know what Harry had just realised? Was that the reason for his attitude? If so, he had every right—Harry should have done something.

"I… Just drop it, alright? It doesn't matter what he said, it's all rubbish anyway." Maybe he didn't want to listen, but he could still hear every word.

"Is it?" Chris erupted hotly, and Harry heard him get up."I get it, you don't want to talk about it, but I need to know! You were holed up there with him for hours, and then the horses bloody vanished—"

"I know," Connor mumbled.

"Then those Dementors showed up, and—"

"And now everyone is dead." The tone was final, yet defeated.

"Well I'm not, in case you haven't bloody noticed, so don't act like you've got to do this by yourself," Chris snapped. There was no answer, however. "I miss them too," came next, so softly Harry thought he'd imagined it at first. "And Gramps…"

"Could have gotten all of us out, but didn't." Connor's voice was half a whisper. Harry caught it anyway. "He let himself be killed, Chris. He let it happen. He left us stranded."

"He didn't." Now Chris was snarling, threatening. Harry heard something crack, a result of the anger in the room. "Don't you dare turn it around on him!"

"It's the truth. Break as many windows as you want, it won't change shite. I saw it, as well as you."

"I saw him fight to protect us! I saw him die so we wouldn't!"

"He knew they were coming beforehand. I was outside with him, we figured it out," Connor said quietly. "And he chose to stay behind. He left us alone."

There was no answer.

"I'm sorry."

Harry decided he'd heard more than enough. While he could not understand all the implications, he knew he had no right to speculate. It didn't keep him from being intrigued, certainly, but even as the silence in the room stretched, tense and mournful, a part of him knew exactly what was going on; he could feel the pain, the longing, the uncertainty and insecurity crawling under his skin, permeating every thought, mingling with remorse, regret, self-blame and a rather unhealthy dose of anger. This, he knew; the impotence, the what-ifs, the if onlys, the despair and loneliness that gripped you so tightly breathing was made impossible at times. And while this cluster of emotions was also familiar, he could pinpoint it with precision this time; he had felt the same since Sirius died.

He heard them move at last, taking advantage of the small noises in the room -- some of which sounded entirely too much like sobs to be comfortable with -- to steal down the passage, throat tightening the farther he got. The ever-increasing distance did not help ease his mind in any way, nor did the feelings fade at all.

He advanced stealthily, aware, despite how much worse he now felt, of the need for wariness, which didn't stop him from turning matters over in his head. One more feeling added itself to the mix as the passage slanted downwards, narrowing so there was barely room enough for him to walk through it; a growing need to help the twins, which he attributed to the similarities he sensed there were between them, which he was even now only beginning to understand, amidst the many mysteries surrounding the whole matter.


"What are we going to do?"

Connor shook his head. He had not wanted this to happen, not so soon after. But Chris was right, he needed to know, bugger what Gramps had wanted. Connor knew it was unavoidable; he would have had to tell him eventually.

Eventually. Not now, when Chris was barely recovering from his injuries, when he himself wasn't doing so hot either.

Chris was holding up better than he'd dared to hope, at least for now. The news was devastating, no matter how little Connor had dared to tell him; he'd explained, leaving out every single one of the more upsetting details, providing him with just the bare necessary information, so he could understand why they needed to keep things as secret as possible, for as long as possible.

Potentially heading Voldemort's hit list was bad enough, though, no matter how much he tried to gloss things over.

Chris didn't ask for details, but he was devastated by the news all the same. Details, Connor knew, he would have to provide soon enough—but for now, he knew as well as his brother did, that they had to focus on tomorrow, and surviving that trip before they could fancy to plan for anything beyond that.

"What do you reckon?" Chris asked again, reminding him he had yet to provide an answer to that.

"I reckon," Connor began slowly, "we'll wait until we're better—and then try the house in Wales. If it's taken too, then… Maybe another country. Or something."

"Won't we give the Order a chance?"

Connor bit his lip. It was very strange to see Chris this unsure, this forlorn and hopeless… It was rubbing off; Chris was usually the one to keep optimism alive and his head up, no matter what.

Having one's entire family being murdered in one night because you're the target, however, could certainly qualify as a worthy reason to lose hope, and feel small and afraid, vulnerable and alone.

"We'll give them a chance," Connor offered, in the same quiet tone he'd been using so far. He himself felt the same as Chris did, only he could not allow himself to wallow; being angry over it made it easier to bear, and he had been entrusted with Chris' care, he had to focus. There was simply too much at stake for them both to go helpless at the moment.

Connor was aware of the fact that up until now, the Order had provided them with a safe haven of sorts. He might not trust them, but they had been helpful so far, and at the moment the thing he wished most for was to be able to trust them.

That was where they hit a snag.

Trust had become something out of the past, something they couldn't afford to squander—but he did desperately wish he could. So it was easy to be accommodating for Chris' wish, logic going out the window in the face of the possibility of not having to worry so much. Of being able to get a restful night.

Chris nodded, heaving a sigh.

"Are we telling them?" he asked the second most important question that had been burning in his head.

"I dunno," he mumbled hesitantly. "Telling them might be as good as telling the Death Eaters…"

"They might need to know," was the reply. "Some of them."

"We'll tell them when they need to know, then." He hoped that time would never come, busied himself with pouring some bright fuchsia concoction into a glass, offering it to the other boy. "In the meantime, try and get some sleep. It'll be a long day tomorrow."

"Potter's suspicious," Chris insisted. He'd felt it too, then.

"We'll deal with him when we have to."

"Tell him," Chris reached for the glass, plucking it from Connor's unmoving grip. "He's got a right to know what's up between the two of you—and between all three of us."

"Wonder how you came to that conclusion," Connor retorted. So much for letting the other rest. "Maybe you've forgotten just how much shite we're in, because of him?"

