This chapter is dedicated to pureflower, who rocks.
Special thanks to my super-talented beta, ObsidianEmbrace.
Laughter rang out through the low kitchen of Grimmauld Place. Only Dumbledore remained straight-faced as James wound a yarn.
"So Sirius says, 'Now, Minerva. May I call you Minerva?' And then she gave him a look that could have curdled milk, and he says, 'You prefer Minnie then?' That was when I began to fear for my life."
"Peter used to swear she was part dragon," Remus added with a grin.
"He may have been onto something," Sirius said ruefully. "I think my ears are still ringing from that lecture."
"What did you expect, calling her Minnie?" Mrs. Weasley asked, her eyes aglow with mirth.
"And don't forget the pornography," Fred added.
Mrs. Weasley's look of mirth changed quickly into one of warning as she turned on both twins. "Don't you two go getting any ideas."
George looked indignant. "What did I do?"
"Guilt by association," Sirius said. "I can't tell you how many hours I spent in detention over things James did, and they all just assumed I must have been in on it."
"That cut both ways, you know. And for the record, Fred, the painting was only slightly pornographic. We didn't show anyone's naughty bits. Just Ravenclaw's bosoms-"
"And what beautiful bosoms they were," Sirius interrupted to say.
"-and Slytherin's bum."
"Which was not beautiful at all," Sirius amended.
"Sagged a bit," Remus added with a wince.
"And you painted it on the ceiling of the Entrance Hall?" George asked. "Are you sure you're not making this up?"
"Oh, quite sure." James said.
"I can testify," Kingsley Shacklebolt added, laughing. "The whole school was sure you'd be expelled."
"Nah," James said, running a hand coolly through his hair. "Actually, she complimented us on the amount of planning that had to go into it."
"That's not exactly true," Remus corrected. "What she said was that if we applied that amount of planning and dedication to our schoolwork, there would be no end to what we could accomplish."
"Po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe," James said with a dismissive wave of his hand.
Snape was the only one not laughing, burying his waspish expression in his dinner plate. Over the last few weeks, Harry had grown used to the revolving door of Order members and learned many of their names. Sirius and James especially seemed to revel in the company, but Harry preferred the evenings – when it was just the three of them. Those evenings had become few and far between, and Harry ached for them. When the others came, he felt exposed and on display. Although James swore they weren't, Harry couldn't shake the feeling they were all studying him.
Tonight, everyone was there, as there was to be a meeting after dinner. Harry was not allowed to attend, a slight he thought highly unfair considering that out of everyone present, he'd directly confronted Voldemort more than any of them save Dumbledore and his father. Some of them, like the Weasleys and Tonks and Mundungus Fletcher, had never even seen him at all. James was sympathetic to his plight, and asserted that he agreed but that Dumbledore was in charge of the meetings, and that he would not be swayed. Harry was too young, he said.
"I'm not too young for Voldemort to come after," Harry had muttered.
James and Sirius promised to tell Harry what happened in the meeting as soon as it was over, but Harry felt underappreciated all the same. It was not a happy feeling, and did nothing for his mood. He'd been trying not to let his temper get the better of him over the past few days – ever since he and his Dad had a shouting match in his bedroom and he really realized for the first time that this was difficult for everyone else, too.
Some days he had more success than others. So far, today had not been a particularly good one. He'd yelled at Sirius, and Ron, and Mrs. Weasley, who looked very much like she was going to yell back until Mr. Weasley intervened. He'd yelled at Hermione, and even at Ginny, who did yell back, which made him angrier at first, but now he was drowning in guilt, even though she'd smiled at him twice across the table. She was smiling at him now. For the first time, instead of burying himself in his mashed potatoes, he gave a small smile back. She seemed to relax a little, and until that moment he hadn't realized she was tense.
"I'm sorry I shouted at you," he told her after they'd all been shooed out of the dining room and the Order Meeting had begun.
She nodded. "Me, too."
