4th November 1994

Harry stared gloomily out at the blurred shape of the back garden of Griffin House, streaks of rain on the windows of his bedroom turning the view into an abstract watercolour. Hedwig swooped over to him and nuzzled at his bed hair before taking off to her perch. Harry sighed and rested his chin on his upturned hand, propped up by his elbow on the back of the chair. It didn't look as though he'd be able to go flying that day.

Three whole days had passed since he had been entered into the Goblet and Harry had spent most of it in a healing sleep. He'd woken early on Wednesday morning surprising Sirius who'd been camped out by his bed. Doctor Jordan had immediately been called and pronounced him recovered from the magical trauma of the Goblet binding, the exhaustion from the protection he'd unconsciously summoned against the binding in the first place, and the burns on his hands. He'd still spent the last couple of days grumpily tucked up in bed, weak as the proverbial kitten. Sirius had promised him if he felt better by Friday he could have some time on his Firebolt but clearly the weather was conspiring against him.

He shivered despite his warm flannel pyjamas and believed he could feel the bonds of the Goblet tighten around him momentarily. It felt like the world – the universe – was conspiring against him and not just Voldemort and his cronies.

Nobody had found where the Dark Lord and his followers had gone to hide out. There were a lot of theories but no real clues as to where the group had gone. Most of the theories revolved around Crouch Junior. It had been established that his mother had taken his place in Azkaban and that it was likely his father had kept him locked up in the basement of their home. The prevailing wisdom suggested that Crouch Junior might not be quite sane and probably saw Voldemort as a rescuer; a hero, someone to follow above and beyond the mark he had once taken that declared Voldemort his Master. (And bizarrely, Harry could empathise with that because he loved Sirius in part because he'd rescued him from the Dursleys).

"Junior has major Daddy issues." Sirius had commented when he'd brought Harry up to date.

Crouch Junior had also been Rabastan LeStrange's lover, and it was assumed he was intent on getting revenge for his lover's death and saw Harry being in the tournament a way to torment Sirius. Harry glowered unhappily at that thought but Sirius had accepted it calmly enough as a truth.

In addition to the Daddy issues and the drive for revenge, Crouch Junior was an unpredictable and formidable opponent. His academic record had been impressive and Harry couldn't help recall the duel he'd fought with the wizard with chagrin.

It was most probable that Crouch had been the one to arrange a bolthole for the group and with the abandoned and derelict LeStrange mansion still abandoned and derelict, there was no clear clue as to their location. How did someone guess what an insane person might do, Harry mused.

Pettigrew was the other option as the bolthole-arranger and as Sirius had put it when he'd explained it to Harry…

"If they're counting on Remus and me knowing where the rat might have bolted to, we're screwed. We did kind of miss the fact that he was the spy so I'm not sure what kind of insight we can provide beyond we didn't really know him very well at all."

What minor information they had been able to provide – childhood haunts, his mother's old home and his father's hometown –had revealed nothing new.

Remus's contact in the werewolf pack indicated that Fenrir was absent and the slow trickle of werewolves claiming sanctuary within Remus's pack had begun. The Potter Chateau was currently housing two werewolf couples and a young werewolf man by the name of Patrick; none had been involved with any kind of terrorising activity or violence. They were happy to have the offer of safety and Wolfsbane. It was a delicate thing though, Harry thought. Remus was very obviously uncomfortable being an Alpha to their new pack-mates, and torn by his sense of responsibility toward them and his on-going responsibilities to Harry and Sirius – especially with the tournament debacle. He'd left for France that morning with a frown on his face and a promise to be back for the Weighing of the Wands Ceremony.

The ceremony notionally ensured each wand was examined for cheating charms and was to take place a week on Sunday, a week and a few days ahead of the first task which would take place on November twenty-fourth. Harry was kind of hoping that he would be back at Hogwarts well ahead of the ceremony, but he was all too aware that there was a decision pending and that Sirius was the one who would make it.

Harry sighed.

He understood Sirius's immediate decision to bring him home and Doctor Jordan had stated that being in his own bed had probably helped his healing. And he loved Griffin House. He loved being back in the room Sirius and Remus had picked out for him and surrounded by memories of his wonderful Summer. He loved Dobby's enthusiastic care and fondness. More importantly, he felt safe within the walls of his home; protected by people who he knew loved him beyond measure. It had also been a relief to wake up and realise he didn't have to deal with being Harry Potter, Lord Potter, the Boy Who Lived, Unexpected Tri-Wizard Champion, or any other title someone wanted to call him, and could just be Harry.

There was a temptation to stay. A really, really big temptation. A part of him wanted to never leave Griffin House; to hide away and ignore the tournament, ignore the threat to his life and remain wrapped in the comfort of home and his father's constant loving protective presence.

He also knew there was a large part of Sirius which was tempted by the same thing; a want to keep Harry hidden away from the rest of the world. It was a temptation he knew others were aware of since Minerva had turned up the day before with Harry's school assignments and delivered them to him with a challenging look at Sirius as though daring him to argue that Harry was no longer attending Hogwarts. Everyone knew it would be easy enough for Sirius to arrange tutors and have Harry home-schooled.

But…Harry wasn't unaware that the reality was that both he and Sirius had responsibilities as Lord Potter and Lord Black; that they had an alliance which was waiting on them to do more than simply acknowledge the fact of what had happened. That they should be coming up with a response to what was, as Neville had declared, the opening salvo in a war. Among the letters he'd received since he'd woken up were missives from friends, allies and Draco (who seemed to occupy a category all of his own in Harry's head), all detailing the political fallout at Hogwarts.

And there was the reality of the tournament itself.

Hermione had a plan.

Which was so very Hermione and Harry was pleased that there was a plan because he had never really had a plan for anything, and it was one of the constants of his, Hermione and Ron's friendship that she was their designated planner. On the other hand, Harry's Summer had matured him enough to acknowledge that he should be involved with the planning (although admittedly his own attempt at planning for the tournament had stalled on 'surviving' before he'd fallen asleep again), and he felt some slight wariness that he didn't know how to break that to Hermione.

Especially since he still very much wanted and intended to ask her to be his girlfriend.

He sighed heavily.

"Raining, huh?"

Harry glanced over his shoulder and found his father just inside the bedroom doorway, leaning on the dresser. Sirius wore muggle clothing; black denim jeans and a thick cable-knit jumper in a dark maroon colour. His shoulder-length hair was tied back with a strip of black leather, and for the first time since Harry had woken up from his healing, Sirius looked well-rested.

"Yeah," Harry motioned despondently at the window, turning again to stare at the never-ending precipitation, "no flying."

"How about some hot chocolate and a chat, then?" Sirius offered quietly.

Harry's head whipped around to stare at him hopefully since Sirius had deflected the topic of Harry's return to Hogwarts at every brief mention and most sharply when Minerva had visited.

"I'd like that." Harry said.

"Get dressed and meet me in the living room." Sirius instructed. "I'll organise the drinks." He winked and walked out, closing the door behind him to give Harry some privacy.

Harry immediately leapt from the chair and headed for the bathroom. The shower was quick and perfunctory but it did the job. He pulled on similar clothing to Sirius; jeans and a green jumper. He was pleased that by the time he made his way downstairs he was fine and not fatigued.

Sirius sat on one end of the couch, cross-legged, his bare feet tucked under him. Harry picked up his mug of chocolate from the coffee table, snagged one of the chocolate chip cookies from the plate, and took the other end, settling himself into a similar position.

"Warm enough?" asked Sirius, concerned; his grey eyes sweeping over Harry's damp hair.

Harry nodded. The fire in the hearth was low, embers rather than flame, but the room was cosy and the mug warmed his hands.

"So, we have a few topics to discuss." Sirius began. "All related and all really boiling down to the question of what do we do now?"

"Yeah." Harry winced in agreement.

Sirius caught Harry's eyes with his. "I said it on the night but I'll say it again now: I'm very proud of you. The decision you made to accept the binding saved the lives of your fellow Champions and," he lifted a hand from his mug to wave it at Harry, "actually I think it saved Hogwarts because your protection destroying the Goblet might have led to the destruction of the school."

