Disclaimer: Kindly refer to disclaimers 1-19. This one would only be a variation on the same.
Dedicated: To Japonica, for being a wicked beta!
Also dedicated: To everyone still reading.
Causality Part Two: Casting The Dice
When the matter is closely examined, it is seen that there is no chance whatsoever about the fall of the dice. Back of the fall of the die are causes, or chains of causes, running back further than the mind can follow.
Flashes of images came into a momentary sharp focus, snatches of conversations long past fading in and out, succeeding each other without any order. Feelings, sounds, even smells were coursing through him like fire; Harry wheezed for air, forehead pressed against the dusty, moth-eaten old carpet, missing the pool of sick next to him by a mere inch.
"James, come look! He's standing up on his own!" Beaming, grinning faces looking at him. Faces he could recognise only because he'd seen them many times before on photographs.
"Sirius is missing this—Where's the camera?"
"Forget the camera, just look at him—"
"You've got to be joking, the bastard will want proof Harry's starting to walk—He owes me seventy-two Galleons and three Knuts, and if his first word is Dad, he'll owe me a smashing--"
His parents faded away, replaced by a Sirius younger than he could remember. He too, was smiling, wearing a Father Christmas hat and floating baubles for him to try and grab, turning them into shiny broomsticks, or Quaffles, or Snitches. It was followed by another scene, which he was watching from behind blue-coloured bars.
"It's madness, Padfoot. He'll only kill you, and then what?" The anger, the hopelessness, washed over him as well as the words.
"I'll tell you what's madness—That prophecy rot is madness! Going after a bloody baby is madness! We need to grab whatever chance we can get to keep him alive! He'll kill us all anyway, you know that as well as I do."
This too, faded into another, different scene. Chris was there, not older than nine, clutching him by the arms and shaking him in a panic, while he saw Voldemort's face from the back of Quirrel's head, as if through a haze--
"Connor, what's wrong? Can you hear me? Gramps! Gramps! Come here quick!"
A hospital bed, around which blurry figures were talking in hushed voices—
Dementors closing in, heading for a fallen girl. They were going to give Holly the Kiss. He had to do something, anything--
"Sirius! Get my son off that motorbike this instant!"
"He's got to learn young, Lily—What if he needs it for something?"
"He can barely sit upright, what would he need it for?"
"Why, to attract the girls, of course."
Chris again, older. Another day. The same panic.
"He's gone all stiff again. His eyes are open, but he can't see me."
An elderly wizard coming into view.
"Son, can you hear me?"
Harry was fairly gasping for breath now, eyes unfocused and lightheaded. The jumbled images of memories flooding his head were threatening to make his brain explode; the whirlwind of colours and voices spinning around him in a kaleidoscope-like array took him to his past, to Connor's past, bringing forth anything and everything, from the spiders in his cupboard to Dudley hunting him with his friends, to faces he'd never before seen, an elderly woman carrying an enormous birthday cake out into a garden, a girl on a pony… to Voldemort's resurrection, that botched rescue mission at the Department of Mysteries, Sirius faling through the veil… His dad, sitting him on a child's broomstick; Remus, carrying him at what looked like a funeral; a huge black dog, doing a backflip in the air to catch a red frisbee, turning in the next instant into a laughing, handsome young man, who accepted a pint of beer from a tall blonde woman that looked several months pregnant, stealing a kiss from her before it too, faded into another memory.
Each scene playing before his mind's eye was as vivid as the next, alive as memories buried for years surfaced again, and he could recognise faces he never knew he knew, complete partial pictures, understand, to some extent, what was going on...
Flying horses. Death Eaters. Dementors. Moody, in front of a blackboard set out of doors, laughing harshly at some chelmish answer to his quizzing. A stone chute, filled with mud at the bottom. Bellatrix, hunting him and Chris down deserted streets… There was no ending it; the memories started speeding up, swirling around him, faster, faster…
A glass was hovering in front of his fogged eyes, never quite coming into focus.
"Here, drink this. And try to keep it down." He was back at Grimmauld Place, back on the old, torn-up carpet of the Drawing Room. Harry sat up dizzily, supporting himself on one hand, while the other reached shakily for the proffered glass of water.
"Feeling better?" Chris asked, crouching next to him and looking him up and down quizzically. Harry nodded, swallowing and tasting bitter bile in his mouth. He righted his glasses, which were dangling off one ear, in an attempt to regain his focus.
"What was that?" he breathed.
"The truth." Chris answered simply, then shrugged one shoulder. "He unlocked you."
"Wasn't aware I was locked," Harry mumbled, trying to make sense of it all while simultaneously attempting, rather poorly, to regain control of his motor muscles.
"Of course not," was the condescending reply. Harry looked up at the younger boy next to him, silently demanding a better explanation. An explanation, period.
"All right, all right," Chris said, getting to his feet with a groan and pulling out his wand. "I'll tell you what I know. Sit over there." He gestured at the nearby sofa, clearing off the splatters of sick and shuffling over after Harry, who staggered to the sofa as instructed, wishing the world would stop that tilting and spinning around.
"I reckon it'll be hard for you for a few days," he began, "but I believe you'll get a grip on things soon." Harry was having a hard time following already. Get a wha? "You better—he's not doing too good, and he won't get better unless you try and control it too."
"Control what, exactly?"
"Those fits, what else?" Harry didn't know how to even start going on about that.
"That's what it is?" he asked, trying not to slur his words.
"I reckon," Chris answered. "Gramps tried to find a cure for years. He didn't manage, not quite at any rate."
"A cure?" Ah, but wasn't he the perfect example of wit and a ready mind at the moment. He decided to sip his water, which was soothingly cool, refreshing his throat. It felt raw and strained, as if he'd screamed himself hoarse. He couldn't remember uttering a sound, though.
"For this link you have with Connor," Chris told him, gesturing in the air as he hunted for a way to put it. "It's twisted—Those visions of Voldemort you have…" That he was saying the name made Harry give it more than a passing notice. "He gets them too. You get hurt, or upset or something… He's right there. And he goes all stiff and shaking. It's gotten pretty bad some times." He snorted without much humour at Harry's blank look. "What, you think it's some sort of blessing, being in your head?"
"No," Harry replied. "I just…" He shook his head, to clear it, or to try and think, he didn't know. It wasn't working, whatever it was. "How is that possible?"
Again, a shrug for an answer.
"I said I'd tell you what I know, I can't tell you what I don't," Chris stated. "He's had those dreams, or whatever you want to call them, since we were little. Nobody really knows why. He'd have nightmares, about a cupboard under the stairs, and this fat bloke and his fat kid… But it got really bad around the time you started at Hogwarts. That business with the Philosopher's Stone—"
"You know about that?"
"He fell off a horse," Chris said, ignoring him. "I thought he'd cop it—we were racing, and he fell back. When I turned to look, I saw him flailing around, screaming. Then he seized up and fell off. He was out cold for days, nobody could figure out what all was wrong with him. Not until later."
Harry swallowed. He'd been out cold for days too, after the business with the Stone.
"Afterwards, he said it was like being in two places at once." That was something Harry could relate to, at least.
"I've been getting… I've been seeing through him too, but… How's that work?"
Chris only raised an eyebrow.
"I mean," Harry said, trying hard to phrase it properly, "I'd never gotten those… I guess you can call them visions. Whatever. I'd never got them before." Not from another kid he'd never even seen, at any rate.
"Course not," Chris answered, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "Gramps put up wards while Connor was in St. Mungo's that once. High enough, far enough, so the link would be broken. It didn't quite work—Connor kept getting those visions, all the wards did was keep anyone else from getting anything from him."
"To keep me out," Harry supplied.
"To keep you out," Chris confirmed. "It was good enough, I s'pose. For a while. It helped keep us safe."
"Until he died, yeah. I imagine you got it hard then, all those spells stopped working properly, all at once." Chris shrugged. "Connor had it bad then too, I reckon. He's told me some. He used to tell me everything that happened, and we'd try and piece things together, but he stopped doing that."
"Last thing he told me was he'd get this recurrent dream, about a corridor, and a door, and a room full of… What were they?"
"Spheres," Harry whispered, stomach clenching.
"That would be the one, yeah. It was driving him mental. Then one night a couple of months ago I heard him thrash around like mad. It was a bad fit." A 'bad fit' hardly sufficed to describe what had happened then. He could see it all over again; the flight on the Thestrals, the ambush, Sirius' death… Voldemort possessing him. It had been a nightmare. "He wouldn't tell me what he saw. Hasn't said a word about any of it since."
Suddenly Connor's open contempt was a lot easier for Harry to understand. He'd as good as killed his… father.
And so much else besides.
"I read some of what happened in the papers," Chris went on. "He hasn't breathed a thing about that, or what's going on now, either, but I've got eyes. Grams tried to help him with it when she was around, and I reckon she sort of managed to help him keep a grip. But she's gone now, and he's hardly sleeping. He's awake half the night, and when he does get some sleep, he doesn't rest. He keeps talking in his sleep, moaning and writhing. I reckon it's because you're not sleeping either."
"I didn't know. I'm sorry," Harry said, and it was honest.
"What, like you can do anything about it? As far as I know, you're shite at keeping them in check," Chris said, shaking his head. "What makes you think you could keep anything from leaving your head and going to his?"
"I… I don't know."
"Too right you don't," Chris replied. "But you will—you should figure out how to do it. It'll kill him one of these days." Which wasn't really doing much by way of helping anything at all.
"I thought they were just… just dreams." It put everything in a new perspective, all he'd been seeing and hearing of late… it was still impossible to wrap his mind around it, though.
"Yeah, well. They're not," Chris answered. "And I reckon you'll be getting loads more. Gramps put up this block, but he only managed to shut you off, not him. Now the block is down, you'll see more too. It's only fair."
"So that's why he's mad at me."
"No. He's mad at you because you do nothing about it."
"What can I do?"
"Kill Voldemort?" Chris suggested, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. Harry could see it wasn't meant as a joke.
"Easier said than done."
"I reckon it is," Chris conceded, shrugging. "But it's got to be you. Either that, or you can do something so he can get a go at living without you hacking at his head every five minutes."
Harry didn't know what to make of it. He was still shell-shocked over what had happened, what was still happening, and he couldn't believe what he was hearing.
It made sense though. A strange, twisted sort of sense, but sense nonetheless.
"What's the thing with Sirius?" he asked, deciding to get to the other bit of news he still had trouble with.
"There's no thing with Sirius," Chris replied, suddenly curt. "Bloke was our dad," he muttered, kicking at the foot of the sofa with his heel.
"He never mentioned having kids." Not that Harry had ever tried to learn more about what his Godfather had gotten around to doing before he got stuck in Azkaban. But he did believe Sirius would have at least tried to get in touch with his kids. He wasn't the sort to just ditch someone, was he?
No, he wasn't.
"I don't reckon he knew about us being alive," Chris said, and Harry could sense the same sort of bitterness he'd sensed in Connor welling up. "Or he didn't remember. But if he forgot, I don't reckon he did out of his own choosing. I reckon Gramps made him forget, just like he made everyone else forget we existed. Connor believes otherwise, though."
"Why?" It was a simple question, but Harry could tell the answer was anything but; Chris was hesitating.
"How much do you know about the time before you were sent to live with those muggles?" he asked in return.
"Not really much." And Harry had reasons to believe what he knew wasn't nearly enough, either. Another thing he'd never really bothered to find out about, taking what little he did know for a fact, and leaving it at that.
"Figures." Chris briefly raised his eyes to the ceiling, heaving a sigh. Just like Sirius used to, when he was about to talk about something nasty or difficult. Harry could now appreciate the similarities, could link them to the face they evoked, and it was possible, now, to tell who they belonged to. The twins were to Sirius what Harry was to James; a copy, with deliberate differences so small it was hard to tell them apart.
"You do know your parents and Sirius had a plan to fool Voldemort, don't you?"
Harry nodded mutely, that much he did know.
"Well, at least something," Chris commented. "I'm betting you know the official tale, don't you," Harry didn't know what to say to that either, so he only nodded again.
"You see, originally our dad was supposed to be your Secret Keeper. But he got second thoughts about it. Didn't want to be tortured into telling, or conned into it, I reckon. Connor believes he got cold feet."
"He's not much of a fan, I've noticed."
"Can you blame him?" Chris asked him in return, cocking his head to the side. Harry had no answer for that, so he resumed, with a small scoff. "Whatever the case, they picked that rat Pettigrew, and… Well, you know the rest that went down. What nobody really knows is, Sirius had gotten together with our mum, and we were well on the way by the time they decided to go into hiding."
Harry hadn't heard of that, not even a mention… Ever.
"I reckon they were desperate, what with Voldemort and all the Death Eaters on their heels all the time, and you being just a tiny ankle-biter and us being nothing but buns in the oven and all. I don't reckon that prophecy did much to help matters along much, either."
"You… you know about that?" Was there anything these boys didn't know?
