Part One

"The prophecy, give me the prophecy, Potter!" snarled Lucius Malfoy's voice in his ear, and Harry felt the tip of Malfoy's wand pressing hard between his ribs.

"No—get—off—me…Neville—catch it!"

Harry flung the prophecy across the floor, Neville spun himself around on his back and scooped the ball to his chest. Malfoy pointed the wand instead at Neville, but Harry jabbed his own wand back over his shoulder and yelled, "Impedimenta!"

Malfoy was blasted off his back. As Harry scrambled up again he looked around and saw Malfoy smash into the dais on which Lupin and Bellatrix were now dueling. Malfoy aimed his wand at Harry and Neville again, but before he could draw breath to strike, Sirius had jumped between them.

"Stupefy!" Sirius yelled, a bolt of red light hurtling from his wand and hitting Malfoy in the chest. Malfoy slammed into the base of the dais, unconscious, and did not move again.

"Thanks Sirius," Harry breathed, struggling to support Neville as his feet continued to jerk crazily on the stone steps.

"Finite," Sirius said, pointing his wand at Neville's legs, which fell still immediately. "Now run! I want you both to get out of here—"

"DUBBLEDORE!" Neville shouted, cutting off Sirius's words.

They both turned to look where Neville was staring. Directly above them, framed in the doorway from the Brain Room, stood Albus Dumbledore, his wand aloft, his face white and furious. He sped down the steps past Neville and Harry, directly behind Sirius who had already begun racing down the stone steps to the dais where Lupin was still dueling furiously with Bellatrix.

Dumbledore had just reached the foot of the steps when the Death Eaters realized he was there. There were yells; one of the Death Eaters ran for it, scrabbling like a monkey up the stone steps opposite. Dumbledore's spell pulled him back as easily and effortlessly as though he had hooked him with an invisible line—

Only one couple were still battling, apparently unaware of the new arrival. Harry saw Lupin duck Bellatrix's jet of red light, diving towards the edge of the dais and rolling quickly back to his feet. Sirius leapt onto the dais and into the line of fire, drawing Bellatrix's attention away from Lupin.

"Really, Bellatrix, where are your manners?" Sirius shouted, his wand aimed directly at her face. "You haven't even said hello to your favorite cousin yet—"

With an angry shriek Bellatrix shot another bolt of red light, this time at Sirius, but with a wave of his wand Sirius sent the light shooting back at her.

"Neville, go and round up the others!" Harry shouted, leaping down the steps and heading for the dais. He didn't turn around to see if Neville had complied or not—he was racing towards Lupin and Sirius, who were now battling Bellatrix, working in perfect tandem as they ducked, dived, and sent spell after spell at her.

Dumbledore had most of the remaining Death Eaters grouped in the middle of the room, seemingly immobilized by invisible ropes, when Harry reached the foot of the steps. His wand aloft, he was ready to send a disarming spell at Bellatrix just as Lupin and Sirius both yelled, "STUPEFY!" together. As their twin jets of red light hit her in the chest, she gave a final shriek before slamming into the stone dais, unconscious.

"Harry!" Sirius yelled, turning his attention away from the fallen Bellatrix and leaping off the dais to where Harry stood, winded. "I thought I told you to get out of here!"

"I—I couldn't leave you," Harry choked out, still breathing raggedly. "I—I'm so sorry, Sirius, I thought they'd got you, I thought you were being tortured…" He tried to gulp in another breath of air, but found that his throat had constricted painfully…

"It's all right, Harry," Sirius said, kneeling down on one knee and grabbing Harry by the shoulders. "You were very brave today," he said gruffly, and embraced Harry tightly.

Dumbledore's here, Neville's helping the others, and everyone is all right, Harry thought, feeling safe for the first time that day. He fisted his hands into the back of Sirius's shirt, and took in a deep breath of air. Sirius is all right.

Harry reluctantly released Sirius when his godfather began to pull away. "Harry, I want you to go find Neville and get the others back to Hogwarts," Sirius said, meeting Harry's gaze. "Go quickly."