"Sorry I shouted at you, or sorry you shouted at me?"
A shrug. "Both, I guess."
The question on Harry's lips about what she meant by that was cut off a moment later by the arrival of Fred and George. They had various eavesdropping methods they wished to try, and would need everyone's help. Even Hermione didn't scold too much. Harry reckoned she wanted to know what was going on as much as the rest of them. She couldn't stand not knowing everything.
In the end, they discovered that the best method was one of Fred and George's own inventions: extendable ears. They had only two, but promised more were in production, so the six of them took turns listening and telling the others what they heard in whispers.
Much of what was said, they didn't understand. There was something about a weapon, something about the Ministry, something about the plan, and something about spying. Snape gave a report about the new information he had, and James informed him shortly that he wasn't telling anything new, and what kind of spy was he, anyway, if he couldn't at least get them intelligence that the Aurors didn't already know?
For a moment, it sounded like there might be a row, but Sirius and Dumbledore calmed things down, namely by telling both of them to sit down and shut up.
Harry was tiring of it all, knowing as he did that James and Sirius were planning to fill him in, but he found he didn't feel like being alone. Things were far too quiet in Grimmauld Place. At home, things were rarely quiet. Even on lazy afternoons when James and Harry entertained themselves in separate rooms, there were the shouts from children playing outside, the whisper of the breeze, the titters of birds. And at Hogwarts, of course, things were never quiet. Harry was always surrounded by a buzz of student activity, even when he didn't want to be. Here, there was nothing. The outside world was locked away. Something to be feared and hated rather than rejoiced.
The knock at the door was loud and booming, cascading down the hallway so that Harry and his friends jumped. Harry looked at Ginny, who looked at Ron, who looked at Fred and George, who looked at Hermione.
The door opened, and they all stood stupidly. For a moment, Harry was afraid. It could be anybody coming in, but then he remembered the Fidelius charm. No one could be here unless Dumbledore had personally invited them. He shook his head, hoping to shake away the adrenaline rush with it. He wasn't typically a worrier. His style, like his father's, was to dive in feet first and trust his wits to see him through. Planning was futile when it came to his particular brand of demon, anyway.
The light from the hallway shone out into the balmy night and lit the faces of the newcomers. Harry recognized them immediately.
Amos and Melinda Diggory.
Harry felt a tug in his gut like he'd been punched. His face burned red-hot and all the guilt he'd been trying to push away the past few weeks rushed right back into his heart, causing it to drop down and settle somewhere in the vicinity of his knees. A movement caught his eye. Fred and George rushing to put the extendable ears away before the Diggorys saw and told Mrs. Weasley.
"Mr. and Mrs. Diggory, I… we… I…"
Mrs. Diggory smiled a warm, motherly sort of smile, warmer somehow for the pain behind it. "It's good to see you, Harry," she said, in a voice strong and deep with emotion, as though she had lived a lifetime since he last heard her speak. He felt a sudden urge to cry, but blinked rapidly to hold the tears at bay. Ginny slipped a hand into his, which only made the desire that much stronger.
"James invited us," Mr. Diggory added. "He said there is a resistance… that we can fight You-Know-Who… get justice… for Cedric." His voice faded to a whisper at the end, as though he still couldn't quite bring himself to say his son's name.
"They're in there," Ron said, and pointed to the closed kitchen door.
Hermione strode forward with her usual purpose and knocked on the door. Mr. Weasley came to answer, and shut the door tensely behind him. "Is everything all right out here?"
"Mr. and Mrs. Diggory are here," Ron told him, pointing and gawking as though they were carnies.
Mr. Weasley turned and saw them for the first time. His face lit up, "Oh, hello! James said you might come! Please, come in. I'll introduce you to everyone." He ushered them into the kitchen, and once again the door closed.
Everyone except Hermione turned to look at Harry. "Are you all right?" Ron asked, his lip curled in confusion. Hermione turned to him with a look of disgust.
