Disclaimer:  Not mine, yadda yadda…

Author's Note:  It's been an amazing ride, hasn't it?  It's been an honor and a privilege to share this story with you, to hear and learn from your input and truly realize just what being a writer is all about.  I've lived, breathed, and inhabited this story for well over a year now, and do not regret a moment of it.  I adore the HP world, and have gladly shared that obsession with like minded individuals as eager for a Harry Potter fix as I have been.  You've not only taught me to have confidence in my own writing, but to believe in my own 'voice' as well. 

I have to give thanks here to an amazing lady who has been my beta reader since nearly the beginning.  In fact, I had to revise the beginning because of her *g*.  After all, Remus Lupin wouldn't rescue *anybody* near a full moon *smacks palm to forehead*…  Nicky, you've been both the voice of reason and my biggest advocate for well over a year.  Thank you for all you've given.  I am honored to call you my friend. 

Wishweaver: Though you came late to the story, your suggestions have been both insightful and delightful.  It has been, and I hope will continue to be, the beginnings of a beautiful friendship *g*!

To all of you who have reviewed this story I give my deepest and most humble gratitude.  This is the first time I've ever shared a body of work with *anyone*...  In fact, this is the first time I've *finished* anything.  As the original revisionist queen, I'd rewrite myself into oblivion, become bored, and seek out yet another plot to grind into dust. 

*You*, dear reader, changed all that.  You made me want to push on, move forward, and most of all to finally complete my story.  You've given me confidence in my writing.  So I share this huge accomplishment with you.  Thank you.  For sharing a love in all things Harry Potter with me.  For reading and reviewing my story.  For following me on this amazing journey.  Hope this chapter finds you safe and happy.  'Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!'

 'Twas the Night Before Christmas by Major Henry Livingston Jr.

Epilogue 3

Harry sat in the study, listening to the magical grandfather clock ticking loudly in the background, and watched his godfather pace.  They're gone.  They're really gone, he thought, feeling a bit off balance.  He hadn't realized how much he'd been aware of Snape and the Headmaster until he could no longer sense their presence within him.  Everything seemed a bit *colder* now.  It's just going to take a while, Harry decided resolutely, refusing to acknowledge the feeling of loss that welled up at the thought.   What's done is done…  He'd miss them, but on the bright side, he had his privacy back.  His thoughts and dreams were his alone.

A log popped loudly in the fireplace, bringing him back to the present. Dobby had bustled around for several minutes, lighting the fire and draping a blanket on the arm of Harry's chair.  He also stayed long enough to make sure the table in the corner had enough tea and sweets to feed at least ten people before hurrying out again.  Harry shook his head slightly as he watched the dancing flames.  After so many years with the Dursleys, Dobby's absolute devotion was a little disconcerting.     

"All right?" Sirius asked with a concerned frown as he came over and knelt next to Harry.  He studied his godson for a second, then picked up the blanket Dobby had left and wrapped it snugly around the younger wizard's legs. 

Harry tried to jokingly wave a hand to shoo his godfather away, but Sirius was blithely ignoring him.  He's fussing again, he thought with a faint smile and only the mildest exasperation.  Honestly! Just because I was a little knackered after transforming…  

Harry's heart warmed remembering the flight.  It was perfect. He couldn't wait to fly again, and this time he'd be able to share the secret with his friends and family.  And maybe they can help with some of the questions I can't seem to get out of my head.  Namely: Will I have Burning Days?  The thought was less than appealing, even if Fawkes didn't seem permanently traumatized.  Could I have already had one? Yet another lovely thought.

"Why is that prat coming here, anyway?" Sirius grumbled, even though he already knew the answer, interrupting Harry's shadowed thoughts.  He'd been none too pleased when Harry had announced that Percy would be arriving within the hour, stomping through the halls and loudly banging about until finally relenting long enough to help get Harry settled.

"Because he asked to.  He wants to talk to me," Harry replied for the third time in as many minutes.  He was nervous about seeing Percy, although he couldn't quite understand why.  On the other hand, if I'm nervous, think how Percy must feel, he consoled himself dryly, then snorted at the thought.

"That was disturbingly Snape-like," Sirius observed, leaning back on his heels, hands on his hips, and glancing at the blanket critically to insure no area of Harry's legs were exposed.  Harry didn't have the heart to tell his godfather it would be too warm for him in only a matter of minutes.  Sirius had yet to learn that being chilled did not mean being hypothermic.

"I certainly hope the snarky bastard hasn't rubbed off on you," Sirius continued, eyeing Harry with an appraising frown. There was no real venom in his voice, though.  More like old habits dying hard.

Harry shrugged, then grinned.  "It's possible, I suppose," he retorted, feeling feisty.   "D'you reckon that means I might have rubbed off on him as well?"  Sirius' eyes widened in surprise as Harry laughed softly.  Has it been that long since I've joked with him?

"Yes, well…  Although I'm well aware you can take care of yourself, I don't want Percy keeping you trapped in here while he grovels," Sirius stated firmly, eyes flinty.  Oh my.  Harry's stomach clenched at the thought.  It hadn't occurred to him that it might be like that.  But considering how Percy had been behaving according to Ron, how else could it be?

Sirius seemed to sense Harry's unease and began to creatively explain just what he'd do to Percy if the berk dared to upset Harry in any way.  Despite his own anxiety, Harry couldn't help but shake his head in wonder as his godfather threatened things Harry suspected weren't physically or magically possible.

"He's not like that.  He's actually very 'stiff-upper lip'," Harry replied, interrupting Sirius' diatribe yet again, as much to reassure himself as his godfather.  It didn't stop his heart from thumping heavily in his chest, though.