Harry glanced around and saw that Mad-Eye Moody had revived Tonks, while Kingsley stood with Dumbledore and was helping restrain the group of Death Eaters. Lupin was still on the dais, where he had bound Bellatrix with thick cords and was now levitating her unconscious body towards the group of contained Death Eaters.

Harry nodded, eager now to find Neville and the others. Sirius placed a hand on his shoulder. "I'll see you later, Harry," he said, and Harry grinned at him.

Harry was beginning to turn away from Sirius when a movement at the base of the dais caught his eye. Harry gave a startled yell and jumped around Sirius just in time to see that Malfoy, who had been lying there forgotten, was now running across the dais towards Lupin—

"STUPEFY!" Malfoy yelled, and the spell hit Lupin squarely in the chest. Lupin's eyes widened in shock as he stumbled backwards, unbalanced. His mobilicorpus spell broke, sending the unconscious Bellatrix rolling across the stone dais, and Malfoy was racing toward her….

Harry and Sirius were running toward the dais, but they were too late. Harry saw it all happen as if it was in slow motion; Lupin's body was curving in a graceful arc as he sank backward through the ragged veil hanging from the arch…

Sirius sprinted for the veil, several paces in front of Harry, shouting, "REMUS!"

But Lupin was already falling; he fell through the ancient doorway and disappeared behind the veil, which ceased all movement for a moment, then began to sway gently once more.

A second later Malfoy reached the unconscious Bellatrix, and they apparated away.

"THE ONE WITH THE POWER TO VANQUISH THE DARK LORD APPROACHES….BORN TO THOSE WHO HAVE THRICE DEFIED HIM, BORN AS THE SEVENTH MONTH DIES…AND THE DARK LORD WILL MARK HIM AS HIS EQUAL, BUT HE WILL HAVE POWER THE DARK LORD KNOWS NOT…AND EITHER MUST DIE AT THE HAND OF THE OTHER FOR NEITHER CAN LIVE WHILE THE OTHER SURVIVES….THE ONE WITH THE POWER TO VANQUISH THE DARK LORD WILL BE BORN AS THE SEVENTH MONTH DIES…."

Sirius, Harry, and Dumbledore were quiet as Professor Trelawney's harsh, hoarse voice died away, her ghostly figure dissolving into nothingness. "So, that's it then," Harry said numbly, breaking the quiet that had descended in Dumbledore's office.

Dumbledore had just finished explaining everything to a rather shell-shocked Harry—why Voldemort had targeted him to begin with, how Harry was destined to be either murderer or victim, and finally, why he hadn't so much as looked Harry in the eyes all year. Sirius had remained silent as his godson absorbed the information Dumbledore had so long withheld from him.

Sirius had only looked away from Harry's face when Dumbledore mentioned their conversation concerning Harry's vision of Arthur Weasley. But the rest of the time his eyes had been trained on Harry, watching his expressions change from grief, anger, shock, and finally to numb resignation, when at the end of Dumbledore's explanations he asked to hear the prophecy Neville had taken back to Hogwarts. Sirius's concentration on Harry's feelings helped him ignore the anguish he felt rising within himself…

"Everything that happened—it was all for this stupid prophecy," Harry said finally, his voice shaking. "Professor—Professor Lupin wouldn't have… wouldn't have…" Harry buried his face in his hands. "If it wasn't for me…."

Sirius rose from his chair and, for the second time that day, gathered a distraught Harry in his arms. A detached part of him recognized that this wasn't healthy, that he shouldn't be concentrating on Harry's grief in order to avoid his own, but instead his mind stubbornly refused to accept that Remus could truly be gone.

Corbin Croaker has always been in search of answers. Which is why when his fellow Unspeakable, Broderick Bode, died in St. Mungo's last year, he went to Albus Dumbledore and became a member of the Order of the Phoenix.

This is also how he came to be sitting in Dumbledore's office a week after the battle in the Department of Mysteries, sitting across from a Mr. Sirius Black, who is perhaps the greatest mystery of all.

