A/N: Thanks goes to 13thadaption for giving me a nudge along. Cheers, your insight and feedback are priceless. If you ever venture into your own material, I would be honoured to beta for you. :3 A special thank you also goes to Andro – you're a joy to bounce ideas off of and I'm thrilled to see you writing again. Your shit is brilliant and not nearly well-appreciated enough.
Thanks VotN, T3t and Tenages for your feedback and nitpicking at the details. CR is all the better for it.
And as always – Thanks DLP. 3
Red Morning Warning
Most of the laugh tracks on television were recorded in the early 1950s. These days, most of the people you hear laughing are dead.
– Chuck Palahniuk, Lullaby
Back-splash from the chill drizzle overhead soaked into the hemline of his trousers and socks.
Shorner stumbled along in the wake of morning traffic amongst Muggle London, stuffing a bacon-filled croissant into his mouth with one hand while mainlining caffeine with the other. Ducking his head against the rain, Archimedes Darren Shorner very much missed the exact moment when he was no longer alone.
"What is it worth to you if I said that Miles Bletchley has a graveyard full of dead Muggle girls in his garden?"
Struggling to find a middle ground between frowning and chewing, Shorner stared at the tall, black-clad figure keeping pace beside him.
Harry raised a dark brow, rainwater running off the heavy fabric of his overcoat. "Good morning, Archie."
Cheeks bulging like a chipmunk's, Shorner managed a rather muffled, "Gurd merning" in reply.
This was the sort of absurdity he hadn't nearly enough awakened brain cells to deal with on a Thursday morning. Caffeine built empires, economies and a steady supply of Java junkies. And for every snobby purist extolling the virtues of tea, Shorner challenged them to take on Harry without a bit of fortifying black sludge in their veins.
The man was like a cat that seemed to take pride in leaving Shorner all manner of tiny, mangled bodies on his doorstep.
"Who's Miles Bletchley?" said Shorner around the lump of food in his mouth.
"A sixth year at Hogwarts."
Perhaps it was the early hour, but this did nothing to convince Shorner that Harry wasn't about to start flapping his arms like wings and trilling 'Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!' in the middle of a crowded Muggle intersection. Conversations with the Sharr scion tended to hold an edge of nonsensical hilarity. Or maybe it was hysteria. Harry's penchant for over-the-top revelations of the future wasn't helping.
Shorner slurped at his Styrofoam cup as he side-eyed the agent's stoic countenance. "How sure are you of this?"
There wasn't a shred of doubt in Harry's voice. "Pretty damn sure."
He opened his mouth and paused a moment, only half-aware of how cloddish he looked. But Shorner's mind hadn't quite clicked over into what was bothering him about Harry's statement. Something about the casual ease with which Harry spoke felt a little too blasé to be real… "Oh fucking hell – you performed Legilmency on a minor."
Harry didn't reply, but there was a distinct lack of remorse in the shuttered, blank-faced expression he wore.
Frustrated anger welled up inside him and Shorner bit his tongue raw to keep the vitriol inside. The soggy remains of his breakfast splattered against the rim of a nearby rubbish bin.
Shorner splashed through the downpour, Harry's silent stride keeping pace.
"What were you thinking?" he hissed as they neared Shorner's designated drop point for Portkey use.
Harry shrugged, his no-cares-at-all attitude still in place. "I wasn't. It was mostly reflex."
Reflex – bleeding hell. "Is there anything you can do that's not lethal?"
Harry opened his mouth.
"Don't answer that." Shouldering him into the alleyway, Shorner pushed Harry further out of view. Harry went, but Shorner was under no delusion it was because of his own physical strength. He scrubbed a hand through his hair as he paced, coarse wet strands clinging to Shorner's fingers.
"You could go to Azkaban," Shorner bit out, pointing a finger at Harry. "Hell, you're lucky we haven't used the death penalty for centuries. And that's the least of it – add in that it was a child and you're technically an adult, you could be Kissed."
It was only a matter of time before Harry's hair-trigger temper screwed both of them over. "Why did you do it?" Shorner shook his head, struggling to make sense of the impending clusterfuck. "Why would you do something that stupid?"
"He attacked me in the corridors after I bumped into him," replied Harry.
Shorner waited for gravitas to show up and give some weight to Harry's words.
"And?" Shorner asked.
Harry gave a one-shoulder shrug. "And I recognized him from before."
"That's it? That's all?"
Peeved now, Harry glared at him, eyes gone acid green against the bland, colourless alleyway around them. "No Archie, that wasn't it. That wasn't all. The little shitsperm is a budding serial killer and future Death Eater. And if you listen to me for a moment, I'll even be able to give you some evidence."
Shorner pressed a knuckle into the throbbing below his eye. "I didn't tell you to stay away from Hogwarts because I'm trying to hinder you. I told you to stay away because of incidents like these. What if someone else had gotten hurt? Someone less disposable? Or do you just not give a damn about collateral?"
Harry's reply was as cold as the rain falling from above. "I get it. I get it. It was a stupid idea to go back," he said, the words crisp and biting. "And I wish I had listened to you, because there is no possible way I could ever play an ignorant, fucktarded child with any degree of believability. I have probably done more to put myself on everyone's radar than if I'd just disappeared and stayed gone."
Sharr smiled then, a brittle show of teeth. "Is that what you wanted to hear?"
Shuddering, Shorner tucked his hands into his pockets as rainwater seeped into the collar of his robes from his hair. What could he possibly say that might sink into the thick confines of Harry's twisted Escher-maze of a brain?
"You know," Shorner said with a sigh, pausing as he cracked his neck from side to side. "...I don't actually enjoy trying to protect people from your wrath."
A little of of the strangeness faded from Harry's expression. "I never said you did. Or implied it, to the best of my knowledge," he said, nonplussed.
'Lance this boil and let all of its stinking pus ooze free,' Shorner thought, straightening his stance.
"I can't control you," said Shorner, watching Harry's face fill with confusion. "What's more, I'm not going to try. That's your job."
Something tensed in Harry's shoulders; turning his head away from Shorner, he curled his fingers into a loose fist and began running his knuckles back and forth over his lower lip. But this time, he seemed to be listening to Shorner.
"If you want me to keep things from running off the rails, you need to A – " Shorner held out his thumb. "Tell me what's going on and B –" he continued, lifting his index finger. "Heed my advice. I don't just tell you these things to hear myself speak." Shorner tilted his head to try and catch Harry's eyes. "Your actions are a liability to us both."
Harry looked up. "I could leave."
Oh, for fuck's sake...
"I refuse to clean up after you if you start running from your problems," Shorner bit out.
A dark shape trotted into the mouth of the alleyway and gave a low, chest-rumbling woof.
Shorner took a few steps back. Grim, his mind cried out, that childhood fear creeping back into the corners of his psyche. Not quite 'paws-the-size-of-dinner-plates' large, but the canid's head easily came up to Shorner's waist, leather collar half-hidden by a thick ruff of fur dappled with water.
