Greetings to my poor, patient readers. Finally – a new chapter! I know not a great deal of action occurs in this chapter, but some important things needed to happen. More excitement to follow soon, I promise!
The Gaunt Solution
Harry stood beside Draco in the middle of his living room, dressed only in a towel, and resisted the urge to cower. Just. Snape, once again, perched black and bat-like on the low wall surrounding the pleasant watercolour cottage that hung above Harry's fireplace. The expression on his face indicated that he expected to be infected by terminal kittens and cream teas at any moment and was ready to retaliate.
"Your taste in artwork is as abysmal as your taste in godparents, Potter," he said disdainfully. "Now kindly explain yourself before I report both of you to the Headmistress."
If Harry had thought it was hard trying to convince Ron, Hermione and Andromeda that he wasn't insane (and was, in fact, the soon-to-be Master of Death), it was nothing compared to the grilling he was subjected to by the portrait of one Severus Snape. The man was a Slytherin to his core and had been a spy and double agent for most of his life. He was the sort of person who wouldn't even trust his own reflection without photo identification, wand scan, and full background check.
The only good thing coming out of the experience was the unexpected insight Harry was getting into his mother's childhood. Snape clearly knew that the best way to confirm the truth of Harry's words was to dig for details of his life with Lily before Hogwarts that would have gone to grave along with Harry's mother when she died.
"What was her favourite Muggle sweet as a child?" he snapped. And, "How often did I transfigure her repulsive sister's doll into a badger?" Between them, Snape and Lily were revealing the secret story of an unlikely friendship between an angry, lonely little boy and a pretty, middle-class little girl who couldn't quite fit into her ordinary Muggle family.
They heard about little things – the colour of the hair ribbon Snape illegally Accio-ed for Lily when it fell into the park's stream. The brand of toffees the two of them nicked from old Mrs. Weatherbin's handbag after she called Snape a grimy little gutter rat. The scent of the shampoo they used to wash the Evans' cat after an unfortunate potions experiment when they were eight. Harry passed Lily's words on in a hushed voice, captivated and incredibly grateful that the other Marauders had been banned from saying anything to put Operation Persuade Snape To Help in jeopardy – although Lily's and Remus's mental gagging techniques were being sorely tested at times in spite of this.
When it finally seemed that Snape was running out of questions, Lily sighed in Harry's mind and said, :-Let me take over, Harry.-:
Snape was still hunched forward, scowling suspiciously at Harry as he stepped aside to let Lily take over. His body gave the now-familiar shudder (causing the already precariously balanced towel to slip down a little further) and Harry's consciousness was suddenly squashed up in the back of his own head with the other Marauders.
"It's me, Severus," Lily said, stepping up closely to the painting and looking warmly into Snape's eyes.
Harry, frankly, thought that that was the least persuasive argument since Draco claimed that the last chocolate frog should be his because his hair rocked and Harry was a Gryffindor arse. Snape, however, stared into Harry's eyes for a few long, disconcerting seconds before sitting back on the wall looking shell-shocked.
"How did this happen?" he whispered.
"You mean I have to go through it all again?" Harry whined, taking over again. "Wasn't a million times enough?"
"Welcome to five years of teaching Longbottom Potions, Potter. And hyperbole does not suit you. If used, it should be applied with razor wit, which you are sorely lacking."
Harry stared at him blankly. "You what? Seriously, it's like Potions all over again." He glanced at Draco. "What's he saying? Is he talking about some kind of hair product?"
Draco rolled his eyes. "You're a barbarian, Potter. You have no business passing on your world-class ignorance to impressionable young minds. Do you not even have a speck of class?"
"I don't see that you really have a right to talk, Mr Malfoy," Snape said snidely, "seeing as you appear to have entered into an ill-advised and repellently saccharine relationship with the Boy Wonder."
The expression on Draco's face made Harry's own instinctive horror almost worthwhile.
"Relationship?" Draco said, shrilly. "Relationship? He abducted and corrupted yet another one of my house elves, transfigured me into a ferret, kidnapped me from prison, forced me to abandon my mother with false promises, gave me a room in a house that is an alarming mixture of Gryffindor cuddliness and insane, homicidal Black ingenuity and then made me to help him by threatening to turn all of Britain into a race of the living dead."
"I did no such thing!" Harry protested, feeling rather hard done by. "Well," he amended, "not the bit about the living dead, anyway. Or the bit about false promises."
"And," said Draco, who was clearly on a role, "as if that wasn't bad enough, tonight he threatened to cut off my own cock and make me eat it!"
"That wasn't me!"
"I really have no desire to hear the details of your sordid sexual activities with the Gryffindor Golden Boy," Snape said.
