Chapter 16 : The Headmaster

It was a most curious thing, time; sometimes it ran away with you, speeding by like a train without brakes. Other times it slowed down to a crawl, every waking moment another turgid step onwards on the great journey. Then, there were times like this – when it seemed to stop entirely, waiting for people to catch up and make their choices.

"I think I'll have the lemon," Dumbledore said slowly, frowning with uncertainty. "Yes - that will be all, Tippy."

The little floppy-eared house-elf saluted bravely and bowed deeply before she disappeared with a clear pop into thin air. Dumbledore smiled wistfully, sighing tiredly as he rested his weary bones in his fluffy armchair, idly fiddling with one of his many little magical gadgets; most of them he'd designed himself and the majority of the things did nothing actually useful. This particular one detected tea leaves in its vicinity – he'd created it many years before when a particularly noxious professor had joined the staff that made even Severus' disposition look sunny – it was all rather embarrassing after the fact. The logic behind the invention was that the man always brought homebrew tea along since he did not appreciate the castle's assortment of drink; this habit would prove to be the reason he so very rarely managed to find his colleague that taught Transfiguration.

Dumbledore glanced up suddenly; he'd heard the tell-tale sounds of a voice beyond his door- there was someone at the gargoyle. The Headmaster could feel the slow rumbling as it moved aside, allowing someone passage up. Slow methodical steps resounded up the staircase, solid and confident. There was really only one person that sounded like that.

"Come in, Severus."

Dumbledore smiled demurely as the Potions Master entered with his perpetual scowl, long black robes flaring behind him like the wings of a bat as he muttered something uncomplimentary under his breath. He sighed and nodded with a modicum of respect, sitting down across from him at the desk with an inquisitive gaze. "Albus. You requested my presence?"

"I do hope I didn't inconvenience you," Dumbledore answered mildly, putting down the Tea Flee. "I thought it was best to let you rest for a time before we conversed more thoroughly about recent events; you seemed rather pale and tired, the last time I saw you."

Snape sighed, rubbing his eyes. He'd spent the better part of the night brewing, not resting; he required little sleep, and desired even less. The funeral for Hestia Jones had likely been the evening before – he didn't know, as he'd elected to simply spend his time productively and leave such thoughts for another time. "I gave you the memories of what happened – what more do you require?"

"Your memories display well enough what you experienced – they are, however, but a pale imitation of being present; there are many things that could escape my attention." Dumbledore gave a friendly smile, glancing to his pensieve, now covered up. "I'd like your personal – interpretation – of Regulus Black and his actions."

"Black is…" Snape shook his head in annoyance. "More than a decade has passed, Albus – I have no idea what happened to him since those last days among the Death Eaters. Whatever he did since those days, he's not told me. Black's as much a mystery to me as he is to anyone else."

"He seemed apologetic about his role in past events," Dumbledore pointed out, stroking his beard in contemplation. "It is true that we should be sceptical of such fortuitous events – finding Regulus alive is an odd coincidence at this time, a strange hand that fate has dealt us. It could lead to events that put the Order in peril, as he knows many things I would rather not have spread around without my knowledge. Still… I dare not give up on him so easily, should he have truly followed a path like your own."

"Black, betraying the Dark Lord…" Snape muttered. "I can't even imagine such a thing – he was the proper brother, sarcastic and haughty but most definitely a dark wizard, his opinions of muggleborns and half-bloods barely any better than his contemporaries, and certainly worse than mine. Whatever got him out must've been important - perhaps dangerously so."

"Oh, I do believe that," Dumbledore answered softly, eyes troubled as he turned to his collection of knick-knacks. "I long suspected that something was off about the disappearance of the boy – his family allegedly found his remains but they certainly never showed anyone; likely they simply attempted to save face. Perhaps it is true that Regulus did escape the public eye, slipping into the shadows of the Ministry's bowels; stranger things have happened, certainly. Since his reappearance he has been spotted by several Order members, evidently no longer bothering with a disguise."

Snape sniffed, gazing dully out the window. "His return will have reached the Dark Lord's ears now – the Mark has been burning all day. It is doubtful that keeping his head low would have any effect at this point."

Dumbledore nodded. "I very much doubt that this is a coincidence; I am certain Minister Scrimgeour elected to untie this horse from the stable and saddle it – he clearly intends to take it to war. What troubles me is the fact that Rufus seems to be actively drawing fire to himself by doing such things – Voldemort will not take kindly to someone harbouring traitors to his cause." He shook his head, gazing again at Snape. "Severus – Rufus has stopped answering my letters, and is frequently seen locking himself into his office. Then there's his blatant reversal of opinions on the topic of the Order – less than a year ago, he would have gladly jailed me for even entertaining the concept."

"What are you implying?"

"I am not certain – I can simply assume he has gone mad, but that seems rather less than complimentary; I similarly doubt that the Ministry is panicked enough to do these things for no good reason; Rufus has some sense. We are missing something and Regulus Black must be near the centre of it." He frowned darkly. "We have to consider what this means, not just for the Ministry and the school – but for the people we have left in the Ministry's control."

Snape frowned, suddenly sighing as he understood the implication. "Potter's involved?"

"He has been seen visiting Minister Scrimgeour on several occasions – alone. Given the presence of a private elevator to that level, there may be many more such instances that Order members have simply missed entirely." He folded his hand together. "Harry's never said anything about it – likely he's not able due to the contract he signed; even if he wished our help, he would likely be unable to ask it. I should have foreseen that… Regardless, it is important. It is no different than the fact that Regulus Black appears similarly popular with our new Minister."