Harry frowned when he noticed the dog, giving a shake of the head that looked almost like a twitch rather than a negative gesture.
"Is he yours?" Shorner asked, heart still beating a hard note in his chest and throat.
"Of a sorts," Harry replied. Dropping his shoulders from their defensive position, Harry tucked his hands in his pockets and rocked back onto his heels. He exhaled. "I get that you're angry with me."
Before Shorner could tack on an acerbic response, Harry continued. "And if my reaction was … less than morally correct then it's because I know who he will become. Who he's already becoming."
"That doesn't matter – "
"It does." Harry's words were firm and unflinching. "I'm not saying that my actions weren't wrong. I am, however, saying that before I was pulled from his mind, I watched Miles Bletchley kill four different young women. And Archie – the numbers don't stop there."
Harry's Grim let out a low growl, bulk pressed against Harry's legs as if the animal were trying to herd him out of danger.
"Archie, Archie. Listen to me," Harry begged, green eyes beseeching. "Maybe I'm not fit company for much. But neither is he."
Tightening his collar against the slow seep of rainwater down the back of his neck, Shorner sighed. How long would his words continue going in one ear and out the other?
Shorner gave Harry a long, slow stare. "Any relation to the Griffon breeders?"
"He's the youngest of the three sons."
Shorner rubbed the rainwater from his face. "It just had to be one of the heirs."
The dog's nostrils flared as if scenting the air, it's pale gaze keen and bright.
"It's only a matter of time before he works his way up to preying on young witches," said Harry. Up close, bruised smudges rested under his eyes, lids heroin-chic heavy. Whatever rest he'd gotten hadn't been enough. "Bletchley has no self-control. He's only going to escalate."
Shorner nodded, not disagreeing with Harry's assessment.
Harry swiped his rain-wet hair back out of his eyes, crow-feather black slick like an oil spill. "I have somebody following him, but beyond that I'm overstretched."
Exhaling, Shorner considered his options. At least Harry hadn't smothered the little bastard straight off. "You do realize the questionable legality of having somebody trailed when you are deliberately seeking evidence for a conviction."
"I'd also like to applaud the deviation from your usual tactics of shooting first and asking questions later."
The dog let out a huff of air.
Some of the distance began to recede from Harry's expression, the corner of his mouth lifting into a wry almost-smirk. "Careful now, someone might mistake that for a compliment."
Harry smiled a lot less than he used to. Less fake, more honest, more than just mimicking the expressions he thought he was supposed to have. These days, the mask of the disreputable charmer wore as thin as tissue-paper.
"Another way we could get a conviction on Bletchley is if the family publicly disowns him and washes their hands of him entirely."
Wincing, Harry made a noise of disdain in the back of his throat. "Oh that's not going to happen anytime soon. They'd lose face in front of the wizarding world by owning up to his actions. "
Shorner exchanged a knowing look with him.
The Bletchleys were going to sweep the incident under the rug as soon as feasibly possible. Threats, money, extortion – however they could get it done.
Shorner hummed in agreement. "I'd go so far to say there is a high likelihood that somebody is already aware of the son's proclivities. He's sixteen, which means he's smart enough to know he has to cover this up, but lacks the resources and knowledge as to how."
Harry nodded. "But he's learning fast. I think I caught him at just the right time, just vulnerable enough, just ignorant enough. We're going to have to be quick, because now he's aware that somebody else knows what he is."
Side-eyeing Harry for a moment, Shorner considered his options. Limited though they were, it could always be worse. Knowing Harry...
"Famous last words," Shorner muttered to himself. "All right! You bring me proof of his guilt – more than just a handful of memories that won't hold up in court, not without putting you away for a very long time – and I'll find the right people to build a case against him.
"If we're doing this..." Shorner ran his tongue over his back molars as he thought. "...this heroing business, then we're doing it the legal way."
Harry's eyebrows rose. "Heroing business? I'm not much for spandex and primary colour palettes."
Shorner clamped down on the 'I'm not much for vigilante bullshit either' waiting to escape. "Politics might be just as cut-throat, but it's a lot more legal than murder."
Scuffing a boot against a rough patch of concrete, Harry crossed his arms and nodded. "I won't disagree with you. But where are you going with this?"
"Blackwood's not too pleased with you. For one, you're occupying a very dubious grey area within the DoM at the moment. You are an agent...without an agency. And while all departments fall under the same aegis, I'm running research and development. Harry, you aren't actually a part of my department."
Harry twitched, head jerking back, a small spasm of movement running through his left arm like he'd stopped himself from reaching for his wand. "Oh. I'd forgotten that you weren't yet the – never mind," he said, waving a hand through the air like he was brushing away his own words. "I – yeah, never mind."
Shorner eyed him for a moment. "As of right now, you've been answering to me when you should be reporting to Blackwood. You would have more flexibility if you weren't military personnel."
Green eyes flicked back and forth as if reading in mid-air. Then, Harry sucked in a breath of air and turned an incredulous look on Shorner. "You want me to go civilian."
Nodding, Shorner replied, "Despite its reputation, Mission Ops maintains a fairly rigorous standard of discipline amongst the military division."
Mouth twisted with bitter humour, Harry gave him an expectant look. "What are you getting at?"
"You want me to be honest?"
Harry lifted his shoulders in a sarcastic shrug. "Why stop now?"
"You're not suited for it," Shorner stated, as bold and unrepentant as Harry had been earlier. "I think you desperately need the discipline, but I lack the inclination to enforce it. You're on your own, most times by your own choosing. You don't work well with others and you don't want to work well with others."
"Fuck you, Archie."
"Don't be obstinate." Shorner cast a subtle drying charm over his shoes and robes. Puddled water disappeared from his shoes, though the gummy feeling of his socks remained. The rain itself had receded back to a misty drizzle, more damp humidity than actual rainfall. "Getting you to talk to me is like pulling teeth. That alone tells me you're not used to working with people. You're not a team player – "
Harry bared his teeth in a quick, frustrated grimace. "Archie – "
"And there's nothing wrong with that." Lifting a hand to stop Harry's flow of words, Shorner continued, "But not where you are. Not in Mission Ops."
The Grim let out a low, unhappy rumble and Harry absently reached down to scratch his ears. "What is this? Are you trying to tell me you're not going to help – ?"
"No, you idiot," said Shorner, exasperation beginning to get the better of his temper. "I'm trying to get you to work for me."
Harry regarded him with a cool-edged reserve, but Shorner was learning to read the man well-enough to know he'd just ripped the figurative rug out from under him. "Why?"
"I think you would do better in a less combative environment." Shorner gave a casual shrug as if this were nothing more than an idle chat about the weather. "You'd have more legal flexibility as well."
"But you're just a researcher," said Harry, shaking his head with an odd sort of smile.