:-Great Godric!-: James wailed, breaking free from Lily's control for a brief moment. :-How the hell are we meant to survive the company of two bloody Slytherins for so long without being without being allowed to torment them at all? If this is the promised afterlife, I want my money back.-:
Harry groaned. "Can everyone just focus, please? Are you going to help us or not, Snape?"
Snape drew himself up with an expression of hawk-like displeasure on his face that thinly veiled the anticipatory gleam in his painted eyes. Not for the first time, Harry wondered just how boring it must be to be a sentient portrait. "Very well. But keep in mind that the only reason I'm doing this is to help Lily and prevent you from bringing the Zombie Apocalypse down upon all of Britain."
"Why does everyone keep saying that?" Harry demanded, bristling. "I never had any plan to turn anyone into a zombie or an inferi or any other kind of lurching dead thingy."
"I did teach you for five years, Potter. You could not even gain a firm grasp on a basic colour-changing potion. Trust me – if you were doing this on your own, there would be a zombie apocalypse. I didn't go to all the effort of dying to save this wretched world only to have you turn it into a playground for 'lurching dead thingies'." This last was said with the kind of exquisitely crafted sarcasm that can only be achieved through years of practise on small, defenceless children.
:-Don't complain, Harry, he said he'd do it,-: Remus said.
:-Can we make him leave now?-: Sirius begged. :-I'm really having to resist the urge to nick a can of spray paint and practise drawing wedgies. I fear that would be seriously detrimental to our plans.-:
:-Oh, Padfoot…-: James's voice was reverential. :-Painting Snape a permanent wedgie…how badly do we really need bodies anyway?-:
:-Leaking dip-pots and insanity,-: Remus reminded him.
:-Painted wedgie, Moony. Forever! Ow – Lily!-:
Lily's mental cuff reverberated through Harry's head leaving him with the impression that the Hogwarts Express had made a detour through his brain.
"So does this mean you'll do it?" He appealed to Snape, not sure how much more he could take.
Snape's oil-paint eyes glittered dangerously. "For now, Potter. Now kindly explain to me why I have heard a rumour that some imbecile is planning a bake sale for Slytherin House."
Three days later the students of Slytherin House reacted to the 'Bake Sale Plan' just as well as all Harry's family, friends, and…well, whatever Draco was…had predicted. In other words, there were only four reasons why there had not been an angry adolescent rebellion that left Harry as a sad reddish streak on the flagstones of the Slytherin common room:
Slytherins, bizarrely, had an innate respect of people they saw as members of authority (hence, Harry supposed, the number of Death Eaters that emerged from the House).
No matter how much they jeered, Slytherins also had a healthy sense of self preservation and none of them could quite forget that their new Head of House had duelled the most feared Dark Lord of the century at the tender age of seventeen and proceeded to defeat him with a simple disarming spell.
Harry had made sure he had Severus Snape's scowling visage firmly ensconced in the portrait over his right shoulder as he broke the news.
The upper year Slytherins had been horrified by the prospect of coming up with original ideas for their Muggle Studies O.W.L. and N.E.W.T. projects. Since Hogwarts had reopened and made the subject compulsory, purebloods who had lived in happy obliviousness of the Muggle world for centuries were being faced with it full on for the first time. Baking a few cakes with a spoon instead of a wand seemed a small concession to pay for getting out of the trauma of actually having to learn anything significant about the Muggle world.
By the time Harry finally left behind a common room full of mollified (if not exactly pleased) Slytherins, he was utterly exhausted. He staggered into his quarters and collapsed on the couch, hands cradling his almost-constantly throbbing and aching head. The inside of his skull was beginning to feel raw; as though his brain had been replaced with weak acid that was slowly eating away at the fragile flesh inside his head. Luckily, he hadn't hallucinated that he was one of his family members for almost fifteen hours, which indicated that the sedative potion Snape had suggested might actually be working – even if it did make him almost too tired to function and turned his urine a rather alarming shade of turquoise.
:-I feel prop'rly stoned,-: Sirius slurred from the back of Harry's mind. :-S'like the seventies all over 'gain-:
:-Go' bless the seventies,-: James agreed.
Remus made a pained, canine noise and huddled up against Sirius.
:-You did drugs?-: Harry asked, with the instinctive betrayal of a child hearing that his parents used to be like normal people.
:-It was th'seventies, mate,-: said Sirius. :-Everyone did drugs.-:
:-I didn't,-: Lily said quickly, before her incessantly honest streak forced her to add, :-Often.-:
:-If it's any conna…consi…consolation, it was mostly after we lef' school,-: James said.
:-Remember that one wizard drug tha' used t'make you fart rainbows,-: Sirius's tone was fondly reminiscent. :-If you practised you cou' make…you know…shapes. Wormtail could fart out a whole bloody rainbow unicorn on a goo' day.-:
It was the first time that Harry had ever heard him talk about Peter Pettigrew with anything other than utter loathing. It suddenly struck Harry that at one time, Wormtail had to have been a pretty decent guy. The Marauders wouldn't have put up with him otherwise. And if it hadn't been for Voldemort using his fear to twist him beyond all recognition he might still have been one of them. It was a struggle to fit that thought into his head, but the sedative potion helped a lot.