"Fine," Harry muttered. He turned to stomp up the stairs and was nearly to his room when he heard Hermione say, "Honestly, Ronald!"
Ginny followed Harry, padding silently behind with womanly intuition. He sat on his bed with watery eyes, and she sat next to him, intertwining her arm with his. When he was sure he had defeated teardrops, Harry apologized softly.
"What for?" Ginny asked, her voice low and soothing. Harry loved her voice. It always made him feel better about absolutely everything.
He shrugged. "We should probably go back downstairs."
Ginny's eyes shone. "Why?"
"Hermione and your brothers will wonder where we are."
"They know where we are. They saw us come up here."
"Fred and George will probably tell everybody we're snogging."
Ginny laughed. "We could always prove them right."
Harry blushed, wondering why, after a year of dating and a lifetime of friendship, he still felt embarrassed around her at times like this. He didn't have much time, though. A moment later, all his attention was on the smell of her hair and the touch of her breath and that wonderful full feeling he felt whenever she was close.
"Well," he heard himself whisper, "if they're going to tell everybody anyway…"
Sirius smiled a smile that was clearly meant to put Harry at ease, but didn't. "It'll be fine. Dumbledore thinks the last time was a fluke."
"Then why won't he teach me anymore?" Harry asked in his best a-ha voice.
"That is a complicated question."
"Meaning I don't know the answer."
"Don't know it or won't share it?" came Harry's pointed response.
"Don't know it. He made some hints, none of which made much sense. He thinks Voldemort can sense his presence through you, because he was the one Voldemort always hated most."
"And yet I'm the one he keeps trying to maim."
"Oh, I'm sure he'd maim Dumbledore if given half a chance."
Harry only shrugged at that. Most of his confidence at the moment balanced on the thin line of his faith in Dumbledore's invincibility, and the perceived invincibility of those under his wing. People like Sirius and Remus. People like Harry himself. People like James.
"Don't worry about me," Sirius said after a moment's silence. "I'll be fine."
"I think I'd rather take my chances with Snape."
If Sirius was shocked, he didn't show it. James and Sirius had shared with him this morning over breakfast that in last night's meeting, after Amos and Melinda informed the Order that the kids were listening at the door and after imperturbable charms were set that kept even the extendable ears out, Dumbledore had said he would not teach Harry Occlumency anymore, and that he wanted Snape to take over. James had made a bit of a scene and insisted Sirius do it instead, even though Sirius said he was pants at Occlumency.
"At least teach him the basics," James had replied. "You can do that, right? Then if he needs more practice, he can work with Snape, but I won't leave him alone with Snape unable to defend himself."
"What do you think I would do to him?" Snape had asked, his voice full of the acid he always seemed to save for James.
"Shall I list all the things you've already done to him?" James had retorted, at which point Sirius hastily agreed to take over the lessons.
"I don't blame you wanting an excuse to hex him," Sirius said with a small smile. "But the hell he'd put you through after wouldn't be worth it."
Harry shrugged. There was no arguing with that. "He's going to put me through hell anyway. I may as well get some joy out of it." Ginny's logic, not his own, but still bleak and unbreakable
"Your father used to say that to McGonagall when she asked why we could never just leave him alone."
"True is true," Harry grumbled.
Sirius chuckled. "Well said, and now, I think it's time we got to work. I'd hate to have to explain to everyone that I let you waste the entire lesson."
"You wouldn't have to tell them. You could tell them the lesson was smashing."
"You need these lessons, kid. Now come on. Empty your thoughts."
Harry tried to think of Ginny, like he had last time, or of swimming in the frigid mountain lake where he and his dad used to camp when he was small, but Sirius' spell hit him and brought him almost immediately away from all that and into the whirlwind of thoughts and images and memories that he couldn't control.
The dizzying spectacle stopped almost quickly as it had begun, and Harry opened his eyes to find Sirius looking at him, appearing unhurt.
"That was good."