"Am I? You came to me before anybody else. Why?" It wasn't rhetorical but Harry seemed to take it that way.
Shorner continued. "Because of the very nature of Research and Development, my department gets more leeway than any other. You want independence. And you despise being told what to do. You'll like it even less so when they start sending you on actual missions – particularly ones that have nothing to do with your agenda and everything to do with their own."
Harry frowned, staring down at the Grim leaning against his leg.
Green eyes flicked up.
"I'm not asking for an answer right now. But the only reason why you've gotten this far? You're currently written off in the books as being on holiday. I hope you've enjoyed your paid vacation – it may just yet cost me my job."
"Goddamnit Archie," he breathed, the sound damn near inaudible. "No pressure. I had no idea I wasn't on the books."
"That's just it – you lose sight of the world beyond your obsessions. Everyone else gets left behind in your wake and to hell with the consequences." Shorner let out a gusty sigh. "No man is an island – least of all yourself."
Harry let out a short, barked laugh. "Yeah, well, I wasn't hired for my ability to think or my stunning moral fibre," he murmured, bitter self-depreciation edging into his voice.
Shorner's jaw ached from grinding his teeth so much. "That's a load of shite and you know it. You have brains – you just don't use them."
"Aren't you going to be late?" asked Harry in a rather snide manner, ignoring Shorner's words entirely.
Right then. If Harry wanted to be childish – "I'm the boss," Shorner replied as he crossed his arms, mocking him with the same flippancy. "I can be as late as I feel like."
It was like talking to a brick wall. The grim cast a pale-eyed look over the tableau and hunkered his head down around his shoulders, half-way sitting on Harry's feet.
"Humour me," said Shorner.
A tic started up in Harry's jaw as he began tapping his fingers against his leg with impatience. "Fine! I'll think about it."
"Good, because you have a two-fold problem. Albania isn't about to let a member of a militarized agency go romping through their back-country."
"You set me up."
"You wound me. I'm getting almost as little cooperation out of East Europe as I am out of you." Shorner spread his hands. "I'm still fighting with the red tape on your other little side project. Albania is leery of letting a foreign operative have access to their tracking controls."
Harry shifted in place, loosening his joints. "Well, they're not stupid. Did you mention the part where myself and your buddy North would be hunting for a dangerous criminal who'd murdered thirteen people?"
"They don't care. As far as Albanian law enforcement is concerned, letting a Special Forces op loose after an unnamed criminal is like setting yourself on fire to get rid of a head-cold," said Shorner, enjoying the rather absurd face Harry made at his euphemism. "Can't bring up Pettigrew as an agent of Voldemort because then we'd be crying wolf – especially if we couldn't show hard evidence. Put ourselves in the middle of a right shitstorm of hysteria."
A low growl rolled out of the Grim's throat, gums peeled back from gnashing teeth.
Shorner eyed the jagged zig-zag of ivory in the mutt's mouth as he slipped his hands into his pockets.
"He's not going to bite you," Harry muttered.
"It's not him I'm worried about." Shorner's knuckles popped as he gripped his Portkey. His fingers spasmed, a shudder rippling up his arm. "I'm aware," Shorner began, as he loosened his grip on the tin figurine. "...that Mission Ops was not your first choice of employment."
"Then you're also aware of what I did to get hired."
"Probably not much different than what you're doing now."
"Archie – ," Harry began. He shook his head and stuffed his hands in his pockets, eyes cast on the ground. Harry kicked an empty glass bottle out of the way as Shorner pulled out his Portkey.
"I am a liability to you," he said, the words emerging with grudging reluctance. "And I wonder if you would be better off cutting me loose."
Shorner scoffed. "So that the Ministry can come down on you like a teetering pile of bricks? You've made more enemies than friends and with a last name like yours, the DoM is begging for an excuse to be rid of you. Preferably in a coffin."
Harry tilted his head back, almost hiding his eye-roll. "I hear you loud and clear, Archie. This isn't news to me."
'It isn't?' Shorner wanted to ask. How much of this conversation was just Harry agreeing with him so he would stop harping on about the issue? "Just...keep your head, will you? Low-key means I shouldn't be hearing about you via the office gossip chain."
With a little thrill of sensation, like an almost physical 'ding!', Shorner's Portkey swept him up and tossed him into the ethers before Harry could snap out a reply.
Sometimes, talking with Archie was like getting punched in the face.
One for the money. Two for the show. Three's gonna be heady and four just blows.
Like getting punched in the face by a fucking prizefighter.
Sirius let out a whuff, sitting so close to Harry that bony ribs brushed his leg each time his godfather drew breath.
The corners of Harry's mouth turned upward without his prompting. "You remember how your unit spent ages looking for the trade markets in Knocturn?"
Baleful grey eyes rolled to stare at him, as Harry reached into his collar.
The chain of the time-tuner lengthened and pooled into Harry's palm, golden links dripping through his fingers.
"Wanna know a secret?"
The door to Severus' office bounced off the far wall.
Priscilla Bletchley was a thin slip of a woman. It was a frail sort of thin that spoke of hunger instead of health, wan hollows beneath the sharp bones of her small face. She swept into his office in robes a shade of beige that called itself "ecru" instead of "tan", a puff of cream-coloured lace decorating the bib; pearls and tiny gold beads winking in the light from the thick coils of blonde hair pinned atop her head. The ornate links of a wide golden bracelet clinked around her wrist, its matching heavy earrings dragging her earlobes so far down that the piercing itself looked more like a slit than a hole.
The staccato click of gold and cream striped heels rattled off the flagstones as the mother of Miles Bletchley strode through the room. She moved with a rather peculiar stride; her head and spine arched back, as if the motions of wading hip-first through molasses could be mistaken for grace.
"I see you've decided to move up the time of our appointment," Severus droned as he scrawled a red P across a potions essay comparing the steps of the Swelling Solution to the latest gameplay of the Holyhead Harpies.
Her expression went through a series of contortions before deciding on a scowl. "Exactly when were you going to inform me that my son was attacked by another student?"
"That would depend on whether you are demanding reparations from this school or from Potter himself."
Another essay left the pile with a jagged P etched across it.
The visitor's chair was jerked from beneath Severus' desk. A great gold and cream striped handbag hit the seat as a pair of hands slammed down in front of him, gold-polished talons curling into the pile of parchment.
"It appears they had an altercation." No, they'd had a chest-beating testosterone thrill. Only, Miles Bletchley hadn't expected Potter to be just as hyper-aggressive as himself. If Severus hated James Potter for being an unmitigated prick, then he could safely say he hated his son for entirely different reasons. Teenagers were really only tolerable to other teenagers.
Severus left a grudging Acceptable across George Weasley's essay.
"Potter was spotted running through the halls after skipping class," Severus intoned. "He collided with your son on the fourth floor after emerging from a passageway. Words were exchanged as well as several curses."