:-Evil li'le rat,-: James said in answer to Sirius, although again (probably thanks to both the potion and Harry's physical exhaustion), his voice lacked its usual fire.
Remus gave a mental growl of agreement and Sirius curled around him protectively. :-I think we should cut th'dose nex' time,-: he said. :-It's pulling the wolf too close to th' surface of Moony's mind.-:
:-Mmmm'fine,-: Remus mumbled.
:-Yeah, try tha' again with a bit less growl in your voice, babe.-:
:-Babe?-: Harry said. :-Seriously?-:
:-Shuddup. There was a reason. A long time ago.-:
Harry decided that he did not need to know. Ever.
"Harry? Harry!" He jumped violently as something touched his shoulder. It was only now he realised he'd been hearing someone saying his name in the outside world for a while.
"What?" he mumbled, raising his head up from his hands. The effect of the shaking quickly dispersed the pleasant haze of the potion.
Draco was hovering in front of the sofa, a very worried look on his face. "Do you know who you are?"
It was rather worrying that this was a reasonable question.
"Harry. M'fine. Just tired. And doped up on that sedative Snape suggested. I broke the bake sale news to the Slytherins today."
"Oh yeah?" Draco dropped onto the sofa beside him and propped his feet up on the coffee table. "How did it go?"
"About as well as expected. It's a good thing you suggested allowing them to use it as a Muggle Studies project. That alone got most of the older ones on side."
"Thought it might. You're lucky to have me around. They would eat you alive otherwise – Dark Lord Slayer or no."
"Trust me, I know. I was much more scared of facing off with them than I was of facing off with Voldemort."
Harry laughed at Draco's expression. "At least I had luck and experience on my side when it came to old Snake-face."
"Gryffindors." Draco shook his head.
Harry squinted at Draco's face, shoving his glasses on straight so he could make out the details. "By the way – why do you have green pimples in the shape of a satanic symbol on your face?"
Draco sighed and flopped back tiredly on the sofa. "Merlin, you really are an uneducated barbarian, Potter. It's not a 'satanic symbol'. It's an ancient rune meaning 'change'. The potion to change my mother into a ferret is a lot harder than I first expected. There was a small explosion that hit me in the face."
"Your face?" Harry sat up in alarm. "You're lucky it just gave you a case of evil acne. Isn't there some sort of…visor you could use?"
"I don't have one," Draco said. "And Snape said it would wear off in a few hours. Less if I pop them, but - you know - eew."
"I'll buy you one," Harry said. "Can you order one by owl?"
"Don't be an idiot. I'm fine. Those potions visors cost a fortune because of all the protective spells and things they have to use."
Harry jutted his jaw. "If you're going to be helping me make a potion that makes me Master of Death, I reckon buying you a protective visor is the least I can do."
"Well, when you put it like that…" Draco tilted his chin and gave him a crooked smile. Harry blinked. It was the least sarcastic smile Draco had ever pointed in his direction and it was distinctly unnerving. "All right. Knock yourself out."
:-Oh Godric, please do,-: James added. :-My brain can't cope with any more inane Slytherin drivel.-:
Before Harry could answer either comment, there was a knock at the door.
"Please just ignore it," Draco begged. "I can't be bothered to move."
"It might be important," said Harry. "I can't just ignore it. And no one can see you – especially like that. Go hide out in the bedroom."
Grumbling, Draco heaved himself up from the sofa and staggered into the bedroom, shutting the door behind him.
Harry opened the door to see Alex and Daniel hovering outside.
"Hello, boys," he greeted tiredly. "You do know it's only half an hour away from curfew, don't you?"
"Don't worry, professor, we're not here to stay," Alex assured him, even as he bustled past Harry into the living room, herding Daniel in front of him. "We just came to see if you're all right. Daniel said you told the Slytherins about how you're making them do a bake sale and how you nearly got rebelled on except they're scared you're gonna off them with Expelliamus and Professor Snape was giving them the stink-eye from one of the creepy paintings in their common room."
Harry raised an eyebrow and turned to look at Daniel. The tiny, silent Slytherin child stared back unblinkingly. "He said all that, did he?"
"Well," Alex admitted, "it did take it much longer. And he had to take lots of not-talking breaks in between. That's why we had to come over so late."
"I'm fine, thank you. Really. I have special professory powers that mean I won't ever get beaten up by a bunch of students."
Harry may have been lying through his teeth, but it seemed to work because the children visibly relaxed.
"You sure you're okay, though, Professor?" Alex said. "Only, you're sort of swaying. And …er…greenish-looking."
