Black was waiting for us in the alley, looking pretty pleased with himself. Before we could say anything, he was presenting Harry with a dirty old sack. Harry peeked inside, raised his eyebrows, and passed it to me. I looked; it was full of coins. Mostly small change, but there was a good helping of pounds in there (along with some shillings and some coins I didn't even recognize). "Muggle money!" I said.
"Courtesy of Creature," Black frowned. "Is there enough to get us on a train?"
I looked again, and then Harry let go and I almost dropped the sack, it was so heavy. "I should think so," I said, since I was apparently the expert on the Muggle world. "But won't we attract too much attention with an enormous dog?"
Black grinned again, and produced a wand from his sleeve. "This one was my brother's," he said. "His room's still a bloody shrine. If you need any of his schoolbooks I can go back for them. They're still in his trunk." He paused for a moment, rubbing his left thumb. "It's the only safe room in the house, actually. I got bit by what I hope was a doxy in the kitchen."
"Will it work for you?" Harry asked.
"Well enough," Black replied. "You won't be accompanied by a dog, or an escaped criminal." He pointed the wand at his chin and cast a glamour, turning himself into a hideous caricature of a homeless alcoholic. He was easily the ugliest thing I'd ever seen, and I'd chopped potions ingredients for Snape. He smiled; the glamour had even managed to make his teeth worse. "How do I look?" he rasped.
Harry and I shared a glance. "You look a bit scary, Sirius," he finally ventured.
"All right, then." And he cast another glamour. This time he came out looking like a marble statue of a Soviet propaganda poster. His features were attractive enough, but the dead white of his skin and eyes was a little distracting.
Harry shook his head. Black started to look a little nervous, but he pointed the wand at his chin once again.
It was the sixth try that we finally decided was good enough. He still looked terrible, but it was maybe the kind of terrible that would pass without comment in London. Once he'd finished sulking about how badly his brother's wand worked for him, he sketched out the rest of his plan.
"We've got some Muggle funds, and I can probably travel in the Muggle world like this. We've even got a wand without a trace on it, although it's not working as well as I'd like. Let's take some Muggle transportation out of London, away from all those Apparition trails and ancient family homes, and make a new plan in a nice safe Muggle city in the morning."
Harry looked at me, and when I didn't object, he nodded. "OK. Back to King's Cross?"
"That's what I meant about the Apparition trails. We'll have to go to one of the other train stations. I think Liverpool Street is in the opposite direction."
Even hearing the name of my home city was enough to send another pang of homesickness through me, but I followed him through his wretched neighborhood. When I trusted my voice again, I offered a version of the plan I'd been thinking about since I talked to Mum.
"I think we have to get the truth out there," I said. "It sounds like we can't trust Fudge to do the right thing, and I'm not sure about Dumbledore either." Black looked puzzled at this, but Harry just nodded. "But nobody can blame you for what you did, and people need to know that Voldemort's back. So we need to figure out how to tell them."
"How?" Harry asked. We talked about it for a while, but the only reporter we knew of was Skeeter, and even if we trusted her to write the story, we didn't know how to get in touch with her. When we got to the station, we gave up on the conversation for the evening. There was a train leaving for Newcastle at 11:00, which seemed far enough away. We had plenty of time to get a bite to eat before we bought our tickets.
There was only one restaurant open in the station. The food was pretty bland, but I was suddenly starving, and I ate everything I could get my hands on. Harry was even hungrier, and I sorted through some of the money in the sack while he devoured a second order of chips. We paid the bill, and headed for the ticket counter.
I found myself in front of the other two, holding the sack. "Er, three second-class to Newcastle, please," I mumbled. I had never actually bought a train ticket by myself before.
"Forty-two pounds thirty, miss," the ticket clerk replied. He was a limp older man with thinning hair and a thinning mustache. He looked bored at first, but when I started counting out coins, he turned annoyed and suspicious. Then he caught a glimpse of Black. "May I see some identification, please?" he said.