A knock at the door made them both jump.  As Sirius turned, Harry caught sight of his godfather's wand peeking out from the cuff of his sleeve.  "Sirius!  Don't you dare hex him!"  Harry scolded with a surprised laugh.  Was it wrong to feel so much older than a man over twice his age?  Sirius tried to appear nonchalant as he tucked the wand back up his sleeve.

"Last chance for me to tell him to shove off," he said sincerely.

"No.  We've got to talk, and this is as good a time as any," Harry replied, grateful to Sirius nonetheless.  This needed to be sorted out for the rest of the Weasley's sake as much as for Percy's own.

"Well then…  I'm just next door.  Raise your voice even a little, and he'll find himself lunch for one of Charlie Weasley's dragons," his godfather promised darkly.  Harry rolled his eyes.

"I'm sure he can hear you," he whispered loudly in exasperation, resisting the urge to smack his forehead with his palm.

"I should hope so.  Unless you think I should say it louder?" Sirius teased, raising his voice even more as he opened the door.  There stood Percy, pale and wide-eyed.  He immediately stepped back to allow Sirius to pass, stumbling a little as Sirius bumped him roughly with his shoulder as he left the room.  Harry shook his head with an embarrassed smile.  He adored Sirius, but seriously questioned his godfather's maturity much of the time. 

"Harry," Percy croaked in greeting as he entered the room.  The former Head Boy stood with his hand on the knob, his eyes darting from Harry to Sirius, unsure whether to close it or not.  Sirius now stood just on the other side of the threshold, staring at Percy dangerously and giving clear indication he wasn't going anywhere.

"Go ahead and close it," Harry prompted, nodding reassuringly.  Sirius, you're going to give him a heart attack! he thought, feeling a touch of pity as Percy tentatively closed the door in his godfather's face.  Harry was well aware of how frightening Sirius could seem, and that was when he wasn't even trying.  Percy's sigh of relief sounded loudly in the sudden stillness, and Harry noted wryly that Percy was leaning weakly against the door, already sweating.

That was all it took.  In a flash, Harry was back in the interrogation room.  Percy was bound against the wall--shocked, horrified, and trying to mouth reassurances that the Silencing Spell made pointless.  Harry closed his eyes for a moment and tried to calm his pounding heart.  He re-lived that awful moment, when all his dreams of telling the Minister the truth, and hopefully exonerating Sirius in the bargain, had been shattered by Fudge's own agenda.  His jaw clenched in remembered pain as he recalled how his mouth had been pried open before....   No!  That was then. This is now.  Stop it!

"I really appreciate you letting me come," Percy said, frowning as he seemed to notice some of Harry's discomfort.  "Are you alright?" he asked after a moment.  Harry nodded.

"…fine.  M'fine," he replied.  Trying to cover his distress, Harry waved at the small loveseat in front of him.  "Please, have a seat."  Percy drew his shoulders back, trying to regain some of his own lost dignity, and crossed the room quickly.  His movements were fluttery, his gait gangly and yet somehow stiff.  Harry forced his eyes to follow Percy's every step, using the present as an anchor so he couldn't be pulled back into his memories, into that chair...  I'm home.  I'm safe.  Is this ever going to stop?

"Would you like me to get Professor Lupin?" Percy offered hesitantly as he sat, his face taut with concern.  Harry let the amusement of Percy specifically trying to exclude Sirius wash over him as he shook his head 'no'.  He's just outside the door.  Good luck avoiding him.  You're lucky he isn't here already.

Harry watched as Percy unconsciously wiped his palms on his robes.  He perched on the edge of his seat in an almost birdlike way, pulling his robes away from his body as if to prevent wrinkles and shifting a couple of times until he finally settled.  Even then he wasn't completely still.  Percy's eyes roved restlessly over the contents of the study, taking in every detail.  Harry had chosen this room specifically for the meeting because of its coziness and warmth.  The wood paneling reminded him a lot of Hogwarts, and he'd hoped it would put Percy at ease as well.

A sudden chill caused Harry to discretely burrow more deeply underneath his blanket.  Sirius' instincts were right after all, he noted with wry amusement.  How does he do it?  Sometimes Sirius seemed to know even before Harry did what he might need.  Very odd

Harry regarded his guest with mild curiosity, trying to keep focused.  He had expected Percy to either launch into an exhaustive explanation of all he'd done to make amends, or else try to justify his actions.  That he hadn't was in itself a good start, but it also made Harry unsure how this conversation *was* going to proceed.  Harry wondered briefly why the other wizard was hesitating, then decided it didn't matter.  Percy could take all the time he liked if it insured he didn't say or do something emotional, as far as Harry was concerned.

Sighing, Harry settled further into his chair, trying to get comfortable.  Truthfully, he was a lot more exhausted than he'd admitted to Sirius.  Not that his godfather hadn't figured it out anyway.  It's so hard to keep things secret now, he reflected ruefully. His heart was still pounding and he was still shaking a little, but at least I'm not practically hyperventilating anymore. That was some consolation.

They both sat quietly, looking everywhere but at each other.  Percy spent long minutes gathering his thoughts.  He even pulled a crumpled paper out of his robe at one point. When Harry realized it must have been notes on what Percy wanted to say, he'd very nearly laughed out loud.  How very Percy.

He couldn't be sure if Percy was reluctant to begin, or if he had been made uncomfortable by Harry's reaction to seeing him.  Either way, the awkward pause gave Harry the opportunity to soothe his own frazzled nerves by recalling what Sirius would do if he gave the word.  Help!  *heh*  Harry sighed again and glanced at the clock.  Only five minutes had passed.  

He looks like he's ready to sprint for the door, Harry realized.  And I'm sure my anxiety attack didn't help matters.  It was oddly satisfying to see the normally poised and dignified former Head Boy in such a state.  Was it wrong to feel better at someone else's expense?  Harry knew what Snape would reply, and his lip curled slightly at the thought. 