"Potter's been back to Hogwarts several times, he's hardly a prisoner," Snape said in annoyance. "Loathe as I am to suggest it, perhaps simply asking the brat would be a viable strategy?"

Dumbledore nodded distractedly, his eyes going to a neatly written letter that'd been on his desk, ready to be sent, for several hours; he'd not decided whether to send it or not. Perhaps it would be wise to hear more sides of these troubles before coming to damning conclusions. He picked it up and glanced at Snape. "I will invite Mr. Black to visit me, here; I will see what can be done, as I have other issues to speak with him about, as well. Suspicions alone do not constitute enough reason to burst into Harry's life with dire warnings – I'd prefer him to live away from all this, at least for a while."

Snape grumbled something. "Now – ask me what you wished to know about Black, I should be getting back to my work."

Dumbledore turned slowly, curious eye on his pensieve. "There was a peculiarity about Regulus that I hoped you could elucidate…"

"Malfoy?" Harry asked, perplexed. What on earth could he need?

"Yes, Potter – who did you think it was? The other people you gave secret communication mirrors too?" the blond boy snorted disdainfully, though came across as rather nervous. Unlike his usual perfect attire, Malfoy seemed frazzled, his hair in disarray and his clothes rather scruffy-looking – had he been doing things he shouldn't? "Look – I have to warn you about something – do you have a moment?"

Harry nodded uncertainly; running a hand through his hair as he quickly closed his room's door and sat on his bed with rapt attention focused on the mirror. "Talk."

Malfoy took a moment to stabilize his mirror on something, glaring at Harry with some degree of disdain, straightening his robe and hair. "Look – this isn't about needing your help - when that happens, you'd better come running. This is about – well - I've heard things."

"Things." Harry repeated dully. "Well, Malfoy – "

"Listen and let me finish, jerk," Malfoy snapped. "There's Death Eaters after your neck and they're going to come for you. Withinthe week." He pointed at the mirror's surface accusingly. "You'd better get yourself to safety or you're no use to me whatsoever."

Harry rolled his eyes at the jab, frowning at Malfoy's assertion – that timescale was a lot more accurate than 'probably somewhere in the next month' that the Unspeakables and particularly Burbidge had argued. "How do you know?"

"Greg – Greg's dad's involved, he says – he and Fenrir Greyback, a werewolf – and others besides. Look – I have been hearing a lot of things since you left but I figured it was mostly nonsense." He looked nervously over his shoulder for a moment. "This, though – I found a letter from his father that is rather unambiguous."

"Found? You mean you stole it," Harry observed with some amusement. "I think you underestimate the Ministry, Malfoy – I can even apparate now, sort of, so there's no real point in trying to get me here."

Malfoy hissed in anger. "Potter – you're not the only target. The Dark Lord is coming to kill the Minister. This isn't some little raid!"

Well, crap. Unlike himself, the Minister wasn't constantly holed up in the lower levels – he couldn't be, or nobody would ever see the man. A Death Eater attack that avoided all the preparations set up down in the lowest levels would definitely be a bad thing. "How certain are you of this?"

"Unless the Dark Lord regularly arranges for fake attacks on the Ministry of Magic, I'd take it bloody seriously." Malfoy muttered into his mirror. "If you keep my name out of things, you can warn whoever you think should know – just remember that you owe me for this, Potter."

Harry nodded soberly. "I'll get you and your family out of the way, Malfoy – I have some contacts, now."

"What about my father?"

Harry cringed as he remembered Lucius Malfoy, vicious smirk on his face as he asked for the Prophecy – the last time he'd seen the man was back during the attack on the Ministry. Still… he needed to get make alliances, here. He wanted the bastard to hang – but there were bigger fish to fry. "Your father – if he swears not to harm me or mine again, I won't stop him from leaving with you – I can't speak for anyone else doing the same, though."

Malfoy nodded in relief, straightening. "Potter… thank you."

Harry gazed at Malfoy for a little longer than other found comfortable, as he fidgeted. Finally, he spoke. "You shouldn't be the one to thank me, Malfoy. If anything, it is my gratitude you deserve. If you'll excuse me – I have a Minister to go bother."

He was still considering what exactly he'd do about Malfoy later that afternoon, as he walked pensively through the Department – he didn't really have something to do right now due to the absence of a large number of his colleagues and had spent some time simply wandering through the hall of artefacts – one of the more intriguing rooms, to be sure; right at the moment he was alone, and he sighed.

After going undercover as Regulus for some time, it was good to be in his own skin for a little while, once again; granted, he felt a lot less guilty about it since he went to Grimmauld Place, but lying to everyone he came across wasn't really something he preferred – though he seemed uncomfortably good at it. He thought uncomfortably that right now he was probably being more of a Slytherin than bloody Malfoy.

In a sense, though – the disguise did allow him to get away from the uncomfortable stares that people sent his way just for being the 'Boy-who-lived'; for once in his life he was able to be someone else entirely. It was perhaps ironic that it took for him to get even more special privileges compared to his classmates to find a little bit of normalcy.

"Mr. Potter –" Burbidge's loud voice cut through the room, and Harry looked up in annoyance – it figured she would be the one to find him. Burbidge's grave expression was rather offset by two owls perching on her shoulders, hooting softly.

"What is it?"

Burbidge bristled at his tone, scowling. "Two owls have been pecking at my fingers for the last half hour – they're rather adamant you receive your post." She gestured to her shoulders, rolling her eyes. "If I'd known you would get such persistent pen pals, I'd probably never have considered personally delivering them. Now, take them."

Harry nodded, removing a large and ornate-looking letter inscribed with very familiar handwriting, the other a small one made of thick paper with the unmistakable scrawl of Molly Weasley. The two owls nipped cheerily at his fingers, hopping over to his own shoulders with a single flap, balancing precariously. "Oy!"