"And?" Priscilla inquired, impatience riding a nasal edge in her voice.
"While several of his friends vouched for him, I saw enough of the incident to know your son threw the first curse."
Her shoulders stiffened, posture becoming rigid. "That may be, but he is still the one lying injured in the hospital wing."
Whatever Potter had played with inside Miles Bletchley's mind left the sixth year student bedridden by sudden, uncontrollable seizures.
"Several upper year students ganging up on a thirteen-year-old isn't going to gain him many supporters."
Priscilla narrowed her eyes. "You speak as if I'm demanding Miles be let off with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. Make no mistake, my son's actions were a deplorable display of immaturity."
Severus snorted. "Forgive me," he said, jotting down another red-inked P. "I've yet to mistake violent impulse for immaturity."
"You have no room to criticise my parenting skills."
Severus let out an exasperated sigh. "Would it surprise you to learn that as of yesterday evening, Harry Potter is no longer a student at this facility?"
Knockturn Alley was alien and strange. A mirror-world of Diagon Alley; Knockturn was wrong, for all of the reasons that Harry was wrong. It left a swooping sensation in Sirius' belly, as if he'd missed a step on the stairs, foot coming down further than his body expected.
The tight, narrow corridors of the alley frazzled Sirius' nerves. Enclosed spaces left him feeling like he was going to start scrabbling at the walls. Same was true of the exact opposite. He'd back into a corner if caught in a too wide space, too big, too open, too much, arms outstretched like he was warding off an attack. Combined with his new allergy to sensory input, it was a recipe for disaster.
'It' was the new verbal tic of his brain, carefully sanitized verbs, adverbs, proper nouns, no trace of humanity or overwhelming emotion to send his allergy into a tizzy. As if he could forcefully lock his memories away and medicate them into compliance. Not there, not there, not there.
Sirius picked his way through the muck puddled on the streets, the fur between the pads of his paws soaking up water like a sponge. His godson's golden time-turner had dropped them back into the middle of the morning showers – Impervious charms didn't tend shift well from human clothing to a dog's thick fur.
The rain blunted the early light, turning the sky into a flat wash of grey. It could have been mid-morning. It could have been two in the afternoon. Sirius felt as if they moved through a dimensionless non-hour of time, the dark maze of Knockturn humming with ozone-tinged magic.
Harry's heavy Muggle overcoat changed, glamour lifting from its threads. It grew in length, black on black embroidery crawling up the sleeves and down the front placket, baring a faint, if ornate, military appearance. His godson seemed to favour the style over traditional wizard robes.
Pureblood families like the Blacks eschewed any Muggle-influenced clothing. Considered less 'Wizarding' according to his mother, this working class garb.
Which was hilarious, James remarked. If purebloods were truly being traditional, they wouldn't be caught dead in a garment that borrowed its design from Muggle monks. "We'd still be wearing what the Romans wore." James had laughed, then. "How do you feel about toga parties?"
Sirius snorted. Allergy, sure, but it was old habit to pick his scabby places.
He trotted after Harry, keen ears following the quiet tump-tump of his godson's boots through the alley hubbub like a heartbeat.
Dull skies darkened to a heavy slate grey, cold water winding chill fingers into his fur. He shivered, glancing up at Harry's back. Rumbling pressure bore down on Sirius' ears, his godson's thunderstorm scent almost indistinguishable from the alley around them.
A break in the towering rickety architecture of Knockturn's commercial district drew near. Sirius splashed underneath an overhead footbridge, dodging the stream of water pouring off its gutter into one of the small canals running through the district below.
Blinking, Sirius paused, dog-form letting out an involuntary whine. Hadn't the break, the street, been on the left? He twitched, startled when he looked up at Harry's already knowing expression.
"You get used to it," Harry murmured. "It helps if you know where you're going. Doesn't change quite so much, then."
How and why crowded his mouth, the questions leaving him with a low, canine r-r-r-ruff.
Dog-self lacked a few creature comforts, speech being one of them.
Harry grinned, quick and fleeting. "I lived here long enough to become comfortable with the Shifting." It sounded like it was capitalised, proper name, proper noun, an actual title for an actual event. "You find something new everyday."
Lived here? Lived here? The questions how and why queued up in his brain again with no outlet, so Sirius borrowed from his godson's extensive vocabulary: Fuck-fuck fuckity-fuck.
He shook the water from his fur, expressing his displeasure the only way he currently could. Which did nothing considering Harry's Impervious charm.
"I would have cast the spell for you," Harry replied with mild amusement. "But you get twitchy whenever I point a wand your direction."
Sirius made a garbled rawr-rawr deep in his throat, snapping his jaws shut around each 'syllable'.
Harry cupped a hand around his ear, leaning toward him. "What's that, boy? Timmy's down the well?"
Before common sense could tell him otherwise, Sirius left a stinging nip on the back of Harry's calf. And despite the resulting swat to one floppy ear, it was well worth it.
One short turn off, a set of stairs and a thin meandering street led them to a wrought-iron gate covered in red-orange ivy. Nothing unusual. It was the most normal the alleyway seemed so far. Harry pushed open the gate. Beyond was a small garden filled with night-blooming plants – not uncommon for how little sun it received. At night, those unfurled buds were probably covered in organic luminescence the colour of an Aurora Borealis.
That same red-orange ivy crawled over the stone face of the town-house, almost obscuring the stained glass of the decorative windows. A thick curtain of it hung like a lacy drape over the eaves of a heavy oak door studded with iron nails.
Harry rapped the back of his knuckles against the door.
Shick-shuck went the lock and the taste of ginger and cinnamon burst upon Sirius' tongue as the door swung open.
Inside it was warm, like the residual heat from a stove. Candlelight gleamed in the dimness, the low ceiling and walls a deep, soot-stained burgundy, the wooden floor scuffed smooth from years of wear.
The table was piled with food, a harvest feast, the last of the year's bounty.
Drool puddled in Sirius' jowls at the heady scents.
A crown of gilded leaves shone in the light, dripping candle-wax pooling beneath. Little roasted hens lay in a neat row next to a slab of venison. Pomegranate seeds, blood-rich in colour, were scattered across the table along with apples, pears, jars of amber honey and tiny yellow flowers that looked like delicate frills of silk. Gold points of light winked from bead-work set into the jacquard table cloth.
A slash of dark void moved through the candlelight, pale hands emerging from black cloth to pour a goblet of wine.
The corner of Harry's mouth curled into what should have been a smile, a pleasant veneer fitting over his face like a mask. "Most people would say it's a bit early to drink."
"Knowing your disregard for conventional measures of time, I'd wager it's near mid-day." The man looked up, long black hair falling back from a face that could have been as young as Harry's. Pale, vaguely Spanish features with wide cheekbones, straight nose, dark brows, dark brown eyes, average height, thin, no noticeable scars or moles and plain black clothing that rode the same line between Wizarding and Muggle as Harry's garb. Sirius' Auror training prompted him to gather the information, filing it next to all of his godson's strange habits and mannerisms.