The silence stretching between them allowed Harry's mind to readjust to seeing Percy again.  You look so much like your brother.  How can you be so completely different? 

Percy tried to act so much older than Ron, but he wasn't.  Not really.  In fact, Harry had often thought that Percy's disapproving expression only made him look younger -- as if he were trying to play at being an adult when he really wasn't one yet.  To Harry, it always seemed as if Percy had never learned that sometimes it was okay to slouch, or that raucous jokes could be good for the soul.  

This is going to take forever. Harry nearly smiled at his own snarky observation, oddly comforted by the thought that he might be channeling Snape just a little bit. I guess that means that even if this conversation ends badly, at least it will be creatively said.

As he discretely watched Percy, Harry abruptly realized what had triggered the memory.  This was literally the first time he'd seen Percy since the interrogation!  Of course he was reacting badly!  And when he leaned against the door like that…  Harry shuddered.  That was not good.  Not good at all.

Understanding the source of his forced visions helped, but it was a disappointment for Harry to realize how unsuccessful he still was at stemming his flashbacks.  He'd tried to brace himself for this conversation; for seeing Percy again, but it obviously hadn't helped.  Why did it still happen?  Harry wondered.  Perhaps it's because he looks just the same, but I feel so differently now.  I know not that much time has passed; it isn't even winter yet, but it feels so much longer…

Even searching for the source of his flashback was causing his anxiety to begin to build once more, so Harry quickly let the memory fade.  I survived, he survived... he reminded himself, repeating the litany of reasons as to why he was safe over and over until finally his pulse began to normalize.  There.  That's better.  No chairs, Harry.  You're okay.   

Truthfully, Harry was feeling better, now that his initial shock at seeing Percy had passed.  Turning his head to stare at Ron's older brother directly, he regarded him with amused exasperation.  He'd intended to let Percy make the first move, but now he was wondering about the wisdom of that choice.  At the rate we're going we'll be here all night, he reflected wryly.  Might as well get this beastly thing started

"Tea?" Harry offered finally, nearly startling Percy off the chair, and had to suppress a nervous snort.

"No, thank you," Percy replied, his voice slightly higher than normal.

"We have wonderful scones and biscuits as well, if you're hungry," Harry said, feeling more and more amused as he gestured with a fairly steady hand towards the table Dobby kept filled in the corner of the room.  Too bad I don't have lemon drops to offer.

 "I…" Percy began, then shook his head.  "I…" Percy tried again, then coughed uncomfortably.  He still looked everywhere but at Harry.  "I can't begin to express how sorry I am for what I've done to you, Harry," Percy finally blurted.  He lifted his eyes for just a moment before dropping them again, but that brief glimpse revealed a depth of remorse Harry hadn't expected to see.

"I know you didn't mean me any harm," Harry said gently.  Finally, here we go.  Percy shook his head.

"It doesn't matter.  Look what I've done to you," he said, gesturing at Harry.

What?  Harry looked down at himself, trying to determine what Percy was referring to.  What little wasn't buried under Sirius' blankets, anyway.

"You are so pale and thin…  I can tell you don't sleep well.  I handed you over to *them*," Percy explained, his voice thickening with self-loathing.  "I almost killed you."  Harry frowned and his eye twitched.  That's not a good sign, is it? he thought with faint amusement.  Now that the conversation had finally begun, he found himself strangely calm.  How odd.

"You didn't, Percy," Harry disagreed.

"I did," Percy interrupted frantically, his voice raising slightly.  At Harry's alarmed look, Percy automatically glanced behind him at the door.  Trust me, you don't want Sirius bursting in here, Harry thought but dared not say aloud.  The former Head Boy was strung out enough as it was.  Percy seemed to understand Harry's expression and deflated a little.

"The Ministry would have come whether you had said anything or not," Harry said gently.  Percy shook his head.

"I was a fool.  I tried to make you confide in me."

"Yes, that was a bit appalling," Harry agreed dryly.  Percy responded with a wry twist of his mouth.

"You knew more than you were telling.  Any fool could see that," he declared, his voice sharpening just a bit.  For the briefest second Harry wondered if the redhead was preparing to lay blame, but when the other wizard continued, his voice was soft and remorseful again.  "I hadn't realized you'd already tried to tell the Minister what was really happening,"  Percy said, his lips thin and eyes unfocused.  "I hadn't realized I wasn't the only one who didn't want to know the truth."

"Ignorance is bliss…until the Dark Mark hovers above your home," Harry said without thinking.  While he blamed Fudge directly for the appalling cover-up that had occurred, a part of him also wanted Percy to realize that his complicity affected more than just Harry.  Percy paled and Harry realized his words were rather harsh.  Oops.  Snape truly must be rubbing off on him.

"You're not saying…?" Percy practically begged.

"Of course I'm not," Harry reassured quickly, reaching his hand out to try to comfort Percy and pulling it back just as quickly when his companion flinched involuntarily.  "That burden rests squarely on Fudge's shoulders… and Voldemort's, of course," Harry added, suppressing an annoyed sigh as Percy paled at the name.

"Don't go taking it on yourself.  You're not the only one who really didn't want to know," Harry tried again.

"I watched you a lot in school.  Did you know that?" Percy asked abruptly.

"No, I didn't," Harry responded, surprised by the sudden turn in the conversation.

"I watched you there.  You were so reckless.  You had no respect for the rules.  I knew you weren't spoiled, but your actions…  For someone who's such a magnet for trouble, I would have expected you to be more cautious," Percy nearly scolded.  