"I'm fine. Honestly. This is a normal look for someone who has just spent an afternoon teaching Slytherin and Hufflepuff fourth years DADA."
"All right, then. I guess we'll see you in class tomor –"
Alex broke off when there was a loud crash from Harry's bedroom and Draco's distinctive voice yelping in pain and cursing. Two pairs of wide eyes turned to look at Harry who closed his own and sagged against the doorframe, too tired to think of a decent excuse.
"Just a friend staying over. Nothing to worry about boys."
"In your bedroom?" Alex questioned. "A bedroom friend? Is that why you're hiding him?"
Harry winced. "Not a 'bedroom friend'. Just a friend. In my bedroom."
:-Merlin, Harry. Could you be more unconvincing?-: James sounded half-amused. :-I don't even believe you, and I know you're telling the truth.-:
"It's okay," Alex assured him earnestly. "My mum says there's nothing wrong with boys having boys as bedroom-friends. Even if people usually get weird about it."
:-Kill me now,-: Harry begged silently.
:-No way,-: Sirius said. :-This is much too fun.-:
"You're looking for a stone."
All attention in the room turned to Daniel who blinked at Harry with large black eyes. He gave one of his disconcerting smiles and Harry has the distinctly unsettling feeling that the tiny Slytherin was trying to save him from embarrassment by changing the subject.
"You what, mate?" Alex asked his friend.
"It won't come when you call," Daniel added. "The trees whisper about it."
Harry felt his eyebrows rise. With a frisson of fear, he wondered whether the trees had whispered about the Resurrection Stone's deeper powers to the child. "Yeah? Can you tell me how to call it so it will come?"
"The family who owned it already solved that problem. The ones from my flame."
"I'm sorry, Daniel," Harry said, as his tired mind creaked into gear, "but can you explain that in everyday-speak?"
But Daniel's attention had wandered over Harry's shoulder to the closed door of his bedroom. He tilted his head to the side. "Your bedroom-friend is trying to hide the mess."
"For the last time he is not my bedroom-friend." Harry had no idea when the dash had mentally interested itself between the two words, but suspected Marauderish involvement. "And I think it's time the two of you headed off to bed."
"Right, Professor," Alex said, giving him a cheeky grin. "Say 'hi' to your not-bedroom-friend for us. C'mon Daniel."
Harry shut the door behind them gratefully and leant against it for a few seconds. Then he pushed away and tried to prepare himself for what chaos Draco had created in the bedroom. He opened the door to see Draco crouched underneath the window picking up pieces of a shattered bottle of butterbeer. There was a bruise blossoming on his cheek and the room was littered with Harry's shoes.
"You tried to break into my trunk," Harry said, not feeling particularly surprised.
"I was frustrated and bored," said Draco, not sounding particularly guilty either.
Harry sighed and began collecting his shoes.
"You know, normal people don't curse their trunks to fire shoes at people who innocently try to pick the lock." Draco's tone was aggrieved.
"It was my Dad's idea," Harry said. "And you didn't have to try and pick the lock."
"Well, clearly you knew I would. You cursed it to attack me."
Harry shook his head and walked over to his trunk with his armful of shoes. "That's not what I meant." He used his knee to lever open the lid so he could drop his shoes back inside. "It wasn't locked, Draco. All you had to do was lift the lid."
Draco paused and sat back on his heels, a shard of glass in his hand as he stared at Harry open-mouthed. "You didn't lock it?"
"Of course not. It's in my bedroom. Who even comes in here except you and me?"
"That's exactly it! I am here. Didn't you want to protect your things from me?"
"Protect my things? From what?" Harry laughed. "I'm not hiding anything. Feel free to poke through my trunk if it keeps you out of mischief. Just not – you know – if it's going to make innocent children think you're my bedroom-friend."
Draco choked. "Your what now?"
"Don't look at me like that. It's completely your fault. What else were they going to think when they found out I was hiding a bloke in my bedroom?"
"Please tell me that a bedroom-friend is not what I think a bedroom-friend is."
"I don't know. I'm drugged and tired and not exactly down with the adolescent lingo right now."
:-Your use of the phrase 'down with the adolescent lingo' makes that abundantly clear,-: Sirius commented. :-That was already uncool in the 70s, I swear.-:
"You're probably right," Harry agreed gloomily. "I heard it from McGonagall."
There was a weird mental shift in Harry's head as all four other occupants tried to simultaneously imagine a scenario when Professor McGonagall might have felt the need to use that particular turn of phrase.
:-That had to have been before our time in here,-: James said at last.
:-It's not something one would easily forget,-: Remus agreed, then yelped as Sirius gave him a mental pinch – something he had promised to do every time Remus used the word 'one' in that context in an effort to drag-Moony-kicking-and-screaming-into-the-twenty-first-century.
"I'm not your bedroom-friend," said Draco stiffly, lips pursed so his face looked particularly pointy (except for where it was swelling up in the pattern of a trainer's tread marks).