"I haven't," Chris mumbled, turning the glass round in his hands. "But it feels rather thick, not telling him. He's all we've got, as you said, and--"

"And we'll deal with him when we need to," Connor's voice was tight, yet no less determined. "There's a reason why we kept out of sight, mate—I'm not binning it just because you feel that sod has a right to anything."

"I was just saying," Chris said, sipping the potion and cutting a grimace. "It would be fair." Connor motioned for him to down the potion, taking the glass back and helping him lie down.

"He doesn't deserve fair."

"Maybe not," Chris conceded. "But you do."


The narrow corridor he was in wound its way left and right, and for a while Harry contented himself with walking, thinking, and trying to tie everything he had learned together, in an attempt to make sense of matters.

As it were, a babble of voices snapped him out of his brooding. Harry stopped short, debating for a moment whether or not to follow; he had heard enough, after all. Dumbledore's voice inviting people to sit helped him change his mind, though—This, he decided, he had every right to listen in to: The Order's doings and schemes had to do with him, after all, and there was no other way of hearing any of it. He sped up, not caring too much whether or not he was heard. The passage turned again, and he could see light shining into it in a straight beam, which, upon closer inspection, came from a finger-thick hole at hip level.

Moody was greeting everyone in his usual grouchy manner, which made him fear being caught, for a few moments—the grizzled Ex-Auror's magical eye was roving all around the room, he saw, as he pressed his eye against the peep-hole, which allowed him to look into the dining room… almost at the level of the ceiling, so he was looking down at the wizards and witches assembled below. For a moment, Moody's eye roved along the wall, right past Harry. His breath caught.

"All clear," Moody grunted, nodding at everyone.

He hadn't seen him.

Or else, he was allowing Harry to stay and listen. Whichever the case, Harry decided to stay put. Almost every Order member was present, taking their seats around the long dinner table, talking amongst themselves. Without exception, every face showed signs of stress and deep worry. Some looked pinched, and everyone looked tired. Harry couldn't bring himself to feel for them much.

The meeting began; it wasn't very enlightening at first, as the matters discussed were not alien to Harry. Healer Tonks told everyone how he and the McAlpin boys were doing, in her usual, snipish manner. Harry couldn't help but notice, once again, how she openly disliked Dumbledore. It made him smile; she wasn't fooled by him, then.

She might have been the only one, though. Everyone else hung onto Dumbledore's every word, and most agreed with him out of formula. The Weasley Twins, Remus, Tonks, and Bill proved themselves the exceptions to the rule,

What followed was a discussion about the McAlpins' situation—and it was less than hopeful. Other than the news of their health's steady improvement, everything else ranged from depressing to frustrating. Their grandfather's body had as yet not been retrieved, and carried on giving the Aurors and Hit Wizards a hard time; the Ministry had taken the will for examination before the twins were to have access to it; Their property in Blackpool had been found destroyed by the Death Eaters, and nobody had been any the wiser it was even ransacked in the first place; and they were due at Gringotts the day after tomorrow.

Mad-Eye was the most preoccupied of them all, which to Harry was an eye-opener in itself; the grim Ex-Auror rarely looked worried. He was used to seeing him snappishly bossing people about, always knowing what to do, in control of things, ahead of them, even. Now, there was none of it; he was earnestly worried, and not merely for the twins' safety; he expressed his concern over their mental health and well-being enough to make it clear he cared about them, very much.

His so very uncharacteristic fretting and fussing was interrupted, though, as Snape arrived. Sweeping into the room like he usually did the Potions dungeon, the sallow-faced wizard strode straight to an empty seat to Dumbledore's right, eyeing everyone with a disdainful sneer, which was returned with equally challenging looks from over half those present. It seemed that out of the lot, only a handful were comfortable having Snape around—and the bastard was well aware of it. He was milking it, never losing a chance to rub his position in on the rest.

He didn't even ask what he'd missed; it was all repeated for his benefit, which Harry saw as an unnecessary attention. His fixed glare was of course, lost on the recipient of it, and sadly, his wishing for a lightning bolt to strike Snape dead as he sat there, acting like he owned the Order, also went unheard. Harry couldn't remember when his hate for the Potions Master had grown thus great, but it was coursing through him like fire suddenly, his teeth gritted so hard they might chip, and he found himself thinking of spells suitable to cast on Snape before he knew it. He did none of the dreadful things he wanted, though, not stupid enough to blow his cover, and pressed his eye to the peep-hole again, as Dumbledore reached the end of his tale and the Order resumed their discussion of the McAlpin twins' fate.

The Order discussed what to do with them to the last detail; everyone who could be spared was to be present in Diagon Alley on the appointed date, arriving in pairs from early on—since nine in the morning, to guard the entire area hours before the twins were due there. Bill was to escort them while inside Gringotts, and Mad-Eye, Lupin, Tonks, and Mrs. Weasley would be accompanying them throughout the trip.

And do quite a bit of shopping, too.

The subject of what to do with them in the near future popped up as well, something Snape seemed keen on learning. Moody was against sending them to Hogwarts against their will, most everyone else believed they had not a say in the matter—Dumbledore headed this faction, unsurprisingly.

"They're not even fifteen, Alastor," he argued, in an attempt at reasoning with Moody. "They need to finish their education to have a chance at a future, and Hogwarts is where we can keep them most safe."

"If they don't want to go, I'm not going to force them," Moody growled. "Not just because it's easier for us—they're loaded with gold, they don't need an education, and their training so far can show up most of your seventh years. No," he added, as everyone started voicing their opinions on the matter, and an argument promised to surface. "The only chance at a future they have right now is survival, don't fool yourselves. We need to figure out what to do with them, taking their opinions into account. If forced to do anything that so much as rubs them wrong, they'll leave. They've been drilled to detect and avoid manipulation, and you'd much sooner catch them dead than locked up. I'm not going to spend ages hunting them down, or trying to regain their trust. I don't want to have to scrape them off a sidewalk either; Voldemort wants them, I can't tell you what the reason for this is, only they can. If they even know it, which I have reasons to doubt. They do know, however, that they're targeted, at least as much as Potter, unless I'm mistaken?"