"Rules?  That's the difference between us, Percy," Harry said, amused and frustrated at the same time.  He was tired of hearing the excuse as to why no one trusted him and, to his surprise, found himself explaining in far more detail than he ever had as to *why* he was such a 'rule breaker'.

"The rules I grew up with made no sense.  'Don't talk to anyone,'" Harry did a fair imitation of Aunt Petunia's voice, "'No meals for you for a week.'  'Don't do anything freakish,'" Harry shook his head ruefully, annoyed as much at himself as Percy.  Was he, too, justifying his actions?

"I couldn't *not eat* for a week," he continued, "And sorry, but why couldn't I talk to anyone when everyone else could?  I learned early on that "rules" weren't necessarily fair and often made no sense.  The really important lessons, like not putting my hand on a hot stovetop, I had to learn for myself.  So when someone tells me what and what not to do…  I decide for myself whether it's right or not," Harry shrugged.

"Yes, but by doing so you've endangered yourself and others," Percy countered, making Harry wince at the truth of it.  "…Of course, you've also helped others as well," he continued with a heavy sigh, and as the statement lay between them like an open sore, suddenly Harry knew…  The driving force behind Percy's actions over the summer was Ginny!  His intervention, meddling, and uncharacteristic rush to judgment suddenly made more sense .

"Do you blame me…?" Harry asked thickly.  It was something he had never even dared to ask Ron.  He tried not to think about it; to explain and rationalize it away… But in the dark of night the question refused to be avoided:  Would *Ginny* in particular have been given Tom Riddle's diary if Harry hadn't been with the Weasleys that day they'd encountered Lucius Malfoy in Diagon Alley?

"Merlin, no!" Percy exclaimed, horrified, and lunged forward onto his knees in front of Harry's chair, making eye contact at last.  There could be no doubt as to his sincerity.  Percy took Harry's hands in his own, and he was surprised to see how much bigger Percy's were in comparison.

"Don't even think that!" Percy said, gripping Harry's hands firmly.  "Absolutely not!  Dad's hated Lucius Malfoy for as long as I can remember, and I know for a fact that the feeling's mutual.  There aren't many people dad routinely tries to clock," Percy implored, trying to lighten the conversation.  Harry concentrated on keeping his hands from trembling.  While grateful Percy didn't believe that, he still feared the true answer to his question.  But now you'll never know, will you? the little voice in his head taunted nastily.  The only man who knew for sure is dead.

"Then what *are* you trying to say?" Harry asked, refusing to dwell on his own thoughts.  Percy hadn't believed that…  So, why?  Percy closed his eyes and grimaced for a moment before opening them again.

"It means I saw Ginny acting strange and never did anything.  It means I should have been looking out for her…  I should have seen the signs.  If I would have confronted her…  If I had done *something*," Percy said in frustration as he pulled back, retreating to his seat.  Harry discretely flexed his fingers to get the blood flowing again.  Percy's grip had been a bit strong.

"I promised myself that I'd pay more attention next time.  I'd ask questions and confront people.  I'd do it even if it made me unpopular, because *someone* should have…"  Percy cut his sentence short and tried to smile apologetically at Harry.  It looked more like a grimace.

"But you didn't like the answers, did you?" Harry prompted softly, and Percy ran both his hands roughly through his hair, laughing bitterly.

"There is that, isn't there?"

"So don't do it again," Harry said lightly after an uncomfortable pause.

"Bollocks it all!" Percy exclaimed in raw frustration.  Harry had never, ever heard Percy swear before.  He forced himself not to laugh as he realized how clearly Percy articulated, even when he cursed.  Rustling outside the study door made Harry nearly leap up anxiously, displacing the carefully placed blanket.

"Don't even think about it, Sirius!" he yelled quickly.  The resulting muffled grumbles from the other side of the door told him his instincts had been right and his godfather had been about to barge in.  "Sorry.  Please, do go on," Harry prompted politely, trying not to laugh at the way Percy's eyes widened when he thought Sirius was about to rush the door.

After a moment of stunned silence, Percy shook his head and broke into a genuine laugh.  Harry smiled in response, not quite sure what was funny… Or perhaps, what wasn't.  He felt more and more like Dumbledore every day, whose proffered lemon drops during stressful moments now appeared as much a nod to the absurd as a genuine polite formality.

With a start, Harry realized he'd never heard Percy laugh before.  It was an odd, high pitched wheezing sound that appeared to take a great deal of effort to do, as his shoulders and chest shuddered with each whistling breath.  Percy's laughter was so eccentrically genuine that Harry couldn't help but join in even though he was unsure what had tickled Percy's fancy so.  Soon tears trickled down Percy's face and he held his cheeks with his palms, and Harry couldn't help it as he laughed with him.  Percy was fun to watch.

"Oh!  Stop!  My cheeks are cramping!" he exclaimed which cracked Harry up all over again.  It was so strange to see Percy like this, so completely uninhibited.  Maybe that's why he never laughs.  It took a few minutes before Percy was finally able to calm down, but when he looked up, Harry realized that all the tension that had been in his face and eyes was gone.   Percy smiled ruefully.

"So much for dignity and decorum," he said hoarsely.  Harry rolled his eyes.

"Highly overrated," he disagreed.

"You weren't supposed to be like this," Percy said thoughtfully, frowning in puzzlement.

 "What was I supposed to be like?" Harry asked curiously.  All he'd wanted was there to be the possibility of reconciliation within the Weasley clan.  He hated seeing Ron's family so divided, and felt even worse that he had been the origin of it.

"You were supposed to accuse me of trying to kill you.  Blame me for what I'd done.  Hate me forever, turn me out of your life…  I don't know," Percy shrugged, clearly feeling a bit embarrassed by his admission.  It was odd to feel a connection to Percy now, after so much had happened.  Harry did, after all, have a reason to dislike him.  But when it all was said and done…

"I'll let you in on a little secret," Harry said, leaning in conspiratorially.  Percy quirked his head to the side curiously, once again giving him a strong sense of how birdlike Percy's gestures were.  If you were an Animagus, Percy, what would you be?