"I never said you were, you git." Harry sat on the end of his bed and frowned at Draco's defensive posture.
"Good. Because I'm not."
Harry's attention was drawn to Draco's hand which was clenched so tightly around the shard of glass that a steady trickle of blood was decorating the surface like the sort of stained-glass window Voldemort would have designed on a particularly irritable day.
"Your hand's bleeding."
"Well, if I had a wand, I wouldn't have to do this by hand, and then I wouldn't have to cut myself."
"Well, if you hadn't tried to break into my chest, that bottle wouldn't have got broken."
"Well if you hadn't cast such a stupid curse on your chest –"
"Look," Harry interrupted. "Just shut up and give me your hand. Don't look at me like that. I'm offering to heal you, for heaven's sake, not to be your bedroom-friend."
:-And it just keeps getting awkwarder,-: James said, sounding remarkably cheerful for a person who has just had to listen to his own son denying propositioning his male ex-school-rival and part-time hostage.
:-'Awkwarder' is not a word.-:
:-Put a sock in it, Moony. One shouldn't correct one's friend's grammar – OW! Padfoot!-:
:-You said 'one' in that annoying way.-:
:-I was doing it ironically.-:
:-I stand by my pinch. It's equally annoying ironic or not.-:
:-I really need to get out of here,-: Lily whimpered. :-It's like drowning in a lukewarm pool of testosterone. And not in a good way.-:
"Ew," Harry said. "I think I'm going to be sick. And not in a good way," he added scathingly to Lily.
"There's a good way?" Draco asked, watching his wound heal as Harry traced his wand over it.
"Oh yes. I always think rather fondly of that time I puked all over your shoes."
"Oh, you love it, bedroom-friend."
"I hate you so much right now."
"So that'll be ten inches on why it is not a good idea to sneak a blast-ended skrewt into a dorm room and feed it on blood pops, no matter how tempting it seems at the time."
Harry leant against his desk and relaxed as his sixth years scribbled down the homework assignment and began packing up. "You're dismissed when you're ready."
:-I have to say, Harry, you're really getting a grip on this professor thing,-: Remus said warmly.
:-Thanks,-: Harry smiled. :-I'm beginning to learn that it's all about not letting them know you're fallible and /or human.-:
Harry looked up to see a skinny sixth year Slytherin boy hovering in front of him.
"Would fruit cake or lemon drizzle cake get me better marks for the cake assignment?"
Harry blinked at him. "Er…"
"Only I have to get my Muggle Studies N.E.W.T. if I want to work at the Ministry and this is going to be my main project. I found a Muggle recipe book in my great grandmother's old things, but I think the Muggle she got it off must have been holding it when they got melted so most of the pages are sort of stuck together. Only the fruit cake and lemon drizzle one are readable."
"Er…when you say 'melted'…"
"Oh, she used to do that to Muggles. As a sort of dinner time entertainment thing. I wouldn't though, professor," he added hurriedly. "I swear my family gave up Muggle-melting at least two generations ago. We didn't even curse the nose off my second cousin and he's a squib."
:-The Dorgon family,-: Sirius supplied. :-Good old-fashioned pure bloods. Originated as a branch off the Bulstrode family tree, I believe. They got cut off for being too kind to Muggles, so they invented Muggle-melting as a way to get back into good graces. Luckily it never really caught on with other pureblood families. My own grandmother said it was because you can never get the smell of burning Muggle out of the drapes.-:
Harry stared at Cyrus Dorgon, who was sandy-haired and freckled and didn't look like someone whose recent ancestors used human torture as dinner entertainment. If cake-making was going to change the views of a generation, he was damn well going to make sure he did everything he could to move the process along as smoothly as possible.
"Okay. Um. Firstly, I think we need to get you a Muggle recipe book whose pages aren't glued together with burnt human flesh. And then I suggest you choose a recipe you think sounds appealing and keep practising it until it comes out right, okay? Professor McGonagall is setting up a Muggle kitchen in that old Charms classroom next to the portrait of Gnorgrass the Ignoble. Go see Madame Pince. I asked her to order some recipe books in for the library and they were due to arrive this afternoon."
"Right. Thanks, professor. By the way – about the assignment on the blast-ended skrewts?"
"What about it?" Harry asked defensively.
"It's just…it's rather specific, isn't it? I'm guessing there won't be much research material on it."
"God, I hope not," Harry shuddered. "Trust me – it's something you want to learn in theory. Not in practice. That's why I set it. Use your common sense."
:-Good luck finding that in a pureblood,-: James put in cheerfully. :-It was generally bred out years ago as a superfluous trait.-:
"Right. Okay." Cyrus picked up his bag and prepared to leave. "Well, I'll see you next lesson, then."
"Goodbye. Oh, and Cyrus?"