That wasn't good. He had no reason to ask for ID, and no reason to suspect who Black was, but none of us had any ID. I pretended to fumble for my wallet, panicking on the inside, and then I heard Black whisper, "Confundo."
The clerk's face twitched a couple of times. He looked down at the floor, then up at the ceiling, then right at me. "My train!" he shrieked, so loudly that the few people in the station all looked at us. "You can't get on my train! You have to get on my train! You have to! But you can't!" I took a step back, sweeping the coins I'd laid on the counter into my hand, but he kept shouting.
"Stephen, what's wrong?" Another clerk had rushed over to the one Black had Confunded.
"My train!" he said again. "These people!" The new clerk looked at us suspiciously, but the confusion and alarm on our faces was real.
"What about these people? Why can't they get on the train?"
"It's my train, and they can't get on, but they have to!"
The new clerk shot another look at us, but this one was apologetic. "All right, Stephen," he said, taking the Confunded man by the elbow. "Maybe you should sit down in the back for a while, and I'll take care of those people." And he led him through a little door behind the counter, and out of sight.
I counted out the money while he was gone, and when he came back, he sold me the tickets in a tangle of confused apologies. "I hope he's all right," I said sincerely, and we headed for the platform as fast as we could.
Once we were safely on the platform, Harry turned to Black. "I don't think you should use that wand any more," he said.
I had to swallow a hysterical laugh, but Black looked injured. "It worked, didn't it?" he protested.
"They'll think he was drunk," I said. "He'll probably get sacked."
Black frowned, but didn't say anything. Harry looked at him sternly. "You'll probably set us on fire the next time you use it."
Black looked down. "All right," he finally said. "Only in the direst of emergencies."
The train was only a quarter full, and we had no trouble finding a private place to sit. We settled in to the hard, dirty seats that were going to be our bed for the night. Harry hadn't transfigured coats for us, and it was cool on the train, so I took the excuse to rest my head on his chest.
When we were both as comfortable as we could get, I lifted my head and whispered into Harry's ear. "All the times I imagined the first time we'd spend the night together," I told him, "this particular scenario didn't come up once." He choked, then laughed silently, and then wrapped his arm around me. It didn't take long for us to fall asleep.
I woke up stiff and sore, and much too early. The train had arrived in Newcastle about the same time as the sun, and the light had woken me up before we pulled into the station. Black didn't look like he'd slept all night, which just made his glamour look that much worse. Harry was sound asleep, and it took more than a hand on his shoulder to wake him.
He leaned hard on me as we climbed down to the platform, and I practically dragged him across the street to a grubby little restaurant. He ate like he had the night before, finishing off two whole breakfasts in the time that I ate one. Black seemed pretty hungry himself.
While we ate, we discussed our plans. Black and I did most of the talking. He wanted to get out of the city as fast as we could, and hide out somewhere while we planned our next move. I thought there was safety in crowds. A group of Aurors couldn't exactly Apparate into the city center and arrest Harry in front of a bunch of Muggles, the way I saw it. We argued the way people who don't know each other well argue, trying to be insistent without being rude, keeping our voices low so as not to be overheard.
Finally Harry dropped his fork, and we both looked up, startled. "Katie, I'm afraid you're overestimating how much wizards care about Muggles. They'll Obliviate half the city if they have too. But more to the point, I think it's possible that your parents might have reported you missing." I looked at him in sudden anguish, but rubbed his thumb reassuringly down the side of my hand. "Calling them was the right thing to do, and they think we're in London anyways. But I think it's better if we all stay out of sight as much as possible." And he picked up his fork again.
I paid with another big handful of coins; we'd definitely made a big dent in our resources. The quickest way out of town seemed to be across the river, so we found a high bridge with four whizzing lanes of traffic and headed for the south bank.