"Your problem now, Potter," Burbidge said, smiling devilishly. "In any case, I also wanted to deliver these." She reached into her robe, removing a small satchel. Harry quickly slipped it into his pocket – he was fully aware what it contained, as he'd surreptitiously requested it himself: Polyjuice potion and a liberal supply of Regulus Black's hair; an insurance policy, of sorts.

Harry nodded absently, flipping open Molly Weasley's envelope first- he had an uncomfortable history with her post, and vaguely feared it would start screaming at the top of its lungs any moment now. Burbidge sniffed and walked off, waving distractedly.

"I expect you in my office, tomorrow evening – you've been lax in responding to requests by some of the other Departments, and we should discuss that." She shrugged. "I can understand brushing off the Prophecy guys – who wouldn't – but still."

Harry grimaced – it was true that he'd been reluctant about getting around to all parts of the Department (or the Ministry in general, for that matter.) He'd intentionally set aside time to brush up on his combat skills – thankfully, it'd had an effect – and up to this point, there hadn't been any fuss about that, given that as a relative newcomer, he didn't have obligations to stick with one particular project for a long time. In a sense, he'd put defeating Voldemort in that spot. "I'll be there."

Harry left the artefact room as he scanned Mrs. Weasley's letter – it was surprisingly detached-sounding which was, Harry supposed, only sensible; it was addressed to Regulus Black, not Harry Potter. "Well, at least the owls are no issue," He muttered distractedly. Evidently Charlie Weasley had been enthusiastic about Harry's part in the rescue operation in Romania – he was spending some time at home to recover and his mother had decided that inviting the one responsible to dinner was only proper – Harry smirked at the thought of Snape receiving a similar missive.

It would be good to see the Weasleys again – likely Ron and Ginny wouldn't be there, which meant a lot less difficult acting on his part. He had no idea how he would act like strangers to those two; their parents were easy in comparison. Perhaps it was a good idea – he knew that the Order of the Phoenix was well-represented in the family so it would be a good way to make a few connections as his alter-ego; it'd probably also get back to Dumbledore.

Speaking of which – the second letter was yet another invite to Regulus Black. Harry rolled his eyes; at this point his freshly-created alter-ego was looking rather popular. Dumbledore would be tougher – the old man had a lot more tricks up his sleeves than the Weasleys, and there's probably be difficult questions; he clearly remembered that speculative look after their meeting in the Ministry building.

Harry sighed – he knew full well that he couldn't just brush off being invited by one of the most powerful wizards in the country, even if he hadn't been the head of the Order of the Phoenix – the Minister had practically ensured it when he decided to put him in a leadership position of a joined assault on Voldemort. He shifted, suddenly uncomfortably hot, and glanced up.

"Well, you look positively uncomfortable," Mustang intoned dryly, smiling. "How are things?"

"Mustang," Harry responded, frowning – he glanced around and realized that without quite realizing it he'd wandered right into the newest part of the Department, after taking a wrong turn. The room still looked under construction, though several maps and large filing cabinets were already in place, as were what seemed to be large versions of a Wizarding Wireless. "Sorry, must've gotten lost. Hold on, I have to take care of this…"

Harry excused himself, quickly sending off both owls with a quick note of acceptance - A visit with Dumbledore was scheduled the following morning, which was actually ideal; it would be followed by the Weasleys next Saturday, though he made a mental note to make sure he arrived exactly on time – he could imagine Mrs. Weasley's fussing already – especially if he was really early. He realized uncomfortably that Mustang was still keeping an eye on him, staring at him from across the room.

"So – this place is about done?"

Mustang shrugged. "It's pretty much done - I figured you'd come here eventually. You'll see actual work being done here within the week," The man gave a friendly smile. "Our last employee is finally arriving tomorrow – we'll be kicking Death Eater butt before you know it." He winked knowingly. "You know a little about that, eh? Kicked some ass in Romania, I hear."

"It was just two of them – well three," Harry said, thinking back. "I got lucky."

"Mad-eye would be proud – not bad for a first timer," He said, smirking. "Where is the old codger, anyway?"

"He's been out of the Ministry for a week or so, now." Harry noted, frowning. "I have my suspicions on the reasons – Scrimgeour seems to think that it might not be the best idea to let him in on the whole Regulus thing – though I question the wisdom of telling you guys."

"Asami told me," Mustang responded with a shrug. "In any case, people here aren't stupid enough to go spread that stuff around to people they don't trust. I made an oath and all that crap; it's not as if I'd get away scot-free." He scowled. "One of the nasty ones, too – she knows her stuff."

"I need to talk to that woman," Harry muttered – spreading around information like this wouldn't help him keep his cover for very long. "Maybe I should go fetch Mr. Peasegood," He joked, winking. "No more troubles from either of you, then – well, if you remember who you are, afterwards."

Mustang shuddered. "Don't even joke about that, now."

Harry sighed, glancing outside the room, where Unspeakables were walking in and out, oblivious to their presence. "Mustang – do you ever get the feeling that you're way too dumb for this job? There are geniuses through that door that would probably make Professor Dumbledore flap his ears…"

"Hmmm," The man glanced in the same direction briefly. "The Unspeakables have a lot of that type – but they're not the only ones, you know. I'm certainly not here for my stellar intellect. You – well, considering the kinds of things I've been hearing, you'll probably end up with the most dangerous tasks we have around here." He snorted. "Let's face it – you're fighting Death Eaters in your first year, going undercover, learning stuff that most here haven't even tried. I think the Minister's got big plans for you."