All eyes turned to Snape, and up from his lofty eavesdropping position, Harry shifted, the better to see. Snape's face sported the usual inscrutable expression, but his eyes betrayed him. Or maybe it was the angle he was seeing things in. Either way, Snape's eyes showed he was thinking fast, calculating, assessing.

"He hasn't mentioned them once," he said idly.

Lying bastard.

"But I might have some more information later; I have been drawn into the close circle of counsellors, which might yield the information you want."

What's that? Harry's glasses rasped against the peephole, he was pressing his face so hard against it, not wanting to miss a thing.

The information Snape had to offer was pitifully meagre; some hogwash about the top Death Eaters or other, and just one point of interest. The mention of the name Rasmus Thanatovich made Harry snap to attention.

"So the old bastard's still alive," Moody growled darkly. "Figures."

"He has been drafted by the Dark Lord, and yet, won't take the Mark. Everyone else considers him an external advisor of sorts… And a threat." That Snape himself was in such a position wasn't lost on Harry. "He is presently working on several secret projects, to which I have as yet not had access. I shall let you know more as I gather new information."

All in all, the Order meeting had offered much fodder for thought, but little by way of a solid course of action. By the time Harry went back to his room, spotting and picking up old postcards, motorbike magazines, newspaper cutouts, torn parts of what turned out to be a motorbike repair manual, Harry had learned that the Dementors had doubled their numbers in the past four months, which some attributed to the ready supply of food they had access to; that Charlie would arrive on the 30th and was to stay behind with Harry while everyone was out in Diagon Alley – as if he needed babysitting, honestly – and that the Hit Wizards had managed to retrieve Rob McFusty's and his wife's bodies, which would be delivered to the family tomorrow. The funeral was to take place at the McFusty Dragon Reserve, on the first of August.

Of Harry there had been no mention, save for a comment of McGonagall's about talking to him. Dumbledore did not seem keen on it, but agreed to do it as soon as he had a chance to. Harry hoped the said chance would be a long time in coming.

The meeting had ended on a daunting note; the Aurors were trying to pinpoint a pattern to the disappearances that had happened of late. Always it had been muggleborns, coming from families that had little to nothing to do with the war; ordinary people, living ordinary lives, save for the constant looming threat of an attack by Death Eaters. Not one had been connected to the Ministry, the Order, or even held a position that would be in any way influential for either side. None had been known to publicly or privately support either of the factions, either. Some, as Tonks had said, had been students, or children due to start Hogwarts this year, or the next.

"It makes no sense," she had finished.

Hours later, lying in bed after rolling things over for the umpteenth time in his head, Harry decided very little did anymore.


The following day crawled by as slow and dull as the preceding ones had; Harry had managed only a couple of hours of sleep, constantly plagued by nightmares and old memories, some of which did not even belong to him. He had little energy come morning, and no interest in seeing anyone. He spent the entire morning avoiding everyone, officially locked in his room but exploring the passage he'd discovered instead.

Which led… Outside.

He'd been peering out of a brick wall next to a small side row before he knew it, rain falling on his face as he squinted around. He retreated hastily, fearing he'd triggered some alarm; but as it were, nobody was any the wiser. Had Sirius used this passage often? Who else knew of it?

He now did, at least, and decided to count it amongst the very few pros of the house.

Emerging from Sirius' room for a short lunch after washing up, Harry soon ended up seeking refuge in the library, where he holed himself up until tea-time: Mrs. Weasley might not be the friendliest of witches of late, but she still made a point of filling him and the twins to the brim at every chance.

The McAlpin twins had been equally reluctant to interact with anyone, but as Harry reached the kitchen, he caught them talking to Remus and Tonks, who had come in from some assignment or other, looking every bit as jaded as the rest of the household.

Harry left them to it, mumbling his short responses to the usual inquiries as to his well-being and things, choosing to focus on picking at his pie without any enthusiasm, but sneaking covert glances at Chris and Connor either way; Connor in particular looked under the weather, dark rings under his eyes a silent testimony of less-than-restful sleep. Chris did manage a half-hearted joke or two to Tonks' comments on her night's work, but he too, looked nothing like what Andromeda Tonks' report had sounded the previous evening. They were healing fast, she said. Doing better than she'd expected.

He wasn't an expert in magical healing, but it still didn't look that way to him.

And Harry was increasingly, earnestly worried. After trying to make sense of everything he'd learned the previous night, and unable to shake off the inexplicable craving for closeness with the twins, his prior curiosity had turned into something more of a raving need, to talk to them, to figure out what was going on with them… To help them.

Which in turn he was trying to shake off; how could he, cock-up extraordinaire, so much as entertain the thought of helping anyone in the present circumstances? He couldn't even help his own sorry arse, never mind a pair of kids who were, if possible, even worse off than he was and who, by every indication so far, wanted nothing to do with him at all?

The searing in his scar came on suddenly, and while it was unsurprising that it would happen sooner or later, he hadn't expected it at all. Across the table from him, Connor clutched the table convulsively, staring straight into his eyes.

Harry's fork fell from his hand with a clatter, and the rest of him followed it to the floor with a gasp that soon became a strangled cry.

Chairs scraped on wood, urgent calls were uttered, but Harry couldn't hear them, the kitchen dissolving, water-like, into a darker, familiar room.

"Ah, Rasmus. I was wondering when you'd be back." Harry hissed, his goblet held idly in one white, long-fingered hand, hiding from view his anticipation and impatience over this visit. "What is that you bring me?" He tilted his head the better to see.

"One more for your collection, Lord Voldemort," came the easy reply, though the child Rasmus had brought in was still struggling. "I came across it along the way here."