We followed the river for a while, not really having any better plan. It was still so early that, when we found a Tesco, it wasn't even open yet, but I tried to remember its location for later. Harry was practically catatonic, and Black was looking around like a wanted criminal, so when we got to a small stretch of woods, we ducked inside. It was more of an abandoned spot in the city than a proper forest, but it was deserted, and that was all we needed. We sat down under a copse of pine trees.
Harry promptly stretched out on the ground and fell asleep. Black and I exchanged a look that was half amusement, half sympathy, and sat facing each other on either side of him, so that we could see someone coming from any direction.
I didn't really know what to say to him, but he broke the ice, looking at a point beyond my left shoulder. "I don't really remember how I got to Azkaban," he said. "I was fighting with Peter, and there was a huge explosion, and then I was surrounded by Aurors. But I don't know what happened after that. I never had a trial, I'm sure about that. But I don't know if they took me to the Ministry, or some other prison, or if they just chucked me in Azkaban."
"We can't let that happen to Harry," I said.
He still wouldn't look at me. "I've let him down so many times," he said. "I should never have taken my eyes off of him. Everything would be so different."
"You're here for him now," I reassured him. "We'll get him out of this."
"You're the one with a plan," he said, and I chose to take it as a hint.
"It's not even so much a plan," I said. "It's just that, if people knew what happened, they wouldn't blame him. Not even the Death Eaters could blame him, for fighting and surviving. And he might have defeated Voldemort again."
Black finally made eye contact. "I don't really want to bring this up, but have you considered- Katie, it's possible that he didn't tell us the whole story. Especially since you're his girl, there might have been something he wanted to leave out. And I don't want him to get up there in front of everyone, doped to the gills on Veritaserum, and have him tell us that he used the Cruciatus on Peter or something."
I looked at him coolly. "First of all, I don't think that's a good example," I told him. "I don't think Harry's capable of the Cruciatus. Second, I have more faith in him than that." And I did, even though he hadn't told me about Black himself. He'd been so honorable in every situation that I couldn't believe he'd do anything less than the right thing. Black still looked worried, so I softened my stance a little. "We'll ask him, before we do anything. You can ask him when I'm not around, if you want."
"I hope you don't think I disapprove of you," he said.
Actually, his approval had never even occurred to me. And why would he disapprove, anyway? "What do you mean?" I demanded.
He looked me in the eye again. "I'm sorry," he said. "It's been twelve years since I talked to a girl, and I seem to have forgotten how. What I meant was, I think you're wonderful for Harry. It was my fondest hope that he would find a girl like you."
That was pretty good, as apologies went. "It's all right," I said. "He's a good guy, and a good boyfriend. He's had a tough time, and turned out all right anyway." He looked down, and we lapsed into silence for a moment.
"Katie," he finally said. "It's a lot easier for me as a dog sometimes. Do you mind-?"
I didn't. So I watched Harry sleep away the morning with a big black dog at my side. I didn't pet him.
It was a glowing silver bird that woke Harry up. I was still too keyed up to sleep, and my mind was churning away. Black looked more canine today, sitting like a good guard dog would. But neither of us could stop the lightning-fast bird that swooped out of the sky and landed next to Harry.
He'd barely started awake at my shout when the bird spoke in Professor Dumbledore's voice. "Mr. Potter," it said. "If you can find a way to return to us with Miss Bell, I believe I can guarantee your safety." Then it slowly dissipated into nothing.
Harry looked at me, then at Black. "What was that?" he asked. There was no trace of grogginess in his voice, and his hand was on his wand.
Black turned back into a man. I hadn't really paid attention before, but I was glad to see that his collar disappeared and his clothes reappeared as part of the transformation. "Patronus," he said. "The Order came up with a way to use them for communication."
"So that really was from Dumbledore?"
Black nodded. "Not many people know the spell, and nobody can fake it."
"Can you teach me to do it?" Harry asked. I didn't even think of asking for myself.
"Probably, but it might take some practice, and you still can't do magic here." Harry jerked his hand back from his wand when Black said that.
"Typical bloody useless Dumbledore," he said grumpily.