Harry blinked. "I hadn't thought of that."

"Bertie's been fascinated by the whole theoretical argument as has Albus." Sirius said dryly. "I think they're both planning to write a thesis about it when we don't have to keep your protection a secret."

Harry grinned. "Jointly or separately?"

"You know I don't know?" Sirius said, amused. "Separately, maybe, since Bertie thinks based on Godric's Hollow and the strengthening of your protection with Morgana's blessing, you would have decimated Hogwarts; Albus says the school wards would have contained the magical explosion to the antechamber and perhaps, worst case scenario, the Great Hall."

"Wow." Harry frowned. "Is that an argument for or against me going back to Hogwarts?"

"Good question." Sirius sipped his mug. "Albus isn't worried you pose a threat to Hogwarts."

"Are you?" asked Harry bluntly. Because he was himself maybe a tad worried.

"No," Sirius said immediately, "not even a little bit. You'd rather tear off your own arm than destroy Hogwarts or hurt innocent people so I have faith you won't ever let your protection or your powers get away from you for something like that to happen."

Sirius's complete faith in him, reassured Harry.

"So, that's a plus in the Going Back to Hogwarts column." Harry offered tentatively.

Sirius harrumphed. "What do you want to do?"

Harry took time to consider his answer because what he wanted to do wasn't necessarily the same as what he needed to do – and frankly what he wanted to do depended on what aspect of life at Hogwarts he was thinking about at the time.

"I'd like to go back to Hogwarts." Harry said eventually.

"Reasons?" Sirius prompted.

"Well, the first one is that I miss my friends. I want to spend time with them and…" Harry felt his cheeks heat up, "and I was kind of about to ask Hermione out?"

Sirius smirked and waggled his eyebrows. "Hermione, huh?"

Harry blushed but nodded.

"You and your Dad…" Sirius sighed dramatically, his eyes twinkling. "Complete suckers for the smartest witch of their generation; that should be the Potters' family motto."

They smiled at each other.

"For what it's worth, I approve," Sirius said solemnly enough that Harry knew he wasn't teasing, "and I hope your relationship goes splendidly but," he held Harry's gaze firmly, "if doesn't, I'm confident that you and Hermione are mature enough to maintain a civil relationship within the House of Black."

Harry nodded quickly. "I was going to discuss that with her. I want to make sure we stay friends whatever happens."

"Good." Sirius said warmly. "Well," he continued teasingly, "I can see one attraction of going back to Hogwarts."

"It's not just Hermione." Harry quickly pointed out. "I mean, if I stayed here I'd miss all my friends. Lessons at home are great but during the Summer I had my friends with me, except for the occasional lesson you and Remus would give me on my own. I don't…I learn more when I study with others."

"Even though you're ahead of your peers?" questioned Sirius.

"In DADA, Charms and Transfiguration." Harry agreed. "But it's hit and miss on the theory side…and really in everything else I'm about the same."

"If you do go back to Hogwarts, we'll need to look at your educational needs." Sirius said firmly.

Harry shifted. "So whether I stay or I go, I'll end up with individual tutoring?"

"You need individual tutoring, Harry, for the practical magic, that's clear." Sirius grimaced. "The issue is accelerating your theoretical knowledge enough to match your practical capability especially given the demands of the tournament, and I will say it's unlikely that we can push too much on that. I don't want you to have to sit OWLs at the end of the year when you'll have the final task and avoiding whatever additional trap Voldemort has set for you to worry about."

It made sense, and Harry felt his anxiety that he was going to be fast-tracked ease.

"In certain subjects you're also right; you're at the top of your peer group but consistent with them in knowledge and understanding." Sirius continued. "All of which means is that whether you stay or go, you'll need an individualised lesson plan even if you ultimately remain at the same level in some subjects as your friends."

"I understand." Harry said; truthfully he'd been expecting it.

"The other good news is theoretically your new curriculum could maybe be constructed to ensure that you have an equivalent practical skill level of a NEWT student." Sirius said with his best innocent expression.

So, basically teach him what he needed for the tournament.

"Hermione has a plan for the tournament that sounds a lot like that." Harry admitted.

"Hmmm," Sirius smirked, "have I told you before that Remus was the Marauders' Hermione?" He motioned vaguely at him. "We'll have to sit down and compare plans."

"I was thinking I should do some planning myself." Harry said.

"Let them plan." Sirius advised. "Both of them need to feel that they're helping. You should definitely go over their plans though and select what you want and what you don't want to do. You're the one in the tournament and ultimately the decision should be yours. The rules are pretty clear on that."

"How much help am I allowed for the tournament?" Harry asked, curious.

"According to the original spell-work on the Goblet, your teachers are not allowed to directly help you prepare for the tasks but they can tutor you in specific spells or provide answers to deepen your theoretical understanding if you request it." Sirius said briskly. "They can also provide general advice such as 'play to your strengths' and other such pep talk classics. The definition of a teacher though is someone who is employed by the school you represent within the tournament."

"But I don't have a school within the tournament. 'The Light' thing doesn't exist." Harry said.

Sirius grimaced. "Exactly but I think anyone teaching you should err on the side of caution. I might talk with Albus about creating an official document designating anyone teaching you to be considered as faculty of 'The Light.'" He sighed. "It's also why Amelia and the Aurors are taking over the duelling club on Wednesday nights. While Hogwarts don't pay Remus or I…I don't want any confusion if you do go back and if you don't…well, I don't want to lose the time I could spend with you instead."

Harry accepted that with a nod.

"You are allowed direct help by friends and family to assist you in training, to consider what the likely tasks will be and to prepare for them. The Goblet considers part of a Champion's skill set is to take advice and guidance from others, having the ability to understand what is good advice and guidance, and what isn't." Sirius waved his hand. "It gives us some leeway. However, neither Remus nor I can know what the tasks will be whereas the Headmaster can share that information with other teachers should he choose to do so. All your main helpers and you yourself will effectively be blind to what is actually needed."

"But that's true for all the Champions?" checked Harry.

Sirius nodded, unhappiness written all over his expressive face. "Afraid so."

"At least the playing field is equal in that respect." Harry murmured.

"Back to your reasons…" Sirius dragged them back to the actual topic, "love, friendship…" he teased gently.

Harry did the mature thing and stuck his tongue out at him. It made Sirius laugh which was a big plus in Harry's eyes.

"There's also…" Harry sighed heavily. "Don't I have a responsibility to be there? From an alliance perspective? Neville's on point at the moment but…I'm supposed to be the one leading them and…I should be there. Draco's trying to reach out to the Slytherins but he needs to show he and I are…" he pulled a face, "friendly, kind of, at least in appearance."

Sirius huffed. "It's a good point."

"And don't we run the risk of saying to Voldemort that he's scared us and we're hiding if we stay here?" Harry continued, warming to his theme. "I mean, public image wise, shouldn't we both be showing that just because they want to torment us and torture us with the tournament, they can't get to us that way; that they've failed?"

Sirius hummed and regarded Harry with a fond look. "Your Mum and Dad said something similar about going into hiding with you when you were a baby."

"Why did they do it then?" wondered Harry out loud.

"You." Sirius admitted. "They were happy to risk themselves but they would never risk you."

And neither would Sirius; that was the message, Harry thought.

"You were a baby then, Harry." Sirius murmured as though he had read Harry's mind. "Defenceless except for the innate affinity you have with the family magic. They couldn't risk a public defiance."

But maybe they could now? Harry searched Sirius's expression for a clue as to which way Sirius was leaning on the decision.

Sirius shifted position and nudged Harry's foot with one of his across the expanse of the couch. "Any other reason for wanting to go back to Hogwarts?"

Harry shook his head.

"It's a good argument," Sirius commented, "you covered your personal, political and strategic reasons for returning very well."

"But?" prompted Harry with a hint of cheekiness because he could hear the 'but' in his head.

"But, I also want to know the reasons why you've considered not returning to Hogwarts and why you've elevated the reasons for going above them." Sirius confirmed with a smile.