"Throw that book away please. And then wash your hands thoroughly before cooking anything. Use soap. And bleach. And possibly a gentle scouring charm."
"Don't worry, Professor. The temperature was so high anything unhygienic was probably burnt away as it happened."
Harry winced. "Humour me."
"Right you are, professor."
The weekend dawned cold, dry and clear, the crisp January air piercing Harry's winter robes like malevolent knitting needles. Sunshine lanced through the leafy canopy of the Forbidden Forest to create dappled patches of light on the bracken-strewn undergrowth of the forest. The path they were following was rough at best, and Ron, taking the lead, was employing over-enthusiastic blasting charms to clear it, as though attacks from small evil magical creatures that might have made their homes in the overgrown tangle happened only to other people.
"Again, Ron!" Teddy shrieked excitedly, clutching at Hermione's hand as he toddled in the smoking wake of Ron's destruction.
"The only good thing about this outing," Draco said from underneath the invisibility cloak, "is that Weasley might die in the next few minutes."
"You didn't have to come," Harry pointed out. "In fact I remember advising you against it. Repeatedly."
"Like I'd trust a trio of Gryffindor idiots and a blue-haired toddler to do things properly. Especially when they're rushing into it half-cocked. Grow up, Weasel," he added, when Ron sniggered at the word 'cocked'.
"I hate to admit it, but I'm with Malfoy on this one," Hermione said, lifting Teddy over a particularly large tree root. "I don't know why we're heading back into the forest before we've even figured out what Daniel meant by 'the Gaunts already solved that problem'. I mean, we already know the stone is resistant to the Accio charm. A cryptic message from and eleven-year-old Peverell descendent is not going to change that."
"I thought being at the scene might be inspirational," Harry said, unwilling to admit that he had been trying to figure it out all week and hadn't even come close to a breakthrough. "And you know the full moon's in a few days so I'm going to be fairly useless for a few days after that. The sooner we get this done the better."
They broke into the clearing near to where Harry had dropped the Resurrection Stone and he paused, turning in a slow circle to take it in. The area was beginning to get more and more overgrown – changing, slowly, from the horrific death-scene he still remembered it so vividly.
"So this is where my mother saved your life," Draco said, in a light tone that fell flatter than a clever hedgehog meeting a three-wheeler car for the first time.
"This is where I died."
"You didn't die. My mother saved you. She told me."
"She did," Harry agreed. "After I came back."
"From the dead?" Draco scoffed. "No one can do that!"
There was a brief, pointed silence and Draco rolled his eyes. "Fine. No one could do that until now."
"I don't think I was all the way dead. I was…in between. I was given the choice to come back or…go on."
There was an awkward pause.
"Well, wasn't much of a choice now, was it," Draco said. "Do you want to die? No? Back to it, then."
Harry felt his lips thin. "My choice? My mother, my father, my godfather, Remus, Fred, Dobby, Hedwig, peace and a chance to rest…or a final battle with Voldemort which I was likely to lose in some horrible, gory way, watching my friends die, letting down the Wizarding world…" He laughed. "It wasn't a hard choice. It was impossible. I made it anyway."
"You would have preferred to die?" Draco said, looking both shaken and irritated about the fact that he was.
Harry straightened, looked around the clearing again which was remarkably serene and quiet for somewhere that had been the sight for such evil and violence. "I'm here, aren't I?" he said, forcing his voice into brisk light-heartedness. Then: "Er…where am I?"
Remus looked around him in surprise. He wasn't quite sure where he'd just been, but he was equally sure it hadn't been the Forbidden Forest. He and the other Marauders rarely came here outside the full moons. He blinked. "Did someone hit me with an Obliviate charm? Is this a prank? Padfoot? Prongs?"
He turned and saw a group of people watching him warily. A tall young man with carrot-coloured hair and a long nose. A young woman with bushy hair that was making a valiant attempt to escape a severe bun. A child with turquoise hair. A young man's floating head with a mop of white-blonde hair and features that were unmistakably of pureblood Black descent.
"Remus?" the young woman asked tentatively.
"Do I know you? What's going on? Is that James's invisibility cloak?" He took a step forward and nearly stumbled. There was something weird and unfamiliar about his body. He looked down to see hands that weren't his own. Unfamiliar robes and shoes. Unfamiliar frame – more like James's gangly limbs than his own. He held up his hands to examine them more clearly. "Did I take Polyjuice Potion? Because I think something went wrong. I don't remember…" He looked up to the others. "Is that you, Prongs?" he asked the floating head.
"Um. Not exactly," the young woman answered before the head had a chance. "Listen. This would be easier if we knew how old you think you are."