Black shot him a questioning look, so I jumped in. "A vague message that we can't possibly respond to? That's Dumbledore all right. What does he mean, he thinks he can guarantee your safety? From who? How?"
Black was about to protest, but Harry spoke first. "All right. I'm sorry I slept all morning, but I was pretty worn out. I think it's time for us to do something, but let's stock up on supplies first. Katie, do we have enough money left for a trip to the store?"
"We do," I confirmed, jingling the sack.
"All right, let's go get a couple of meals worth of food. Sirius, you look like you again, and I don't want you using that wand for another glamour. Do you mind staying here?" Black looked up in surprise, and so did I. I didn't even realize that his glamour had worn off, or maybe it had disappeared when he transformed.
"Harry," Black said hesitantly, "how long will you be?"
Harry seemed to realize how worried Black was, and touched the man on the shoulder. "Not long," he said. "One store, and that's it. Don't worry, Sirius."
Black didn't say anything. He just turned back into a dog, and slunk off into the woods. He laid himself down in a little depression in the ground, circling four times to arrange his body just right. By the time he was done, he was practically invisible. Harry gave him a long look, then took my hand.
We weren't gone for half an hour, and we came back with bread, meat, and cheese in a sturdy knapsack. I'd even slipped in a few apples. Black was so relieved to see us that he ate lunch as a man. He and Harry ate so ferociously that we didn't really talk about our strategy, and before lunch was over, we were interrupted by another bird.
This time it was Hedwig, making a long lazy spiral out of the sky to Harry's right shoulder. He actually laughed with joy and fed her a hunk of salami, which she refused to eat until he'd untied the scroll from her leg.
"H+K - Stay safe. Hermione." was all it said on the outside, in a hasty scrawl unlike her usual precise handwriting. Inside was a copy of the morning's Daily Prophet.
"Chaos at Tri-Wizard Finale" was the banner headline. The main picture was of Dumbledore, Madame Maxime, Karkaroff, and Moody arguing in an endless loop. Things started to get interesting when we looked at the smaller headlines. "Potter Vanishes, Returns With Slain Rival, Then Flees." "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named: Returned, Then Gone Again." "Dark Ritual Involved Many Thought Innocent Or Dead." We spread the paper out on the ground and read it on our hands and knees.
The first piece that fell into place for me was the strange behavior of Professor Moody. Apparently it wasn't Moody at all, but a Death Eater impersonating him with a potion. Moody himself had been locked in his trunk for the entire school year, which meant we'd been taught by the Death Eater. After the impostor grabbed Voldemort's wand, Dumbledore had stunned him as he was activating a portkey, which the Aurors had traced.
What they had found was the aftermath of Harry's duel with Voldemort: four stunned Death Eaters, including the father of a Slytherin in Harry's year, and the dead bodies of Voldemort and Peter Pettigrew. Harry looked up when he got to that part, confused and upset. "I don't understand," he said. "Look, it says Voldemort was killed with a cutting curse, but I never cast one. All I used was Expelliarmus and a bunch of stunners."
"Then maybe somebody else killed him," I said. "One of the Death Eaters, or maybe first Auror on the scene was a little trigger-happy.
He seemed to accept that theory, then looked down. "I might have killed Peter," he said. "I might have hit him with a stunner, and he bled to death while he was out."
Black put a hand on his shoulder. "It's no secret that I've wanted to kill Peter for a long time," he said, his voice rough. "But it's not your fault that he's dead. He cut his own hand off, and none of his friends helped him. And you used non-lethal spells."
I wrapped my arms around Harry. "He's right," I told him, and kissed him. It didn't seem to help, and I wasn't sure why.
"I wanted you to be free, Sirius," he finally said. "If they had captured Peter, they would have found out the truth, but now they never will."
"It's not so bad as all that," Sirius said. "Peter showing up at a Death Eater reunion twelve years after his heroic death does poke some holes in the official story. And even if he can't testify, I can. It's not your fault, Harry."