His godson's expression tightened, that amicable mask ill-fitting over the temper rising beneath it. "Every step I take, every move I make, you'll be watching me?" his godson snarked, hand rising to touch the lump where the time-turner rested beneath his shirt.
"I have a vested interest in your peculiarities."
Harry's not-smile widened. "Some people would call that stalking." A subtle curl of anger wove its way through his godson's words. Understandable – Sirius wasn't much fond of the idea that some unknown, unseen individual was following his godson.
But instead of defending himself, the man laughed. Sirius didn't like the way an after-echo of it hung in the air beyond the normal human hearing range.
The man picked up the goblet and set it down across the table in front of the single, backless chair with up-swept armrests. "Why don't you join me."
It wasn't a request.
Harry didn't move.
"There's no harm in keeping an eye out for your well-being." Raising a brow, wry smile unwavering – the expression so, so familiar, Sirius had seen it mere moments ago on his own godson's face – Harry's acquaintance said, "Might I remind you that it was you who requested this meeting?"
Slow and reluctant, that faint impression of anger lingering in his expression, Harry crossed the room, a hand falling onto the armrest of the chair. The resulting screech as it was dragged across the floor left Sirius wincing.
"There," said the man as Harry dropped into the seat. "Was that so hard?"
Mirror-mirror, his godson raised a brow. "Don't treat me like an infant. You're never hospitable – forgive me for being a bit paranoid."
The man sat in his own chair, reaching out to pile food onto his plate. The scents intensified as he lifted lids and shifted trays. "Oh, have I been remiss in my manners?"
Sirius plopped down beside Harry's chair, resigning himself to the sounds of his stomach digesting itself.
His godson chuckled, low and gritted. "Strome...you are a lot of things." He waited for the man – Strome – to take a bite out of his own meal before serving himself from the same dishes. "Hospitable has never been one of them."
Harry's voice was different to his canine ears than to his limited human ones. It spread out over a wider range of sound, vocals touching notes everywhere from the rough susurrus of a whisper to a throaty croon. That eye-watering thunderstorm buzz filled the room to the brim, competing with Strome's scent of old blood; the thick cloying stench of rotting flowers; a hot metal tang sitting on the back of his tongue.
Strome drank from a rough clay cup filled to the brim with something too thick to be wine. For all of his supposed warmth, he watched Harry with eyes as hard as volcanic glass.
Muddled footsteps sounded in a room adjacent, too big and heavy to be anything but human. Which meant Strome had human servants and cooks. No house-elves for this wizard. Strome was obviously well-off, flaunting it in both his home and this elaborate spread before them.
A heavy-set wizard of middle-age wiped a hand on a stained apron as he shuffled through a doorway set off from the room. Raising his muzzle, Sirius inhaled the smell of hot meat as it swirled through the room over the edge of candle-smoke and spice. The cook set a plate of bones still dripping with grease from some large herd animal in front of Sirius on the floor.
Sirius' tail made a happy little tick-tock motion without his input. Dog-self didn't mind raw meat or old bones from the cooking pot. Dog-self also didn't mind eating off the floor. This was more than a step up from prison.
And muzzle down in his dish, he'd missed part of the low conversation going on above. Dog-self was stupid about food. His human form didn't feel the hunger pangs any-more, but dog-self never forgot them.
" – you're losing it, Strome," came the antagonised sound of Harry's voice.
"Why else would you seek me out?"
Harry hummed, titling his head down to hide the bright spark of fury in his eyes behind the dark curtain of his fringe. Sirius licked the grease from his muzzle, very aware of his godson's free hand clenching into a white-knuckled fist beneath the cover of the table.
"That would depend," said his godson. He took a sip of wine. "What if I told you that Miles Bletchley has buried the remains of over a dozen Muggle girls in the griffins' feeding pens?"
Strome's clay cup met the table with a dull clack. Orange light glimmered in the dark curve of the man's eyes.
Sirius' startled inhale translated into a gurgled wuff. He buried his muzzle in his dish before he could give away the game.
This was who his godson was hanging around? Sirius liked that Shorner fellow a lot better now.
"What would you do if I told you that he also has a few dead squibs in his garden of delights?" Harry looked up from his plate, that not-smile spreading wide and sharp. "I can't imagine how his father's business partners would feel, knowing that he can't contain his own son's fuck-ups, let alone their sensitive information."
Strome straightened in his chair, limbs no longer moving like a human's, but odd now, off somehow, as if there were more joints hidden beneath his skin. "He hunts from wizarding stock?"
"Not yet." Harry looked him in the eye, a strange curl of the lip curving into an amused expression. "But he will."
Expression stilling, Strome dug his fingers into the table, pale gouges scraping free of the wood. "You've Seen this," he murmured.
Harry let out an open-mouthed hiss of laughter. "I've tasted the blood-streaked snow beneath his feet."
"That won't be enough –"
"How about a pile of bones tall enough to be used as a funeral pyre?"
Strome pursed his mouth, brows furrowing. "I would advise caution."
"More so than usual?" Harry replied.
"You should know that the Aurors are looking for you. After your scuffle ended in multiple fatalities of Ministry employees, your description was circulated through the alley. You have more allies than not considering your half-breed status, but take care all the same. Somebody will be looking to make easy gold."
Half-breed? Some new slang for halfblood? What scuffle? The one with the military folk? Or a different one? The fur rose on Sirius' back and he didn't feel nearly so comfortable sitting beside Harry. He wanted nothing more than to leave this room and the people in it.
Harry shrugged, biting down into a slice of glazed fruit, wine-dark juices dripping down his chin and wrist.
"He was a Death Eater," he replied, lifting his arm to lick up the mess like a common street rat.
Strome sighed and gave Harry a patronizing smile. "Of course, your...vendetta."
"You say that as if I sought him out."
"A crime of opportunity then. I wonder what your nephew thinks about your one-man crusade against the remnants of last season's dark lord?"
Harry's expression filled with cool regard. "He doesn't know."
Strome smiled. "Liar."
A mokeskin bag was tossed onto the table between them, scattering the debris of their meal. Made of dull leather the colour of old silver and covered in a faint green sheen like pond scum, it was not much larger than a man's fist. Rare, and not something a layman could acquire; Sirius' last memory of these things were in the evidence room at the DMLE before his team shipped out on a fruitless search of Knocturn Alley.
"I have a job for you," said Strome as if this was an everyday occurrence.
Sirius very abruptly realised just whom Harry was calling a close 'acquaintance'.
A Dealer. A black-market Dealer.
Another realization, a darker one, came hand in hand. His godson wasn't just an adopted son of Knockturn Alley, he was part of an organization that put more criminals to work than any other system.
Harry was one of Strome's runners.