"That's what worries me," Harry responded, frowning. "He's rather fond of arranging for things without my consent – I have half a mind he's also involved in this whole Regulus Black business. I certainly didn't intend to waltz in as a dead man…"

Mustang shrugged, dropping down on one of the seats with a deep sigh. "Just make sure you dance to Burbidge's tune until she decides to hand you off to someone else – she's already more involved in what you're up to than I've ever heard her do." He smiled. "Such a headstrong woman…"

"Well – that's great," Harry said quickly. "I should go train my spells – no time like the present –" He quickly made his way to the door, glancing back. "I'll – see you later, then?"

Mustang nodded knowingly, smirking. "Keep safe."

Harry didn't really intend to go train his spells; after the mission and Malfoy he was rather looking for a little cool-down, and he didn't really have any obligations until next morning's visit to Hogwarts. He walked over to his bookcase and his hand briefly wavered between Dumbledore's diary and that curious collection of fairy tales by Beedle the Bard – he finally decided that on the latter.

"The Tale of the Three Brothers," he read, curious.

A mere half-hour later he'd ensconced himself in the library and wouldn't leave until late in the evening.

Harry was nervous – he couldn't imagine who wouldn't be, given what he was about to do; essentially the same thing that the fake Moody had pulled off in his fourth year. He'd made sure to keep enough prepared Polyjuice with him, his clothes and wand were appropriate, and he'd even put on a tie of all things. Distinctly uncomfortable as it was, he couldn't very well visit someone as Regulus Black and wear pauper's clothing.

Slipping into the Great Hall, curious faces gazed at him from all directions as he walked between the long tables; he'd interrupted breakfast, it seemed. Piles of dumplings, bacon, eggs and toast were stacked high and quite a few people had put liberal loads of all of them on their plates. Ron and Hermione sat in their usual spots at the Gryffindor table; he realized that his own spot was still free; evidently it was kept free, just in case he came by – he smiled genuinely at that. His eyes skimmed over the Ravenclaw table, the Hufflepuff one – neither were paying any attention to him – and finally the Slytherin table, which was more than a little attentive – figured. Finally he met Dumbledore's eyes – Harry noticed that Snape was scowling furiously from his own spot at the head table, and forced a smile.

"Mr. Black – I will be with you shortly." Dumbledore announced, nodding slightly. Harry noticed even more heads going up at the Slytherin table – evidently the Headmaster intended someone to catch wind of his arrival, or he probably wouldn't have said anything at all.

"I will wait – you don't mind if I grab a bite, do you? I'm starving." Harry smiled good-naturedly and Dumbledore gave a slight nod, though his eyes were sharp and cold – decidedly different from how he looked at him without the disguise.

Breakfast usually wasn't as longwinded as the opening feast, and quite a few curious students glanced at him as they left the great hall early, including some suspiciously swift Slytherin. Judging by the numbers, not even half the students were still in the room; Malfoy definitely was, though. Harry thought he seemed particularly tense – probably convinced that the new arrival was a Death Eater sent to kidnap him or nonsense like that – with a Black for a mother, he doubtlessly knew the family tree.

Harry noticed that Hermione was looking at him with an intrigued expression – she hesitantly tapped next to her on the bench, and judging from Ron's affronted expression, the message wasn't lost on him either – he was being offered his own seat.

"Mr. Black – I've heard quite a bit about you," Hermione gushed as Harry walked closer. She sent a warning glance to Ron. "I wanted to thank you for what you did for Ron's brother," she added meaningfully. "Please, sit."

"That's-" Ron protested, though he stopped and sighed as he noticed Hermione's fierce look. "Fine – fine. Sit."

Harry sat gingerly, his older looks standing out from the students around him – he had half a mind to go over to the head table, but he had his suspicions that would be even more unwelcome than partaking in the splendour of good Hogwarts cooking. "It was my pleasure, Mrs – Granger, is it?"

"Yes!" Hermione said, gaping. "Oh – Harry must've told you about us! How is he? It's been over a week since we last saw him…"

"Mr. Potter's fine, as far as I know," Harry answered, once more feeling decidedly fake, though he bolstered his nerves – the really hard stuff had yet to come. "Last I saw of him, he was in the Department of Mysteries, nervous about a performance review or something like that." He glanced at Ron. "He sends you two his regards, of course, as well as a few others."

"I can guess who," Hermione answered, smiling. She glanced around herself, whispering. "I can talk with you about the Department, can't I? The unbreakable vow?"

"If you couldn't, you'd have noticed immediately," Harry answered confidently. He'd actually tested out the contract he'd made with the Ministry – though it wasn't quite an unbreakable vow, it might as well be; if he tried to do something decidedly against the rules, sharp needle-like stabs behind his eyes were a pretty good sign he'd have to back off. "Perhaps you should avoid it, though – too many curious ears."

Hermione nodded. "It's just strange, you know – Harry writes regularly and we see him sometimes, but I've no idea what he does and hardly a clue who he works with."

"Wish we could come visit sometime," Ron added begrudgingly. "Though I suppose you'd have our memories erased or such…"

Harry shrugged – he had severe doubts over whether or not Burbidge could be budged to let strangers roam the halls – the glimpse they'd gotten when breaking in was probably the most they'd get to see. "I'm sure Mr. Potter will gladly show you the rest of the Ministry building – he'd found with the Aurors quite frequently, they'd probably be less wand-happy."