He was still a little down as we continued reading, especially once we got to the part about his disappearance. Whoever had written the article didn't seem very sympathetic to Harry, and implied very strongly that he had run away because he had killed Cedric. The Aurors' conclusion that Cedric had been killed with Voldemort's wand didn't seem to make any difference. The article even admitted that Fudge had no reason to order Harry's arrest, but concluded with a bunch of questions about what Harry was hiding.
We decided right away that we had to respond to this somehow. Unfortunately, we didn't have anything to write on, so I went back into town to buy a biro and a notebook. When I got back, Harry and Black were hashing out what he wanted to say. Black must have been satisfied with what Harry had told him while I was gone, since they were going ahead with my plan. I took notes, and threw in my opinion when needed, and we worked it out.
We wrote three copies of a letter, for the Daily Prophet, the Wizarding Wireless, and the Director of Magical Law Enforcement. It said that Harry wanted to get the truth out, and that he would be willing to testify before a public inquiry run by a neutral party. He was willing to testify under an oath or a potion, as long as everybody else involved would do so as well, naming Barty Crouch (the Moody impersonator), Lucius Malfoy, Cornelius Fudge, and Professor Dumbledore specifically. He said that he wouldn't come back until Minister Fudge withdrew the order to arrest him.
We debated sending an additional note to Professor Dumbledore, but we decided not to. What would we have said? We didn't trust him to lead the inquiry, and we didn't really have a response to his Patronus message. Harry did write a short note to Hermione, and then we sent Hedwig off on what must have been a long journey.
There was nothing more we could do until we got a response. But we were faced with a more immediate problem: shelter. Newcastle in June wasn't exactly balmy, and getting a room at a hotel wasn't quite so easy for two teenagers and a wanted criminal as getting a train ticket. We didn't dare risk using Black's wand- a warming charm really might have set us on fire- and mine or Harry's would bring the Aurors down on us. We didn't even dare start a fire with matches, for fear of drawing Muggle attention.
At least we were well fed, and the pine needles were soft. But it was a long, cold night. Harry and I huddled together, and Black curled up at our feet in his dog form. Once again, I told Harry that this wasn't the way I'd planned our second night together, but we were too cold for it to really be funny.
I never got more than halfway asleep, and the first ray of sunlight was enough to get me up. Harry and Black followed, and after a short discussion, Harry let Black use his wand for another glamour. We headed back into town, desperate for something to warm us up.
A hot cup of tea and a real breakfast made us feel a lot better, but we were running out of ideas. It was likely to take a day or two before we got any kind of response to Harry's offer, and none of us could face the idea of another night like the last one. We were starting to run low on money; a train back to London was already out of our budget. And we didn't dare use magic until we were ready to face the Aurors. The best that we could do was to Apparate somewhere and then run, but we had nowhere to go.
The only person we could think of who might be able to help was Hermione. If the school year had ended as planned, she had sent Hedwig from Hogwarts yesterday morning, then gotten on the Express, and been warm in her bed at her parents' house while we were freezing on the banks of the Tyne. Harry didn't have her phone number, but he knew that her parents were dentists, and where they lived.
When we finished breakfast, we headed back into Newcastle proper, looking for the public library. Black decided to stay as a man, trusting the glamour, so he could come inside with us. The brief separation from Harry the day before had just about shattered him.
The Newcastle City Library was an ugly new building, but it did have a complete set of telephone directories for the United Kingdom, and we found the number of the Grangers' dental surgery. I called them, figuring they might think it was creepy if a boy called, and convinced the receptionist to get Hermione's mum on the phone. Her mum gave me their home number, and then started asking pointed questions. I got off the phone as quickly as I could.
Harry was the one who called Hermione, although I stayed in the phone box, listening in as best I could and feeding the phone 20p coins. She had her usual torrent of questions, but our ever-lighter sack of money got Harry to make her focus. She didn't see any reason why her parents wouldn't put us up for a few days, although she thought it might be better if Black stayed a dog.