Harry grimaced. He sipped his chocolate and tugged on his sock, realigning the toe section to sit more comfortably. "Well, we covered the individual lesson thing and wanting to be with my friends in lessons," he began hesitantly and raised his gaze to meet Sirius's, "but I guess the main reason for not going back that I had was because I can just be Harry here." He lifted a shoulder and tried to convey some of what he had been thinking earlier. "I feel safe…and well, you're here."

Sirius's expression melted into something painfully wonderful; his love for Harry so blatant that Harry almost felt he could reach out and touch it.

Sirius cleared his throat noisily. "Well…" he cleared his throat again, "well, that's…I'm glad you feel safe here. With me."

"It's home." Harry said simply and looked down at his chocolate. "I never really…Hogwarts was home before when…" he made a brief hand gesture meant to convey his past and the Dursleys and how much of a home he hadn't had living with his relatives, "but this is home now and when I'm at Hogwarts I miss it." He missed Sirius.

"But?" gently prompted Sirius.

"It would be easy to hide here." Harry confessed. "And I know if I said I wanted to stay, you'd make it happen so the media would think it was a good move, and Voldemort would second guess whether he'd made the right decision, and the alliance would think they'd suggested it but…"

He lifted his gaze and found Sirius waiting.

"It would be you who did that and it would be easy to let you," so easy to hide behind Sirius, "but I'm not a child anymore. Maybe," he conceded before Sirius could speak, "I'm not an adult yet either, but I do have responsibilities to the House of Potter, to you and the House of Black, and I didn't understand at the start of the Summer but I do now and I need to feel like I'm doing my best to fulfil them; that I'm making…making my parents proud." Making Sirius proud.

Sirius moved, reaching over to snag Harry's chocolate and setting it and his own aside. He tugged Harry into a loose sideways hug on the sofa.

"I know without a shadow of a doubt that your parents are incredibly proud of you." Sirius said eventually.

"Yeah?" Harry fingered the edge of his jumper.

"Yeah, because I am so proud of you I could literally burst with it." Sirius admitted gruffly. "And if I'm proud of you, I know they are too."

Harry's grip on Sirius tightened.

"And since I very clearly remember the pout on your face the first time I mentioned the word politics to you," Sirius continued in a lighter tone, "I am delighted that you take it so seriously now." He paused. "No Sirius pun intended."

Harry chuckled and shifted, getting comfortable as he leaned up against Sirius's side and leeched his warmth. They didn't often cuddle; hugs, yes, lots of them; cuddling, not so much. They occasionally ended up resting against each other during movie night – and on one occasion, Harry had fallen asleep on Sirius – but not what they were doing right then; just holding onto each other for comfort.

"This sense of responsibility you feel not to hide here," Sirius asked quietly, "is some of it related to the prophecy?"

"Some of it," Harry allowed, "and I know you hate it but there's no getting away from the fact that Voldemort is determined to make it about him and me…and I don't want him to think he's winning."

"You're right that I hate it." Sirius grumbled but he sighed. "I guess I can't argue against a sense of responsibility to go back to Hogwarts trumping the sense of safety you feel here."

"I wish…" Harry hesitated but ploughed on. "I wish I could have both? I do know going back isn't going to be easy. There's going to be the press and being stared at again and needing to be what everyone expects Harry Potter, Lord Potter, Heir of the House of Black, to be, and it would be nice to have an escape from that; somewhere I can be just Harry. And I know it's not going to be a hundred per cent safe because…it never has been. And I…I miss you at Hogwarts. The mirrors are great but it's not the same."

"Best of both worlds?" Sirius questioned and ruffled Harry's hair eliciting an irritated huff from him. "I can get behind that."

"So…" Harry pulled himself away from Sirius to look at him. "Does this mean I can go back to Hogwarts?"

"It means that I'll try and arrange things so you can go back." Sirius stated firmly.

Which totally meant Harry was going back to Hogwarts.

"I want to discuss your security with Albus, your schooling with Minnie, and I'd like the alliance and the Ministry to feel they had some input." Sirius continued. "Personally, I'm anticipating being encouraged to allow you to return and provide a visible banner under which the alliance and the Ministry can gather against the threat of Barty Crouch Junior and Peter Pettigrew, since actually telling the general public they're just a front for Voldemort would create a mass panic."

Keeping their allies happy; it was a good move.

"How do you want to play this publically?" Sirius asked.

Harry considered the question for a long moment, slumping down to rest one shoulder against the back cushion, his torso twisted toward Sirius. Sirius rearranged his own position, propping up his head with a hand, elbow on the back cushion, his own body twisted toward Harry so they could talk and see each other but still sat closely together. He knew he should probably suggest they do a 'so we're in the tournament and making the best of it' approach but it felt too passive, too much like letting Voldemort have another win since no doubt Voldemort was probably thinking putting Harry out of action for a week was a win on its own.

"I want Voldemort to regret ever thinking about putting me in the tournament." Harry blurted out. "I want him to know it was my choice, that I could have destroyed the Goblet like I destroyed him when I was a baby. I want to do more than survive it; I want to say that I'm going to play to win it – to give it my best effort. I want them to think that I may be tested for nine months but I won't be tortured by being in the tournament…and neither will you by proxy."

Sirius regarded him with a raised eyebrow. "Your Dad would call this a 'Fuck You' strategy."

"It's something he'd do?" Harry asked curious.

Sirius grinned and shook his head. "No, he'd call things that whenever he was trying to talk me out of something he considered marginally crazy. 'Sirius, just because Regulus tried to kill you and you handed him his ass on a platter, doesn't mean that you should give into your need to say a follow-up 'fuck you' by sneaking into the infirmary and threatening him in the dead of night.'" He gestured vaguely. "Possibly not the best example, but a 'Fuck You' strategy." He frowned suddenly. "And if Remus asks I never used the 'f' word in describing this strategy or the anecdote that I've just told you."

Harry mimed his lips being sealed and grinned. "So, you think it's marginally crazy?"

"It's a very Gryffindorish strategy; ballsy and bold." Sirius mused. "It would definitely piss off the old snake and his cronies if we decided to make lemonade instead of focusing on the lemons and that might lead them into making mistakes." He pursed his lips. "I'm concerned we'd give away how powerful you are with this strategy."

"He's going to know that anyway," Harry argued, "between the Slytherins reporting I've had to change to an individualised lesson plan and my competing in the tournament. And truthfully my raw power isn't going to be what defeats him because it's a power he already knows; he's just as powerful."

"True." Sirius acknowledged. "We'd need to do a press interview to get the message to him."

Harry winced but nodded. The Prophet had been running daily articles during his recovery, emphasising his selection as a Champion and barely mentioning the other three Champions which made Harry feel a bit guilty. Skeeter's articles had also hinted at how stressful it must all be for him and what the latest events would mean for his sanity.

"I think it's doable for you to win." Sirius admitted. "The tasks are set even if Voldemort played with the originals, and even then, he can't have made them so hard that he's actually expecting to kill you with them because he needs you alive at the end for the ritual – so it's not like he can come after you during the tournament."

"But he might come after others in retaliation." Harry deduced from Sirius's contemplative expression.

"He might try." Sirius conceded. "But Remus and I can take reasonable precautions and your friends are secure as they can be at school." He shrugged. "We'll discuss the strategy with the alliance members and make sure they take precautions."

"So?" said Harry hopefully.

Sirius nodded. "You'll return to Hogwarts…"

"Yes!" Harry leaped across the space between them and hugged Sirius hard.

"Oomph!" Sirius laughed and wrestled Harry into a more comfortable position. "Wait! This is on the condition that my discussions with Albus, Minnie and the rest go as anticipated! Alright?"

"Alright!" Harry happily agreed.

He was going back to Hogwarts. The binding from the Goblet hummed in what Harry thought was contentment. Maybe the universe wasn't conspiring against him after all.

o-O-o

It was almost amusing the way the entire Ministry atrium froze when Sirius stepped out of the floo during the lunch time rush.

He ignored the stares and wide-eyed looks, adjusted the cuffs on his black robes and continued on his way to the security check-in. He knew he looked imposing; he had tied his hair back into a warrior knot at the base of his neck; the open robes might look sharp and close-fitting but were in actuality loose and flowing to allow ease of movement. Beneath them, the leather trousers and tight black t-shirt showed off his physique. The dagger holster on his left thigh and the wand holster on his right signalled his battle readiness.