Harry nodded, pleased matters were going so well.

"How many more, my old friend?"

"Seven more," Rasmus said, handing the bound figure to a Death Eater, who dragged it off. "I trust by the due date, we'll be covered—as long as Bellatrix stops toying with them. Particularly the younger ones; the way she's going on about it, they won't last, and children are hard to come by on a tight schedule."

"I'll tell her to lay off," Harry promised. "But that's not the reason why you're here."

Rasmus graced him with a smirk, assenting with his head. He walked to an armchair next to Harry's, lowering himself on it.

"The Longbottoms," he said. "They're at St. Mungo's now, at their monthly visit. I am ready to strike as soon as they return—in half an hour." A frisson of eagerness took hold of Harry—were they there?

"And you believe the targets have contacted them?" he asked. Rasmus shrugged dismissively.

"Whether they have or not, remains to be seen. If they are on their own, sooner or later they'll contact help—And if said help is unavailable to them, sooner than later they'll be found. Severus has promised me to let me know at once, should they contact the Order of the Phoenix. So far, he has had nothing to provide."

"He did not give you any trouble, I trust?"

A thin smile, which betrayed a promise of what would happen, should anyone dare give him any trouble.

"None, my Lord."

"Very well. What intend you to do at the Longbottoms' house?"

"Burn it to the ground," was the rather idle reply. "I am aware it might be a tad trite and hackneyed a strategy," he admitted, snapping his fingers for some wine. "But its effects on the popular psyche have yet to be topped. The old woman won't submit to any manner of… negotiation, as we well know. She would rather die than acknowledge your power. Thus she shall get her wish."

Harry chuckled, nodding his agreement. The Longbottom woman had been an annoyance to him for years. Even the maddening of her son and daughter-in-law had not been enough to quench her. She might not constitute a threat, perhaps, but she certainly was an enemy to his regime. And entirely too old to be allowed to live; the woman was stealing oxygen, for Salazar's sake.

"I am also wondering what the heir has to offer. Not much, if what I have gathered of the boy is any indication."

"A true pity. Do you think he'll submit?"

"I shall find out shortly."

"If he does, leave him alive," Harry advised. "I could use one more of the Nine at my side, and the Longbottom vault's contents as well. They are of pure blood, after all. Can't kill them off like dogs. That would look bad on our presentation letters."

"That may be, but their deaths might prove much stronger a message to those daring to rebel against your power. Either way, they shall prove useful." Ah, Rasmus, finding win-win solutions to everything.

"When are you striking?"

"Within the hour; from what I have learned, they commonly return from St. Mungo's for dinner," Rasmus informed, sipping his wine. "I shall surprise them while they eat. I took down the wards this morning after they left, all I lack are some of your minions to do the dirty work."

Nothing easier to provide.

"You there, come here," Harry ordered one of his Death Eaters, beckoning him with a flick of his wrist. "Bring me Bellatrix. She has played around in the Pit long enough. And call my loyal Death Eaters to me. They have work to do."

A hand was slapping him repeatedly, while another pair of shaking hands shook him awake.

"Harry! Harry, wake up!"

"Murgh," he managed, cracking an eye open to squint at Remus, who turned out to be the one who was shaking him, and the blurry, swimming faces surrounding him. In the background, Mrs. Weasley was calling Healer Tonks, and Bill was asking Tonks what was wrong. Remus asked for a rag for Harry's forehead, which had once more split open.

Head pounding fit to burst, Harry momentarily wished he could just pass out and save himself from dealing with the Order—But he couldn't do that.

His eyes snapped open, sudden urgency gripping him.

The Longbottoms!

"They're going—going after Neville!" He struggled to sit up, but Remus held him fast.

"Harry, lie still--"

"No—you don't understand," Harry said, fighting off Remus and struggling to sit up. Everything was still out of focus, and he was shaking, his glasses hanging crookedly on his face. He righted them, swiping at his forehead. "He's—he's going to go after the Longbottoms!"

"What?"

"Are you sure?"

"The Longbottoms?"

"Yes," Harry said forcefully, trying to remember what all he'd seen. "They… they were talking, Voldemort, and the Russian nutter—He brought him something. A kid… F-f-for a collection…" Harry swallowed. What had that been all about?

"What are you talking about?" Tonks asked hurriedly. "What collection?"

"I don't… I don't know," Harry muttered, shaking his head to the glass of water he was being offered. "They said something about a pit, and Bellatrix was toying with them—" Harry shook his head to clear it. The impending attack on Neville and his grandmother was even more pressing. "They were talking about getting the Longbottoms, in their house," he repeated.

"When?"

"Are you sure?"

"How?"

"Why?"

Weren't they articulate when they wanted to?

"After they get back from… From St. Mungo's!" Harry'd almost forgotten. "During dinner, that's when! And I don't know why, you'll have to ask them," he finished, irritation starting to take over. He took the rag from Remus' hand, turning his head away as he tried to clean away the blood.

"Stop that, I'm alright," he muttered. "You have to go help them."

There was no response to that. No response, at least, that he was willing to hear.

"Harry—"

"Are you sure you saw what you saw, dear?" Mrs. Weasley asked. Nobody else had moved, all eyes fixed on him. Harry pressed the rag against his forehead, though trying to claw it off was much more tempting.

"Yeah," he answered, but his temper was already bubbling up. "I am sure I saw what I saw!" he erupted. "Or are you going to wait for the Death Eaters to bloody kill them too to prove if I'm right or not?"

"He's been known to plant visions in your head before," a voice said from the door. Harry craned his throbbing head around… To glare at Kingsley, who'd just arrived, followed by Moody, who stayed by the door. "We can't just risk everyone on a wh--"

"Right, I'd forgotten you lot prefer handling body bags than Death Eaters," Harry muttered furiously. "I might have been wrong before, and believe me—I hate it as much as you do, but wouldn't send you off on a bloody whim!" he snapped, but even in his state and anger, the matter of the Longbottoms' fate was much more pressing. "You don't have time—he's going after Neville and his gran now!"