"What?" Percy asked, intrigued.

"I've had worse happen," Harry stated simply.  Percy paled, causing Harry to shake his head firmly, trying to keep him from internalizing any further.  "You did the wrong thing for the right reasons.  Your heart was in the right place, Percy, even if it was at my expense.  As the injured party I think it's fair to say that I should be the one to decide when it's time to move on.  You've been honoring your promise, right?"

"Yes…" Percy nodded quickly and looked as if he were about to launch into a detailed explanation of all he'd done.  Harry interrupted quickly, before he could get started.

"You're thinking for yourself, making your own decisions on what you see.  That's all I can ask.  Now, are you hungry?  I'm starved, and if I'm not mistaken, my eavesdropping godfather missed afternoon tea as well.  Would you like to stay for dinner?"


Sirius' eye twitched as he watched Percy Weasley head towards him.  Smart boy, leaving instead of staying for dinner.  He'd nearly dropped his teeth when Harry had suggested it.  On the other hand, Percy's presence might have had certain...benefits.  In the prank wars he, Remus and the twins were currently embroiled in, some jokes were considered too harsh and had been set aside.  Sirius grinned evilly.  They would have been lovely to use against Percy.  Ah, well...

Shrugging regretfully, Sirius poked his head in the study and immediately noticed how pale Harry looked.  He'd scrunched further under the blanket and was clearly bracing himself to get up and follow Percy into the living room.  Damn Dumbledore anyway for ending the Portus Animus spell today.  This better not hurt Harry's recovery…

"Dinner won't be for a few minutes yet, so why don't you stay there and rest a bit?" Sirius suggested, trying to mask his concern with casualness.  Harry smiled gratefully as Sirius increased the blanket's heating charm and raised a hand briefly.  Sirius was puzzled but still about to wave back when he realized Harry was waving to the annoying prat still loitering in the hall behind him.

Sirius knew his face showed something just shy of open hostility as he turned to face Percy and nodded towards the living room, effectively showing him the door.  He could remember all too clearly how the pompous little toe rag had cornered Harry in the Burrow's backyard and asked questions too painful for his godson to answer.

Harry might have forgiven you, but I never will -- although you did make him laugh.  I'll give you that, Sirius admitted, relenting and smiling just the tiniest bit at the memory.  Harry had a great laugh; soft and gentle with just a timbre of surprise, as if it was something he never expected to be able to do again.  It was a sound Sirius intended to hear a great deal more of.

The Molly Weasley sanctioned prank wars went a long way towards that, as did Remus and Sirius' ongoing antics.  If Harry noticed that each fell for the other's tricks a bit too often or appeared too gullible, he did not say.  The awkwardness of an aardvark snout or burping baby chicks was well worth it to both of them on the off chance observant green eyes might be watching.

Sirius had spent many a day trying to maintain normal conversations with flippers just so he could watch Harry struggle to keep a straight face.  The gills, though, carried it a bit too far.  After all, how was he supposed to talk with a fishbowl magicked around his head? 

"May I talk to you for a moment, Mr. Black?" Percy asked they both headed towards the fireplace.  Sirius nodded, then abruptly realized Remus was nowhere to be seen.  That was surprising, considering Remus had insisted on remaining nearby while the two boys were talking in the study.  Evidently he'd decided the danger had passed.  Sirius suppressed a smile, and mentally rubbed his hands together.  One misstep and you're mine, Percy Weasley.

"This is for Harry from Shirley, Lane, and myself," Percy said as they stood next to the mantle.  He reached for Sirius' hand and curled his fingers around a small metal seal.  The former Head Boy was lucky Sirius hadn't hexed him the moment he grabbed his fist.  "I didn't want to upset him.  I'll let you decide when, or even if, he should have it."

"What is it?" Sirius asked, staring at the seal dumbly.

"Cornelius Fudge's official signet ring, used to affix his endorsement on all Ministry documents that have ever traveled through his office," Percy replied.

"Ummm…" was all Sirius could say while a million questions danced in his head.  What's Harry supposed to do with this?  Is this some sort of trick?   Who are Shirley and Lane, and why the bloody hell are they giving Harry signets?

Suspicion must have shown on his face, because Percy spoke almost urgently, as if trying to will Sirius to believe him.

"Lane was the court reporter in the room with me when they interrogated Harry.  Shirley is Anne's aunt," Percy explained, and automatically Sirius' eyes traveled to a small potted tree beside the fireplace where the bizarre, mutant lizard often perched.

Hmm.  Where's he gone off to now?  Sirius wondered absently then smiled to himself as he visualized the little girl who'd given the odd pet to Harry bounding up with the scrunched lizard in her arms.  Exhausting girl, Anne.  Harry often slept soundly for a couple of hours after visits from her.

"And they got a hold of this how?" Sirius asked, pulling him back to the present and trying to follow Percy's logic.

"Shirley was Cornelius Fudge's private secretary," Percy said.  Oh.  Okay.  That explains that.

"So what is Harry supposed to do with this?" Sirius asked a touch bitterly, rolling the signet in the palm of his hand.  My freedom.  Harry's pardon.  I could have done so much with this before...

"It means he's got more than just my Wizard's Promise to do right by him.  More than just Shirley's and Lane's, too," Percy said and shrugged.  "It's not much, but it's a start.  It means Fudge can't hurt him anymore."