"It was awful!" Harry snapped. "I couldn't keep you out!"
"You're not supposed to be able to keep me out on a second try, Pronglet. Allow yourself a bit of grace."
Harry didn't answer, and so Sirius asked, "Ready to try it again?"
Harry nodded, his jaw set in a line of determination. It went no better the second time, but this time it was Harry who tossed out a terse, "Again".
This time, Harry managed to find some clarity somewhere in the chaos. He focused on one of the wisps of memory, managing to stop it as it blipped by and concentrate on it. It wasn't any sort of important memory. A dinner he never would have thought of again if it hadn't happened across his consciousness in this way.
The image disappeared quickly, leaving Harry confused until Sirius' voice broke into his reverie. "That was really good, Harry! That's a great start!"
Harry made a face that showed quite clearly how undeserving he felt of the praise. "I couldn't keep you out."
"But you figured out how to stop me. That's the first step."
"A baby step," Harry grumbled.
"Baby steps still get you that much closer to your goal. You've got to stop being so hard on yourself."
"You say that, but you haven't got Voldemort inside your head taking over and hexing people." The moment he said it, Harry realized that Sirius had had Voldemort in his head. Or Death Eaters, rather, which was the next best thing. "Sorry," he muttered.
Sirius shook his head. "You don't have to apologize, kid. Occlumency lessons always used to put me in a bad mood, too. It's exhausting, and humiliating, not to even mention the invasion of privacy. You have all my sympathy. But my sympathy doesn't help much, and Voldemort doesn't care about other people's privacy, so we're trying again."
This time, Sirius gave no more warning before saying the spell, and then Harry wasn't quite sure what happened next.
Harry was in the Gryffindor common room, but the furniture was all wrong. A moment later, he realized why. Lily and the four Marauders sat at a round table that wasn't there anymore.
They were doing homework, but James clearly wasn't focusing on it. Every few seconds, he would look up to make kissy faces at Lily.
"Prongs, if you don't stop that, I'm going to kill you, just to put you out of your misery."
James tore his eyes away from Lily's long enough to scowl at Sirius. "Who said anything about being miserable?" He reached out to Lily and ran a finger between her breasts. "No man has ever been happier than I am right now."
Lily blushed deep scarlet, her skin clashing brilliantly with her hair. "James!" she scolded in a whisper as she pushed his hand away. "People are looking!"
"I can't help it," James replied with a shrug. "You have such perfect breasts." He ran his finger between them again, caressing one through her robes. Her blushing deepened, and she put a hand on his. "I don't think anyone in the world has ever had such perfect breasts. Padfoot, don't you think she has perfect breasts?"
Sirius looked up from his essay and studied them. "Yes, perfect," he agreed, his gaze lingering.
"Okay, stop looking at them," James ordered.
Sirius went back to his homework. "You're the one who told me to look."
"You really should have seen that one coming," Remus said.
"Okay, can we please stop talking about my breasts?"
"Oh, I don't think that will be possible. I could spend the rest of my life talking about nothing else besides your breasts. Honestly, I don't understand how you girls function. If I had breasts I'd play with them all the time. How do you ever get anything done?"
"You get used to it," Lily said in a long-suffering tone. "I mean, if I suddenly grew a knob, it would probably keep me entertained for quite some time, but you all don't go around playing with yours all the time."
"Sure we do," James corrected.
"I'm playing with mine right now," Sirius added, not looking up from his essay.
"No you're not!" Lily protested. "I can see both your hands!"
"Anyone who needs his hands to play with his knob is an amateur," Sirius said, judgment in his tone.
Lily turned, if possible, an even brighter shade of red.
The scene changed. Harry was in the Great Hall at Hogwarts, being swept along with the crowd as they left what was clearly a feast. He spotted Remus, his prefect badge gleaming on his chest as he tried to herd first years toward the exit. The start of term feast, Harry reckoned. It hadn't changed.