The Auror nodded at him respectfully. "Lord Black."

"Dukcan, isn't it?" Sirius asked politely, recognising the lanky dark-skinned Auror from previous visits.

"That's right, sir." Auror Dukcan passed him a parchment.

"I have my own knife." Sirius withdrew the dagger from his holster and pricked his thumb, allowing one drop of blood to fall on the paper. Immediately, his name appeared confirming his identity.

Dukan immediately burned the parchment in front of Sirius and banished the ashes. "Thank you, sir. And may I say it's good to see you. How is Lord Potter?"

Sirius allowed a small smile. He wasn't unaware of the gathering crowd that was waiting with bated breath to hear what he would reply. "Mostly annoyed with the rain interfering with his flying now he's feeling better."

Dukcan grinned. "My boy's the same, sir. Can't keep him off his broomstick."

"How old?" asked Sirius, genuinely interested.

"Twelve, sir." Dukcan's face took on a proud parental note that Sirius thought must be written all over his own. "Just made his class team at King's. He…" he hesitated before ploughing on. "He hero worships your boy. He's backing Lord Potter to win the tournament."

"I'll tell Harry." Sirius said simply with a nod of gratitude for the support.

"And what about you, Lord Black, are you backing Harry to win the tournament?"

He recognised the strident tones of Skeeter and rolled his eyes expressively at Dukcan who ducked his head to hide the laugh that bubbled up; Sirius turned around to face her.

"Rita, lovely to see you," he made a broad gesture to encompass the rest of the press that had stampeded to the front of the crowd, "and everyone else."

"Do you have a statement, Lord Black?" asked an eager cub reporter who barely looked out of school.

Rita shot the boy a dirty look. "He has yet to answer my question."

"Perhaps I can reply to both, Rita." Sirius suggested. "My brief statement is this: As you all know Harry was entered by someone wishing to do him harm, and selected as a Champion by the Goblet. While he did initially resist the binding, he chose to honour it after it was revealed if he destroyed the Goblet, which he has the power to do, it would have serious implications for the other Champions who had already been bound. The initial resistance led to severe magical exhaustion. Since Harry woke on Wednesday morning, he has chosen to embrace his situation. While I don't know the other Champions well, I do know that to be selected means that these young people are powerful, intelligent and honourable. I have a great deal of respect for all three on that basis alone. However," Sirius let himself smile sharply; all teeth and dangerous attitude, "I will always back Harry to win any battle he sets his mind to win."

And that was most definitely 'fuck you, Voldemort!' written out large for the bastard to see, Sirius thought with satisfaction.

"Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a meeting to attend." Sirius said firmly and strode away before anyone could ask anything else, disappearing into the lift and letting it take him down into the bowels of the Ministry to the DOM.

With Black Manor in lockdown, they'd decided to convene the War Council in one of the DOM's research rooms. Sirius found the room easily and was pleased at the layout; a set of comfortable chairs around a small coffee table with a light lunch already set out; a side-table had a pensieve in case one was needed.

Bertie rose from his comfy armchair to greet Sirius. "How are you, Sirius?"

The genuine concern had a lump rising in Sirius's throat but he gave a sharp nod. "Better now that Harry's up and about."

Bertie's wizened face broke into a wide smile and he patted Sirius's arm enthusiastically. "Excellent news."

Amelia arrived shortly with a grin. "I heard you were in the building, Sirius. In fact I don't think there's a person within the Ministry who now doesn't know you're in the building. Cornelius wouldn't have minded you using his floo."

Sirius shrugged. "Making a public appearance seemed the easiest way of informing everyone that we're back in business."

Amelia's eyes sharpened speculatively. "And are you?"

"Oh yes." Sirius smiled as he remembered his statement to Rita.

"I remember that smile from Arcturus," Bertie commented, handing Sirius a cup of coffee, "it never boded well for whoever had attracted his ire."

Sirius was rapidly coming to the conclusion that he was more like his Grandfather than he had ever thought he was or wanted to be. It wasn't exactly a comforting thought.

"Sirius! Thank Merlin!" Cornelius hurried over to him and clasped his hand strongly. "It's so good to see you!"

He might have been touched, Sirius mused wryly, except for the fact that he knew Cornelius's main concern was political. But there was genuine concern underneath that, buried deep, and Sirius appreciated the thought as Cornelius bustled into the best armchair and accepted a cup of tea.

Albus arrived in a flurry of his pale pink robes that reminded Sirius of a girl's doll that Lily had once shown him. The Headmaster apologised for his lateness complaining that he had been stuck discussing the tournament with his fellow Heads.

"How is Harry?" asked Albus. "Minerva said he was bored but still exhausted when she saw him."

"He's better." Sirius said succinctly.

"Good." Albus sighed with relief.

"Shall we begin then?" Sirius said. "I think it would be wise to add the tournament as a separate item on our agenda if everyone agrees?"

They all nodded.

"Cornelius, I know we'd normally discuss the politics first but…"

"No, no," Cornelius waved benevolently at him, "we should discuss the tournament first. I assume it will have an impact to the rest of the agenda?"

"Exactly." Sirius confirmed, relieved at Cornelius's easy acquiescence. "So, the tournament. Albus, why don't you update us first on what the situation is with the structure – as much as you can with the constraints of your position?"

Albus nodded sagely. "The tournament has not been fundamentally altered from its original parameters except in the inclusion of a fourth Champion. There is a reduction in judges and we have discussed today whether the fourth position rather than been taken by Ludo as the Ministry representative, should be given to someone who represents Harry as I and the other Headmasters represent the school Champions. There was a difference of opinion with Igor suggesting the possibility of double favouritism for both Harry and Mister Diggory if another person was added. Olympe was much more willing to accept the view that my representing both Champions is unusual." He sighed. "There is the problem that the individual would have to be bound to the Goblet as Harry's representative and in the same way that we are not allowed to discuss the specifics of the tasks, they would not be able to do so either."

"I don't necessarily see it as an issue having Ludo be the fourth judge and you representing both Harry and Cedric." Sirius said. "In discussions on the tasks, I'm sure your input would be the same either way, and in judging I know you'll be fair."

"Ludo is also meant to be there as a neutral judge anyway to balance any notion of favouritism among all three judges." Amelia pointed out. "But I would recommend, Albus, that you speak with Cedric himself just to check that he has no issue with your representing both him and Harry from his perspective. I know Amos isn't happy."

"I shall take your advice, Amelia." Albus replied. "I'll discuss the matter with young Cedric Diggory. If he has an issue than I shall revisit the matter and insist the fourth judge is someone to wholly represent Harry."

"What about the rest of the tournament?" asked Bertie, steering them back on track.

"Each task remains as we had previously scheduled it." Albus said. "Elements of the tasks we planned remain but they have been altered to become more dangerous. I can't say anything more than that I fear. However, I have checked the history records and confirmed that the revised tasks are no more dangerous than those held in previous tournaments. They are also achievable if the Champions perform with the intelligence and determination that prompted their selection."

"Fantastic." Sirius drawled dryly. What about Harry who had been selected because he was the only candidate?

Albus's lips twitched and his moustache quivered as though he'd read Sirius's mind and held back a laugh. "I also believe that Harry was selected as a Champion and not chosen as a default. The original spell-work suggests if the Goblet found nobody worthy of standing as a Champion, it would be declared so and that school would be out of the competition."

"I'm not sure that makes me feel better, Albus." Sirius said. But it did ease his mind a little. "What about Harry's standing as the Champion of the Light? How will the Goblet interpret that?"

Bertie leaned forward eagerly. "I may be able to shed some light here." He waved a hand. "Pardon the pun. The Goblet doesn't recognise schools or Headmasters per se. The number of Champions to be chosen and for whom they were competing is always defined by the Initiation document. When someone enters their name as an official representative of a competing group, they become bound by the Goblet's tournament rules. However there is no check that the number of representatives matches the number of groups; only that the number of Champions to be selected matches those chosen."