Mr. Black doesn't look like a fugitive, Croaker reflected, though he supposed anyone would show improvement once out of Azkaban. Mr. Black was clean, reasonably well-clothed, and the tangled hair he knew so well from the Daily Prophet pictures was gone. All in all, he was barely recognizable as the mass-murderer the media portrays him to be. The only thing that bears any resemblance to the man from Azkaban is the haunted grey eyes, which were currently studying him from across the table.

Croaker decided it was time to break the silence.

"So, have you ever been to the Orient, Mr. Black?"

Mr. Black frowned in confusion, until he realized that Croaker was referring to the knee-high table between them and the comfy pillows they were sitting on.

"Um, no… No, I haven't."

"Ah, well, that makes two of us then. I've never taken a liking to Asian cuisine, really. I'm relieved that Dumbledore offered us a regular English brew, and not that Japanese green tea."

Mr. Black nods slowly, as if trying to decide if this is really a conversation he should be having with an Unspeakable. "Well, these pillows are comfortable enough," he said finally, shifting into a cross-legged position.

"Hmm, yes, I suppose they are," Croaker agreed. "Well, they should suit our purposes. Dumbledore has told me a great deal of your circumstances, Mr. Black. I must confess I find you terribly fascinating—an Animagus at 16, I believe it was? Incredible."

"Yeah, well, I only did it to help—" Mr. Black stopped suddenly, but Croaker knew he was speaking of Remus Lupin, the werewolf, Order member, and close friend of Mr. Black, who had fallen through the veil only a few days ago.

"I'm sure Dumbledore told you why I want to speak with you—I have to know about the veil," Mr. Black said, his hand gripping his steaming cup of tea. Croaker doubted he felt the heat. "I have to know," he repeated.

Croaker nodded. This was the hard part, of course. Sighing, be began to explain what he could to Mr. Black.

"The veil in the Death Chamber is ancient. It was discovered hundreds of years ago, and has been kept within the Department of Mysteries ever since. Of course, the Ministry of Magic didn't exist until the late sixteenth century. Before that, the veil had been used only for formal executions of prominent figures; it wasn't until the Unspeakable branch of the Ministry was founded that anyone bothered to study it, or find out exactly why and how it worked. There are almost no written records on the veil."

"What have your studies shown you so far?"

"Through general observation, and some basic tests, we have been able to determine that the veil is a very ancient kind of magic—magic that is essential to the fabric of our existence." Croaker paused, giving Mr. Black time to digest this information. "However, not much else is known about it. No one who has passed through the veil has ever returned to speak of what lies beyond."

"Yes," said Mr. Black, his voice tinged with frustration, "I guessed as much. But there has to be a way to bring someone back. Remus wasn't dead, he wasn't even unconscious when he fell through… he just disappeared, and nothing happened—the veil was absolutely still, it was just as if he'd walked right through—"

"Wait," said Croaker suddenly, interrupting him. "You say—you say the veil was absolutely still after he fell through?"

"Yes," Mr. Black said, his voice breaking as his knuckles turned white from his death-grip on the still-steaming cup of tea. "He just—he had been hit with a stunning spell and was thrown backwards, through it, and right after he fell the veil was absolutely still. It started to move… gently, I guess you would say… a few moments afterwards."

"You're sure?"

Mr. Black took a deep breath. "Absolutely. Why?"

"In every other known case of someone entering the veil, the black curtain acted as though a large breeze was passing through the room. The veil is never more active than in that moment."

Mr. Black's unfathomable grey eyes flickered. "Do you… do you know why?"

Croaker's mind began to race, the new information discordant with everything they had thought was known about the veil.

"There is a theory," he said finally, his voice soft and hesitant, "but it doesn't really explain why…"

"Why what? What is it?"

"I don't know…" Croaker said, more to himself than to Sirius. "This theory, it is hard to explain, but I imagine…."

Croaker focused on Mr. Black once again. Mr. Black met his gaze squarely, as if trying to prove himself. It was this measured gaze, more than anything else, that decided the matter for Croaker. He would tell Mr. Black everything he knew, regardless of the thousand Ministry regulations that forbid it. He knew everything said here was in confidence, and he trusted Albus Dumbledore—and, surprisingly, he found that he trusted this Sirius Black, and his haunted grey eyes.