On cue, that little verbal jingle ran through his head again: Fuck-fuck fuckity-fuck.
"In return, you will receive this."
Harry picked up the hand-inked sketch of a jagged shard of purple crystal. Sirius couldn't quite see it from his vantage point of the floor, but the crystal appeared to be long and thin with strange facets etched into the surface at one end like a key.
Picking up the mokeskin bag, Harry let it swing in front of him by its ties. "And where exactly am I taking this?"
Propped against Strome's chair was a tall, leather satchel full of rolled maps. Through the table legs, Sirius watched the vampire tug free a scroll covered in a wash of light blue meant to indicate water. Poking his nose above the table, he focused on the lines of the map; grateful that unlike real dogs, he could perceive colour.
"Here," said Strome, tapping a finger against a piece of land right next to the massive spread of blue. "You'll meet with a representative of Ximon's, though if you don't eventually meet with the man himself, I'd take it as very poor hospitality."
"Unlike you?" Harry muttered.
"Unlike me," the Dealer agreed, taking the jibe with humour.
Harry leant over map to study the details of their journey. Light gleamed against his chest. Sirius found himself looking for mirrors and shiny surfaces for the source of the reflection before the point of light slipped free from the loose vee of Harry's shirt. Tink-shink went the tiny rattle of delicate metal on metal.
A necromancer's reliquary.
'It, call it it,' his brain said. 'It is a reliquary.'
Sirius didn't know where Harry got it. Knew it was Necromancy, though. It was an augury's skull no longer than his thumb; it dangled from a thin chain, casting cold pale light over the table, a frost-like patina coating the warped glass vial within. It wasn't a mere piece of decorative jewellery worn in some stupid rebellious teenage style. No, it was bright and cold and active; the smell stinging his nose like frostbite. Something Dead already clung to it, anchoring themselves in this world.
In the Ancient and Most Noble House of Black, dark paraphernalia was worshipped like the bones of a saint.
Not even the Blacks would touch Necromancy.
There'd been a reliquary tucked away in a warded case in Father's office, some remnant of a great-great-great-grandparent's remains too dangerous to touch with bare hands. Sirius had stumbled across it looking at the forbidden books from Father's private library with Regulus. The lecture and subsequent lashing boiled down to one thing: don't fuck with dead things. What was dead, stayed dead. He had no fuckity-fuck fucking clue his godson was mucking around with that level of dark magic.
Necromancy held such a stigma, Sirius couldn't imagine where Harry would learn of it – let alone practice it.
Sirius swallowed back bile, gritty bits of half-digested bone-mush scraping his throat.
A pair of flat circular plates on a shot-bead chain clinked against the glass vial.
Strome raised a dark brow. "Interesting choice of adornment."
Harry looked up, blinking at the vampire as he tilted his head, a hand still hovering over the map.
Strome tapped his sternum.
It clinked against the tags as Harry looked down, chill light glancing off a series of etched runes. "Ah, a souvenir from my vacation in South America."
An interesting blend of scents rose from the man. Blood mixed with hot, bright metal.
"My little reminder," Harry continued, cupping a hand around it and the tags, tucking them away. "About the folly of arrogance."
An odd smile curled across Strome's face. "Whose arrogance?"
Harry made a questioning hum.
The Dealer chuckled low in his throat, sharp eye-teeth there and gone, crossing his arms as he studied Harry's expression. He shook his head; straightened, reaching for his cup and throwing the remains back like a bitter potion. "You show up in Tartarus, begging me for a job. Now what would you," said Strome, pointing to Harry. "With your resources need from somebody like me?"
This...confusing as hell kind of statement made all the sense to his godson. Harry smiled. "Your contacts," he replied. "I'm jumping back into the game."
Strome smiled back, just as pleasant, just as fake. "What about your job?"
"I've recently had some other offers."
"By the way," Strome said, tossing a bulky package at Harry who caught it with a startled noise. "I believe these are yours."
His godson untangled the twine binding it together, revealing the sculpted edge of a type of scaled hide. He cackled. "New shoes!" Harry crowed. "I didn't think you'd take me seriously."
The edge of Strome's mouth curled. "I've found a buyer for the ingredients once the poisoner is through with the teeth."
"You don't sound too happy about that," said Harry, tilting his head in question, fingers stilling from where they were fidgeting with the laces.
Pulling a slim gold case from his pocket, Strome picked out a thin cigarette and lit it. A curl of soft, blue-tinged smoke meandered through the candlelight. "They're inquiring about my sources."
"What did you tell them?"
Strome sighed at Harry's expectant look.
"I told them I had a private supplier looking to offload some illegally acquired product. But they were quite insistent about your name."
Harry's stare went stony. "You gave them my name."
"I gave them a name," Strome corrected.
"What name, Strome," asked Harry, a thready tinge of panic weaving through his anger. "What name did you give them?"
The Dealer didn't appear the least bit ruffled. "Hyperion."
Harry rubbed a hand over his face. "Hyperion, oh god that's pretentious." Exhaling, he ran the knuckles of his left hand over the curve of his lower lip, an involuntary gesture he seemed largely unaware of. "Fuck me. The last thing I need is another name."
Amused and unsympathetic, Strome clicked his tongue. "Struggling to juggle your identities, young Harry?"
"I abhor your sense of humour." He jerked his chin at the Dealer. "What are you going to do about Bletchley?"
"Mmmm... Muggle hunting, well that's just messy and bad for business," Strome purred, affecting a thoughtful expression. "I have been looking to branch out into griffins." The spark on the end of his cigarette flared as orange as his pupils as the vampire inhaled. "I'll send for you when I can arrange a secure Portkey."
Harry gave him a slight nod."Thanks for lunch," he replied, standing and straightening his coat.
That wry look was back. "You're welcome. I wish you all the best, Master Sharr." Strome met Sirius' eyes and smiled that damnably familiar smile – Harry's wide white, sharp grin – and tipped an invisible hat in salute. "Mr. Black."
Albus Dumbledore watched the arms of his silver instruments whirl in lazy spirals. Rain pattered against the windows in intermittent patterns.
"Did I do the right thing?" the headmaster asked into the silence. Beyond the windowpanes, stormclouds roiled grey-green and the purpling edges of a bruise, choking the afternoon light from the sky.
Severus let out a dismissive snort. "You ask me that as if I believe there is a right thing to be done."
Not expelled, but no longer a student, Potter's status hung in legal limbo. By removing himself from the school, any dispute between the Bletchleys and Potter was now a private matter. But with Sharr lurking in the shadows, Severus doubted the Bletchleys would make an overt move against him.
He crossed his arms, leaning back in the chair in front of Dumbledore's desk. "Priscilla Bletchley would have pushed for lawful retaliation rights if I hadn't mentioned Potter's disappearance. You are no good to the brat while encumbered with legal battles."