"So basically the Goblet doesn't really care that Harry is competing under the banner 'The Light,'" Sirius checked, "it just knows 'The Light' doesn't have an authority representative but it does have Harry as its Champion."

"A good summary." Bertie said.

"Thankfully Sirius can summarise unlike some." Amelia bantered.

Bertie smiled at her serenely. "Essentially, there is nothing in the spell-work that enforces the Headmasters to enter their names. They could choose not to, thusly not be bound by the tournament rules and potentially provide specific help to their Champions about the tasks. But whether the magic of the Goblet would find this acceptable…the Spirit is much more sentient than we had ever thought."

"But possibly we should ensure Harry's schooling situation is sorted sooner rather than later." Albus said.

"A good point," Sirius conceded, "if you could arrange a meeting with Minnie this evening, we can discuss it then."

"For those of us with a vested interest," Cornelius spoke up, "may I ask; what is the likely outcome? If Harry were to leave Hogwarts…"

There would be a panic and others would leave the school. Internationally it would be a political blow beyond the damage to Hogwarts' own reputation. Sirius could see why Cornelius was concerned.

"Harry has expressed a desire to return." Sirius stated simply and saw the relief flood Cornelius's expression momentarily while Albus smiled widely. "But there's a great deal to be discussed before I agree."

Albus quickly nodded. "I'll arrange a meeting for seven, if that's convenient for you? We could come to the Manor…"

"The Manor remains in lockdown for the time being." Sirius said firmly. "Your office at Hogwarts will suffice and I'm sure Harry will have letters for me to deliver to his friends."

Albus nodded again. "In that case would you be willing to allow Severus and Alastor to attend in addition to Minerva?"

"That's fine." Sirius said. He honestly didn't mind Moody's presence and although he would have preferred it if Snape wasn't invited along, he was beginning to appreciate Snape was sincere in his wish to kill Voldemort, so maybe they could work together.

"Alastor's putting in other security measures for the tournament," Amelia said dryly, "including a redo of the identity checks that were done by Crouch."

"It did take a bit of persuading," Cornelius admitted, "but all the foreign embassies involved agreed it was a necessity and allowed us to redo the checks."

"Everyone passed?" asked Sirius bluntly.

Amelia nodded. "Alastor's determined to keep an eye on Karkaroff regardless."

Sirius wasn't going to argue it wasn't necessary; Karkaroff was a former Death Eater who would sell his soul to the highest bidder.

"We're also implementing Alastor's magical ticket security system for the tournament's public audiences." Amelia said. "No-one without a ticket issued by Alastor personally will be allowed on the grounds, and anyone trying to use someone else's ticket will cause a particularly nasty hex to appear identifying them easily as an imposter."

Cornelius sighed. "It's a pity such a thing is necessary."

"But reassuring given the circumstances." Sirius countered.

"With any luck we'll be able to counter an attempt by Voldemort to get access to Harry for the final part of the ritual." Amelia agreed.

Sirius wasn't counting on it. Voldemort was an excellent tactician; he wouldn't have almost had the wizarding world in his grasp at the end of the last war if he wasn't. The self-styled Dark Lord had to have some kind of plan to get Harry for the ritual. And regardless of how disparaging Sirius wanted to be about those Voldemort had gathered around him…the truth was that they were committed to Voldemort's service. Junior wasn't to be underestimated; none of them could be underestimated.

"The scuttlebutt says that you announced Harry means to win the tournament when you arrived." Amelia commented dryly, reaching for one of the tiny sandwiches that were arranged in front of them.

Sirius snagged a cheese sandwich to keep her company and nodded. "Harry believes that embracing the tournament is the way to go as a strategy and I'm inclined to agree with him."

Bertie's face lit up. "Oh, excellent idea! It will weaken the notion of his being in fear of his life for the nine months…"

"And limit the potency of that particular ingredient in the ritual," Albus agreed, "should it get that far."

"And also, with any luck, annoy Voldemort and company into making a few mistakes." Sirius added.

"Yes," Albus nodded, "Tom will not be pleased if Harry steps back into the public eye uncowed and unbroken by his machinations."

"That's what Harry thought." Sirius said simply.

"Is it a good idea to provoke Voldemort though?" Amelia asked, gesturing with her half-eaten sandwich.

Bertie cleared his throat. "I think Harry is probably best placed to determine how to deal with Voldemort. Setting aside the incident when he was a baby, Harry has thwarted his plans twice since. He has a natural gift for countering Voldemort, it seems." His eyes flickered towards Sirius who refused to acknowledge the allusion to the prophecy. "I believe it would be sensible to allow Harry to take the lead in how he wants to respond."

"You really think it will annoy Voldemort into making mistakes?" Amelia turned to Sirius.

Sirius shrugged. "Voldemort wants to think he's winning; that he successfully entered Harry into the competition to risk his life and make him ready for the ritual. Harry's determined to make it known he chose to accept the binding and will do his best to win the competition…he's not there under sufferance just trying to survive. It says to Voldemort that at best he's gotten a draw. That should infuriate him."

Amelia nodded slowly.

"Unfortunately, some of our political allies may not be so accepting of such a strong response." Cornelius commented worriedly. "Some will feel a low key reply is best."

Sirius gave Cornelius an understanding nod. "I think that's a good segue into the next item on the agenda. I'm meeting with the Potter alliance directly after this meeting to get their views and input."

"Excellent!" Cornelius said approvingly.

"Regardless, Neville Longbottom was right when he declared that the House of Potter is at war. I don't believe any of those currently in the alliance will want out but I expect some grumbling about tactics especially about Harry's decision to play to win."

"I know he's not in the alliance but Amos is going to be furious." Amelia said, picking up her cup. "He's already complaining to anyone who will listen that Harry is taking the limelight away from the real Champions."

Sirius gave a small huff acknowledging that Amos Diggory was likely to be a problem.

Cornelius cleared his throat. "I admire Harry's bravery in moving forward in such a direct way but it is likely to have an off-putting effect on those we're still courting to become part of the alliance."

"Yes," Sirius agreed, "it'll deter the Houses on the pureblood side from asking for détentes, and I suspect some of the minor neutral Houses will not want to openly side with the House of Potter in case it draws attention to them."

"It may benefit Wenlock's drive to build an opposition." Cornelius commented.

"Maybe," Sirius allowed, "he has made some headway with the minor pureblood Houses according to Lucius, although most of them are giving Wenlock a hard time since he's all but ignored them previously."

"What's the political agenda for the delayed November session?" asked Amelia.

"Primarily, the Committee reviewing the laws governing Magical Races and Creatures is going to recommend the suspension of the laws that were pushed through last year restricting the ability of werewolves to work." Sirius said succinctly.

"We're expecting a full report in December and new laws providing a more equitable governance of magical races and creatures in January and February." Cornelius added.

Albus smiled with delight. "An excellent first move in the political battle. Tom will find himself without many magical allies if we can prove that the other magical races will get fairer treatment from the current government."

"We're already seeing an impact," Cornelius agreed enthusiastically, "the Goblins have sent word that they were pleased by the October session and look forward to seeing what we do going forward. We've also had similar messages from representatives from the Centaurs and the Vampires."

"The werewolf packs bar Greyback's have also declared neutrality." Amelia added.

"Although we do need to keep a close eye politically on how our opposition takes the House of Black and Potter providing sanctuary to members of Greyback's pack." Cornelius sent Sirius a concerned look.

"At the moment it's only a handful and most of them are happy to be gainfully employed running the Potter chateau in France." Sirius said firmly. "Remus will keep close control of it."

Cornelius grimaced but gave a nod. "It may be a good idea to do some publicity, perhaps with the international press?"

"Let's leave it for now." Sirius said, believing it was safer for Remus and the werewolves at the chateau for the news of the sanctuary to be kept quiet for the short term. "Speaking of the international forum, what's happening with Crouch's Department?"

"We've appointed Henry Hatter as a Special Auditor – that will need to be ratified by the Wizengamot." Cornelius said pompously. "Henry served in the Department up until his retirement five years ago…"

"He didn't like Crouch." Amelia commented in an aside.