"Don't look so surprised," Chris suggested, looking grimly amused. "It makes you look rather dimmer than you are, and mate, it's a fair bit. That propecy's the reason it's all so ruddy screwed, isn't it? The reason you're hunted like the last butterbeer in the Arctic winter, the reason your parents are dead, the reason Gramps got killed… And our mum, and our dad, and so many others." He'd risen to his feet while speaking, his voice growing harder, more bitter as he carried on with his list. Harry had trouble not flinching away. "So many dead, so many lives torn to little bits. All for you."
The tone in which it was delivered, the finality of it, made something inside Harry crack.
"It's not like I wanted any of it to happen!" Harry snapped heatedly. "I didn't choose any of this!"
"You're pissing in the wind if you think that's going to get you any sympathy from this end," Chris told him coolly, effectively shutting him up. He hadn't wanted sympathy, had he?
"You wanted the truth; now you get to deal with it. We've had to, all our lives."
Harry took a deep, steadying breath. His head was still spinning, buzzing with thoughts, answers, and more questions than when this started.
"It was Gramps who helped them with the Fidelius Charms," Chris continued his tale after a few eternally long moments. "Connor's never had much patience for the story, but Grams told me once how it was back then, for them. Attacks every other day, wearing them down, the shaves getting narrower every time… I reckon that ought to excuse them for not seeing the obvious. They did know there was a spy, though. They just missed exactly who it was, didn't they." Harry turned his glass round in his hands, finding it easier to focus on it than on Chris.
"They'd planned for the worst, in a way. I figure they knew it could happen at any moment, so they prepared for it as best they could… Your dad was mum's Secret Keeper, and in the likely event our dad copped it, he'd be our guardian, just like Sirius was yours. But then they were betrayed… and everything was shot to shite."
That was a way of putting it.
"We were born that night Voldemort offed your parents," Chris said, in a thoughtful sort of tone. "I like to think that our dad would've stuck around if he'd known, y'know, that we were there. But as it was, he was more… occupied… gathering up what was left of your parents then, getting you out of the rubble, losing his marbles, that sort of thing."
"He was—" Harry began hotly, but Chris cut him off, with a dismissive wave of his hand. Harry's mouth snapped shut.
"You don't need to defend him with me," he said calmly, almost offhandedly. "Don't waste your breath. He made his choices, didn't he? They all did."
"He lost his head!"
"Yeah, that he did." Chris agreed quietly, but then shrugged it off again, carrying on with his story. "Mum lived right across the street from your family. That blast when you offed Voldemort… It happened just as Connor was being born. It nearly killed mum."
"Wha?" Of all the things… Harry couldn't but stare at the other boy, aghast.
"She did the same thing your mum did for you, she chose to die so Connor could live. Gramps had a hard time coming to terms with that. It did mess things up some more and all…"
Suddenly Connor's words earlier were clear as the water he was holding. 'You lived, you sorry little shite'. Harry swallowed. Undeterred, Chris carried on.
"Mum lived long enough to name us; James and Sirius. I reckon that's the only reason Gramps let us keep the names… Because she picked them. She was a bit of a sap, our mum." Oh. So he was James. Harry'd been wondering what his real name was.
"Grams told me that's when dad came running in, after that giant bloke took you away to the Muggles. Went completely round the bend when he saw mum, not that he'd been completely sane before, mind. And Gramps, well… I'm not sure what happened, really. Grams said he lost his head too, but I have my doubts… If there ever was one to know what to do, no matter what, it was him. Grams said Gramps told him we were all dead, and took us into hiding." Harry could only imagine what sort of blow that would have been for Sirius. "Made everyone forget we'd ever existed. Connor believes dad ditched us, though… that he knew we'd lived and chose to leave anyway."
"What do you believe?" Harry rasped out. He couldn't have spoken any louder if he'd tried, past that rock-hard lump lodged in his throat.
"I believe he did what he had to do," Chris answered, but Harry had the distinct sensation that he was trying to convince himself… And that it wasn't the first time he did that either.
Looking up, Harry saw that he too was focusing on something else rather than on him; he was looking at the tapestry, hands in his pockets, a certain hollow air about him that made him realise that relating the story was as hard for Chris as it was hard for him to hear.
"The way things worked out… It was one royal mess. He was in worse danger than ever, got all those crimes pinned on him in a blinking…" Chris raised his eyebrows, cocked his head to the other side. "I reckon being a Black didn't help him much there either," he said, looking the charred family tree over with a small, humourless smile. "Dark blood will out and all that rot. Everyone lapped Fudge's story right up."
"Yeah," Harry mumbled, swallowing.
"After he got chucked in Azkaban, Gramps tried to make a case for him, but there was no proof to back it up, they'd had done things so thoroughly it was impossible to prove he hadn't copped anyone; Gramps couldn't convince Dumbledore, even—Or rather, Dumbledore didn't want to be convinced." Harry looked at him sharply, what did that mean? "Much less Fudge—that fat bastard used the notorious Black capture to get the Ministry for himself. He wasn't going to let dad go so easily." Chris paused, then shrugged that off as well. "Everyone was ready to believe anything, no matter how stupid. Just like now."
Harry remained silent, shaking his head. He'd known Sirius lost everything after his parents died, had never thought it would have been so much more than what he'd believed it to be.
"Did you ever see him? After he escaped?" Chris shook his head, no.
"Gramps asked us if we wanted to… He helped him go to the Antilles or something, with that hippogriff of his. Connor didn't want to see him."
"I couldn't see what good it would do. Bloke never even knew about us, or else he had that memory block, so it was pretty much the same thing… He'd sworn himself to you, to fighting the war, so that pretty much wiped us from the picture."
"But you were his family," Harry argued. "If he'd known about you—"
"He'd probably have wanted to stick around, who knows." Chris finished for him, conceding the point fairly. "And who'd have looked after you then, eh? He had a duty to fulfill, one that was more important than either of us." One Harry botched up beyond recognition.
Again, Harry had no answer to that, but he didn't agree with what he was hearing. Sirius would have been wild to meet his kids, no matter the circumstance, the danger, or the cost. He'd earned that right, in spades. But this too, was denied him. Harry couldn't help wondering, if Sirius were alive now, what would the state of things be?
Nothing compared to what he was facing, he was sure.
"I'm not here to convince you of anything," Chris broke the silence, reading his mind as if he'd spoken aloud. "I'm just here to tell you how it is. You don't need to like it, it's still the truth."
He didn't like it, that much was certain.
"Look, what's done is done," Chris said after another moment, sighing. "The bloke did what he could under the circumstances, and so did everyone else. It's stupid to argue over what could have been, when it's long over and they're all dead. Instead of wondering why they did what they did, we ought to focus on what we'll do about things as they are now. Wishful thinking's wishful thinking, nothing more."
Maybe, but Harry couldn't help it anymore than he could help wanting to get one thing straight.
"He wasn't an idiot, though."
"I never even met him, how could I know?" Chris' tone was rather bland, the offhand tone back to the forefront. Harry got to his feet, moving to the window, head buzzing with more answers than he'd ever thought he'd get, hundreds of questions being generated the more he turned it over, threatening to make his brain explode. "Connor's got his reasons to be mad at him… and at you," Chris stated. "And I respect those. You ought to do the same."
"It's hard to respect what you can't understand," Harry replied, looking out the grimy panes and at the derelict old park outside, which was bathed in the same grey drizzle that had covered it all day and held no more advice than the rest of the world. The sun was setting, but oncoming nightfall, Harry believed, would bring no more clarity to him than daytime had so far.
"All you can do, then, is try to understand." Harry wasn't sure he would be able to. He wasn't certain of anything anymore, and yet, what he'd just heard… It was overwhelming, yes. But it made sense. The rug had been pulled cleanly from under his feet; he didn't know what to do about any of this, or what conclusions to get to.
"Do you get them too?" he asked. It wasn't as out of the blue as it might have seemed.
"No, I don't get them," Chris answered levelly, catching on at once. "I don't see through your eyes or spaz out, if that's what you mean."
"But you know. Deep inside, you always know what's happening." It wasn't a question, which was perhaps what surprised Harry the most; he had started wanting to make sure of a doubt, ended up making a statement.
"We're twins. Sort of comes with the package."
There was a certain something about a battle Tonks feared she'd never get used to; the buzz of excitement right before they apparated together, the momentary confusion as they reached their target site, the rush of adrenalin as they launched the attack—or in this case, the defence—against the Death Eaters, but the moment her boots touched ground, for a fleeting moment every time, she wondered what in the seven circles of hell she was doing, could not understand what prompted anyone to hurt anyone else, couldn't see the point in what they were doing, wished the war didn't pit brothers against each other. And during this one instant, this blink of an eye, she had this urge to just leave the entire world behind, hide in a cave, and forget about it all. And during this time, she just knew it was the right thing to do.
One blink of an eye.
The next instant, the thought was gone, once more replaced by the war-happiness that was a characteristic trait of her family; she liked to duel, and the momentary wavering gone, her head was as clear as ever, she suddenly knew again why she was doing what she was doing, why she'd chosen the life she had, and that, she did act upon.
"Potter was right—They're already here!" Moody's familiar bark was as comforting as his words were unsettling.
"We're not blind, Mad-Eye," George quipped from a foot or two away. Tonks snickered, even if the situation didn't warrant it; they were standing on the Longbottoms' lawn, and the damage was clearly visible even from here, the yelling, flashes of spells, noises of things breaking, all evidence enough of the goings-on inside.
"We're not deaf either," Fred added brightly from her other side, casting a blasting curse at the nearest window, where he could see two dark figures running around, to lob one of their newest products, the Sticky Bomb something or other, into the dining room. "Yell at them, not us."
"Yeah, now they all know we're here too," Tonks supplied brightly, grabbing on to the nearest person to keep from toppling over. "Sorry, Hestia, these roots—you'd think they'd learn to stay out of the way."
"It'll rock the room in three...two... one."
George's warning did not go ignored. As one, every Order member sought a way to apparate or blast their way inside, avoiding the dining room as well as they could. The Twins' Sticky Bomb did not only make a prodigious amount of noise-- having left them both deaf for a few days upon testing-- but it also glued any wizard within range to the ceiling, with little hope to be gotten down before an hour's time... when it stopped gluing newcomers to the said ceiling.
With their knickers attached to their faces.
Tonks had been to the Longbottom house several times, which allowed her to apparate into the front room without much trouble, even as the entire house shook from the blast. Startled screams reached her ears, mingled with shouted spells and the blinding flashes of multicoloured light they emitted as they were cast. None of that bothered her overmuch; she was too accustomed to it to be disoriented. The debris littering the ground was far more of a challenge to her, not to mention, she barely manged to dodge what was flying at her.
Neville was soaring across the once prim and tidy room with a scream, crashing into a settee and upturning it, while two masked Death Eaters followed suit, one of them fairly dragging one leg.
"That'll teach you to hex me, you worthless lump," Dolohov snapped, blasting the settee aside while clutching his leg, as the other rounded in on Tonks, who yelled out a Hurling Hex and leapt aside, even as a green flash of light illuminated the room and hit the far wall, and the as yet unnamed Death Eater hit a bookcase, which fell over him.
"Die, blood traitor," Dolohov said, pointing his wand at Neville, who was trying to get to his feet, heaving for a breath. "Avada Kedavra!"
"No!" Green light filled the room a second time, much too close—
And blasted a hole right through the floor.
Tonks took quick aim, sending a Hammer Hex at Dolohov, who toppled over with a yell, which was cut off abruptly as Reductor Curse whizzed past her, hitting him full in the chest.
She'd never seen Neville so angry.
"Wotcher, Neville," she said, helping the dishevelled lad up. "Good aim. Alright?"
"They're cornering Gran upstairs," Neville answered with a shaky nod, already leading the way to the doors. "Good thing you arrived—who else is here?"
"Everyone," Tonks answered, hurrying out after him.
"Let's get them, then."
This was easier said than done: Everywhere around them, there was debris blocking the way; bookcases blasted apart, bits of wall and ceiling raining on them as they tried to climb the stairs. George—or Fred, there was no telling who—was pointing his wand and laughing at a Death Eater hovering in midair by his ankle, who was furiously fighting his robes, which were flapping around on his head, exposing some sort of dark green underpants that were… rather less than flattering.
And then Neville went crashing to the floor with a startled cry.
"Where do you think you're going?" One of the Lestrange brothers had, somehow, managed to appear right behind them, and whipping around, Tonks saw it was Rabastan towering over them, his brother approaching from behind. "Longbottom is ours."
Tonks delivered her answer in the form of a Stunner, and soon spells were flying back and forth. She spun a circle around Neville, who was struggling against invisible bonds, cursing in frustration. Rodolphus added himself to the mix, and in between deflecting curses aimed at Neville and herself, and retaliating as best as she could, Tonks had no chance of freeing the boy.
Help came in the form of the upside-down Death Eater-gone-projectile, who was thrown against Rabastan, flattening him.
"Just like tenpin bowling," Fred—or George—chortled, but Rodolphus was quick to react—a spell missed him by a mere inch, and the wall behind him cracked.
Then it exploded.
"Look out—" Tonks cried out, throwing up a hasty shield to protect herself and Neville from the wreckage, but it was already coming crashing down in a cloud of dust. "George!" She couldn't see anything, and there was no time to lose. She cast a Reductor Curse at Lestrange, missed, took the small opening to see if George had been hit— "George!" she yelled again, stunning the other Lestrange as he tried to get up.