"Will this help Harry when all those suits filed by families of Azkaban prisoners affected by Harry's spell come to trial?"  Sirius asked, and felt his lips curl into a snarl, his temper finally snapping.  Too little, too late, boy.  Whatever foolish gestures you've intended, you're also putting evidence into our hands.  Percy looked stricken.

"No!" he objected loudly then lowered his voice anxiously as he realized the door to the study was still open.  "You know there's no way Dumbledore will let…" Percy began, but Sirius cut him off.

"Dumbledore's got a funny way of protecting Harry sometimes," Sirius stated flatly, noting that Remus was quickly walking across the room towards them, with Ron and Hermione following a little further behind.  Ah.  There you are.  Bit late, old boy, but as you can see, I was good.  The prat's still in one piece...

"I've hurt him, Mr. Black, which is inexcusable.  You have my promise it won't happen again," Percy said thickly.  Sirius placed the signet back in Percy's hand.

"Harry's got enough to remember Fudge by.  He doesn't need anything more," Sirius said.  Percy nodded, swallowing convulsively.

"I understand.  Thank you for letting me talk to him," Percy said, his voice raw. He turned toward the fireplace, preparing to leave, but was prevented from doing so when the rest of the Weasleys decided to arrive. 

It was interesting to watch each of their reactions as they registered Percy's presence.  Sirius noted the anger and bitterness on Fred's face, but he could also see George's disapproving expression as he clutched Fred's arm and leaned forward to whisper something in his ear.  Fred shook his head, but didn't fight out of George's grasp, making Harry's godfather smirk knowingly.  He'll wear you down, Fred, Sirius thought as he watched the twins, and wondered what the bloody hell Percy had been thinking about when he'd tried to give him the signet.

Arthur nodded a greeting to his son, who discretely nodded back; the unspoken question asked and answered.  How did it go?  It went well.  Molly smiled softly, noticing the interaction.

"Are you going to stay for dinner?" she asked.  Percy shook his head, making brief mention of some prior obligation.  They all knew the lie for what it really was.   Although the talk with Harry had gone far better than the gormless prat deserved, the third Weasley son's troubles weren't over.  Family rifts still needed to be patched -- if they could be -- and his apologies were far from done. 

Bill and Charlie shouldered past Percy with barely a nod as they, too stepped out of the Floo, and for just the briefest moment, Sirius *almost* pitied the boy.  With his shoulders hunched dejectedly and arms wrapped tightly around his middle, Percy looked lost as he watched the rest of the Weasley family joke amongst themselves.   He stood there several beats, ignored, until at last Arthur noticed he was still there and smiled encouragingly.  Percy flashed a small smile gratefully in response, and Sirius was stunned to realize the fool didn't want to leave!

Indignation almost choked him.  Your own actions brought you to this.  You have no idea what Harry would have given to have what you so thoughtlessly threw away.  Percy must have sensed some of Sirius thoughts because he nodded to both he and Remus once more before disappearing into the fire.

"What was that about?" Remus asked as he sidled up next to Sirius.  Sirius shrugged.  The less said the better.  Besides, Remus would interrogate him later anyway. 

"Where did you get to?" Sirius asked curiously as he took a closer look at his friend.  Remus' hair was disheveled and several twigs had attached themselves to his robes.  He was actually looking quite put upon.  Remus' eyebrow raised in annoyance.

"I found Harry's pet eating my plants," Remus said with faint indignation.

"You're joking," Sirius coughed, his eyes wide.  How on earth did Herbert end up out there?

"Did you know both Poppy and Severus have asked for a few seedlings?  I've got some remarkable heirloom varieties you just can't find everyday," Remus said almost peevishly, and Sirius did laugh as his friend glared at the chameleon Ron was reattaching to his normal perch.

"Did you know you can't Accio chameleons?   They must have too good a grip," Hermione offered, clearly intrigued.  Sirius shook his head fondly.  Always the scholar...  He was also amused to note that Ron actually looked even the worse for wear than Remus did.  He had several dirt smudges on his face and grass stains on his robes.

"The little bugger's quite fast, when he's of a mind to be," Ron said, glaring at Herbert.  The chameleon's eyes were darting everywhere, taking in the additional houseguests.

"Ron!" Molly scolded, causing Ron to jump.

"Sorry, mum," he said automatically (but not apologetically) then looked to Sirius.  "Is Harry still in the study?"  Sirius nodded.

"He is?  I'll just go check on him," Molly said and immediately left with Ron and Hermione.  Since the night Harry had been rescued from the Dursleys, when she'd taken care of him before Pomfrey arrived, Molly had become as much Harry's caretaker as Poppy was.  She took it upon herself to monitor his potions carefully and insured no one overtaxed him.  Sirius grimaced as he watched the trio head for the study.  She'll love how he looks tonight.

Now that the last of the Weasleys had officially descended upon the Villa, as Dumbledore had taken to calling the place, Sirius wanted to get dinner going.  The Villa.  Sirius shook his head with an exasperated sigh.  He'd tried to get Harry to christen their new home, but after his godson's latest attempt of 'Dogsmeade', which Sirius suspected was as much his refusal to name it as any sincere attempt, both he and Remus had let the matter drop.

"Pass the word that tonight's a short night.  Harry's pretty tired," Sirius murmured to Remus.

"Should we cancel?" Remus asked, concerned.  Sirius raised an ironic eyebrow.  So do you want to be the one to tell Harry?  "Never mind," Remus answered his own question with a wry grin.  They'd both found it was better with any visit to simply let Harry fall asleep first, then have everyone leave.  Sirius shook his head bemusedly.  Harry didn't seem to mind nodding off in front of company,  but if he felt he'd caused anyone to have to change plans, he'd apologize for days.  Perhaps because he knows how much enjoyment we get out of the Weasleys as well, Sirius realized.  Harry was entirely too insightful at times.