Behind him, he heard his father's voice say how glad he was he didn't have to bother with first years, and Harry turned to see the sixteen year old versions of James, Sirius, and Peter standing there, watching Remus with amusement on their faces. When they started toward the dormitory, Harry followed, not sure what else to do. When this was over, he was sure he'd find that in the outside world only seconds had passed, but time in memories was always out of joint.
Sirius was almost to the staircase when someone pushed him from behind. He whipped around, ready for a fight, and saw Regulus standing there, his face a mask of fury. Harry recognized him from old pictures.
"What the hell, Reg?" Sirius yelled, sounding more surprised than angry.
"What the hell yourself!" Regulus shouted back.
"Why are you shouting at me?" Sirius shouted.
"Why did you leave me? How could you just leave?"
"I didn't do it by choice," Sirius said softly, emphatically. Honesty and regret dripped from his very pores. "Mother made me."
"Shut up!" Regulus cried. "You always do that! Stop trying to blame Mother for this! You always have an excuse for why it isn't your fault, or why it's okay to act the way you do. We were your family, Sirius!" Regulus was nearly screaming now, his eyes wide with uncontrolled rage. "You turned your back on us! On me, Sirius! You've no right to complain about the consequences now! You said you'd never leave me! I'm your brother! Your brother, Sirius! How could you just leave?"
A few heated words later, and they were locked in a tussle, fists and insults flying at random. By the time McGonagall and three other teachers pulled them apart, Regulus was bleeding from a cut lip. He held a hand to it and inspected the blood on his fingers. He let out a small humorless laugh. "I always thought I was the end of your selfishness, brother," he said acidly. "I always thought you'd never hurt me. Stupid of me, wasn't it?"
"Stop it!" McGonagall scolded. "Stop it this instant! You should be ashamed of yourselves! You're brothers!"
Regulus narrowed his eyes and jerked himself out of another professor's grasp. "He's not my brother," the boy snarled. "He's no brother of mine." And with that, Regulus turned toward the dungeons and sloped away, disappearing into the crowd.
Then it all disappeared once more as Grimmauld Place and Sirius' face swam into focus.
"I think that's enough for today," Sirius stuttered out. He held a necklace in one hand that Harry was sure he'd never seen before, and had the other hand pressed gingerly against his thigh.
"Sirius, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to…"
"I know you didn't," Sirius said quickly. "Don't worry about it. It's one of the hazards of teaching Occlumency. You wouldn't believe some of the dirt I got on my father when he was trying to teach me." He smiled, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. They were clouded with pain. "That's one of the reasons it's so important in this subject that we trust one another."
Harry nodded, still sure he ought to be saying something. "Are you hurt?" It was clear he was. "Did I hex you?"
"No, I banged my leg on the table. I'll probably have a bruise, but it'll heal. We'll pick back up again tomorrow, okay? Now get your little arse outside. It's far too lovely a day to waste." Harry hesitated, but Sirius added, "Go on!" in a voice that was not to be disobeyed. Harry was sort of glad for it. His friends were all outside, enjoying their lives while Harry was cooped up in here. He longed to tell them what he'd found out at breakfast this morning, about the meeting last night and the prophecy and Voldemort's fingers spreading over the country like shadows at dusk. But he'd been made to promise not to tell, and so he didn't. Instead, he joined them at the edge of the wards and watched the hazy images of the world moving on just a footstep away and wondered what it would feel like to step through and be free.
Sirius fingered the locket as he sat on Reg's bed. The room was how he'd left it, lined in green and silver, with pictures of him and his friends on the wall, laughing, joking, not yet knowing that they'd nearly all die young, not knowing that they were already living out their final years.
A few of young Snape were here and about, and Sirius remembered with a tug the way Reg had sought him out the very first night he came to Hogwarts. Sometimes Sirius thought he did it out of spite, just to goad his brother, but the truth was that Reg hadn't grown spiteful yet. Not in his first year.