"It's—Fred," a familiar voice corrected to her immense relief, and he emerged from the settling dust the next moment, covered in the stuff from head to toe. His wand was aimed straight at her, and a quick glance told her Lestrange was approaching from behind. "That could've squashed me flat," Fred said. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you're trying to kill me—Reducto!" Tonks threw herself onto the floor atop Neville, and a cry of pain told her Fred had managed to hit Lestrange—and that Neville wasn't taking too kindly to being squished.
"Sorry," she said, peeling herself off Neville and freeing him with a muttered, "Finite." There was no time for further conversation, though; Fred was fighting Lestrange, soon joined by George, who was coming from outside, sporting a cut on the side of his head.
"Come on," Tonks told Neville, giving him a hand up and kicking a stirring Rabastan in the face. "We need to get you out of here."
"We need to get Gran," Neville wheezed, Tonks rolled her eyes.
"In case you haven't noticed, it's you they're after," she said, dragging him back down as a spell whizzed past, entirely too close for comfort. Hestia bolted past them, chasing yet another Death Eater into the kitchen, where an almighty clatter momentarily drowned out all sound. "We'll get her; right now we need to get you somewhere safe—"
"I'm not going anywhere without her!" Neville shot back, tearing himself away from her and heading for the stairs again.
Tonks cursed under her breath, following.
"Up here," Neville said harshly, even as Fred and George lobbed Lestrange into the dining room with a cackle.
Cries and shouted spells rent the air, which was buzzing thick with magic. The walls shook from the spells hitting them, and looking up, Tonks had a glimpse of a crystal chandelier shaking ominously right over their heads. Soon her attention was snapped back to her immediate vicinity, however—someone fell from the upstairs storey, rolling down the stairs upon landing—all she could see was that it was a Death Eater—and they barely managed to avoid being hit and dragged down. Neville gave him a sound kick in passing, grabbing Tonks' arm and pulling her along.
"C'mon," he urged, reaching the top of the stairs and thrusting his arm forward at once. "Stupefy! Everbero! Gran, where are you?"
As if in response, a keening wail was heard, loud and piercing and chilling to the bone.
There was no need to see it to know what was happening: Augusta Longbottom had just been hit with the Cruciatus. Paling, Neville sped up, following the sound to its source, ignoring everything around him. Tonks could barely keep up, and keep him from getting hit by spells left and right.
"Wait, dammit. Neville!" But it met with deaf ears, and any amount of swearing she did helped not a jot to make him listen.
The upper levels were in much the same state as the rest of the house. Tonks narrowly managed to shove Neville aside as a door was blasted clean off its hinges, followed by Bill, who, upon hitting the ground, raffled himself up and retaliated with a Bone Crushing Hex, before he hurled back into the room. Moody was barking something unintelligible at a Death Eater she recognised as Rookwood, as they traded spells with incredible speed—
They'd reached the end of a corridor, which opened into a solarium, which was now missing a few panes. Tonks skidded to a halt and made Neville stop before he lunged headlong into the room
"Watch it!" It was not one second too soon; a Killing Curse shot past, flaring green and smashing an entire side of the tainted glass windows in.
"LEAVE HER ALONE!" Neville bellowed furiously, wand raised and aimed at the two Death Eaters cornering the frail-looking witch, who had backed away and was presently against the wall.
"Or else what?" A lazy voice asked, and one of the Death Eaters turned around. Neville froze, wide-eyed, chest heaving without breathing.
It was Bellatrix.
"You'll wet your nappy?" She cackled, turning her wand on him now.
"The boy is to be brought in alive," the other wizard said, without turning around, but Bellatrix ignored his warning tone and advanced in on Neville, who stood, wand still raised and battered, a few steps into the room.
"Oh, but I've missed you, little chub." The tone was chillingly affectionate. "Can you scream louder than she does? Let's find out—Crucio!"
The scream that followed was deafening.
Hogwarts was very quiet during the holidays as a common rule, bathed in a sort of slumbering state during the months between term and term. The repairs having to be made this year were few, and most of the faculty had taken advantage of the holidays to go on a well-earned vacation themselves. Even the school poltergeist had taken some time off; as the summer wore on, the level of noise and sound in the ancient wizarding school was reduced to the quiet scuttling of the House Elves going about their tasks, or Hagrid's work with some of the more dangerous magical creatures under his care out in the grounds.
Today was no different, and the sleepy quiet still pervaded the entire castle and grounds—save for one chamber.
Albus Dumbledore's office was alive with dozens of voices, all arguing at the same time. And yet, had anyone stepped into the room, all they would have been able to see would have been the old headmaster, pacing the office by himself, his pet phoenix for sole company and surrounded by a few score portraits, whose occupants were dozing in their frames.
These were neither quiet nor slumbering at the moment, however, busy pitted against each other in a debate that was more than just two-sided, and which was showing no signs of being over yet.
"My dear friends, please," Dumbledore said placatingly, for perhaps the third time. It went unheard by most, but his time was running out, and they were not helping him think, as he'd hoped.
"I do need to find the answer to several matters, not just this one," he reminded them. "And I would like to reach a conclusion before news comes from the Longbottoms."
"But the Potter boy. Surely this scrap of parchment can wait until you have found a solution for his situation—" Dilys Derwent said sternly. She had never been one for Divination. Neither had Albus, not until he was given the Prophecy of the Chosen One… and now the one he had spread out on top of his desk. "If he does not have a Guardian before he turns sixteen, the Trace shall fall off him, he'll come of age early, and that could be disastrous."
"He's old enough to be unbound, isn't he?" Everard muttered. "In my time, you came of age at fifteen."
"Yes, but he's got the blood magic protecting him until he's of age—"
"If he doesn't have a guardian in two days, he'll lose the blood protection."
"Maybe that's how it has to be, ever thought of that?"
"Fabio, you know he's a mediocre wizard at best; he needs all the protection he can get, for as long as he can get it."
"I shall address the matter with him as soon as possible," Dumbledore said, loud enough to make himself heard over the babble.
"Who shall you appoint?"
"Shouldn't the boy be asked whom he would wish to have as a Guardian?"
"After that good-for-nothing great-great-grandson of mine?" Phineas scoffed. "A baboon on a laxative potion could do a better job."
"Enough," Dumbledore said sternly. "I know it's hard for you to accept, Phineas, but Sirius did do a good job of it. As well as he could under the circumstances, and despite our intervention."
"Yes, get over it," Citronella said primly. "He was a good boy, and ever so handsome…"
"And a cock-up," Phineas maintained.
"I was thinking of appointing…" Dumbledore tried once more.
"Minerva," Dilys supplied at once. "She'd be capital at the job, and she offered once to take care of him."
"I was thinking more along the lines of…"
"Not the werewolf," Everard said. "Think of the political consequences—"
"The Black kid was an escaped convict, yet he didn't lose his rights as a guardian," Fortescue interrupted. "The werewolf isn't too bad an idea… Except for the bit where he's—"
"A werewolf, perhaps?" Phineas suggested shrewdly.
"Afraid of the commitment," Fortescue finished dryly.
"Not to mention, a werewolf," Phineas supplied, in a smug, irritating tone that brooked no arguments.
"What about Molly Weasley? She's as good as raised the boy."
"Molly is having a hard time coping," Dumbledore said delicately. "She did not approve of her younger children running off with Harry last term, and she is having her doubts as to so much as allowing them
around him. Arthur is willing to take him in, as are her older sons, but she is reluctant to take on such a momentous task."
Dilys merely rolled her eyes, but once more, the portraits felt the need to share their thoughts.
"She has to think of her family," said Armando Dippet. "You cannot blame her, all her brothers died in the first war, and she has seven children who are being targeted for direct connection with the Potter boy."
"They did all survive the battle at the Department of Mysteries, though," Citronella supplied.
"And they might not do so the next time," Everard pointed out.
"I fear Harry's credibility has suffered greatly amongst the Order," Dumbledore said. "His visions of Voldemort have always unsettled them; and he was manipulated into going to the Department of Mysteries, which, as we well know, was a disaster. They believe he cannot be trusted, though his intentions are good—there is no way of telling whether what he is seeing is the truth or not, not without a substantial risk to anyone involved."
"Well, what did they expect?" Phineas asked. "The boy is a hothead, and Voldemort knows that as well as everyone. It makes him fallible, and predictable."
"Who did you want to be his guardian, then?" Dilys prompted, tapping her frame warningly with her wand. Phineas lost the smug expression, eyeing her warily.
"I was thinking of asking Alastor," Dumbledore answered. "But he has recently taken in two wards, whose guardianship he was also recently given."
"Oh yes, the McAlpin boys, isn't it?"
He nodded heavily.
"Perhaps Minerva will take the job. I would rather Molly did it, but I cannot force her into taking him in. I shall conference with them tonight."
"As long as it's not the werewolf," Phineas drawled lazily.
"There is another matter of importance I wished to address," Dumbledore told them, stopping his pacing up and down his office, and gesturing to his desk.
"The colour of your new purse?" asked Dilys, feigning innocence and gesturing at the feathered, hot pink and purple item sitting atop the desk. "Pink has never suited you, no matter how much you like it or how fluffy it is, lad." Dumbledore smiled mildly.
"I happen to be fond of it," he told her. "But I meant the letter I received from Angus McAlpin, the day after he died. It contains several pieces of information I am having trouble putting together. I was hoping you could aid me to do so."
"What all are we talking about, then?" Phineas asked, showing a glint of curiosity that was very rarely seen. The other former Hogwarts Heads also leaned forward, likewise intrigued, now the issues they had deemed more important were settled. They always loved new challenges to their minds, new developments. It probably took care of the monotony of being, well, a portrait. Dumbledore suspected it was because of this that they had left this matter for last.
"The main piece of this puzzle is a prophecy," he informed the portraits. "Angus told me very little about it, just that it was a complement to the one I already have. I cannot understand what it means…"
"As is the case with just about every prophecy made."
"You'd think the Seers would try being less cryptic. Why can't they just tell it as it is? Or will be?"
"It's their sport, I wager."
"What is the fun in trying to crack the riddles otherwise?"
"Does Voldemort know of this one?" Phineas asked.
Albus shook his head.
"Let us hear it then." Dumbledore nodded, striding to his chair and sitting down.
"When the Second Darkness befalls us, when the Dark One walks again; when fear and darkness reign and the soul-less roam the land, then shall the Didymoi come forth, set into motion the Time of the Turning."
"Sounds like what's happening now, doesn't it?" Citronella pointed out, tapping her nose with her birch rod wand.
"Time of the Turning, eh?" Phineas scoffed, shaking his head. "They get fancier every time."
"Don't you mean more ridiculous?" Everard wondered, smirking.
"Hush now, he's not done yet." Dilys snapped, moving out of her frame and into Armando Dippet's, who had to scoot aside to make room for her.
"For someone not interested in Divination, you're certainly keen," Armando said, squeezing his chair out of the way so he too, could hear the rest.
"It's not that I am interested in it," Dilys said primly, "it's that he'll act upon it. Again." She gestured at Dumbledore impatiently. "Go on now, boy, I want to hear the rest."
"If you'd pack it in for a minute, you'd let him finish."
Dumbledore couldn't bring himself to smile at the exchange. Instead, he cleared his throat again, popped a sherbert lemon in his mouth, and carried on reading.
"Of kin, yet not of kin; Princes, sons of Princes sons of Kings. Old pacts hold fast, unbroken by death or strife. As the Fathers, two as one; by choice and blood bonded, conjoined in heart, mind, soul. Fates entwined, two yet one: one hope for the Light—or the Dark.
Feared by the Dark One the Didymoi are, yet by him made, unwittingly—his undoing and his victory he created. Blindly he shall wish, fear, crave for this power, for he shall know it upon sight. Should he manage all is lost; for a thousand years and one, Light no more shall bless the land.
Three wills as one, as two. Three, at war. One, champion for the Dark, self-appointed. One, chosen champion of the Light; marked by Darkness, yet untainted, holds a power unknown. One, the twice-born, kept in secret, holds the key. Choices weigh hard, appearances deceive. Dark and Light crash, collide. Duality unmade, victory of Light or Dark lies in their hands… For a thousand years and one."
There was a long, thoughtful silence in the office after Dumbledore had finished reading the Didymos Prophecy for a third time. Even Fawkes was watching the wizened wizard intently, as if he too, were waiting for a verdict on the text.
It was Fortescue who broke the silence.
"Well, son," he stated, folding his hands over his rather prominent belly with a chuckle. "That certainly made no sense at all."
It would be a long evening.
"They're talking about sacking Fudge," Chris commented aloud, turning a page on the Prophet. Lying on the other bed, Connor merely scoffed, not bothering to so much as look at his brother.
Night had fallen, and a storm was lashing London, rattling the shutters and drumming a rhythmical tattoo against the windows. There was, as yet, no news from the Order or the Longbottoms, and the few inhabitants left at Grimmauld Place had drifted apart after a silent, tense dinner, as though by an unspoken agreement; there was little else to do but wait, and none wanted the others' company.