Albus shook his head. "Occlumency is a rather esoteric branch of magic. It would be difficult for the prosecution to prove Harry used its counterpart as an instrument of assault – he is protected to a degree in that there is simply not enough information available about Legilimency for a non-practitioner to establish its use as a weapon.
"That is, of course, banking on the assumption the Bletchley family will not push for a full compensation for injury in a private lawsuit." The headmaster closed his eyes with a sigh, taking off his glasses and rubbing at the bridge of his long, crooked nose. "I cannot help but feel as if we have thrown him to the wolves."
"Through no fault of your own," replied Severus. "The Ministry demands we report missing children and I doubt we could keep Potter's disappearing act from their notice."
There was a creased piece of parchment on the headmaster's desk with the words, 'Thank you' scrawled across it. Dumbledore couldn't stop touching the letter, something like grief lingering on the tired lines of his face.
"You know as well as I how difficult it will be to find him," said Severus. "Especially considering the company he currently keeps."
"You were the last person to see him."
Severus dipped his head in a single nod. "I followed him to the carriage house. He was gone however, when I entered."
Dumbledore hummed to himself. "Was there a ghost there? A little girl?"
"No, only bones and dirt. He wandered into the forest afterwards and I cannot tell you where he went from there."
"Then how did you know to check the Tower?"
A small upwards turn pulled at his mouth before subsiding. "Gryffindors have a homing instinct comparable to that of the carrier pigeon. You have another problem."
"The Fat Friar is missing."
"Missing?" Albus glanced at the myriad of spinning instruments crowding his shelves.
"Did I say missing? I meant gone."
Dumbledore frowned, alarmed and not hiding it.
"Vanished," Severus continued. "Entirely."
The piece of broken masonry sailed through the window pane.
Broken glass spattered refracted sunlight against the ceiling.
"Master Sharr?" Sirius howled.
Harry sneered, an expression that had never looked at home on James' face. "Would you calm yourself?"
"The fuck I will!"
"Do you really believe your temper tantrum is going to make me see the light?"
Sirius snatched up another piece of debris and flung it through the window to keep from punching his own godson.
Hands braced on his knees, Sirius panted for breath. The air tasted of dust, stale and gritty. Somewhere along the way, Harry had shed his coat and jumper, the reliquary outlined in thin cotton, his too-wide shoulders straining the stitches.
"And this," he hissed, stalking over to his godson, heartbeat thudding in his veins too hard for him to feel anything but anger. Any dislike of new stimuli – God, he hated it when people touched him just brushing close on the street get away get away get away – vanished under the fearfury causing his hands to tremble. He grabbed Harry's collar – don't touch his skin, don't touch, don't touch, don't fucking touch anything and don't touch it – shaking the fabric 'til the reliquary slipped free of his godson's t-shirt. "What is this? What is this?"
Harry's expression could have been made of marble. And then, topsy-turvy, Sirius was looking at the ceiling, breath knocked from his lungs by the impact of his back meeting the floor.
"What is wrong with you?" asked Harry.
Air rushed back into his lungs in short, gasping heaves.
Sirius' mind tripped over itself again.
Moisture pricked at the corners of his eyes. Shaking his head, Sirius scrubbed a rough hand through his hair. "Why did you even need me today?" he rasped.
Sighing, Harry slung his coat and jumper across the couch, the tangled wad of his blankets still lumped up over the armrest. He raised an eyebrow, expression frosty. "It's obviously not as a responsible adult."
"Don't." Sirius sat up. "Don't you dare just give me a sarcastic reply when you've been lying to my face."
Harry tilted his head and then shrugged. "Some kids do chores for their allowance. Me? I actually have to work for my pocket-change. A Grim makes for a pretty good bodyguard."
Sirius felt his mouth work to wrap itself around the words why and how. "But you're thirteen."
His godson smiled, all teeth, no mirth, the lines of his face too-sharp and the expression too-old. "According to my birth certificate."
"How do you even get away with disappearing for so long? You couldn't have been home for more than a handful of days this summer – why do your guardians – ?"
Holding up a hand, Harry closed his eyes, taking several slow, deep breaths.
"One," he said. "I don't live there any longer. And two, they like it that way."
"Where are you living?"
"For now? Here." Harry laughed. "Not what you wanted to hear, was it?
Sirius ignored the deliberate prod at his composure. "How are you supporting yourself?"
"I occasionally do some jobs for Strome."
"And Shorner? Who's he?"
"An old mentor of mine that's trying to talk me out of joining the military."
"That...wasn't what I understood out of that conversation."
"Tough shit, 'cause that's all you're getting."
"Why? Why won't you talk to me? You want me to be a part of..." He waved a hand to encompass Harry's theoretical plans. "...whatever it is you're doing, but you're not telling me anything."
Harry turned his head away, lips peeling back from his teeth in a silent snarl of frustration. "Look, everyone has to sing for their supper. I've just encountered it a little earlier than most."
"Why?" Sirius growled, sick of hearing that word come out of his mouth. "Isn't there an orphan's fund set up for – " He clamped his teeth together before something inflammatory could slip out.
"Charity cases?" Harry smiled his wide white charming grin, the expression as cold as ice. "Charity cases like me," he said, tilting his head in a mocking little nod. "That's what you were going to say, right? I hate to break it to you, but it doesn't actually work that way. It doesn't actually work at all. In case you missed it the first time around, Lucius Malfoy has his hand so far up the Minister's arse that every-time he wiggles his fingers, Fudge bobs his head."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't actually collect any money from any orphan's fund." Sirius watched a muscle tick in Harry's jaw. "I never have."
Sirius felt overwhelmed at all the left turns Harry kept making. "I didn't..."
"Know? I figured. No wonder my aunt always complained about me being a burden." Crossing his arms, Harry leaned against the pillar between the broken windows, harsh sunlight and stark shadows turning him into a flat swath of negative space.
"Guess what Sirius? Despite not being able to touch the Potter vaults until I'm twenty-four or have finished an apprenticeship, I supposedly have too much liquidity available to qualify. And my personal vault was set aside for school expenses only. I don't have enough to live off of because I'm supposed to be living with family, who will provide the needed necessities. And since they're Muggles, they can't collect from the fund. To make this even more complicated, because I was placed with my blood family, I can't collect from the Orphan's Fund either. Only adopted children can use that money."
Horrified, Sirius followed that thought through to its logical conclusion. "Which is then collected by the well-meaning pureblood family who took in the child."
Harry shifted, the movement bringing him back into the light. He pursed his mouth into a twisted moue of amusement and nodded. "From their pockets to the tax exempt donations fund and back to their pockets. Nice little scam, isn't it?"
Laughing, his godson rolled off of the faux-Grecian style pillar, his form becoming flat shadow again. The sound petered out, leaving his head bowed, shoulders slumped.
"I'm broke as fuck," he said finally. "I have no money at all. Why are you so appalled that I've turned to people like Strome when he's the one of the few real options offered to me?"