"Well, Mr. Black, let's see what you make of it," said Croaker finally. "A few Unspeakables who study the veil—myself included—feel that it may be a portal to another dimension—another realm of magic, if you will—one not necessarily of the body, but of the mind and soul. Whether or not this is the realm of the dead, I do not know.

"The veil, as I mentioned earlier, is very ancient; what I didn't mention is that it is also very powerful dark magic. Whenever a witch or wizard passes through the veil, the veil uses their inborn magic to deliver them to this dimension. The violent fluttering of the veil after a magical person enters is caused by the influx of magical energy, which is then harnessed by the archway. Within a few moments of a witch or wizard entering the veil, the magical signature of the veil returns to normal, and the veil resumes its normal motion.

"People who have seen or who have been touched by dark magic can hear voices coming from beyond the veil, though we have not yet been able to determine what these voices say. If our theory is correct, I would assume that these are the voices of those who have passed into this alternate dimension.

"The only evidence that would seem to contradict this theory," continued Croaker, "is the case of your friend, Mr. Lupin. From your account, it would seem that there was no influx of magic, which would also seem to indicate that he was not transported to another dimension."

There was silence for half a minute as Mr. Black ruminated over this information and Croaker tallied the number of contract violations he'd just committed. He was just passing three hundred when Mr. Black spoke suddenly.

"Of course," he breathed, "It all makes so much sense, no wonder the veil couldn't take Remus's magic—"

Croaker lifted his eyebrows inquiringly. "I'm afraid I do not follow, Mr. Black."

"Remus is a werewolf. He has dark magic coursing in his blood all the time, even if it's only activated during full moons. This veil—you said it harnesses a wizard's inborn magic, right?"

"That's our theory, yes," Croaker replied slowly, turning Mr. Black's words over in his mind.

"Inborn magic in a witch or wizard—it's not inherently bad or good, it's just raw energy. But not all of Remus's magic is inborn—a dark creature's magic is different, it's not just magical energy, because it isn't neutral, and the veil wouldn't be able to destroy dark magic because it is dark magic," said Mr. Black, his words coming out in a rush. "So—if the veil didn't harness Remus's magical energy…"

"He might not be trapped," Croaker said, his heart in his throat. "Astounding. Truly—just astounding. At the very least a thousand."

Mr. Black looked at him blankly, as if he thought Croaker was mad. Croaker nearly laughed at the thought.

"At least a thousand, Mr. Black. It's the number of laws I—we—will have to break, in order to save Mr. Lupin."

Mr. Black's tea cup shattered.

It was their second week back at Hogwarts. Hermione, Ron, and Harry were sitting at a table in the Gryffindor common room. It was just past midnight, and they were the only students awake. Ever since the end of last year, Harry and Ron had finally begun taking their schoolwork seriously, and they were currently attacking a Defense Against the Dark Arts Essay on how to recognize the symptoms of mind-altering potions and hexes. Normally Hermione would be thrilled to see them put so much effort into their schoolwork, but the knowledge that they were doing it out of necessity, with the impending war—it only made her chest tighten and the edges of her vision blur with tears.

"I—I think I'll go to bed now," said Hermione quickly, closing her textbook and gathering her quill. Ron looked up at her and nodded, barely stifling a yawn. Harry sighed, rubbed his eyes, and set down his quill.

"Wait, Hermione—I want to talk to you and Ron about something."

Ron and Hermione shared a quick look of surprise. Harry had been quiet and withdrawn ever since the battle in the Department of Mysteries, barely speaking to anyone outside of classes. Ron had also told Hermione that Harry hadn't been sleeping well either, though Harry had reassured Ron it wasn't Voldemort's visions that were keeping him awake. Hermione knew Harry was wracked with guilt over the death of Professor Lupin, and wondered if he was finally ready to talk about it. She set her books back down on the table, and took a fortifying breath. Crying won't help Harry's guilt, she reminded herself firmly.