"Says here people are rioting," Chris went on, seemingly unbothered by the fact he was getting largely ignored, much as he had been all evening. "Looks like they're starting to believe Fudge fudged it up. They're on about the disappearances, too. Another three kids have gone missing…"
"Four," Connor corrected, and even this one word came out grudgingly. He had been sulking ever since he unlocked Harry, and this was perhaps the first word he'd spoken since; grunts didn't qualify as a valid form of conversation, after all, for all they told volumes. Chris raised an eyebrow; he'd expected to get the silent treatment at least until the next day.
"You'd think they'd at least get it right," he quipped, but there was nothing light-hearted in the way he was looking his brother over. He was facing the wall though, away from him, so there was little he could infer by observation alone. "When was the last?"
"This morning." It was a disturbing thing to hear. Chris lowered the paper, biting his lip. Connor had stopped telling him what he saw months ago, but he had every reason to believe it was because what he was seeing had reached a whole new level.
"Do you know what they want them for?"
"No. But I bet it's not a casting for a play."
The silence was restored; Chris reluctantly turned to the paper again, but he couldn't focus on what he was reading, busy instead turning matters over in his head. Everything was a mess, as far from good as it could possibly get, but it wasn't like Connor to be this bitter. If he traced it back, he could almost pinpoint when it had started—the day the fire broke out in stable seven—when things had begun to go from bad to worse. But they'd been in trouble before, and though it had never been this bad, it had never threatened to make them drift apart.
They'd never kept secrets from each other before.
What had Gramps told him? The question surfaced again, as it had so often in the past few days. Sure, Connor had told him some things, but not nearly everything, and Chris didn't need to be his twin to know something was deeply wrong; and he wanted to find an answer to that question before things got so much worse.
Perhaps it was that he was tired, he mused, skimming the paper without taking in a single word he was reading. He felt much the same after all, the constant aches from half-healed wounds could do that to one. And he knew Connor wasn't sleeping, just as Harry wasn't sleeping either. He wondered, for maybe the first time that day, if it had been the right thing to do, unlocking the Potter kid. Would the spaz fits lessen, as he hoped, or would they become worse, as he was starting to fear?
And… Would Connor have unlocked him anyway, even knowing it would make things worse?
"There's this article here," he said, propping himself up on one arm, "says there's reasons to believe one Sirius Black was really innocent of the crimes he is charged with."
"Bully for him," Connor muttered. Chris fell silent, lowering the paper.
"I know you hate the bloke," he said. "But even you can't deny it's good news."
"Yeah, fat lot of good it does," Connor countered, sitting up and looking at Chris in exasperation. "The bloke's dead, what does it matter if people think him innocent now?"
"I don't know. It's just nice to know his name will be cleared, I s'pose."
"If you say so," Connor conceded, bunching up his pillow before burying his face in it. "Whoop-de-bloody-do. Go tell Potter of it, I bet he'll be so delighted he'll wet himself."
"Yeah, right," Chris answered with a small chuckle, shaking his head. "He'll probably have a breakdown or something."
"Sore topic and all," Connor concurred at a murmur, but he didn't elaborate.
He never did anymore.
"Don't you think we should give him a hand?" Chris asked after a moment's silence.
"You reckon?" Connor gave him a dismissive wave, running his good hand through his hair. "All he does is mope, for crying out loud. Give him a hanky, why don't you, as you're so keen on helping."
"He's as lost as we are," Chris insisted. "He doesn't know half of what he should—He doesn't know what to do, at all. He's been kept in the dark—"
"He hasn't done much to figure it out either," Connor said harshly.
"But not even the Order believe him--"
"I wouldn't either," Connor said. "If listening to him were sure to lead to me copping it."
"What do you mean?"
"The Supreme Sodhead," Connor said. "He plants stuff in his head. And he's rubbish telling truth from lies. He just… acts out of reflex. You can't trust someone like that." He stood up, and for a moment Chris thought he'd stomp out of the room. Instead, he just went to the trunk Mad-Eye had brought, rummaged in it for a moment, then extracted a very battered tome of Muggle anatomy and returned to his bed, to read.
"Connor?" Chris ventured a while later, putting down the paper, where he'd been doodling on a picture of Fudge. The podgy Minister for Magic now sported horns, a black eye, was lacking several teeth, and had a moving caption on his forehead announcing he was a dolt.
"Hmm?" Connor had been doing some doodling of his own, in between examining notes stuck in between the pages of the book.
"What will happen now?"
"What will happen now," Chris repeated levelly, "now you've unlocked Potter?"
"I don't know." Connor shrugged one shoulder
"I… don't know what's going to happen?" Connor repeated, wrestling his arm out of the sling and leaning against the headboard.
"You don't have so much as a clue?" Chris couldn't believe what he was hearing.
Connor closed the book, setting it aside.
"Why'd you do it, then?"
"Well, like you said, it's only fair."
"Yeah, but... didn't you feel any change? Anything different?"
Connor shrugged again, then shook his head.
"I reckon you were right," he said after a moment. "Everything happens for a reason, doesn't it? And… Maybe that link thing is supposed to be working for a reason. So I took the block down, to, dunno. See what happens."
"And are you feeling alright?"
"Yeah, I don't feel any different."
"He did, for sure." Chris had been meaning to tell him for hours. "He was properly shocked and things, twitching and writhing… What all did he see?"
"Everything he'd forgotten," Connor replied quietly, eyes fixed on the wall opposite. "Everything he'd missed." Chris let out a low whistle. He must've missed a lot, then.
"You reckon he'll pop?"
"It's not like I'd ever done it before, is it? Guess we'll just have to wait and see what happens."
Chris turned to the crossword, frowning at it. Wait and see, then, was the plan.
Could he be blamed if he didn't like it at all?
"Padfoot, mate…" James prompted for perhaps the tenth time in as many minutes.
"Shh, I can hardly hear what they're saying over your yammer."
"Trot your furry arse closer, then."
"I like it from here." Sirius was leaning against the wall of Reg's old room, from where he was watching his boys, his new favourite pastime. With endless freedom and time on his hands at last, James hadn't thought he'd take to watching the living right away, but that's pretty much all he did. Most of the time, anyway, when he wasn't being dragged into doing something else by his best mate and assorted partners in crime.
Being dead, after all, was much more than just clinging to the living—something James could not, perhaps, claim to have learned; he'd spent most of his time around the living too, after all. However, now he and Sirius were together again, the greater part of his wait was over. He could focus on everything else there was to do, concentrate on showing Sirius all there was for him in the world of the dead, and make up for years of suffering as best as he could.
Not that he was alone in his endeavours. His parents, Alphard, Nina, the Prewetts, McKinnons, most of their friends who'd not survived the war either, and most surprisingly, Regulus—everyone had welcomed Sirius with open arms, when he'd finally made it through to them.
It was a good thing, he mused as he paced up and down the room while waiting for Sirius to have ogled his fill, that the Lands of the Dead were not bound to the limits of time. If they were, they wouldn't have the chance to do half of the stuff they got up to lately.
Because Sirius liked it down here, or so he claimed.
Liar, liar, pants on fire.
"You're not missing much," James informed after a moment, looking over Chris' shoulder. No matter how much they were called by other names, to him they were best known as Padfoot's Puppies. "Just more bitching over you…Oh look, he's improved Fudge."
Sirius came closer, snorting appreciatively at the paper on his eldest's lap, where an apoplectic and much deformed Fudge was shaking his fist at him.
"He's good," he commented proudly. "Wonder if he does portraits too."
"He does cartoons as well. Pretty decent, for a pup."
"Atta boy," Sirius said, returning to his post by the wall.
"We've been here for hours," James complained, crossing his arms and leaning against the doorframe. "I'm bored."
A bouncy ball was lobbed in his direction by way of an answer.
"I'm making up for lost time," Sirius told him, his eyes never leaving the two bite-sized copies of him, who were presently discussing Harry, and the consequences of what they'd done earlier. "You've had years to do your staring, bear with me."
"I did your staring for you, you ungrateful ponce," James muttered, perching on the backrest of a chair between the beds and lobbing the ball hard against the floor, watching it ricochet off the walls, the furniture, the boys... "For years, too. I deserve some entertainment."
In the past, this had sufficed for Sirius to pull some mad stunt out of his sleeve, and usually the most excellent of entertainments had followed…
"Prongs, a little quiet here?" Sirius prompted, looking nowhere near close to so much as pulling a kerchief from his sleeve, gesturing at the kids on the beds instead.
Well, then. Some things did change, apparently.
"It's not like they can hear it," James argued, gesturing at them as well. "Or… feel that ball bouncing off their heads, even. I hope."
"Yeah… They wouldn't know what hit them," James agreed with a boyish snigger.
"Didn't know they had our old notes," Sirius said, sticking his head through the old trunk sitting at the foot of one of the beds. "Oy. This thing's full of interesting stuff."
"Angus got them out of the cottage after we copped it," James supplied, sticking his head through the trunk as well. "And your puppies found some of them years ago. Dunno how Angus got the important stuff to get into the trunk, though. It was all at his place, last I checked." Not that Sirius was paying much attention to this information. He was proudly surveying his offspring once more.
You'd think he'd have gotten over it by now.
"How long have they been studying for it?"
"Three years, give or take. They were making fair progress as of a couple of months ago," James informed. "Whatever it is they'll turn into, I reckon they're the same big, furry sort of creature." Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Sirius swell up with pride even more, if that was possible. The bastard didn't even bother to hide it, and he reckoned it was alright that way. He deserved to have something to be happy over, and James couldn't deny he was proud of the pups as well. Too bad Harry hadn't inherited that sort of interest in all things magical-- though he reckoned that having Voldemort on his case like he did sort of killed the will to rub his nose against the books, and learn to do things wicked beyond belief. Still-- the kid would have stood a better chance if he'd applied himself properly sooner. He'd been getting good lately, though, not to mention, his improvisations were getting better each time. "They've sort of let it go of late, though."
"Well, they have been running for their lives," Sirius pointed out reasonably. "Giving every Muncher in creation the slip, and all that..." He trailed off, back to pursuing his favourite hobby these days, and James heaved a long-suffering sigh, which went largely ignored.
In truth though, he didn't want to leave. Seeing Sirius watching over his kids all besotted like, more than made up for the boring wait… And if he was honest with himself, he didn't really mind waiting, either. He'd done the exact same thing, after all, for years; he'd watched over them all, as they grew older, got in and out of trouble… More often than not in trouble than anything else, truth be told. He'd been there every step of the way, wishing Sirius could be there to witness what he was seeing, that he too, could watch their kids grow, like he was having the chance to. While the arrangement struck him as deeply unfair still, and he was limited to being an observer—often of deep injustice—he couldn't deny this smallest of blessings was one he cherished above all others.
And if he was even more honest, he'd not exactly wished Sirius could be with them, but to have him by his side.
Now he finally was here though, James found himself impatient for… something. It had been a while since he'd last felt this restless over matters linked to the living, and it was strange enough to give it more than passing notice; Sirius' arrival had changed all of that as well.
Now, looking back, it was to James as if all the years between his own death and Sirius' had merely been… Not a waste, perhaps, but certainly a period of inertia, in many aspects he had not even taken into account, but which, now they were together again, were changing, different. Evolving.
His lunatic brother had, quite without effort, upturned the proverbial applecart—and every other cart within radius as well—and brought to light matters they had hardly ever discussed anymore, questioning and challenging every rule to death, just as he had done in life.
To him, being dead was a poor excuse to stop doing what they had vowed to do in life; as he had put it once, it wasn't over, not by a long shot. Those kids were still their kids, and he'd be damned if they left them stranded just because they lacked a living breath, particularly now, when they needed them more than ever. Every argument was shot down, every protest was analysed, discussed, then shot down… And now, a mere eight weeks (as per standards of the living) after his arrival in the Underworld, they had something they'd lacked for over fourteen years: A plan.
An utterly impossible plan, which involved great deals of danger—not to their lives this time, but their souls—and which contained equal parts of madness and genius. James loved it.
Oh, but he'd missed Sirius.
What had once been hindrances to James, obstacles insurmountable due to the fact he was, well, dead, Sirius managed to twist into an opportunity, of all things. Being dead didn't stop him thinking, wishing, fighting, protesting against what they all knew were humongous mistakes, mistakes that could not merely cost their boys and remaining friends their lives—but which were causing them suffering, and that was one thing Sirius was not going to allow to continue, one thing he was more intimately familiar with than most, one thing even James knew was worse than death.
Because being dead was alright, really.
When had he stopped fighting it, James wondered. When had he stopped trying to make things change, and taken to waiting, become a silent observer of matters that were out of his hands? When had he, rebel extraordinaire, decided to allow these oh-so-weighty matters to become out-of-bounds for him? When had he taken the most readily offered, logical excuse to stop being a parent beyond boundless love and well-wishes?
James shook his head a slight, to snap out of this train of thought. It was something he would get the answer to eventually, and if there was one thing he had learned in the past decade and more, it was to wait.
Which he realised, Sirius never would. He only did it when strictly necessary.
Such as now, when he was simply… there. Watching, waiting, turning every new piece of information over in his head until he'd cracked the riddle, fit it in with his desired outcome, and made it work.