We had to work out something pretty elaborate to meet her, since we didn't want to lead the Aurors to her door. She knew her way around London, so we decided that the best place to meet was near Liverpool Street Station. There was no reason to think the Aurors (or Dumbledore, or the surviving Death Eaters) even knew we'd been there. We would Apparate to the alley behind the restaurant we'd had dinner in, just two nights earlier, and meet Hermione's car. The Underaged Magic office would notice Harry Apparating, and they'd send the Aurors to Newcastle, who would then trace the trail to our destination, so we'd only have a few minutes to find her and get out of there. But we didn't have the money for another train trip, and the thought of a nice warm guest bedroom was too tantalizing to ignore.
With that settled, we actually had some time to kill. We hung around the warm library until lunchtime, finding a quiet corner and giggling at books from the Occult section. I hadn't taken Divination, but Harry assured me that the books were even more ridiculous than Trelawney. We ate a nice lunch in the city, not quite so worried about spending nearly our last pound, and then headed back to our quiet wooded spot in the afternoon.
At 6:14 PM exactly, we linked arms, and Harry Apparated us back to London. The plan worked remarkably well. Nobody noticed us arriving, and Black turned back into a dog as soon as we were sure we were alone. We found Hermione's parents' black Mondeo right where she had said it would be. The three of us leaped into the back, and Hermione introduced us to her mum as we drove east, away from our Apparition trail and eventually out of the city.
Her mum was pleasant enough, but it was clear that she was going to need some kind of explanation. She was going to have to break through Hermione's excited chatter, though. Once Hermione had established that we were uninjured and reasonably well fed, she started trying to tell us about everything that had happened after we left, and ask Harry about what had happened to him, all at the same time.
We must have been in the car for an hour, but we didn't really get to explain ourselves very well. When we pulled into the driveway of Hermione's house, Harry was just starting to talk about Cedric, so I was holding him tightly. We piled into her house, Harry trying to hold himself together, Hermione torn between respecting his grief and extracting more information. When Hermione's mum gave a startled shriek, we ran to follow her, and when we got to the kitchen, we understood why she had. There, sitting at Hermione's kitchen table, was Professor Dumbledore.
You can't really argue with Professor Dumbledore. You can't even talk to him. I was ready to explain what we'd done and demand that he protect us from the Aurors, but he just took over the conversation in that calm, wise voice of his that I'd stopped trusting. I think the only way to change his expression would have been with an Unforgiveable.
The actual news he had for us wasn't even that bad. The Wizengamot was considering how best to respond to Harry's letter, but there was going to be some sort of public hearing on what Dumbledore called "the events surrounding the Third Task." Which was a hell of a way to refer to the murder of one of his students. The Aurors weren't even going to arrest Harry, as long as certain conditions were met.
"I'm not going back to the Dursleys." It was the first thing he'd said since he saw Dumbledore, and it did make the old man pause. "I'll stay with the Grangers if they're willing, or the Bells if they're willing, or the Burrow. But not the Dursleys." Hermione's mum looked uncomfortable, which made sense; she was actually on pretty shaky ground. We were runaways or fugitives or something, and she had no legitimate reason to have us at her house. And there was no way he could stay with me, and he probably didn't really want to stay with Ron.
But Dumbledore was shaking his head. "I'm afraid neither your family nor your friends will be acceptable hosts for our purposes." I was immediately suspicious of what those purposes were, and whose. "Your kind offer to explain your situation to the Wizengamot prompted some rather delicate negotiations." I was actually impressed; he'd gotten through that sentence without even hinting at sarcasm. But Harry's face was still grim. "It seems that the place where you will be safe from those who might not want your story told, and free of the influence of those with their own agendas, among whose number I am sadly counted, is the home of the Director of Magical Law Enforcement, Madam Bones."