"I'm afraid we need more proof than that," Kingsley answered, in that calming deep voice Harry was growing to loathe.

"He's not lying." Connor hadn't rushed to Harry's side like everyone else. Neither had Chris, who even now was giving his brother a rather panicked look. Upon forcing his sight upwards towards him, Harry saw why; Connor was pale as a sheet, shaking almost as much as he himself was. He searched his face for any indication as to why that was, but Connor wasn't looking at him. His eyes were fixed on Lupin's, then wandered to look at Moody.

"I'll go check," Moody snarled.

"Wait—"

"Moody, no—"

"Are you certain, Harry?"

"Bloody hell, what is wrong with you people?" Harry shouted, and somehow, while this made his head threaten to split open again, it also made the world stop spinning. He found himself on his feet, holding onto the table for support. "Just ruddy go to St. Mungo's before they leave!"

It was evident nobody had even thought of this; once more, everyone was looking at him, Moody included.

"If they're there," Harry growled, glaring at the rest and tossing the rag aside, "then I'm probably right, and it's a trap for them. If they're not—then you're right and I cocked up again."


"You." The witch's voice lacked all strength, but the loathing it contained was almost tangible, mixed with what he took to be disbelief.

Honestly, after a few days you'd have thought she'd have gotten used to it.

"Me," Connor confirmed conversationally, staring right back at the portrait of the deranged witch, his hands buried in his pockets to keep them from shaking. After what had just happened in the kitchen, his ears were still ringing from Potter's screams, and he himself was shaken. Shaking. Which was after all, the reason for him to stand here, before Mrs. Black's old portrait.

Try as he might not to allow himself to turn it into a bawl fest like Potter seemed to have become accustomed to doing, he could not help reacting to it. The visions, the jolts of magic coursing through him, increasingly strong as the time spent in Potter's vicinity lengthened, the feelings, both physical and emotional, that lingered after it was over, were enough to make him want to do quite a bit more than shake. Splatter the floor before him with his last meal or two, for example.

He wouldn't ever let himself stoop that low, though.

Unlike Potter.

So maybe his scar did make things worse, and Connor was aware there was pain involved; he'd felt it too, hadn't he? Every time, for years. In his eyes, that was still no reason to deafen everyone within a five-mile radius with his screaming, though he reckoned the most annoying part of the whole affair were the seizures. Potter just let himself go, he didn't even try to keep himself in check.

Pathetic.

He turned his attention to the portrait once more, eyes roving over every brush stroke, examining it in a way nobody had ever dared to in over twenty-five years.

"Insolent little puke." Still the voice had not raised over a whisper, still it was filled with hatred. His theory was confirmed; the charm protecting them did not work on portraits. How many were there in this house that could perhaps, make the connection? How many of them could speak, and learn, and consequently, blab?

This one couldn't learn, perhaps—it was way too batty to do so—but it had a long memory, and that, could be even worse for them.

"That's a nice variation on the usual, Walburga," he retorted in an exaggeratedly polite tone that had the desired result. Lividness did not exactly improve the looks of the hag, he decided, watching the raging, contorted features of the already distorted face. "Are you using it more often?"

"Don't— Don't address me in such casual a manner!" Imperative, threatening even-- but as yet nobody could possibly have heard what was said if they stood over six feet from the portrait. "Treat me with the respect I deserve, wizardling!"

Oh, but I am.

"Isn't that dear? Wizardling. That's what they called kids back in the day?"

"What do you want?" He could almost see the hate dripping from every word. Connor smirked, though his amusement was only shown to anger her all the more.

"Nothing in particular," he replied easily, returning the glare with the most insolent smirk he could muster. "To have a good look at you, isn't that what you were stuck to this wall for? Though I wonder why they bothered, you're hideous as homemade sin. Well," he amended reasonably, "seeing as you are homemade sin… I suppose it's understandable."

Sputtering didn't suit her any more than drooling, glaring, or hissing had done, really. He resumed his close observation, but he was not looking at the painting. He was looking for ways to burn, vanish, or otherwise get rid of it, scanning every inlay of gold on the canvas, every inch of paint. In passing, he became intimately acquainted with its occupant.

"How dare you look me in the eye?"

"How dare you look me in the eye?" he retorted, mimicking her mockingly. It had the desired result once more, she was sputtering again.

"You-- You are—"

"Morbidly fascinated by your mug," he supplied helpfully, successfully interrupting the portrait for the first time in years. "It's not that I find you attractive, believe me. Tell me, did they charm you to change your looks as hers did or did she always look this way? Because honestly…" He cut a grimace, chuckling to himself as the screaming began.

"BLOOD-TRAITOR! SUCH A DISGRACE TO THE NOBLE BLOOD OF MY FATHERS! SHAME! SHAME AND PUNISHMENT FOR YOU FOR DEFILING THIS ANCIENT HOUSE!"

He did not flinch back.

"I bet you have a lovely singing voice, too."

"OUT! OUT OF MY HOUSE!"

"It's not yours anymore," he informed in a low voice, as the painting stopped for a breath. "You should keep that in mind, old hag." He turned away, making for the stairs, where he spotted something glittering on the floor, next to the first step.

"You—You insolent bastard!"

"Nope, not a bastard," Connor replied, picking the object up; it was a ring, sporting two large diamonds and a central emerald, inside which was engraved the Black family crest. He tried it on, smirking as he showed it to the witch, who had fallen silent, staring at him in gaping disbelief and horrified dismay.

The long, drawn-out, impossibly loud shriek that followed rattled the windows up to the fourth floor.

Connor smirked, taking the ring off and letting it fall into his pocket.

"Glad to see we understand each other."


"What if you're wrong?"