"How old I think I am?" This was getting too strange to be normal – even for him. He fumbled for his wand, found it in his back pocket and drew it on the group. Then he frowned and withdrew it. "This isn't my wand. And I know I'm fifteen." He paused then, something not quite feeling right. "No wait! I'm older than that. Eighteen. But then why am I at Hogwarts? I'm not. I left Hogwarts. A long time ago. I'm twenty one – no! Twenty-two." He looked up at the floating head again, agitated. "You can't be James. He's…he's dead. Dead. And Sirius." The pain of it washed over him as he remembered again and he almost staggered under the force of it. "Sirius did it…b-b-betrayed h-him. But no. That was long ago, wasn't it? I've moved on. I d-did." Suddenly, like a rush of cool water after days in the desert, he remembered. "No wait! He's innocent! Sirius is innocent! He's…" Pain again, almost brutally physical. He swayed and pressed a hand to an unfamiliar chest in which an unfamiliar heart ached with familiar grief. "He's dead. I'm thirty-six…no. Older. I'm…" And then he remembered. "I'm dead." And at last, with a weird sort of lurch in perspective: "I'm Harry. And that was weird."
Harry looked up to see his friends staring at him open-mouthed.
"Okay, I'm in awe of Lupin's mind," Ron said after a beat. "We didn't have to do anything. He just figured it all out himself. No panicking. No breaking down or handwringing. Just logic-logic-logic-BOOM! I'm Harry."
:-Moony was always the cool-headed one,-: Sirius said proudly.
"Please note," Harry added, rubbing his forehead as a fuzzy, blinding headache began to build, "that when Remus discovered himself in an unfamiliar body, he thought 'Oh dear, I accidentally took Polyjuice Potion', not 'Oh my God, I must cut my cock off!'" He gave his mother a pointed mental poke.
:-He grew up in a Marauder dormitory,-: she protested. :-He was used to weird spells being cast on him.-:
:-I'm sorry, Harry,-: Remus said.
:-Not your fault,-: Harry said tiredly. :-At least you didn't scream like a girl and start attacking your own reflection.-:
James's mental presence flushed rosy and emanated a definite tone of sulkiness. :-It was one time. And I thought I was looking at my Uncle Gordon's charmed mirror. I told you about that time my creepy cousin spied on me wanking through it, right?-:
:-Way more times than I was comfortable with,-: Harry assured him hurriedly.
:-Well, no offence, but you looked alarmingly like him for a moment.-:
:-I look alarmingly like you, according to everyone.-:
:-Strong bloodline,-: James said, with a lurching, mental shrug that jarred against Harry's headache. :-Reoccurring features pop up a lot. I should have remembered the creepy bugger joined a wizarding circus and died after Apparating into a vat of pumpkin custard. Long story,-: he added following the bemused silence in Harry's head.
"You alright, mate?" A large, warm hand came down on Harry's shoulder and squeezed gently. Harry looked up at Ron's concerned face and suddenly felt ridiculously grateful his friend had agreed to join them again this weekend. From the age of eleven, it had been the two of them. Hermione as well, of course, but it was different with Ron. Ron had invited him into his scruffy, chaotic life right from the beginning. He hadn't been rich or popular or good-looking or intellectual. But he had been Ron: stubborn, loyal, gangly Ron who invited Harry into his family and stood by him when no one else would. Ron, who was a lot more intelligent than he would have people believe, even though he often let his hot-headed emotions get in the way.
"I'm fine," Harry said. "Let's just find the damn thing so I never have to come back here again. Where's Teddy?"
"'Nake!" Teddy announced, from where he had been digging through the earth at Hermione's feet. He held the hugest earthworm Harry had ever seen clutched in a grubby fist. It was purple with yellow spots. "Look – Ssssssssss!"
"Hermione," Harry said in alarm, starting forward.
"It's okay. It's a negdog worm. Relation to the common bookworm. It's harmless. Eats the bark of magical trees and sprouts wings when it gets frightened."
Sure enough, the worm was squirming in Teddy's hand, it's back glowing and bulging until suddenly, with a quiet 'pop', two fragile, fleshy wings emerged between the child's fingers.
"Harry! 'Nake fly."
Harry knelt next to his godson. "That's very nice, Teddy. But the snake is scared, okay? We must let it go." He gently pried the little fingers open.
Teddy's lip trembled. "Want 'nake. Please, Harry." The skin of his plump little cheeks turned purple with yellow spots to mirror the worm.
"I don't get why you don't just buy the kid a snake," Draco said, from where he was leaning nonchalantly against a tree. "He's completely obsessed with them."
"Because they're snakes, Draco. And he's a toddler."
"I'd have thought you'd like snakes, seeing as you can talk to them and everything."
"Could talk to them. It was Voldemort's power. It died with him."
"Really? Have you tried since then?"
"Look, just shut up for once in your life, please." Harry's head felt as though someone was cooking popcorn in it – baking hot with regular, nauseating spike of pain that popped just behind his eyeballs. He held up the wand he still had clasped in his hand from Remus's brief stint in his body. "Accio bloody Resurrection Stone." He looked around hopelessly. "See? Useless."