And he would, James was sure of it, once they all managed to crack this particular riddle. It was hard to be sceptical anywhere in Sirius' vicinity, after all; as much as his every emotion had spread to everyone around while he lived, now his determination had become a source of contagion amongst those who still cared a whit for the matters of the living world. Sirius' death, while a harbinger of despair amongst a fair number of the living, had turned out to be the opposite amongst the deceased. Voldemort had destroyed many lives, and there were many who were intent on seeing him fall, hanging onto every action of the famed Chosen One as much as the living did.
Or, as Sirius fondly called him, Bambi Jr.
His son. A boy who hadn't the faintest idea of how to go on surviving, never mind bringing justice to all the wronged, whose numbers were increasing exponentially.
James sighed again, burying his hands in his pockets as deep as they would go. He'd maybe hoped that the watches would be more fun with Sirius around; but he'd been at it for weeks already, and rarely even spoke. He just… stared. Thought, stared, watched. Lather, rinse, repeat. Maybe cracked a smile here, or gave them a bemused look there… and sometimes he'd comment on matters, argue with the living who could neither see nor hear him, swear at them when they were getting everything wrong. Just like James himself had done, for years.
As it were, he was more talkative tonight than other times. James suspected it was because there was a whole hell of a lot going on; they'd just left a mighty battle where the Longbottom kid had gotten himself in a boatload of trouble, Remus had nearly copped it…twice—"He's losing his touch," Sirius had commented lightly—and the Weasley Twins had popped out some wicked bits of magic—"Those two are getting better and better," Sirius had said proudly—They'd cheered their former mates on, and placed bets on who'd do what next, and it had been... Refreshing.
Just like in the old days.
It had been fun, and they were both some hundreds of Galleons richer for it.
They'd jumped back and forth between Sirius' childhood home and the Longbottom house, where Connor had given Harry a lesson in brawling and an earful – "Harry needs to brush up on those skills, Prongs. It's pitiably pathetic."—But that had been pretty much the last thing he'd heard from his mouth.
Not that he could blame him; Harry had never once talked about him or Lily the way Connor did about his own father. Sirius took it surprisingly well, at least outwardly. James tried to get him to leave, but he'd wanted to stay. Said the pup had every right to be mad at what he couldn't understand; that he wouldn't have been much happier about it if it had happened to him.
He'd watched, bemused, as Chris filled Harry in with parts of the real story, falling deeper and deeper into thought as time wore on; everything they covered hit close to home, after all, and they had, as yet, no way of communicating with any of the kids to set their perceptions right, other than following them and listening in to their conversations. It was clear to James that Sirius had a few things to say about all of it, in particular about how they discussed Harry. But that was Sirius for you, withholding any sort of judgment until he had gotten his facts straight; he'd been misjudged and on the receiving end of prejudice for too long to make the same mistake, after all.
"Do you think they'll ever understand?" James wondered aloud, as the boys fell silent again, and resumed their reading… Or whatever it was they were doing, he'd stopped watching them for a while now.
"I don't know, Prongs. I never got around to do much of any sort of parenting, did I?" There was a definite note of regret in Sirius' voice. "You've watched them all their lives, though. You know them better. You tell me."
"Pfft, as if I'd gotten to do much more parenting than you."
"Hello, boys," a deep voice interrupted from behind them, and James turned around to see Angus standing there, half in through the wall. He silently thanked him for sparing him from having to answer Sirius' question.
"You're late," Sirius commented, without taking his eyes off Chris, who was doing the crossword, Sirius' favourite bit of the paper. On the other bed, Connor was brooding, looking exactly like Sirius used to when he was a kid.
Funny, how that works out. James sincerely hoped his own brooding expression didn't resemble Harry's—it was loads less than flattering.
"Aren't we all?" Angus replied dryly, making the other two snort. The shorter wizard pulled out his pipe, lighting it and leaning against the wall next to Sirius.
"Harry's having trouble sleeping," he informed. "I popped in for a bit." James nodded.
"He usually does lately," he answered. "I'm thinking he didn't take too well to the story he heard earlier."
"No, he didn't," Angus confirmed. All three fell silent, watching the boys once more.
"We were wondering if they'd ever understand," James said, breaking the silence. "All of this. Do you think they will?"
"I'm supposed to tell you that, you cheeky blighters?"
"Either that, or you share the gillyweed with your old mates and in-laws."
"It's not gillyweed, Sirius."
"Sadly," Sirius raised his eyes to the ceiling. "The lands of the dead are sorely lacking in that regard."
"You're the one with most experience raising kids, Angus," James prompted again, impervious to Sirius' feeble attempts at a change of topic.
"I wouldn't exactly call any of them kids anymore," Angus said, sobering up. "But... Yes, I do believe they could understand."
"Eventually?" Sirius sounded hopeful, despite trying not to. He'd never really been able to fool James, though, and the implications were obvious.
"Eventually," Angus confirmed. "With some luck."
"Good, because I don't need my name dragged through the mud even more than it's already been, at least not by them." Which was nothing but the truth. James didn't reckon that would change anytime soon, though. People believed Sirius was guilty of scores of crimes, and they clung to their villains as much as they did their heroes, if not more. No matter what the paper said today, it would be hard to change most people's minds.
"I ought to have told you when you came to me," Angus was saying to Sirius, drawing James' attention back to the present. "But they didn't want to see you."
"Can't blame them. I wouldn't have wanted to see me either."
"But you should have gotten the chance. We could have explained things to them, they'd have understood, and--"
"They'd have been in more danger," Sirius finished for him. "You did the right thing," he added evenly. "I did agree to it. All of it. It was the only way."
"You shouldn't have," Angus countered, shaking his head. "And I shouldn't have asked that of you."
"Perhaps not," Sirius conceded, clapping the older wizard on the back encouragingly. James wondered briefly how he managed to make light of such things. "But there's a great many things we did wrong, and what's done is done and all that rot. You do realise we have a lot of explaining to do, though."
"That I do. To all three of them."
A wince broke the quiet exchange, drawing all eyes to the source; it was followed by sudden movement, as Chris fairly flew to Connor's side.
"Are you alright? Connor, Connor, can you hear me?" He snapped his fingers before the other's eyes, which were fixed on a spot straight ahead, unfocused. Connor's body went rigid, arching off the bed a slight. As one, James and Sirius cringed. "Dammit, not again!"
James could sympathise with the boy's frustration. He'd had to witness the same sort of thing for long enough to know what was coming, but getting used to it was another matter altogether. He ought to go check on Harry…
There was a dull thud outside, and Angus poked his head out of the wall.
"Your kid just nearly toppled off the stairs," he informed, and James hurried to Harry's side, who was on the third floor landing, clutching the banister for all he was worth.
It didn't last long, thankfully, though to James it felt eternal. It always did.
He stayed with Harry until he raffled himself up, resuming his rather unsteady walk to the kitchens.
"Is it like this every time?" Sirius asked Angus, as James stepped into the room again. The pup had also stopped pitching a spaz; he was being made to drink some water, but it also looked like it would come right back out before long.
"Any chances of that stopping?"
"Not that I know of. Perhaps with proper management it could be more bearable, but I doubt things will get better anytime soon."
"Did you ever get used to it? Those, er…" He gestured vaguely at Connor. "… spaz attack… things?"
"Never, Padfoot. Every time it's like the first."
"So it isn't just me, then. Good." Sirius let out a slow breath. For all he was trying for nonchalance, it was getting to him. It got to them all, and tough James was the one with most experience watching the living—"Professional voyeurism," Sirius had said it was—he was feeling much the same as the other two: impotent to help, and worried about what else was in store for the kids.
A silence fell amongst them, pensive and tense. There was no need to ask; all three wizards were wondering the same thing—what would have been different, were they still alive, with the boys.
"You'd have made a great father, Padfoot."
"You'd have made a wicked father too, Prongs," Sirius answered after a moment, cracking a grin right after. He did that a lot lately as well. "Particularly taking them out on stag nights."
"And you'd have been unbeatable teaching them to hound the girls."
"Before you two start kissing each other's arses again," Angus interrupted, clearing his throat, "We should try Harry." He gave his grandkids a parting look, leading the way out of the room.
"It's called complimenting," Sirius argued, "you're just jealous because we're not doing it for you." But he too cast his kids a last glance, before following out through the wall.
"We should try the mirror again," he told the other two, once they were in the corridor. "Who knows, it might work this time." He'd been very insistent on that, but up until now their results had equalled zero. Sirius was convinced it would work, though, and no amount of protesting, or the evidence of fifteen years' worth of failed attempts at communicating with the living were enough to dissuade him from his plan, which was, admittedly, much different from anything they'd tried before. But then, he hadn't died a normal death, and how many souls got to keep everything they'd died with—body and clothing and assorted items included?
"It won't work if he doesn't want it to—and right now…"
"He does, but doesn't really. I know." Sirius said. "Can't hurt to try again, how else are we going to get it done?"
"They could go to the Department of Mysteries… We could try the resident Unspeakables." James couldn't hide his misgivings on the matter, though he was trying to sound encouraging.
"Yeah, no problem," Sirius replied, scoffing. "Let me check the temperature in Hell first."
"I'm not getting you out of there again," James warned him. And this time, he did mean it.
"As I remember it, you were the one who wanted to go ice skating…"
"Yeah, but did you have to go to that particular lake?"
"Where's the fun otherwise? Did Voldemort kill your sense of adventure too?"
"No," James said, snorting. As if! "He merely destroyed my mortal shell." He gestured for the other two to follow him downstairs, which was where Harry had gone. They found him at the very same spot James had left him at.
"Smashing sense of interior decoration," Angus commented, hands clasped behind his back as he looked around the dinghy old house along the way, even as the tell-tale sounds of the Order returning from the Longbottoms' were heard.
"No kidding," Sirius agreed, watching Harry get to his feet, to greet the Order, no doubt. "Even after all these years, the place has retained its vile essence without any significant change."
"Your mum really knew how to make this environment child-friendly," James said, suppressing a shudder. Even after all the cleaning, the house still had the overall feel of a morgue, and the overall look of a muggle horror flick set. And he was playing it down. Sirius' mum's screeching certainly didn't help make the feeling fade.
"He's right, kid. How did you manage to cope in here?" Angus asked over the din, looking at the mounted elf heads on the landing they were crossing. Sirius shrugged one shoulder, hands in his pockets as he descended the stairs. The answer was, perhaps, obvious.
"It was a slaughterhouse." Rasmus stood, covered in dust and something very sticky, before Voldemort's chair, which was raised upon a dais; it added to the foreboding feeling, to the commanding presence towering over them all. It was, perhaps, why everyone else was kneeling, prostrated before the Dark Lord, already beseeching his—entirely nonexistent—mercy, before he had even heard the facts.
Or perhaps, they were being clever, something they could not, under any other circumstances, claim to count amongst their traits.
Survival instinct, then.
Whichever the cause for all this groveling, Rasmus was not focused on it. He had always had a problem with submission; his bad knee, and also his excellent upbringing and lineage were to fault for that.
The Death Eaters who had managed to escape the ambush staged by the Order of the Phoenix—mostly thanks to Rasmus' timely blasting apart of the half of the dining room he had been attached to, his undergarments somehow glued to his face—numbered a round dozen. Few others were present, all members of the Innermost Circle, all of them groveling just like the rest.
It was easy to tell the Death Eaters who had been in battle from those who had not; all were injured, to a greater or lesser extent, and a vast majority of them sported bits of fabric, ranging from cotton to lace and silk, or else red-raw patches on their faces, sustained whilst trying to rip their underthings from their visages.
"Why am I not surprised?" Voldemort's voice was a harsh hiss, chilling everyone present to the core. He surveyed them coldly, the anger emanating from him so tangible Rasmus fancied he could taste it. It was fascinating, how so powerful a wizard could indulge in so base a feeling. Perhaps, were he to keep his emotions in check, he could be invincible; as it were, Rasmus could only speculate what the Heir of Slytherin, one of the Nine, could achieve despite this greatest of flaws.
But that was for later—pastimes ought to be set aside when facing potential death, after all. Rasmus met the Dark Lord's eyes levelly, without bothering to affect fear or unease. That was for all those other, lesser sorts. Presently, his only focus was aimed at delivering his report, at coming up with another plan to get the Longbottoms, and then return to his manor for a freshly-made dinner.
And some red wine as well, 1801 had indeed been a good year for chianti. He would have to visit the Tuscany again soon…
Others could deal with His Royal Darkness and his temper tantrums.
"What happened, Rasmus?"
"We arrived with time to spare, and met no hindrance whatsoever," he began with his report. "The Longbottoms arrived from their weekly trip to St. Mungo's a little later than expected, but they did not suspect anything, My Lord," he said. "They gave fair battle, but were ultimately no match for our numbers. We had the woman cornered when the boy escaped. The Order arrived whilst Dolohov was leading the hunt for the boy."
"Someone warned them," Voldemort hissed furiously. "That Potter brat." He spat the name out as though it were poison. Rasmus nodded his agreement.
"That, my Lord, would certainly explain matters."