Harry looked at him for a moment. I had the ridiculous thought that I didn't want him staying with Susan Bones, but there were more serious reasons why this might be a bad idea. If Madam Bones worked for Fudge, she might, in fact, not want Harry's story told. Even with all the time we'd spent talking about them, I'd never managed to figure out Dumbledore's motivations, but I couldn't really imagine that he would just turn Harry over to the Ministry without any protection. Finally, Harry asked, "What are my alternatives?"
Dumbledore looked regretful. "A Ministry holding cell, perhaps. There were many offers made, but none that I thought would satisfy you."
Hermione and I shared a glance, and I gripped my wand. I didn't really think that we could beat Dumbledore in a fair fight, but if Harry gave the signal, I was ready to make sure the fight was as unfair as possible. Harry spoke without looking away from Dumbledore. "Hermione," he said, "do we have any reason to believe that Madam Bones is a Death Eater sympathizer?"
"No," she said.
"Katie," Harry said. "I'll send Hedwig to you every day. If she doesn't show up one day, tell the Prophet I've been murdered."
"Right," I said. It stopped feeling real to me then. It wasn't a situation for joking, but I couldn't imagine that Harry was seriously planning for his own death. But it sounded like he'd made up his mind.
And in fact, he had. "All right," he told Dumbledore. "I'll stay with Madam Bones."
I was glad that Dumbledore's facial expression didn't change. If he'd looked triumphant, I might have embarrassed myself by trying to hex him. But all he said was, "Very well. I've prepared a portkey to the Bones residence. Miss Bell, may I offer you an escort back to your home?" He didn't wait for me to respond, although the hateful glare I gave him was probably all I had to offer. He just pulled out his wand and cast a messenger Patronus. Thirty seconds later there was a knock on the door, and Hermione's mum came back with a slightly sheepish Professor Lupin. That's how out of touch Dumbledore was: his idea of a good escort for a 15-year-old girl was a professor who'd been forced to resign because he was a danger to his students. But I knew Professor Lupin a little, and Harry and Black both trusted him, so I kissed Harry goodbye and let him lead me out the door. It still didn't feel real.
It turned out that Professor Lupin had a portkey back to the alley behind my building. Nobody was taking their trash out that evening, so nobody saw us arrive. I didn't have my house key with me, so I rang my own doorbell without saying a word to my escort. He took the hint and faded away, watching me without actually accompanying me.
Mum and Dad both came to the door. Mum didn't even get a word out before she started sobbing and hugging me. Dad guided us up the stairs and into our flat before he joined the hug. I felt terrible. I'd never meant to worry them, but there was nothing I would have done differently, given the choice. But it must have been really awful for them, and I hadn't called again, so they'd gone two whole days without any news. I also felt foolish. We knew it was too dangerous to go see them. What made us think that Hermione's house would be safe?
I spent that night telling them the truth. Most of it, at least. We sat at the kitchen table, Mum refilling her own tea every ten minutes, Dad with a bottle of beer that he opened, then never touched. I'm sure they were more than a little frustrated when I started by saying, "On Halloween of 1981," but they let me tell it my way. By the time I was done, it was nearly two in the morning, and we were all pretty drained. I just wanted to go to bed. They had one of those silent conversations that they knew how to have, and then Mum said, "We're not done talking about this, Katherine, but we're not going to get any further tonight. Go to bed, and we'll talk tomorrow."
I had things to sleep in left in my room from last summer, and of course Mum had put clean sheets on my old bed. I wanted sleep more than I wanted a shower, so I changed and then opened the window, only to turn around to Mum standing in my doorway. She looked at the window. "I'm not leaving," I protested. "It's just so Hedwig can get in."
She left without saying anything. I collapsed in my bed, but I could hear their voices, low and intense, for a long time after I wanted to be asleep.
Thanks to everybody who left reviews during my long absence. In the last six months or so, I've weathered a personal crisis, moved halfway across the country with two small children, found an excellent new job, and written about five thousand words. Writing time is still hard to come by, but I'm going to finish this story.