Molly had brought quite a few dinner trays with her, much to Dobby's dismay.  At the moment the house-elf was anxiously incorporating her platters with his own on the banquet table he'd laid out.  On more than one occasion Sirius had heard the house-elf and the Weasley matron in earnest discussion about exactly what Harry's favorite dishes were, and he was quite sure he'd heard them swapping magical cooking tips as well.

"Sirius Black, he looks exhausted!" Molly scolded fiercely, causing Sirius to jump.  He hadn't even heard her coming.  "He should be in bed!" she continued, tapping her foot impatiently, and glared at him as if it were all his fault.  Why don't you scold Remus, too?  He lives here as well.  Besides, he's the former professor...

"Tsk, tsk, Sirius," Remus teased.  Sirius glared at the former werewolf, then addressed the anxious witch.

"I agree, Molly.  But who here wants to tell Harry we're canceling dinner when we all *know* it's the first time he's seen everyone together since last year?" Sirius asked facetiously.  Molly's eyes darted to her elder sons then back down the hall towards the study where Harry, Ron and Hermione presently were.

"He's trying to make everything back to the way it used to be," Remus said softly.  Molly looked heartbroken.

"But that isn't possible," she said sadly.

"We know," Sirius said simply.  "But we can help him try."

Molly looked undecided for a minute, then sighed in defeat.  "Right, then.  Let's eat," she declared,  rounding everyone up in short order.

Dinner consisted of roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, peas, potatoes, gravy, carrots, Shepherds Pie, Cornish pasties, with custard and Treacle pudding for dessert.   Sirius amused himself watching Harry's plate magically replenish itself each time he looked elsewhere.  So far his godson hadn't noticed, but a few suspicious glances Sirius' way indicated Harry would figure it out soon enough.

Whatever Harry did out in the nursery with Snape and Dumbledore certainly whetted his appetite,  Sirius thought, watching approvingly.  Remus noticed as well, nudging Sirius as Harry continued to nibble.  Sirius acknowledged the gesture with a wink, then turned back to Harry again.  His godson was currently staring wide-eyed at Charlie Weasley, who was nodding his head vigorously.

"You're joking.  Your mum's letting the dragon stay in your backyard?" Harry asked.  The twins grinned broadly.

"No more de-gnoming for us," Fred said.

"Why not?" Harry wanted to know. 

"They moved.  Refused to share a garden with a dragon," Charlie said with a shrug, as if baffled by the very notion.  "Who can understand gnomes?"

"Mum's been making us clean the attic whenever  she wants to punish us," George added.

"The ghoul's furious," Fred agreed, smiling wickedly.

"We'll probably have to come to your place this Christmas to practice Quidditch," Ron said. 

"Oh?" Harry asked, blinking bewilderedly.  He was having a hard time keeping up, tired as he was. 

"Well, it's not like we can fly around with a dragon in our backyard," Ginny supplied.

Hmm.  Good point, Harry agreed silently, grinning.  "No, that wouldn't do at all, would it?" he asked aloud.

"Poor thing.  It's not like he can chase after you," Charlie defended.

"He's still got a rather long reach, though, doesn't he?" Ron said and stared hard at Charlie's forearm, which was currently bandaged.  Charlie quickly removed it from the table and out of everyone's sight.  "Yes, well, that was my own fault…" he mumbled.

"I talked with Professor McGonagall today about Crookshanks," Hermione interrupted before Ron could say anything more.  Evidently this argument had been going on a while.

"Really?  What did she say?" Ginny asked between mouthfuls of food.

"Ginny.  Don't talk with your mouth full," Molly scolded absently.

"Sorry mum," Ginny replied, rolling her eyes discretely.

"She said 'Never try to ask a Kneazle anything unless you've brought tuna.' Honestly!"  Hermione replied, clearly irritated. Sirius hid a snort behind his hand when she turned to glare at him.  Hermione had gone to see McGonagall on his recommendation.  The inquisitive witch was making it her personal crusade to try to figure out why Crookshanks had chased Peter down after Harry had been arrested.  She was annoyed at Sirius' lack of forthrightness about the whole incident, but he had insisted that Minerva was much better qualified than he to give her answers.

He flashed Hermione his most disarming smile, elbowing Remus sharply when the former werewolf discretely mentioned how closely Sirius resembled Gilderoy Lockhart. Hermione's eyes narrowed suspiciously at the two Marauders' byplay.  That's my story and I'm sticking to it.  Minerva can help you in ways I cannot, Hermione.  After all, *I* am a male Animagus canine.  She, being both a female *and* a feline, will be able to fathom any answers your mysterious pet should deign to provide far better than I ever could, Sirius thought but dared not say aloud.  Not with three ladies at the table.

"Dobby!" Harry scolded, startling Sirius.  Remus laughed aloud.

"You've been busted, Dobby," Sirius said and winked at the house-elf who'd been caught adding more pudding to Harry's plate.  The house-elf looked entirely too self-satisfied, not even bothering with apologies as he continued to magically dish out more food.  Harry pushed his plate away and shook his head.

"If I eat any more, I'll explode," he said, glancing around.  Ron and Hermione automatically stood up, and Molly took this as her cue to keep the evening moving along. 

"Perhaps we should retire to the library for a bit?" she suggested, knowing full well that Harry often dozed in a small chair by the fireplace there.

It didn't take long for everyone to settle.  Arthur sat with his two eldest sons in a corner of the room.  Charlie was talking animatedly to the other two, telling a story with a good deal of detail and hand-waving.  Sirius couldn't quite make out what Charlie was saying, but if Bill's ironic expression was any indicator, Arthur and Molly's second son was talking about dragons.  Again.  Sirius shook his head and snorted softly.  Like he ever talks about anything else... 