Ron clapped a hand on Harry's shoulder. "What is it, mate?" he asked softly. Hermione wondered at how changed Ron was from last year—but then, she wasn't the only one who had grown up after the Department of Mysteries. They'd all learned a hard lesson in maturity.

"It's Snuffles," said Harry. "He—he thinks there's a way to bring Remus back from the veil."

There was a moment of stunned silence. Hermione felt her eyes widen, and saw that Ron's jaw had gone slack.

"But Harry," said Ron, after he had recovered the ability to speak, "necromancy is—it's the darkest form of magic, and it hasn't even been proven to bring people back. Besides, you'd need a body—"

"Remus isn't dead," said Harry, blinking tiredly behind his round glasses.

"What?" said Hermione, her voice an unsteady whisper. "You saw him, Harry. How—how can you say that?"

"Snuffles is working with an Unspeakable," Harry said, "and they think they know a way to rescue him from the veil."

Over the next half hour, Harry explained what Sirius had told him when they were together the last week of August. Hermione felt like her brain was working over-time, her exhaustion forgotten as she learned how Remus's lycanthropy may have saved him, placing him in a sort of limbo between their world and whatever lies beyond, and how Sirius and the Unspeakable have devised a spell that may be able to bring him back…

"Wait," said Ron suddenly, "So—so Snuffles and this Unspeakable are just going to waltz into the Department of Mysteries, aim their wands at the veil, and hope that Professor Lupin will come toppling back out?" He must have realized how dubious he sounded, because he quickly added, "I mean, I'm not saying that Snuffles isn't brilliant, of course he is, we all know that, but—he can't get into the Ministry again, for one thing—"

"Yeah, I thought of that too," said Harry. "He and the Unspeakable are going to the Department of Mysteries on Christmas Eve, when the Ministry staff will be at a minimum."

"But this spell," said Hermione, staring intently into the dying fire, "how could it possibly work? I don't think even Snuffles is powerful enough to overcome that much dark magic. I don't see how it would be possible to affect it that much, especially from outside of it—" Hermione stopped. "No," she whispered, turning her gaze to Harry. His green eyes were wide and over-bright…

"What?" asked Ron, shattering the terrible moment of silent comprehension.

"Hermione's right—no one would be able to affect that powerful a dark object from the outside, even Snuffles," said Harry shakily. "Snuffles and the Unspeakable came up with a spell, but to use it, Snuffles—he'll have to enter the veil himself."

"Are—are they sure Snuffles will be able to come back?" Hermione asked, trying to fit the words inside her mouth and speak them without giving into the painful ache in her chest.

"It depends on Remus," said Harry quietly. "When Snuffles enters the veil, he'll cast the spell and—" he paused, picked up his quill, and absently began to turn it between his thumb and forefinger. Hermione recognized the gesture from class, a new habit she had thought of as his 'thinking face.' A few moments later, he turned his gaze away from his quill and turned back to his friends. "It's complicated," he began again, holding the quill motionless. "When Snuffles explained it to me, he said that the spell would put a condition on the veil—that when it absorbs his innate magic, it will also absorb the magical stipulations of the spell."

"That makes sense," Hermione said thoughtfully. "It's all about intention, isn't it?"

"What intention?" asked Ron, shifting his gaze from Harry to Hermione.

"Well, it's like any other spell—it's not just about the words or where you aim your wand, it's the purpose behind it. Snuffles is putting magical conditions on the veil, his intention being to bring himself and Professor Lupin back. But that's not all of it." She hesitated for a moment, biting her lower lip, before she continued. "The question is, if Professor Lupin is in some kind of limbo, how will Snuffles get there? If the veil absorbs a wizard's innate magic, it should still be able to take Snuffles into the alternate dimension."

Ron looked at her, smiling despite himself. "You can be scary sometimes, Hermione," he said conversationally.

Harry grinned at her, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. "It's true, you know—it took me forever to figure that much out when Snuffles was explaining it to me."

Hermione shifted in her seat. She could feel that she was blushing, but her concern for Harry easily overpowered her slight embarrassment.