"Out! GET OUT!" Voldemort erupted suddenly, rising from his chair. In the time it took Rasmus to bow his head in parting and turn on his heel, the chamber was empty, save for a couple of stragglers, who were limping to the doors for all they were worth.
Which was not much, as might be surmised.
"Stay, Rasmus." For all that he had expected the invitation—order, rather—to stay, it still managed to convey the threat that lay behind it.
"If you so wish, my Lord."
"Potter warned them," Voldemort stated, dropping his foreboding manner and pacing up and down the empty chamber, his every step echoing through the room, worry evident in his every feature. "This cannot go on, I need that new body as soon as may be contrived, otherwise our every move will be foreseen by him, passed on to those Muggle-loving scum."
Rasmus thought keeping his emotions under control would help greatly, but he was wise enough to limit himself to nodding.
"I am doing my utmost to find the boy in question, my Lord."
"He will be hidden by now," Voldemort muttered, shaking his head. "Did you find any sign of him at the Longbottoms'?"
"No, my Lord."
"How do you suggest we find him, then?"
"I do not suggest we do that," Rasmus countered. "Not unless he comes into the open and gives us a chance to take him."
"We both know that's nearly impossible, especially if he's reached Dumbledore. He'll have him at that school, and I am not ready yet to attack it."
"He shall come to us," Rasmus decided. "The McAlpins' cousin, the girl—I believe I shall take her with me tonight. I am certain to find a way to bend her to your will, she shall bring the boys to us."
"You shall be handsomely rewarded," Voldemort said, visibly pleased with Rasmus' plan.
"As long as you give me the spare, I shall be content." Though he had already been offered, Rasmus had to make sure his payment would still be the same. Thus were the problems one faced when doing business with someone so volatile; he could change his mind at any given moment.
"He is yours," Voldemort confirmed, clapping his hands together.
A second later, the doors opened, revealing Crabbe.
"My Lord?" he asked, with a clumsy bow.
"Bring Bellatrix and Severus to me."
They were brought in—or in Bellatrix' case, dragged in—with an impressive celerity. Nobody was willing to risk the Dark Lord's wrath, or indeed test his patience. Little did Bellatrix' health matter in the face of the Darl Lord's anger: In such a setting, Rasmus reckoned that being known for bipolarity did have its uses.
Voldemort did short work of handing out his orders. Snape was to supervise the healing of those Death Eaters injured immediately, and to work under Rasmus' direction for the special project they had discussed. An intelligent move, seeing as they still had to complete the collection, and time was beginning to press.
Whereas Bellatrix was merely ordered to hand the girl over. To judge by her reaction, one would have thought Voldemort had asked her to kindly remove her spleen with a spoon.
"She's my ward, my Lord," she wailed, and there was no telling whether it was because of the fall out of the second floor in the Longbottoms' house, or because of the loss of her toy. Ward. "I never had any children of my own, and—"
And Rasmus was certain she was not precisely being a mother to the girl. The Dementor Pit was hardly a place fit to raise any child, not Muggle, not belonging to two ancient pureblood families. For all they preached about pureblood supremacy, the Death Eaters often forgot how to treat their equals as, well, equals.
"The child shall go to Rasmus," Voldemort said, in a final tone, never one for negotiations. "You have plenty of others to play with. Dare you disobey me?"
"My Lord—I would never." This time it was her who seemed outraged. Everyone had a button to be pushed.
"Then do as I say. Have Severus fix you up, there is plenty of work for you to do."
A series of cracks and gunshot-like bangs broke the silence in number 12, Grimmauld Place, setting the former owner's portrait off and bringing an end to the tense silence and complete immobility prevalent in the old house up until that moment.
Harry had been sitting on the third floor landing, waiting for the Order to return while staying well out of sight; he didn't want to talk to anyone, or see anyone, not after that vision he'd had earlier, or indeed everything that had happened in the past handful of hours.
Voldemort had been talking to the same wizard he liked seeing so much, and there had been talk about getting a boy—not him for once—and Snape had been tasked with healing a bunch of bashed-up Death Eaters. Harry sensed there was more to it than that, and whoever the girl they were talking about was, he didn't reckon anything they were planning with her was remotely good.
He'd have to go to Dumbledore about it; nobody else would believe him.
Provided the old coot ever showed up.
Thinking was getting him nowhere, speculation was a lonely affair, one he'd usually pursued with his best friends, whom he had heard not a word from since he'd left the Dursleys' to go rescue Dudley, and he felt dizzy and ill, random disconnected memories welling up without apparent reason or prompt. He had reason to believe that it was the link between him and Connor asserting itself, and wondered absently what, if anything, he could do about it.
Nothing came to mind.
However, when he finally heard the Order returning, he all but leapt to his feet, pushing the thoughts he had so far entertained aside, to start making his way to the doors.
Confused voices could be heard, and there was a great deal of clatters and thuds amidst the screeching of the portrait. He headed downstairs as fast as he could, even as Mrs. Weasley emerged from the kitchen, hurrying to meet them as well.
"SCUM! HALF-BREEDS! BEGONE FROM THE HOUSE OF MY FATHERS!" Mrs. Black thundered. It was so loud the floor was vibrating.
"Someone shut that hag up!"
As Harry came closer, he could make out some more of what was being said, but it was a veritable confusion, everyone speaking over each other, bumping into one another as more wizards and witches returned, some quite battered, from the Longbottoms'. The corridor was crowded as ever, and people kept arriving, adding to the racket.
"Can you walk?" Harry heard Bill ask Hestia, whose face he couldn't see. She shook her head, even as Moody stumbled, almost bowling one of the Twins over.
"Weasley, get out of the—"
"FILTH! MUCK! BE DAMNED FOR ALL ETERNITY! YOU DESERVE TO DIE FOR BESMIRCHING MY HALLOWED HALLS WITH YOUR UNWORTHINESS!"
"Blimey, she's loud."
"How many fingers can you see, Hestia?"
"My God! Are you alright, George?"
"MOLLY, CALL HEALER TONKS," Moody bellowed, to make himself heard over the racket. "AND SOMEONE PLEASE SHUT THAT BLOODY HAG UP!"
"Let me through," Harry muttered, pushing his way towards the portrait. In between trying hard not to stare at the state of the Order members returning, and making his way through the narrow corridor to where the portrait was while everyone else was pushing the other way, it took longer than he thought.
"Mum, honestly—it's just a scratch," George was saying, freeing himself from Mrs. Weasley's grip. "It's Hestia who needs you, go on."
"STAINS OF DISHONOUR! SONS OF FILTH, DRAGGING MUGGLE SCUM INTO MY HOUSE!"
"SHUT UP!" Harry bellowed, wrenching the flapping curtains shut in Mrs. Black's face. It worked, just like it always did of late, and for one moment, the babble subsided, except for a crash right behind him.
"Cor. He's even louder," Fred stated, jabbing a thumb at Harry. "Are you alright, Tonks?"
"Sorry—didn't see that troll leg," Tonks said from the floor, dragging herself up to a stand. "Why did we never bin it, anyway? All it ever does is trip me up."
"Sirius liked it," Remus replied through gritted teeth, limping much like Mad-Eye usually did. "But I reckon he found how you always trip over it entertaining…" Harry wasn't listening, though, having just spotted Neville, who was supporting his grandmother.
Harry hurried to Neville's side; he was looking quite in need of support as well.
"Are you alright?"
Neville nodded once, but didn't say a word.
"Alright?" Mad-Eye echoed, clapping Neville genially on the back and nearly making him topple over. Out of all of them, he was easily the one in the best mood, now Mrs. Black had shut her trap—though he was by no means unhurt.
"It's a right miracle he's alive—amazing, what he did," he told Harry proudly. "Blasted Bellatrix right out of the house, didn't he. I bet she didn't see that coming." Harry's stomach had knotted itself together as Bellatrix was mentioned, but it turned into amazement the next moment. He was willing to bet nobody had seen that coming.
"Really?" he asked. Neville smiled tightly but didn't answer, eyes fixed on the floor ahead. Now he could see them properly, his gran looked quite ready to pass out; her eyes were unfocused, her robes torn and ripped, and she had lost her trademark vulture hat, which somehow made her look smaller and more frail than Harry could remember. He didn't focus on that, though, eyes drawn to her off-grey, matted hair, which was caked in some dark, sticky substance he suspected, was blood, and she was dragging one foot in front of the other with great difficulty.
"We should get her upstairs," Harry suggested, taking her other arm and putting it over his shoulders.
"Right you are, Harry. Move aside now, I'll take it from here, dear," Mrs. Weasley took Mrs. Longbottom's arm from him, casting a levitation charm on her. "Augusta, help is on the way," she said to the woman, hurrying upstairs with her, and Neville followed wordlessly. Hestia was being taken upstairs as well, looking cross-eyed and lost, and everyone else was filing downstairs. He could hear Kingsley offering Firewhiskey around, and McGonagall's voice joined the rest moments later, only she was handing out bandages and healing potions, not booze.
Harry remained at the foot of the stairs for a few moments, looking up until he saw Neville disappear in the room right off the first floor landing, which was slowly becoming a sick bay of sorts. Chris passed Hestia on his way down, his expression rather pinched. Not a word was exchanged between the two boys, but their eyes met for a moment, and the one look sufficed to convey an entire message to Harry; that vision earlier had taken its toll, and he hadn't even tried to make it stop. He averted his eyes. He couldn't do anything when it happened; he'd never been able to. How could it be done, at that? He was hopeless at Occlumency.
If anything, it had made matters all the worse.
They descended the last flight of stairs together, entering the kitchen in silence, where everything was still a confused, yet unusually cheerful, chaos.
The large, commonly gloomy room was brightly lit, and already littered with whatever debris the Order had trailed in: Bits of rubble, wood, even glass crunched under Harry's every step, dust flying up as someone shook their heads or patted their robes. But that was hardly the worst of it; Harry could see them now, some sporting cuts, bruises, and in some parts, the floor was covered in droplets of blood.
And yet, the overall mood reigning in the place was positively cheerful, which made the shock of the sight lessen considerably. They were talking animatedly, exchanging their views, or telling those who hadn't been in the battle what had happened: McGonagall had just arrived, and Harry saw Madam Pomfrey handing out potions left and right, even as Healer Tonks swept out of the fireplace in a flash of green and hurried upstairs. He briefly wondered how she managed, looking after them here in her spare time, while still working full-time at St. Mungo's, but soon his attention was drawn to the Weasley Twins, George in particular, who was being tended to by Bill, who was, in turn, squinting at the cut on the side of his head through a badly swollen eye. George, though, was in an excellent mood.
"Bill, you should have seen it—it was GENIUS!"
"Yeah, Bellatrix was towering over him, never saw it coming—"
"He cast this hurling hex, right after she had him with the Cruciatus—"
"Never seen anything like it—"
"And then we charmed that vulture, you know, the one Neville's gran always wore on that old hat—"
"Too bad you were out of it, Bill."
"Yeah, that's a crying shame. You'd have laughed your arse off."
"We made it fly, right—"
"And Fred made it caw and everything. The Death Eaters probably thought it was You-Know-Who's mum or something, they were running for it. Sort of like this," George added, pulling a comical face and pretending to run from his older brother. Next to him, Fred, who looked like he'd rolled in ashes or something, gave a loud guffaw.
"Will you sit still?" Bill asked, in amused exasperation. "It's deep, and if it gets infected…"
"Mum will have your head?" Fred suggested innocently, batting his eyelashes at Bill.
"Bastard nearly sliced my ear clean off," George said with a grimace, pouring himself some a handsome refill of Firewhiskey. "Be glad you're not cleaning a gaping hole—now that would have ruined my perfect little face. And made me almost a saint."
"At least you weren't nearly blasted through a bloody wall, your holeyness," Fred threw in, snatching the glass from George's hand and downing it in one go. "You'll have to work hard to top that." He too, was all grins, even though several bright lines of blood were trickling down his scalp. "Those Death Eaters seem to have it out for us."
"I wonder why," George mused, and both arranged their faces into identical expressions of innocent bewilderment. Harry couldn't help snickering, but it died moments later; Kingsley was watching him, in an assessing, calculating manner that made him uneasy, and when Harry met his eyes he turned away, to talk to McGonagall in a low voice.
Harry decided maybe it was time to squeeze into a corner to watch the rest of the goings-on from, and went to sit at the table, trying to stay out of the way of everyone else. Tonks was bandaging Remus' side, blowing off his protests that she could get infected with his blood; Mad-Eye was nursing his hip-flask, talking animatedly to Diggle and gesticulating in a way that would have made anyone think he'd throttle the tiny wizard at any moment; as it were, he was only in a genial mood.
A few feet away, Bill finished dressing George's face by tapping his wand against the wound to make a bandage appear, and moved on to check on Fred with a grim, "It'll leave a scar, so your perfect little visage won't be perfect anymore."
George's face fell; it was very comical to watch, or would be, if the situation hadn't been so grave.
"They'll tell us apart?" the twins gasped in unison, and this time their shock was genuine. Bill chuckled, getting started on cleaning Fred up.
"Sorry, boys. I can't make it vanish."
"Awful. Why aren't you a Healer, Bill?"
"Didn't they teach you anything in curse-breaking school?"
"You've said that one already."