"What if I'm not, ever stopped to think of that?" Harry muttered furiously, now seated unsteadily on a chair, and being reluctantly tended to by Healer Tonks, whose usual snappish demeanour was absent, which was probably the fates' way of reminding Harry they would never once cooperate with him; he'd have loved some verbal sparring with her.

"You need to find a way to block out those visions," Mrs. Weasley said, interrupting her fussing over him long enough to give him a strange look. For a moment, Harry was reminded of his aunt Petunia.

"I would if I could, gladly."

The kitchen was filled with Order members now; Moody had insisted on calling every single available witch and wizard in, just in case. Harry had the distinct feeling he wasn't doing it out of a trust in him, however. It had been Connor who'd backed him, surprising a few years out of him. Of everyone who'd witnessed his spaz, Connor had been the last Harry would have turned for help to.

Not that he could explore this new turn of events any further; No sooner had Healer Tonks arrived in the middle of a heated discussion and Moody and Remus left for St. Mungo's, Harry had seen Connor stagger out of the kitchen without a word.

Chris was still there, sitting out of the way and sipping on a steaming mug of chocolate, but he too, remained silent, alternately watching the goings-on in the middle of the kitchen and shooting uneasy glances at the door, as if waiting for Connor to return. Harry had the distinct sensation he wouldn't.

Something silvery flew in through the chimney, startling Harry and making everyone stop their bickering at once; a fat sheep Patronus stood right before them. When it spoke, though, it did so with Remus' voice.

"The Longbottoms have just left St. Mungo's," it informed, addressing Kingsley. "One of the Healers said they'd invited her for dinner, in half an hour—Harry was right, it's a trap."

Harry thought he'd be vindicated by this statement. That his first words upon feeling Kingsley's eyes on him would be, "I told you so."

Instead, he could merely swallow, his stomach twisting into knots.

"Hurry."


"I trust the instructions are simple enough for all of you to follow," Rasmus said, addressing the black-robed group assembled around him. "I'll deal with the old woman and the boy—in the meantime, you are to make sure nobody else is left alive, and not a stone of this house is left standing."

"Yeah, yeah, can we get on with it already?"

"I do not remember stating it was your turn to speak, Yaxley," Rasmus said clearly. "We're not 'getting on with it' until they've arrived and started on their dinner."

"Why can't we just welcome them in their own front room?" asked Bellatrix, caressing her wand.

Rasmus did not bother to hide his displeasure. Neither did he bother to reply to her.

"It would be more of a surprise…"

"We'd get some time to look around."

"I want first dibs on the jewellery—"

"And your Master will surely not be pleased," Rasmus drawled, leaning on his carved ivory cane. Instantly, the silence was restored. "We are not here for petty theft; the priorities are quite clear, and we shall strike while they are eating, because that is when they shall be most vulnerable."

Nobody dared contradict him this time; all Death Eaters present were a part of the Innermost Circle, and simply belonging to that select group had given them power and authority over most Death Eaters and supporters of the Dark Side – and non-supporters as well – enough to dare be cocky in front of almost anyone.

Almost.

Rasmus, out of them all, was the most dangerous, and the one none of them, Bellatrix included, dared to cross, no matter how much they hated him.

Lucius limited himself to a sneer, Yaxley muttered something under his breath, Bellatrix glared at him… But in the end, all obeyed. Rasmus turned his attention on the large house once more, apparently protected by layers upon layers of wards placed there by Albus Dumbledore himself.

It had taken him less than five hours to duplicate them with his own, and the last addition to his spells was now the one he was looking for.

A momentary flash was seen, like a camera going off on one of the top floors. Rasmus smiled.

"They're home."


Harry had resorted to wandering the house without any set destination, if only to give his restless energy some outlet, however small. He was worried for Neville and his grandmother, the Aurors who'd been dispatched to the Longbottoms' house, and the Order members—all of whom could die on his information, thus making him feel all the worse—and Mrs. Weasley's fretting in the kitchen, the furtive looks he was receiving, the badly-hidden doubt she had of his visions being true—which only spurred his own self-doubts to greater heights—and the worry for her husband and sons, all of whom had gone to help the Longbottoms, were too much to endure.

The portrait of Mrs. Black had erupted in a formidable fit of screams earlier as well, which provided Harry with the perfect excuse to leave the kitchen… And he had no intention of returning, which perhaps made the fact it was near impossible to silence the portrait a strike of chance.

Of the McAlpin twins there was no sign anywhere, which in turn made him wonder if he should seek them out, talk to them. Of all the mysteries he'd been faced with, they were the most prominent of all, the one that intrigued him most, one he could not quite comprehend.

Not to mention, speculating about them and maybe even confronting them would keep him from biting his fingernails to the quick while fretting over Neville and the Order, and whether or not his vision had been true… or he had merely led them into a deadly trap.

He reached Sirius' old bedroom without finding the other boys, backtracking his steps almost at once. That place would perhaps be the worst setting he could pick, and he might be going slowly insane, but that didn't mean he was a masochist. Not that much of one, at any rate.

It was when he shuffled past the Drawing Room that he noticed the door was open—and Connor was inside. Harry poked his head in, watched the younger boy looking at the Black Family Tree, absorbed in his thoughts. Watched him raise his good hand, to trail a finger along the double gold thread from Sirius' parents to Regulus' name and the small burn mark next to it.

"It was Sirius' spot, right there," Harry said quietly, stepping into the room. Connor stiffened; he had been so absorbed in the tapestry he'd not realised Harry had been watching. A first. "Sirius Black's. This was his house."

"I don't remember asking you for a ruddy guided tour," Connor's tone was hoarse. He had not yet turned to face him, eyes fixed on the small burn mark next to the name Regulus A. Black. "I know whose house this was."

"I--"

"I know whose it is, too."