"Let me try," Hermione said in her most annoying Professor-McGonagall-voice. Harry had been incredibly disturbed to find out that Ron found it hot. "Accio Resurrection Stone!" She looked around expectantly, her expression falling when the stone failed to leap at her command. "Are you sure you dropped it here, Harry? It was a very stressful situation and –"
"Yes, I'm sure," he interrupted. "I told you I tried that already."
"Maybe it can only be summoned by a member of the Gaunt family," she mused. "Or maybe we need to use a slightly different pronunciation of 'Accio'. Maybe it can only be summoned if you have a traditional pureblood accent. Hey – Malfoy! You have a mouthful of marbles when you talk. You give it a go."
"Why should I?"
"Oh don't be difficult."
"I'll try it," Ron volunteered. "I'm pureblood. Accio Resurrection Stone!"
It failed to appear.
"I thought your family hadn't talked posh for decades," Harry said. "You definitely don't."
:-Let me do it,-: Sirius said. :-I can do posh pureblood.-:
:-You have to make an effort not to do posh pureblood,-: James said, and was given a vicious mental-poke in retaliation.
Harry moved aside and allowed his godfather to take over.
"Accio Resurrection Stone! Nope? Well, bang goes that theory, Hermione."
:-Give me my body back now,-: Harry demanded.
:-With pleasure. That's one hell of a headache you're nursing there, mate.-:
There was an impatient huff from Draco and he straightened from his slouch against the tree. "This is really what you've been doing all this time? Saying the words in a bunch of different voices? Great Merlin, no wonder none of you got into Slytherin or Ravenclaw. What a pack of sodding dunces."
"Yeah?" Ron snapped, rounding on him. "Well, if you thing you can do any better, go ahead!"
Draco shrugged, the picture of dishevelled, pureblood arrogance. "Your wand, Potter."
Harry reluctantly handed it over. He was not amused by the fact that the more often Draco used it, the more easily it seemed to respond to him. It was like his wand was it was cheating on him. With Draco bloody Malfoy of all people. Draco twirled the wand Western-style and smirked at them.
"Watch and learn, Gryffindorks. Watch and learn." He raised the wand. "Accio the Gaunt Family Ring."
There was a breathless silence, then the quiet sound of ripping grass as something wedged in the earth struggled to get free.
"Don't touch it!" Remus yelled through Harry's body, shoving Malfoy aside so the ring flew past him and rebounded off the tree.
Harry slipped back into his body to find himself lying astride Draco's recumbent body staring down into wide grey eyes.
"What's your bloody problem, Lupin?" he demanded.
"Wow," Harry said. "You recognised his voice with only three words?"
Draco rolled his eyes. "No, you tosser. Only a werewolf can move as fast as you just did then."
"Really? Werewolves can move with super-speed?"
"Didn't you know? Now get off, you perv."
"Well, sorry for saving you," Harry said, extracting himself from a tangle of slim, pale limbs.
"From what? Being infected by essence of You-Know-Who's-Ancestor cooties?"
"It's the Resurrection Stone, you idiot. God knows who would pop up if you touched it. Can you imagine what it would be like to have Bellatrix's ghost hanging out with us? She'd be even more irritating than you."
"I can assure you I was not fond enough of my psychotic aunt for that to have been a problem. Anyway, she might have been useful for your insane bake sale scheme. She may have been a few pumpkin pies short of a picnic hamper, but that woman could bake a mean lemon drizzle cake. You're still having issues in that area last I heard."
"Shut up and don't touch the ring. Better to be safe than sorry." Harry stood up, brushing leaves and dirt off his robes with a grimace. He turned to see Hermione staring frozen and open-mouthed at Draco.
"How did you know to do that?" she demanded eventually, voice shrill.
"It was obvious, Granger. The Gaunts set the stone in the ring so that even if the stone was resistant to summoning, they could summon the ring and it would bring the stone with it. 'The Gaunts already took care of that problem' – pretty obvious to anyone with an iota of common sense."
"If you weren't such an annoying jerk I would congratulate you."
"If you weren't such a prissy know-it-all I would resist the urge to gloat intolerably for the next three days at every opportunity. As it is…"
"Seriously, mate," Ron said to Harry, as he pulled his sleeve over his bare hand and picked up the ring without touching it. "How do you stand sharing a room with him?"
"He grows on you."
"Like mutant fungus."
Harry looked up at Draco who seemed to have forgotten his dislike of children enough to scoop up Teddy and do a gloating victory dance around Hermione's scowling figure. Teddy howled with glee and clapped his hands, hair turning white-blonde as Draco ended his dance with an elegant sweeping bow that had Teddy clinging on round his neck and screaming delightedly.
"Something like that," Harry murmured.