"Snuffles explained to me that the spell isn't designed to bring him to Remus, but to bring Remus to him," said Harry. "The idea is that they will be together in the same alternate dimension, no matter what it might be. The Unspeakable Snuffles is working with said that they think it's a place of the mind and soul, where certain elements of a person's life will be included. The catch is that once a person arrives in this alternate dimension, they don't remember anything of their past life."

"So this spell will let Snuffles keep his memory?" asked Ron.

"No," said Harry. "The spell will bring Remus to Snuffles and should put them in the same alternate dimension, but that's the limitation of the spell."

"So how will they get back, if they can't remember entering the veil in the first place?" Ron said, his face taut with concentration. Hermione couldn't help noticing how sweetly concerned he looked before shaking herself and focusing all her attention on Harry.

"Well, that's really the heart of the matter," Harry explained. "Because the veil couldn't take Remus's magic, theoretically he should still have his memories from this life. They think that Snuffles will trigger Remus's subconscious, and that he'll realize that they're inside the veil. That's the key to the spell—when Remus remembers, his magic will force the veil to finalize the conditions Snuffles set on it. Then, they'll both be able to leave."

By now the fire was reduced to a few glowing embers. Hermione realized that it must be very, very early in the morning—probably past three—but her mind had never felt more awake than it did now. She had known that saying Sirius Black was brilliant was like saying the sun was warm, but she found herself reeling at his pure genius. She doubted that anyone else would have realized that Professor Lupin's lycanthropy could save him.

"Well," said Ron, laughing weakly, "only an escapee from Azkaban would think this possible, eh?"

Hermione nearly gasped aloud—of all the stupid, insensitive things to say—but to her surprise, Harry chuckled too.

"Yeah, I know," he said, and this time his small smile was genuine. "If it was anyone else, I'd be really worried. I mean, I think that he can pull it off—he and Remus, I mean. They weren't marauders for nothing."

"Professor Lupin was the best Defense teacher we ever had," Hermione added, smiling softly.

"He gave me a choice," Harry said after a few moments. The tension that had been so briefly relieved came rushing back into the room, washing over Hermione and sending uncomfortable prickles over her skin. "He told me that—that he loves me like a son…"

No one said anything, but Hermione and Ron shared a brief look before Ron embraced Harry from the side in a slightly awkward one-armed hug, and Hermione moved to the other side of the table to hold Harry's hand. They sat like that for a while, maintaining contact until Harry's breathing became regular again. He gently shrugged off Ron's arm and squeezed Hermione's hand before releasing that, too.

"He gave me a choice," Harry said again, "and told me that he loves me like a son, and that he'd never do this if he wasn't sure it would work. But he said if I wasn't sure, and if I didn't want him to take the chance—that he wouldn't go."

"What did you say?" Hermione asked tentatively, though she already knew the answer.

"I told him that I love him too," Harry said. Hermione felt a pang in her heart when she realized that it must have been the first time anyone's ever said that to Harry, and tears began welling in her eyes. "I also told him that he's one cocky bastard, but since I have complete faith in Remus, he'd better go."

Boys, thought Hermione, and blinked back the tears that were gathering at the corners of her eyes.

"What did he say to that?" said Ron, laughing.

"That I was a wise man to place my faith in Remus," Harry said, grinning.

Ron chuckled, but soon his laugh was interrupted with a wide yawn. "Sorry, I'm knackered," he said sheepishly.

Harry yawned too. "So am I," he said, standing up. "I guess we should go to bed, unless we want to give Snape an excuse to give us a month of detentions for falling asleep in class."

"Well, maybe we'll be brewing some kind of sleeping potion, and then he'll have no excuse not to give us high marks since our potion obviously works so well."

"Wait," Hermione said, interrupting the boys' banter. "I'm just wondering, Harry… did Snuffles tell you how the veil will recognize that Remus remembers?"

"Yeah… Snuffles said the spell is like a key, and when Remus remembers it will be like he's opening a lock. Snuffles and the Unspeakable constructed the spell so that Remus only has to speak the key to the spell, something he'd only know if he truly remembered his life. It'll work like a trigger."