Looking over to the teachers, Harry had the uncomfortable realization that he'd have to remember to treat them as strangers, perhaps even more so than Ron or Hermione – he didn't know for certain which of them had actually met Regulus in life, given that the painting hadn't even touched on the topic. He silently cursed the enchanted object about the omission, though it was too late now. Flitwick didn't seem interested in his presence, nor Sprout – Snape was still flicking his gaze towards him occasionally, as did the man next to him – with a start, Harry realized that he didn't know who that was, at all. It'd have to be the Defence against the Dark Arts teacher that he'd never had a chance to meet – well, there was at least one person he wouldn't need to act oblivious about.

"Say, Mrs. Granger – it's been quite a while since I was here – who are the new teachers?" He gave what he thought was a congenial smile; Ron frowned dangerously.

"Ah!" Hermione looked a bit startled. "Of course – well, everyone knows Professor Dumbledore, of course – and Professor McGonagall too, she teaches transfiguration, though I suppose you already know about that…"

Harry nodded. "I'm unfamiliar with the wizard next to Severus – that is, Professor Snape," he supplied, before Hermione could be off to list all the various accomplishments of the teachers he already knew. "A new addition?"

"Ah, him," Hermione said; she was less than enthusiastic about him, it seemed. "That's Professor Deckard – he's a bit… peculiar."

"Scatter-brained and an idiot," Ron supplied, grimacing. "I swear, we learned more from Lockhart – well, perhaps not quite that, but it's close."

Harry chuckled, gazing again at the man; the sharp gaze and powerful presence that this Deckard exuded didn't really match up with such a characterization. "Defence against the Dark Arts, I take it?"

"Right – I suppose we can't complain too much, given the teacher we had last year…"

Harry nodded thoughtfully; Neville was a little ways down the table, looking uncertainly in his direction; not fearful, which was a start at least, though he did seem uncomfortable.

"Excuse me," Harry said; he quickly, stood up, snatching up his plate with a bit of bacon and an egg.

Neville's eyes went wide as Harry approached; the latter intentionally tried to make himself come off as unthreatening as possible, just in case he'd misread the situation. There were plenty of seats at the Gryffindor table now, quite a few had left already.

"Mr. Longbottom."

"R-Regulus Black?" Neville said uncertainly, sitting up straight. "I had heard about – well, I didn't think –"

Harry sighed – it figured rumours of his reappearance would have made their way here already; the Death Eaters certainly knew, and more than a few of them had children in this school that they'd probably keep informed. "Yes – I'm alive; you seemed more affected than most, it seemed." He glanced to Ron and Hermione, who were keeping an eye on their conversation, though they were too far off to hear it.

"Well –" Neville looked down uncomfortably. "It's just – my grandmother told me about you, one time – about how you were a Death Eater who tried to back out – the only wizard with sense in your family, she said."

Harry shrugged. "It is old history – I'm not afraid to admit that much." He looked at Neville with narrowed eyes. "That's not all, is it?"

Neville hesitated, and then nodded. "It's about – well, grandmother told me that the Black family has a lot of connections – with really great healers and people like that; I'd hoped…" He mumbled something incomprehensible, though Harry got the gist of it.

"Your parents," Harry concluded, feeling suddenly very tired. "I don't want to get your hopes up, Neville – I know they're in St. Mungo's and that the very best healers work there. It's been over a decade since I was last out in the open – there's not very much left of the Black family's old connections - I'm now the last one that even carries that name."

Neville nodded, sighing. "I thought so."

Harry didn't quite know what else to say to Neville, and excused himself, wandering down the breakfast table just as the first plates were beginning to vanish – the House-elves were getting busy, it seemed. Hermione, Ron and Neville quickly left together, the last giving a quick nod before they turned the corner – most of the teachers had already left during his conversation.

"I trust it was good to eat Hogwarts food once more, after so very long." Dumbledore stated, suddenly right next to him; Harry managed to avoid flinching, though his eyes shot up to the Headmaster's.

"Oh, very – I'm afraid the Ministry's rather hit-and-miss as far as meals are concerned." He nodded at the table, where several scones were vanishing into thin air. "It doesn't help that you have to be careful not to accidentally pick a glass of blood instead of wine – the hazard of working with a varied group, I suppose."

Dumbledore didn't answer, gesturing him along. Harry still felt underdressed even in his neat robe; compared to his Unspeakable robe or Dumbledore's extravagant collection, it was decidedly plain, and the muted colours didn't really improve matters. The two made their way up the stairs in silence; they passed by various students who sent them inquisitive looks. Before Harry knew it they'd arrived at the stone gargoyle that led to Dumbledore's office. The man gave no sound, but it suddenly opened up; Harry realized with a start that it had to work on the same principle as the special elevator in the Ministry; it could be opened with a silent spell.

"I like what you've done with the place," Harry tried airily, gingerly tapping his pocket – he'd slipped a sip of Polyjuice while drinking, down in the hall, so he should have enough time as his alter ego for a fair meeting. "Your collection has expanded considerably."

Dumbledore smiled slightly, gazing over to Harry's side. There, Fawkes the Phoenix was taking in the new arrival, a soft sound emanating from his throat, a slight touch of that unearthly quality its song possessed unmistakable – it sent a shiver down his back. The bird finally crooned softly, putting its head down. Harry gingerly walked over, nervously running a hand over the creature's smooth feathered crest; Fawkes warbled a soft whistling tone of appreciation.

"Phoenixes are truly extraordinary creatures," Dumbledore remarked, looking on with that all too familiar twinkle in his eyes. "Very good judges of character, I'd say."

"I hope so," Harry joked, hesitantly running his hand over his pocket once more – besides the Polyjuice, there was one other item in there; something he'd taken great risk in bringing so openly into Hogwarts.