Then Sirius thought of the first time he saw him after he left home, after the Welcome Feast at Hogwarts. The memory that had been so ungraciously thrust upon him today. He was embarrassed that Harry had seen it, even though it wasn't his fault. Now he couldn't get it out of his mind, how they screamed at one another, right there in front of the whole school. How they threw angry words of the sort that you only throw at people you love, and then angry punches of the sort that you only throw at people you hate. And when McGonagall pulled them apart and said, "Stop it! You're brothers!" Regulus' face twisted into their mother's for a moment, and he spat out, "He's not my brother. He's no brother of mine."
He thought about the last time he saw his brother, only a few months before he died. They met by chance, the sort of meeting of Order Members and Death Eaters that nearly always resulted in bloodshed. James was there also, just the two of them against four Death Eaters. Regulus saved James' and Sirius' lives that night by using a killing curse on the final Death Eater, the one who had them paralyzed and laughed as he used the Cruciatus on them in turns, laughed at James and Sirius as they writhed, helpless, on the ground. Laughed as they each had to watch their best friend being tortured to death.
He wondered if Reg had already decided to leave the ranks of the Death Eaters by then, or if the final plea Sirius made when he came to help him to his feet and ask if he was all right was what finally convinced him. If so, Sirius had killed him as surely as if he'd shot the curse himself. They smiled and hugged before they parted, and they each said I love you. Sirius was always thankful for that, that their final words were words of kindness and not anger. How many people could say that their final words to someone were, "I love you"? So much power in those words. So much vulnerability in those words.
Sirius slipped his fingernail between the edges of the locket and tried to pry it open, even though he knew it wouldn't go. When he and his friends were cleaning out the house, tossing dusty, ancient, priceless artifacts into rubbish bins with reckless abandon, they came across it. Kreacher, still locked in grief for the family he'd lost screamed that it belonged to Master Regulus and that Master Sirius couldn't throw it away.
James said he didn't trust a locket that wouldn't open and that, judging by the sorts of things they'd found in the rest of the house, something awful was probably inside. Sirius nodded his agreement and pretended to throw it away, but slipped it into his pocket instead. He couldn't bring himself to part with something that had been his brother's. After everything, he still needed Regulus.
There was something odd about the locket, he knew, and once or twice he'd considered asking Dumbledore if he had any thoughts. He used to keep it in his own house, but Harry found it once, when he only a toddler and living there with his father. He was mesmerized by it. He threw a wobbly when Sirius wouldn't let him put it on, but when Sirius gave in he swore he saw a change come over the boy's face, and a moment later Harry began to cry in pain and rubbed his scar. James dismissed it as coincidence when Sirius told him, wracked with worry over possibly having exposed Harry to a dark object. Harry never could take his eyes off it whenever it was nearby, though, and as Sirius still wasn't ready to give it up, he brought it here for safekeeping.
James probably didn't even remember the locket. Harry certainly didn't. Only Sirius slipped up here to look at it and wonder at its contents. It seemed important now, in so many ways. Important because it might truly be a dark object and therefore might matter – as the mundane so often did – in the high matters of the world. Important because, whatever it was, Harry had once thought it important enough to throw a tantrum for and Sirius trusted that kid's instincts more than he did his own. Important also because, whatever was inside, Regulus must have put it there.
Even now, Sirius wasn't prepared to give it up, but it wasn't coincidence that he'd had it in his pocket today during Harry's Occlumency lesson, or that it had burned so hot it formed a blister on his thigh when Harry's consciousness entered his own. Sirius put it back in the drawer with Reg's paints and sketchbook, nestled under the art kit he'd sent him for Christmas his first year at Hogwarts, but that his parents had claimed as their own. Sirius never was certain who Regulus believed it to be from.
The next Order meeting was in two days, and Sirius would finally show the thing to Dumbledore. Maybe he'd actually know what it was. Sirius hoped he would say it was nothing, so he could nestle it back in its drawer and keep hold of this tiny bit of his brother that was still in the world.