Hermione frowned. "But what if Remus accidentally says the keyed word, before he truly remembers again?"

Harry smiled. "That's unlikely."

"Why?" Ron asked. "What's the key word?"

"Padfoot."

December 20

Dear Snuffles,

Thanks again for letting me stay with you over the first bit of Christmas hols—it was nice of you and Dumbledore to arrange it. It's nice to be back at Hogwarts too, of course. The Christmas feast is always nice, and I plan on nicking down to the kitchens after I write this to get some early samples of what we'll have. Plus I haven't seen Dobby in a while, and I have a pair of socks I want to give him from my last trip to Hogsmeade.

I wanted to let you know that I'm glad you're going to visit our mutual friend soon. I'll look forward to seeing you both when you're back.

Also… thanks for telling me that you love each other, like my parents did. It means a lot that you decided to tell me. I understand why you wouldn't have said earlier.

I know you said you started loving our mutual friend when you were in school together. If you don't mind me asking… when did you realize? And did my father know? (Not that you two were, you know, as obvious about it as Ron and Hermione are.)

I love you.

-Harry

December 22

Dear Harry,

I'm glad you're having a good time back at Hogwarts, though I must confess I hope that in the future you'll spend much less time there over the holidays—I miss having you around.

To be honest I was more nervous telling you about my feelings for Moony than I was when I confided in Prongs. I told Prongs how I felt about Moony when I stayed with him for the summer holidays before our seventh year. He was surprised, but after he recovered from the shock he was always supportive. Of course, I'd always been closer with Prongs than my real brother, but after that I truly considered him my brother. I can't say how much his support meant to me—how much it still means to me. Prongs became my confidant, since at the time the entire situation seemed entirely hopeless (you should have heard Moony laugh at me when he found that out—he has always thought me entirely too vain. I imagine he thought it was a good lesson for me.)

Your parents loved you so much, Harry. Always know that. And I know I will never be a father to you—I wouldn't want to be James to you—but I couldn't love you more if you were my own son (and no jokes about how it's a good thing I have you, or else I'd never know what that feels like—your father did enough of that when you were born, you know).

When I'm back from seeing Moony I'll contact you immediately (remember to keep it with you at all times). In the meantime, keep your head up, and stay safe. We'll see each other very soon, I'm sure. And Moony will be thrilled to see you as well.

I love you too, Harry.

-Snuffles

"Nox," Harry whispered, and the wandlight he'd been using to reread Sirius' letter flickered out. It was Christmas Eve, and he was freezing from standing atop the astronomy tower.

Harry slipped the note back into his pocket, fingers brushing briefly over cool metal, before pulling his new woolen cloak more tightly around himself. He had mentioned before visiting Sirius that he had grown so tall nearly all of his winter clothes were too small for him, and he'd have to go to Hogsmeade when he got back to Hogwarts. In retrospect, he supposed he shouldn't have been surprised when Sirius presented him with an entirely new wardrobe filled with the best wizarding robes galleons could buy.

Of course, that was nothing compared to what else Sirius had offered him—a home, once he was exonerated, something that Dumbledore had said is likely to happen within the next year if the right Death Eaters are questioned under Veritaserum. The new Minister of Magic, Amelia Bones—formerly the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, and someone Harry knows personally from his trial at the ministry—is fair, and would listen to Dumbledore once it became obvious he wasn't in league with Voldemort. All in all, things were looking up… as long as Sirius returned from beyond the veil.

Harry shivered.

Looking up, Harry realized that tonight the moon was barely a sliver in the sky, and that the stars were as bright as he'd ever seen them.

Harry wasn't one for crying—he cried when he thought Remus was dead, he cried when he thought he may lose Sirius, and he cried again with guilt after learning what he'd really caused Sirius to lose (though he made sure Sirius didn't know about that time). The words 'I love you' were still so foreign to him, still so strange to see in his own handwriting. He didn't want to lose that feeling, as selfish as it was.

Harry knew it was nearly midnight, and that Sirius and the Unspeakable who was helping him were making their way through the Department of Mysteries, maybe even climbing down the stone steps this very instant….