"Mr. Black – I shall be honest with you, if you agree to do the same in return," Dumbledore said, settling himself behind his desk and folding his hands. "Though I have been warned not to by several trusted compatriots, it is my opinion that everyone deserves a chance to make amends for past wrongs – your past as a Death Eater, in particular. It is … not without precedent."

"I am not proud of that time," Harry said uncomfortably, remembering all too well the distraught expression on painting-Regulus' face as he recounted what had happened after he joined Voldemort's forces. "I attempted to make amends for my actions, back then – unfortunately, the Dark Lord noticed my betrayal quite quickly, and I was forced to make use of my family's connections to find a way out that would be untraceable – to fake my death."

Dumbledore nodded, smiling slightly. "I must confess that I was quite convinced you had genuinely expired, Mr. Black – my sources are not inconsiderable, so the Ministry must be commended for hiding you so thoroughly."

"It wasn't the Ministry," Harry said lightly. "The Ministry only found out much later that I was in their employ – much to their horror, in fact. It was only the Unbreakable Vow that I had sworn that prevented my outright execution, as my status as a Death Eater was no secret." Harry shrugged. "It wasn't until Minister Scrimgeour that I was brought in for missions outside the Department's lowest levels – not to mention without a disguise. He believes – and I have come to agree with this – that I can do some good for the fight against the Dark Lord, rather than cooped up."

"Rufus does have a certain flair for the dramatic," Dumbledore agreed. "Still – I believe you can understand my scepticism regarding your reappearance at such an opportune time – just when you could reclaim ancient Black possessions and there is nobody left to dispute your ownership of them."

Harry sighed – he'd already realized that Sirius would come up, and it seemed the Headmaster wouldn't let him off with a claim of coincidence. "I admit – my brother's demise – shook me." Harry glanced towards Fawkes who crooned softly. "I had intended to make contact with him, after his escape from Azkaban – I never got that chance. It led me to keep a closer eye on the investigation into his location."

"We are all sorry to have lost him, Mr. Black," Dumbledore said with a sigh. "Sirius was – a free spirit, I think one could say. I don't know what he would have said, had he known that his brother wasn't the cowardly traitor he imagined, but I would prefer to think he'd have accepted it."

Harry didn't answer, frowning. "Professor-"

"Oh, goodness!" Dumbledore said, chuckling. "You haven't been a student for more than a decade – Albus, please."

"Regulus as well, then," Harry said, smiling slightly at the old man's skilful attempt to divert away from the painful topic of Sirius. "Now – catching up on old times would be interesting, no doubt – less has changed here than I'd expected, and there's of course some new people – but I believe you had a reason for requesting an audience – and it would probably be a good idea to get that over with."

Dumbledore's expression turned serious and Harry felt a chill run down his back – those steely eyes were considerably harsher than he could remember them ever being. "Yes – Regulus. I wish to talk about your – former Master, shall we say. Lord Voldemort."

Harry nodded, narrowing his eyes. This wasn't really a topic Dumbledore would bring up with anyone – it took five school years before the prophecy even came up, for example, and his hand was forced, there. Was the old man desperate enough to actually reach out to people he had little knowledge of? Harry found that it wasn't difficult to slip into Regulus' sceptical mind-set – his very Slytherin view of the world, even. "Go on…"

"The Dark Lord has returned – and we find ourselves in murky waters." Dumbledore stood, walking over to a large bookcase besides his desk. "I do my part in attempting to thwart him, of course – you are already aware of the Order of the Phoenix, and there are ventures besides that which I pursue. One of those is to find a way in which the Ministry of Magic can be of assistance – rather than a detriment, as it is liable to be – though only very specific people within it."

Harry nodded, though he was a bit ambivalent about how much he could actually get done – Scrimgeour would listen, but he didn't agree with much that Harry had proposed. "Perhaps you should have brought that up with the Minister – I cannot speak for him."

"Perhaps not," Dumbledore conceded. "Still – you were clearly Rufus' representative on the rescue operation to retrieve Mr. Weasley and his colleagues – though it was only partially successful, I have been told quite a few good things about your conduct there. Someone as experienced as Minister Scrimgeour would not send people he lacked trust in on important assignments such as that." His eyes twinkled as he grabbed a small stack of letters from a bookshelf and opened one with a flourish, holding it out. "An Unspeakable Black is listed as an advisor in numerous recent documents that came from Rufus' desk, as well as several letters – now that your identity is no longer an issue of complete confidentiality, he's seen fit to give credit where it is due, it seems."

Harry groaned – it was true enough that Harry had commented on a number of recent issues where Scrimgeour could hear, but he hadn't expected the man to include such trivia in his reports – doubtlessly the man was trying to give him a little more legitimacy using this method. It was working, too. "I asked him not to do that…"

Dumbledore smiled thinly. "We mustn't deceive ourselves – you have considerably more say in the Ministry than rank would seem to indicate, and Rufus is not afraid people will come to that conclusion; he has plans for you, I am certain. This brings us back to where this started – Lord Voldemort."

"What about him?" Harry wondered. "The Ministry is already delivering considerably more manpower to fight Death Eater incursions than the previous Minister ever allowed."

Dumbledore didn't answer for a few moments. "Regulus – there is a certain task that must be performed – to allow for Lord Voldemort to be vanquished, in the end." He looked up from under those bushy eyebrows. "You know what I speak of."

Harry did, and a chill ran down his back – the lump in his robe suddenly felt infinitely heavier and dangerous – there he kept Regulus' last heirloom – Salazar Slytherin's locket, retrieved from the cave in which Voldemort had first hidden it. There was no doubt that this was what the Headmaster was referring to – he knew about the Horcruxes! Harry swallowed thickly, eyes locked to Dumbledore's as he slowly nodded. How had he found out? Did Dumbledore know where the others were? Finally he forced his queries aside and focused."Horcrux. How…?"