"I was just--"

"Trying to make conversation? Get entertainment now your horde of clowns is out? Some idle chit-chat to take your mind off things, maybe?" The Scottish lilt was marked, with enough loathing and anger coating the words to make anyone uncomfortable, and being on the brunt end of it, feeling the emotions emanating from the other boy as though they were an extension of himself, both alien and familiar, Harry took a step back, but fought to keep himself in check.

"No, I…" He had been trying to find things out, though. Make conversation, maybe figure something out.

So much for that, then.

"Never mind." He shook his head, turning to leave. Connor's eyes had not left the tapestry, nor did he show any signs of listening.

"Such an idiot." It was delivered softly, clearly not directed at him, but it nevertheless trailed to Harry's ears. He froze mid-step.

What?

"What did you say?" Harry demanded from between gritted teeth.

"I thought you were leaving? Don't let me stop you. Door's right there. Put the wood in the hole once you're out."

"I'd rather you told me to my face."

"Who says I was talking about or to you?" Connor snorted, tapping the charred spot where Sirius' name had once been with his forefinger for an explanation. It was somehow sufficient, more jarring than he'd have believed possible. How dared he talk about Sirius? How dared he pass judgement on someone he had never even met? And yet there he was, mocking, aloof, maddeningly collected, insulting Sirius like someone talking about the weather.

If one could hate the weather so much.

"Typical. Everything just revolves around you, doesn't it? Automatically. Sorry to disappoint, Boy-Who-Lived. When I talk to you, I'll look at you. Which incidentally, shall happen as little as humanly possible."

That much had become very clear.

"Take that back." Three strides, and Harry was in front of Connor, glaring at him. The cool look he was getting did nothing to make him simmer down.

"Or else wha?" Connor asked in an exaggerated affectation of cluelessness, wiggling his head in a manner that was intended to incense him further.

And he succeeded.

"I said: Take that back. You've no right to say anything about Sirius!"

"I don't? Since when did you get made the guardian of the dead? Is it because everyone you know eventually gets copped? Rather careless on your part, I might add—but their own blasted fault, isn't it? Like that fool over there."

Something inside him snapped. Harry saw red.

"He --was not --A FOOL!" he roared furiously, swinging out at Connor's face for an almighty punch—

And hit only air.

Connor sidestepped him, using Harry's momentum to give him a shove that sent him sprawling, but Harry caught himself, whirled around, kicked out--

The next moment everything swam before his vision, and he landed, flat on his back, against the tapestry of the Black Family Tree. Connor had barely moved, but somehow he was holding Harry's outstretched leg now, wrenching it upwards and pinning him in place. And he was laughing. A nasty, bitter, mocking sort of laugh.

One Harry had heard before.

"Oh, ho ho. And just how utterly stupid do you feel now?" Connor asked, tilting his head to the side in a mockery of an inquiry that was more of the former than the latter.

"He's not—He wasn't an idiot!" Harry snapped again, trying to break free, but he could barely keep his balance.

"Don't like hearing that, do you?" Connor asked, but his temper too, was rising. His tone betrayed him, menacing, calculating. "He was an idiot, a traitor, pure utter scum."

"Shut up." Harry's tone was no less a threat in itself.

"Of the worst sort," Connor went on, ignoring him, eyes flashing dangerously into his own, cold as ice. "Abandoned his family, his own blood. Without a thought. And for what?" Connor gave him a once over, filled with distaste, which also dripped from every word. "Your father. And then?" A snort. "You." He spat it out, let go of Harry's leg, sending him sprawling onto the floor with a thud.

"Wasted," Connor snarled, "So much wasted on you. Do you ever wonder if you deserve it? So many people dying for you, as if you were the last ruddy coke in the Gobi desert. And what do you do in return? Get your arse into traps left and right. You're more of an idiot than any of them are. Were." Harry raffled himself up, panting.

"I didn't—"

"You didn't what, Potter?" Connor snapped, stepping forward. "Give a right shit? No, I don't suppose you would have, what with idiots like Black lining up to play rug for you. Got what he deserved for it, too."

"Say that again, and--"

"And what?" Connor prompted, his face barely an inch from his own. He could feel his breath, warm and vaguely smelling of bile, on his cheek. "What? Do carry on, by all means. I won't be welcome in your house any longer, perhaps?" It was a mockery, bitter, sharp. A challenge, out at last, after so long. It was a conscious needling as well, Harry realised. Connor might not look or sound that way, but he was straining to keep his self-control.

"I didn't say that," Harry snarled. "You can stay however long you need to--"

"And I should be grateful now, shouldn't I?" Connor shot back. "You pompous little bastard, you can take all your selfless 'help' and shove it up your arse."

"What the hell is your problem?"

"I don't like you, Potter. That's my problem. You can't take a ruddy hint—that's your problem."

"What have I ever done to you?"

"You lived."

WHA…?

"I—what?" Harry was nonplussed.

"Yes! It's fantastic, isn't it?" Connor said, throwing his arms up, as if Harry were a dim toddler who'd just successfully added one and one. His grin, his would-be celebratory attitude were gone in the next moment, replaced by cold bitterness again. Harry didn't stir, however, unable to utter a word. Of all the reasons he had pondered over the past week for this behaviour, this was the last he'd ever expected to hear.

He didn't move as Connor came closer once more, didn't retaliate as he was poked sharply in the chest, received a hiss for an explanation.

"You lived, you sorry little shite."

He'd expected something like that from a Death Eater. Not this kid.

"You're on their side then?" Harry's lips had gone very, very dry.

"Oh yeah, because the world is split in two all of a sudden, isn't it? Death Eaters on the one hand, this lot of brainless baboons on the other—Get a bloody grip. There's more to the world than that, Potter. Possibly more than your little mind can wrap itself around, but that doesn't make it any less true." Every time he said his name, it was as if he were spitting him in the face. How could he put so much loathing in one word? He reminded Harry of his dad, spitting Snape's name out like a curse. Sirius had too, and he'd topped his dad's exploits. Harry had once wondered how they managed to roll so much bitter emotion behind one name, of all things. He now knew.