Harry continued to gaze at the starry night sky, refusing to look away from the brightest star of all, blinking rapidly so that its silver-blue edges would remain clear.

After months of working with Sirius Black, Corbin Croaker knew his first impression was uncannily correct. Sirius was indeed the biggest mystery of all, and apparently one that only Remus Lupin had ever solved.

He didn't voice these thoughts aloud, though, as he led Sirius through the atrium and onto a lift. The only words spoken so far that night was the cool, "Department of Mysteries," by the disembodied female voice as the grilles of the lift opened. They stepped off the lift and walked through the long, bare corridor, where at the end Croaker pushed open the black door leading to the circular room of doors.

Sirius was standing to his left as the black door fell shut behind them, and the room began to rotate. Once it stopped, Croaker proceeded immediately to a door on his right.

"How do you know which door is the correct one?" Sirius asked, and Croaker nearly started from hearing his voice.

"Oh, I'm afraid that's a secret," Croaker said, grinning. Sirius rolled his eyes, though he did so somewhat distractedly.

"Yeah, well, I figure what's one more violation to the thousand laws you've assured me we've already broken?" he said.

"Hmm," said Croaker, as he and Sirius strode through the door and down the steps leading to the raised dais. "Tell you what, I'll tell you when you get back."

"Fair enough," Sirius said, and clapped him on the back. A year ago—actually, even a few months ago—Croaker would never have thought he would be friends with Sirius Black, Azkaban fugitive and the 'rallying point' for escaped Death Eaters. He smiled a bit ruefully, thinking how very convoluted his life has become, and how very grateful he is for it.

He and Sirius climbed the steps up the dais, and stood before the fluttering veil. Croaker looked at Sirius, and saw that he was studying the veil intently. Croaker knew this was part of the spell, part of the magic, so he did nothing to break Sirius' concentration.

After a few more moments Sirius raised his wand, and began to whisper the words of the spell they'd spent months devising. Once, when Croaker and Sirius were up all night researching the construction of various memory spells, Croaker commented that Sirius was more than brilliant enough to make a great Unspeakable, to which Sirius had laughingly replied, "Well, I'm rather good at doing unspeakable things to certain werewolves, but don't tell Remus I said that. He thinks he's still in the closet, poor bloke." Croaker had been more than slightly surprised—but then one should always expect the unexpected when it comes to Sirius.

In the beginning, it had been a point of some concern that Sirius was so confident about the spell. But, after working it out with him for months, he realized that Sirius's instincts had been spot on—the spell itself would be effective. The only variable in the equation was Remus Lupin, and according to all who knew him he was as steadfast and reliable as the phases of the moon (though Croaker recognizes the analogy is cruel). At any rate, they were both more or less confident that it should work, despite its theoretical status.

Finally, Sirius lowered his wand, and took a deep breath. Croaker said nothing, but felt the waves of Sirius's magic wash over him. He knew it was an immensely powerful spell, of course, and that Sirius was an immensely powerful wizard, but the intensity of this magic was like none he had ever experienced before.

"This is it, then," said Sirius softly, and turned to give Croaker a final roguish grin. "Don't wait up for me, eh?"

Croaker smiled back, his heart beating faster with suspense. He looked for the right words to say—Merlin, he hadn't thought of this part until now, how he would feel watching his friend walk through the veil—and could only think of one thing.

"Merry Christmas, Sirius."

"Ah, it's not Christmas yet," he replied. "In fact—I believe I have slightly less than a minute before it is. Best be going, then."

"See you soon. Good luck."

Sirius nodded, all traces of frivolity gone from his countenance. "Thank you, Corbin. For everything."

"Not at all."

Sirius nodded, and turned his attention back to the veil, and raised his wand for the final incantation. "Commemini Padfoot," he said, the words of the spell that contained the key to bringing he and Remus back alive. It was the first time Croaker had heard the word Sirius had chosen, and he blinked in confusion. He didn't get a chance to ask, though, because in that blink of an eye Sirius had stepped through.

A few seconds before midnight, he understood, and began to laugh.