"I'm in shock, shut your gob."
Everywhere he turned; it was more or less the same: the wizards and witches were nursing their wounds, none of which thankfully looked life-threatening, while discussing the happenings at the Longbottoms' animatedly. From what he heard, Harry was able to gather that they'd all split up upon arrival, taking on over twenty Death Eaters, who were ransacking the house; that Fred and George had put a Sticky Bomb in the dining room, where they'd stockpiled the Death Eaters that were captured, but most got away before the Aurors arrived, having blasted their way out.
Neville had turned into the hero of the day, though. Everyone was talking about how he'd hurled Bellatrix out a second-storey window, mere seconds after being hit with a Cruciatus Curse. Harry was proud of his friend, as impressed as everyone else who'd known him as the timid, chubby little boy he'd been most of his life, and he was very glad indeed he and his gran had made it out alive.
Mrs. Weasley presently returned at a bustle, announcing that Neville and his grandmother were resting, and that Hestia was being tended to by Healer Tonks. She then proceeded to checking her sons over and fussing over them for a bit, before moving on to fussing over everyone else.
She swept through the kitchen time and again, handing out ointments here, helping with the bandaging there; cleaning robes, bloodstains, mud, rubble, and whatever else was littering her domains, until everyone had been looked after. Just watching her was enough to make anyone dizzy; Mad-Eye was following her every movement with his magical eye, and Harry could see it fairly spinning in its socket.
She finally declared herself satisfied with everyone's state, and went on to announcing she'd prepared a hearty dinner, and Harry helped her set the table, which had to be enlarged to seat everyone. Kingsley and Tonks left, however, saying they had plenty of paperwork to catch up on, but nobody else was willing to miss one of Mrs. Weasley's excellent meals.
"You might want to call your brother down, dear," Harry heard her tell Chris as he passed them on his way to get more cutlery.
"He's not feeling well, Mrs. Weasley," Chris answered, elaborating after receiving a sharp, questioning look from not only Mrs. Weasley, but also several of the wizards and witches nearest to them. "Upset stomach."
"I'll make him something for that, then," she told him in return. "You go sit; I'll take it upstairs in a minute."
"You don't need to bother--" Chris started, but Mrs. Weasley just clucked at him, ushering him to a seat. Harry followed suit, picking a spot as far removed from him as he could manage to find.
In the end, he squeezed into a seat between Bill and Mad-Eye, and soon the conversation absorbed his entire focus once more.
Mad-Eye had taken on a Death Eater named Rasmus, who also figured prominently in the discussion. Harry hadn't thought he'd ever hear the Order speak of anyone with more loathing—and even apprehension—than they did Bellatrix and the Lestranges. Apparently, he was the one who'd led the Death Eaters to the Longbottoms'. The Twins had stuck him in the dining room after Mad-Eye kicked him down the stairs, but he had blasted half the house apart and gotten away, taking most of the captured Death Eaters with him. Fred and George didn't seem to mind overmuch.
"They'll all have trouble getting their knickers off their faces," they stated happily. "Every new pair they wear—it'll stick itself to their faces again… For days."
The list of captured Death Eaters though, was not something to ignore, either; Dolohov was easily the most prominent catch, which included men named Burdock, Babbage, Matthews, and one Patricia Isla Staker, whose name had the Twins in stitches forever, for some reason.
"Rasmus Thanatovich is a monster," Bill explained sometime later, when the excitement had subsided and most of the Order members had retired to bed, or were having second and third helpings of pudding. In spite the thick purple paste covering half his face, Harry could understand quite clearly that it wasn't an understatement by his expression alone. "He was around in the First War, then vanished after You-Know-Who went down. He was You-Know-Who's top… hit-wizard, I suppose would be a proper term for him."
"Try murderer," Mad-Eye grunted. "Slippery as an eel, that one. Nobody could ever even accuse him of a single crime, and in Russia, where he lives; he's got the cleanest, most respectable record in creation."
"Had it out for James and Sirius, back in the day," Remus threw in. He'd been rather quiet up until now. "And many others, besides… He wants to be the best duellist in history, so he'll fight anyone who he thinks might be a fair contender—"
"He never beat James and Sirius, though," Mad-Eye said, and there was a distinct tone of pride in his voice. "There's very few who managed to survive him, but they were his special project of sorts." Harry hadn't known that. Neither had Chris, apparently. He was hanging on to every word as much as Harry was.
"It's all a game for him," Bill confirmed grimly. "A hobby, like."
"Collecting batteries is a hobby," Molly corrected, not without a shudder. "Killing people isn't." Bill snorted without humour.
"Tell him that."
"But he's been spotted now," Fred chimed up. "That's enough to get him classified as a Death Eater, isn't it?"
Mad-Eye shrugged, "He should be put away. As long as we don't have him, his face can be plastered all over the country for all he cares. It won't make him so much as lie low."
"Thanatovich isn't a Death Eater, though," Diggle informed, past a mouthful of pie. "He's You-Know-Who's ally of sorts. He's joined him just to get a chance to duel people. Twisted, if you ask me."
That was a way of putting it, Harry reckoned, picking at his pudding. He remembered the wizard, from the description the Order gave him; he'd been in the play park when Dudley got grabbed, and in the McAlpin estate, fighting Chris and Connor's grandfather…
The fireplace suddenly flared into life, bright green announcing a new arrival, and bringing an end to the conversation. Everybody drew their wands, aiming them at the kitchen—
And out toppled Charlie, looking thinner and paler than Harry ever remembered seeing him. He was worn out, no mistake…
And also, bringing a cage with him.
"Hedwig!" Harry exclaimed, rushing forward to take her. "Cheers, Charlie."
"Hello," Charlie greeted him tiredly. "I also got you these." He handed him three fat letters, from Ron, Hermione, and Ginny, respectively. "I'll take your replies back with me when I go back—What in the name of Merlin's Y-fronts happened to you?" He'd spotted the rest, noticed the state they were in, and instantly was concerned.
"A hello before the interrogations would be proper, you know," George quipped, grinning widely at him.
"Yeah," said Fred, "It's not all business, is it?" But he too, ended up getting to his feet and going to greet his brother properly.
The explanations started over again, and Harry shuffled to the back of the room, turning the letters over in his hands, apprehensive to open them; doing so meant facing what had happened in the past few weeks, it meant finding out what his friends had been through in the meantime, it meant writing a report of all he'd been up to—and it was enough to fill a fair-sized book.
He caught Mrs. Weasley's eye for a second, and his heart fell further—it was obvious to him, that she didn't approve of the exchange of letters. What was the matter there?
He was afraid to find out.
The following morning dawned grey and rainy, not unbefitting Harry's mood. He'd gotten little rest that night as well, mind buzzing with hundreds of questions, even more ponderings as to what to do next, and figuring out what his own current situation was-- by far, the hardest to achieve-- and when he became too frustrated to stay in bed and shuffled himself to the kitchen, he found the place was in a flurry of activity again. People in various states of wakefulness, some still sporting the remnants of last night's healing binge, were popping in and out, some grabbing toast and marmalade, others poring over maps, others still just… popping in and out at random —the Weasley Twins, of course-- shouting "BOO!" at whoever they apparated behind, which in turn had Mrs. Weasley on a very frustrated hunt, wielding a spatula like a sword and looking left and right to catch them at it.
Chris and Connor didn't look like they'd gotten an awful lot of rest, either; both were seated at the table, half-eaten breakfast before them as they looked at this morning's Daily Prophet, sleepy and-- in Connor's case-- ill-tempered. Harry was looking for a place to sit that was as far removed from them as possible, but Mrs. Weasley ushered him to a seat right across from them without much ceremony. He grunted a greeting to everyone at large, shaking his head at Mrs. Weasley's offer of eggs and bacon. Not that it did any good; she served him a plate anyway.
He picked at his breakfast listlessly, watching the goings-on around him without much interest. The Weasley Twins made him jump a few times, but Mrs. Weasley got them on the third go round, which made them desist-- Harry found it was a small, yet welcome, blessing; all the shouting was making him get a headache, which would not go away so easily-- the Order were discussing timings, apparently they wanted to slowly infiltrate Diagon Alley, so as not to rouse suspicion; the only one who had access to an Invisibility Cloak was Mad-Eye, and his spare one had been confiscated by the Ministry the previous year, so they had to be more careful than usual.
Harry tuned the discussion--which centred around whether or not they should polyjuice the McAlpin Twins into other people for their visit to Gringotts-- out and tried to mind his own business, which at the moment consisted of finishing his breakfast without it coming right back out again, but he found it hard; Chris placed the newspaper on the table, and Harry couldn't help but look at it.
The headline had to do with McFusty's funeral, and a picture of a familiar-looking couple with a girl dominated the upper half of the first page. Squinting at it, he recognised the woman who had nearly managed to hex Voldemort-- the one Snape had killed. Anger welled up; all these days, and the Order hadn't so much as breached the subject. All these days and Dumbledore hadn't so much as shown the tip of his ruddy crooked nose around here-- not to him, anyway.
He managed to make out the date of the funeral and service, August 1st. Chris and Connor were looking mournfully at the paper, and it was clear to Harry why. The witch waving at the camera with a bright smile had been their aunt, Nina... And the girl's name was... Holly. And Rob, the handsome wizard on the picture had been a close friend of Charlie's... Who was the only one who'd go to the funeral at all.
Harry felt immensely sorry for the twins now. Seeing them angry at everything all the time, and not having been able to understand much about them until last night, he had overlooked the fact that, well, they had lost their family. Everyone, and he didn't need to feel that crawling under his skin-- identified as alien and belonging to them rather than him-- to understand perfectly how they felt.
He at least had known the Order beforehand, had never been really, truly alone...
"I'm sorry," he said to them, words spilling out of his mouth though he hadn't intended to say anything at all-- not unless he was addressed first, at any rate-- but they were out... And they did not fall on deaf ears.
Connor and Chris looked up as one, and mumbled identical, quiet replies of, "Thanks," as one as well. Connor's grey eyes lingered on him a bit longer however, while Chris returned his own to the paper-- and it wasn't in the angry, calculating way he had expected from Connor, either-- In truth, Harry didn't quite know what to expect from him, even if every feeling he had coursed through him at all times. He was simply unpredictable... Just like Sirius had been.
"We're not even allowed to go to the funeral," he muttered hollowly, picking at his meal in much the same manner Harry was. "Too dangerous, they say."
Harry nodded his understanding, throat tightening, even as Chris heaved a sigh.
"Finish up, dears, we're leaving in a minute," Mrs. Weasley said, in a kind, over-bright tone that only seemed to depress them all the more.
"Yeah," Connor mumbled, shoulders sagging in resignation. They resumed their meal in silence, mechanically shovelling food into their mouths, not sparing anyone a glance. Harry gestured at Chris for the paper, which was pushed at him without a word.
Aside from the news of the McFusty funeral, which Harry only skimmed, the rest of the paper held equally grim notices; Dementors breeding, going rampant in random villages and every major city; the attack on the Longbottoms-- who, he noted, had been classified as missing as well, even though both were safe; a shortage in potions ingredients; debate of setting up a curfew... None of it was remotely encouraging.
The disappearances of fourteen witches and wizards, all Muggle-born, were causing uproar amidst the wizarding population. The Aurors had, as yet, only established it had been Death Eater work, and they even had names to provide-- the usual set of names that usually followed any large-scale attack-- but nothing else; no reasons for the abductions, no suggestion as to how to prevent any more from happening.
The wizarding world was upside-down, and many blamed Fudge. Sirius' inquiry was rather clearly leaning towards proving his innocence-- and, at the same time, adding to Fudge's murky businesses over the years, which were going to be evaluated next, in response to demands placed by the general public. Harry sincerely hoped he'd get sacked.
A disruption in the form of a familiar clunking sound was soon heard; it came coupled with an equally familiar harsh voice, which sounded confident of all things.
"Oh, we've got every corner covered," Mad-Eye sounded confident for once. "No Death Eater will be able to get to Diagon or Knockturn Alley undetected. And that's all we need to get them out in a blinking... I'll set up the portkeys back myself."
It was the next sound which captured all three boys' attention, however.
"Do you believe that planting Diagon Alley with the Order will suffice for their protection?" Harry could've recognised the lazy, mocking drawl in his sleep. Every bit as loathsome as he remembered, Snape was walking into the kitchen, hands clasped behind his back, sneer firmly in place, black eyes scanning the room keenly-- until they fixed themselves on Harry, and the next moment, on Chris and Connor.
The reaction was immediate; Harry couldn't help it, and even if he had, he wouldn't have tried to curb the sudden onset of white-hot, furious anger that welled up within him.
"What the hell do you think you're doing here?" He spat the words out, getting to his feet as if there had been a spring underneath him. His wand was in his hand, aimed straight between Snape's eyes even as twin snarls were heard behind him; as one, the McAlpin Twins had done much the same Harry had-- all three wands were pointed at the Potions Master, who froze in his tracks, hardly having crossed the door.
"Now, boys, let's settle down," Mrs. Weasley admonished into the heavy silence that now pervaded the kitchen, sounding startled and alarmed--and with good reason, too.