"He has a good international reputation," Cornelius said defensively, "and I have every confidence that he'll find anything that may have gone awry during the time Crouch was being impersonated by his son." He sighed dramatically. "Beyond that, of course, we've taken quite a blow internationally with the news of Crouch's death and being hoodwinked by Junior for so many months. However, we have had expressions of support and most of the ambassadors have been eager to assist us in ensuring agreements made since June are reviewed and authenticated."

"We've already confirmed that nobody in the Department was being controlled by Junior." Amelia added. "Four of the five employees had few dealings with him. Percy Weasley was the only one to maintain regular contact during the supposed sick leave and Junior elevated his position to his assistant on his return, keeping him close."

"I understand from Arthur that Percy's been devastated by the news." Sirius said with some sympathy for the plight of the young man. Percy had pinned his flag to the wrong banner but he'd only acted out of a desire to improve his career prospects, and to realise his ambition had provided Junior with information that had almost led to the death of his loved ones…Percy had a lot of guilt and self-recrimination to deal with in the wake of Junior's unmasking.

"I believe Henry will recommend that Weasley is removed from the Department." Cornelius admitted.

"It will be a struggle for him to remain with the Ministry in another Department," Amelia pointed out, "he hasn't endeared himself to anyone."

Sirius made a mental note to speak with Arthur again.

"Politically, I think that brings us up to date." Cornelius said brightly.

It did. Sirius indicated for Amelia to begin.

"Well, Tag the Death Eater has been useful if only in eliminating the possibility that any of the previously known Death Eaters has any idea where Voldemort and his band of minions have run off to hide." Amelia's voice was seeped with frustration.

"Lucius confirms that his alliance is at a loss." Sirius said. "Lots of theories but no real leads, since most of them weren't aware of Junior's association with Rabastan until they were all arrested for the attack on the Longbottoms, and Junior hasn't approached anyone since he was liberated from his father's basement."

"What we do know has come from Snape's recovered memories of his time staying with the LeStranges." Amelia said, reaching for another sandwich. "Among the final memories that were recovered with the help of a healer from Saint Mungo's, there was one specifically where Junior and Rabastan discussed buying a small seaside cottage as a bolthole with the South and West coasts mentioned as possible locations."

"It's a solid lead." Sirius commented, relieved that they had something when he'd previously believed there was nothing.

"The Rat Squad is hunting down all possible sales that took place prior to the arrest of Rabastan and Junior back in 'eighty-one, and they are repeating that for sales since June." Amelia confirmed. "If that's where they are hiding, we should be able to close in on them eventually."

"What about Pettigrew?" Bertie asked, sipping his tea.

"All of the possible places Sirius and Remus have identified for us have come up empty." Amelia sighed.

"Not surprisingly." Sirius said. "Peter isn't stupid, as much as I want to believe that he is with the choices he's made. He'll keep away from anywhere that Remus and I know about."

Albus nodded in agreement. "He has shown a remarkable sense of self-preservation." He gestured, sending one lurid pink sleeve flying. "He also demonstrates a need to follow. I believe it's more likely that he will let Barty Crouch Junior take the lead."

"That's true enough." Sirius grimaced, remembering how Peter had followed him and James at school.

"I also believe that it's likely that Crouch Junior will try and insert himself into the tournament again." Albus continued. "We will need to be vigilant with the identity checks."

"Agreed." Amelia said. "We're going to ask for additional budget to increase security again for the tournament."

"We'll see what we can do." Sirius promised.

"Any luck with the elf?" Amelia asked.

Sirius shook his head. "Kreacher reported that she's not appeared in any of the usual elf places and isn't using her magic."

"Is she still alive?" Bertie asked bluntly.

"There's still an elf bond according to my elves so we think so." Sirius sighed heavily. "Junior was aware that we knew about the elf's part in the threats he sent thanks to the information he received when he impersonated his father. He's smart enough to realise using her again might be a way to trace him."

Amelia nodded sharply and sat back, her hands up. "That's all I had."

Bertie cleared his throat. "Well, there's not a great deal of progress on the Treasure Hunt side of things either. We've cleared Godric's Hollow. There was a dagger we think originally belonged to Godric Gryffindor found by the crib. It wasn't one of the objects we're looking for but possibly was intended for that purpose. We've destroyed it anyway."

"Better safe than sorry." Cornelius said officiously.

"That leaves the missing item at Hogwarts, likely to be Ravenclaw's diadem, and I think we're all agreed that the snake travelling with Voldemort should be eliminated since it was present when Voldemort killed Frank Bryce at Little Hangleton." Bertie continued soberly.

"Bill and Caro have started the search at Hogwarts." Sirius commented.

"They've devised a systematic search pattern based on the route that we believe Riddle will have used from the path to the Headmaster's office. They'll start with the route and move out in a concentric circle from there." Bertie sighed again. "It's going to be tedious work."

"Ostensibly the staff and the students have accepted that they are being loaned by the DOM at my request to provide additional security for the tournament." Albus commented.

"Good," murmured Sirius, "so that brings us up to date, unless anyone has anything else?"

Amelia leaned forward. "How are you and Harry really, Sirius? Do you need anything?"

Sirius smiled at her, appreciating the genuine concern. "We're fine, Amelia. This isn't what we wanted but…we'll make the best of it."

"Well, anything you do need, Sirius, just let us know." Bertie said seriously.

He nodded again. "Thank you."

It was a good ending to the War Council. Sirius made his escape from the DOM, accepting Cornelius's offer to use the private floo in the Minister's office rather than going out through the atrium as he had arrived. It meant spending a half hour with Cornelius discussing the various strategies they had in play but it was time well spent.

Sirius flooed back to Black Manor but immediately left again for the Tonks' house.

Andromeda greeted him at the door and showed him through to the comfortable sitting room. Ted sat in a leather recliner, a cup of tea resting on one arm. He got to his feet to shake Sirius's hand.

Narcissa and Lucius also rose from their position on the leather sofa but they gave brief nods of greeting and Sirius returned the gesture, motioning for them to sit.

"Thank you for coming at short notice." Sirius said formally, taking the remaining leather chair as Andromeda perched on the free arm of her husband's seat.

"How's Harry?" asked Andromeda.

"Much better." Sirius said. "I've called this family meeting to bring you up to date and to make sure that we present a united front going forward in terms of our public comments and demeanour."

They all nodded understanding the need for the meeting.

"Firstly, as Remus informed you while I was with Harry, he was injured resisting the binding." Sirius said.

"Then he was able to resist it?" asked Lucius carefully. "There are conflicting rumours."

"He was able to resist it and he might have been able to destroy the Goblet with the help of the family magic." Sirius explained. "Unfortunately, if he had done so, the Goblet would have tried to take the lives and the magic of all those already bound and those promised." He gave a shrug. "Harry would have likely survived but the other Champions…"

"So he accepted the binding in a noble act to save them." Lucius sneered. "How very Gryffindorish."

Sirius shot him a warning look.

"It will play well with your allies and the press." Narcissa commented, adjusting her skirts and drawing Sirius's attention away from her husband.

"Harry did it because it was the right thing to do." Sirius pointed out sharply.

Narcissa arched one elegant eyebrow. "Which will simply mean that it plays even better; the hero of the Light, the Boy Who Lived no less, forced into a tournament that he could have avoided because he wasn't willing to sacrifice the lives of the other Champions...it's legend brought to life. Rita Skeeter will eat it up with a spoon."

Sirius grimaced but couldn't argue with her summation. "Harry is going to play to win the tournament."

"Is that sensible?" asked Andromeda, concern tensing all the lines in her face.

Ted slid his hand into his wife's. "If he does the least he needs to do, surely that would be sufficient for him to survive?"

Lucius sent a snide look towards his sister-in-law and her husband. "It will make him look weak and pathetic if he plays simply to survive." He smoothed a hand over the head of his cane. "If he plays to win, he looks strong."

Ted frowned. "I would have thought the Slytherin approach would have been self-preservation above all else and besides," he motioned towards Sirius, "wouldn't it be fairer on the other Champions who did enter knowingly to allow them to have their competition without Harry in the mix?"