Dumbledore reached into his robes, drawing a long silver necklace from it – at the end was a small locket, glinting lightly in the morning sun – one that he'd seen on painted Regulus, back in Grimmauld Place. The one that Regulus had switched out for the real deal.

"You went – to the cave," Harry concluded, eyes wide.

Dumbledore nodded and Harry noticed that a lot of the harshness and tenseness flowed away the moment he'd said those words. With a start, Harry realized it'd been a test – Dumbledore had been trying to figure out whether or not the person before him knew about all of this already - testing his identity. For a brief moment, a comparison between the old man and Mad-Eye Moody occurred to him, and he realized with a shiver the latter at least made it clear when he was testing you.

"It was some weeks ago, when I went to retrieve a former Professor to possibly take over his old role as teacher, that I discovered the man was rather… easily dismissing a prime career opportunity." Dumbledore started, grimacing. "In my ire, I employed magic that I, in retrospect, should not have." The man closed his eyes briefly. "I used Legilimency to retrieve the man's true reasons for rejecting my offer – and found rather more than I'd bargained for."

"You realize you are confessing to a crime, right?" Harry wondered, appalled; reading minds without permission had some pretty serious punishments in the Ministry, at least. "There are few who have the Occlumency training to defend against such intrusion…"

"I admit, I acted – unwisely," Dumbledore said, sighing. "I suspected that there was foul play at work – I thought that perhaps the person in question had connections to the Death Eaters that I had not expected, or was being threatened by them. Regardless, I acted. Far more memories from the person in question came to me than I was looking for – the topic of the Dark Lord was on the man's mind and having repressed some memories without the aid of Occlumency…"

Harry shivered slightly– repressed memories were listed as one of the hazards that could be encountered by a Legilimens in the books Moody had given him on the topic. "I take it they were… incriminating."

"Hardly – but several memories were unusual in that they appeared almost – altered. Not via Occlumency, but at the very least some type of mind-magic; obliviation of a strange kind, perhaps. The memories in question were of a young Voldemort – and they concerned the topic of Horcruxes."

Harry nodded uncomfortably. "How did you find the cave?"

"That was – relatively easy," Dumbledore admitted. "I suspected that Voldemort might use locations important to him in some way, or objects he felt connected to; the cave in question plays a role in his early life, which is why I chose to explore it. Thankfully, my suspicion was confirmed, and I was able to retrieve the object."

Harry nodded demurely – he realized, a little disturbed, that the only reason he could even keep up with half of this was the fact that the painting in Grimmauld Place had been so very talkative – he had to go thank it, for it had actually managed to give him a one-up on Dumbledore of all people. "You found my – souvenir." He reached into his own pocket and retrieved the real locket, feeling distinctly cold and somewhat oily. "You were looking for this."

Harry placed it on the desk between them; it lay there innocently, decidedly unimpressive; a dark locket, the S of Slytherin standing out and the entirety of it exuding a malevolent presence. Dumbledore gazed at it with an expression somewhere between fearful and disgusted – something Harry had certainly never seen on him before. He dropped the fake locket to the desk as well, gazing back up at Harry.

"You did not destroy it."

"I don't have the means," Harry admitted. "I doubt just damaging the container will do much to the Horcrux inside, and I dare not cast the kind of dark magic that could affect it." He shoved it forward gingerly. "I had already intended to bring it to you – there are only a few wizards in this country that have anywhere near the power to destroy the Dark Lord's artefacts, and there's precious few I would allow knowledge of this thing's nature."

Dumbledore nodded, glancing up. "Regulus – how much have you confided in Rufus Scrimgeour, regarding Horcruxes? We cannot risk the information getting spread too far, before we have the ability to capture these items, and the Minister is already a target."

Harry scowled. "If you believe I'd discuss these kinds of issues with just anyone, you're sorely mistaken. I think you'll find that I kept it to myself."

Dumbledore now smiled, glancing back at the Horcrux that sat unassumingly on his desk. "Good – with so very few ways for Voldemort to discover someone has found this out, we should have time to destroy the others; that way, the coast is clear."

"There's more?" Harry asked, though he knew full well that at least several were still somewhere out there. He leaned forward in interest. Harry hadn't missed Dumbledore's reference to making the coast clear – the old man still intended for him to deal the finishing blow, as that blasted prophecy dictated.

Dumbledore gazed at the locket, finally speaking. "I have come to believe that six of these enchanted objects were made – one of them quite recently. I have reason to think that historically significant items were chosen as the host, such as this locket." He frowned. "I went to the village of Little Hangleton, where I suspected another Horcrux to be – unfortunately, though I confirmed that a highly powerful dark object had been kept there, it was gone."

Little Hangleton – that was where he'd been in the Third Task of the Triwzard Tournament – that's where Voldemort had risen and Cedric had died. A shiver ran down his back as he remembered that terrible moment. "What was it?"

"From what I can deduce, a ring." Dumbledore said. "Seeing as the shack in which it was kept belonged to the Gaunt family, it was most likely an heirloom of Voldemort's family, as he descends from one – he is, in fact, the last."

Harry couldn't help but gasp; Gaunt – that name was far too familiar. He had read all about it the day before, when he'd finally discovered why that odd symbol, Grindelwald's mark, was on a children's book. It was all about the Tale of the Three Brothers - the tale of three legendary items, gifted to three brothers by Death itself. A cloak that would hide one even from death, a stone that could bring back the dead, and a wand that could not be beaten.