She was also, predictably, ignored
"Settle down yourself," Connor muttered, even as Snape reached for his own wand. Mad-Eye stood frozen next to him, his magical eye swivelling madly around its socket.
"You killed her," Harry hissed, his burning anger giving his every word an icy tone the likes of which had never been heard from his mouth. "And still they let you walk."
"Interesting as this little display of yours is, Potter," Snape spat back, his own voice dripping with a failed attempt at sarcasm that was too dipped in hatred to be confused for anything else, "I have neither the time nor the patience for it. Put your wand away before you take someone's eye out."
"I saw you, you bastard." Harry's voice was ice as he spat it out; stepping forward upon deciding throttling Snape would be a far better idea than bothering with a hex.
"What is the matter here?" A third voice added itself to the mix, one that made even Harry freeze mid-movement. All eyes turned to the newcomer, whose identity, for those unfamiliar with the voice, was further indicated by the robes covered in little moons and stars, the lively blue eyes, the half-moon spectacles...
"He," Harry spat, "shouldn't be here."
"Damn right," Connor and Chris concurred at a chorus.
"Put your wands down, lads," Dumbledore said, with a placating gesture. "Severus is here as my guest-- He has come to give us information on the Dark Side's doings."
"Bollocks," Connor snapped, taking the words right out of Harry's mouth. Everyone else was silent, watching the exchange like people looking at a train wreck.
"Put them down," Mad-Eye said after a breath's space, when it became evident Dumbledore was being ignored by them all. "Now." It was rather forceful, but at length, Harry lowered his wand a fraction, and the twins followed suit.
"Severus is a double agent," Dumbledore explained to the McAlpin twins. Harry scoffed, rolling his eyes. "He is a Death Eater only in appearance..."
"Tell that to their aunt," Harry snarled. "I saw what happened-- I saw it. If he were on our side, he wouldn't have saved Voldemort's life!" A wave of hisses and flinches swept across the kitchen. Dumbledore gave Harry a disappointed look; Snape on the other hand, looked sickeningly vindicated. Harry's hand clenched around his wand.
"That is quite enough, Harry," Dumbledore said, a sort of finality in his tone that brooked no space for arguments-- and held a warning that couldn't be overlooked. Even the twins were startled by it-- but Harry reckoned it was because they were unused to Dumbledore. When he was younger, he was cowed by this very display as well, after all. "I shall not allow such accusations in my presence. As I said," Dumbledore added, stepping into the kitchen to pour himself some tea, "Severus is here to hand in his report on the Dark Side's doings, which closely concern the three of you-- and he is not to be threatened here. He enjoys my full confidence and trust."
Harry glared at Dumbledore, which the latter ignored-- but Snape strolled into the kitchen, all but basking in the glowering looks sent his way.
"You'll pay for it," Harry snarled as Snape approached, ready to go past him to join the Headmaster.
"Shall I, now?" Snape drawled, then looked over his shoulder, affecting a show of relief. "Oh, good. I thought there was a curtain there."
Harry had to be bodily hauled out of the kitchen, to keep him from tearing Snape's head off right where he stood.
The clock on the dusty mantelpiece in Harry's room struck ten o'clock, at least that's what he could make out from the cracked face. The McAlpin Twins had left for Diagon Alley a handful of minutes earlier, the last to go of every last member of the Order who could be spared.
Dumbledore had also left, along with Snape-- not without giving Harry a lengthy speech about the need for him to get a guardian. As if anyone could ever replace Sirius. As if anyone could ever so much as fancy getting close. The mere suggestion was insulting.
Not that Harry gave a right damn about it; he had told Dumbledore of the visions he was having, what he'd seen Snape do, what he feared would happen-- and he'd gone ignored. Again. It was the reason for his present, bitter state; the Order's mistrust he could handle-- it's not like they understood-- but Dumbledore's? He'd hoped the wizard would act upon Harry's information, or at least help.
All he got was a condescending, "Practice your Occlumency. We'll talk about this later. Think about whom you'd like as a guardian." And then he'd heard the Order explaining the plan to keep Diagon Alley safe to the last detail to that smarmy, greasy, snivelling git.
He throttled his pillow, but it didn't do much by way of providing any help. It wasn't even good for venting.
The house was plunged in a stuffy sort of silence again; Neville and his grandmother were resting, and not to be disturbed, and Charlie was in the kitchen, having stayed behind to 'look after' Harry. He had the distinct impression the only thing Charlie was up to looking after was the bottle of Old Ogden's double-cask he'd brought along from Romania. And brooding. It was becoming a favourite pastime of most people Harry had dealt with of late.
Starting with himself.
Harry stared at the cracked, off-white ceiling until his eyes began to sting, adding to his frustrations. Sulking wasn't very productive, and turning the Two-Way Mirror over in his hands only made matters all the worse. Indulging in it wasn't something he could help, much less now, when he needed guidance and support more than ever.
Sirius would've believed him. He'd have listened, at the very least, have given him advice... He'd have been wild to meet his kids too. He'd have figured out how to help them... Everything would have been different.
But it wasn't.
And Harry'd never felt so dejected as he did now.
Thinking of the only two people who would surely stand by him, though, only made him turn from the mirror in his hands at the letters lying unopened on his bedside table. He couldn't help wondering-- would Ron and Hermione stand by him if they found out what was happening? Would they trust him as they had before? They'd both gotten badly hurt at the Department of Mysteries, and... Did they deserve to carry on with this, helping him do whatever it is he had to do? Did they deserve to die for it, like so many others had?
No, no they didn't.
Hedwig fluttered to the headboard of his bed, crooning at him. She'd not been here 24 hours, and she was already feeling cooped up; even his ruddy pet owl had to suffer just by being with him... And what could he do to help anyone? He sighed, at a loss.
Then his scar flared up, Sirius' old bedroom dissolving into a dark, high-ceilinged chamber, lit by flickering green lamps in the shape of fire-spitting snakes, while his head was being split in two.
Sirius' mirror fell to the floor, shattering even as Harry bit down into his pillow to keep from screaming.
"I know where they are, My Lord... If we act fast, you could have them in an hour, maybe two."
"Summon Rasmus to my presence. NOW!"
"I need a map of Diagon Alley, Master."
The way to Diagon Alley had gone as smoothly as Molly had dared to hope. Few spared them a glance, fewer still a closer look-- most of the witches and wizards out and about focused instantly on Remus Lupin, werewolf that he was, and overlooked her and the shabbily-dressed boys walking by her side. Remus had suggested it himself, and she was astounded and disgusted both by the predicted reaction: how could he bear going anywhere, if he, as a well-known werewolf, was treated in this fashion wherever he went? Like he was the carrier of a terrible disease-- all right, so he was. But that didn't excuse everyone from treating him like he were about to bite anyone in sight.
They walked, mostly in a tense silence, towards Gringotts, passing Order members stationed all over the place, all of whom were helping her with her shopping in addition to watching the street, which was as busy as ever, despite the dangers of the times. She couldn't help noticing that most of the people around for their shopping were purebloods, however; the Muggle-borns and half-bloods had reasons to stay away from this, and possibly also every other, magical place.
Tonks, in the guise of a hunchbacked hag, offered them multicoloured toenails and gave them the all-clear to continue to the bank from her post at the entrance of Knockturn Alley-- "Five to a Sickle, and go right ahead, it's all covered. I'll give you this large thumbnail if you buy two bags full-- perfect for seasoning salmon fillet, nyah, nyah..."-- and thus they crossed the sets of doors into Gringotts, where Bill nodded his all-clear as he walked past them to go to Flourish and Blott's, a scroll under his arm.
None of them noticed, as they walked into the bank, that behind them all along the alley, not one Order member remained at their assigned posts any longer; Tonks' abandoned basket of toenails was being fought over by a short, drunken-looking wizard with a red nose, and an emaciated, straggly old witch.
"We're nearly done," Molly told the boys reassuringly as they crossed the great marble hall, getting a half-nod in return; they made her uneasy, walking along with an easy, smooth sort of stride, yet wholly alert and ready for a fight-- so unlike youths their age ought to behave. They didn't even look nervous, where she was jumpy and dreading an attack at every turn.
The weighing of the wands took a few eternally long moments; three Goblins examined each wand separately, staring at their owners suspiciously, and reading an old scroll, wherein Old McAlpin had designed Chris and Connor as his heirs. Molly was too absorbed in the procedure, which she had only heard about from Bill, to notice how one of the twins went deathly pale, gripping the counter for support and stiffening... It was over in the space of a moment or two, though the blood did not return to his face.
"We have to go," he muttered at a mumble, looking unsteadily at Molly, then at the exit, where nothing unusual was going on. Molly opened her mouth to ask what the matter was, but...
"The wands are genuine," a goblin named Griphook said to the Head Goblin, handing the wands to their owners, drawing a lamp from underneath his counter, and hopping off his stool to waddle to the docking station, where they'd take a cart to the deepest, oldest of vaults.
"We'll go back as soon as we finish here," Molly assured Connor, mistaking his expression and behaviour for nerves and illness. He wasn't fully healed, was he? Neither of them was. "You'll get to rest all afternoon, dear. It'll be over soon."
"But--" Connor's protests --soon joined by his brother's-- went unheard. Instead, she ushered them hurriedly after the goblin, with what she hoped to be comforting, reassuring words. In the vaults, they'd be safe; besides, it was not surprising that the boys would be apprehensive about being out in the open, what after that dreadful attack.
As they were settling into the cart, Molly breathed a sigh of relief; here, they couldn't be touched. Here, they were safe as they could be-- no Death Eater would ever dare attack Gringotts.
Not in their wildest dreams.
No Death Eater was that stupid.
"There, there, Connor," she said kindly to the boy, who looked close to being sick. "It'll be over in a blinking... It's only a bit of a bumpy ride. Why don't you think of what you'll do with all that gold instead of fretting?"
She never saw the black-robed figures striding down the busy alley, never heard the panicked cries of witches and wizards, never heard the blasts coming from the Twins' shop.
Harry stumbled unsteadily down the stairs, one hand clasped on his forehead, the other flailing blindly to grab hold of the banister as he went, nearly tumbling down the stairs every other step.
"Charlie!" They needed to go to Diagon Alley, and they had to go ten minutes ago.
There was no answer; Harry reached the second floor landing, tripping over his feet in his urgency and crashing down. His vision was swimming, head spinning and movements uncoordinated as anything-- but there was no time to wait for his body to get back in gear. The Death Eaters had found out-- Snape had told them exactly what the Order was up to, was telling Voldemort and that nutter all about it now.
"Ah, bloody-- CHARLIE!"
"What is it?" Charlie's voice trailed up from below, alarmed and confused, setting the portrait off, even as Harry hurtled down the last flight of stairs, crashing into him and sending them both flying.
"They're in Diagon Alley," Harry said breathlessly, raffling himself up and coming to a very unsteady stand. "SHUT UP YOU OLD HAG! They're in Diagon Alley," he repeated, as the insults to every last member of the halfbreed race cut off. "The Death Eaters-- They know where everyone is, they're taking them out and going to Gringotts! We have to stop them! We have to warn them!"
"What on earth are you on about?"
"Bloody hell, Charlie, we don't have any time! Snape told them! He told Voldemort--" Charlie flinched back as if struck. Harry ignored it. "Snape-- Snape told the Death Eaters where everyone is! He's got a map, he was telling Vol--you know-- He was telling them where everyone is, they're going to get the McAlpins now!"
"You... saw that?" Charlie asked, steadying Harry but not rushing out to Diagon Alley. Instead, he gave Harry an intent, sharp look that did but little to cover up his misgivings on the matter.
Harry's patience was shot, though. He had no time for this; He was sure of what he'd seen, could feel Voldemort's anticipation seep through him like a bath of acid.
"Yes!" he yelled, increasingly frantic. A wild thought occurred to him, one he had not entertained in a while; if Charlie wasn't going to help, he wouldn't waste his spit with him anymore-- he'd go there himself.
"We have to warn them at least-- they're taking everyone out, they'll ambush them in Gringotts!" he snapped, pushing past Charlie to the kitchen. He'd floo there, then fly.
Yeah, that sounded like the fastest option so far...
"Harry, wait!" Charlie grabbed him by the arm, both preventing Harry from tripping down the kitchen stairs, and from getting to the kitchen altogether. His scar gave a searing jab, making him hiss in pain.
"Look, I don't know what you saw-- but we're not going anywhere. Much less you! Much less," Charlie added forcefully, "to Diagon Alley. Over half the Order is out there, they know what they're doing--"
"They'll all get KILLED! Don't you get it? Snape told Voldemort their exact positions! He's sending all his Death Eaters over! WE HAVE TO GO NOW!"
"We're not going just because you think you saw--"
"Sod this," Harry muttered. He'd had enough. Twisting away from Charlie's grip, he stumbled to the kitchen, heading straight for the jar of Floo Powder, righting his crooked glasses as he went. If Charlie wasn't going to help...
Too late, Charlie.
Green flames flared up-- Harry checked the pockets of his bathrobe for his Emergency Escape Kit-- and all but jumped into the grate.
And he was gone.
"Shite." Charlie's fervid curse was heard, but it didn't change the situation. He cursed again, apparating out after him.