"And there speaks the Hufflepuff!" Lucius mocked.

"Enough." Sirius said sternly. He caught Ted's gaze. "Despite the way Harry was entered into the tournament, Harry was chosen by the Goblet as a Champion because he was judged to be deserving of being a Champion. He has much right as the other Champions to compete and try to win." He sent a fleeting look to Lucius. "And Lucius is right." As much as Sirius hated to admit it. "Harry simply doing the least he needs to do will give the impression that Voldemort has managed to terrorise him. If he plays to win, we effectively tell Voldemort he has failed in that respect."

Ted sighed heavily. "I understand even if I don't like it, Sirius."

Andromeda placed an arm around her husband. "How can we help?"

"Public support for Harry," Sirius said immediately, "there may be a backlash against him because he has decided to compete. Others may have a similar view that Harry should let the others have the glory of winning."

"He'll have our support, of course, Sirius." Ted stated firmly.

Sirius turned to Lucius. "Draco's doing well at Hogwarts. He's maintained a supportive position and he's kept me informed to the Slytherin reactions. He's noted that Bulstrode has revealed Riddle's lineage and that most are not happy with the idea that they are meant to swear loyalty to someone espousing a pureblood agenda who isn't a pureblood."

"Yes," Lucius said dryly, "it's caused quite a commotion among the parents who had chosen to keep the information quiet." He smiled. "They've found their offspring are unwilling to be fodder for the Dark Lord."

"I believe it would be beneficial to deliver your praise directly to Draco." Narcissa shifted beside her husband. "I should not need to tell you how precarious his position is within Slytherin."

Sirius swallowed the retort he wanted to make and nodded instead, because truthfully Draco was in a precarious position and that he had apparently held fast to supporting Harry and the House of Black deserved recognition. "I'll see what I can do." He gestured at Lucius. "What reactions have you observed?"

"Those that carry the Mark are even more concerned." Lucius conceded, fidgeting with the cane. "We understand that this was done at the Dark Lord's behest if not at his hand. He is gaining in strength to challenge Potter so openly." He paused, gathering his thoughts. "The majority are unwilling to allow him to come to power again but are unclear how to remain out of the imminent war. My position can be explained with the primacy, and those who have established détentes have some cover, but there are many who have none."

And wanted cover because they had no backbone to stand up to Voldemort on their own, Sirius mused.

"Wenlock may find some traction as the minor Houses look to him for that cover." Lucius murmured. "Whether Wenlock will understand why they are seeking his protection is another matter. He is focused on the political landscape and he has no Mark."

"So he may find himself caught in the crossfire when Voldemort realises Wenlock is taking his supporters?" Sirius was torn between glee and the nagging voice of conscience that said he should warn Wenlock.

"It's a possibility." Lucius allowed.

And one that Lucius would pursue whatever concerns Sirius or anyone else might have, Sirius realised. Did he want Lucius to back off putting Wenlock in that position? Sirius knew that if he did he should say something. He wrestled for a long moment with his ruthless urge to let Wenlock make his own bed on one hand, and with the knowledge that he should do the right thing on the other. Thinking of Harry and the example he wanted to set for his son decided Sirius.

Sirius sighed. "Try to give Wenlock a subtle heads-up. If he worries about why some are seeking his protection, it may make him hesitant to make alliances which will cock things up for him politically and help us that way. He'll probably ignore you but we'll have the higher ground knowing we warned him."

Lucius inclined his head.

"Have you heard anything about Junior and the rat?" Sirius asked bluntly.

"Nothing, except the obvious exclamations of surprise at Junior's resurrection and competence as a lieutenant of the Dark Lord." Lucius replied. "The general consensus is that Junior only took the Mark for Rabastan." His cool eyes met Sirius's. "Junior will want to avenge his death. I'm certain he'll believe taking Harry from you will suffice but your death would probably be a bonus."

Which Sirius had already worked out for himself.

"OK, so the final thing you should know is that Harry is likely to return to Hogwarts by the beginning of next week, certainly by the Weighing of the Wands ceremony." Sirius confirmed. "I'll be discussing the matter with Albus later." He checked the clock and stood. "I have to get to the Potter alliance meeting at the Longbottoms. Are there any questions?"

"Will you or Harry be talking to the press?" asked Narcissa.

"Tomorrow." Sirius said. "I want everyone allied briefed today."

"A sensible plan." Lucius rose and held a hand out for Narcissa to hold while she got to her feet. "With your permission, I'll do the same?"

Sirius agreed swiftly. He let the Malfoys leave before him but Andromeda stopped him before he could follow them through the floo.

"I hope you realise that our comments are…"

"Are because you care about Harry." Sirius smiled warmly at his cousin.

Andromeda sighed and pushed her hair away from her face. "Harry must be scared, Sirius, no matter what brave front he's putting on for you."

"I know, Andy." He knew because he was scared too.

Andromeda let him go and Sirius flooed to the Longbottoms.

He was greeted by Augusta personally, vibrant in a green robe with the crest of the House of Longbottom. She looked regal; her eyes alight with fire, her stride determined and purposeful. She accepted his kiss on her hand, squeezing his gently before letting go.

"How are you, Sirius? And Harry?" Augusta asked as they made their way to the large formal drawing room.

"I'm better now Harry's woken up." Sirius admitted honestly. "I hate it when he's hurt."

"It's a particular kind of ache, isn't it?" Augusta said with a pained smile. "I remember the first time Frank got sick. I almost drove Gerald round the bend with my panicking."

They entered the room and Sirius wasn't surprised when the babble of chatter came to a sudden halt. He took the seat that Augusta pointed to, arranged himself comfortably and accepted the cup of coffee she pressed on him.

"Thank you all for coming," Sirius began and went through his briefing once again; Harry's status, the proposed strategy, the news from Lucius. He wished for a moment that Remus was with him so he could have another pair of eyes checking out who was completely with them and who was doubtful.

Daniel Greengrass cleared his throat first. "I think I speak for us all, Sirius, in saying that we said we stand with you and we meant it; we're not going anywhere."

Mutters of agreement swept the room.

Sirius allowed himself a small sigh of relief. "You'll need to protect yourselves. The strategy…"

"Means Voldemort and his cronies may try to take his anger out on Harry's supporters since he cannot touch Harry himself." Richard Bones nodded. "Frankly, though, I'm glad Harry wants to go back to Hogwarts. We can protect all the kids better if he's there; consolidate our efforts."

"And they all look to him – even the kids outside of the formal alliance." Daniel added.

"I agree and, for what it's worth, I think it's a good strategy." Augusta said firmly. "It's high time we started to fight back and made it clear that they won't have it their own way."

Albert Goldstein frowned. "Can Harry win it?"

"I believe he has the potential." Sirius replied. "He's smart, fast on his feet in a crisis, and has tons of raw power at his disposal." He took a sip of his drink to ease his dry throat. "What he lacks is spell knowledge and experience."

"Amos believes Cedric will win for that reason." Leonard Abbott spoke up. "He's pretty upset that Harry has taken the lion's share of the publicity to date."

"So I've heard." Sirius regarded Leonard carefully. "I understand you're in a difficult position with Amos being a personal friend but I'd appreciate your view of his possible response."

Leonard squirmed in his seat but sighed in acquiescence. "Amos is already set against the alliance in his political views on magical creatures. He's responsible in part for many of the extreme magical creature laws, for understandable reasons since he lost his younger brother to a werewolf attack. The fact that Harry is now set in direct competition to Cedric will compound that sense of Amos against the Potter alliance to an unfortunate degree." He paused. "I went to visit Amos at the Ministry last week and saw Wenlock coming out of his office."

"They share an agenda where magical creatures are concerned." Albert commented. "It's not too surprising that Wenlock would look to Diggory as an inside source on the issue."

"Drill him for numbers of attacks, the nature of them – all the sordid details that you need if you're going to be fear-mongering." Sirius commented dryly.

Daniel shrugged unconcerned. "We can counter that with our own spiel. But if Leonard is right, Amos is going to be going after Harry in public beyond the pot shots already taken."