It had taken little research to find that traditional lore named the three brothers as belonging to the Peverell family, a name now extinct, though descendants existed. The Gaunts were listed in one of the dustier tomes as one family possible descended from Cadmus Peverell – the owner of the stone.

With cold dread, Harry realized that one of the times he'd seen the symbol of the Hallows – that triangular shape – had been on the stone placed within a gaudy ring – worn by the ancient vampire that had seemed so very familiar with him already. It'd been on that man's finger, when he went to America with Moody on his first proper assignment. If that had been the stone – and a Horcrux, besides – did that mean all of it was true?


Harry glanced up, pale – Dumbledore seemed genuinely concerned at his inattentiveness. "Are you alright?"

"Yes, yes, I'm sorry – do you know what it looks like?" Harry asked, cursing himself for forgetting himself.

"If the Gaunt family had any heirlooms, I suspect the family long sold most of those, given that they were living in squalor until the line went effectively extinct. I have no descriptions to give you." Dumbledore sighed. "Besides the ring, there is another Horcrux I am aware of – I have discovered that one has already been destroyed, and I had simply not recognized the object for what it was." The Headmaster pulled a badly damaged book from one of the pockets in his robe – a very familiar one. "This was destroyed several years ago – it is Voldemort's diary from his Hogwarts years."

Harry swallowed. "The Chamber of Secrets incident, I take it?"

Dumbledore agreed, putting the object down. "The book's power was broken with Basilisk venom – not an easy substance to come across." The old man pulled his wand and levitated both objects to a small side table. "As soon as the locket has been cleansed, we shall have to consider the others that we have no access to, yet – which is what I requested your presence for."

"You want the Ministry's help," Harry concluded. "Or – the Unspeakables, at least. I take it you want to avoid Minister Scrimgeour."

Dumbledore hesitated. "Rufus – is vulnerable. The Department of Mysteries has become something of an acquaintance of late after Mr. Potter's decisions to work there, which has opened new options – they have admirably kept his activities out of the public eye, even if Rufus doubtlessly prefers seeing him headline the Daily Prophet." Dumbledore smiled slightly. "Since I was aware of one person that already knew about Voldemort's bid for immortality, I had hoped you could arrange for trusted individuals to swear an oath – as should you – to destroy these objects when they are found."

Harry sighed, rubbing his forehead - he realized that Dumbledore's notion of trusted individuals was awfully familiar – that was a phrase Scrimgeour has used, and frequently. It was exactly how he described Moody and the other members of the newest addition to the Department of Mysteries – that strange group formed in response to Voldemort and to be tasked with the very toughest challenges. Like Horcruxes.

It figured that even here, the Division concerning Time would stick their big trans-temporal nose into things; likely Scrimgeour knew a little more than he was telling on the subject, thanks to that damnable report of his, and had been preparing this team, before he should even know they'd be needed. Harry forced his thoughts away from that conclusion before it inevitably started hurting. "Right. I'll look into that."

"Indeed," Dumbledore responded, eyes twinkling.

Dumbledore looked worriedly at the object that sat unassumingly next to the ruined diary of Tom Riddle – the locket; the real one, this time. He'd asked Severus to escort Regulus off the premises – the Headmaster dared not leave such a dark object unattended, not until he'd decided on a way to contain or destroy it, at least. He remembered the disturbed look in Regulus' eyes as he made to leave – the man must've been holding on to the object for years, so he'd likely never left it to other hands.

Regulus was – a strange one, Dumbledore considered idly. He was nowhere near as narrow-minded or nasty as his younger self had been – a certain mellowing with age, perhaps. Still, he'd also seemed rather… overly familiar, in a sense; like he was speaking to an old friend, rather than someone who was once an ideological enemy, or simply a powerful unknown. His proposals regarding the Horcruxes had been met with unambiguous agreement – he'd even sworn an oath not to tell anyone about the topic without permission, which was considerably more than he'd expected.

"Well, Fawkes – what say you?"

The phoenix sang softly, shrugging a little, tucking his beak under his wing – the bird had sensed nothing particularly malicious, but neither had he been particularly enthusiastic – the man was keeping secrets, though that was no surprise.

The most worrisome moment that had Dumbledore guessing, though, had been when the topic of the Gaunt ring came up – for a brief moment, Regulus had frozen – totally caught up in his thoughts. What did he know about the Gaunt ring? What could have made the man stutter like that?

"I am uncertain about the wisdom of this route," Dumbledore admitted aloud, glancing at the many portraits around the room – they'd been ensorcelled not to share any secrets they heard, but had certainly listened in. "It is true that finding these artefacts will be difficult – but I had not anticipated requiring outside assistance when I first formed the Order – even with oaths."

One of the seventeenth-century Headmasters with a long twisted beard and pointy hat harrumphed. "That twerp could no more spill these secrets than lift himself by his own hair."

Dumbledore nodded tiredly, narrowing his eyes as he approached the Sword of Gryffindor, still kept safe in his office, ever since Harry had delivered it, using it to slay the Basilisk under the school. It gleamed as sharp as it ever had.

"I will be convening with the Order – please inform everyone," Dumbledore noted to the portraits, and several saluted as they moved off. The Headmaster walked over to the windows, tiredly gazing out into the slight haze of what seemed be another overcast day – an apt metaphor for the situation.

He dearly hoped there would be no storm.

Author's Note : Well, it took a while, mostly because I was busy with Torikaeru (which has ballooned considerably :P) This is probably the last of the less action-y chapters for a little while for this story, as the next two or three should cover the events of Voldemort's assault on the Ministry and the inevitable trouble that leads to.

This story is on a hiatus in favour of some of the others. It will be continued, however. :)