Sirius' mouth went dry. "He's using you."
"And I'm using him!" Harry raised his hands and made a little waving motion, wearing a painfully sardonic smile. He laughed, running his hands through his hair and tilting his head back to stare at the peeling frescos on the ceiling. "I tell you, Sirius, these Dark Lord aligned purebloods have the system so tied up in knots that there isn't a whole lot left for people like me. I have no family to fall back on. I'm vulnerable to their games, their bullshit politics. Is it any wonder that I chose to work for Strome rather than play victim to an agenda?"
Dust motes drifted through the sunlight, a little cloud of chalky debris bursting into the air as Sirius climbed to his feet.
"So you decided to use the name Sharr?"
Harry watched him, any sense of animation slipping away from his features.
"Do you even know what that name means?" said Sirius.
His godson's gaze flicked to him and back away. "I have some idea," he murmured, mouth curling into a thin curve of amusement.
"No. You don't."
"Then enlighten me."
Sirius chewed on the inside of his lip, looking for the words to express just wrong the whole thing felt. "Harry... My own family was afraid of that name."
The moment stretched before them.
Blood beat a slowing tattoo in his eardrums as the silence crept back in around them.
"What do you want me to say?"
"Well, gee, I don't know," Sirius began, attempting Harry's mocking grin, which felt like he was baring his teeth in a snarl. Dog-self had friendlier expressions than this. Rabid animals had friendlier expressions than this. "How about the truth?"
Harry ran the knuckles of his hand over his bottom lip. Parts of Sirius' Auror training were starting awaken and he recognised that gesture. Nervous tic. Stemming. Self-soothing. Whatever the name, Sirius knew what it indicated. His godson was gearing up for a lie he didn't want to tell.
He dropped his hand and stared Sirius in the eye. "I didn't use that name," he said. "Strome did."
Sirius found himself clenching his hands in his hair before he knew what he was doing. "Would you just – Damn it all!"
Another piece of masonry hurtled through the air, taking out the rotted bannister railing with a splintering crash.
"I'm telling the truth!" yelled Harry.
Sirius blinked, throat dry, head throbbing with an oncoming headache. "Are you?" he rasped. "Even the vampire called you a liar."
Harry rubbed at his eyes with a tired exhale. He opened his mouth as if to say something, the words not quite emerging.
Sirius watched his godson raise his hands and walk away.
He supposed he should have expected that.
Later, Sirius watched a white owl circle overhead, pale wingspan sharp against the evening sky as she glided on the wind.
Hedwig, his godson had called her. Harry's white t-shirt lit up under the growing gloom, much like the owl's snowy plumage. She dropped from the sky, landing on his outstretched arm, claws digging into the leather brace protecting his bare skin.
"Good," Harry called out, nodding at him as Sirius climbed up the ridge sloping away from the house. "You're just in time."
"Pack your shit. We're headed to Miami."
Shit rolls downhill.
You're familiar with the term, right? How the consequences of actions eventually pile up and snowball after you?
Oh god, oh no, oh why – what do you tell them? The truth? You can't even admit it to yourself.
Liar liar pants on fire.
Where are you going? What are you doing? asks Shorner.
Who are you? Why are you doing this? begs Sirius.
Funny how nobody's asking when.
Truth is – the real truth, not the shit shovelled directly from bottomless pit into the hands of any well-meaning sucker just ripe for the picking, the honest actual truth – Harry lost his direction a long time ago.
No map in the world can fix that.
Lying really is bad for the soul.
The stall door creaks beneath Elly's claws. She's perched atop, a china doll imitating a bird-of-prey, hobnailed boots gouging splintered furrows into the door.
This dream is one that's filtered through in bits and pieces; a catnap here, a catnap there; disjointed surrealism painted in red splatters. He's dreamed about it for weeks before it ever happens.
It's cast in sharp, chiaroscuro brights and darks; the shadows he's standing in more of a dingy grey than a black-black under the glowing glare of the blank white square that used to be a sky outside the window. A crow – deep black, night-black, caw-caw-laughing-in-the-dark black – soars through the white and lands on the windowsill, beady eyes fixed on Harry.
The white's fading now, in a slow, stop-motion capture of a lightning flare or a camera flash. The blacks are back and the brights are black too; Elly haloed in violet and the griffins in muddy ambergold. Against the darkness, the morning drizzle turns the window into an overview of a grey-lit aquarium, the long grasses of the moor waving like water-weeds in the wind. Rain patters on the roof and the rattle of water on tin is almost loud enough the drown out the sound of water gurgling in Harry's ears.
The pull of a phantom current tugs at his shins.
Elly growls, low and reverberant, that spectral waterway shuddering in resonance. Agitated shuffling breaks the air as the griffins beat their wings and pace the edges of their pens.
Pick-peck avian hopping, the crow jolts across the sill, beak snagging the rolled up cuff of Harry's sleeve. It gives a broken-glass caw; hungry and waiting, knowing its next meal will fall into its carrion loving maw. The crow's feathers are oil slick and glossy. But Harry knows its as dead as Elly.
Shuffling along the path to the stables, Emmett Bletchley lets out a wet cough, rolling the slick stream of snot around his mouth before spitting it off to the side.
Emmett's a pudgy, moon-faced wizard with a perpetual splotchy flush and a receding jawline matched by an already receding hairline. A middle son, a mediocre wizard and an even less impressive Death Eater in the original time-line. He's a mute-staring, mouth-breathing dippy piece of hick-shit his family would rather have live in the stables with his beloved griffins; the sort of bloke who showed up to the dinner table, but never spoke, spending most of the meal with his face turned down towards his plate.
Elly licks her teeth.
"Briggs?" Emmett calls out for the head stableman. Impatient, he flicks his wand at the overhead lights. Nothing.
Water puddles streak damp and shiny beetle-black across the straw. A soggy line of breadcrumbs leading to Elly's ashy-eyed stare.
"What're you doin' here?" he says to the little girl.
She smiles. Pale light gleams off her ivory shark's grin, black water streaming down the door of the empty stall.
The pin and slot locks barring the stalls shut slide upward with a metallic click.
Emmett sucks in a breath, the poor fuck beginning to clue in on Elly's plans. "You're one of them." He swallowed, eyes white around the edges. "Miles said he was only taking Muggles."
Yeah, sure he did.
The pen doors swing open.
Flicker-quick, one second there and the next gone, Elly slashes Emmett across the face, knobby-knuckled claws catching on meaty cheeks and tearing his smile wide.
Emmett's blood runs heavy and dark and he can't shove it back in faster than his body pumps it out.
The crow laughs.
That's the problem with feeding griffins human remains. Once they get that taste for blood…
Emmett came. Emmet saw. Emmett died, red meat, dead meat, blood on the ground. Sink your teeth down the bone, Elly-Belly, and listen to him choke choke choking on the sound of his own scream.
Elly's a good girl, isn't she?