Sirius nodded. "We need a press strategy on his approach to the competition and throughout."

"Exactly." Carl Branstone said. "I can help with that. I'm good with the media."

Branstone had been a journalist until he'd taken over from the family estates, Sirius remembered. He gave an appreciative smile.

"Thank you." Sirius said.

"Augusta and I will take point on the politics like we did last session." Daniel suggested. "We can give you the time to focus on Harry."

More suggestions flooded out and by the time Sirius left the Longbottom mansion, he was spinning from the level of unconditional support the alliance was giving him and Harry. Maybe guilt was a factor in their wish to be helpful or maybe they had developed a sense of responsibility – especially the Ancient and Noble Houses, Sirius thought, as he dropped by Griffin House to check on his son. Whatever the reason, he wasn't going to baulk at the help.

Harry was fast asleep on the sofa in the living room. Hedwig was keeping watch, perched on the back of a chair nearby. There was a stack of letters written, folded and named on the coffee table. Sirius pulled over the tartan throw Minnie had added to the décor and tucked it gently around Harry.

Voldemort was one step closer to getting Harry's blood and that boiled Sirius's own. He had a feeling Harry's instinct that in the end it would be Harry and Voldemort was right and that burned even more. He wanted to step between them; wanted desperately to keep Harry safe and protected. Had James felt the same, Sirius wondered, and knew if it came down to it, he would do the same as his best friend; he'd give his own life for Harry's. He dropped a kiss on Harry's forehead and picked up the letters.

Hedwig's feathers flared in outrage.

"I'm playing delivery owl today, Hedwig." Sirius murmured, saluting her with the letters. "You stay and watch over Harry."

Hedwig cocked her head and settled back onto the chair.

It was rather creepy just how intelligent that owl was at times, Sirius thought as he left again, tucking the letters into the inner pocket of his robes.

He was right on time for his trip to Hogwarts. He stepped out of the floo into Albus's office, pleased to see that everyone was already present.

Minerva sat in one visitor's chair; Moody in another; Snape stood by the wall behind Albus who was at his desk. Sirius waved them back into their chairs and took the remaining empty chair between Minerva and Moody, facing Albus directly.

"How's…"

"Harry is doing much better. Still tired." Sirius said cutting Minerva's enquiry short. "He was sleeping when I left him."

"The lad used up some energy at Halloween." Moody grumbled, adjusting the position of his peg leg while his magical eye whirled. "Never seen anything like it."

"Nor I." Snape added quietly.

Albus ignored the comments in favour of focusing on the topic they were there to discuss. "We're here to discuss the matter of young Harry's schooling."

"Harry has expressed a desire to return," Sirius confirmed again, "and the Potter alliance has expressed a belief that it will be easier to protect the kids as a group if they're at Hogwarts rather than separated into their own homes. Cornelius made a point of telling me before I used his floo that Harry withdrawing from Hogwarts would add salt on the international wound we're sporting thanks to being hoodwinked by Crouch Junior."

"But you have concerns." Albus stated simply, his expression grave.

"I have three main concerns." He sat back and held Albus's gaze. "The first is leaving his security in someone else's hands at this time. Hogwarts hasn't been the safest place for Harry since he started schooling here," he signalled for Albus to wait until he had finished his point, "and while many of my issues have been resolved with Alastor's security measures, I can't help feeling that the bad guys seem adept at slipping through the smallest of cracks."

Moody snorted. "I can't argue with that. They're good. Junior used the one moment he had alone with the Goblet and ran with it." He grimaced, his scarred face twisting. "I can't guarantee that he won't slip through again. The tournament brings strangers onto the grounds for preparation and during the events. The ticket system is good but overall, this tournament is a bloody nightmare security wise."

"I know we can't cancel the tournament but can we cancel the public nature of the competition?" Minerva asked.

"I fear not without revealing the real perpetrator behind Harry's inclusion and why he was included." Albus sighed. He lifted one hand from his desk in a vague gesture of negation. "I don't believe any of us want to give Tom that amount of publicity and acknowledgement at this stage."

"No," Sirius agreed, "and internationally we'd take another hit which as I mentioned Cornelius is keen to avoid." He motioned out towards the windows and the accommodations of the Durmstrang and Beauxbatons delegations beyond them. "Moreover, the other Champions could challenge it. They put themselves forward in part for the public recognition. I know Amos Diggory will probably make a fuss since all I've heard all day is how unhappy he is at the amount of publicity directed at Harry and not at Cedric this last week."

"That is true." Minerva sniffed. "According to Pomona, Cedric has tried to distance himself from his father's comments."

"Despite his desire to come back to Hogwarts, Harry admits he feels safer at Griffin House." Sirius said, returning them to his initial point. "However, I'll concede that the tournament events are the most risky in terms of Harry's safety and that would be true even if he stayed at Griffin House between the tasks."

"You said you had three concerns." Moody said to Sirius. "We've heard the first and can hardly argue with it."

"The second concern is one I raised before Harry was entered into the tournament." Sirius said, lifting his hand. "He's not being challenged educationally in the core wand subjects especially on the practical elements."

Minerva nodded briskly. "Filius, Alastor and I are all in agreement with you."

"Lad's a natural at DADA and with his power…" Moody grimaced. "It's difficult giving him something he finds challenging without going outside of his year group."

"Same in Transfiguration and in Charms." Minerva opened up a piece of parchment and tapped it with her wand. "His theoretical work is excellent in these subjects too. If it weren't for the tournament, I would be suggesting we focus on getting him through his OWLs and into the NEWT level classes."

"OWLs are out." Sirius said firmly. "Harry's going to have enough on his plate without sitting exams."

"What of the other subjects?" Albus asked.

"On a par with his classmates in History of Magic," Minerva read from the parchment, "same with Potions although arguably he is under-marked," she cast a look toward Snape who looked impassively back at her, "and he is maintaining a top three position in each of his electives including Runes where he is a year ahead."

"He's way ahead with Duelling according to young Tobias which isn't surprising since he has a natural aptitude, and you and Remus have been tutoring him all Summer." Moody commented.

"Regardless of the tournament, I would have suggested an individualised and accelerated lesson plan for Harry." Minerva said with a sigh.

"We're all agreed then that he needs a different schooling plan to his contemporaries." Sirius said, ignoring Snape's expression of discomfort.

"Your final concern, Sirius?" Albus prompted.

Sirius took a moment to gather his thoughts. He smoothed the front of his robes. "Harry will be under tremendous pressure if he comes back to Hogwarts. He'll be the focus of all eyes and he'll be expected to be strong as a leader of the political alliance the House of Potter has formed. He'll also be waging a war on Voldemort through the tournament as he attempts to win it. There'll be press and publicity. It's a lot for a fourteen year old to handle on his own."

Albus's gaze had sharpened and Sirius mused whether the Headmaster had guessed where Sirius was heading.

"The staff will support him, Sirius." Minerva said fervently.

"But the staff can only do so much with the strictures of the tournament." Sirius countered. "He needs emotional support more than anything else, and while he has good friends, they're also young and laying that burden on their shoulders isn't fair. He's already said to me that the main reason why he wouldn't want to come back is because he can't be just Harry here."

Moody's eye swivelled until it was focused on Sirius. "You have a point."

"Yes, and a very valid one." Albus agreed. "What is your proposal?" he smiled fondly at Sirius. "I suspect you have one."

"Harry comes back to Hogwarts but, as Hogwarts has a Champion and Harry is competing against him, to keep things clear from a tournament perspective, he will not be considered a Hogwarts' student. Hogwarts' professors who are assigned to him under the new lesson plan Minnie will create will also be considered de facto faculty of 'The Light,' the banner under which Harry is competing. He will be given his own suite of rooms where he will live with me as his guardian." Sirius said firmly. "Harry gets the best of both worlds – Hogwarts and somewhere he can be just Harry. Everyone else has Harry back at Hogwarts as they wanted and I get to be here for my son when he needs someone to lean on and to provide additional security for him."

They all stared at him.

Snape frowned heavily. "You want to live here?"

"Well," Albus said brightly, "I think this will be a most interesting discussion."