The twins and Ginny were heckling Ron about losing to Harry at chess.  While it had only been a couple of games thus far, Sirius had caught his godson's expression several times in the past couple of weeks.  He'd play brilliantly, then abruptly make several clumsy moves that would ultimately lose him the game.  Sirius suspected he was doing it deliberately but hadn't puzzled out why yet.

Remus settled beside Sirius with a teacup in hand and sighed.  His eyes followed Sirius'.

"How do you think he's doing?" Sirius asked Remus.  They both had been watching Harry closely all night, trying to gauge how he was doing now that his recovery was no longer supplemented by the Portus Animus spell.

"Good, actually.  He's exhausted, but it's a physical kind.  I think he might even sleep well tonight," Remus replied.  Sirius turned to stare at his friend, stunned.


"Maybe.  I'm feeling optimistic today," Remus replied with a gentle smile.  Sirius snorted.

 "Only because it's a full moon tonight," he joked without thinking.  Remus' smile faltered just a little and Sirius cringed at his own insensitivity.  Tact, Black, tact!  Learn to use it!  he scolded himself.  

Remus noticed his friend's discomfort, and quickly let him off the hook.  "And to think I'd forgotten," he quipped, nudging Sirius' shoulder with his own to show that there were no hard feelings.  Sirius let out a small breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding.  Thank Merlin I didn't blow that one.  After all, it had been Harry who had had to explain things to him:

"Sirius, he is glad to be cured, but feels it was at my expense.  And truthfully, I think he feels badly in a way, being cured when no one else can be…"

Harry had trailed off, his expression thoughtful, which had immediately put Sirius on his guard.  While his godson was still an enigma in many ways, Sirius had begun to recognize when an idea was germinating.  Once Harry got a notion he might be able to help someone… Sirius forced himself not to shudder.

It was a discussion he knew he would need Remus' help with, Sirius reflected wryly.  Harry generally responded far better to calm logic better than to ultimatums and impassioned pleas.  However, that conversation could wait for another day.  He didn't want to spoil the pleasant mood, and Harry wasn't likely to run off on any idealistic crusades tonight.   

He and Remus stood for a while watching the Weasleys in action.  It was heartwarming to see how Ron and Hermione would naturally team up, instinctively reacting to how Harry was doing by either encouraging the twin's antics or trying to distract them.  It reminded Sirius painfully of his Marauder days and of the friendships that went beyond words.

"I see it, too.  That's what you're thinking, isn't it?" Remus asked softly.  "They're so close."  Sirius nodded, blinking back unbidden tears.

He hated being like this: so emotional.  Things just came up on him by surprise.  Memories…  The simple smell of a rose was currently overwhelming at the moment.  Dobby had been hurt when Remus insisted he ease up on how many fresh bouquets he placed in each room.  How do you explain to a house-elf that an Azkaban escapee can't bear them because they remind him so strongly of James and Lily's wedding that he can barely breathe?  And how on earth was he going to continue to keep it together enough to be there for Harry?  It terrified him daily...  That he might fail his godson.

"Watch what he does," Sirius said, as much to distract himself as Remus.  His friend knew Sirius entirely too well, which undoubtedly was why he was currently glued to his side.

"What?" Remus asked.

"That," Sirius said, directing Remus' attention with his eyes.  Now that he knew what to look for, it was so easy to see.  Harry would be fine, gently laughing or talking, then a shadow would cross his face.  Ever so discretely, he'd ease himself out of the conversation, and slip back into the shadows.  That was what he'd wanted Remus to see -- what Harry was doing right now.  His godson was currently nestled in the folds of his chair; an observer, not a participant.  Remus sighed and rested a hand on Sirius' shoulder soothingly.

"I've seen it.  He withdraws…  But watch how they react," Remus murmured, shaking Sirius gently before his thoughts became too maudlin.

Instinctively both Ron and Hermione pounced on Harry, pulling him forward, back into the circle of friends.  Fred joked loudly about a rematch against the Marauders - they had a food prank cease-fire going for Molly's peace of mind (tonight only)- and rattled his pockets significantly.  Ron demanded a rematch at chess, and Hermione whispered something in Harry's ear that made him laugh.  Ginny was playing Exploding Snap with George, who was cheating blatantly with a deck Sirius realized was one of their 'prototypes', slipping all the exploding cards into Ginny's hand.

"I can't imagine how James felt, being a father," Sirius mused softly.  Remus stilled, his hand slipping from Sirius' shoulder.  "He was so young."

"Well, he rushed headlong into it, like he did everything else.  Much like some others who shall remain nameless," Remus replied gently.

"I'm terrified I won't do right by him," Sirius admitted, his throat tight with grief and fear.  He loved Harry *so* much…  He couldn't bear it if he hurt him.

"Sirius, I never thought I'd see the day you could over-analyze something.  Harry loves you.  He depends on you.  None of the rest of us can even dream of trying to help him cope with the memory of Azkaban.  You're going to screw up at some point or another.  I guarantee it.  So am I.  But look at them.  He pulls away, and we all take turns bringing him back.  He doesn't know how *not* to be alone, but we're teaching him," Remus said, his voice soothing.

"No.  None of us have to be alone anymore," Sirius replied, feeling laughter bubble up in his throat.  Hope.  What a ridiculously simple word for something so overwhelmingly perfect.  They'd heal each other.  That's what Remus was trying to say.  Looking at Harry now, Sirius dared to believe it.  You have a future, now, Harry.  And you're my future.  Merlin help us all.  And then Sirius did laugh, heartily, causing Harry to smile and the twins to grin evilly.  The fact that Molly paled a bit only made him laugh harder.  I'll do alright.  And so will you, Harry.  I swear it.

Finite Incantatem (aka The End) *g*