"You're going to catalogue me along with the Death Eaters now, then? Go right ahead, it doesn't change anything."

Harry didn't have an answer to that. He stared at the other boy, dumbstruck and taken aback by the sudden outburst. Still, isn't that exactly what he wanted? To know what was up with Connor? What was bothering him?

"Not everyone on the light side thinks you're the hottest thing since convection ovens," Connor said in a swagger. "What, did you think everyone celebrated the fact you'd survived that curse? For some of us, it fucked up everything beyond recognition. He was one of those sods, but at least he got the chance to choose, unlike others. Sort of gives you an idea how dim he was." A finger jabbed at the charred spot where Sirius' name had been. "Only he was too stupid, or too loyal, or too bloody besotted to tell you any of that."

Careful what you wish for, his mind provided, using a mocking, bitter tone much similar to the one belonging to the boy before him. It then added, He sounds like Snape a whole lot.

Harry might have wanted to know, but he had not expected this to be the answer.

"What's going on?"

Harry turned around, to spot Chris at the door to the Drawing Room, leaning against the doorframe. Would he start flinging out insults at Sirius too?

"Just a little difference of opinions, that's all." Connor's voice was conversational again, yet his eyes were still boring into Harry's with the same intensity. "Potter here thinks Black was the next best thing since firewhiskey."

"Ah." Chris understood. But just what he understood, was lost on Harry. "You know, I think you should tell him." Delivered calm as anything, but Harry could feel the tension starting to build between them both. Connor's eyes snapped from Harry's to his brother's, fixing him with as sharp a look as he had Harry not a breath earlier.

"Whatever for?"

"He's got a right to know, doesn't he?"

"Does he?"

"He already knows. How long do you think it'll take him to at least make the connection?"

Connor snorted.

"A few centuries, and that if he's quick about it."

"He's already aware of it. So I reckon he ought to know."

What the hell?

"And that would help us… how?"

"Maybe it won't. But you're not making any sense to him. Look at him, he's completely lost. And he's…"

"As much of an idiot as his forebears were?" Connor suggested, raising his eyebrows at his brother after a perfunctory glance at Harry.

It was the last straw.

The next moment Connor was flat against the wall, pinned there by Harry's grip on the front of his threadbare bathrobe. He winced.

"Told you," Chris supplied, but did not move from his spot by the door. It was all lost in Harry's yelling anyway.

"WHO THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU ARE THAT YOU CAN SPEAK ABOUT MY FAMILY LIKE THAT?" he shouted, not caring anymore to get answers. All he wanted was for Connor to stop dishing out insults left and right.

"Piss off." It wasn't directed at him, but at Chris.

"Answer me!" Harry demanded, slamming him against the wall. If that didn't get his attention…

"Tell him, Connor." Chris sounded warning.

"Fuck you." Connor shot at his brother, completely ignoring Harry and not even making to push him away.

"If you don't tell him, by Merlin, I will."

"Be my guest and try." Connor chuckled darkly.

"I will. I--" A choking sound made Harry turn to see Chris trying to speak.

"You can't, you moron. Not unless I die."

"Do it, then."

"What, die? Or tell him?" Connor's eyes turned to fix themselves on Harry again though, and this time, they were surveying him once more, the calculating, assessing look back full force.

"You know," he mused, "Have it your way. I'll do it. He deserves it, after all."

"What the bloody hell are you on about?" Harry asked blankly, his grip sliding from Connor's front without him realising it.

"Your dreams," Connor said, licking his chapped lips. "The visions. They hurt your scar, don't they, like just now, that bloody Russian nutter was telling Voldemort about the Longbottoms--"

"How…?" Harry swallowed. "How do you know that?"

"He gets you most at night, too," Connor went on, advancing in on Harry now, as he recoiled out of instinct. "You spend half the night screaming into your pillow, the other half out cold or having nightmares. Bit pathetic, if you ask me, but to each his own."

"How do you know?" Harry repeated. He'd put up silencing charms, he always did—

"Silencing charms don't work with me." Was he reading his mind now?

"How?" Harry breathed, taking another unwitting step back.

"I've always known," Connor said, looking down at him. "And now…. By public demand-- now you will know too."

"What?"

"Listen closely you little mong, because I'm just saying this the once," Connor warned, his voice a mere whisper as he leaned even closer to Harry. "My name." He snorted. "My real name, that is. Is Sirius Black. That's how I know."

"Wh--" Harry's heart skipped a few beats, a rush of energy, of magic went through him, tying hereto isolated facts, memories, thoughts together. He stood there, gaping at the boy, this spitting image of Sirius he could suddenly recognise, almost identical to the Sirius in the Pensieve, who scoffed, shook his head, then turned away.

"I hope you're happy." He heard Connor—Sirius—mutter to Chris, on his way out.

"It can't be," Harry whispered, aghast. "It's impossible."

"Is it?" Connor asked idly, stopping by the doorframe and reaching into his pocket, pulling out a small, silvery something and tossing it up in the air a few times. "Alright, then. Impossible it is." He lobbed the thing at Harry, and it landed on the carpet, rolling towards him. Harry followed the small object's progress, until it came to a halt, right between his feet. It was…

Sirius' signet ring.

"You can fill him in on the rest now," he heard Connor... No, Sirius, say. "And be sure to clean the sick off the floor."

Then the images began to flash before his eyes, coupling with a sudden clenching of his stomach. The room started to spin, the air suddenly thick with voices, laughter, cries... His mother's. His father's. Sirius'. Many others besides, all of them distinct, as though the speakers were right next to him.

"What sick? I don't see any."

Harry's stomach gave a lurch, and he was on his knees the next moment, retching all over the floor.

"Now you do."


TBC.